Thursday, July 21, 2011

Niš, Serbia

Nis surprised me not because it was a better city than I expected, but because the people I stayed with made it worth it to stay three times longer than I had initially planned.

Nis is known as being next to the birthplace of Constantine. It has a nice fortress like Belgrade, and some other notable historical sites, such as a tower the Turks made out of the skinned skulls of their victims. But otherwise, I wouldn’t say there is a huge amount of touristy things to see here. A nice stopover on the main route to Bulgaria.

My couchsurfing host was out of town but he had arranged for a close friend and couchsurfer to meet me when I arrived. Shortly after meeting Mirko, who is 24, that I was only staying one evening, it was an immediate reply that I must stay at least one more. Without a schedule, I didn’t put up much of an argument and said why not.

The first evening Mirko and his crazy little 11 year old brother took me to a small butcher shop for dinner. We chose out the things we wanted. Skewers of chicken wrapped in bacon, some Serbian spiced sausage, and a hot yellow-green pepper stuffed with this amazing cream. We moved next door to the grill, and they cooked it for free. Then, we moved next door, and enjoyed an amazing Serbian meal, leaving the three of us full with extras for only 3.5 euros!!

Choosing some meats for dinner:

Stuffed Pepper with more of this amazing cream on the side:

Mirko was a true character. Quite opinionated, always willing to give his opinions in heavy doses (but at least able to take criticisms). He lived in the US for 6 months (on one of these worker programs I have heard about so much recently where 10 foreigners cram into a room and work 12 hours a day) in Miami so he had some further opinions to elaborate on regarding the US. Usually, it was nonstop about the environment or being clean. Meticulous about turning the lights off, using an absolute minimal amount of water for dishes, saving energy, washing my hands properly, not wasting any food, and these sorts of things. In truth, in some ways it was annoying, but most of it was very true. And coming from his background in a very poor country as Serbia, I can see that too many of us take these things for granted in the US. He was also a springboard of energy, up like a lightning rod in the morning and certainly a challenge for me to adapt to.

We stayed at my couchsurfers place (Bojan), in a typical communist era building at the end of the pedestrian street of Nis, and the next morning we went for shopping ingredients for his mom to make lunch for us. This was entertaining for two reasons. First, Mirko only slightly accompanied me to the locations at which we needed to pick up ingredients. Instead, he gave me his bicycle and his little brother, who rode standing up in the basket with his hands on my shoulders, and directed me to the places. The second interesting thing, which leads to a whole separate story, is that we went to a dedicated shop for everything. For example, we bought eggs at a tiny shop that only sells eggs (and we got the good ones, with some blood on them (white eggs don’t seem to exist in Nis, probably for a good reason) to ensure they were quite fresh). Then, we went to the shop that sold just milk and cheese and cream. Then the bread store. It was very easy to tell that all this food was very local and real, the only way it is in Nis.

Getting going:

Maneuvering traffic nicely with a bonkers 11 year old in the back:

We trekked up one of the massive hills overlooking Nis, where Mirko and his brother live with their mom. They are basically one of the last houses before the top. Think hiking up a steep San Francisco hill for about 15 minutes or more. I can see why Mirko bitched so much about the FDA in the US and asked what it actually does as an administration. Their family, like families with any space, is growing various fruit trees and vegetables in their yard, so they are almost always eating good, fresh food (and apples are half the size of supermarket apples in the US!). His main point about food in the US was that there are stores like Whole Foods, which claim to sell what should be considered real, normal food, but at 2 to 3 times the price of the regular supermarket. And that everything has corn syrup or some other unnatural ingredient in it. So why does an administration like the FDS exist if it doesn’t promote eating real, healthy foods, like whole foods says they sell. I agree, that eating these kind of foods that are not grown with tons of chemicals, would lead to healthier people in general.

Above Nis:

Mirko's families yard:

So his mom made an amazing lunch and served it with typical Serbian Rakia, which will really set fire to your belly and clear your stomach out. After, we went over to their neighbor’s house. They were incredibly nice. They spoke no English, but we sat for a couple hours just eating apples from their garden and drinking Turkish coffee (what they drink in Serbia). I talked with the dad about sports because Serbia is literally bonkers over sports. But the family couldn’t have been nicer and more hospitable. They even asked for my home address so they could send me a Christmas card! And this hospitality is something else Mirko commented on. In Miami, he missed the friendliness of the neighborhood. In Miami, he said his Cuban neighbors never said hi and just looked angry when he tried to talk to them. I suppose this could be true in many big cities in the US. Also, onto another subject, the neighborliness and friendliness is something that has, and still is, helping Serbian families survive. Unemployment is huge, and outside of Belgrade, when people don’t have money, many times they rely on friend or others to help them out. It is just normal. Even more so in the 90s, friends got friends through the really rough times. Even now, I couldn’t understand what Mirko’s neighbors did. They have 2 kids, and in 3 days, I never say the dad or mom working. Just hanging out, chatting, and relaxing. So it was a big ? as to where the money comes from. To pound this point into the ground, I met a Serbian guy on the train a few days later and he said the exact same thing. His dad only works when people call him for jobs occasionally, other than that, friends and families get each other through by relying on each other.

Starting the morning off with some rough rakia:

Lunch with Mirko's family:

Now, onto another interesting bit. When Milosevich was in power in the 90s, although Mirko was pretty young, but said he was involved in the political anti-Milosevich movements when he was about 12 or so. When NATO (otherwise known as the US as people have been telling me), was bombing places around Serbia, anti-aircraft guns were used on top of the hill where Mirko lives, literally a short 5 minute walk away. So during this time, Mirko said he has vivid memories of Serbian soldiers sleeping in his house because of its close proximity. Though they said the NATO planes flew so high that these anti-aircraft missles were virtually useless.

Mirko's 11 year old brother is a monkey. Jumping on trucks at the top of the hill:

The next morning I was convinced to stay one more day, so we did more grocery shopping and trekked again up to Mirko’s house and his mom made a ridiculously delicious Serbian breakfast. Again we started the day clearing our stomach with rakia. Nowadays mainly only grandparents are drinking rakia daily for good health as they claim, but when guests are present, it is always taken as a display of the culture and hospitality. Plus, this was home-made rakia, which every Serb re-iterated is way better than store bought. For breakfast, the mom and dad of the neighboring families joined us and we all ate on the patio. I then got the dad’s address so it looks like I’ll be sending a Christmas card to Serbia this year!

Another home cooked meal was for lunch, and this time, my host Bojan had returned from his trip and joined us, along with another of their friends. This other friend had an interesting story, as he was in the Serbian Orthodox choir. Recently he toured the US, mostly the Midwest, singing for various Serbian Orthodox Churches. He spent some time in Chicago, and it is impressive the things you can learn about your country from foreigners. I never knew there was a big Serbian community in Chicago but apparently there is.

That night I went for a drink with Bojan in a different part of the city, about a 30 minute walk from the center. Definitely not a place I would have ever found on my own, but a very busy area with lots of cafés and bars at a decent distance from the center. On the way back, Bojan wanted to show me some typical Serbian food (i.e grilled meat), so we stopped at a 24 hour meat grilling shop. Wow, these guys do meat almost as good as Brazilians.

Making some music with Mirko, Bojan, and another person I forget the name of:

Gotta take pictures of Yugos!

Mirko over Nis:

some of the city from the fortress:

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