It had been a while since my last case, and I wasn’t too broken up about it. I figured the lack of Belgrade Mysteries meant that I was finally understanding this joint. I was no longer searching for clues about ice trays or dumpsters. In fact, I was now able to give directions or help people weigh their vegetables at the Mini Maxi. But just as I thought it was all over, another mystery pulled me back into the fray.
I was having lunch with American visitors when one of them returned from the bathroom. He had a puzzled look on his face, and I knew something was up. In a low voice, he asked, “um…so how to I flush the toilet here?”
Detective RHOB was on the case. I asked, “Can you describe the toilet? I’ll need the approximate height of the tank.” After some discussion, I realized he was talking about something like this:
I solved the case faster than a DC meter maid gives tickets. “There’s a tab on the top right side of the tank,” I said. “Push the right side of the tab and the toilet will flush.” Case closed. But I realized that it wasn’t the first time I’ve been presented with a bathroom brain-twister. Here’s a breakdown for the Balkan travelers presented with a “Dear John” case of their own.
Most toilets here have a dual-flush system. Press the bigger button for, um, bigger events and the smaller button…you get the idea. Here’s an example from an OMV rest stop. Most people could figure this one out, but I’m giving this john extra points for his buddy, “Big Willie.”
With other commodes, the mystery lingers like cevapcici with onions. I encountered the head on the right in Budapest. I thought I had to turn the knob, but nothing happened. (That I know of. I probably caused a small flood somewhere.) After using my detective skills I realized that the lever below was not fixed as I had previously thought. Another mystery solved. I was becoming an expert on Balkan toilets. And my guidance counselor said I’d never amount to anything…(Actually, he said I’d regret not taking typing class. FALSE.)
My detective skills were no match for the loo on the left, but it gets an honorary mention for being overly complicated. There’s a large panel, a lever, and a sort of aerodynamic design to it. Someone is spending a lot of time thinking about designing toilets. Then again, I devoted a lot of time photographing and writing about them. Who am I to judge?
Finally, there’s the deepest, darkest mystery of them all: pit toilets and the people who install them. If confronted with a pit toilet in the Balkans, stay away. Or bring tissue, soap, and quads of steel. I hesitated to post this, but I didn’t get my detective rank by turning away from the ugly cases. Sorry if you’re eating lunch right now.
The Balkans are full of mysteries large and small, so I’ll keep my detective hat on a little longer. I never know when I’ll open the door to a new case.
* Confused or non-native English speakers, the post title is a play on “John Doe,” the legal name given to an unidentified person, and the word “John” which is slang for toilet. I can’t get away from puns, sorry.
I’ve written quite a bit about rakija without revealing our secret: we didn’t have any in our home. Why was this a problem? Rakija is essential for Serbian hosting. A home without rakija is like a Nationals game without unforced errors. It’s like Charlie Sheen without a prostitute. It’s just…odd. We wanted to buy rakjia, but there was a dilemma. The best rakija is homemade, and we didn’t know anyone who distilled it. I had to don my detective lipstick and get to the bottom of my new case: the riddle of finding homemade rakija.
For those who think I’m just being a rakija snob, well, you’re right. With homemade rakjia, taste buds and local reputation are on the line; it’s not mere swill sold to tourists. And store-bought rakjia doesn’t just taste bad-it’s possibly dangerous. Serbia experienced a rakija scandal in 1998, when 56 people were poisoned by rakija made with methyl alcohol rather than ethanol. Not exactly what this drinker/shopper/detective wants to hear.
So on a recent trip to Zlatibor, I kept my eyes and ears open for clues about homemade rakjia. Fortunately, the spirits of Cagney and Lacey were with me, and I saw this sign on the way back from Sirogojno.
It was a strong clue. I drove up the steep driveway, parked by a tractor, and dodged chickens to cross the yard. A man emerged from the house. I mentioned his sign and he gestured toward a small wooden table with two rickety stools underneath. I didn’t take photos of the house-I didn’t want him to think I was being disresptectful, somehow.
He brought me a thimble-sized glass and poured me a drink from a flask. It was a nice plum rakjia but I was looking for medovica (honey rakija). He didn’t have any, but offered a sample of his juniper rakjia, poured from an old Courvosier bottle. I guess distilling is like making jam-use whatever containers you have on hand. Four hundred dinars later, I was the owner of a liter of juniper rakjia. To keep things mysterious, I received it in a sparkling water bottle.
The case seemed to be over…or was it? Later, I toured the Zlatibor market in the center of town. Rakija isn’t openly sold in Belgrade markets, but it was plentiful there. I looked for the least sophisticated label I could find and settled on the Terzic Jelena stand. She offered a sample, and I was as hooked as a three-eyed fish in the Anacostia River. We bought a bottle for five hundred dinars. It doesn’t look fancy, but at least it’s not in a water bottle.
We left Zlatibor content with solving the mystery not once, but twice. On a roundabout way home, we stopped at Studenica Monastery, where we were offered coffee and a smooth plum rakjia. When we complimented the bottle, we were informed us that it was made in the monastery. Ah, capitalism. We bought some as a souvenir.
Were my detective skills sharpening, or was this just a holy coincidence? Either way, we are now proud owners of not one, but three locally made bottles of rakjia. Now we just need to find rakija glasses…but that’s a mystery for another time.
It all started with an innocent walk on Knez Mihailova with Muz and our guest Prvi. As we strolled, my skillful powers of observation noted that Belgrade women are tall, pretty and very lean. Prvi concurred, declaring that “their bodies are smoking.” Muz was far too smart to chime in.
The boys were content to enjoy the view, but I knew I had the beginning of a new case on my hands: how did women stay thin in Belgrade, the land of fresh bread and kajmak? (And pastries, and chocolates, and cevap…) I formulated several theories: good genes, constant smoking, and sporadic eating were my top contenders. One thing was certain—Belgrade women weren’t running off the pounds.
As the winter months continued, the secret of slim Serbians became more mysterious. From November to April, Serbian families may celebrate two Christmases, two New Years’ celebrations, and at least two Slavas. After April, weddings (hours of courses, drinks and desserts) begin. I knew Belgrade women had a secret weapon to enjoy life here and fit into minidresses. What was it?
The answer was as murky as the Potomac—until I was walking home on a dark, cold night. Snow had melted during the day, and the sidewalks were covered with large patches of ice. As I struggled to keep my balance, Serbian women daintily trotted by in heels. Of course! I thought. Icy streets are the Beogradjani “winter workout.” No wonder the women seem to have abs of steel and figure skater’s physiques. Staying upright on the sidewalk requires more core work than a pilates class.
The winter workout also offers a bonus session: jumping out of the way of ice sheets tumbling off of roofs.
This is strictly optional, though: conscientious property managers often hang homemade signs to warn passerby.
That’s right, women of Belgrade: Detective RHOB is on to your tricks. I can’t smoke or deny myself sarma, but I can use all my strength to make it home without falling down. Summer minidresses, watch out. RHOB is getting her fitness on. One cautious step at a time.
Our first few days here were a blur of jet lag and confusion—even without drinking rakija. Despite this, I managed to pick up some cases rather quickly. My first case involved deciphering the coded symbols on our washing machine. It was tough, but easier than translating the Serbian instructions that came with all our appliances. That stuff you’ve heard about English being a universal language? Tell it to Gorenje.
I solved the laundry code, but couldn’t celebrate right away. I had to buy dishwasher and laundry detergent first. However, I bought dishwasher salt and stain remover instead. It seemed that my “Serbian for Housewives” skills had gone missing-though I suspected I had never had them in the first place.
On my second day here, I solved another case: the Mystery of the Key. I tried to get into our apartment on the second floor, but the key wasn’t working. What happened? Had the locksmiths double-crossed me?
Apparently not. It turned out that floors numbers start at zero here, meaning that the first floor in Serbia is considered the second floor in America. And since the doors looked exactly the same and had no numbers on them, I was using my key in someone else’s door. Fortunately, that someone else was not at home when I solved this mystery, so there was no need to go downtown.
It was my first week in Belgrade, and I was starting to feel as if I could solve any mystery. Sherlock Holmes? Nancy Drew? Columbo? They had nothing on RHOB.
Just as I was starting to feel comfortable in my new digs, I faced the greatest mystery of all: the Case of the Missing Dumpster.
It was time to throw out the garbage, and I looked in our courtyard for a dumpster or garbage cans. Nothing. I looked on the first, excuse me, zero floor for a garbage room. Nishta. Garbage chute? Non-existent. The plot thickened like an old bowl of Ben’s Chili.
Where did garbage go in Belgrade? People couldn’t recycle everything around here. What were they doing with it? Was it all being used for Mugatu’s Derelicte Campaign?
I decided to take bold action. I had noticed small garbage cans in a nearby park and decided to throw our garbage in one of them. We only had a small plastic bag, so I figured it wouldn’t attract too much attention. Was this illegal? Possibly. But a little danger never got in the way of a case for RHOB.
I walked out of our building, garbage in hand, and strolled down the street. Suddenly, I noticed a garbage truck emptying something. Something that looked suspiciously like a silver dumpster. As I watched the waste fall into the truck, it looked like household, not commercial garbage. Once I realized what the big, silver thing was, I noticed something else: they were everywhere. I had been walking by them for days without noticing them. RHOB: super-genius.
I threw my bag in the dumpster and walked to a café, passing the scene below. It appeared that solving The Case of the Missing Dumpster was my official welcome to Belgrade.
Only one day after writing about my Fox Crime addiction, I solved an important mystery: how people make ice at home in Belgrade.
The case began with an innocent observation. I noticed that our refrigerator had a non-functioning icemaker, and that there were no ice trays in the freezer. Using my deductive reasoning, I told Muz, “there’s no way to make ice in this house. I’ll have to pick up an ice tray this week.” Readers, take note: you can’t get anything by RHOB.
I pounded the pavement, but there were no ice trays in the first, second, third, and fifth grocery store I went to. Even Mercator (a toned-down Target) came up empty. “This week” turned into 8 weeks. Then it hit me. I had a serious case to solve: how do people make ice around here?
I thought that answer was simple: Europeans don’t use ice at home. But it was a dead lead. While ice isn’t common in most beverages here, ice is served with mixed drinks or cocktails. In fact, we were caught flat-footed when Beogradjanis asked us for whiskey with ice. We had to turn down their request—and turn up the heat on my not-so-cold case.
I decided to buy a bag of ice. But there seemed to be no such thing. The supermarket manager acted like it was a crazy request. Liquor stores didn’t carry it. “What gives?” I thought. Was a femme fatale slashing all the bags of ice? Was organized crime trying to hone in on the ice market? The mystery deepened like a pothole on K Street.
After nothing but dead ends, I questioned suspected ice users (AKA: other expats). My five minutes of interrogation worked wonders. There are three ways to get ice in Belgrade. First, you can order it through an “ice guy” who delivers 20 kilos of ice. I couldn’t decide if this was extravagant or old-fashioned. Either way, it was unworkable: we don’t have room for that much ice. The second method of ice manufacturing is to buy an ice bag, pictured below.
This product is promising, but elusive. Finally, I learned that “American-style” ice trays are sold at the Chinese Market in Novi Beograd. One Chinatown chase scene later, I cracked the case by buying two ice trays.
Later that evening, I celebrated my detective skills with an ice-cold Coke Zero. It tasted like victory.