Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Saturday 18 July, Bulgaria to Serbia to Slovenia

One bright day in the middle of the night, the train into Serbia stopped at one of the border crossing stations, where several backpackers were pulled from the train, taken to the border office and locked in. The train seemed to wait a while, but eventually, with the girls’ faces pressed to the locked glass doors of the office, the train pulled away into Serbia. Around this same time, we were periodically confronted by a hodge-podge parade of customs officers, literally lining up to grill us. One would enter, smile, and ask us what we were carrying—perhaps a little good-time material from Istanbul??—and check our passports, calling in the numbers on radios, and finally moving on, only to be replaced instantly by another officer, asking the same nudge-nudge wink-wink questions, perhaps glancing in one pocket of a backpack, then moving on, to be replaced by a third officer, who would continue in a like manner. These officers were apparently doing this to us out of courtesy for our Nonsense heritage, as anyone who knows about Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, knows the wisdom of the Bellman, that “What I tell you three times is true.” We appreciate such cross-cultural nonsense understanding, although when that above process was then itself repeated three times (or perhaps what seemed to be three more times), we thought they might be taking such graciousness a little too far.

As a result of these delays, we arrived in Belgrade an hour and fifteen minutes late, at around 5:15am—meaning we missed our connecting train to Ljubljana by about fifteen minutes, giving us about a five-hour layover. Blearily, then, we headed into Belgrade, going towards the citadel that rests high atop a bluff, overlooking the confluence of the Danube and the Sava. The moat around it now sports sports courts: tennis and basketball players cavort where the Dreaded Serbian Moat-Alligators once swam. Kevin thought this a symbol of sorts, declaring war no more, although I thought it also might be a way of thumbing their noses at the American Olympic basketball team. My theory has some backing, as in the park’s Military Museum, they proudly display the wreckage of a US stealth bomber shot down in the recent conflict. At the top, we sit on a hill, overlooking the rivers, lounging in what will soon be oppressive heat, listening to the dulcet tones of two loud drunk guys speaking broken English about the crimes of Croatians against Serbians. The Russian guy weaves and stumbles his way over to us, asks for a cigarette, and tells us about his morning’s drinking exploits with his new Serbian friend. As he speaks, he stumbles, wobbles, stumbles, trips, and almost lurches over the edge of the cliff, but instead crumbles to the ground and makes several shuttering, sputtering, splattering attempts to rise, like a giraffe straight out of the birth canal. The Serbian lumbers over to us and starts to tell us the history of the city, the battles of the citadel, the glory of the Serbs, their bravery in battle, their fortitude in the face of overwhelming odds—except when they were retreating “pussies.” Lest you think this was just some drunken babbling, the Serb fellow, as he was about to part with us, told us with as steady an eye as he was able, that when we went back home, we had to spread the word that the Serbians were a good and brave people. They then invited us to join them for a quick 9am round, but we politely declined. We shook hands, and our friends stumbled away, as we also soon did. As we left the park, passing by a trail of blood that led from a broken glass-fronted sign into the bushes, we heard their voices lifted in song.

We walked back down the hill, looking for a bookstore in order to find a Serbian nonsense writer whom Anca Dumitrescu had mentioned. I admit, in my state of fatigue, not having slept the night before, and in the oppressive heat, I was not in a hopeful mood, and I thought our search would not prove fruitful, but the Nonsense Force was strong with Kevin that morning, and he zeroed in on the book by Vladimir Andrich, a volume of poems all written in Serbian, but with whimsical illustrations in the style of Calef Brown. This must be the one. Four hours in Belgrade and we scored a volume of what is most likely Serbian literary nonsense.

Nonsense in hand, we arrived back at the train station, where we began the adventure of finding a compartment. Like being stuck in the shell game, but never finding the nut; or being the nut and never being found in the shell. Or like being the spaces over which shells hover, but never the nutless space under the shell; or like the hovering nut in a spaceless shell…we sought a space. And a nut. The first compartment we entered was first class, so, dragging thousand-pound bags (okay, just mine), we went down to the last car, but this didn’t look like a car in a class to which we are accustomed, so into the next, which was packed with people and bags and smoke. We found a spot and sat for a moment, soaked with sweat by this point in the incredible heat of the morning compounded by people packed into the closed and unventilated spaces of the train. I then looked at our tickets. Our first class tickets. So I went out, asked the trainman and he pointed to the first car that we had initially been in. We schlepped our gear down and up to the first car, where we found a space with some younger traveling-type folk, who helped this old man (meaning myself) with his bag (for my bag contains three drowsing dragons and the complete bound set of Dumas). After a brief discussion, and more sweatful brotherhoodly bonding, we realized that, somehow, even though we were indeed in the car pointed out by the offical, we were still in second class, and that the little numbers on the outside of the compartments were both compartment number, but also little class numbers. So… again, huck down the bags, drag down the hall, to the one compartment that had been locked earlier but now had happy first classers, happily sweating away. We slid ourselves in, but soon the railway fellows came and promptly booted us out—it was the staff compartment, of course, and even though it was the “1” compartment, it lacked the tiny “1” sticker for class designation. Likewise, even though it was in the half of the train car that had all the first class compartments (all three of them, that is), it was not first class. Nonsense trainery? And so… the bag avalanche again and we shift to the next compartment over, which is now full… Everyone was thoroughly sweat-soaked and grumpy, so Kevin and I stood in the passageway, hanging out the window as the train moved out… Back in the sweltering compartment, two men sat next to the window, getting steadily stickier in chocolate cakes, chatting, reading the paper. One of them seemed somewhat perturbed that the wind ruffled his newspaper, so he closed the window halfway, the one meager means of relief in the still-oppressive heat. Dagger-looks shoot around the room, but he happily read away. Apparently, however, the train gods were then satisfied with our train-imposed flagellation, and the family in the next compartment down departed. For some reason, the door was locked, but Kevin bravely asked the fellows if we could move, and they come to unlock it… One last time into the compartment, dear friends, one last time… and so we moved yet again, to this our own compartment, our fifth compartment, where we stretched ourselves out to dry.

The last bit that I should mention, if you will bear with me just a little longer in this very long day (for it was indeed a Very Long Day), was Kevin’s attempt at artful documentary footage. As we moved into the lush mountains near Ljubljana, Kevin was overwhelmed with beauty and seemed to want to film the wisps of dragon-breath that puffed out of the hillside trees. I gave him my iPhone with the camera ready, and, at the precise moment of the most transcendent beauty, a moment that would make Grizzly Adams and Marlin Perkins shake hands firmly and weep a collective tear of joy, Kevin held, not the viewscreen, but the camera lens up to his eye. The film, in full Technicolor and Dolby Sound, thus shows a striking view of his eye. At the last moment, I informed him of his artistic license, and as he flipped the phone this way and that, you’ll be able to see a slight snippet of the actual hills. Click below for this footage—two thumbs up, no doubt.

PS. The photo at the head of this entry is of a fellow we met in the center of Belgrade.


  1. Isn't this how Ansel Adams got his start?