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Back in the Balkans

Get the phone call – revise the route – hop on a train – and enjoy the best of Serbian hospitality. Just another Sunday in my world. I’d planned to go to Belgrade anyway, so this diversion wasn’t too much out of my way.

12.35 arrive in Subotica 12.50. Find my pick-up – friends of a friend whom I’ve never met before.13.10 stop at the goat lady to buy some cheese.

The sprightly 63-year-old retired locksmith has about 40 goats and lives in a house she built herself. Her account of a run-in with the local authorities over the rights to the grass at the airport was so animated that I didn’t need to understand Serbian to get her drift and be suitably amazed and entertained. I can only home that I’m in as fine a fettle when I get to her age. 14.00 arrive at  Palić to the No. 36 to meet my friend and the rest of the crew and to sample some grapefruit beer (a first for me). 15:15 depart for Paprika čarda, a restaurant on the shore of Palić lake.

At some stage, we passed the Olympic tower. I’ve been to Palić before but hadn’t realised the story behind it.  In the late nineteenth century,  before Pierre de Coubertin’s modern Olympic Games took full flight, local entrepreneur Lajos Vermes organised sports competitions in Palić, gathering the best athletes from Central Europe. Who’d have thought it, eh?

Lunch had been ordered ahead of time as our party had now grown to nine. The most fluent in non-native speaker of English by far was 12-year-old Makarije, who wowed me with his plans to enter the world of stem cell research as soon as he turned university age. When I asked where he had learned his English – he shrugged nonchalantly and said:  Television. Perhaps it’s time I invest in one!

Our menu was simple: fish and chips to start with, followed by fish soup. A little arse-about-face, I thought… but when in Serbia do as the Serbs do. And I was starving. Mention fish and chips and I am transported to an Irish chipper  and greasy chips with cod in batter or perhaps to the more refined Cajun-style offer now available in Budapest, so I wasn’t expecting the communal platter of breaded whitebait. As we picked our way through the mouthfuls of fish, conversation flitted from Hungarian and Serbian politics to the joys (or lack thereof) of school inspection systems, from what we could expect later on the Tisza to the neutrality of the Press. We covered sailing in Montenegro, the cyclical nature of life, nationalism, citizen engagement and the sublime joy of food, wine, and travel. The patience of those present with my lack of Serbian and their willingness to involve me in the conversation was lovely. My Balkan affair was renewed and I found myself wondering what it would be like to live by a lake.

The fish soup was sweet and tasty and served with noodles. Not a bone in sight.  Chunks of fresh, fleshy fish floated in good company with balls of fish eggs. I had not one, but two helpings, and had I had more time and notches in my belt, I could willingly have gone back for more. Another first for me as fish soup isn’t high on my list of culinary delights.

The view from the table was calm and serene. The weather was a little hot but the crisp local white wine mixed with gentle splashings of soda water made it easier to assimilate. It was a gorgeous afternoon. As we readied ourselves for the evening and our visit  to the Tisza River to watch the mayflies mating, I was reminded once again of how travel has broadened my horizons and how casual conversations and serendipitous introductions can herald the beginning of lasting friendships. Thanks, MM.

Live ducklings and rosary beads

I’m a great fan of markets. I love sorting through other people’s junk in search of a piece of history or something that I can convince myself I simply cannot live without. I like to see other people’s creativity and inventiveness. And I’m fascinated by fresh fruit and veg. (On reflection, perhaps I need to get a life…my own life!) Down in Ráckeve this weekend, the town was buzzing around the riverside market that happens twice a week – Wednesday and Saturdays. Most markets this side of the world have a certain sameness – fruit, veg, preserves, Chinese or Turkish tat, second-hand clothes from the UK and the occasional original painting or handicraft. I’d never come across baby ducks or live chicks before.

Ráckeve ducklings

Ráckeve marketPerhaps though, being on the banks of the Danube makes this market seem a little less tat-like and a little more real. It’s a working market. I was the only tourist in sight – if I don’t count the five German lads who had come to look at the watermill. The regulars had their baskets out and were doing their bi-weekly shop. Everyone seemed to know everyone (not surprising perhaps in a town of 9000 people). The feel of the place was unlike the busier markets I’ve been to in Budapest (probably the one that comes closest is the one in Hyunadi tér).

Ráckeve market

Within the shadow of the Calvinist church, and nestled between a cheese stall and one selling ham hocks, was this one selling rosary beads. Not the old-fashioned beads that the old man in Ecseri sells – the ones that come with a story, a price, and a hook that had once clipped on to the belt of a brown-robed monk. These were new. New plastic for new Catholics? I’ve seen similar in pilgrimage sites – and that’s expected. Somehow, though, the sight of them here, in Ráckeve’s Saturday market, was a little surreal.

Ráckeve StorkRáckeve riversideRáckeve waterside

 

RáckeveRáckeve - butcher's house

But then, much about the town has that other-worldly quality. The sheer abundance of kerbside flowers makes it different and gives it a parochial feel. The detail in the town is interesting. The flower bed that on closer inspection shows a map of pre-Trianon Hungary. The red-and-white striped flag that is not that flown by Jobbik but just happens to be the colours of the town.The house that used to belong to the village butcher, the one with a pig’s head above each window. The statue of the dancing Huszar and his lady. The stork guarding its chicks, reigning over the town in princely fashion. The myriad community notice boards shaped like the prow of a boat. It’s a fisherman’s paradise. A word of warning though – their interpretation of pizza is a little unusual. Best opt for the fish soup unless you’re feeling particularly adventurous.