Read, Write, Run, Roam

Archive for September, 2011

Zen and the Art of Making Rakija

One more item was crossed off the “Belgrade bucket list” this week when I was invited to watch grape rakija (lozovaca) being made in a village outside of Fruska Gora. Fruska Gora is national parkland about an hour outside of Belgrade. It’s known for its fresh air, gorgeous scenery and wineries. Yet we weren’t there for that. We were there for the rakija.

My friend Lisa, a professional photographer working in Serbia, invited me to join her to document the experience. I don’t have her photography skills, so I can only guess I was chosen for my drinking skills. Whatever it takes, people. We arrived just as the grapes were being poured into the distiller.

The grapes had been sitting in barrels for about a week. Normally they might ferment a bit longer, but Serbia’s late summer moved the natural process along quickly. This weather has also been great for wineries—the drought forced grapes to produce more sugar than usual. Look for 2011 vintage wines over the next couple of years. We couldn’t wait that long, so we tasted some of the young wine that our gracious host provided.

I normally don’t like young wine, but this tasted more like fresh grape juice with slight carbonation. The best part is that there’s nothing but fermented, pressed grapes in this pitcher. It doesn’t get any more natural than that. After a toast to the harvest, we turned our attention to the giant, slightly scary distiller. The machine looks crazy, but it’s actually pretty simple. Fermented grapes are poured into a container heated by a wood stove underneath. (Grapes go into the container closest to the camera.)

The stove must be kept very hot, and the grapes must be stirred via crank to prevent burning or sticking. A flour paste is pressed along the seams of the distiller to prevent steam escaping.

After two hours or so, the mixture becomes hot enough that it begins to boil. Steam then rises from the first container, travels along the long pipe and moves the second container, which is filled with cold water to help condense the steam and cool the liquid, which is—almost—rakija.

I say “almost rakija” because the first liter of liquid isn’t rakija at all. It’s methyl alcohol, a substance that is highly flammable and poisonous if consumed. One must wait until the methyl alcohol has been passed (the prvenac, or first batch) to start collecting the drinkable ethanol/grain alcohol. You should know when the methyl alcohol has passed because the smell (like rubbing alcohol) will make you recoil.

After the prvenac, you can start collecting the rakija in glass jars. Our host first stores rakija in glass for about three months, then decides if he wants to age the rakija in barrels or glass. If rakija is golden, it’s likely because it was stored in wood, and not necessarily because of how long it aged. Or it’s because coloring has been added–a big no-no in the homemade rakija world.

We tasted the first drinkable batch of rakija, but it was pretty harsh. It takes several months for rakija to be smooth enough to drink comfortably, and years for it to taste like the rakija I’ve come to enjoy. Good things come to those who wait, I suppose.

It was a special day of Serbian sights, tastes and sounds, but my favorite part of the day was waiting for the grapes to boil. I was happy to sit around the distiller eating fresh goat cheese and bread, sample grapes and apples from our hosts’ orchard, and smell the wood burn. It was a surprisingly meditative process that resulted in a feeling of accomplishment: making one of the oldest beverages known to man. Serbians may not practice zen, but the art of making rakija comes pretty close.

If you’d like to see Lisa’s photos that day, you’ll have to wait–but you can see other amazing shots of Serbia on her website


A Year of Days in Belgrade

NOTE: I can’t find my thingee (technical term) that transfers photos to my computer, so I can’t show you all the cool stuff I’ve done this week. Instead, I’m posting a revised essay I wrote in May for my writing group. Hope you enjoy it. 

A Year of Days in Belgrade

Godinu dana: a year of days. I’m told that’s the proper phrase to use when I explain how long I’ll be in Belgrade.  I like this expression; it highlights my urgency to see everything, go everywhere, and eat anything in just 365 days. When I remember this year, I’ll think of the special days that defined the confusion, frustration, and happiness of a life abroad.

My first few days in Belgrade were a rainy blur. I was dizzy with jet lag. I had no idea where we lived and was constantly getting lost. To bring some sense into our new life, I started Serbian classes on my third day in Belgrade. After 30 minutes of instruction, the teacher asked if I had any questions. She then blinked rapidly as I asked, “Where can I buy a hair dryer? What do I say when the telephone rings? Why do streets have two different names? After patiently answering all my questions, we ended the lesson in a Bosch appliance store while I asked, “Treba mi fan?”

Then there was the day I ended my semi-vegetarian lifestyle. It didn’t take long. We were invited to lunch at a winery near Topola. The table was heavy with smoked meats and roasted lamb. I tried some dried vegetables instead, only to discover it was duvan čvarci. It was the first day in my life I ate pork rind. It would not be the last.

Life changed quite a bit on the Saturday we picked up our dog. The breeder spoke little English, and our Serbian was rudimentary, but he welcomed us like relatives. We sat shoeless in his living room and admired the juices and sodas carefully displayed on a nearby table. He asked lots of questions and gave us strict instructions. It was my first lesson in the Serbian love for dogs, despite (or because of) the strays I see around town.

One Sunday evening, Serbia suddenly seemed like home. We visited Studenica Monastery and were given a tour of the three churches inside. We drank coffee with a monk and spoke in broken Serbian-English about the church, life in Belgrade, and our families. For the first time in months, I felt as though I was a part of my surroundings, rather than passing through them on a first-class train.

Now I wonder about the days when we return to the United States. I wonder if I’ll overhear Serbian, or if someone will stop me when I’m telling our dog hajde, dosta, and fuje to. If that happens, I’ll say, Zivela sam u Beogradu za godinu dana. A year of unforgettable days.

Graffiti in Belgrade-and Beyond

Belgrade is known for its graffiti, which can be both good and bad. Bad because much of it is uninspiring (or worse, gang-related) and good because you can see original art, political commentary, or just something to make you smile.  Most of the graffiti artists are Serbian, but I recently came across a mural by a Polish artist whose murals are in museums and on walls all over the world. Mariusz Waras’ mural is off of Kneza Milosa by the Canadian Embassy:

The mural is part of a 2009 Belgrade Arts Festival project. Waras, whose project or perhaps alter-ego is called M-City, has done similar work in Poland, Spain, Germany and Ireland. Not bad company for Serbia. Here’s a closer look at the mural:

You can see the artists’ other works here.

I found a little information on Belgrade street art at the excellent Vandalog blog, but I’d love to find a blog solely dedicated to Belgrade’s Banksys. Since I haven’t found one, I might have to console myself with a copy of Street Art Love, a photo essay of Belgrade’s more notable graffiti.

If you have any interest in Belgrade or graffiti art, it’s worth picking up a copy at Belgrade’s Supermarket store or on I guarantee it will be one of the more interesting coffee table books you own.

Orange you glad for cafes in Belgrade?

In America, coca-cola is sometimes served with a slice of lemon. In Mexico and Central America, it’s served with a slice of lime. In Serbia, a slice of orange is added. It tastes quite nice, though I’m not sure why it’s done. Oranges aren’t exactly native to Serbia.

People might wonder why I was ordering a soda at a cafe. I could have easily bought a bottle from a kiosk and walked around with it. Yet I rarely see someone (who’s not a tourist) walking around with a drink in hand. Take-away coffee is advertised as something special. If you want a drink, Belgrade seems to say, sit down and enjoy it. Watch people walking by. Read the paper–waitresses will bring one to you if you ask. And as a bonus surprise, here’s a slice of orange.

Before I moved to Serbia, it would have taken me five minutes to drink this bottle. I would have bought it on the street and chugged it while I was running errands. Now it’s a social event that takes thirty or forty minutes. I don’t think I’ve done anything to change Belgrade, but Belgrade has certainly changed me.


This post title is from one of the worst American jokes ever told. 

Red Star at Night, Housewife’s Delight

I recently crossed an item off my “Belgrade Bucket List:” going to a Red Star Football (soccer) game. Going to a Belgrade football game is not for the faint-hearted or easily deafened. It’s a nonstop cacophony of drums, chants and really colorful curse words. And the game is fun, too.

Red Star and Partizan are Belgrade’s two professional football teams. Much like Mets and Yankees fans, Beogradjani swear their allegiance once and early. Enthusiasm is infectious, but also a bit nerve-wracking. European football games can get rowdy; Red Star games are no exception. Fans get into frenzies and fights are common. Belgrade football violence has made headlines several times: once in 2008 when a policemen was attacked with a flare at a Red Star match, and a year later, when a French man died of injuries sustained at a Partizan match. When the two teams play each other, police officers stand guard all over Belgrade to prevent rioting. It’s advised that foreigners do not attend Red Star-Partizan matches.

We weren’t going to press our luck, so we went to a more subdued match against BSK Borca with Serbian friends and our two latest guests: Kokodakati (the cackler, for his outrageous laugh) and Maćeha (stepmother), since Miloš acted like she was his new owner. Traitor.

As soon as we entered the stadium, we could hear drums and singing. The stadium was half-empty, but the northern end was packed with Delije (heroes), the hardcore football fans. Throughout the entire game Delije beat drums, unfurled banners and chanted songs. Kokodakati has seen football matches all over Europe, and said that nothing could rival the Red Star fans. (Except, perhaps, Paritzan fans…)

I found myself watching the Delije instead of the athletes as they lit flares and threw them at stadium officials. The officials calmly placed them in a pool of water built for this purpose. We heard that fans are searched upon entering the stadium, but people still find a way to bring in flares and other items.

That's the "flare pool" on the right

Here’s a short video of the madness, including a flare thrown onto the track. It’s too bad that baseball is not a big sport here, because some of these guys would have great pitching arms.

What is it like when the stadium is FULL?

Despite the mayhem, I felt safe. We sat on the west side of the stadium with other couples and families. Compared to the northern Delije side, the west side felt practically funereal. That was fine with me, though. I was exhausted just watching the Delije’s nonstop moving and singing. I asked, “if they do this throughout the game, how do they celebrate a goal?” I soon had an answer.

It was an outrageous sight—the north end looked like it was on fire, and people were yelling as if Red Star had won the World Cup. We cheered for our new team and saw Sveti Sava light up in the distance. A Belgrade football match is something to attend with care—but something you’ll never forget.

*This post’s title is derived from the English expression, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning”

(Kinda) Church on Sunday: A question about Orthodoxy

I haven’t had much luck photographing churches lately. Most of the churches on our Balkan Bonanza tour didn’t allow photos, and even in London cameras were forbidden in places of worship. Yet there’s one kind of church that I can always photograph, despite the fact that I can’t explain it: the roadside “altars” (shrines?) in the form of a church.

Can anyone explain what these are? Do they mark a site where someone has died? Are they simply a way of expressing religion? Or is there some other explanation? I might write about churches every week, but I must confess my complete ignorance when it comes to these roadside wonders.

They remind me of spirit houses in Thailand, but I’m certain that they don’t play that role in Orthodox Christian nations. I don’t have many photos to show as examples (we’re usually past them before I can whip out my camera) but I do love to look at them. I’ve seen in them in Greece, Macedonia, and occasionally in Serbia. Some have tiny bouquets of flowers or crosses inside. They have a dollhouse quality that I find appealing, though I’m sure they play a more serious role than religious dioramas.

 What do you say, readers? Anyone care to enlighten me on what role these tiny churches play in the Orthodox religion?

The RHOB Guide to Survival Serbian

Maybe you already know Serbian. Maybe you ARE Serbian. (Zdravo!) If not, and you’re coming to Belgrade, it’s good to know some words beyond dobar dan (good day) and hvala (thank you). It’s even better to know a few sentences and phrases that will get you through some typical Serbian experiences. These may not be grammatically perfect, but you’ll get your point across.**

Scenario 1: Finding a meal.

You’re starving. You see white tablecloths, outside seating, and a waiter hovering in the doorway. “Lunch!” you say to yourself. But not so fast…

You: Da li imate hranu ovde? (Crudely, do you have food here?)*

Waiter: Ne. (No.)

You: Mogu da jedem burek ovde? Super. (Can I eat burek here? Great.)

Note: cafes often look like nice restaurants but serve no food. Ask to bring in food from somewhere else (like a bakery or burek stand) or risk running around from cafe to cafe until your blood sugar drops faster than a Yugo’s value.  

Scenario 2: Ending a meal.

You’re at a kafana, or ever better, someone’s baba is cooking for you. Food has been coming out of the kitchen for three hours. You have to stop this madness before you explode like that dude in Big Trouble, Little China. 

You: Sve je bila odlicno. Ne mogu vise. (Everything was excellent. I can’t eat another bite.)

Baba: Moras da jedes malo vise. To ce pomoci da beba. (You must eat a little more. This will help you make babies.)

You: !?!?!

Baba: Napravna sam tulumbe, baklava, tufahije i torta. (I made tulumbe, baklava, tufanije and cake.)

You: Necu, ali hvala vama. Ako jedem nesto vise, mozda ja cu umreti. (I can’t, but thank you. If I eat anything else, I might die.)

Baba: Ti ces jesti tufahije. (You will eat tufanije.)

You: Mozda samo malo. Hvala vama. (Maybe just a little. Thank you.)

Note: While in Serbia, prepare to eat until you feel like dying. People will try to feed you until you clutch your heart and run out the door. Argument is useless. Besides, tufahije is awesome.

Scenario 3: Ending an evening at a friend’s house

You: Ne vise vina za mene. Mislim da je moj jetra je kiseli. (No more wine for me. I think my liver is pickled.)

Friend: Stravno? Imam dunya rakija iz cela mog dede. (Really? I have quince rakija from my grandfather’s village.)

You: U redu. Moja jetra nije važno, zar ne? (Ok. My liver isn’t important, right?)

Note: There is little peer pressure to drink alcohol in Serbia. But when you’re offered someone’s homemade rakija, peer pressure isn’t needed. Imbibe carefully. 

Scenario 4: Ending an Evening, Part II

[Ring, ring.]

You: Molim? Sta? Ne, ne mogu da idem u klubu veceras. To je tri ujutru i imam sastanak sutra u osam sati. (Hello? What? No, I can’t go to the club tonight. It’s 3 a.m. and I have a meeting tomorrow at 8 a.m.)

Friend: Nole je ovde. (Novak Djokovic is here.)

You: Ja cu biti to za deset minuti. (I’ll be there in ten minutes.)

Note: Just go. You can sleep on the plane. Or when you’re retired. 


Enjoy Serbia!

*There MUST be a better way to ask this. Srpski speakers, help a housewife out.

**I realize that there are probably several errors here, especially with cases. (Posting late, can’t find my cases cheat sheet, lazy, etc.) Feel free to correct major errors in the comments, but I probably will not correct the main text unless I wrote something offensively incorrect. Have a great weekend, everyone.