...And so I got into the same old grey train again. Comfortable with its old grey sleeper carriages. Next stop was Belgrado, the capital of former Yugoslavia, current at that time…
I had my Hitch Hikers Guide to Europe, which had gotten me in trouble in the past with misinformation (like you don’t have to pay for the local trams because they never check, duh! I got checked…). It told me where to go for hotels, hostels, campings, which bridges you could and couldn’t sleep under… But Yugoslavia was pretty cheap, I didn’t have to hitch-hike or sleep under bridges here. I booked into a little youth hotel of sorts. Shared rooms of course.
Belgrado was a big city. Not particularly warm or cold, bright or dreary, just a big place. The hotel seemed nice enough, and the man sharing my room seemed a good man. He spoke with as broad New York accent (as if I would know, I had never been to NY, but it is what I imagined it to be!), and he was very well dressed, very black and well spoken.
He had a story about his wife being Philippino and when they came to the Greek border with the train she did not have a Greek tourist visa. Caught unaware the wife and their child booked into a hotel in Skopje (???) near the border, and he traveled back to Belgrado to visit the greek embassy with his wife’s passport. In the panic and frustration he had lost his wallet and had no money.
The man, Ted, was a professor in metallurgy and was living in Germany, and he was going on a holiday with his family. This had not been a good start. Being a Samaritan, easy prey and gullible and innocent as only an 18 year old could be, I paid for his accommodation in the hotel.
I even spotted Ted $50 so he could go into town to the embassy and pay for the visa. He had to return 24 hours later to pick it up. I made sure that Ted and I hung out together. He was a cool dude, we went to the war museum in Belgrado, and done some other touristy things. The war museum in Belgrado is great. You start where it says IN, and the path leads you through the entire museum, right till the end where it says EXIT.
The advantage of it is that you see everything in the order it was designed to be seen, you do not miss out on bits that one just has to see if one could only see one exhibit. Like wandering into the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam and not see Rembrand’s Night Watch, or the Australian National Gallery and miss Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. Going to Le Louvre and missing Mona Lisa would be easy too!
Being 18 and pretty well uncultured I appreciated this museum not being a huge place that you dragged yourself through in random fashion, wondered if there were any parts you missed, and walked out wandering if this was world famous or not. War museums for young minds are always impressive. Little did I know these artifacts would be dragged out 10 years later to wage wars against fellow Yugoslavians of other ethnic type!
Museums on your own are never all that good. You must share these experiences, discuss them. You must point out good and bad bits, it would be no fun alone. So Ted and I both had a good time seeing Belgrado for a couple of days… The trams were the best in the world too. If you stood in the back of the tram and looked forward you could see how much the tram rolled and swayed and seemed to have real trouble staying on its tracks! It was a comical but worrying look. For 5c per ride you didn’t expect much, but these trams were rickety!
It was the third night now, and Ted was definitely going to get his wifes visa this morning, but I wasn’t going to wait, I was going on. I had lend him another $50 so he wouldn’t have to ask me every time he wanted to buy an ice cream! He eloquently and politely explained to me that he really appreciated my help, but that he found it demeaning, as a professional adult, to ask me (a young man half his age) for bits of money here and there and if I could just lend him $50 which he would pay me back since we were both heading to Greece anyways.
Off I went on the morning train to Skopje. Ted would catch the lunch time one after picking up the visa, and I would meet the train in Skopje, an hours drive from the Greek border, come meet his family, and we’d travel on to Greece on our own merry ways.
Skopje was destroyed by an earthquake in 1963 when over 1000 lives were lost. The attraction of ‘building a new city’ seemed an attractive proposition to many immigrants, who all flocked to Skopje since the Earthquake. All were hoping to make a new life. Skopje was traditionally known as a multicultural center for centuries, until WWII when the Jewish population was deported, the Turkish were ‘pressurized’ back to Istanbul. After the earthquake of 1963 many Albanians (from Kosovo) and Romanians made it their home, and the ethnic Armenians and Russians left, and so it had become a melting pot of many cultures.
In any case, most buildings in Skopje were all brand new. It was interesting seeing the ‘new’ concrete market place, the bazaar. It was all very Muslim to me. I had never been to anything quit like it. There was nothing much to do, but seeing women with their faces covered and those markets full of vegetables and flowers made quite an impression on me. The countryside was unusual to me as well. Wide open rocky hills with mountains in the distance, the mountain range of Vodno, Matka, Kitka and Crna Gora according to the books!
Ted did not show up. I did not see any Philippino woman with child anywhere. I staid in a little hotel for the night and checked the night train as well. Now, in hindsight, I realize embassies are very unreliable places to get visas. They stuff you around pretending to be very important. If there is anything even slightly unusual it can take weeks and or months to sort out. If Ted’s wife was a) already stopped at customs attempting to enter ‘illegally’, and b) not coming to the embassy in person, Ted could just about forget it!
Now, also in hindsight, I may have actually been conned by this man Ted. Despite his academic knowledge (he did convince me) his well spoken English, his sob story, who knows. But what really made me think something was up was the last night before I left Belgrade.
That morning I woke up in the room we shared, and Ted was yelling and scream; ‘I’ve been robbed! My drugs are gone! My drugs are gone! Someone has stolen my drugs, noo ne leave the hotel! My drugs!’
The hostel keeper was alerted immediately and he was told to check everybody leaving the hostel for drugs that were teds. I don’t know what drugs he was talking about, but drugs to me were illegal, I had never ever been involved with drugs, and the fact that in some countries –like the USA- drugs can also mean heart-tablets, aspirins, valiums, or other pharmaceuticals was unbeknown to me. My first ever visit to the continent of North America was in Vancouver, and I had to stop and take pictures of ‘DRUG STORES’ in the streets! I thought they might sell Marihuana and stuff!
The hostel keeper made some vague attempt to ask people as they left the hostel if they had found any drugs lying around. Some people looked very doped out and almost went overboard with gestures and words to say no no no no no….. This looked not suspicious to me as I too found the coffee terribly inadequate, and they merely looked as if they were suffering from coffee withdrawals.
Ted was not happy, whatever it was that hit him, I decided on the spot that he was not fair-dinkum, he was not what I had imagined, he was not living up to the standards I expected of a professor, even if he was an American professor. It was just this one act on the morning of my departure that blew me away, and made me realize that I was most probably conned.
I took the train to to Greece…..
Skopje incidentally is an interesting archeological site too. Skopje was the center of the Roman province Obermoesien. It was a lively town that took its first form under Emperor Vespasian in 170 AD. There are numerous cultural monuments that, despite repeated damage from earthquakes remain preserved and gives the modern Macedonian capital of Skopje ample tradition. Besides the Byzantine, Slavic and Ottoman-Islamic features, it also has the charms of the old town with its oriental bazaars.
At this time Slobodan Milosevic was still an aspiring politician, before becoming the head of a Yugoslav nationalist faction in 1987. In 1989 Milosevic was the one who made the constitutional changes that placed Kososvo’s 2 million people under Serbian rule, and the rest we all know as world history.