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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.