Archive | November, 2012

How a bottle of brandy opened a can of worms. Belgrade, Serbia. October 21-26, 2012

16 Nov

THE trouble started when Nic walked into the kitchen with a bottle of Slivovitz Plum Rakjia. He was stoked because he had picked up the traditional Serbian Brandy at one of the corner supermarkets for the equivalent of about A$4, but the look on Pavle’s (name changed) face when he spotted the bottle in the kitchen was priceless.

The bottle that started the world’s most frustrating conversation.

You could probably call Pavle, the owner of the central Belgrade hostel where we stayed, a Serbian Nationalist. And, unbeknownst to Nic, the picture on the label of the offending Rakjia bottle was apparently a well-known Orthodox Church in Kosovo, the ownership of which is the centre of ongoing dispute between the Serbs and Kosovar Albanians. For Pavle, this small bottle of Rakjia was a symbol of years of deadly ethnic conflict.

Lingering sentiment over the Kosovo War clouds the everyday lives of many Serbians. Most adult Belgradians will have a story to tell, usually one of tragedy, loss and resentment stemming from the 1999 NATO bombings of Belgrade and greater Serbia.

During two and a half months of air strikes, more than 450 Yugoslav civilians were killed and many of Belgrade’s major landmarks including bridges, defence headquarters, telecommunications facilities and schools were destroyed – actions that Pavle and countless others will never forgive the Americans, British or Kosovar Albanians for.

Though a longstanding (pre-WWI) issue between Serbian and Albanian communities in Kosovo, tempers flared during a series of events in the 1990’s including a Declaration of Independence by the Kosovar Albanians. This push for autonomy was overturned by Yugoslav Prime Minister Slobodan Milosevic. In a nutshell, life was made very difficult for Serbians living in Kosovo. Serbian Orthodox churches were destroyed and some Serbians were killed. In retaliation and in a push take Kosovo, Milosevic began massacring hundreds of Kosovar Albanians and forcing the rest (hundreds of thousands) out on trains and on foot into forest hiding and as refugees into neighbouring countries. The Kosovar Albanian community and Albanian separatist group the KLA (though previously declared terrorists by the US) won the support of NATO.

When peace talks failed, (incidentally right at the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal) NATO bombed the shit out of Belgrade between March 24 and June 10. Milosevic was convicted of war crimes including ethnic cleansing. To this day Kosovo remains without status and is administered by the UN.

Working as a sound engineer for Serbia’s TV industry at the time, Pavle lost more than a dozen close friends and colleagues during the bombing of Serb radio and TV headquarters on April 24. He now considers America ‘evil’ and he is resolute in his conviction that World War III will occur during his lifetime.

The Rakjia has opened up old wounds for Pavle and I wonder whether he espouses these views to all of his hostel guests. But despite the heavy subject matter and Nic’s earlier liquor-purchasing faux-pas, Nic, Pavle, myself and Irish DJ Chris, with the help of the Rakjia and other super-cheap but surprisingly good social lubricants, (wine A$3/bottle, beer A$2.50/2.5L) are having an entertaining, albeit bizarre, night. The conversation circles dangerously around religion, ethnicity and this ominous prediction of war, entirely commanded by Pavle and his unashamedly bigoted views. It is a sometimes difficult and frustrating conversation, but it is a valuable one to be a part of during our short time in this still-traumatised country.

The day we arrived in Belgrade, we passed by a heavily damaged building of murky-coloured brick, only later realising it was the rocket-fractured remains of Serbian Defence Headquarters. The government chose to leave it in its half-destroyed state as a daily reminder of injustices suffered. Further evidence of this country’s need to be remember lies in cobbled areas of pavement dotted around Belgrade, installed in recent years reminiscent of a grim era of Ottoman rule. Instead of looking to the future with well-designed memorials in the way that cities like Berlin have done for WWII, Belgradians seem to want to lament in loss, pain and resentment.

Serbian Ministry of Defence headquarters – bombed by NATO in 1999

On a lighter note, but not disconnected, national pride in Belgrade is rampant. I thought we Aussies were bad flashing about our $2 Chinese manufactured flags for weeks surrounding Australia (Invasion) Day each year, but these guys beat us hands down.

T-shirts of tennis export Novak Djokovic can be bought at news stands on every street corner; Serbians will not waste a minute before telling you how beautiful and bountiful their fountains/ bridges/ women/ fortress/ rivers/ churches/ clean water supply are; They will usher you along to ‘Silicone Valley’ a street in town, something akin to Fremantle’s Cappuccino Strip, where guys roll by in turbo’d cars with muscular arms jutting from open windows and bleached blond hair extensions trail in the wind behind blinged-up buxom Belgradian women, who, I was told, come to the Valley to show off their new rack. I saw a slightly riced up Honda Accord drive past when I was there, and maybe a couple of dogs on leads, but that was about it. I was also told a number of times that Belgrade’s Bomhemian Quarter, which is actually just one street (Skadarlija Street) closely rivals Paris’ Montmartre district. But let’s get back to the women thing for one minute.

There are fountains like this all over Belgrade!

And drinking fountains too…

Belgradians love their hundreds of years old fortress

And they say artsy pub and restaurant alley Skadarlija Street rivals Paris’ Monmartre

I’m painting a pretty grim picture of a guy who in essence, is a good human being. But in addition to his staunch nationalism, Pavle was also totally chauvinistic. I know a lot of girls who would have kicked this guy’s arse for some of the things he was saying. But, when a tour guide recited a Serbian proverb (which I cannot find or remember) about Serbian women’s boobs causing men’s pants to unbutton themselves, I realised again, while Pavle’s views were on the extreme side, this attitude was widespread. I think the following video pretty accurately summarises the night we drank with Pavle.

Overall, Belgrade is quite a lovely city, with good hearted people and thankfully, a progressive youth. Like in every society, young Serbians seem to be far more liberal than their parents’ generation, possibly in part because their memories of that dark time in their countries’ history are few and fleeting.

At the Nikola Tesla museum, (Tesla, another outstanding but less talked about Serbian export) our guide, a young electrical engineering student began to restore my faith in Belgradians and later, chatting to some uni students being interviewed for a position at the hostel, I was further buoyed. The direction of Belgrade’s future lies heavily in the hands of its youth.

I really love the fact that Serbia actively protects its heritage – live folk music is played in most restaurants, families continue to produce home made apple and pear Rakija and use of the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet is widespread. Instead of a supermarket giant monopoly, the corner store, something we mourn the loss of in Australia, is alive and well. And residential streets are littered with small bars and cafe’s – meeting places for neighbours and friends. It’s small things like these that strengthen social fabric. While we didn’t spend enough time in Belgrade to understand all its nuances, i get the distinct feeling that if the city and its people can move past the rubble and an at-times destructively nationalist attitude, a future Belgrade can be a vibrant and more welcoming city.

Serbian Cyrillic,while hard to read for foreigners, is important to Serbia’s heritage.

This very old Kafana is one of many like traditional drinking holes, where folk band play and customers drink themselves under the table.

This is a table at the cafe near our hostel – South Park Cafe!

Hostel No. 9 – Vlajkoviceva 9, Belgrade, Serbia.


New, big and clean. Close to City centre. Interesting owners. Let us play whatever music we wanted and stayed up to drink with us.


None really. Breakfast was a bit lame.

In the air – 24.5 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time – about 126 hours


The most fun you can have whilst trapped in a tiny room. Budapest, Hungary. October 16-20, 2012

7 Nov

STARTING this blog post on our time in Budapest (while on a very flashy and modern train from Rome to Venice) was really difficult. Was it such a dull place that I couldn’t recall anything exceedingly good (or bad, for that matter) to write about?

The people we encountered were not remarkably friendly and the typically Eastern European food we ate (Goulash, meat stews, potato dumplings etc), whilst certainly not bad, was nothing to write home about either. The day we arrived, it poured with rain. But the four following days were beautiful, so nor can I pass judgement on the weather. Straddling the Danube River, the City’s West Bank, Buda, is hilly, with some pretty architecture and over on the commercial East Bank, Pest, there are some lovely wide pedestrian areas and parklands that are a pleasure to stroll around.

Pretty streetscape

Stunning architecture

But then, only a few minutes walk away, where whole districts are still digging their way out of the post-WWII Communist stranglehold, fashion and hairstyles look like they have roughly caught up to about 1995 and I would be lying if I said we did not pass by more than our fair share of very dodgy characters.

It looks like I’m painting a pretty critical and unappealing picture of this often-raved-about City, but bear with me. I soon realised that Budapest, though lacking any kind of definitive cohesiveness, is actually a magical and extremely enjoyable sum of many tiny factors.

Here is why…

You can bathe outdoors, in crystal blue ,40 degrees Celsius water – in the middle of European winter.
Budapest sits on a fault line in the earth, which has produced 118 thermal springs, so there are a number of naturally heated public baths in the city that offer a range of services. We went to Szechenyi Baths. There were a lot of seniors wearing shower caps and bobbing around in the whirlpool and it was a great novelty. We bought an hour massage for about A$50 each, but unfortunately it was pretty awful.

You can pay a man A$40 to lock you in a tiny, creepy room, with no key, a series of cryptic clues and an hour to get out.
Kind of like the horror movie franchise ‘Saw,’ except you don’t die. ParaPark is tucked away underneath a pub in south-central Pest. It’s basically another one of those adult playgrounds that I adore, except in this one, you have to work in a team and think quickly in order to find keys, unlock codes and escape. We played on two separate days, failed the first time and got out with about 3 minutes to spare the second. While I ran around panicking and holding up bits of overhead projector plastic to a computer monitor, Nic’s God-like knowledge of electricity compelled him to Macgyver a random piece of metal from somewhere in the room to complete a circuit, thus opening the door to our freedom.

Need I say more? This crimson spice is the national food, emblem, religion and major export of Hungary. Well, probably not the last three, but I wouldn’t be surprised. It is sold en masse to tourists in dedicated shops along with every type of related memorabilia you can think of – tea towels, tins, spoons, bags, aprons, the list goes on. Hungarians are also fond of serving chilli peppers, bell peppers and capsicum with every dish, even breakfast.

Budapest’s Metro system has the worlds longest, fastest and scariest escalators.
Don’t look down.

You can stroll across a bridge that actually looks like a chain (Chain Bridge) into Medieval Budapest.
Castle Hill can be reached by funicular or a decent hike uphill on foot (our stupid? choice). There’s a great view of the Danube, the Royal Castle and surrounds are very cool, as is the mosaic tiled roof of Matthias Church – and I am not a church person, but by far the coolest thing is the underground Labyrinth. It’s dark, damp has been used throughout the centuries as a jail and a harem. Apparently Count Dracula was imprisoned down there during the 15th century! It costs about A$8 to get in, which we thought was a bit steep until we got to the really dark bits, then we thought it was worth it. There’s also an old nuclear bunker and wartime hospital inside the hill that you can take a tour of.

Chain Bridge

Matthias Church

Cave Labyrinth

The bar scene.
There are dozens of small bars and ruin pubs (open-air pubs established inside disused and decaying buildings) scattered around the Jewish district. Hungarians are clearly not congruent with the Red Bull-Vodka concept, as we got strange looks when we asked for it – otherwise, the atmosphere is really fun. One bar we went to had wine carafes suspended from the ceiling and a toilet called Lady Gaga. Win.

There were fish in our hostel toilet.
Well, in between the two panes of window glass anyway. I didn’t get a good photo, but the toilet window had been turned into an aquarium, so while you’re sitting there happily taking a dump, so are the goldfish! The whole hostel, called Lavender Circus, was pretty bizarre actually. Our room had a massive painting of a fat naked lady on the wall and the common room had furniture stuck to the wall. The staff were really nice though.

I can safely say we only scratched the surface of what Budapest has to offer and I do believe that it’s a City that deserves more than a few days to get aquatinted with, but before we knew it, we were saying goodbye to the olive-skinned, blue eyed Magyar people and moving south to Spearwo–, I mean Serbia.

In the air – 24.5 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time – about 115 hours

A reality check at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Oświęcim, Poland. October 15, 2012

5 Nov

WALKING single file inside the red brick barracks, hundreds of pairs of eyes inside hollowed out sockets stare listlessly through me. Makeup fails to hide the bruises on their faces. Men and women have shaved heads and all wear worn, shapeless, button-up garments.

These faces represent a fraction of the victims of Auschwitz death camp in the southern Polish city of Oświęcim. Some lived to see freedom after the camps’ liberation by Soviet troops at the beginning of 1945, but a glance at the type-written information under each prisoner photograph indicates that most did not.

It is estimated that between 1-1.5 million men, women and children were murdered at Auschwitz and at subsequent camps Birkenau (Auschwitz II) and Monowitz, during the largest genocide in history, by the Nazi party during World War II.

Exhaustion from overwork in appalling conditions, disease and systematic extermination by gas chamber, lethal injection, hanging or firing squad were the main, all horrific, causes of death.

We are but two of more than one million Polish native and international visitors to Auschwitz and Birkenau death camp memorials each year, or up to 8000 per day in high season, who pass through countless grey-walled museum rooms (formerly barracks inhabited by Jews, gypsies, gay people, prisoners of war – or anyone deemed to be a threat to the advancement of the Nazi party) filled with photographs, documents and artefacts that ensure Holocaust victims will forever be remembered and that the world will not avert its eyes to this type of atrocity again.

This photo is of the English language memorial at Birkenau camp.

The Auschwitz trip is the sole reason for our visit to Poland. Though without any direct personal connection to either victims or perpetrators of the crimes committed there, we felt compelled, perhaps through upbringing or education, to visit. The high volume of visitors, even in low season, meant that we were ushered through the camp at speed with headsets connected to our English speaking guide, often squeezing past other visitors on the stairs or between display cabinets. Obviously this system is in place to cope with the masses, but the whole thing feels a little bit disrespectful.

There is an overload of information. We are shepherded through rooms containing photographs of nude, starved child victims of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele’s medical experiments, canisters of deadly Zyclon-B pellets and an entire room full of human hair, stolen from the heads of prisoners, with some woven into textile. Then there are the prosthetic arms and legs, shoes, glasses, suitcases and kitchenware taken from prisoners on their arrival at the camp. While most of these stolen belongings were soon redistributed by the Nazi party to German households, these recovered items, turned into displays – entire rooms bursting with items piled atop each other, give a glimpse into the process and scale of the Nazi attempt to strip Jewish people and other Germans of their identities in order to wipe them from existence.

A roomful of suitcases taken from Jewish prisoners on their arrival at Auschwitz.

Before we make the three kilometre journey to Birkenau by bus, we pass over the ground where prisoners stood for up to 17 hours each day for roll call (another form of torture), underground to the 1 metre by 1 metre standing cells which would be crammed with up to four prisoners and finally we are through the camp’s crematorium, where furnaces burned the bodies of hundreds of human beings each day, murdered for no reason other than the way they were born.

Roll call was held here each day.

A sign outside the crematorium requests silence from visitors, but while inside, an Asian tour group sails past, its’ guide chirping away to the group through his microphone. It leaves me and no doubt others, feeling uneasy.

Then, just inside the entrance to Birkenau, while we wait for our guide,an altercation ensues between another guide and a visitor who has lit and is smoking a cigarette. The man seems reluctant to put it out.

The central archway of the red-bricked entrance to Birkenau death camp resembles a huge, open mouth, ready to swallow and dispose of anything that passes through. The camp is split in two by a railway track that extends further than the eye can see. Barracks for women run along the left and the men’s buildings, mostly demolished, run the length of the track to the right. Anticipating defeat, Nazi officers tried to destroy any evidence of the genocide in late 1944 before themselves fleeing. Gas chambers and a crematorium lie as preserved rubble at the far end of the camp, near a later erection – a huge stone memorial to all whose lives were stolen.

The train track splits the massive camp in two.

While we are there, an overseas group of Jewish people is holding a service by candlelight at the memorial.

Despite the atrocities that occurred there, the quality of light on the day we visited as well as the leafy-ness of the grounds – dewy grass and a gathering of pine trees, at Birkenau made it quite a beautiful place. This evokes such contradictory feelings – women were led naked and shot dead amongst the same trees.

Women were taken into these trees and shot. The pond in front was used to dispose of human ashes.

A watch house stands out in front of rows of women’s barracks.

The light is quickly fading and a red streaked sunset is beginning to develop as we are led through the women’s sanitary barracks. One building has troughs and taps running the length of it and the other houses ‘toilets,’ or about 150 holes cut into cold concrete, which had to accommodate tens of thousands of prisoners, who were admitted into the building only once a day for a few minutes.

This marks the end of our tour. The darkness is growing and we can see our breath in the air. I am happy to leave. While I felt the tour worthwhile, I couldn’t help but feel that this wasn’t quite the right way to pay respect to those who had suffered here.

I took photographs, as did almost everyone else, looking for the best camera angle along those history-steeped train tracks, justifying it by thinking – the more often people are reminded of this evil, the less likely it is to occur again in any form.

But, as we speak, genocide is occurring in Darfur, Sudan, with the death toll in the hundreds of thousands. In the 90’s, during the Bosnia conflict, the Bosnian Serb forces were responsible for massacring the Bosniak people (Bosnian Muslims) and beginning an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats.

There are countless other examples, but much closer to home for me, in Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly and systematically separated from their families under Government policy until 1969, in an attempt to ‘breed them out.’

So has the world really learned from the Holocaust and have I? Or, like one German woman who lived near the train track used to transport hundreds of thousands of screaming Jews to their death, do we cover our ears and sing loudly to block out the noise?