Friday, September 3, 2010 – Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade is the capital of Serbia and it use to be the capital of Yugoslavia.  Our hotel was fantastic, a big manor house converted into a hotel. The gardens with a large gazebo and our rooms were all beautiful. Our guide told us that our hotel was located in the Belgrade “Beverly Hills”. 1.7 million people live in Belgrade, 7.5 million people live in The Republic of Serbia and 2.5 million Serbs live abroad. Many Serbs live in Chicago, US. Our guide, Maja, was a very nice girl and spoke about the fighting in the 1990’s as a civil war in Yugoslavia. She explained the fighting of the Serbs against the other countries when they wanted their independence was Yugoslavia trying to keep their country together.  She said “that many Serbs lived outside of The Republic of Serbia and they were discriminated against and could not get jobs so the army of Yugoslavia was trying to help their brothers.  

Belgrade has a mediterranean climate with July being the hottest month. Today was a beautiful warm day. Our guide compares Belgrade’s to New York in the U.S.   A large cosmopolitan city with warmer weather. Belgrade means “White City” and was first settled in 279 BC. It is not possible for a walking tour, we needed a bus to take us around.  Belgrade has 39 parks with lots of greenery and there are lots of agriculture areas. Belgrade is also the border between East and West;  the Ottoman Empire and The Austrian/Hungarian Empire. The Ottoman’s (Turks) occupied this area in the 1500’s and brought with them the introduction of coffee for the Serbs. In 1830 the Ottoman’s gave autotamy to the Serbs. The river Sava and the river Danube meet here in Belgrade. Sava means Balkin lady. Where these two rivers meet is the border between east and west. The Danube comes from Vienna and empties into the Black Sea. 

According to our guide many people converted to Muslim during the Ottoman’s rule to avoid sleeping with the Turks. If a Christian woman wanted to get married she would first have to sleep with the Turkish Mayor of the village or convert to Islam. Do not know if this is true or not, but our guide believed it was real and that is why many woman converted to the Muslim faith. She believes that the Muslims in Serbia and Bosnia are Serbian Muslims who converted to Islam during the Ottoman occupancy.  Not to be confused with other Muslims such as Albanian Muslims who speak a different language and are not Serbs. Our guide told us that most of the Albanians have two or three wives and lots of children (I asked our guide in Albania this and he laughed saying it was not true).

We visited a park and saw the oldest tree in Belgrave.  A plane tree brought over from America, it is 160 years old and was a gift from Columbus. Also at this park was a Yew tree with peeling bark. There is a tradition to keep a piece of red bark with you to keep you healthy and prosperous.  We all now have a piece of red bark in our wallets. One of the Serbian leaders was an Orthodox Christian but he liked the Turkish custom of having harems.  His  wife lived in the city and he had a house here in this park, for him and his harem of women. This leader and his wife had seven children but lived separately, he with his harem and her with their children.  I think that was a good thing or she may have had many more children than she already had. Matter of fact she probably suggested the harem idea to him so she could have some time off. 

We asked our guide about Communism, whether she preferred that era or today. She replied “that the standard of living was much better during the Communism period and everyone loved Marshal Tito. Unfortunately in the early 1990’s there was a civil war which was against the Serbs who were the biggest population in ex-Yugoslavia”.  She also said as a result of the civil war, one million refugees have moved into Serbia. Because Yugoslavia split up into seven countries, economically many including Serbia are struggling as individual countries. In her opinion the Serbian interest was to keep Yugoslavia together because as one nation they were all stronger economically. Before the war an average salary for a factory worker was 1,500 Euros per month and today the average salary for a Secondary School teacher is 450 to 500 Euros per month. That is their net take home pay.  Income tax is 10% of your salary, but if you make more than the average salary the tax is increased to 15%. Non-Serbs are taxed at a higher rate. A house in a nice area in Belgrade would cost half a million euros ($750,000 Canadian). This is approximately the same price as in Canada only our wages are much higher per month. 

During Tito’s dictatorship (he made himself their leader for life), the citizens of Yugoslavia were permitted to travel to other countries. Unlike the Soviet Communists who could only travel to Communist countries.  Marshall Tito had good relations with Russia (in the beginning) and the West. He had one wife, 30 years younger than him and five children from other women. But all the people liked him as a leader because he held the countries together as one. Under Tito people went to school, then university, were given a job and the company they worked for provided them with an apartment. Serbia uses both Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, both are taught in school. Yugoslavia was settled by the Slavs and Yugo means south so Yugoslavia means Southern Slavs.  Eastern Slavs settled in Russia and the Baltics. Western Slavs settled in Chez Republic, Slovakia and Polland.  All these people understand each other because their languages are similar.  Our two guides, Tatiana who is Russian and Joanna who is Polish, had no trouble speaking with the people from the countries we visited.  All these languages are Slavic Languages, just the dialects (accents) are different. 

The major sports in Serbia are water polo, basketball and tennis.  Of course they have soccer as well. In 1991 the city’s Red Star soccer club won the European Championship.  Serbian pensioners love to play chess and they often sit in parks to play chess. Men in Serbia play chess or fish as hobbies. There is a large university in Belgrade and education is free for those with high marks. If you have low marks you have to pay to go to university. Their medical center is famous for plastic surgery and many people come here for this because it is 5 times cheaper than in other countries. School starts on September 1st for all children and workers receive 3 weeks holidays each year. Women have one year off work for maternity leave but for a third child you receive two years off work for maternity leave.

We visited St. Sava, an amazing, beautiful church under construction on the highest point of Belgrade. Construction started in 1895. They wanted to build the biggest Orthodox Church in the world. Construction was stopped during WW II and the Communist Era. Twenty-five years ago, in 1985 they were allowed to continue with the construction. The outside is now complete and they are now working on the inside.  This church has 49 bells and 18 golden crosses. It can hold 10,000 people and is probably the largest church I have been to. On the inside they are putting up mosaics on all of the walls. Originally in 1595 “St Sava” the Orthodox church in Belgrade was destroyed by the Ottomans because they were Muslim and forbid Christian worship. Then later Communism frowned on religion but the people of Serbia and in particular in Belgrade kept their Christian faith even when it was banned.  This new church is symbolic and was built very large because the people of Serbia want the world to know they have survived as Orthodox Christians.

Having said that the Serbs want to celebrate that Orthodox Christianity survived here, in actuality most Serbs are not overly religious because they went many years without religion. But when they greet each other they kiss three times, which represents the father, son and holy ghost. (Starting with the left cheek which means each person moves to the left. I have always found that confusing and did not know where to start left or right. Glad that has been cleared up for me). The Serbs consider themselves old fashioned, traditional and conservative. Each Orthodox family has a patron saint who they pray to for their health, happiness and prosperity. They celebrate the day of their family’s patron saint as a holiday of their family’s protectant saint. When woman marry they use their husband’s last name and take on his family’s protector saint. They believe by honouring their family’s protectant saint it puts the focus point in their lives on their family.  They seldom go to church except for major holidays and do not read the bible.

During WW I, Belgrade lost 63% of the male population over 18 years of age. (Remember the war started when a Serb assassinated the Austrian/Hungarian heir in Sarajevo). Our guide said the reason the Serb assassinated Ferdinand was because it was a Serbian holiday the day he came to the city to tell them they had to follow the Austrian/Hungarian Rules. Remember Serbians use their emotions more than their heads, according to our guide. After the war Serbia’s borders were moved to give them more territory because they lost so many men. Then from Russia came 70,000 immigrants, 4,000 of them were Russian intellectuals.  90% of the teachers at the Belgrade University were staffed by these Russian intellectuals. One of the immigrants from Russia was the Royal Architect for the Romanoff Dynasty. When he came to Serbia he became the Royal Architect for the Serbian Royal family and designed several important buildings including a small Orthodox Church, also dedicated to St. Sava. We toured this church which had frescos painted on the inside walls. Entrances to Orthodox Churches are always on the western side because the wall of icons and the alter are always on the east side. So that is the first thing noticed when anyone enters the church. On the left side of the alter is an icon of Virgin Mary and on the right side is an icon of Jesus. To the right of Jesus is an icon of St. John the Baptist. These three icons never change and are in every Orthodox Church but on the left of Mary is the icon of the Saint the Church is dedicated to (which changes). Orthodox priests, who grow beards, can marry but females can never enter the room behind the alter it is strictly forbidden. As I have mentioned previously there are no chairs to sit on in the church, other than some benches on the outside walls for the elderly of infirm.  The congregation stands to show respect. The acoustics in both the Orthodox and the Catholic churches are amazing and the accoustics in both the St. Sava Churches were outstanding. Candles are lit on the top of the stand for live people and on the lower part of the stand for deceased people. Or sometimes there are candles placed at the front of the church to light for living people and candles placed at the back of the church to light for deceased people. At the back of the church there is a balcony where the choir sings acapella. Inside this church was a painting of the 1595 destruction of St. Sava Church.  The turks burned the church and made the Christians watch them destroy their church. If they refused to watch the Turks cut off their heads.  This was shown in great detail in the painting. 

Every January 27th the Serbs celebrate St. Sava’s day. There is a superstition if the weather is good on that day, they will have a good year.  If the weather is bad, they will have a bad year. January 27th, 1999 the weather was bad and that was the year NATO bombed Belgrade. Every child in school has to learn about St. Sava and they have to learn a song dedicated to him which is more popular than the National Anthem. Our guide explained to us that Serbian people are emotional people and they ask questions like are you happy, or how are you feeling.  She has noticed that  Americans (and Canadians) are more pragmatic people and ask logical questions like what is the population or what is the average salary.  Serbians also have a great sense of humour and like to tell jokes. They shop at farmers markets and buy their fruit and vegetables daily. Also their bakeries are called Pekara’s and they go there daily to purchase bread and catch up on the news around town.

Russia and Greece are Serbia’s brothers because they have the Orthodox religion in common. There are no homeless people in Serbia but there are approximately 100,000 gypsies living there.  They also do not have a drug problem because if anyone is caught doing drugs they are put into the hospital for treatment. They do have a gambling problem though with the casinos. There is very little divorce because the women are not independent. They usually have children and it is difficult for them to get jobs to support themselves. There parliament is made up of 250 members and 30% of them are women. Our guide says that people who are in large businesses and have lots of money are connected with the government (in other words they are all corrupt, and that is the way of life here, in her opinion).

1999 NATO bombed Belgrade for 78 days in response to the fighting with Kosovo.  NATO strategically bombed the TV station, the police station and the military headquarters plus the Chinese Embassy.  Do not know why they included the Chinese Embassy?? Serbia trades with the Chinese and the Chinese are the largest number of immigrants. NATO had warned Serbia that they would bomb them if they did not stop fighting and that is what happened.  The Serbians are not very happy with NATO.  They would like to join the European Union but the EU said Serbia would have to join NATO first and they are not willing to do that.

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