September 22 is Independence Day in Bulgaria, so we have a 3-day weekend. Ryan, Kat, Ian, and I decided what better way to celebrate this than a road trip to another country. So, Friday morning we all packed into her car and headed for the border. The road trip itself was rather uneventful as the highways in Serbia are generally nicer than in Bulgaria; at times, we could imagine we were driving on a rural interstate in middle America. On the way back we discussed whether it looked more like western Ohio (my choice), Iowa, or Kentucky—you get the idea. Furthermore, we were 4 Americans riding in an SUV listening to American music from our iPods; the only thing that hinted to our location was the occasional sign listing the towns and villages we were passing in Cyrillic and Latin.
We only had a map of downtown Beograd (I can’t figure out why we call it Belgrade,) but amazingly had little problem finding our hotel in the old town. Arriving in the late afternoon, we again had a hard time finding lunch (as Ben & I did 2 years ago; click here and scroll down to day 7), but we eventually satiated our hunger and thirst. Over the next two days we explored area churches and museums centering around Knez Mihailova Street—a beautiful pedestrian area in the heart of the old town, again something sorely missing in Sofia. Saturday afternoon we took a one and a half hour boat tour up and down the Sava River, which was nice except for the industrial areas on the Sava; they should have shown us more of the Danube instead. Sunday, before we left, we head west to the town Zemun, which used to mark the eastern extent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and retains much of the architectural elements of this civilization. This is one of the nice benefits of having a car; we would not have made the effort by bus or taxi.
The Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian languages are actually dialects of each other (but, since each hates each the other’s guts, they insist that they each have a unique language.) Like Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian is a Slavic language, and aside from Macedonian (which, in reality is a dialect of Bulgarian) is most closely related to Bulgarian—much like German and Dutch, I suppose. As such, we were able to make out most signs and understand a good bit of what people said (OK, not me, but Kat—she studied Bulgarian for 5 months versus our 2 months.) However, none of us felt comfortable trying to speak it for fear of being doubly wrong; at least in Bulgaria people can tell we are trying to speak their language. Serbs could probably understand a Bulgarian, but not necessarily an American’s mangled Bulgarian. One interesting difference is that this language has a direct, official, and unambiguous mapping to a (modified) Latin alphabet (e.g. the “sh” sound made by the Cyrillic ш is represented in Latin as š.) Practically, this means the more universal Latin alphabet is increasingly used in Serbia (and already exclusively in Croatia.) Bulgaria, on the other hand, will never abandon the Cyrillic alphabet, as they take pride in the fact that Cyril and Methodius invented it here.
At the border, there was a line of truck on both sides waiting to clear customs at least 2 or 3 miles long; we estimate that many of them would be there for at least 12 hours. Passenger vehicles, on the other hand, could carefully pass trucks along the winding 2-lane road leading to the border. We had even another advantage when we reached the border complex (exit control, disinfection, immigration, customs, and road tax booths); since Kat was a foreign service officer, and her vehicle had diplomatic tags, we were whisked in front of everyone into the corps diplomatique express line. I couldn’t help but chuckle “ha, suckers!” at the mere mortals who had to wait an additional half hour.
Since three of us are bloggers, there is now an unofficial contest going. I obviously win the “quickest to blog” award since I posted part of this from an Internet café on Saturday. Ryan and Ian are now vying for the most interesting and most humorous awards.
1Lethal Weapon 2. 1989. [IMDB]