Day Three: Novi Beograd, Beograd (Belgrade)

palace-of-belgrade Before starting today’s post, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the passing of one of the world’s superstars.  Michael Jackson, whatever his oddities and enormous personal failings, was a great musician. Thanks for the moonwalk buddy. Wherever you are, I hope you figure out where you are going…. and stay away from the kids, please.

So back to business.  Yesterday was another incredibly productive day despite an almost complete lack of sleep.  I started the morning very early, 4 am to be precise, that would be when yesterday’s post was written.  I left at around 8 am and wondered west into the center of town, stopping to buy a set of earplugs at the pharmacy and to exchange a bit more American cash for dinars. An important note for travelers here, the currency exchanges that claim to be commission free are in fact a better deal than the banks. It’s not just advertising. I got just over 66 dinar to the dollar, not a huge difference than barely 65 dinar but it makes a difference in large amounts.

I then made my way across the northern-most bridge out of the older neighborhoods of Belgrade to the relatively new neighborhood of Novi Beograd (that just means New Belgrade). One of the employees at my hostel tells me 50 years ago, there was nothing across the river except swamps and marshlands.  That probably helps explain their enormous mosquito problem.  All in all, Novi Beograd is a particularly unattractive suburb with none of the charm across the river. Since the vast majority of the construction came from the communist era, the streets are all parallel and perpendicular, but the buildings are ugly as sin.

Although not terribly picturesque, the suburb is supposedly graced with a lovely park system. In part, this is true. There are many many paths and bike trails that criss-cross area and go along the Sava and Danube rivers that made me wish I brought my own bike along for the trip.  Yet the area neither has the carefully groomed elegance of an English garden nor the wild naturalism of a national park.  Rather the entire space looks like it has been inconsistently worked over by a huge riding mower with dull blades, making for many spaces of high weeds and a lot of brown spots.  While there is a notable lack of furry animal life, huge black and brown ravens take their place. Unfortunately very few stood still long enough for me to get a close photo.

While wandering the park, I came across a large monument that looks a bit like a cubical Roman pillar with a metal sculpture of eternal flame at its apex. On either side are plaques written in Cyrillic Serbian quoting a nationalist poet… something about the glory of dying for the country.  A local informed me with disgust that the monument was financed by the wife of Slobodan Milosevic and is regularly defaced by local youths. While she was very proud to be Serbian, she also had no difficulty complaining about the corruption and ineptitude of her country’s politicians and her perceived inability of Serbs to get their own act together.  In her words, the greatest enemies of the Serbs are not the Bosnians, the Croats, or the Albanians, but the Serbs themselves. This dour attitude seems to be quite normal among Serbs with whom I have spoken in passing on the street of Belgrade.

My first official meeting of the morning was with the Ministry of Kosovo Affairs in the Palace of Belgrade, an enormous government office housing most of the ministries and bureaucracy of Serbia. Check the picture in the link I provided above although it doesn’t really convey the size and unattractiveness of the complex. If the Soviets didn’t have Red Square, this is what the Kremlin would have looked like, a central planners wet dream of starkness, efficiency, and dominance. Fortunately like most places I have seen thus far, the coldness of the surroundings was warmed by the congeniality and kindness of its denizens. Even the security guards, with whom I was unable to exchange more than four intelligible words, was very polite and good natured.

I was officially welcomed into the office of the ministry by a young man who I presumed was an intern of sorts for the office. While waiting for my meeting with Kruna Petkovic, the deputy minister for international relations, we chatted about Serbia’s relations with the world, its historical ties to Kosovo, Albanian treatment of the residents and religious sites of the province, and the efforts of his ministry to press his country’s claims through the International Court of Justice.  We were soon joined in conversation by Mrs. Petkovic’s personal assistant who asked me generously but quite point blank why I was so interested in Kosovo. This conversational style seems confrontational, but I am get the distinct impression that Serbians simply prefer to be to the point. No bull-shitting here, not even in the halls of government… although a fair number of civilians I am sure would be to differ. Bottom line, everyone seemed honest and open to me.

My meeting with Mrs. Petkovic and her assistant was also incredibly productive. I won’t bore you with the specific details but in short we again discussed Serbian international legal efforts to reclaim Kosovo and Serbia’s deep history and national attachment to the province.  She also related a number of personal stories about her travels in Kosovo and her interactions with Kosovar Albanians as a college student during Tito’s rule. What was most remarkable during the meeting was that although they expressed mistrust of Albanians nothing they said indicated the sort of racist attitudes that western media coverage of the region suggests are so prevalent. While insisting that Kosovo is an indivisible and inseparable part of Serbia, they expressed an great interest and willingness to coexist and seek reconciliation with Albanians. Obviously some healthy skepticism should accompany any conversation with government officials, particularly those whose specific job is to address an international audience. But nothing I have seen so far has led me to believe that their attitudes were in any way inconsistent with those of the population at large. How any of this would be accomplished, particularly after Kosovo has already claimed independence and the United States among others has granted diplomatic recognition, is another problem altogether. Important for my work in particular, Mrs. Petkovic has promised to put me in touch with a number of professors and government officials who might be useful.

From there, I took advantage of already being in Novi Beograd to crash the offices of B92, one of Serbia’s largest news agencies.  Here my lack of Serbian here proved to be useful as the security guards could not explain to me that they couldn’t help me. Instead they waited until an English speaking reporter came in the door. After explaining my situation, she agreed to show me around the office but that “she couldn’t promise anything.” Of course, once wandering the office, we found one journalist who was clearly quite busy, but potentially willing to help.  I have her number now, so hopefully we will touch base in the next few days.

From here, I walked back to the center of the city to find the offices of the Orthodox organization whose members I met two days ago on the pedestrian mall raising money to rebuild destroyed monasteries in Kosovo. After circling the area of Kalemegdan, an ancient fortress in the oldest part of the city, where the office was located, I finally found it on an obscure side street. The office seemed to double in function as a store for Serbian Orthodox ritual items and artwork and a community center. In a testament to Serbian hospitality, they would not let me ask them a single thing about the organization until they had sat me down with a cup of Turkish coffee and a bowl of fruit. Almost no one there spoke English, but one of the older men was able to translate for me.  From what I can gather, this group(unnamed as far as I can tell) is loosely organized and non-institutionalized but comes together for significant occasions to raise money for Serbs in Kosovo and mark religious holidays with rallies and concerts raising awareness about the situation of Serbs and Serbian religious sites in Kosovo. Today they are holding a rally at rally of sorts in Republic Square with a live broadcast from the site of ancient 1389 Battle of Kosovo where a religious service is being held in preparation for St. Vitus’ day, the day of the battle, commemorated by some on June 28. Unfortunately the rally began 30 minutes ago so I really must wrap up this post if I am going to make an appearance. I don’t know if I should expect 10 people or 10,000 people but either way it should be interesting.

[edit: As it turns out, the rally is on Sunday, not today… so more then.]

From my time with these folks, I made my way back to the hostel where I met some of the new guests, made dinner, ate, and went to bed around 9:30. I woke up briefly to chat with some of the guests and staff that were still up at 3 am, and went back to bed to wake up at 10. Fully rested, I’m ready to start another productive day in Belgrade. Later this evening I’ll make my way back to the synagogue for Erev Shabbat davening and tomorrow I’ll head back for Shacharit and see where the day takes me. Expect posting to be a bit thin over the next few days. Thanks for reading!

Serbian phrase of the day: Govoris(h)/Govorite li engleski? (Do you speak English?)

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