Read, Write, Run, Roam

Drink

The Muž guide to Serbian gift-giving

Muž is a cool man under pressure–until it comes to holiday shopping. He doesn’t believe in “wish lists” and usually buys (admittedly lovely) gifts the week before Christmas. I picture him entering a store, finding a saleswoman that vaguely resembles me, and handing her his credit card.

Not this year.
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This Christmas, Muž gave me the best Belgrade gift yet. It’s not any of my previous suggestions, but it was better than all of them combined.

Muž worked with a company to publish the first year of posts on this site–two volumes of confusion, laughs and adventures. Thanks to him and to all my readers for helping to create an amazing gift.

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Cekaonica: Belgrade’s not-so-secret bar

IMG_5956Belgrade guide books often mention “secret bars.” In reality, they’re born more out of need than secret. Owners flaunt zoning regulations/papework and create bars in abandoned hospitals, basements, or empty apartment buildings. Some of these, like the Federal Association of Travelers, are exactly what you picture: they’re found through an unmarked door in the basement of an apartment building, and make you feel like you crashed a very civilized cocktail party. Others are tiny, loud apartment-sized spots. Some are actually in apartments, with very angry-or tolerant-neighbors.

They’re definitely bars, but not not exactly secret; many have websites or are commonly shared through word-of-mouth. Still, most people have a favorite “secret” bar, and I’m no exception.

My favorite not-so-secret bar? Čekaonica.

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Čekaonica is located at the top of the BIGZ building, a half-abandoned printing plant that was built in the mid-1930s. BIGZ building is just off a highway in an area that’s part industrial, part late-night clubs, and part Senjak mansions. Typically Belgrade, really.

There’s no sign, so visitors simply walk in the building, past a sometimes-present security guard, and turn right down a dark hallway to find the freight elevator. There’s graffiti everywhere, and enough random noise and sounds that make you realize the building isn’t abandoned–but that the residents may not there legally. And if that’s not enough to make you feel a bit secretive, wait until you get into the elevator.

IMG_5979The freight elevator is my second-favorite thing about Čekaonica. It’s not for the timid, because it lacks interior doors, and it’s not for the uninitiated, because it’s operated by pushing the knob button on the bottom AND the floor button you want. Like a secret code, if you will. And nothing impressed my cohorts (Serbian and American) like showing them a crazy building, a scary elevator, and a secret code.

Until they saw the view.

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This is my favorite thing about Čekaonica. It’s one of Belgrade’s few (only?) rooftop bars. From here, you can see the glory of the fortress, the brutalist architecture of Novi Beograd, or the seediness of the train yard. It’s the perfect spot to watch the sunset with a glass of wine and listen to live jazz. Because that’s right readers, it gets even better: Čekaonica is a jazz club.

The bar, I’m told, got its name (“waiting room”) because there’s a recording studio and jam space in the lower levels of BIGZ. Musicians would hang out on the roof while waiting for their turn to play, an enterprising person decided to put a bar up there, and Čekaonica was officially (unofficially?) in business. While this place isn’t so secret anymore, it manages to feel low-key. That is, until the new “secret” club next door starts blasting the bass at 1am.

Čekaonica is open from 10am-2am, and is located at the top of the BIGZ building. I don’t have the address, but ask for the BIGZ building and any taxi driver should take you there. You can find the bar’s Facebook page HERE.


Pet Peeve Petak

When did 60 ounces of soda become “small?”

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Also, the new James Bond is great–but for all the hype about filming in Novi Sad, I barely caught a glimpse!


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 http://lisaquinones.photoshelter.com/


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. 


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.


Corfu’s kumquat craze

We thought we knew what to expect from Corfu: lovely beaches, relaxed attitudes, and all the dolmades we could eat. However, there was one unexpected delight in Corfu. Kumquats!

I tasted my first kumquat this year and was instantly hooked. Kumquats aren’t often found in Serbia, but a friend somehow found them and offered them to me at the end of a meal. I picked up the grape-sized citrus fruit and popped one, whole, into my mouth. The rind was a bit sour, but the inside was a delicious mixture of sweet and tart. Where had these delicious goodies been all my life?  All too soon, kumquat season ended and I was left with visions of buying them at a D.C. Whole Foods for $10 a pound.

This will be $8.99 plus tax next year...

Kumquats are often found in Asia or South Africa, but Corfu received its first trees in the early 1900s. The plant thrived in its new terrain. Today, Corfu is one of the only places in Europe that has achieved “mass kumquat cultivation.” Sounds like an awesome band name. You’re welcome. 

Kumquat season was over in Corfu, but the tiny tart treats are preserved as candy and liqueur. We stopped by a shop in Corfu’s old town for a taste test. Though most of the shops here seem to be selling the same things, we were drawn in by this store’s focus on kumquats and their less-cheesy bottles. Plus, isn’t the shopkeeper adorable?

The candied kumquats were fantastic. The sugar heightened the kumquat’s mix of sweet and tart, making it an easy, if not healthy, way to enjoy the fruit year-round. We picked up a box for Muz’s office as I kept sneaking samples. The proprietor then asked us if we wanted to try the kumquat liqueur. Lady, does the Pope wear a big hat?  We played it cool, though. Muz waited a solid three seconds before he said yes.

There were several kinds of liqueur available, but we only tasted two. After the shopkeeper learned we liked rakija she dismissed the first two because she thought we would find them “too sweet.” The third bottle from the left was so sweet that I wondered how the other liqueurs didn’t induce diabetic comas. The last one, with the crystals inside, had the mix of bitter/tart/sweet that I like in the kumquat’s original form. And let’s face it, it was also the prettiest bottle.

It was also the most expensive one. As Muz scowled at my “champagne tastes” the woman told us that we could refill the bottle with vodka when it’s empty (When? Five years from now?) and still enjoy something similar. Aha! I insisted it was the more economical choice. A Real Housewife has to think of finances, you know. We purchased a small bottle, secure in the knowledge that my crush on Corfu–and kumquats–could continue in the comfort of our Belgrade home.