Longtime readers already know about my love for ajvar, so you may not be surprised to learn that one of my most treasured departing gifts was a jar of the ruby goodness from my friend Anja. “My grandmother makes the best ajvar,” she said. “I hope you like it.”
“I love it already,” I said. I eyed the big glass jar and felt my mouth water a little. “I’ll bring it back to America and eat it when I’m homesick for Belgrade.” I imagined gently packing the jar in Politika newspapers and taping it in a Pekara Aca bag to make sure it would be with me on a cold, gray day in America.
Instead, Muz and I ate it two days later. All of it.
Readers, I couldn’t help it. I thought, “I should eat this with Serbian bread. I should enjoy this with Zlatiborski prsut and young cheese. What if the jar broke on the way over? What if–GASP–Muz ate all of it first?” (He does this. Frequently.)
Any Serbian lady over the age of 40 would just look at me and say, “RHOB, make your own ajvar!” But that seems…really hard. And time consuming. And I don’t know where to get roga peppers. So imagine my happy surprise to see this at a Trader Joe’s a few weeks ago: fake ajvar!
Sure, it says “Red Pepper Spread,” but we all know that just means, “ajvar for people who don’t know what ajvar is.” The ingredients were the same. The color….ok, the color was not the same, but I could get past that. When I was ready to try it, I had to force myself to spread it on bread and not eat it straight out of the jar. I popped the bread in my mouth and…immediately frowned.
It’s bad, readers. There’s no other way to phrase it. If you’ve never had ajvar it’s fine, but it lacks the smokiness and velvety texture I was used to. It had a slightly bitter aftertaste that (I think) was due to either using bell peppers or not skinning the peppers properly. Balkan bake (grandmothers) will not be happy about this. And I was increasingly disturbed by the neon orange color. Trader Joe’s “fake ajvar” is, well, fakakta.
Which leads me to a new quest for roga peppers in the D.C. area and a time machine. Or a Serbian grandmother looking to adopt. Any ideas?
Though I was sad to end my time in Belgrade, the finite time frame had helped me make the most of it. We arrived in Serbia knowing that 365 days would not be enough to learn a new language, experience different cultures, and explore Europe. Still, we tried.
We spent hours conjugating verbs, looking at maps, and speaking with our hands. We listened to haunting guslas and ear-blasting horns. We got lost; we found adventure. We ate anything put before us–including pihtije. We drank rakija, to forget the taste of pihtije.
I spent my last weeks in Belgrade trying to remember all these memories and more. My last day in the city, I tried to cement a favorite memory: the walk up Knez Mihailova and through Kalemegdan Park.
Kalemegdan isn’t part of the hidden Belgrade I liked to explore. It doesn’t have the dusty, odd shops of Sarajevska. It doesn’t sprout funky alleys like Kralja Aleksandra, or offer the charm of Skadarlija. There are plenty of other parks to wander in. But none of them, in my opinion, top Kalemegdan.
Kalemegdan embodies Belgrade. It’s where the city’s Celtic, Austrian, Hungarian, and Turkish footprints collide. It sits at the rivers that brought those footprints to Serbia, creating the subtle diversity of Serbian culture. Kalemegdan is the Muslim Turbe and the Roman Well, Mestrovic statues and military relics, nuzzling couples and lone dogs. It was where I went to say goodbye to a city—and year—that I would always cherish.
My last morning in Belgrade, I strolled past people waiting at Trg Republike and turned right on Knez Mihailova.
The walking street was quiet that morning. No accordions or violins, just unhurried people buying popcorn and window-shopping. I passed Kralja Petra, resisting the urge to walk down its cobblestone path flanked by perfumeries and expensive boutiques. Instead, I continued to Kalemegdan’s tree-lined entrance.
Leaves crunched under my feet as I passed silent chess players and babbling toddlers. Pigeons gobbled up popcorn as I admired the river and turned back to the main path lined with vendors. I had walked through this gauntlet many times to look at the unchanging array of hats, sweaters and cheap souvenirs.
I stopped short of an Italian tourist group shopping for gifts. One tried on a šajkača (traditional hat) as his friends laughed. Their guide stood off to the side with a bored expression, scrolling his cell phone for new text messages.
I slipped in with the group and shook an overpriced snow globe. A crude rendition of The Victor become fuzzy with white flakes. As I listened to the Italians chatter I realized that soon, I would be like them: just another tourist in Belgrade.
When I return to Serbia, I won’t know the names of clerks at the Mini Maxi. I won’t find the best pijace stall, the shortcut through the underpass, or the new “secret” bar. But I will see Kalemegdan, and admire her timeless grace all over again.
It will have to be enough.