Serbian Storms

I spent 4 days in Serbia, and when I say Serbia, what I really mean is under an umbrella in Belgrade. It was raining when I arrived at 6:30 am,  and I hadn’t expected to arrive so early. I took an overnight train from Hungary, which left on time and arrived on time, despite the slow border crossing. My couchsurf host hadn’t expected me on time either, so i stood shivering under cover til he found me, took me home, and tucked me in, where I finally got some dry, warm, rest. I had left Hungary in a storm, but thought I had left the bad weather, and a small ray of sunshine even broke through that afternoon. We drank dark beers in the sun on the Danube river bank, and then retreated to teenage public drinking in a grassy park with a Canadian rockstar named Eric (who I also found on couchsurfing). But, since all good things must come to an end, it then rained constantly for nearly 3 days. And I don’t just mean some slight sprinkling, Vancouver-grey kinda rain – I mean torrential downpour, streets-turned-into-rivers kinda rain.

the only sun I saw in Serbia

the only sun I saw in Serbia

I spent an entire day couped up in my couchsurfers apartment, shivering only from the sound of the wind and rain outside. I tried to leave the house, but within 100 m of the bus stop, my umbrella had inverted, wind was blowing at me sideways, and I couldn’t see well enough past the rain being thrown at my face to avoid the buddles, so the socks inside my waterproof boots were also wet. I returned back home, defeated and soaked. I stayed huddled and cuddled inside, as the walls started station – the leaks through the roof had started to seep in and drip down the stairs. I had tickets to the opera, one of the most preformed operas in history but still I’d never seen it, so I had to make it. The Serbian Opera company was performing L’elisir d’amore, and the tiny National theatre seemed like the perfect place to see it. It was performed in Italian and dubbed in Cyrillic Serbian, so I didn’t understand much, but for less than 2 euros for a 2nd balcony seat, I had no complaints. It was a splendid, entertaining evening, and I even indulged in a seat for my couchsurf host, who could only sit in it for half of one act.

Serbian Philharmonic band

Serbian Philharmonic band

The next night we watched the Serbian Philharmonic preform Bach’s Mass in B minor. It was also staged at a small, intimate, theatre, but not as showy or comfortable. The seat rows weren’t spaced far enough apart for even me to sit straight, let alone your average guy, and they kept all the lights on in the hall. It may have been because the Serbian Radio and TV was broadcasting it, but then the symphony and choir made lots of little mistakes. People walked in and out of the performance without any door locks, and again the seats we paid 3 euros for were actually worth double that, since there was noone sitting in the front-n-center expensive seats. But wearing informal clothes or wet jeans were a perfect occasion to seek shelter from the storm, so it makes sense the kind of crowd that fills a room of  €3-6 seats. The guy who sold me the opera tickets smoked a cigarette while he did it, coat check was free at the opera and the symphony, and the drinks that you could buy cost only  €1 or  €2, so in many ways, the music and arts scene was 10 years behind the rest of Europe. But, in other ways, Belgrade was very forward compared to the rest of Europe. The conductor for the opera’s orchestra was female, and the crowd attending both shows was much younger than the average age of 60 (which it was in Paris). 

waiting for a bus in the rain

waiting for a bus in the rain


We took home one of the very tech-forward buses (which no-one likes to pay for in Belgrade) but they do have amazing, frequent, 24 hour service and a no-touch pay system with an electronic announcement system (very helpful if you don’t know where you’re going or coming from). The rain kept falling, and eventually the roads started to close, from flooding and landslides, so long-distance buses stopped running and I considered a new life in Belgrade… not knowing when I’d leave. Buses to Bosnia were cancelled for 2 days, but after 4 hours at the bus station, I got on one to Zagreb.

Culture Tourism in Vienna

I always had a hard time remembering if Vienna was in Germany, Italy, or Switzerland (it’s the capital of Austria). Its fascinating how close all these countries are to each other, that Bratislava airport in Slovakia handles a lot of Viennese air traffic, and road signs in the city center direct you towards “Praha” or “Budapest”.

Kunsthalle in Museumsquartier


I read a lot of about Vienna as a child studying music theory and history, picturing Schubert living in a magical city where everyone played classical music and symphonies flooded your ears 24/7. I expected Vienna to be a town frozen in time, stuck in the 1700’s, full of horse-drawn carriages and Baroque fashion. Or maybe it could have been as late as the 1850’s, and I could have seen Haydn conduct his own symphony, but Vienna 2011 didn’t quite fit my hopeless expectations. Its quite similar to every other European city, a clash of incredible history and impressive architecture mixed in with globalized commercialism and little kebab shacks at every tram stop. In German, Vienna is spelled “Wien”, and I have some sort of dyslexic complex misspelling it as Wein or Wine, both referring to fermented grape juice and not one of the most important cities in classical music history.


a famous golden statue of J.S. Strauss

The classical music thing is like beer in Germany, or casinos in Vegas – it’s presumably emthe/em tourist attraction you came for. You can’t go to Vienna without being offered tickets to a Mozart concert, and every night of the week you have the choice of something like 3 classical music concert houses, 2 opera houses, 3 churches, a couple palaces and uncountable theatres to see a show. Then there’s the waltz season, where everyone goes to balls in gala halls waltzing to J.S. Strauss being played life. People dressed up in period fashion sell tickets on major street corners and on the doorsteps of the most popular tourist attraction, and even some of the concerts are played on period instruments in various halls, all shimmering in gold, chandeliers and original art.


Walking around Vienna, I got the feeling that every building was a palace; even the common-place apartments had arch entries and stone angels on the roof corners. The universities, churches, government buildings, and museums were even jaw dropping – all built in slightly different styles from different eras, but all so grandiose, surrounded by regal gardens and flashing cameras. I snooped around inside the gothic city hall, sat to meditate in every church with unlocked doors, and strolled through the Schönbrunn Palace gardens pretending to be a princess.


Schönbrunn Palace, former home of Emporer Franz Josef I

As much as I wanted to see the inside of every museum, I knew it would be a failed mission since it could take days, weeks even, to really see and learn everything they have to offer. Bu I did make it inside som music halls, always second-guessing if I had picked the right venue and show since there were at least 2 options every night I was there that I would have loved to see. My first night in Vienna, I saw Singing in the Rain, a musical/tap-dance theatre piece, which I probably could have understood better if my German wasn’t so bad.

the Vienna Symphony Orchestra

one ballroom in Staatsopera house


I had no difficulty understanding the Vienna symphony on night 2, who played a symphony by Carl Maria von Weber that I had never heard before, but loved, and a piano concerto by Haydn – I loved that too. Piano concerts give me shivers down my spine. They’re also amusing, since it cracks me up how everyone in the audience always has to cough between movements, even if no one is sick. My last night we went to Staatsopera house, by far the most beautiful building, inside and out, that I saw in Vienna. They played Madame Butterfly, a tragic opera set in Japan, sung in Italian, but thankfully subtitled in English that made understanding it no problem, even the depressing unhappy ending – which I wouldn’t have minded misunderstanding.