Day One: Belgrade

I am happy to report that I arrived yesterday evening, safe and sound in Belgrade, Serbia. Here is what I have been up to so far…

The flight out of Chicago was delayed and I barely slept a wink despite the fact that it was a redeye flight to Frankfurt.  While I cannot complain about the service (Lufthansa is an all-around fantastic airline), the aisles are jammed so close to one another that I couldn’t find a way to in sit in which my knees were not shoved into the seat in front of me.

On the up side, I sat next to a woman who also happened to be traveling all the way to Belgrade. We chatted a bit about what to do while in the country and she tried to teach me a bit of Serbian.  With no sleep, my retention is pretty awful, but thanks for trying Dušanka.

Upon landing in Frankfurt, we were delayed for about half an hour on the tarmac waiting for another plane to depart from our gate.  This led to some anxiety about making my connection on Jat Airlines (pronounced yaht) to Belgrade. Without a doubt, Frankfurt is one of the worst airports in Europe but coming from Chicago, I am quite used to flight delays, cancellations, excruciatingly slow service, and confusing terminal layouts. Fortunately I did not have to go through customs and our gate was just a few 100 feet away down a flight of stairs. Jat does not issue boarding passes prior to departure, so literally everyone at the flight had to line up to check in. We then took a bus across the airport to where our plane was parked… no where near the gate.

We were delayed for over an hour out of Frankfurt of course but it allowed me some time to nap.  The flight itself was painless, the flight attendants were very sweet and were perfectly fluent in English, and the plane itself was in good shape.  High marks to Jat; I would definitely fly them again.

Once arriving in Belgrade, I made my way to customs.  Entering through the line for non-visa required countries, the border agent didn’t ask me a single question nor did he request my travel itinerary. As a matter of fact, he did not acknowledge me at all with the exception of stamping my passport. I have no idea if this was a reflection of his lack of English, my lack of Serbian, or his complete disinterest in why I was entering his country. Fortunately everyone else has been incredibly polite, welcoming, and helpful although very few people seem to speak English… I am definitely in trouble.

From the airport, I took the Jat bus to the central train station in Belgrade.  I then followed slightly cryptic instructions to the Manga youth hostel.  Travelers beware, Belgrade is not exactly a tourist friendly city.  Most of the streets are unmarked and even then most signs are written in Cyrillic. I am told that Resavska, the street on which the hostel is located used to be one of the nicest in the city. Now it is closed to traffic and being ripped up for a new tram line. I was also a bit astounded to find a pair of very large bombed out old government buildings at the corner of Resavska and Namanjina.  It is not as if I had not been told that scars from the NATO bombing in 1999 were still visible, but these buildings reminded me of photos I’ve seen of post WWII France and Germany.  I’ll try to take some pictures today.

The youth hostel itself is really quite nice even if it can only be reached by traveling through an unlit blind alley between imposing communist era concrete buildings. The staff here is very hospitable and friendly as are my fellow travelers hailing from the United States, France, the UK, Australia, Sweden, and Norway so far. I am staying in a large 10 bed room which makes for noisy nights, but I am a deep sleeper.

My travels up and down Bulevar Kralja Aleksandra last night looking for dinner were challenging to say the least.  Between my non-existent Serbian and the heavy meat fare enjoyed locally, I was hard-pressed to find something to eat. I settled on something resembling a croissant, a tuna sandwich, and some kind of fruit kugel. The woman running the restaurant asked what I was doing in Serbia if I didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak Serbian.  What indeed.

Now it is about 10:30 am and I need to figure out what I will do for the rest of the day. I am thinking breakfast, buy a sim card for my phone, try to get in touch with my contacts at the Ministry of Kosovo Affairs, and maybe call up the local Chabad House. If there’s time, I also hope to do a bit of a walking tour of some of the more notable sites in the capital. My Lonely Planet guide to Belgrade is very helpful in this regard.

Having experienced my share of challenges already, aside from my research here are some of my goals for this trip:

  1. Learn Cyrillic: If I don’t figure it out, I won’t even be able to guess what most of the signs in this city say
  2. Learn some Serbian: I’ll start slow with please, thank you, and excuse me, and work my way up from there. I’ve got 6 weeks to go, so hopefully I’ll make some progress
  3. Pound a whole lot of pavement and learn the ins and outs of this city. Between my map, my travel guides, and very ready to help locals, I think I can pull it off.

Wish me luck!

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