Life During Wartime--The Balkans, 1994
Pages from the Journal: Serbia, Macedonia, Albania
Thursday October 20, 1994
On the train, Budapest, Hungary to Belgrade, Serbia
I knew I wasn’t going to sleep well. If I know I must get up very early to catch a train, I think about it all night and can’t sleep. As it is, I got to the station at 6am, just 25 minutes before departure. I am sweating to death in this compartment. They crank the heat on Hungarian trains like nobody’s business. I have the beginnings of a sore throat, plus an occasional slight pang where my next operation will be. Maybe it’s in my head. I do have an old man in my compartment who, unsolicited, is presently ranting at me about Hungary’s past empire, how Belgrade was once Hungarian and so on. Hungarians never tire of this subject. Fortunately, Grandpa Psycho got off before we got to the border.
A conductor went around passing a leaflet telling people to use common sense so they won’t be robbed. I specifically chose this train over the midnight one for that reason. Compartments get gassed and everyone is relieved of all their possessions. It had become so bad that police now regularly travel on that train.
I walked the length of the train to seek out other travelers like me, but spotted none. I did meet a girl from Belgrade, but I think I’ve already scared her with my many questions. Or maybe it’s my hair. Or my clothes. I’m usually very tolerant of my ragged, worn appearance, but for once I really hate my clothes. They’re fading, plain, ill fitting, and slowly disintegrating.
This train is really empty as we approach the border. Maybe Grandpa Psycho was right in disembarking. He’s probably settled into some homemade hazi kolbasz by now, his wife fawning over him.
I changed money with the conductor, just 10 German marks. I wanted a little to see what the currency looks like. He was very boisterous with me, so loud that the rest of the car could hear him negotiating.
I’m joined in the compartment by a young guy with bad teeth who speaks no English. I have managed to discern that he believes the US and Serbia have poor relations. He clearly wants to talk with me but has accepted that we can’t communicate. In this case, it’s a good thing.
In Novi Sad, lots of soldiers got on the train, one a brutal hulk of a man who looked like he had seen a lot of combat. He sized me up as I melted into the corner, trying to look less American. The time passed and it wasn’t a big deal.
It’s great weather now. It is good to go south. I hope the people will be as welcoming as the weather.
Thursday October 20, 1994
Is it Yugoslavia? Is it Serbia? I call it Serbia. Belgrade is known as Beograd here, which means “White City”. I’m not having a nice time, though much of it is self-inflicted.
I went straight to the American embassy to register my passport, which I regard as a safety measure should something happen to me. (In Istanbul I did this. Subsequently, I had my passport stolen and it still took several days to get a new one, so maybe it doesn’t matter.) The cheery, peppy young consular dude didn’t know what to do with me.
“Why did you come here (to Serbia)?”
I said I just wanted to have a look around. I was on my way to Macedonia and Albania, I explained, but that only made it worse.
“Albania?!” he said with rising alarm. “Why do you want to go there?”
I’ve heard this reaction innumerable times ever since I began disclosing my plans, but to hear it from a usually poker-faced government employee made me queasy. I asked for help with Belgrade accommodation information I knew he couldn’t provide, even asking if I could sleep on his floor at home. All he said was—and very ominously, much more than I wanted to hear—that I should be very careful. He said “very careful” so slow it unnerved me.
“Do not many tourists come through here?” I asked.
“You’re the first one,” he said, and then another employee behind him chimed in, “The first one!”
I don’t know if I’ve ever been to a country under United Nations sanctions. Serbia is still one of the great pariah nations of the world. What a lot of people don’t realize is that there’s never been fighting in Serbia during this whole conflict. It’s always been in Croatia or Bosnia. At this time some countries are unilaterally lifting their sanctions. Sanctions are a big joke, truth be told. There’s always a black market with other countries willing to do business. Sanctions only hurt those without connections.
Belgrade is on the Danube River. I haven't had a good look at it yet, but a Yugoslav told me that since the embargo has cut river barge traffic, the Danube is now blue again. It’s a lively, bustling town. Only two things come to mind that something is awry. One is that every airline office is closed and the other is that gas is sold from cars parked on street corners. They sit with siphons and charge 3DM a liter ($8 a gallon!) for you to suck up some gas.
The distant youth hostel never answered their phone and otherwise the cheapest place to stay was quite expensive. The buses and trams looked like India they were so packed. I didn’t relish having to use them. The tourist information office lady wouldn’t go for my suggestion that I sleep on her floor, but the idea amused her.
“Do you have a jealous husband?”
“I’m not married.”
“My name is Kent.”
As it is, after a lot of agonizing, I’m taking the overnight train to Skopje, a trip I am really dreading. It should be miserable in the extreme. I am not in the greatest mood. In the chill of the night I am cold, tired, full of the aforementioned dread, my health is slipping, and this train will be horrible. Horrible! I’m probably sleeping in a couchette with 27 gypsies in my compartment. Woe is me. This trip will be the utter manifestation of hell. I’ve asked everyone and anyone that spoke English if it was safe to take the night train, and in several cases I could see that tourist diplomacy was the norm. The best response was a train station dude who scoffed, “No,” but then sort of nervously laughed and wiggled his hand from side to side, signifying, “Well, maybe.”
It’s about 9pm. The train should leave soon. My worst fears I thought were going to come true when I arrived at the station. Great crowds of people gathered with mountains of luggage and boxes, all of them haggard, salt-of-the-earth types looking as if they’ve seen the end of the road, and in the middle of it all, a throng of gypsy musicians. Horns. Drums. An accordion. Singing. It sounded really nice, actually, but thankfully, they occupy a different carriage. Only three people are in the entire couchette carriage and it is locked off from the other carriages. I like that. It looks good. I’ll get sheets, I’m told, and there’s an inside lock. And my compartment mate is a nice guy that I have absolutely no qualms about. Safety is my biggest worry on overnight trains. Lack of sleep is a near-given, but the times I do doze off, I’m prey. I’ve heard enough stories of people getting burgled when they’re sleeping on top of their things and everything’s elaborately locked and tied and on and on and on.
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