18 Jun Some Serbian stuff
The language thing gets easier. All four former Yugoslav nations basically share a language with only a few local variations. The Serbs have resolved the Zbogom issue for us – they have adopted ‘Ciao’ for their goodbyes. But before saying ciao to Serbia, a few things Serbian that we came across.
Rakie – the local spirit that each family distils for itself from whatever fruits are available, often plums or apricots. Everyone drinks it perhaps for its extraordinary qualities: kills all bacteria, so excellent for first thing in the morning to freshen you up; opens up the appetite, so essential before eating; as a digestif, perfect for after a meal; good for relaxing when you’re anxious or pepping you up when you’re down; and, of course, at the end of the day the ideal nightcap. Clearly one should never be without the stuff. I’ve tasted worse.
Serbian coffee is, in effect, Turkish coffee of the ‘adding hairs to chest’ variety that is not always desirable. We steered clear of it and mostly took the lengthened expresso. Like the other Balkan countries only more so, they focus on meat but with the Danube right on their doorstep you can also find trout and perch on the menu but priced by the kilo, which is slightly daunting as they weigh the whole fish not just the fillets. However, they do like their slow- roasted beans jazzed up with some tomato and cheese and the salads, whether Serbian or Greek are a treat so it’s just about manageable for a vegetarian who eats fish by the gram.
Know any famous Serbs? Apart from Novak Djokovic, who is very popular and came a close second in the public vote to name the swanky new suspension bridge after him. As a consolation prize one if the national aeroplanes is called Novak Djokovic ( never knew they had their own airline – maybe it’s the President’s jet). In any case, back to famous Serbs?? Niklas Tesla, scientist with a winning formula that almost got him the Nobel for Physics.
It seems the Serbian character may also be given to slight prudishness. I mentioned the tavern that had to be renamed because it wouldn’t do to name it after a church. Well there is also the Victor monument. Victor is a soldier but Victor is in the buff – unusual but the intention was to have him represent all Serbian soldiers across all time and not put him into a uniform that would place him on one side of history or the other. The intention was also to have him in the middle of town on Republic Square – like a naked Nelson on Trafalgar Square (I imagine that would have caused a bit of a rumpus too!). The ladies of Belgrade, or more likely the men on their behalf, did not want to look him full in the face, if you get my drift, so he stands proud and erect (in the statuesque sense of the word, of course) atop the hill by the fort that overlooks the confluence if the Danube and the Sava and he faces out – so the ladies of Belgrade may gaze only at his perfectly formed buttocks and simply wonder….
Serbian dinars – you get a lot of them for your buck. We changed £40 when we arrived and got 5,500 dinars or RSD. Takes a bit of adjusting when you have to tip the waiter a cool 100. We heard from the spirited Jovana (she of the walking tour) that in the bad times of the 1990s hyperinflation was a serious problem and Serbia is second only to Zimbabwe in the Guinness book of hyperinflation records. Not only day to day but even hour to hour, the value of money was dropping. The story goes that you could go into a pub and order a drink and by the time you had drunk it and came to pay the price had gone up. Scary stuff. The fact that the streets of Belgrade are peppered with money exchanges, small seedy shop fronts mainly, and that they are desperate to have your foreign currency suggests, according to my travelling economist, that things are pretty gloomy on the economic front.
And the Serbs seem to be muddled about whether they want to keep the Cyrillic or switch to Latin script. I asked one of the staff at the hostel to write out Sofia in Cyrillic in case I got in a muddle at the station and boarded the wrong train (having seen the station I now understand why she chuckled at this request). She said she would try but she wasn’t sure she could remember how to write Cyrillic as she hadn’t done so since primary school. You have to learn it in primary but you can choose not to use it later on. Cyril’s days must surely be numbered.
But finally, what a great joyous and resilient bunch of people they are, especially the young people of whom we met some sparkling examples all of them full of hope for the future.