Belgrade: 24 hours on trains, stolen electronic antiquities, and friends

For three days, I was traveling. I’ve been traveling for just under a month now, but for three days, I was moving. After Athens, I took a steamer to Lesvos for the weekend, and then a ferry to Ayvalık. I wandered and drank çay all day before taking an overnight bus to Istanbul, where I did more of the same before taking the night-and-most-of-the-next-day-train to Sofia. I bought food at the grocery store attached to the station, and then, despite the allure of free wifi, waited the four hours until my train to Belgrade in the small heated bus station 50 meters away, instead of in the colossal stone and metal, unheated and sub zero train station. I was in a compartment alone, which at first was nice since my compartment to Sofia had had 5 people in the space of a closet. It was less nice in the morning, when I discovered that someone had come into my compartment during the night and taken my phone, camera, and all my cash from my jacket pockets during the night.

Luckily, my bank cards and passport were still there, and though it had been in about four different currencies, the money in my wallet had only amounted to about $50. Losing my phone, though, hit hard. For those of you who don’t know, I’ve had the same phone for about three years, an archaic Samsung, and I have abused it in every possible way apart from setting it on fire. I have dropped it on all surfaces, registered it in Turkey and put a Turkcell SIM card in it and forced it to freeze and reboot every time I went to Taksim, I have thrown it across the room in cathartic irritation over text arguments, I have scratched it, gotten nail polish on it, chipped paint off of the key pad, and, yes, I dropped it in the toilet once. I stored bits of poems, ideas for short stories, grocery lists, funny things I heard at work or in class, and I planned blog posts and saved them as text drafts. I had pictures on it of bathroom graffiti, beer, a concert I had gone to with my dad, a bonfire at my best friend’s house, the kitten my flat adopted in Istanbul, and pictures of people I missed from back home, so if I felt homesick on a bus or while shopping, they were always within easy access. Losing my phone was sort of like losing my journal. The police could do nothing, and I was less than happy for most of the morning. That probably would have persisted for the weekend if I hadn’t joined the three students I met on the train.

I’ve noticed that when student or student-age people meet on forms of transportation, it’s twice as easy to make friends. This time was no exception. They invited me to their compartment to hang out when we boarded the train, and the next morning we spent an hour or two in the internet cafe in the train station, before heading to the same hostel. Belgrade is a gorgeous, amazing city in its own right, and it was even more fun when I had people to complain about the cold and to eat unnecessary amounts of chocolate with. Wandering around the city was both a search for landmarks and a search for cafés with coffee and pastries. Belgrade is full of bakeries and bars, tucked into buildings that are either beautifully sculpted 19th century affairs or cubist communist blocks, and indoor smoking was condone, encouraged even, everywhere, our hostel included. We did a lot of walking, along the river, around the Belgrade fortress, and through Kalemegdan park. We went across the Danube to find a park with a supposedly amazing view of the river, only to enjoy it for a few bitterly cold moments before retreating inside a tiny bar with an apathetic black cat. There were enthusiastic snack runs at grocery stores and bus rides where we didn’t pay for tickets, no one checked for our tickets, and no one else appeared to have purchased tickets. We had beers with Kostos, the guy who ran our hostel and his friends who came to fix the lockers in the rooms. There was a lot of Nescafé.

We parted ways on the third night within 45 minutes of each other, with their train going toward Greece and my bus going to Sarajevo. Parting was sad, like it always is, particularly since I knew my weekend would have sucked if I hadn’t been brought into their group. I started this trip alone, but it’s been really nice how little time I have actually spent alone. There’s always other travelers, and when everything you’re carrying can fit into a backpack, and your budget consists of a place to stay and beer, friends are in abundance.

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