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


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