Thursday, April 9, 2015

Niš, Serbia

It hasn't taken me long to catch up with myself, this time; it's been less than three weeks since I left Hungary, and (other than the still-to-be-delayed post about cheesemaking at Gyúróikecske) I have written all of the Hungary posts. When I left France, it took me twice that long to finish up the travelogue-photoblog posts and write about the day I spent on the Charente-Maritime coast. Now it's time to write about Serbia, in the brief periods when I'm not writing about kombucha, the topic of my current massive project. More specifically, to write about Niš, Serbia - I don't have either the time or transportation to get anywhere else.

I'm not the first person who has used Niš as a resting place on the way from one place to another. The Morava River basin is one of the major north-south corridors connecting Eastern Europe to Western Asia, and the road and rail lines still go through here to Athens and to Constantinople. Constantine the Great was born here in 278 CE, in the region the Romans called Moesia Superior, when this city was named Naissus. Over the centuries many cultures have dominated the area: the Hungarian Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Bulgarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire have all ruled here, and left their mark on local traditions and local food.

Fluffy bread from the west, tangy cheese from the south, pickled vegetables from the east, and peppers from the north (fresh, dried, or made into ajvar) all combine as accompaniments to what appears to be the Serbian national dish: grilled meat. OMG SERBIAN BARBECUE OMG, as my Facebook friends will recall me saying a few days ago. I have eaten it almost every day, and sometimes twice in one day. There are two barbecue stands not three minutes' walk away from the hostel. One is attached to a butcher shop where the owners sell the meat from their own pigs, as well as other products, and where I can get the small skinless sausages called ćevapi. The other one is nearer and slightly larger, and features skewers of chicken pieces wrapped in bacon and a larger range of salads to go with the meat. They know me there now, and when I show up they don't even wait for me to order before they start piling the chopped pickles and grated cabbage on a styrofoam takeaway plate. I generally get the grilled chicken thighs, but sometimes I'll get a small hajdučka pljeskavica (a patty made out of ground beef and smoked pork). If the servers are in a good mood, I can coax them into giving me extra salad, but sometimes I have to buy two pieces of meat to get twice as much salad. And then I eat the second piece of meat for breakfast the next day, giving me the fuel I need to type for hours on end.
The coffee here is strong and black, Turkish coffee that's boiled and served unfiltered, leaving a quarter inch of fine grounds at the bottom of the cup. There's a set of little aluminum pots that I use to make my coffee in the morning in the hostel's kitchen, and then I bring the pot and the cup up to my room and sip it while slowly waking up to the day, playing my Lexulous moves and catching up on the internet news, and peering up through the skylight to see if it's going to be an overcast rainy day or a blue-skied sunny one. In general I prefer the former, as it's hard to stay inside typing when the weather's gorgeous. I've been lucky in that it's been chilly and grey for over half my time here, so far. Though I'm not sure the permanent residents of Niš would agree.

I do eat things other than grilled meat, of course, though cooking here at the hostel has been a bit tricky because of the three temperatures on the hotplate: near-boiling, boiling, and boiling over. The owner Srdjan has been nice enough to provide me with a better pot, one that I can cook rice and lentils in fairly easily, and this week he brought back a small electrical oven that I think I'll be using more than the hotplate. I cooked rice and roasted mushrooms with green onions in it last night, and those turned out well. The hotplate's good for making coffee, and grilling bread, and doing quick stir-fried vegetables, and now that the oven is in the kitchen, I'm all set.

While Niš is full of extremely nice people, it's not exactly full of extremely scenic vistas. It's a working-class city and while this area has been inhabited for over two thousand years, not much of that history remains above ground. A few buildings date back to the late 19th century and early 20th century, but most of the construction appears to have been done during the 1920s and 1930s in the architectural style called "Moderne" (think Art Deco, only with absolutely no ornamentation) or in the concrete-dominated years of financial turmoil and political turbulence between the end of World War II and 2006, when Serbia became an independent state. My impression from the graffiti (not that I can read it, of course) is that both turmoil and turbulence continue to some extent.

Belgrade definitely has more going for it from a cultural and scenic standpoint, but I'm very glad to be here in Niš, where I can walk everywhere, where there are three health food stores with gluten-free bread within a ten-block radius, and where I have this lovely hostel practically to myself. I have done some walking around and sightseeing. I found the post office, which is the only place I've found postcards. No, wait - I think I saw a few postcards in the branch of the tourist office that's nearest here, when I stopped in to get a street map. There are at least four branches in town that I've seen so far, and there's a big conference on tourism this month here. There's an international jazz festival here in the summers, and every August the "Burek Days" (Burekdžijada) festival attracts bakers from Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Turkey, and any other country where that cheese- and/or meat-filled filo pastry is made. There's a branch of the national university here, and the remains of the 18th-century Turkish fortress are a popular spot with locals and tourists alike.

So it's not as if there's nothing to do and nothing to see here in Niš, don't get me wrong. But I'm actually kind of glad that it's not a magical wonderland of exploration outside the hostel door, because then it would be much too hard to stay inside.

I told Srdjan the other day that I was feeling guilty because I haven't posted anything on the Booking.com website or any of the other places he's listed the hostel. "This is a great place and you should stay here," I want to say, "but please wait until I leave so I don't have any competition in the bathroom and can fill the refrigerator with fresh vegetables and leftover grilled meat." Since people need time to plan trips and make reservations, I'll have to start adding my glowing recommendations in the next week or so.

There was one guy who stayed here last week; he was in town for two days so that he could take a firefighter's exam, if I remember correctly. He didn't speak much English, and I speak even less Serbian, but we had a few brief chats, and when he learned how I've been spending the last nine months or so he said, "You have an interesting life." I do indeed. I saw him the morning that he was getting ready to leave, and he gave me a gift to show me that Serbians are nice people who don't bomb other people (or perhaps didn't deserve to get bombed; that particular statement was a bit unclear to me, though I agree with both interpretations) and to foster international relationships. "France! Scotland! Philadelphia! Serbia!" he said, pulling a t-shirt out of his travel bag. So now I have an authentic Serbian t-shirt to go with the completely inauthentic one I bought at one of the many used clothing stores in this neighborhood.

I wrote three more articles this morning, then lost my momentum and decided to write this post instead; my blog writing is just as important as the writing I do for my clients, I decided a few months ago, and while it's not bringing in any money it does give me a great deal of satisfaction. I'll publish this and then go out and get more grilled meat and cabbage salad, maybe read a little bit, and then listen to the news on the BBC before going to sleep, getting ready for another day of writing and walking and catching myself suddenly smiling because I am living in Serbia! I love my interesting life.

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