Characters

“She kept on tellin’ me, she kept on tellin’ me…”

It’s Saturday night in Belgrade, and Paul is serenading me. “This is our song, doll, Meatloaf. Man. Two out of three ain’t bad. What does that even mean?”

I do the 1) want you, 2) need you, 3) there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love this most depressing “our song” ever math for him. “You just blew my mind girl. I’ve been trying to figure that out for years.”

Andrea had found Paul that morning, laying in a blanket giggling hard at Bugs Bunny cartoons, still drunk, never having slept yet after a night of drinking. It wasn’t until he jumped up to dance it’d be confirmed he was wearing anything under that blanket. The Saturday morning joking turns awkward. Turns to leprosy, actually, and what if you got it in “that place?” Paul: “Man, I’d be screwed.” Me: “Not for long!”

Paul, Australian, also attempted to guess our birth years. He was born in 1982. Andrea, he’d guessed ’90. No, ’88.

“And you, you innocent thing. ’96. ’94 at least.”

Paul, do I look like I’m sixteen?

“No, I’m just messing! But you can’t drink legally in the states, can you.”

You’d never believe he’s been traveling for two years. Ask him where he’s been (everywhere, Zimbabwe, everywhere else). Ask him his worst experience. “Oh, (bleeping) Lake Tahoe. That was hell.”

Paul missed his train to Sarajevo, stayed around another day. Andrea and I stayed out just long enough that night for Paul and I to establish our song but were in bed long before he came home, poured more shots, “helped” check in new guests, and fell asleep in front of the fourth floor elevator on the way to his new train to Sarajevo. He woke up hours later, still drunk, still stuck in Serbia. “HOW does anyone LEAVE this country?”

Oh Belgrade. If you are what you eat, then in Serbia I’m a giant puff pastry. You can get a croissant with anything you want in it. Chocolate? Pizza? Absolutely. Breakfast one, lunch one, dessert one? Sure. No one should have that much croissant in a belly.

Andrea and I loved our three days in Belgrade. The food was delicious, cheap, wonderful. Iced coffees have scoops of vanilla ice cream. Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately” plays in cafes during the day, and impromptu group singalongs to Wonderwall and I Will Survive with our guitar-playing friend happen in the hostel at night. The people were friendly, the hostel fun, our new friends absolutely awesome. We spent our nights in Belgrade playing cards with the group.

The hostel owner, well that’s another story.

Serg looks like Fabio. You’ve heard about him here before. Serg is big, tan, muscular, long dirty blonde hair. Straight out of a bad romance novel- Pretty epic, if in the most gross uncomfortable way. Case in point, Fabio removed the caps on our beers with his teeth.

And Fabio, I don’t want to go on a middle of the night walk with you to get a beer and watch the sunrise. Thanks for the offer to “see your city.” And when I come back at two, Andrea and I will play chess. I won’t watch Band of Brothers with you on the couch because “it comes from America.”

Sans Serg, the hostel gang of a dozen people or so went out last night. Led far from our hostel, into an abandoned (looking) building, up six dimly lit graffiti-covered in-every-direction flights…out on a balcony, where a jazz band is playing. It’s a little gem of a bar with a terrific view of the lights, bridges, river, Belgrade. The group has a blast, talking about our homes, our travels, our countries. You’d be amazed how many late-twenty, early-thirty somethings quit their jobs to travel. “You can always find a new job. Knowing the world is worth it.”

Dan, the group leader, staff at the hostel, asked Andrea what brought us to Serbia of all places. She said we looked at a map, looked at each other, “Serbia? Sure!” He said that’s why he loves American tourists. If they’re the ones coming to Serbia, they’re up for adventure.

Back at the hostel, Andrea and I caught up with home, and home witnessed via Skype us dealing with too much inappropriate Serg. By too much, I mean I was told what happens in Belgrade stays in Belgrade. Well I have every intention of leaving puff pastry, mosquito-bitten version of me behind, but get out of here Fabio. The only male I’m up for snuggling with is Steve the Saaz.

Oh, Fabio, who repeatedly used biting on his pinkie finger as a suggestive motion. I could not create this character for any piece of fiction.

“Janae, why do you think this hostel is rated 100%? You could be rated 100%, too…”

“Oh, come on, I know why Serg… FREE LAUNDRY!”

Gross.

Back in Bulgaria… Andrea leaves tomorrow. Phase two of the trip is over.

Time is flying.

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Perspective

It constantly amazes me when I arrive in a new foreign city, set out to be intimidated by how “different” it is, and realize… It’s really not. It’s people, and people like to eat, drink, shop, sleep. It’s Eastern Europe, it’s not Antarctica, and there are far more different places than where I am. Even if I write you from Bulgaria or Serbia.

Twice now, trips to Bulgaria have reminded me of home. Nothing unusual, nothing mind-blowing to take pictures of captioned “look how these people live here!” Sofia. Any small, pedestrian friendly city in America whose mayor just decided to use shapes and squiggles on all the signs instead of letters. The oddest sight? The dumpster engulfed in flames outside our hostel one evening. When warning the reception girl, she laughed. “Yeah, sometimes that happens. Just a still lit cigarette. People are not so smart sometimes.” But true statement, Bulgaria has the best pizza you’re ever going to eat, and it is in restaurants and windows all over town.

Belgrade. Amazing architecture, beautiful streets. Andrea and I were debating taking a walking tour yesterday, and in the next twenty seconds my well-worn greek sandals (worn in eight countries now!) lost their grip on the marble steps twice. With a bruised elbow and twisted knee, we skipped the walking tour and went off at our own pace.

My knee held up, and we walked for six hours, in every direction. Ended up at a massive fortress, with all its beautiful walls, and row after row of preserved tanks and cannons on display. “We’re in Serbia!” is the incredulous statement we make quite often. I have no pictures of tanks and cannons. Andrea and I travel well together, with photos and interests in different things. People versus places, faces versus spaces.

That said, the view from landmarks such as castles and fortresses are always beautiful.

And sometimes, they are perfect… lovely.

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We went out last night with everyone from the hostel. Today… Not so much. Today might have started with my first (ever so slight) hangover since college. Out earlier then back for naps, we’ll venture out shortly to grab coffee, write postcards and chat. Three more days with Andrea.

Serg, the owner, just came in here to fix the air conditioning. Serg, the owner, looks like Fabio. Told me to come check out the beach with him, five minutes away. Five I asked? “Ten minutes by bus,” which just made me assume this trip would be by private motorcycle. Heh.

But then I had a moment of clarity, remembered the deep nap I’d just awoken from, wiped the drool off my face and politely declined.

It’s the tenth anniversary of September 11th. I just went looking for my 5-yr anniversary piece published in the Albany diocese’ Evangelist but the link is broken. First week of seventh grade, California, woke up and joined Mom as she watched The Today Show. I started watching just before the first tower fell. I’d never heard of the World Trade Center.

Ten years later, I’m in Serbia, and yesterday I walked by buildings still scarred by the NATO bombings of 1999. Construction walls are up and life goes on around it, but it’s there, it happened, and it isn’t forgotten.

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