This evening, I learned one of the most important lessons of hosteling: always wear earplugs. Staying in a room with 9 other people is risky as you never know what kind of nighttime habits you might encounter. While I am far from thrilled at being awakened at 4 am to the cacophony of bunkmates struggling to breathe through blocked air passages, I should have been prepared. Snoring is a hazard that hostelers are bound to encounter eventually. Lesson learned; I will do better tomorrow.
So long as I am awake, I will make good use of the time to report on my exceptionally productive first day in Belgrade. Having no particular agenda for the morning, I set out early to buy a sim card for my cell phone and find some breakfast from the nearby grocery store. Upon returning with my now functioning cell phone and fare of yogurt and a croissant, I enjoyed a large cup of Turkish coffee brewed by one of the hostel staff. For 13 euro a night, the service here is exceptional.
After breakfast, I looked up a number of addresses and phone numbers for the major Serbian news media outlets, several academic departments of the University of Belgrade, and what Jewish organizations I could find in town. I then set out to explore the city by foot. I was expecting Belgrade to feel a bit like I remember another major Eastern European capitol 10 years ago (I won’t name names): dark, depressing, and largely inhospitable. With imposing Soviet era concrete buildings mixed between older but not terribly dazzling architecture and an almost complete lack of street signage in the urban center, the city itself doesn’t exactly draw you in. What makes all the difference are the people. Everyone I stopped to ask for directions was incredibly friendly and helpful, even those who couldn’t really speak English. Hospitality is clearly a trait Serbians exercise in abundance.
My first stop ended up being the only synagogue still open in Belgrade. Built in 1924, it really has the look of a classical Ashkenazi shul. If you’ve visited other synagogues in eastern Europe, you’ll understand what I mean. Somewhat ironically, Belgrade’s Jewish community are all Sephardim, with the exception of the city’s small Chabad House which I believe primarily caters to tourists. Following from my visits to other old synagogues in the former Soviet bloc led me to expect that the shul would be either closed to the public or a derelict converted to other uses. Neither expectation was borne out. While the shul is enclosed by a heavy iron gate and fence with a security booth controlling access to the synagogue courtyard, the guards were happy to let me in.
Once entering the building, I wandered into a large social hall where two men were eating lunch. They invited me to join them and I happily obliged. As it turns out, one of the men was Rabbi Yitshak Asiel, the chief rabbi of Serbia and the country’s only shochet. Every weekday, the synagogue’s kitchen serves a multiple portion kosher fleishig lunch for only 400 dinar. That’s less than 7 USD! The only catch is you usually have to make a reservation a day in advance so the kitchen staff knows how much food to make… Well, that and the fact that they only speak Serbian. For illiterate foreigners like me, that means we must go through the Rabbi (whose English is impeccable).
Over our meal, we discussed my research, local politics, Jewish life in Serbia, his position as head of the community, and the Shabbat davening schedule. Also over lunch, he did some generous networking on my behalf, calling up one of his Bishop friends in the Serbian Orthodox Church about assisting with my research and potential trip to Kosovo. After lunch, we walked out of the shul and he introduced me to a friend of his wife’s who happened to be traveling down the street, who, as it turns out, is both from Chicago and heads up a local democracy building NGO. She was also more than happy to discuss my work with me and suggest a number of other people I might speak with while in the country.
From there, I headed up to Knoz Mihailova, a large pedestrian mall filled with shops, boutiques, cafes, and street vendors and bustling with people. Truly it was invigorating to see so many people of all ages up and about on a Tuesday afternoon. Again, contrary to my expectations, this city is positively vibrant. While strolling the mall, I came across a group selling “Serbia is Kosovo” t-shirts and promoting a concert that evening. Naturally I stopped to chat with them. One of the women who spoke English explained to me that their NGO raises money to assist Serbs still living in Kosovo and to preserve the many Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries that fill that disputed territory’s countryside. As it turns out, Serbs commemorate the 1389 Battle of Kosovo in the week leading up to or containing June 28. Hopefully this will make for a particularly interesting time to be in Serbia.
After a nice conversation with these folks, I headed to the building housing Belgrade University’s history, philosophy, and anthropology faculties to see if I could find a professor who might be interested in discussing my research. A bit like NYU, the University of Belgrade is not centered in any particular location with various faculties and school divisions located all over the city. The faculty of political science was a bit out of my reach as it is in the far south of the city, so a visit there will have to wait for another day. After speaking with a secretary, she directed me to an anthropology professor who had about 15 minutes to talk to me and quite a number of suggestions of other faculty I might speak with and reading I should do. Unfortunately much of that was published only in Serbian. I must find a translator. Any Serbian undergrads at Northwestern want to make a few extra bucks? 🙂 After my meeting I stopped into the university bookstore and purchased a textbook to learn basic Serbian. While I won’t achieve academic proficiency, at the very least the book may help me get around the next six weeks.
On my way back to the hostel, I got caught in a massive thundershower. Taking shelter under a storefront awning, I asked a young Serbian man standing near me for directions back. This quickly turned into a much more involved conversation all about the role of Kosovo in Serbian politics. After awhile the rain let up, and his cousin and her boyfriend happened to be walking by and they joined the conversation. After an hour or so, we all exchanged numbers and I made my first local friends around my age outside of the hostel staff. Not too shabby.
Arriving back at the hostel, I found that my contact at the Ministry of Kosovo Affairs had responded to my email suggesting that we meet today at 11 am at her office in Novi Beograd (New Belgrade), which is across the river from the older neighborhoods of the city. Her office is in a building called the Palace of Belgrade and is apparently a massive and stunning building. I plan to take lots of pictures. While in that part of the city, I hope to take a hike north to Zemun, a picturesque older suburb, and stop in at the offices of the Beta news agency, one of this country’s largest news media outlets.
In the evening, I bought some raw ingredients for dinner and breakfast in the morning, again a mere 400 dinar. I then went out to cruise a few local bars with two of the Brits staying here at the hostel. Our first stop, Bar Idiot, was a cool little venue in the cellar of an older building. I enjoyed a glass of Nikšićko Pivo, a dark lager brewed in Montenegro which, to my unrefined tastes, definitely lived up to its positive rap. From there we went to Salvador Dali, a hip little pub/club down the street. A great end to a great day. Now if I could only get a little sleep…
Serbian word of the day: hvala = thank you.