Read, Write, Run, Roam

Archive for June, 2011

Sudden realizations in Belgrade

You know what this poster at the National Theater in Belgrade made me realize? We don’t have squirrels in downtown Belgrade. I don’t think I’ve seen one since I’ve been here.

That’s pretty strange to an urban American, especially one with roots in New York and DC. I almost miss the annoying little rodents. Kidding! Seriously, people, they’re just rats who climb trees. Don’t think they’re cute. Even when they wear tiny hats.

The poster also made me think that this was possibly the funniest and most ridiculous name for a dance performance. I might just have to see it.


Mr. Cab Driver/Won’t stop [chess] to let me in

Taxi drivers in Belgrade are an interesting lot. They often speak good English, but even when they don’t they still like to test an Amerikanka’s Serbian skills. We talk about life in Belgrade, where they’re from, and occasionally, politics. I wish I knew more chess terminology though because I am dying to know more about the games that erupt along the taxi line on Makedonska.

Are there some serious experts here? How competitive is it? Do they ignore rides to finish a game? Do they play for glory or dinars? Is chess a big sport in Serbia?

It’s moments like this that make me realize I’ll go back home with more questions than I came here with.

Like how you can push taxis down the lane without disrupting the chessboard...

The blog post title is from Mr. Cab Driver by Lenny Kravitz

Vidovdan: an epic day in Serbian history

The Kosovo Maiden

Today is an important day for ethnic Serbians. It’s Vidovan, or Day of Light, which is both an old Pagan holiday and the day that Prince Lazar of Serbia and other soldiers lost their lives at the Battle of Kosovo against the Ottoman Army.

It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of this battle in Serbian history. An epic poem was written about the war and subsequently memorized and recited for generations. In it, Prince Lazar is visited by a prophet in the form of a falcon and offered a choice between an earthly or a heavenly kingdom at the Battle of Kosovo. He chose a permanent kingdom in heaven, and the battle was lost.

The poem, and event, was one that that Serbians held dear through Ottoman and Hapsburg occupation–and beyond. This is not a comment about Kosovo, especially since Kosovo was predominantly ethnically and religiously Serbian at the time of the battle, but a bit of history important for anyone reading about Serbia.

A rare work-suitable image of a Rusalka

Though it is considered an important day it’s not a national holiday, so the banks will remain open and business continues as usual. However, I imagine that churches will be especially full, and tales of Rusalke will be told at children’s bedtime. According to Wikipedia, Rusalke are fairies who were once the women of Serbian soldiers slain at war. They appear in the woods on Vidovdan, mourning the death of Lazar and his men. The next night, they gather around fires and dance in the nude. (The nude part strikes me as so Serbian–of course they would bring pretty naked ladies into the picture.) If a Serbian man encounters the Rusalke, he will be offered red wine and will turn into a dragon to avenge Lazar’s death.

I’m not so sure about this tale. If you believe the poem, Lazar chose to die, so you can’t really avenge his death. But maybe that’s just me ruining the story. Furthermore, a search about Rusalke yield more information about mermaid-like spirits who drowned in water than Serbian sprits on Vidovdan. Readers, can you shed any light on this fairy tale? Though I’m skeptical about the role of Rusalke on Vidovdan, I’ll still keep Milos out of the woods. He’s a handful already; I don’t need him to turn into a dragon.

Belgrade Bounty

Hello, my name is RHOB, and I am a fruit-aholic.

This is my loot from my last pijaca (farmer’s market) trip: zucchini, eggs, cherries, currants, raspberries, nectarines, and whatever these tiny pear-things are. Even better, I bought all of this for about what the flowers alone would cost in the U.S.

Serbia is an amazing place for fruit lovers. Cherry and apricot trees grow all over the place-even in a nearby parking lot-and markets are bursting with colorful fruits and veggies. The grocery stores can’t catch up with the farmers, so I’ve been making regular trips to the pijaca and buying fruits I can’t identify. For instance, I’ve discovered the amazingly tart taste of fresh currants, but it took the wonders of Twitter (and @Cneable and @Erasfa) to figure out what I was eating. Though we travel around the region quite a bit, wandering around the pijaca is a great adventure in itself.

Romanian (Well) Fortified Churches on Sunday

Image source here.

When we read about fortified churches in Romania, I knew some were destined to be a “Church on Sunday.” So on our last day in Transylvania we decided to visit two of the uniquely military churches.

The first city we visited, Biertan, was a Transylvania Saxon stronghold founded in the 13th century. Saxons were essentially Germans who settled in/colonized the area and tried to defend it from Ottoman invasion. To protect the land and its people, larger towns built defensive walls around their cities and smaller villages built fortified churches to help people withstand military sieges.

The drive from Sigisoara to Biertan revealed small villages and dirt roads. I was still fresh off the path of Dracula and intrigued by the crosses designed into most houses. Pure aesthetic, or defense against the dark arts? You decide.

We rolled into the village of Biertan, which is bustling enough to have a large pension and an information kiosk. Yet everything was quiet–too quiet.

We met an English speaker who informed us that we were there on one of the few days that the church was closed. CLOSED. Apparently it was a holy day-but what kind of church is closed on a holy day? We walked around the walls and tried the front door in vain, but we were denied entry. I thought about trying to scale the wall for a photo, but 500 years after the church was built, I still couldn’t get in. I got a photo of the wall, but it wasn’t exactly what we drove there for.

We decided that we would try our luck at another fortified church in the town of Viscri, a village of about 400 people. The drive was beautiful-lots of rolling green hills and sheep herders. We got the “you ain’t from around here, ain’t you vibe,” but people seemed more curious than anything else. Except for this lady. Talk about the evil eye. No wonder people have crosses on their homes.

We found Viscri’s church pretty easily and parked across from a Dacia (the Yugo of Romania) guarded by turkeys. If there was ever a symbol of rural Romania, this is probably it.

We then walked up a narrow stone path to reach the church. I was wondering if we’d be able to get past the front gate when we were rewarded with this welcoming sight.

However, when we reached the church’s front door, we saw a sign saying that a service was being conducted. It asked visitors to stay outside until the conclusion of the service. FOILED AGAIN.  At least we could walk behind the thick walls of the church.

The origins of the church date from 1100 AD, but it wasn’t fortified until 1525, after the previous church was razed by invading Tartars. Despite its historic (read: aging) status, people are encouraged to climb up the wall fortifications and peer out of the lookouts built into the surrounding wall.

We waited for the service to end, but it was clear that the Saxons meant business. There was a lot of hymning and hawing, if you know what I mean. We realized that the fortified churches were, well, barring us from entry. While it didn’t make for a great church on Sunday, hats off to the Saxons, who built churches to withstand the force of Ottoman invaders–and RHOB. Until next time, that is…

When getting there is half the trip: Road signs in Budapest

“They have worries, they’re counting the miles, they’re thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they’ll get there–and all the time they’ll get there anyway, you see.”

– Jack Kerouac, On the Road

We spend a lot of time on the road. Lately, much of that road has been the route between Belgrade to Budapest. The drive is fairly easy, but summer lines at the border and construction have made the trip a bit longer. And now, just before we enter Budapest, UGH: merging lanes and traffic cones of construction work appear. Fortunately, Hungarian officials have tried to combat driver frustration with helpful signs. I like to call them “The Four Stages of Summer Driving”

Step 1: Anger.  

“Traffic?!?” This stinks! Why can’t they repair the roads when I’m not on them? Why can’t these other cars get off the road? Don’t they know I have an important date with the Gerbeaux gelatto stand?”

Step 2: Bargaining.

“Maybe this will clear up pretty quickly. Also, ‘tereles’ is a funny word. I am still upset, though.

Step 3: Acceptance.

“I guess this is just a part of summer road trips. Hopefully there’s a rest stop ahead. I’m in the mood for a raspberry Fanta. And a clean bathroom.”

Step 4: Happiness.

“Finally! Now we can speed all the way to Budapest. Wait, is that a cop car? UGH…”

At least the signs are a good reminder that ol’ Kerouac was right. We get there anyway.

Dogging Dracula: A Transylvanian journey

For some, the word Transylvania triggers Rocky Horror Picture Show flashbacks.

For RHOB, it means Dracula.

I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula while we were traveling through Romania. Though the story is largely set in England, it ends and begins in Transylvania, “in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe.” As Dracula himself says, “We are in Transylvania, and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things.”


They say truth is stranger than fiction, and I have to agree. Dracula is presumed to be based on Vlad Tepes III. Vlad (we’re on a first-name basis) was born into a high-ranking family. He was the son of a member of the Order of the Dragon, Dracul, and signed documents as Dracula, meaning son of a Dracul.

What Vlad lacked in good looks (see right) he made up for with military prowess, a flair for hats, and a vicious sense of revenge. He was a military commander and leader of the Wallachia region. He defended his territory from the Ottoman empire, implemented economic trade reform, and instituted a zero-tolerance capital punishment system for criminal offenses large and small. His “signature punishment” was impaling people on large spears very slowly. There are legends of Vlad “the Impaler” leaving thousands of skewered Ottoman corpses on the Danube. German and Hungarian pamphlets testified to Vlad’s atrocities, but these may have been printed for political reasons. In any case, the legend of “Dracula” spread far and wide. The 16th Century German woodcut above shows Vlad feasting in a forest of impaled victims. Looks like Vlad needed a better PR manager.

We decided to track down the legend while we were in Romania. Our first stop was Bran Castle, often called “Dracula’s Castle.” That’s a bit of a stretch, since there is little evidence that he did anything more than stay here temporarily, but we were undeterred. I’m not a fan of castles but I figured this one was too good to pass up.

Bran didn’t do much to dispel my attitude toward castles, but the damp and largely unfurnished structure offered a suitably chilling ambiance. And the screaming children on school trips added an unexpected touch of horror. The castle is a bit “Disneyfied”-they even have a room dedicated to films about Dracula-but it was all in good humor and a worthwhile morning spent driving around Transylvania.

Our next stop was Sighişoara, Vlad’s birthplace and one of the more fun cities to pronounce: Siggy-SWAR-a. After driving Muz insane with my DJ rendition of the name (Siggy-siggy-siggy SWAR-a, accompanied by phantom record scratching) we pulled into the historic part of town.

How could such a cold-hearted person live in such an adorable place?  We wandered around the car-free Old Town and stopped by Vlad’s childhood home. The original building is long gone, but it’s been replaced with a…wait for it…Dracula-themed restaurant. Of course.

Sighişoara wouldn’t be complete without a statue of Vlad. Milos led us to the man himself on his afternoon walk. They both tried to look as tough as possible.

Our time in Romania was coming to an end, and we hadn’t seen a single vampire. It was a bit of a disappointment. Sure, Dracula was a work of fiction, but vampire stories existed for decades, even centuries before the book was written. In fact, the word “vampire” originated in Serbia in the 1700s, and Serb Arnold Paole unleashed vampire fever in Europe. So it couldn’t be completely fake, right? RIGHT? Milos and I were bummed. Muz was just hungry. So we called off our vampire search and went to dinner.

The next day (our last in Romania), Milos met a stray dog who was popular in the main square. I’m not sure what was said, but apparently he decided to let us in on a secret. As we drew closer to our new furry friend, he rolled over and showed us his pointy, sharp teeth.

I know what you’re thinking–RHOB, those are canines, not vampire fangs–but I know better. Vlad, Arnold and Nosferatu, your secret is safe with RHOB.