Friends

March 20, 2014

Friends seem to visit me abroad in twos. Only two friends came and visited me during my first stay in Belgrade. Friends, of course, can’t be blamed for not coming to visit; it’s a very long trip, after all, and talk is abundant. The friends who do end up visiting tend to be in Europe for some reason or another and end up dropping by. The two friends that visited me last time coincidentally showed up within a week of each other. This time, two more showed up- again unplanned- within a week of each other. When it rains, it pours, so they say.

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Spoiler Alert: We went to Paris.

First, a friend from the music scene back home, Blaze, came through Belgrade and hung out for a day or so. I picked Blaze up from the bus station after an ill-communicated action plan; she was set to arrive at 22:00, but apparently her bus showed up almost three hours early (an early bus in the Balkans? Practically unheard of.) She didn’t have a phone nor my address, so she was forced to wait until our arranged meeting time of 22:00. I ended up finding her after a lot of confusion about arrival times from generally unhelpful information desk workers. The following day we embarked on a bit of a whirlwind tour of Belgrade; she was set to leave the following morning at about 04:00, so we had pretty much the whole day in addition to a late night planned. Unfortunately the weather was miserable for pretty much the entire time; the rain was pouring and the streets were flooded. We went out to the Chinese Market in New Belgrade; longtime readers of this blog will know my affinity for that strange spot in the city, but it’s sure to provide for a fun and non-traditional tourist experience. After that we headed out to Zemun [ˈzɛmun] for some coffee and a stroll along the Danube. It was almost entirely dark by that point and the rain was still coming down hard so the river walk wasn’t quite as much fun as planned. We finished up the night on Skadarlija [ˈskadarlija] where I commissioned one of the gypsy bands to play my favorite Serbian tune Stani, Stani Ibar Vodo.

During my previous stay in Belgrade there was a “bar” off an alleyway in Skadarlija, it consisted of an old man’s living room that was converted into a gathering place with several long, wooden tables. No sign marked the entrance, and I don’t know what it was called (if it even had a name). You were meant to knock on the nondescript door. The man (who was always home watching TV in the other room, it seemed) would open the door, scrutinize you for an agonizing several seconds, then beckon you in. He had only one type of beer, he would shuffle into the other room and return with a few bottles for you. The charm and absolute eccentricity of his house had a special place in my heart, but it seems he has shuttered his doors after who-knows-how-many years of operation. Another bar has replaced the old man’s house on the alleyway in Skadarlija. While certainly more conventional, this new establishment has cheap beer and an equally intimate feeling. Determined not to forget what this place was called, I asked the woman (evidently named Natalija) the name of her bar on my way out. Her response was “I don’t know… Natalija’s Bar, how about?” Fair enough.

Later that week I took the all-too-familiar train ride from Belgrade to Budapest to meet another friend from Seattle, Kate. We met up and stayed at The Loft (a hostel at which I spent quite a bit of time during my last stay in the region), it was great catching up with some old friends there and knowing that some places just don’t change. The following day Kate and I went to the famous Széchenyi [ˈseːtʃɛɲi] baths in Budapest and I miraculously ran into some old traveling buddies of mine there (the same ones I visited in Turku in this post). Matt spotted me from across the courtyard by my tattoos (I knew those would come in handy some day). After catching up and seeing what was new in our respective lives we parted ways and Kate and I headed back to Belgrade the following day. Evidently the weather gods of Belgrade were more fond of Kate’s visit and it remained balmy and blue-skied for the duration of our stay there. Our flight to Paris was eye-bleedingly early on Friday so we opted not to sleep and headed straight to the airport after a night on the town. Kate wanted to see the much-touted party barges on the Sava River before we left. We ended up at 20/44, not historically my favorite spot, but they were playing some great, newish bass music. After 20/44 we cabbed back to my house to pick up our bags and we were on our way.

I’ll never understand how Serbs can be so damned cheerful on flights that early in the morning; it may have been my general irritability at not having slept, but being surrounded by screaming babies and loud Serbs on the cramped and hot flight was certainly not enjoyable.

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But then there’s that… so that’s cool.

Kate was put up at a posh, new hotel in Paris for work and she was nice enough to let me crash there. Both avid rum drinkers (she’s the GM of a rum bar in Seattle, I’m a regular at the same bar), we set off to see what Paris had to offer in the rum sphere. Kate and I share a similar taste for rum made on the Francophone Caribbean Islands (called Rhum Agricole), and Paris being the de facto capital of the Francophone world has a lot of it.

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Rhum for days.

Aside from having tons of agricole, Paris is a really cool city. I know it’s played to heap praise onto it, but I’m going to do it anyway because it’s well-deserved. This was the first time I was able to experience Paris as an adult which certainly makes a difference. My typical traveling style includes very little formal sightseeing and instead relies on riding public transport around, hanging out at cafes and bars, and generally just having a good time; we embraced this to the fullest and got a great look at the city in the meantime. Serendipitously, the public transport was free for the whole weekend we were there (I still haven’t figured out why yet, but I’m not complaining); Paris is one of the overall densest cities in the developed world and the metro system there does a fantastic job of connecting the neighborhoods. The stop spacing is a bit extreme at times, but it’s more-or-less legitimized by the high density; the overall speed doesn’t seem to be negatively impacted either, so it ends up serving a streetcarlike walkshed with grade separated, high capacity transit. The whole weekend was spent drinking coffee, wine, and rhum, and eating as much French food and pastries as we could handle. The ultra hip yet paradoxically traditional Jewish neighborhood of Le Marais [lɛˈmaʁɛ] was a favorite of ours. The chic clothing stores juxtapositioned with synagogues and the payot-sporting hasids walking by swanky cocktail bars provided an odd but lovely contrast.

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I call this one Le Parisien…

Why can’t the language of Paris be something interesting like Greenlandic or Adyghe? If it was I would move there in a minute.

My mom gave me some advice somewhat recently. She was essentially just reminding me to not be too much of a nomad, since at the end of the day, friends and family are all we have. These words were particularly powerful and I’ve been trying to keep them in mind ever since. Seeing friends, old and new, reminded me of how important these relationships are. The friendships I have forged in the emotional and chaotic world of traveling are some of the closest I have, but getting back to Seattle and going to my usual hangouts has shown me that the bonds built here from mutual interests and sustained contact can be equally strong. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to stop traveling, but I certainly hope that I can maintain the great friendships that I’ve built along the way.

Anyway, a bit of a busy two weeks for me, but I made it back to Seattle in one piece and I should be here for the next month or so. Lots of potentially significant things over the next few months, so stay tuned for my upcoming plans.

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