Sunday, November 12, 2006

Baa Baa

In a Belgrade cafe wearing tradition Serbian sweater -- a blanket with sleeves

Svjetlana, an editor at CIN, calls me at 5 a.m. demanding, “Where you are?” Late as always, I’m rushing down the stairway to meet her in a taxi taking us to the airport. This flight is cheap but horrible. We leave at 6:50 a.m. and get to Belgrade at 7:15 a.m., but the 40-minute connecting flight to Skopje, where we are to meet Hawley coming in from NYC as the third member of our training group, does not leave until 9:15 p.m.

That’s a long layover in a pretty bleak airport.

So, Svjetlana has called her cousin Sasha to pick us up and entertain us for the day. This is one very very nice cousin. Despite being out late with friends the Friday night before, there he is outside the terminal in a little white Yugo at 7:15 on the dot.

It’s too early for coffee bars to be open and we have no dinars and mostly we are freezing. I’m in a long winter coat and scarf but I’m freezing. We drive around until we find one cafĂ© – the first of a series we will be visiting during the layover – where we can sit and get warm. I ordered hot chocolate which turned out to be that strange stuff they serve here which is cooked but ungelled chocolate pudding in a glass. I ate-drank it slowly and warmed my hands on it.

We joke about sitting in this place until noon but then push off into the cold to exchange money and see some of the sights of Belgrade. It’s so cold that I am overwhelmed by the desire to acquire woolen goods.

They are on display on tables and kiosks all over the city – sweaters and gloves and hats and scarves. And so I bought a pair of handmade knit gloves – the third and fourth finger of which are oddly close together so that it feels like you have webbed digits when you wear this patter – and a traditional Serbian sweater, which can best be described as a blanket with sleeves.

Excellent purchases. They cut the effect wind-chill assaulting my body by at least a third. We take off to see the spectacular park where the Sava and Danube converge. The wind is savage and Sasha has on this little leather jacket, no woolen blanket like me and our ears turn red. “So, do you want to see the zoo next?” he jokes.

We spend several hours eating an omelet in a little downtown restaurant and more hours in a Mercator mall in Novi Belgrade. The inner foodcourt here is massive and packed with other seekers of warmth. I believe that I am the only person under 12 not smoking and this cavernous space is filled with smoke.

Then we decide we will eat fish in one of the boats docked along the Danube and drive back downtown. We find one, but once again at 6 p.m. we are too early for it or any of the others to be serving. So we drive instead to a place out by the airport called – I believe in rough translation – the pasture.

There’s a wedding in the main room so in the little side court where we eat we are treated to music from a gypsy band with horns and accordians. We order chicken noodle soup and a plate of cevapi (lamb and beef sausages), thinking this will tide us over until tomorrow. They bring in PLATTERS of meat and potatoes and cabbage. It was like a mini feast and I couldn’t eat a fraction of it. “They will think you don’t like it,” Sasha chided and I felt like a little kid at Grandma’s again.

Anyway after trying to kill more than 12 hours we found ourselves rushing to the airport to get to our plane on time. When police stopped us for a traffic check we were fidgeting about whether we’d make it.

Proof again that no matter how hard I try, I can never be on time.

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