Belgrade, 29th November 2012
“Budapest? Quick I’ll take you to the other station, otherwise you’ll miss the train!”
Herman hoists his big rucksack on his thin frame, wobbles for second, steadies, then follows the taxi driver at a jog and vanishes past the end of the train.
“Good luck” I call after him.
Wait, there isn’t another long distance railway station in Belgrade…is there?
My mind is only half awake as I’m tired from a poor night’s sleep in a hot and dry sleeper compartment and I struggle to remember anything about Serbian trains. I look at the quiet of Belgrade station’s eight tracks at six thirty in the morning. Perhaps the taxi driver is right, but I don’t remember any mention of another station. All other international trains depart from this station, why wouldn’t the Budapest trains?
I put on my rucksack and walk towards the yellow and grandly appointed station building. Inside the main entrance arch I go to the window of the Wasteels travel agency and ask about trains to Budapest. The gentleman behind the counter tells me that there are three trains to Budapest everyday, all leaving from this station; and the next one leaves in ten minutes.
I’m staying in Budapest for a few nights, but I’m worried that Herman has just been tricked into a taxi he didn’t need. Just as I step back onto the platform area I see Herman walking towards me, rucksack over one shoulder and shaking his head and looking sour.
“Bullshit, that taxi driver was bull man” Herman says, “He just wanted to drive me in circles”.
“You OK?” I ask.
“Yeah, just pissed off.”
I tell him that the next Budapest train will leave shortly, he says goodbye and then walks down the platform and climbs into the train.
Happy that Herman was not ripped off by the touting taxi driver I pull out a map printout and start looking for my hostel. I walk between sad looking apartment blocks as I make my way uphill from the station near the shores of the Sava River to the height of the city centre. It’s a little after seven in the morning and Belgrade is still quiet. The occasional bus comes roaring past as the pavements start to fill with commuters walking purposefully, but in many cases reluctantly, to the start of their working day.
After some searching and stopping to ask a passing commuter for directions I find the buzzer for the Mon Martre hostel, located nowhere near where my Google map printout placed it. My satisfactory response to a muffled speaker lets me in and I go through a dark corridor to a small courtyard inside an old block of apartments, then make my way up a grand but unloved staircase. Inside the hostel is happy and lively, the walls are painted red and hung with pictures by famous French artists and photos of Paris.
I’m warmly welcomed by the receptionist and allowed to check in, even though it’s barely eight in the morning. As I put the sheets on my bunk to have a short nap I chat with a lean man wearing round glasses who is packing up. He’s visiting from Herzegovina and loves travelling through the southern slavic countries, so much so that it turns out he’s never left them. “With so many friendly people and places to see here, why do I need to go anywhere else?”.
Lying still on the bed and trying to sleep I can still feel the motion of the train going back and forward, I have to open my eyes to convince myself that the bed hasn’t started to move. Every time I close my eyes the phantom starting and stoping continues. Eventually I’m lulled to sleep by the ghostly rocking of the train in a way that the real train never managed to do as sweetly.
After my nap I chat to the receptionist, who is reading from a massive chemistry textbook while sat behind his desk. As I start to ask him about Belgrade he springs to life to tell me about the city with an energy that only someone avoiding doing their coursework can muster. He gives me a map of Belgrade and circles so many different places to see that he might as well have circled the whole city.
I start exploring the city in Repbulik Square where the parts of German Christmas Market huts lie in pieces waiting to be assembled, a festive flat-pack instant Christmas set. Along the main pedestrianised shopping street of Knez Mihailova many of the shops are familiar big brands. From poster after poster the same H&M lingerie model as in Sofia stares at me, seemingly ahead of me every step I go. Perhaps she’s also travelling through Europe, but she looks distinctly underdressed for the journey.
I wander through the Kalemegdan park towards Belgrade castle, stopping to look over into the moat which has cunningly been converted into tennis courts. At the ramparts I look out across the wooded Great War Island sitting in the middle of the Sava and Danube confluences. Beyond the island on an outcrop sits Zemun, another older settlement. In between are the grey square tower blocks of New Belgrade, Yugoslavia’s answer to Blade Runner’s Los Angeles.
While no flames rise in to a dark orange sky as they do in Ridley Scott’s 2017 horizon I have seen this skyline before with flames all too real; in the shaky fuzzy image of a news broadcast. In 1999 for three and a half months Belgrade was a regular fixture in news footage while it was being bombed by NATO aircraft. Blurry shots of the Ušće Tower with its top floors bleeding flames into the night come to mind and I realise this is the first country I’ve visited which has been in armed conflict with my own during my lifetime.
I was very young at the time and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990’s were complex, dividing actions into right or wrong is nearly impossible. Was the bombing campaign essential in weakening the Milosevic government’s hold on power and bringing an early end to the massacre of Kosovo Albanians? Or was that already inevitable because of internal and external political pressure, in which case did the bombing just cause needless civilian deaths? The truth lies tangled somewhere between those absolutes; as my feelings lie somewhere between pride and shame, resulting in a general feeling of sadness that we don’t seem to have yet outgrown armed conflict.
Looking up and seeing the restored Ušće Tower rising above the backdrop of New Belgrade with its new clean flat glass facade covering the old wounds reminds me that life can move on without having to have make a judgement on all past events. Mixed feelings express something of their own and don’t always have to be resolved. History can teach us about the now and maybe even the future, but they should never let you prejudice the next person you meet. The differences between individuals are greater than an individual’s conformity to a people, time or place. You don’t have see an opportunist try to rip off a young man travelling far from home in the same day as receiving an incredibly warm welcome to remember that.