A Very Short Belgrade Dictionary- Part One

Brutalism. If you’re feeling particularly poetic, you might go as far as to call Belgrade the only ugly city that is beautiful. There are of course hideous examples of Socialist architecture out there, the former Soviet states are festering with them, but the great thing about Belgrade is that although its skyline is dotted with the giant concrete monsters of New Belgrade, and you can meet interesting endeavours such as the Beograđanka on the other side of the rivers as well, the city never succumbs to them. Ultimately, they just become an indispensable part of the urban landscape, one of the things that makes Belgrade feel very much like itself and nowhere else.

Cats and dogs. Belgrade celebrates its position at the confines of the East and the West by being equally enamoured with cats and dogs. It shelters a fair amount of stray cats, although less than your average Mediterranean city, which in turn means that they are almost always well fed and content with their lot in life, often serving as the feline in residence of the closest coffeehouse, shop or office. All this while in the morning the Kalemegdan is an impromptu dog show, with everything from ankle biters wrapped in cozy doggie-jackets to giant dignified Great Danes. 

Ćevapi. Coming across a vegetarian in Belgrade is somewhat akin to finding ET your bike basket: you have a faint idea it might exist, but never thought you’d actually see one. While ćevapi are of course consumed all over the Balkans, and many will argue that Sarajevo is where they reach heights of perfection hitherto unknown to humanity, Belgrade seems to have the most comprehensive network of ćevap catering- wherever you are, you’re never more than ten minutes away from some sort of restaurant, bar or kiosk serving them. Should you happen to be of the above mentioned ET sort, they’ll halfheartedly give you some lepinja with kajmak and secretly wonder what childhood trauma maimed you in such way. 

Gavrilo Princip. His popularity seems to have increased recently, as some sort of (not all that) subversive way of countering the rather general view that Serbs are the bad guys in any given situation. Princip is theoretically a bad guy himself, what with killing poor Franz Ferdinand- somewhat amusingly, most foreigners don’t recognize him at first, nor do they know that the was an ethnic Serb. When it comes to his deed, though, vile as it might seem, you can argue that it was also the expression of a nation (among many) striving to free itself from the yoke of an oppressive empire. The bad guy is sometimes also a matter of perspective. 

Kafana. As most big cities, Belgrade has also seen a fair amount of third wave coffee shops proliferate like mushrooms after the rain. Yet, as opposed to many places which seem to replicate the exact prototype of a basically London/New York style hipster den, the kafana spirit remains victorious in Belgrade. No matter how minimal the surroundings, the customers don’t vary much from one place to the other: they seem to come from all walks of life, and, while apparently just on a quick stop between two exhausting activities, they will linger on for hours, steeped in caffeine, smoke and conversations, personal or remote. It sometimes feels as if work for many Belgraders is actually the short unpleasant hiatus between two stays in the kafana. 

Kokice. I once mentioned to a Serbian friend that they seem to eat a lot of popcorn, upon which he stared at me in disbelief and firmly declared that they eat exactly as much of it as your next nation, and finished the sentence off by munching away, you guessed right, some popcorn. You see, he had just bought a pack on Kneza Mihailova street, and previously he had bought another one by the Danube, and yet another one at Saint Sava’s Temple (he was giving us the scenic tour). There are popcorn stands basically anywhere in the city, working from early morning to late night, and catering to a constant stream of people who will just casually buy a pack while seeing to their meandering daily business. Their smell is easily recognizable and will hit you every so often- basically the whole of Belgrade is a crescendo and descrescendo of kokice scent. 

Nikola Tesla. Tesla is mercifully easier to promote than Princip, and most people will recognize him too- even if perhaps hideously wrongly assuming he was American. Undeniably, though, Tesla is seriously cool. You may argue that all modern souvenir businesses are bound to be cheap rip offs, but if I am to get one tacky souvenir I will never regret, well that’s a tiny Tesla coil, since the man was instrumental in shaping the world as we know it today and was a bit (read immensely) crazy too, but we do need the crazy to snap us out of indifference. There are Tesla air conditioners in Belgrade, Teslas on walls and posters, Tesla branded train carriages and Tesla on the 100 dinar note. Nowadays there’s also a queue at the Tesla museum, so do book in advance if you feel like visiting- and you should. 

Novak Djoković. Djoković is hovering somewhere between Princip and Tesla in terms of affection and brandability: more a Tesla when he wins (which he hasn’t been doing all that much recently), and more Princip when he loses, or turns vegetarian and gluten-free, which goes against the above mentioned belief in the holiness of ćevapi and the soon to be mentioned holiness of Serbian pastry. There’s also the problem of his practicing the somewhat niche sport of tennis in a country famed for its exploits at vastly more popular team sports, such as basketball (only European team ever to challenge the Americans), volleyball or water polo. There’s something in the halfheartedness of kids botching serves at the Novak tennis centre pointing towards the fact that he’s more of an anomaly that will last for as long as he wins Grand Slams, and as soon as he’s done with that, amidst a great sigh of relief, the whole country will turn its undivided attention to more fathomable sporting undertakings. 

Pekara. The Serbian pastry shop often looks unassuming, unlike the glorious fluffiness of a Viennese affair. It is often bedecked with eerily lit shelves of haphazardly arranged pies, buns and crescents manned, or much more frequently womanned by matronly creatures who get somewhat irritated if you ask questions, which you are wont to do if you happen not to be from Belgrade. What they want is dates dates numbers numbers, three pieces of that, two of that, a yogurt and I was never here in the first place. Wrestling them can thus be an uphill affair, but the reward matches the size of the task. There are very few things more satisfying in the world than sitting on a high plastic chair, looking at a really messy intersection while munching on cheese pie with yogurt- if there’s heaven, they definitely have a corner for doing just that. 

 

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