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Surviving on charity in snow-bound Serbia


I got off the bus and had an intense stretch. It was freezing. I don’t mean the kind of freezing that I’d experienced in Slovenia where your ears crack and then snap off. This was the kind of freezing where your ears actually commit suicide before you even take them outside because they can sense the horrors that await. I was knee-deep in snow. I looked around to see how the natives looked. The men were big, strong and scary. The women were tasty. I had Miroslav’s address written on my phone, so I walked around a bit looking for someone to ask for directions. I realised I was probably going to have a small problem, though, when it became clear that all of the street signs were written in Cyrillic and Cyrillic only. Why I hadn’t expected that I do not know.

‘Hmm, who to ask for directions? Who to ask?’ I was just about to pick a lucky person to help me when a voice disturbed my concentration.

“Kris?”

I turned around quickly, convinced that I had misheard. Who in Belgrade knew me? It was Miroslav. He’d recognised me from the photo on Couchsurfing. I handed him some of my bags and we started the leisurely walk to his flat.

Have you ever walked with one of those people that don’t understand the concept of personal space? Miroslav fits into that category of people, and I gotta tell you, lovely bloke though he was, it slightly annoyed me. In my time I have walked hand in hand with many a young lady, I have even had my arm round a few of them, but, and I am not exaggerating here, never whilst strolling had I been physically closer to another human being than I was now to my Serbian host. He was the Siamese twin I never knew I had. As we walked I got pushed more and more against the wall, and every time we came to a turning I was sure we were to take it because it seemed as though he was guiding me in that direction. I would then look stupid as he said, “No, not this one. We have to keep going straight on.”

The thing that made it worse was that he spoke so quietly that you actually had to be that close to him to be able to follow the conversation. With all of this distraction I was finding it pretty hard to concentrate on the chit-chat we had going on, but I did manage to find out that he was in school studying to become a fully trained classical singer, and not, as I had first assumed, a turbo folk performer. It was the photo on his Couchsurfing profile that led me to this false assumption. He just looked like the kind of guy you would see performing in pubs up and down the Balkans. We got to the flat on Balkanska Street and I was led up the stairs and into the warmth. Like any good host, the first thing Miroslav did as soon as our shoes were off was offer me a cup of tea, and like any true Serbian man when I accepted his offer he called through to the woman in the kitchen to do the honours. Jasna was Miroslav’s sister. She had short red hair, a pale face, and a look about her that gave away her sense of humour. She introduced herself and welcomed me to their home. She was at university studying English and on a completely unrelated note I can also tell you she made a lovely cup of English breakfast tea.

“Hvala,” I thanked her in Serbian as she handed me the hot drink.

“Wow! How come you can speak this language?”

She seemed truly impressed, even though I had only used one little word. I didn’t know too many more. I explained the whole living in Slovenia thing, and she was pleasantly surprised. I sat, comfortable in my new surroundings immediately, as the conversation drifted to politics. It was only boys’ talk, of course, as Jasna stayed in the kitchen making more tea. It was the usual Serbia-related stuff; Milošević, Kosovo, NATO, war crimes tribunals, the feelings of the local people. I made sure not to touch any nerves as the last thing I wanted to do was come in to someone’s house and offend or insult them. To be honest, it would have been pretty hard to say anything wrong in this conversation without lying about how I truly saw things, because Miroslav’s point of view was pretty similar to mine. There was no nationalist sentiment here, and all I got was a very reasonable outlook on the current situation. I don’t think I did the best job of concealing my shock when Miroslav told me that they had never travelled abroad because of restrictions imposed on Serbs by the west. In theory they could get out, but it would mean going through more paperwork than its worth, and also waiting a few months to get the all clear. And people wonder why there seems to be so many nationalist-minded Serbs? What do you expect if you make it so difficult for them to get out and see what’s going on outside the borders of their own country? If the only outside world someone sees is a world shown to him by a media with an agenda, then one can’t hold much hope. Am I wrong? Anyway, we’re not here to talk politics, and also a lot of the restrictions that were in place when I travelled to Belgrade have since been lifted.

The living room was small and cosy. There was no telly; instead there were two bookcases absolutely filled to breaking point with literature in Serbian and English. These two were readers. In the corner of the room sat a small piano that both siblings could play. I was shown to my own room. Actually it was Miroslav’s room, but for the time I was here he was going to sleep on the settee in the living room. Just another little touch of Balkan hospitality that filled me with gratitude toward my new friend.

“After dinner I’m going sledding with my girlfriend up at the medieval fort. Do you want to join us?” Miroslav asked me.

Now there was an offer I wasn’t going to say no to, especially when it became clear that they didn’t actually have a sledge but were improvising with black bin liners. It sounded like story material to me. The previous night had brought the first delivery of snow that winter, and it hadn’t been a scrimp and save job. God, or Mother Nature, or whoever else was covering the night shift up there had really gone to town. Apparently it was the most snow they had had in one night for years and the locals were going to make the most of it. I wrapped the Borussia Dortmund scarf tightly around my neck before we walked out the door at 10. Jasna wasn’t coming, she had a bit of a cold, so was going to take the time to catch up on some studying.

My Siamese twin accompanied me on a walk through the pretty streets of the Old Town until we got to a park where we waited for his girlfriend to show up. By the way, I know Miroslav won’t mind me joking about him, he’s a Serb and therefore is used to taking the piss and having the piss taken. Luna was a pretty girl who spoke perfect English. She arrived carrying the plastic bags, and we walked through the park, through the fort, through the free open-air military museum, and up to the top of the hill that offered a view over Belgrade by night. Coming from different directions the distinct sound of folk music was being blasted out from clubs all over the city. It was exactly how I had imagined Belgrade to sound. It doesn’t surprise me anymore, but it always used to how the capital cities of the ex-Yugoslav countries are so different from one another. Ljubljana, Sarajevo, Belgrade and Zagreb have very little in common. It’s not like in England where most city high streets are just clones of each other. In the ex-Yugoslavia you really know you’ve crossed a border when you travel between the above mentioned cities. Ljubljana is like a little Alpine village, Zagreb is a wannabe Vienna, Sarajevo is Turkish in character, what with the call to prayer and the carpet sellers, and Belgrade is in your face, loud and proud. If I had to pick one to live in, though, it would be Sarajevo. And not because I look like a Turk. We spent a good couple of hours sliding down the steep hill at great speed, before getting thrown off of the bag and into a tree at the bottom, getting up, brushing ourselves down, and climbing the hill to do it all again. Snow was in my hat, in my gloves, in my shoes, inside my coat. My body actually hurt from the cold, but it didn’t matter because I was sliding down a hill at high speed on a black rubbish bag. The walk home was slow and uncomfortable as the snow that had infiltrated my clothes started to melt. Any discomfort was soon forgotten when we stopped off at a 24-hour bakery to buy a load of Burek. Unlike in Slovenia, where you buy your Burek in an individual serving at a set price, here in Serbia you ordered by weight. We took a shit-load of the stuff, and as they paid I worked out the conversion and couldn’t believe how cheap it was. Not cheap for a Serbian, true, but if I was to come here in the future with money in my pocket I would become obese in a week. We didn’t eat on the street but took everything home in bags, getting in at 2. As the food was being dished up on to plates, Jasna asked, “Is this the first time that you will try Burek?”

I laughed. She wasn’t to know that I had virtually lived off of the stuff for three years in Ljubljana. I had eaten the different variations in Slovenia, Croatia, and even in the Mecca of the Burek religion, Sarajevo. I guess I was what you could call a connoisseur.

Speaking in retrospect I can honestly tell you that Belgrade is the coolest place I visited on my trip. No disrespect to any of the other cities, towns, or villages, but there is something about this place that I don’t think I can do justice to in words alone, although I will try. You just have to go there to see what I mean. First of all, there is humour everywhere you look. The philosophy of the Serb is ‘Jebiga!’ or ‘Fuck it!’ It’s really refreshing to come from a place where there is so much stress and pressure connected to almost every aspect of life, and then find yourself here where the only thing taken seriously is the need to enjoy yourself. Isn’t that how it should be? Here is a city that in recent years has been bombed by NATO forces. That has been demonised by the Western Media. A city whose name immediately brings to mind the name Slobodan Milošević. The Capital city of a country that always seems to be at odds with the rest of Europe. A country that is seen as a cancer by so many different republics who have either fought for independence from them in the past, or in the case of Kosovo at the time of my visit to Belgrade, was still trying everything they could to cease being a part of Serbia. The country is in a state of permanent chaos and the government is a mess of different parties with different ideas who can’t get along with one another. They seem to have a general election every couple of months. But would you know it to look at the people? Not a chance. Jebiga! I asked Jasna why this is the way it is done in Serbia and I found her answer to be very revealing.

“We Serbs have to be funny,” she told me. “If we weren’t, we would go crazy with all of this. We have to be able to make fun of our situation. It’s the only way to get through and keep life normal.”

And make fun they do. From the graffiti on the walls, to the satire in the papers, to the conversations on the streets; everywhere you go fun is being made of everything. Literally everything. Serbs know how the outside world views them but they couldn’t care less. Maybe I like that because it reflects my own personality. Don’t misunderstand what I mean when I say they don’t care. The Serbian people are friendly, warm, and accommodating. At least as much as the people of any other country I visited on my travels. When I say they don’t care, I mean that they know the reputation they have, they even know that on the whole a lot of the views are correct (in as much as there is a large percentage of people here who are overly nationalist, conservative, and stupid. Yep, I did say stupid). But then there are the real people with minds of their own, who don’t go along with everything the politicians tell them. Young people who want to be able to travel freely around the continent. Who want to see the wanted war criminals caught, tried, and punished for what they did. Who want to see Serbia accepted into the ‘Western’ group of friends. And who know that as long as these wishes aren’t being fulfilled they may as well make fun of things. These are the Serbs I’m talking about, and these are the Serbs I saw during my stay in the country.

I slept well on my first night, despite feeling a little bit bad that Miroslav and Luna were both sleeping on the little settee. I had told them before I went to bed that they should take the room and I would have the settee, but they were having none of it. The following morning I joined Jasna on a trip to the shops to buy bread and cheese. There was a right old gossip going on in the busy bakery. I couldn’t follow what was being said, but the old women were certainly enjoying themselves. Whatever the subject was, I knew it was juicy because at one point they all gasped in sync. Outside, Jasna told me what had set off the gasp; “Do you all know that young Hadžić is gay?”

Yet another example of why I love the Balkans. There, in front of the whole bakery, one little old woman had just outed poor old Hadžić to the whole world and his dog, probably before he had even had his cornflakes that morning. After breakfast I set off with Miroslav and Jasna for my tour of the city. It took all day, and I wish there had been more hours of daylight because there was so much that we weren’t able to take in. Belgrade isn’t about beautiful architecture. It isn’t about museums, churches, or galleries. Don’t get me wrong, you can find all of these in abundance. But you would be doing yourself a disservice if that was what you went there to seek out. Belgrade is about the funny side of everyday life. Let me give you an example of what I mean: We walked past a street bookstall where a customer was berating the vendor about something, calling him every name under the sun and explaining in detail what he would like to do to his mother. If that happened where I come from, the bloke would be picking up his teeth from the pavement after 30 seconds, especially after some of the details regarding the mother. Here, though, the vendor just smiled and took it, giving a few insults back along the way. And this vendor wasn’t little, either. In Belgrade, it is perfectly normal to argue with people you don’t even know, using the kind of words you wouldn’t let your mum here you say, and if you happen to be the recipient of such banter you have to just take it with a pinch of salt and argue back. I love that. Forget fake pleasantries. Someone short changes you or tries to over charge you, forget all of your, “Oh, I’m sorry, but there appears to have been a mistake.” That won’t do. Why are we always sorry, anyway? No, none of that old rubbish down in Serbia. The bloke tries to rip you off, just call him a wanker and tell him what you will put in his mother’s mouth. Simple. We came across a quite little street with young children playing in the snow, sledging down the road. These kids were so young, so innocent to the world. They only knew about playing. There, on the very same street, was a pub whose name translated into English meant, ‘My mother’s c**t.’ Only in Serbia would you get that. I asked why a pub would have such a name.

“In Serbia, a typical response to the question, ‘Where are you going?’ is to say, ‘To my mother’s c**t.’ (In the same way as we in England say, “To see a man about a dog.”) So, if you are going to this pub and your wife asks you where you are going, you can just tell the truth.”

So simple, yet so brilliant. The graffiti in Belgrade is also top of the league when it comes to humour. On the wall opposite the maternity ward someone had actually spray painted in massive yellow letters the sentence, “She took my sperm whit out promision.”

He had taken the time to think of something funny and ironic, to go out and buy the paint, to creep down to the hospital at night and to spray it on the wall, but hadn’t taken the time to check it in an English dictionary first to see if it was spelt correctly or if it made sense. That makes it even funnier to me than if he had spelt it without any mistakes.

Another piece of graffiti I saw said simply, “Clinton, I will fuck your dead mother.” Again, that’s funny. If you are going to insult someone, don’t do it by halves. Necrophilia is the only way to go. Maybe these things would offend some people, but if you happen to fall into that category, nobody is forcing you to go to Serbia. Maybe I have been broken into this humour by the years I spent in Slovenia around Serbs. Or maybe I appreciate it because I have a sick sense of humour and I find it fun to offend people with inappropriate jokes myself. I don’t know. What I do know is that I will definitely spend a lot more time in Belgrade in the future.

My guided tour of the city came to an end and we returned to the flat early in the evening. I had been told that later on I was going to be given a taste of what Serbs like to get up to on a Friday night. The Orthodox religion celebrates Christmas on the 7th of January, meaning that tomorrow was going to be the day before Christmas Eve and also the day that my two hosts would leave Belgrade and head to their family village to spend the holidays with their loved ones. That meant that tonight was to be my last night in Serbia before heading somehow to Bulgaria in the morning. Miroslav offered to buy me a train ticket to Sofia, but I felt that I had taken enough from my new friends already and so declined the offer. Later that evening a friend of the siblings came round to the flat. I was introduced to a quiet guy with scruffy hair who went by the name Mladen. We sat round the table drinking while the topic of conversation was one that I hadn’t expected to find on a cold winter’s night in Belgrade. Del Boy and Rodney. Apparently everyone’s favourite independent traders had a huge following in Serbia. Then I got asked the million dollar question.

“Kris, can you explain to us. What’s a plonker?”

Then Jasna changed the subject, revealing to the other two something that I had mentioned to her on our morning visit to the shops.

“Hey, boys, would you believe that Kris has Serbian music on his iPod? Yea, he really likes it. He listens to Mile Kitić!”

The table erupted with laughter as Jasna gave me a cheeky look. She knew what she had done.

“No way! You really listen to Mile Kitić? He’s terrible! Can you sing any of the songs?” Mladen wanted to know.

Before I even had a chance to respond, my ears almost exploded to the shouts of, “Yea! Come on, sing us some Mile!”

“Come on, what do you think I am? A performing monkey?”

“You are the entertainer for the evening. Entertain us! We forgot to tell you, you must pay for the drinks we have provided. We know you have no money, so we will accept your singing as currency.” They roared with laughter. They had backed me into a corner.

“Alright, I might just make a fool of myself in the name of comedy, but not yet. I need a few more drinks first.” Was I really going to do it? At the time I didn’t know. I just needed to say something to halt the pressure. I then managed to shift the conversation on to something a little bit lighter and less tense; the Serbian slaughter of Muslim men and boys from the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.

I’m sorry, but I can’t believe you just believed that last sentence! What kind of insensitive meat-head do you take me for? I thought we knew each other better than that. Of course that’s not the direction in which I shifted the chat. No, we talked about other English telly programmes that have apparently made it big in Serbia. Men behaving badly came quite high up the list. It was like I had stepped through a magical doorway, leaving behind me the world I knew and arriving in a place called UK Gold. It wasn’t long before the bottles were closer to half empty than half full and the calls for my musical debut started up again, this time louder than before. I was to perform a song in true Serbian style – that means dancing included – which Miroslav would film, and if entertaining enough, post it on Youtube. Whether it was the influence of the beer or my natural inclination towards exhibitionism I’m not 100 per cent sure, but the idea was starting to seem like a good one. At least I would give my hosts a good laugh. The living room was cleared, the lyrics were put on to the computer screen, the Yugoslavia t-shirt was dug out from my backpack, the cameras were pointed on me, the music started and I performed my own rendition on Mile Kitić’s Svi su tu a tebe nema, which is available on Youtube for the world to see.

With the Serbs in hysterics it was time to go out. Our first port of call, I was told, was to be a bar where the Spanish owner was in a constant state of confusion.

“He walks around like he doesn’t know what day it is and he always gets the bill wrong and under charges us by big amounts,” Jasna laughed.

“That sounds like the sort of place I would like to go to if I were paying,” I smiled.

The walk was long, cold, and slippery, but we were all in good spirits as the city of Belgrade seemed to have come to life. All around us, people made their way to bars, pubs, and discos. The unmistakeable sound of folk music was faint in the air again, drifting out of grotty little establishments along the river. Damn, how I wanted to be taken to one of those places! The steps leading up to the bar were covered in black ice and climbing them was like that scene in Home Alone where the Joe Pesci burglar runs up, slips banana-skin style, flies up in the air and lands on his arse. I clung on to the hand railings as my legs separated and I executed the perfect splits, before brushing myself off, telling everybody I did it on purpose just to make them laugh, then entering the bar trying to look the coolest bloke in the world. I think I pulled it off. OK, I didn’t pull it off. The walls were filled with pictures of bullfights and flamenco dancers. The stereo played Spanish guitar. Our barman had a handlebar moustache the kind of which you would see as a kid in the history books when studying the Spanish civil war. This wasn’t the sort of place my mind had conjured up when imagining drinking in Belgrade. One telltale sign gave away our true location, though. Behind the bar lay bottle after bottle of different flavoured Rakija. Luna arrived through the door and Miroslav ordered five Jabukovača, that’s Apple Rakija to you. I had tried it before in Slovenia, but was assured that this stuff was different, more authentic. I took mine in one hand, did a cheers with everybody, downed it in one, looked up and saw that the others were drinking theirs slowly. I had mistakenly thought it had to be taken as a shot, albeit a larger than usual one. I was wrong.

“Eh! Još jedna!” ‘Another one!’ As quickly as it was handed it to me, it was in my stomach. I looked up again to see that my friends were lagging behind, still enjoying their first drinks. I was told to order a third. I did. I felt all warm and nice in my tummy.

“This bar isn’t really where we want to be, not if we want you to go away with a positive impression of going out in Belgrade, anyway,” one of them said to me.

As long as I was plied with Rakija I was going to go away with a good impression of the place. We could have been stood barefoot in the snow for all I cared. The drink was great and I was having it put in front of me as quickly as I could get rid of it. First impressions of Serbia’s capital by night were anything but negative. Still, if my guides to the city wanted to take me somewhere else, who was I to protest?

Our next stop was at another typical Serbian establishment. O’Reilly’s. Irish flags adorned the walls. Loud music belted out from the speakers around the place. People drank boisterously. Football shirts were hung on the ceiling. And big blokes stood in the doorways. Making our way to the bar and ordering our vocal lubricants, we were given a shock. They had managed to completely sell out of Rakija.

“Hold on. We are in Serbia, right?” I asked the waitress.

“Right.”

“We are in a pub, right?”

“Right.”

“We are in a pub and we are in Serbia. We are in a pub in Serbia. We are in a Serbian pub. Right?”

“Um, well, it’s an Irish pub. But, technically still Serbian. So, right.”

“And the milk of Serbia is Rakija. Right?”

“Right!”

“So, how the bleeding hell have you managed to sell out of the stuff?”

The waitress took my banter in good fashion, grinned, and told me that I was wasting my time with Rakija anyway because here they happened to have some of the finest Vinjak in the land. I needed to take a timeout in order to consult with my team-mates.

“What the hell’s Vinjak?” I asked. “Apparently, they’ve got some of the finest around in here. Do we want it?”

“It’s like a brandy, and yes we do.”

A shiver shot down my spine as the bitter taste burnt its way down my neck. This stuff was brutal. I had another. Then another. Then another. As the warmth of the paint stripper they call Vinjak loosened my tongue (not to mention my balance) I got into a heated debate with Mladen about an incident that had occurred in a recent Under 21’s match between England and Serbia. Basically, with England needing maximum points and with a striker through on goal, a Serb defender had put himself on the floor and put in a performance worthy of an Oscar, making out as if he had been shot in the leg. The England striker had gone on to stick the ball past the Serb goalkeeper and ran out towards the corner flag to celebrate near the England fans. Almost every member of the Serbian team had chased after him, swearing and pushing. The England players had obviously all piled in as well, and what ensued was a bit of a row. The incident had overshadowed the match in all of the press reports the next day and it all became quite unsavoury. Mladen, obviously watching the match through Balkan-tinted glasses, had seen nothing wrong in the actions of his compatriots and felt that the whole idea of the English always playing fair had been proven wrong that evening. The Serb was injured, therefore the right thing to do was for the English striker, Matt Derbyshire, to knock the ball out of play.

“That’s what any Serb would have done,” he informed me.

I picked myself up off of the floor after falling from my chair laughing at his suggestion, but I needn’t have bothered because no sooner was I back on my feet than I was down again, Mladen’s idea just too far-fetched even for a drunken debate in the pub. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not so cynical that I can’t believe there are certain people who perhaps would have stopped the game, given up the advantage, risked losing the match and leaving the tournament early, and knocked the ball into touch. No, it’s not that that I have any issue with. Those certain people definitely exist. It’s just that, well, how can I put it nicely? None of those certain people were born Serb!

The bell rang for last orders, we downed whatever was left in our glasses and headed out once again into the cold night. Floating through the air the sound of Serbian folk music grabbed me by my collar, lifted me from my feet, and violently dragged me to her home. She was very persuasive. Unfortunately, she was wasn’t strong enough to fend off the four pairs of arms that held me down, not allowing me to be kidnapped by the sweet audio delights that threatened to steal my heart.

“Kris, we are not going to that shit!” they shouted in unison.

I sulked, silently. As we slid along the ice, my eyes were drawn to a statue in the middle of the street of an impressive looking man. If I wasn’t going to get a photo of myself in a traditional Serbian music party, then I was going to have to make do with a shot of me French kissing this monument to a national hero. Jasna prepared the camera as I locked lips with the figure in front of me. Bear in mind that the temperature was -9 degrees.

“Aaam stuuu,” I managed to mumble, without the use of my tongue.

“What did you say?”

“Aaaaam stuuuu!” I moaned.

“You’re what?”

“Stuuuuu!”

“Stuck? You’re stuck?” Rapturous laughter followed.

I wasn’t seeing the funny side. My tongue had super glued itself to the stone and any slight attempt to remove it led to agonising pain. I really don’t know why English people have such a stupid reputation in cities across the continent. So, I had managed to get my tongue stuck to a statue. It happens! The laughter died down a bit once the seriousness of the situation sunk in. There was no way of getting my tongue off of this guy’s face without ripping it out of my mouth. I don’t want you to think I’m materialistic. I’m not. But over the past 24 years I had become quite attached to my tongue. It had sentimental value. We had been through a lot of firsts together. I didn’t want to leave him here in Belgrade, stuck to a statue. I couldn’t carry on my journey without him; that would be like leaving a comrade to die in the field.

“Don’t worry about me! Save yourself!” The comrade would be shouting. My tongue didn’t share this selfless attitude. I could hear him.

“Another fine mess you’ve got me in to. Don’t even think about leaving me here on my own. You plonker!”

“Don’t worry,” I reassured him. “I’m not leaving here without you.”

I can admit to you now that although my tongue bought what I was telling him, personally I wasn’t convinced by my own words. Images of myself trying to explain to people in countries I was yet to visit how I had come to lose my tongue filled my head. How would I talk? Kiss? Eat? Lick statues? As I stood there, face glued to a monument, trying to figure out the answers to these deep questions, Jasna was making herself useful coming up with a plan.

“I have a plan,” she said, confirming what I just told you.

She approached me with a look of defiance. I was afraid. I was very, very afraid. Did she really think she could just pull me hard enough and it would come loose?

“Yaaaaaana!” I couldn’t even pronounce her name. “Wayudoo?”

“Don’t worry. Just trust me.”

She cupped her hands around the affected area, made a little mouth piece in between her palms and blew warm breath into the pocket she had created. Slowly, I pulled my tongue. It hurt, but there was movement. She continued to blow and I continued to pull. There’s a sentence you usually only read in the readers’ ‘true’ stories in top shelf mags.

“She continued to blow and I continued to pull.”

I eased my tongue away from the statue and felt a high I never imagined I would get from removing my mouth from a landmark. The high was short-lived, though, as I soon realised I was bleeding profusely.

“Aaaah! I’m bleeding! My tongue is bleeding!” I shouted.

Sympathy was clearly something my Serbian friends hadn’t taken classes in. Laughing at others’ misfortune was something they clearly had.

“It’s not funny! It kills!” I screamed, shovelling snow directly from the ground into my mouth. Anything to numb the pain. Every birthday and Christmas as a kid – not just as a kid, if I’m honest – I had always gone to bed the night before hoping that in the morning I would be unwrapping a Mr. Frosty. It never came. Thanks Mum, by the way. Anyway, I now got a cheaper experience of what I had longed for year after year. I must have eaten about a kilo of snow. I even got some flavour, as some of it I dug up from below a lamppost was yellow. As I munched on the white stuff and the Serbs bent over in pain laughing at my predicament, I realised that it had actually been worth the suffering. Yea, I had come out of it with my tongue ripped to shreds, but I had also got a funny story to take to the rest of Europe. I had got a quality photo as a souvenir. And, most importantly of all, I had entertained my hosts. Again. Still, it bloody hurt.

Whilst in the pub I hadn’t realised how drunk I – and my companions – had been getting. We were literally staggering through the snow, as my companions tried to remember where they lived. Everywhere had closed up for the night and it was time to get to bed. Until we stumbled upon a pub with its doors still open. On entering, it was easy to tell what sort of establishment this was. It was there solely to serve the hardcore element of drinkers that wanted to punish their livers for just a little longer before being forced to retire to their homes. A DJ in the corner of the place was literally slumped over his record decks, a strong drink in one hand, a girl’s breast in the other, the same girl attempting to polish his tonsils for him using only her tongue as a cloth. All around, boisterous crowds of drunken Serbs shouted at each other over their Rakijas. It was already 3 in the morning and they weren’t going to be open for too much longer so we ordered a quick round of Rakijas and then I was treated to one final Vinjak before we were all kicked out by the bar staff. The walk home should have taken about 25 minutes. That’s how long it took Miroslav, Jasna and Luna. That’s how long it would have taken Mladen and myself had we not got back on to the heated disagreement regarding the under 21s match. It was fiercely contested, neither one of us willing for a second to even consider the other’s point of view. Patriotism is a dangerous area, particularly when it involves a Serb and an Englishman. We both argued until we were blue in the face. The others had left us behind long ago. When we eventually walked through the door into the warmth of the flat, Jasna had already had a shower and Miroslav was in his dressing-gown and slippers. In the end we both just agreed to disagree; we were never going to change the other’s mind. And to seal the peace treaty Mladen nipped round to the all night shop for a few litres of beer. The two of us then sat until 6 in the morning drinking at the kitchen table, long after everyone had gone to bed.

I woke up later in the morning at about 11:30 with a banging headache. I fumbled around my bag looking for some paracetamol, found what I was after and went back to bed to let it take effect, waking an hour later. Outside it was raining, and the Košova – a special kind of wind unique to Belgrade – was blowing forcefully. I ignored the weather. I was determined to head out alone and see what the day would bring. It turned out to be the right decision. The first place I headed was down to the train station to find out what time any trains departed for Sofia the next day. As I waited in the queue at the information desk I listened in to the American girl in front of me as she bought a ticket to Ljubljana. She was told the price in Dinars and asked how much it was in Euros. The woman behind the desk couldn’t be bothered to work it out, and as it was quite a simple number to calculate I answered her question for her. She thanked me and asked what I was doing in Belgrade. I explained. It was then my turn at the desk and the lazy woman told me there was a train to Bulgaria at 8:40 the next morning. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and turned around to find that the American girl had waited for me to finish. She invited me to a café for a cup of tea as she wanted to hear more about my project. I gratefully accepted. Let me take this opportunity to tell you something about Belgrade: They don’t put granite or salt down on the snowy pavements. The ground literally becomes an ice rink, only a magic kind with invisible ice. As you stand still and look around at the people going about their business you realise that you have slipped into a surreal world where friction no longer exists. Everywhere you look people are falling on their arses. I’m not even exaggerating. The amount of people I saw get seriously hurt in just a couple of hours of walking around was in double figures. The American girl introduced herself as Matty.

‘Strange name for a girl,’ I thought, but didn’t mention it.

We walked slowly until we found a café and ordered two teas. As I went to take my coat off I found that it had frozen. My coat had literally frozen. How many times in a lifetime does that happen? I was wearing sheets of ice. Matty bored me, so after the teas were finished and my coat had defrosted, I made my excuses and went to the bus station to see what time coaches to Sofia left, in case I couldn’t get on the train and had to try and sneak on to a bus. As I queued at the desk, I got talking to another American. Paul from Texas. He was heading to Ljubljana the next day – I wondered if he would meet Matty on the way and find her more interesting than I had – and was comparing prices between bus and train. I told him what I was doing and the first thing he wanted to know was how it was possible for me to ride by train. I told him about the stress of trying to blag guards and he asked how much the ticket was. I said I didn’t know. I did know really, but I didn’t want to make it seem like I was asking for something. He said, “Then let’s go and find out,” and we went to the train station. He turned round from the desk and asked me how old I was, then if I would mind getting up early in the morning. I told him that it would be fine. Then he handed me a ticket for the following day saying it was his way of making a donation.

“Are you hungry?” he asked next.

“A bit.”

And so we went for a burek. I told him what he should see in Ljubljana. He shook my hand, wished me luck, and then we parted company.

I slept late the following day and missed my train. It didn’t matter; it was an open ticket I had so I could take the night train, which took three hours longer. An email from Chavdar in Sofia told me he would pick me up from the station there when my train arrived early the next morning. It was Orthodox Christmas Eve, and as I made my way down to Belgrade station to catch my 9:10pm train, everyone on the streets was in festive mood. People were singing as they made their way to pubs around the city. My train for the night was a grubby, old Yugoslav Railways train from the 1960s. Dirty and dusty it might have been, but that took nothing away from the comfort. I found my own personal compartment; not difficult considering the train was almost empty. Those that had boarded for the journey were all carrying with them sleeping bags and blankets for the night ahead. Not me, though, I’m hard. This train was so old that whenever the engine was off, so were the carriage lights. So I sat in pitch darkness and waited for the wheels to start rolling. I wasn’t waiting as long as expected, as we rolled out of the station three minutes early. I surprised myself by feeling pissed off at this, as I imagined how I would feel if I turned up to my platform two minutes before my train was due to leave and found it gone. Everyone I had ever spoken to about travelling in Serbia had told me that trains were always late. Not sometimes. Always. And yet, here I was, sitting on the 21:10 Belgrade to Sofia night train, at 21:08, with the lights of Belgrade’s main station already a memory. I wanted to sleep but couldn’t, thanks to horror stories I had read on the internet about lone travellers on Balkan night trains being drugged and robbed by gypsies. It didn’t help matters when I made my way up to the toilet just before midnight and saw a solitary gypsy teenage boy in the compartment next to mine. In reality, it made no difference if I were awake or asleep; if someone was going to rob me he was going to rob me. At about 2am we pulled in to Niš, a small Serbian town I had originally planned to stop off in before I had so easily found a host in Sofia. Outside, small houses were decorated with Christmas lights. A man walked up and down the platform, shoveling snow and whistling. We waited at the station for a good 20 minutes before finally pulling out. As the engine had been off, so too had the lights, obviously, but as we pulled away they failed to come back on. It wasn’t the lights that I was worried about but rather the heating which also came on and off with the engine. I was shivering. Whilst sat at the station I had put on every layer of clothing I could grab from my rucksack, but nothing seemed to be giving me any warmth. After a few minutes the feeling of dread hit me. What if I was supposed to have changed trains at Niš and that’s why there was no heating or lights on this one. I jumped up out of my compartment and ran down the corridor of the carriage, freaking out when I found that all the other passengers that had been there before were nowhere to be seen. Even the gypsy was gone. At the end of the corridor was the door to the next carriage, but it was locked shut. Shit! I was on my way to the depot.

I walked to the other end of the carriage and through the door to the next carriage, and again found no passengers. I did, however, pass two ticket inspectors on the way, neither of whom looked at me as if I didn’t belong on their train. I walked back to my carriage to check that my stuff was still safe, and found the two inspectors waiting for me outside my door. This wasn’t good. They spoke quickly to me in Serbian, far too quickly for me to understand.

“Ne razumem,” I told them. “I don’t understand.”

“Ne razumeš?” They laughed, in a friendly way.

“Vruče tamo,” said one of them, pointing up the corridor. This I understood. ‘Vruče’ means ‘hot’, ‘tamo’ means ‘there.’ They were telling me that the heating was working further up the train. I laughed so hard that my sides hurt. The relief was immense. I found myself an unpopulated compartment further up the train and this time managed to get some sleep. I was woken a couple of hours later by the brightness of a torch being shone onto my face and through my closed eyelids. I handed the Serb policeman my passport, he stamped it, handed it back and left me alone. Ten minutes later a Bulgarian copper came in, shone his torch in my face, took my passport, spent two whole minutes staring at my face, another two staring at the picture in the passport, another three staring at my face, before throwing my document back at me and leaving. We sat at the border for what seemed liked forever as men searched the train up and down, even underneath. We rolled past the ‘Welcome to Bulgaria’ sign at 5:51am, or what I thought was 5:51. I had forgotten than Bulgaria is an hour ahead of her neighbour. Just inside Bulgaria we pulled into a station where a load of people got on. I was joined in my compartment by three middle-aged Bulgarians who would spend the rest of the journey to Sofia talking loudly about something I presumed was the Wombles and whether or not Uncle Bulgaria was actually a Bulgarian immigrant to Wimbledon. I listened intently. I didn’t really. I don’t speak Bulgarian. I stared out the window and watched as the bright orange sun rose over the snow covered fields. It was a sight to behold.

At 8:10am local time my train pulled into Sofia station and I ticked yet another capital city off of my list.

Want to read all of Kris Mole’s cash-free European adventure? It’s all in his new ebook.

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