A Sense of Neighbourhood

Our favourite corner cafe for a coffee after shopping at the green market.

OK. I think what is happening here is a list of my favourite things about Belgrade. Walkability was definitely in the top 3, as was the sense of neighbourhood that we developed in a fairly short time.  When I look back at my time there, it is one of the things I miss the most.

Our street was a small, quiet one, just off the main boulevard in the city.  Close to the big Tasmajdan Park, it was only a 15 minute walk to the Serbian parliament, and a half an hour walk from the Danube river and the city’s main tourist attractions.  We were in the heart of the city; Yet, when I stepped outside it was relatively quiet.  A few steps around the corner, the roar of the traffic on Alexander Boulevard was deafening, but we were far enough back that the lights and noise never bothered us.  Sometimes in the early morning, you could hear the squeak of tram brakes or dogs barking but, although we were all piled on to of each other in a sea of apartment buildings, I rarely heard yelling or blaring TVs. 

The view from our back porch. Not particularly appealing at first glance, but I actually grew to see it as a community over time. And the apartments are much fancier inside than they look.  Clearly no one pays condo fees, as the exterior and grounds were crumbling.  But when you looked hard, you could see who did maintenance and who didn’t.

The parking situation on our narrow street was a mess. There was rarely a parking spot available, so people invented spaces by parking on the pavement or on corners, blocking the sidewalk for pedestrians.  The traffic wardens never seemed to be around at the right time.  Many a time, I cursed out parked vehicles, as I could barely navigated between them.

Our little street

The neighbourhood had lots of tiny, mom and pop type businesses.  Some were traditional and had been around for years, but many of the smaller units came and went in a very short period of time.  On our tiny street alone–in just two years–we gained and lost a delicatessen, a fresh pasta shop, a greengrocer, two hairdressers and a coffee shop that was a favourite stop for us.  Andrew, the owner, turned a tiny 10 square meter space into a welcoming, friendly local stop.  He doubled his seating capacity by renting the parking spot outside his shop and constructing a very pleasant seating platform outside.  It added charm to our street and helped keep him in business.  But a year later, the new mayor ran on a promise to increase parking spaces in the city and ceased renting them out to businesses.  So our street gained one parking space and lost our only coffee shop.  A poor trade in my opinion. I missed Andrew’s stories and how he would introduce local residents to me.  Through him and my wonderful hairdresser, Jelena, I got to know my neighbours and they seemed to like chatting and practicing their English with me.  In return, I practiced my basic Serbian on older shopkeepers, who knew only Russian as a second language.  It was the first time I was out of an expat bubble and in a safe place where I could felt part of the community.  I really miss that.



Out and About in the City

Belgrade ParksBelgrade is essentially a very walkable city, and that’s probably the thing I was most excited about when we moved there.  Sidewalks, pedestrian crosswalks, parks, underpasses and pedestrianized shopping areas, all helped make Belgrade a city that doesn’t place the car before the humble walker.  Its sometimes not the most beautiful of cities, but the city planners always seem to make a place for people to walk, talk and meet with nature.

Our prior home cities were terrible for pedestrians: crazy drivers, unsafe lights, snatch and grab opportunists on motorbikes,  wild dogs, professional pickpockets, giant potholes, missing or unsafe paving…we’ve had it all! Belgrade offered the opportunity to aimlessly wander around and just blend in.  Aside from using general commonsense and situational awareness, it didn’t take constant vigilance like other places I have lived, and I could look around me, not always just over my shoulder.

But, it took a while to find an exercise routine here.  I tried several gyms and dance classes and didn’t like any of them.  Too much techno-beat “music” and yelling!  The gyms were full of sweaty, muscled males and the yoga classes were all in Serbian.  Then I discovered a pilates reformer studio, where the ladies tolerated my terrible Serbian and I grew stronger limbs and core over about a year using their torture chamber-like devices.  I always dreaded going (a bit) but always came away glad I did.

Tasmajdan Park

To broaden my exercise mix, I added walking routines to get the cardio, alternating with my trips to the pilates studio during the week.  Tasmajdan Park was a close-to-home favourite and, as the second largest park in the city, I learnt to weave a path along the many small trails so I could manage a 5k loop.   In the summer months, sometimes it was a bit too crowded with small kids, tricycles, dogs and ice-cream waddlers, but I usually managed my way around them and enjoyed the freedom of being in a kid-friendly space.  As a regular, I spotted the routines of others: the guy who played his synthesizer for tips at the bottom of the fountain stairs, the various honey and cold drink vendors, the Russian weightlifter types who hung out on the outside gym bars….  Occasionally, a special event would take over the park and there would be a concert, a food festival or a beekeepers fair where I could stop and explore.  Rarely were the crowds so big that they drove me away.

Tasmajdan Park

Beekeepers Festival in Tasmajdan Park. Not just honey!

In the winter when the sun went down early and it was too dark to go walking in the park, I walked home from work instead.  It took about an hour on foot.  Belgrade’s pedestrian bridges and underpasses made the traffic safe, and after work there were always enough people around to not fear the dark.  Halfway home, I’d sometimes stop at St Sava, Belgrade’s iconic Orthodox church and people watch for a little while, especially in the long Christmas season, which spans from November to January, and the church sparkled with Christmas lights.  St.  Sava is probably the city’s most important icon, and I loved that I could walk there from home.

St Sava church, Belgrade

Early evening at St Sava, snapped on my walk home from work

60 Days: Learning about Serbia

I’ve been to Belgrade once before on a train.  I remember rolling into the  busy  station and watching throngs of people spill out on to the platform.  We had recently arrived in Yugoslavia and, for the first time, had crossed the great divide between Western  Europe and the Communist Bloc.  It wasn’t quite the black and white world of old photographs that I’d imagined, but it was distinctly different, like I had traveled back in time 30 years.   Everything seemed strangely otherworldly: the uniforms,  the faces, the ubiquitous portraits of Tito, the Cyrillic signage and the distinct absence of English.

We were on our way to Athens, so we stayed put as the train waited for half an hour for everyone to embark.  Vendors with carts and trays cruised past the carriages and waved up at us from the platform.  One guy looked at our foreign faces and yelled “Cheez Pie”  in English.  He was carrying giant, round pies wrapped in greaseproof paper.  I pushed down the heavy sash window and bought one,  and then ate it hungrily,  amazed at the size and delicious, greasy foreignness of it.   That cheese pie is my biggest memory of Belgrade.  I was 20 years old.

Serbia, the world, and I have all changed a lot since then.  Now, two months before we leave Kingston, its time to re-learn the little that I know about Belgrade and perhaps expand my knowledge beyond the communist era train station.  So I asked Google:  What’s the city like? What is there to do?  Where to go? What its like to live there?

I learnt that Belgrade, broadly speaking, is split into two halves:  the old city with more traditional architecture and narrow streets, and New Belgrade, with more utilitarian, communist-style residential communities.  Twenty years after the Balkan war, the city has rebuilt but there are still pockets of destruction and ruined buildings awaiting demolition.  I’m excited to learn that it seems to be a very walkable city.  Firstly there are sidewalks,  which I greatly miss, and there seems to be an abundance of parks compared to anywhere else that I have lived other than London.  There’s also a good public transportation system, affordable taxis and perhaps river trips, which sound cool.  Belgrade also seems to have lots to do.  There seems to be a different themed street festival going on every other week:  beer, cheese, wine…. They seem to take Christmas seriously too, with German-style Christkindlmarts popping up around the city.

The country has four seasons, cold winters (with snow), hot summers and mild spring and fall weather.  When we tell people where we are going next, they say “Oh, that’s really different.  Its sooo cold there….brrrr.”  If this was just Jamaicans, I’d understand.  But it seems to be practically everyone, including people who don’t really know where it is!  We think they may be confusing “Serbia” with “Siberia”, as we don’t get the same reaction if we just say, “We’re heading to Belgrade.”  I’ve been spoilt with all this tropical living and, although I remember how fantastic the spring can be after the long winter months, I also miss wrapping up and getting out in the cool and cold.  Four seasons will be a pleasant change.

Produce, or green markets as they are called in Belgrade, are everywhere selling seasonal produce, which I expect to be every bit as good as Greece.  That is exciting for me.  I get excited about vegetables!

Everyone in the Foreign Service community that has lived or worked there tells me they loved it.  Its central Europe location makes other travel easy –  Belgrade is close to the Hungarian and Romanian borders, as well as the other ex-Yugoslavian countries, and about a 13hr drive to Greece if we are feeling adventurous.   We are close to Spetses and London and friends.  Its been a long time since we are only a few hours away.

How do I imagine Belgrade today beyond that first impression?  As a mixture of Greece and Russia:  one part traditional Athenian coffee culture with sidewalk cafes and boisterous, loud customers, and one part cold, grey Sovietism.   We will see.  Maybe I will stand corrected?

But first, once we get there in August, on my personal to-do list… the minute I get some time to explore by myself… is to go back to Belgrade station and find myself one of those cheese pies.  I wonder if they are still for sale?