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2013 Grateful 7

I’m not what you’d call a people person. Despite outward appearances, I find being around people all the time somewhat nerve wracking. Call it fanciful, but I can feel the energy seeping out of me and need time and space to recuperate. I dread networking events where small talk comes wrapped in hors d’oeuvres and niceties are made more palatable by the champagne.

IMG_7760 (800x600)So when I was invited to join a group of 26 Serbs, Macedonians, Kosovans, Croats, and one Dutch on a trip to the Holy Land, I was a little apprehensive. Apart from me and Roeland, everyone would speak the same language and I know how isolating that can be. Even our guide, Srdjan, was Serbian and while most spoke varying levels of English, the natural default was understandably Serbian or some variation thereof. Other than my friend Milutin, I would know nobody. This was definitely me moving out of my comfort zone but enticed by the idea of writing text to accompany his photographs, I signed up.

IMG_8095 (800x600)It didn’t help that after a day’s touring, I worked most evenings. Such are the joys of freelancing. You take the work when you can get it because you never know when it will dry up. But as a result, I missed out on some of the camaraderie. And yet I was conscious of how irritating it can be to have to translate a joke for someone after the punchline has been delivered. During the day, Roeland’s wife Olivera, a woman of immeasurable patience, translated for us… which I’m sure was a royal pain in the proverbial  for her but she was unwavering.

The group is solid – they’ve been travelling together since 2002 and all have a scouting background. I met Milutin through scouts, too, and although we had that in common at least, no one knew me from Adam. And no one judged. If I wandered off from the group, no one batted an eyelid. If I chose to sit apart with my book, no one took offence. If I sat at a table on my own for dinner, no one commented. That’s what I love about the Balkans – this lack of judgment, this acceptance of life for what it is, of people for who they are.

IMG_8680 (800x600)The trip itself was exhausting. Breakfast at 6.30 most mornings, on the bus by 7.30 and then away for the day, stopping here, there, and yonder. Srdjan had mapped out a packed itinerary and included enough free time to wander cities like Jerusalem and Bethlehem, with the occasional choice thrown in for good measure: an hour at the beach or yet another church or monastery. Despite the full agenda, the early mornings, and the late nights, the good spirits never waned. Rakija is to the Balkans what air is to the rest of the world. To see a bottle of this spirit make its way down the bus before 8 in the morning and then reappear at various times during the day was nothing short of amazing. Who drinks that early? And yet it was never overdone – just a sip every so often to keep the bugs at bay. In the evenings, in Tiberius, I joined a few of the lads on the wall outside the hotel where we sat around before dinner having a beer, Milutin translating for me so that I didn’t miss out on what was being said. And it was there that I came appreciate, once again, that sense of humour that sets them apart as a nation – as self-deprecating as the Irish, and as deadpan in their delivery, their readiness to release their inner child is enviable. The laughter was constant and came from the heart.

IMG_8232 (800x701)I’ve long since enjoyed a love affair with the Balkans. Three of my favourite men in the world are Serbian. As a people, they rate highest on my scale of nation favourites. There’s something about their attitude to life, their ability to enjoy the moment, their constant good humour, and their readiness to engage in informed discussions on just about anything that makes them unique. Everyone has a story – one that involves resilience, humility, and an insight into what’s important in life (family and friends) that leave most other nations standing still in their wake.

IMG_7750 (800x600)Age does not limit them. It doesn’t seem to matter at all. They might have respectable day jobs with multinationals or international organisations, jobs that are demanding in so many ways, yet they wear this responsibility lightly, recognising that while it is important, work is not the be all and end all of life. Friends and family come first and foremost.

I fell into conversation with one of the older lads who told me of a trip he’d made to London when he was 17. At immigration, he was asked if he had enough money to keep himself for two months. Standing tall, he replied: I am visiting a Serbian family; I have no need for money. I’ve witnessed this hospitality on more than one occasion and it still warms the cockles of my heart.

What can I say? In a week that saw a host of illusions being shattered, I am grateful that at least one conviction has remained intact. I’m still deeply in love with the Balkans and its peoples.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52

Spread the (Balkan) love

To say Geneva is expensive is a little like saying that Sultan Kösen is tall. It’s just a hair’s breadth from being a massive understatement. Having paid 34 CHF (about €28) for four very ordinary sandwiches, I was still suffering from shock three hours later. To pay €200 per night for a very, very, very ordinary hotel room (ordinary to the point of being that same hair’s breadth from a hostel dorm room) didn’t hurt as much, as I wasn’t picking up the bill.

Reluctant to throw myself at the mercy of travel advisors, tourist advertisments or concierge recommendations when it came to have dinner last night, I was happy enough to be guided by some Serbian friends who like their food. When it comes to networking while living abroad, the Irish have nothing on those who hail from the Balkans – it seems as if everyone knows someone who knows someone and this particular someone owns/manages/runs La Sixieme Heure  at No. 6 Place des Philosophes close to the Plainpalais (Tram No. 15 from the station) in Geneva.

Once we’d made ourselves known (i.e. as having been sent by the boys), what was already promising to be a good experience took a turn for the sublime. The place itself is furnished with a random selection of mismatched chairs and tables and sofas that transport you to just about anywhere you’d like to be. There’s plenty of room between tables so no eavesdropping to distract from the food. The menus, printed on simple, white sheets of A4 were written in French (of which I have enough to spot an artichoke from 10 yards out). I opted for tagliatelle with artichokes, sunblushed tomatoes and mushrooms topped with oodles of freshly shaved parmesan while PC indulged his taste for truffles and chanced an interesting combination of feta cheese, truffle oil and ruccola with his tagliatelle. The ‘on-the-house’ New Year’s aperitifs of white wine with apricot kirsch led nicely into a Swiss Sauvingnon Blanc for me and a Rioja for himself.

Having already talked at length about replacing ‘want’ with ‘need’ in my life’s vocabulary, I couldn’t justify ordering the warm chocolate tarte so I declined… for both of us – a decision which was promptly ignored by our man from the Balkans. And was I glad. It was just about as ‘to-die-for’ as he is! Add a couple of digestifs and some coffee to the mix and there was little change from 100 CHF (€85 / $120).

It’s been a long time since I shelled out €50 for a main course and some wine and it’s been equally long since I’ve enjoyed a meal as much. I’ve had good food with good company in good settings before – and this was no exception. But what made it so different and so special was that Balkan hospitality. I know I’ve written about  the restaurants and the music in Belgrade and about Serbs and their passion for life and for living and yet I still can’t quite put my finger on where that passion comes from and why it’s so tangible. Just knowing someone who knows someone seems enough to unlock the door to a hospitable world where the Irish céad míle fáilte and the Latino mi casa, su casa combine to create an exquisite sense of welcome that makes you forget to go home.

If you find yourself at a loose end in Geneva and are in need of some soul-warming sustenance that will restore your faith in human nature, you could do a lot worse than drop by La Sixieme Heure. In fact, I’d recommend that you go out of your way to drop by…

My Balkan affair

I think I’m in love with the idea of being in love. I’ve always been a one-man woman. I first realised this when I was 12 and had to make a choice between Pete Duel and Ben Murphy, the stars of that all-time-great TV show, Alias Smith and Jones. I just didn’t have it in me to fancy them both. It was tough. Now, some years later, I still can’t fancy two blokes at the same time. I’m trying, honestly, but it’s tough, and very limiting. I’m getting better with cities and countries, though. The more I travel, the more I realise that I simply can’t be in love with one place… I have to  broaden my scope a little and allow myself some leeway. It’s possible to love different countries for different reasons and, trollop that I am, I don’t feel the slightest remorse about embarking on my Balkan affair.

I met my neighbour in the lift on Easter Saturday, as I was heading to the train station. She asked me where I was going. I said Serbia. She asked where. I said Subotica. She said, rather dismissively, ah, Szabadka…that’s still Hungary! And for many years it was and for many people it still is.  Since the 2002 censuses in Romania and Serbia, Subotica has become the largest city outside Hungary in which Hungarians are the largest ethnic group, although they have only a relative majority 34.99%. But oh my, what a difference.

The Hungarian borderguards come on board at Kelebia. Some twenty minutes later, there’s the Serbian border check,  about 100 yards from the train station in Subotica. It takes a while…up to an hour to clear them both.  And there’s no point in hurrying or getting exasperated because it’s not just about crossing a border, it’s about completely shifting your mindset.  Maybe it was because it was the Easter weekend. Maybe it was because the sun was shining. Maybe it was because everyone uses ‘Ciao’ rather than ‘Szia’ but you know immediately you’re in another country and it’s nothing got to do with the language or the currency. You can feel it. It’s in the air. You’re in the Balkans.

Subotica is a city. Once the second-largest in Hungary, it’s now the fifth largest in Serbia. And it’s chock full of Art Nouveau buildings. It’s beautiful. Families stroll the streets. People sit at outdoor tables drinking what looks like orange juice and coffee. The beer is good, cold and cheap. The service is excellent. People are friendly. They’re happy. They’re chilled out. They’re helpful. And they know how to laugh. Deep, belly laughs that spill over and are infectious. They’re fashionable, too. While Puma and Adidas seem to sell as well as they do in Dublin, in Subotica they wear their tracksuits with style. Colourful, coordinated, and, dare I say it, almost cool!  Those not in their leisure gear look as if they’ve stepped off the catwalk in Milan. Male or female, it doesn’t matter. There’s a certain panache that no amount of money can buy and this city has it!It took us a while to figure out how to order a tejes kavé though. It translates into a Nes coffee, often listed on the menu as Nescafé. I wonder if any trademark guys ever come here on holiday?

Although the hotel we stayed in, Hotel Gloria, deserves every one of its four stars, you have to wonder who stays there. I couldn’t find a single postcard on sale and the currency exchange booths seem to cater more for locals crossing over and back than for tourists. Perhaps people simply don’t get off the train…they leave Budapest and go straight through to Belgrade. Or perhaps, the Suboticans respect those brave enough to disembark and that’s why we were treated so well. How about this for a conspiracy theory:  they don’t want tourists! So the view of the outskirts is deliberately bleak. It’s been dressed up to look like a rubbish tip. The kids have a ball spreading the litter about, the houses are deliberately rundown and the gardens purposefully overgrown. If you hadn’t planned on stopping, nothing you see would entice you get off the train.  And if you fell for this trick of theirs, then you’d miss something glorious.

Many of the buildings are being or have been restored. More are in desperate need of some care and attention. The trees lining the streets create weird and wonderful shadows. It’s other-worldly. Even the graffiti is different – it’s almost reflective. We had great plans, IM and me, to find the house where Kosztolányi Deszo was born abut no-one seemed to know where it was. There is very little signage to show what anything is and what’s there seems very personal, as if it’s to remind the locals of what has happened rather than to educate the foreigners. To my shame, I know so very little about what happened here not so long ago; it came as such a shock to see such recent dates on war memorials.  But where other countries seem to want to forget, Subotica is very much about remembering. There’s  a huge fundraising effort ongoing to restore the synagogue and it’s already showing some of that old spectacular greatness. The plaque in the garden reads: In memory of 4000 Jewish citizen with whom we lived and built Subotica. They perished in the fascist death camps during the World War II. We visited many churches. You know of course that every time you visit a church for the first time, you get three wishes? And interestingly, it was outside the Orthodox church that the Roma children had gathered, hands outstretched, palms upwards. With muttered ‘I’m not an ATM’ or ‘Do I look like a bank’ the people gave their coins. It made me sad to think that from such a young age, these kids are being taught to expect handouts. Their mothers waited outside the church while the men hovered at the corner, keeping a manly eye on things. I wondered briefly why I hadn’t see them in such numbers outside the Catholic churches… and if that’s indicative of anything or nothing at all.

I don’t know many Serbs but the ones I do know are  imbued with a passion for life and for living. They have a presence about them. They’ve lived through things I will never fully comprehend and despite this, and perhaps because of it, they have an appreciation for living in the now. They understand the transiency of time. No matter their size, their strength, both physcial and mental, is tangible.  One day soon I will make it to Belgrade and then further afield, perhaps to Croatia, Kosovo,  Bosnia or Montenegro. They say you know you’re really in the Balkans when all you can find is Turkish coffee. I am glad I didn’t just plunge in…I quite enjoyed my Nescafé.