As has been made abundantly clear over the last few weeks of blog posts, I recently had the long-wished-for oppourtunity to spend some time traveling in the Balkans. For 15 days I was in motion, not allowing dust to settle, moss to grow or any other metaphor to hold me back. I was on the move a lot, but I managed to take my time in most places and get more of a feel for them than I would have if I had only spent a day in each town. That said, although I saw a lot, I certainly did not see it all. For one thing, my trip was more of a former-Yugoslavia trip than a true Balkans trip. Although I managed to hit every one of the Formers in my two weeks of travel, I didn’t leave their bounds once, and in a way that was quite satisfying. Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and the rest will all be there for a while, and I’ll go and see them another time. What I needed was a slice of the Balkans, and the Formers gave me just what I was looking for.
Even so, it was only two weeks, and my time spent in Montenegro, Bosnia and Croatia was limited to buses and their stations. Fortunately, these were all countries I had visited before and are closer to Slovenia than the ones I spent most of my time in over this trip. Along the way, I had the good fortune of being able to post about what I was seeing and experiencing, which was a luxury I had not expected. I was also blessed with the luxury of time, which came primarily in the form of frequent and lengthy bus trips that allowed me the chance to write. I would say that I did a fairly good job of keeping up to date with my travels, and yet there were many things that slipped through the cracks. Today I would like to go back and share with you some of my impressions from my travels that were lost, misplaced, or simply tucked away for a later time.
I’d like to start with expectations and surprises. One of the greatest causes for disappointment lies not in what happens to us, but in the disparity between what happens and what we expect to happen. I have often said that expectations are often the cause of more grief than experiences, and yet it is impossible to rid ourselves of expectations entirely. We can temper them, and to a certain extent we can even overcome them, but they are a difficult thing to transcend. It is nevertheless worth trying. This is something I learned very well in the Peace Corps. ‘Flexibility’ is the buzzword you’ll hear most often associated with Peace Corps, but ‘LET GO OF YOUR EXPECTATIONS’ is something of a Volunteer’s mantra. I remember an anecdote about the buses in Suriname that a Volunteer shared with us when we first arrived. The bus he took every day had been fairly reliable for a while, but one morning he waited and waited and it never came, so he ended up walking to work. ‘It didn’t really bother me because I never expected it to be there in the first place,’ he told us. It wasn’t about being negative and assuming the worst, it was about doing your best not to make any assumptions at all. This is an exercise, and it should be practiced daily. It really can make you a happier person.
But we must take such aphorisms with a grain of salt, yes? After all, we are products of our own experiences and the experiences of those around us. How could we survive without some expectations? The line is a faint one, and it’s not uncommon that we find ourselves on one side when all the while we thought we were on the other. Trying to be aware of yourself is humbling, to say the least. And in the end, hard as we might try, there are assumptions that manage to dig in pretty deep, even if we don’t truly believe them. The first of these that I had about Serbia was that everyone is a terrible driver. You’ll hear this all over Southeastern Europe. ‘Serbs are crazy drivers!’ Well, I’m not one to stereotype, but let’s just say that when my friend, Hamilton, and I crossed into Serbia, we were both happy to have seat belts.
I wouldn’t say that Serbs are bad drivers. In fact, it seemed that they were incredibly skilled drivers, so much so that they were capable of passing large trucks and only leaving a few centimeters between them and the truck, not to mention the car in the oncoming lane. It was like a enormous waltz, but instead of the grand ballroom, it took place on the road; and instead of having a partner, you wove your way alone through the twirling bodies; and instead of twirling bodies, it was several tons of box-shaped steel objects traveling at 100 kilometers per hour; and instead of stepping on a person’s toe if you made a tiny mistake, you would cause a 90 car collision. But really, it was just a dance.
Hamilton and I were on our way to Novi Sad to see June, our French friend who is now living in Serbia. We were driving through a national park called Fruška Gora, and the northern part of Serbia being very flat, this was the only gora, or ‘mountain’ around. As far as Hamilton and I were concerned, that was just fine because we clearly did not know how to drive in the mountains in Serbia. It seemed that each Serb driver was possessed with the remarkable gift of precognition where the location of other vehicles was concerned. This windy little two-lane road seemed like a nightmare for passing, and yet cars flitted in and out of line and made their way forward, dodging the oncoming traffic at the last possible second. No one honked or shouted profanities. They all knew precisely what they were doing. Eventually things got even more ridiculous, however. We had reached the top of this mountain and were now heading down, and at this point people started driving right out in the oncoming lane, whipping around corners and out of sight. I cannot count the number of times I expected to hear a crash and know that in an instant we would be under a heaping pile of metal. This must be a one-way road, we thought, and yet there were ‘No Passing’ signs to be seen every few minutes or so. Hamilton and I were at a loss. We rumbled on, getting passed by everyone and their mother and frankly not caring very much.
Eventually curiosity or some kind of latent death wish must have gotten the better of us because we decided to do as the Serbs were doing. We flew down this mountain pass, coming around these dead-man’s-curves and being certain that we would have to smash into the car beside us to avoid a head-on collision, but at each bend in the road we found that luck was on our side. Again we said aloud that it must be one-way, but there went another ‘No Passing’ sign, and we shrugged and dare-deviled our way on down the mountain. In the end, we merged with another road and saw that it was full of traffic heading the opposite direction. It had been one-way after all, and we had sweat our bullets for nothing. We had a big laugh, though, I can tell you. Thus, the driving in Serbia was not a surprise. I had expected a harrowing experience, and that’s what I got. At one point I even saw what looked like about 8 people crammed into a Volkswagen Passat. I can’t tell you why, but on seeing it I nodded to myself and said, ‘Yup, that’s about what I expected.’ But if those are things that failed to surprise me terribly, one thing caught me completely off-guard, and that was the existence of bombed-out buildings in Belgrade.
Hamilton and I were driving down Kneza Miloša street on our way into downtown Belgrade when we saw two buildings that looked as if they were in the process of demolition. Our minds immediately jumped back to the NATO bombing of Serbia back in 1999, but neither of us could believe that the damage could be that old. Surely they would have repaired these buildings by now, or at least torn them down. And yet there they stood, unabashed witnesses of a thirteen-year-gone air strike. We later asked why they were there but never got much of an answer. Was it lack of funds to do something about them? Was it to show the people of Serbia that they had suffered at the hands of the West? Was it to prove that Serbia had experienced losses during the Kosovo War as well? Or was it simply some kind of artistic statement? Perhaps one day I will find out.
Other surprises came simply, like taps on the shoulder. Tito’s grave had far more visitors that I expected, even though it was his official birthday when Hamilton and I went. I was also genuinely surprised at how large Belgrade is. I had somehow expected something much smaller, but it truly is a major city, the latest estimates putting the population at around 1.7 million people. That it is party central for the Balkans I had heard from many people, but I simply had not expected it to be so big. I hadn’t even considered it. And as I walked around in awe of the place, I met with another surprise. Machismo, or something like it, is big in the Balkans, especially in Serbia, and I had always heard that men were men, like in the old days. So when I saw two guys, each pushing strollers with babies inside and no women to be seen nearby, I was truly impressed. Maybe these ‘guy’s guys’ weren’t so traditional after all.
The one expectation that I had allowed myself to foster was that of Balkan hospitality, and I was not disappointed in the least. Our hostel in Belgrade, the Montmartre Hostel, was superb, and Dušan, the guy who runs the place, was incredibly helpful. Not only did he spend an hour with Hamilton and me, showing us all kinds of things to do in the city, he also sat and talked with us about the history of Belgrade. I had not known, for example, that Belgrade has been destroyed 39 times in its history, more than any other European city. Whether we’re talking complete destruction or simply damage is a question best left to the experts, but it is still an impressive number and a sad honour. We also discussed the idea that Serbia had a black mark that was hard to get out from under. Even Dušan expressed this sentiment, lamenting that the world still looked at Serbia like a bad guy. But people are people in the end, and although separating people from politics is difficult sometimes, it is very important. I was to have this feeling several times, in different settings, throughout my travels.
By the time I reached Kosovo, I was ready to concede that I had had more expectations on the trip than I had been willing to admit. I have written before about how I was nervous to enter Kosovo and imagined I’d see armed guards on every corner, cities under martial law. Okay, those weren’t really the images I had, but the lack of KFOR troops was quite surprising, as well as the lack of destruction. The Albanians I met found my preconceived notions quite entertaining. Everyone that came there said the same thing, they laughed. ‘Where are the KFOR troops? Where are the UNMIK patrols? Do I need to check in with them about my travel plans?’ A lot of this is due to outdated information in older editions of popular guidebooks, but even relatively recent online postings paint a gloomy picture. It truly does take going to a place to realize just what it’s like (not that I advocate hitting up your average war zone that is getting nightly news coverage-it might not be as bad as it sounds, but it could still get you killed). That said, there are certainly parts of Kosovo where the material consequences of the war can still be seen, and those are places I would like to visit when I return.
In a nutshell, my trip was excellent. There was a lot that surprised me, but fortunately it was almost always good. And the times that my expectations were met, it involved things like great food, beautiful scenery and wonderful people. Yes, and crazy drivers, but I have to say, whatever they’re doing seems to be working for them. The best part is that I’m certain that this was only the beginning of my Balkan adventures. There are places, like Belgrade and Skopje (and Macedonia in general), that got short shrift and demand more attention; there are cities, like Niš and Novi Sad, that I spent some good time in but still crave more; and there are so many other areas that I never got a chance to visit at all. One day I’ll have more time to spend in the places I loved and to travel to the ones I missed. I am truly looking forward to it.