Read, Write, Run, Roam


Belgrade for the holidays

Looking for a gift for a certain special Serbian? Here are two options for anyone missing, or curious to see, a bit of Belgrade.

The first is from fellow Belgrade blogger Andy Townend, who published a book this year featuring his gorgeous shots of the White City.

Unfortunately, the book is currently only available in Serbian bookstores. There’s an option to order it through the Delfi website, but a bit of Serbian is needed to order, and I’m not sure that the book will ship internationally. Check out his blog,, for a free fix until your next visit to a knjižara.

For those without access to Belgrade bookstores, there’s another photography book that’s easily accessible for Americans. by Marko Todorovic features Belgrade street art from 2005-2010. It’s a different vibe from Belgrade streets, but just as beautiful. When used with a smart phone, the book also reveals interviews and videos. Best of all, it’s available on

These books should tide your special someone over until they receive the ultimate gift: a plane ticket back to Belgrade. (Save that ticket for springtime, though. Looks like the Balkans are in for another rough winter.)


Happy anniversary to me

Should I have set out on this long journey? I went almost unthinkingly, without any special desire or need, for the sake of another. And perhaps I’d gain from seeing this strange Frankish world. I say perhaps, because I didn’t believe it. Apart from merchants, traveling was only for those disturbed people unable to remain alone with themselves, who chased after the new sights that an unknown world offered to their eyes while their hearts remained empty. 

-Meša Selimović, The Fortress.

I’ve always loved this quote, but I find it especially fitting today. I arrived in Belgrade one year ago. When we landed I was tired, confused, and practically ignorant about this part of the world. I moved here for the sake of another, but also because I hoped to gain a greater understanding about the world and even my own country. But let’s be honest, too–I also hoped to see new sights.

I’ve accomplished some of these goals, but the “must-see, must-do, must-read” list goes on and on. Maybe that’s the way it should be. Or maybe I’m one of the “disturbed” people Selimovic talks about. That’s ok. I’ve been called worse. Should I have set out on this long journey? Sigorno. With certainty.

Check out the works of Selimović and other Balkan (and Portugese) authors this year at the Belgrade Book Fair–it continues until Sunday.

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.

The Tiger’s Wife and the Elephant’s Widow: Reflections on “Twiggy” at the Belgrade Zoo

A few weeks ago I read The Tiger’s Wife, a novel set in a fictional version of Belgrade in the 1990s.  It’s a great book, whether you know anything about the Balkans or not; it’s more (bitter)sweet for a reader in Belgrade.

The book is about many things: coming of age in a time of war, familial love and secrets, and the understanding that some things, however strange, must be accepted as truth. Incredibly, the author winds much of the tale around tigers, including a tiger at the “not Belgrade” zoo.

The walk to the zoo will be quite familiar for Beogradjani:

…the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park…there is the popcorn cart, the umbrella stand, a small kiosk with postcards and pictures…through the garden that runs the length of the citadel wall, framed with cages.

Last November, I walked through the Belgrade zoo. I strolled past the popcorn cart, the fortress walls, and the kiosks that now sell drinks and candy. I, like the narrator, smelled the musk of the wolves and the stench of the vulture’s meal. I love zoos, and was enjoying my trip. But my heart sank when I reached the elephant den.

“Twiggy” is kept on a small concrete pad. Her enclosure is dank. She repeatedly paces an exact pattern, a sign of repetitive stress disorder. The exhibit, and the animal, look depressed and tired.

Elephants need a lot of space; they roam up to thirty miles per day in the wild. Female elephants are social creatures that live in packs and help raise each other’s children. Twiggy has been alone since 1997, when her intended mate “Boy” died. (Though her widowhood might have been for the best—they never liked each other.)  To say that this enclosure isn’t serving Twiggy’s needs is a major understatement.

I understand that the Belgrade zoo doesn’t have a large endowment. I understand that zoos are valuable tools for teaching us about the world and ecology; they highlight man’s role in preserving-and destroying-earth’s creatures. But I couldn’t understand how one could justify the elephant habitat in the Belgrade zoo.

This passage about an elephant in The Tigers’ Wife offered some insight:

Later on, we would read about how some soldiers found him near death at the site of an abandoned circus; about how, despite everything, despite closure and bankruptcy, the zoo director had said bring him in, bring him in and eventually the kids will see him. For months the newspapers would run a picture of him, standing stark-ribbed in his new pen at the zoo, an advert of times to come, a pledge of the zoo’s future, the undeniable end of the war.

Hope is found in simple images: a soldier’s return home; houses standing amidst earthquake rubble; a child smiling at an elephant. I’m not sure if that’s why Twiggy’s still here: is she a reminder that Belgrade is as good as any city, with a zoo like any other? If so, Belgrade doesn’t need that kind of reminder. It’s a wonderful city with a good heart and excellent people. But sadly, right now, it’s a terrible place for an elephant.

I go, Yugo: Kragujevac, Serbia

Statue of the auto worker, Zastava HQ

When I told someone I was going on a day trip to Kragujevac , she paused and said, “Really? I have not been there, and I grew up here.”

It may not be a popular tourist or local destination, but Kragujevac was an interesting, if not inspiring, day trip. Kragujevac (Kra-GOO-yay-vatz) was the first capital of Serbia, and briefly became the capital again during WWI. The city is the home of the first Serbian constitution, high school, and printing press. Kragujevac’s Zastava cannon factory began in 1853, and the city has since become an industrial hub.

If Zastava sounds familiar, it’s because it later became a car factory. A car factory that produced the best-known, worst-ranked car in American history: the Yugo.

I saw dozens of Yugos—old and new—on the streets of Kragujevac. There are quite a few in Belgrade, too. Inspired by the sight, I read “The Yugo-The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History.”

Do you remember the Yugo? In 1985, it was one of Fortune Magazine’s 12 “Outstanding products,” right next to…New Coke. What happened after that? Murphy’s law: anything that could go wrong, did. Yugo America’s CEO had a long history of poor decisions. There were clashes between American and Socialist business models. Factory infrastructure was ill-suited to making thousands of Yugos to American standards. Dealers received cars with missing locks, because the parts hadn’t arrived in time.

These had locks

Then there were those pesky safety tests in 1986. Though the tests may have been flawed, the Yugo still had the 8th highest death rate. And the cost of repairing crash damage was greater than the cost of the car.

It wasn’t long before the Yugo went from chic to geek. Corporate bankruptcy, the war/breakup of Yugoslavia, and U.S. sanctions followed. The last Yugo was made in 2008, after Fiat invested a billion dollars in Zastava to make another car, the Topolino.

Italy was not "lovin' it" (see sticker)

These cars may not be able to take a licking, but they certainly keep on ticking. Kragujevac has more to offer than Yugos, but you can’t talk about the city without mentioning the #1 car zipping around town. I’ll write more about the city later.


Let the Great World Spin… around New York and Belgrade

“It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last and connected.”

This book is a wonderfully written, twisted love letter to New York. It chronicles eleven people with wildly different backgrounds, each struggling to find their way in the city-and in life. I found myself skimming over some character chapters (the grieving mother, the photographer) but savoring others (brothers from Dublin, a prostitute working with her daughter).  The centerpiece of it all is Philippe Petit’s walk across the Twin Towers in 1974, though the acrobat’s name is never mentioned in the book.

I’m not going to bore you with my analysis, but I wanted to recommend the book and share the quote above.

I thought the quote was a great description of New York, but then I started thinking it applied to Belgrade as well. A walk in Belgrade is a walk through history. The city has Soviet, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and modern influences within a single square mile. It also has a misunderstood population, haves and have-nots, and a will to survive. The city has been in a state of renovation since its inception, and I’m not just talking about the buildings. Centuries of invasions, uprisings, changing politics, and destruction have required the city-and its people-to search for strength amidst adversity and stability throughout change.

I’d love to read the book about that.