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Here today, gone tomorrow

I’ve been giving a lot of thought this week to the transiency of life. I’ve been paying more attention than usual to what I do each day. And I’ve even expanded my limited Hungarian vocabulary to include the phrase arany életem van (my life is golden).

Obrenovac, 40 kilometers west of Belgrade

Obrenovac, 40 kilometers west of Belgrade          (c) www.balkaneu.com

As I write, I’m in Belgrade. The floods that are ravaging towns on the banks of the River Sava in Serbia have killed and maimed, and made thousands homeless. Sure, someone said that heavy rains were expected but no one thought for a minute that the rains would be heavy enough to knock their houses and change their lives forever. The average rainfall for five months fell in just two days. From one day to the next, people have gone from having everything to having nothing. They’ve salvaged what they could and are now taking refuge in centres in Belgrade, dependent totally on the good will of others.

(c) www.balkaneu.com

(c) www.balkaneu.com

An appeal on Friday by the Prime Minister for people to turn out and help fill sandbags in an attempt to hold the banks saw more than 12 000 people show up. The streets of the city ring out with music played by groups of young musicians, all collecting money to help those displaced by the deluge. Everyone is talking about what has happened and how they can help. There is a palpable awareness that this, too, could have happened to them. The nation is responding en masse and it’s gratifying to see. And yet the common refrain I hear gives voice to the hope that this solidarity, this willingness to engage, to help, will continue long after the waters subside.

(c) reuters.com

(c) reuters.com

For me it has underscored the transiency of life – and the need to appreciate what I have because tomorrow, who knows; it might all be taken from me. Arany életem van most (my life is golden now).

Earlier in the week, I finally watched Adrian Brody’s The Pianist – a harrowing tale of Jews in Warsaw during the Second World War. I watched how they foraged for food salvaging every morsel. And then I noticed how I threw away the top of my tomato. I saw how I didn’t fully empty my tub of hummus before casting it aside. The peel of my avocado still had a lot of flesh on it. Back in 1944, these remnants would have made a feast for someone. Today, in 2014, the same applies.

I buy vegetables with every intention of cooking them and then I get invited to dinner. I get fed but the vegetables go to waste. I buy meats and cheeses that I intend eating but never quite get around to. I buy spices and herbs required by a recipe for a dish I only make once – and then they expire. A semi-annual clear-out of my kitchen presses is depressing as I throw out jar after jar of condiments have have passed their use-by date. And until this week, I did all of this without thought.

Neither world hunger nor natural disasters directly impinge on my life. I can sympathise with those affected but I can’t pretend for a minute to know what either are really like. I can send money to the Red Cross to help the flood victims. I can send money to aid agencies to help those who are starving. And while money helps – as prayers do – there are lessons to be learned, too. Better appreciate what I have. Eliminate wanton waste. Share willingly.

First published in the Budapest Times 23 May 2014

Security threat or simple inanity?

Many years ago, in a previous lifetime, I had arranged to meet some friends in a bar in Alaska to play darts. I showed up to find them all hanging around outside. Apparently a customer who had had too much to drink (a customer who also had a Northern Irish accent), had made some obscure threat involving explosions and ashtrays. The building was evacuated and the cops were called. It was a bomb scare of sorts in a small town at the edge 1990s America.

The first thing that struck me was my friends’ complacency. I pointed out that if there was a bomb and it did go off, the door to the pub wouldn’t be much protection. I suggested moving across the street, preferably behind some parked cars. It all came to nothing in the end but the inane idea that by simply removing yourself from the premises you’d not be affected by the blast stayed with me.

Earlier this week, I landed in Budapest airport. I came through customs into the arrival hall at Terminal 2B. There were police everywhere, shepherding those waiting to one side, clearing a pathway between me and the door. Had I any illusions about my own importance, I might have been flattered. Instead I simply assumed that someone who was important in the Hungarian grand scheme of things was coming behind me.

I went outside to see more of the same. People were being corralled to the right when I wanted to go left to catch the 200E bus. I could see people waiting at the bus stop so I knew I had time. But progress was halted by two policemen who told me I couldn’t go there. I couldn’t walk the 40 metres to the bus stop because the area had to be cleared. There was a security alert.

I ran through a mental list of security threats. If it were a dangerous criminal, surely they would be handcuffed and escorted. If it were a pending arrest, the arrestee would hardly be armed, having navigated airport security before take-off. If it were a bomb, surely the whole area would be evacuated. Then I remembered that night in Alaska.

But no. These were trained policemen, not dart players on a night out. Surely they’d have more cop than that (pun intended). The bus was idling and I was anxious. I’d already had an unscheduled night’s stopover in Belgrade and I wanted to get home. I argued some more, pointing at the bus and the people and the empty 40 metres that separated us. And then they caved.

They said that if I crossed the road, and walked down the pathway on the opposite side, I could get to the bus. That would put three car widths between me and whatever security threat I was being guarded against. I didn’t need a gilt-edged invitation. I ran. I made the bus. And then I spent the entire journey to Kobanya Kispest marvelling at the folly of human nature.

Today I read that Russian intelligence agents are increasingly active in Hungary, because of what’s going on in Ukraine. Apparently they’re working in ‘semi-secret and clandestine operations’. This comes as no great surprise really. Hungary is the EU’s last post before hitting the Ukraine border and is now a buffer zone where Eastern and Western powers are attempting to get to know each other a little better.

And then I remembered … a flight from Moscow had landed just before mine. But then a flight from Ireland had landed just after. I wondered which one posed the bigger threat.

First published in the Budapest Times 16 May 2104

2014 Grateful 34

Apparently there was a storm in Budapest tonight. A big storm. A storm so big that the plane I was on from Belgrade had to turn back. Weather happens.

In Belgrade, we had a choice. Wait until 10.3opm tonight and catch a bus for a 5-hour trip (minimum) to Budapest Airport. Or stay overnight and catch the evening flight back to Budapest tomorrow evening. Or be rescheduled to anywhere else we wanted to fly  – tomorrow.

cancWe had a choice. A choice. And to hear some of my fellow passengers go on, you’d swear that choice was between having teeth or toenails pulled. Perhaps I was mellower than usual because I was so tired. In Skopje last night, I lost my apartment key and couldn’t get old of the booking agent so I had to check into a youth hostel across from an outdoor concert that went on until 3am. I’d just gotten to sleep when the agent called me back putting paid to any more sleep that morning. So I was tired.

A sleepless me can go one of two ways – I can be obnoxiously cranky or mellow to the point of it seeming brownie-induced. Tonight I was mellow. So when Mr Austria started mouthing off at the airline official and calling her a liar and asking her if she had a pilot’s licence, I had to interject and point out that no matter how talented the girl was, even she couldn’t make storms disappear. Get a grip mate; it’s not her fault.

Then Miss America started demanding a full refund and saying that her dad would take care of these morons (the pilots) as she’d seen the airspace over Budapest and it wasn’t as if it was San Francisco – I mean, what could the plane smack in to? Duh. She ended up renting a car to drive back to BP. Patience dear.

Then others stepped forth with their plans and their meetings and their needs, demanding satisfaction. We had three choices …. what part of that didn’t they get?

It’s been a long week. A good week. A week that didn’t exactly go to plan. And at the end of it all, I’m so very grateful that I was too tired to get worked up about cancelled flights and unscheduled changes. I’m grateful, too, for the realisation that I always have a choice, even if it’s simply choosing an attitude. Of course, it helps that I can work from the office here in Belgrade tomorrow so all that changes with my day is where I’ll have breakfast 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

The grass on the other side

One of the first things that struck me about Oslo was the amount of green in the city. There are parks everywhere. And those parks are full of people. Reading, chatting, strolling, running, walking dogs, playing ball. It took me back ever so briefly to my first glimpse of the Kalemegdan fortress in Belgrade.

IMG_6587 (800x600)Yet perhaps what is most striking about these parks is how many of them are cemeteries. The gravestones have a sense of orderly chaos about them. There are no straight lines, no landscape designs, no uniformity. And yet each one is pristine and well-tended oozing a sense of serenity that doesn’t just come from chirping birds and manicured lawns.

IMG_6590 (800x588)Trees grow from graves. Small bushes abound. Flowers are planted rather than vased or bottled. All are real.

We think of cemeteries in the abstract, as final resting places, yet for those of us who believe in an afterlife, in a chance to come back and have another stab at living a human life, that resting place is simply for our bones. The rest of us has travelled further.

I sat through the first series of New Tricks last week, glued to my laptop, fascinated by one character who sits and talks to his wife Mary who, it would appear, is buried his back yard, her simple marker surrounded by lights that set off the garden seat on which he sits, each night, with his whiskey, talking over his day. She died in a hit and run. He doesn’t know who was responsible. And dead though she might be, he still needs her to make sense of what’s going on in his head. He rants and raves at her, imploring her to help him out, to give him a sign that she’s listening.

IMG_6600 (800x693)I was reminded of the cemeteries I visited in Oslo. They, too, have their garden seats but unlike the Jewish cemetery here in Budapest, the plots are well tended. Every single one of them. Without exception. People haven’t forgotten. Perhaps it’s a municipal effort. Perhaps it’s not left to the families of those who have passed. Perhaps it’s a community effort. I don’t know. My Norwegian is worse than my Hungarian.

IMG_6589 (800x600)For me, how people treat their children, their aged, and their dead speaks volumes about their humanity. Oslo has impressed me on so many levels that perhaps I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am. But this degree of year-round care, from wherever it comes from, was like a breath of fresh air.

Grateful 28

Yuk. Raw fish! How could you? Back in the days when I was living in Valdez, Alaska, I would fly to Anchorage for meetings and dental appointments. I’d fly up in the morning, rent a car, and fly back that evening. Inevitably, I’d have a shopping list that included tuna fish – to make sushi. One of my first dates with TW,  the man with an insatiable appetite for sushi, was to a chinese restaurant in Valdez that also did…sushi. I still remember my reaction. Yuk. Raw fish! How could you?As for the perfumed ginger and the gullet-wrenching wasabi sauce…

When I worked with AP in London, she would always eat sushi before a flight. And once, again in London, I found myself with a Polish couple making sushi for a dinner party. I didn’t stay to eat. I’ve never understood the fascination with it.

Yet the art of sushi (and I now believe it is an art) dates back to the 7th century, when in Southeast Asia, pickling was discovered and passed on to the Japanese. In a nutshell: pickling=packing fish with rice. As the fish fermented the rice produced a lactic acid which in turn caused the pickling of the pressed fish. Nare-Sushi is 1300 years old and refers to the finished edible product resulting from this early method.

It found a new popularity in the States in the 1970s and became a regular feature in restaurants world-wide. The most common forms are: Nigiri sushi (hand shaped sushi), Oshi-sushi (pressed sushi), Maki-Sushi (rolled sushi) and Chirashi-sushi (scattered sushi).

Last time I was in Malta, I noticed that there are now three restaurants within walking distance of my hotel offering sushi on the menu. So I went to the first – the one that has been there the longest. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing and asked the girl behind me in the queue to choose for me. She did. And I stopped by for a takeaway every night that week.

In addition to really enjoying it, I also convinced myself that it was low-fat and healthy and that the weight would simple drop off me. I was wrong there. But as food goes, it is good for you. There are, of course, health risks and there is also a whole etiquette attached to eating sushi. I reckon that, like wine, some aficionados can be awful bores. Me? I simply know what I like.

I spent the last week in Belgrade where it got up to 40 degrees in the shade. I went back to visit the Supermarket and had a great night out with the ladies… oiled by Aperol spritzers and sated by sushi.

On reflection, this week I’m grateful that life is still throwing up new experiences; that I still haven’t done ‘everything’; and that my horizons are continually expanding. I have a good life, I know some great people, and while I might have come to the whole sushi experience rather late in life, I know there are many more new experiences out there just waiting to be savoured.

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

Ona a ne neka druga (Her and no other)

Cocktail hour in Belgrade. I’m chatting to a rather charming and very gallant gentleman who definitely has noble blood running through his veins. He tells me that he’s heard I have a peculiar fascination with cemeteries and that my fascination fascinates him. He then asks the question I have never been able to answer. Why?

‘Is it the architecture?’ he asks. I think for a while. And agree. Partly. The tombstones definitely tell a story. But strangely, what sits on top of a grave tells more about what those left behind think of the person that of what the person themselves might have had to say.

‘Perhaps it’s the history,’  he suggests. I think some more. And agree. Partly. Seeing someone’s photo, encased behind glass on their headstone, is a little strange. When the pictures are period photos, obviously not taken shortly before their death, it’s even stranger. Do people choose the photo they want to used to remind others of who they were? I know that no matter how old I get, I will always be 37 in my head and even in my heart. My body may age and the lines across my face may tell the stories of who I am, but in myself, I’ll always be 37. Perhaps I should look back for a photo of me taken then and slip that into the envelope that’s to be opened upon my death.

‘Or maybe it’s the sacredness?’ I think a while and then nod. I agree. Partly. Cemeteries for me are solemn places, bathed in shadows and quiet murmurings. (I’ve read Christopher Moore’s The stupidest angel, so I know better than to visit them at night, when those quiet murmurings become a little more.) And yes, if I had to pick just one reason for my obsession, perhaps this comes closest to describing it. It might well be that I’m on some sort of shopping trip, treating these cemeteries as catalogues, as I subconsciously plan a monument to my own life. I seem to vacillate between burial and cremation. A bit of both doesn’t make much sense – it needs to be either/or. And if it’s cremation …mmm…perhaps that explains my relentless urge to travel, to find that spot where my ashes should be scattered.Then again, do I really need a reason? Do I have to be able to explain it or is it simply enough to go with the attraction and pay my respects to all those who  have gone before be, those who have made my world what it is today.
[Photos taken in Zemun cemetery, Serbia.]

The Hungarian reach

I know my history – or at least after three plus years of living in Budapest, I know more history than I used to know. Why, then, is it that I am constantly surprised to visit places outside Hungary and hear Hungarian, see monuments built by Hungarians, and see Hungarian names on tombstones? I’ve done the math. I’ve seen the maps. I know the score. And still it surprises me.

This latest one was in Zemun, which pre-1938, was a town outside Belgrade. Many residents still consider it a separate entity, but on paper, it’s now one of the 17 municipalities that make up the Serbian capital.

Dating back to the neolithic period, Zemun has quite a pedigree. The celts set up shop there in the 3rd century BC and the Romans came to call in the 1st century BC. In the 12th century, it was conquered by Hungary, and as was done in those days, it was given as a personal possession to Đurađ Branković, once the richest monarch in Europe. [Am already thinking about where I’d like for my birthday!]

As the southern-most town within Hungary’s empire (as it was back then), Zemun was favoured with one of the many monuments built to commemorate 1000 years of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Built in 1896, it’s a little worse for wear and the fortress on which it was built has all but disappeared. Postitioned on top of Gardos hill, it’s a great place to if you’re in search of a view. Standing up on the balcony, I could almost feel the presence of the ghost of the despot himself, as he surveyed all he used to be lord of.

The old town itself is hilly and cobblestoned, with narrow streets and small slate-roofed houses, so very different from the architecture in Belgrade. Looking down from above, it’s as if someone threw a bunch of buildings up in the air and let them settle where they landed. There are nearly as many churches as there are cafés and the place definitely has an other-world feel to it. It’s no wonder the locals still consider themselves set apart. If you’re in Belgrade, and fancy something different, it’s worth taking the time and dropping by for lunch.

Maybe one of these days, the world will stand still long enough for my geography to catch up.

A series of firsts

Belgrade. 10.23 pm. Minibus finally arrives. The journey back to Budapest begins. I’m tired, cranky, and still plagued by stomach cramps. It’s going to be a long night. My corner of the back seat is vacant. It’s cold. Not three minutes into the journey, the rather large chap in the other corner of the back seat starts talking to me… in Serbian. Intuitively I know that he’s apologising for the ring tone on his phone. It’s an annoying chirping that at first sounds like a bird, then grows into a frog and finally matures into a cricket. I know that’s what he’s saying, but I don’t have the Serbian to respond. I apologise in English. Then he apologises for assuming I was Serbian. The sms’s chirp every five minutes, punctuating the conversation that has  just begun.

It’s his first time on the minibus to Budapest. He’s going to Ferihegy airport. He’s 34. A former professional waterpolo player who is, by his own admission, sadly out of shape. He did his National Service in Montenegro so that he could stay in training. He is married – has been for eight years. He has two kids – 4 and 7.

He holds his passport in his hands somewhat reverently. It looks brand new. It is. This will be his first time on an airplane. He has never flown before. Other than Montenegro, he has never been outside Serbia. He talks of Serbians in the third person plural as if he isn’t one. Although he has lived all his life in Belgrade, he says he never really felt as if he belonged and this feeling has been getting stronger and stonger recently. He doesn’t say why. I don’t ask.

This is the first opportunity he has had to get out of Serbia. It is time. He’s emigrating. To Canada. To work as a truck driver. He will have to study and take his driving HazMat test. It’s expensive and will take a few months.

This is the first time he has left his family. He doesn’t know when he will see them again. He already has a job lined up. He is leaving his family behind him and charting the way. I think that leaving them must be hard. He says that Balkan people are funny that way. At each others throats if together for too long and yet, just two days apart sees them madly in love – absence, he hopes, will make the heart grow fonder.

This is the first time he has spoken to real Irish person. He asks if I have heard the Orthodox Celts – a Serbian band who play traditional Irish music with some rock – He is worried that his English isn’t good enough. He learned it from TV. Apart from a couple of bad pronounciations, it’s better than a lot of native speakers I know. I tell him so. He is pleased. He asks if I know Canada. I say not really. Just the Yukon. He asks if he can have a good life, as a workingclass man – do the Canadians respect foreigners? I tell him that the Canadians I know do. Do I think Canada is a good place to go? I say yes. I think so. It’s avoided the financial crises that have plagued the rest of the world. It’s healthy. It’s a good country. He nods.

He is flying to Warsaw and then to Toronto and then to Edmonton. He could have flown to London and then direct to Edmonton but it was €500 dearer and he has to watch him money. He is 34. Leaving his family behind him. Leaving home for the first time in his life. Nervous. Sad. Anxious. Excited. The sms’s keep coming. He eventually falls asleep. He is woken several times by his phone – but then it quietens and I imagine his children finally going to sleep. Exhausted. Confused. Already asking when Daddy will be home.

I stay awake. I give silent thanks for the life I have and those who are in it.

My Balkan love affair deepens

In the capital city of a country that boasts an average wage of €386, I was gobsmacked to see the monetary reverence with which musicians are treated. Okay, I’m the first to acknowledge that tonight may have been far from typical so I checked and while tonight was indeed a little  fláithiúilach (generous) by any standards, it wasn’t that far removed from the norm when Serbians might drop up to €50 in tips for musicians.

But let me start from the start. Dinner. In  Tajna.  A little restaurant on  Svetogorska. ‘Little’ meaning about 20 tables. An exquisite menu – and that was the impression before I even opened it. Beribboned and bejewelled, this was no ordinary few sheets of A5 landscape. Before I’d even ordered, I was expecting better than usual. The wallpaper, too, spoke volumes for taste and discernment. On the feature wall, larger than life burgundy and cream lilies mixed with butterflies perched on greener than green blades of grass. The supporting palates pick up the burgundy and cream and the overall feel was like being at home. Just, to my mind, what every good restaurant should feel like. Forget the pretension. Give me down home and tasty any day of the week.

One portion of chicken stuffed with bacon, cheese, and olives served with grilled veg and potatoes; one portion of salmon carpaccio with salad; one portion of grilled gilthead (fish) with all the trimmings; two vegetable and mushroom (why the distinction?) risotto; followed by two plates of Belgian chocolates (to die for) and an apple pancake in white wine. Accompanied by half a dozen bottles of a very pleasant, if unpronounceable, Tamjanika white  wine and  a couple of Rakia to start. All rather lovely.

Our fellow diners ranged from a table of three 50-somethings bellying into the vino blanca; a couple of more sedate 40-somethings sipping casually on their red wine; two tables of ‘mature’ couples suitable bedecked in twinsets and pearls; a threesome with a long-bearded academic and his less-erudite-looking coupled friends; and a table of six, petite, 5’2″ Serbian young wans with their token long-haired male hippy male friend. Altogether a rather innocuous bunch out very much for a night of ‘selective’ enjoyment – more about themselves than the restaurant or the music.

And then the trio arrived . Yer man on guitar looked like a slimmer version of Keith Wood. So he was Bosnian. But I’d have given a month’s wages to say he was Irish. He acquitted himself on guitar as well as Wood has ever done on a rugby pitch. Yer man on accordion was… himself. And MH, if you’re reading in Darwin, I know you’ve been at the butt end of many an accordion joke, but you’d have loved him. He brought those keys to life. And yer woman…well, if Penelope Cruz looks half as well as she does when she hits 50, she’ll be laughing. They started off in Spanish. I had to ask what language because being as tone-deaf as I am, I knew only enough to know that it didn’t sound what I’d imagined Serbian to sound like in song. They worked the tables. Our trio next door acquitted themselves well. Imagine Auntie Mags and Uncle Séamus doing their party pieces. Not bad at all.

Then it moved to our table. Now, in fairness, I knew two our of our party reasonably well and two not at all. The two I knew, the inimitable duo JK and VR speak English. The two I didn’t know, don’t. But that ceased to matter. Jovo, the rather innocuous looking publisher in the corner got the nod. And started to sing.

Jovo Cvjetkovic moved to Belgrade from Croatia to study veterinary medicine. Four years into a cow’s innards, he opted for philosophy instead. A recognised scholar in Nietzsche and Kant, he is now a publisher in Belgrade (Albatross Publishing). I’d have to be forgiven in mistaking him for a local primary school teacher. White sleeveless jumper over a check shirt with the regimental one button undone, thick glasses and carefully cut grey hair, the man could stand in a room and no one would notice. Until he opened his mouth and sang.

Pavarotti can apparently reach 6 registers on the operatic scale. With training. My man Jovo can reach 7. Without. I’d heard tell from the duo that he was pretty amazing but that has to be the understatement of the year. Had I paid €200 for a ticket to sit and listen, I’d have felt I hadn’t paid enough. A room of about 30 people, in a little restaurant, just outside Belgrade city centre, played host to one of the most amazing musical evenings I have ever had the good fortune to be present at.

Now as usually happens when I’m in mixed company (and I’m not talking sexes here, but rather languages) I drift. Given my limited linguistic skills, I’m usually the one left studying the wallpaper as others converse. But I’d already done this (remember the butterflies and the blades of grass?). Instead, I focused on the tall, willowy woman at the table next to us who was smoking cigarettes as long as her legs. She was totally devoid of animation, sitting there bored out of what had to be an exceptionally large mind (a dimwit could have found something to entertain themselves at Tajna). And then Jovo started. It was like something passed over her and breathed life into her. The elongated limbs unfolded and she came to life. And the more he sang, the more animated she became. I’m not talking rock or pop or jazz but Italian arias, opera, and Serbian and Russian folk songs. I didn’t understand a word he was singing and I’m sure if I did, I’d have died and gone to heaven. But his voice. His passion. His soul. It was like nothing I’ve ever heard before.

His partner sat beside him, holding his hand, as if to anchor him. On the rare occasion she let go, he clutched the table himself as if stopping himself from soaring upwards. Such was the power of his voice. The bould VR was doing his damnedest and when Serbian folk songs were the order of the day, he did well. Very well. On any other evening, had he the floor to himself, he’d have played a blinder. And he would, no doubt, leave people in his wake simpering. But tonight, there was but one spotlight on the stage. And it belonged to Jovo.

Those of you who know me will know that I’m tone-deaf. It wasn’t the music I was hearing but the raw passion behind it. It wasn’t the melody I was feeling but the mood of the restaurant. It wasn’t the technical dexterity I was in awe of but the change he had wrought on all those present – me included.Conversation moved from patriotism to nationalism; from the Europe that might be to the Yugoslavia that was; from what nourishes the soul to what feeds the brain. And all the while Jovo sang.

I’m drinking nights and nights are drinking me:  just one simple lyric translated that gives an indication of what was being sung. The super cool young wans eventually succumbed and rose to their feet. Had you been made of ice, you’d have melted. Had you been riddled with pain, you’d have found solace. Had you been the most frigid spinster in Ireland, you’d have thawed at the flick of an eyelid. I swear, nothing I’ve ever heard has come close. And it wasn’t just Jovo. It was that magical meeting of minds – that wonderful junction where musicians jam. The chemistry, the feeling, the interpretation – where everyone happens to be on the same page at the same time. Sinatra turned in his grave, I’m sure, as Penelope sang a gypsy version of My Way. Had he been alive, he’d have had to tip his hat in recognition of a superior job.Furrowed brows, clenched hands, pursed lips – all the order of the day. At one stage I found myself wondering if they needed an audience at all. But then,who is music for – the singer or the sung to?

Main courses and desserts for five €50. Wine and such €60. Musical soul replenishing….priceless. My Balkan love affair continues. If this was a run-of-the-mill Friday evening, sign me up.

But as I said at the start – it wasn’t the food, or the music, or the vibes that moved me most. It was the generosity of those present. 1000 dinar notes (€10) were stuck in the guitar frets, in accordion pleats, in breast pockets … I couldn’t help but do a mental tally. Hundreds of euro. And when I asked why? A simple response: That’s how they make their living. And the silent but accepted second phrase: and that’s how I show that I appreciate what they do. Priceless indeed.

Golden hour in Belgrade

I remember as a child being confused by beauty and attractiveness. I’d stumbled upon the world of Mills and Boon while staying with an aunt one year, and all the female characters were either beautiful or attractive but nothing in the text explained the difference. So I asked my mother. She told me that when a woman is beautiful, people look at her and see that beauty. It’s obvious. When a woman is attractive, people look, and then look a second time, and a third time, because they know they’ve missed something. They are fascinated by what they see and yet can’t quite put their finger on what it is that is so appealing. For me, Budapest is beautiful; Belgrade is attractive.

Photographers talk of the golden hour – that last hour before sunset or that first of light in the morning – where photos take on a magic of their own. I’d just had a conversation in the office with NK and was determined to find that time – to see for myself what actually happened. So I took my camera and headed up to the Kalemegdan Fortress. Serbian author Momo Kapor (who died earlier this year) reckoned that viewed from the water, from where the Sava enters the Danube, Belgrade resembles a ship – and its stony prow – Kalemegdan Fortress – cuts the waves of these two rivers.

 

Where the Danube and the Sava meet

For centuries, Belgrade’s people lived inside the Fortress walls.   Legend has it that Attila the Hun’s grave lies under the Fortress where the two rivers meet.  The name Belgrade (or Beograd, in Serbian),  means a ‘white fortress’. Apparently,  Hungarian King, Béla I, gave the fortress to Serbia in the eleventh century as a wedding gift (his son married Serbian princess Jelena). Much of its history though is rooted in the Ottoman Empire. The name Kalemegdan derives from two Turkish words, kale (fortress) and meydan (battleground) (literally, ‘battlefield fortress’). With such a varied pedigree, it’s little wonder that it hosts the Belgrade Race Through History, an annual 6 km footrace; one way of highlighting the history and culture of the area.

Much of the Fortress is now a city park. And despite its size, it’s very homely – something I don’t get from Varos Liget in Budapest.  People walking dogs, reading, running, chatting, smoking, singing – almost every available bench taken. It’s like a massive, open-air community centre. I didn’t spot many tourists – most of those there seemed to be local: young and old alike, joking, laughing, each one enjoying that magical hour after work or study, before going home to whatever awaited them.

I still haven’t quite figured out what so intrigues me about Belgrade – but I’m sure it’ll be an interesting journey.