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Travels with Andy (May 2009)
The exercise was to visit the Tesla Museum in Belgrade. It was a lightning tour, appropriately enough. I caught a winter sleeper train from Vienna, arriving at 6.30am.

To save money I booked a seat in a six person cabin, rather than a first-class, by-myself sleeper. It was a great choice: for most of the trip I had the cabin to myself and stretched out.

That was until we went over the Slovenian border, and 20 border police barged on looking for action. On the deserted train, I was it. Three of them crowded into my cabin while the other 17 hovered outside. I got the usual border grilling: where was I going/staying, why was I travelling? One of them took my passport and stood outside the cabin, inspecting it minutely wearing a weird magnifying helmet, relaying comments via radio headset to home base. All very reassuring.

This was at a cheery 2.00am. As fun as it was, eventually the party ran out of puff. They muttered amongst themselves, then one of them thrust his face close. "Is there anything," he hissed, "that you would like to tell the police?"

A number of humorous answers sprang to mind, but I looked at him, and his 19 mates, and decided being witty probably wasn't my best option.

We parted company, the train set off again, and eventually I dozed off. Later I was woken by someone else lumping his stuff noisily into the cabin.

The other bloke, Andy, was English. We ended up inspecting Belgrade together. He was pleasant enough company for one day, but more than that might not have worked too well. I'll give you some quotes and you decide.

When we first got into town, I needed a coffee, and Andy was desperate to find a toilet: queasy stomach. We went into a pub/coffee place near the market. I liked the thick, stewed coffee, and its early-morning jolt, and the flowery, oily schnapps everyone was drinking out of little glasses.

Andy came back from the toilet freaked out. There was an old women sitting in the 1 metre by 2 metre pre-toilet room managing the toilet paper, and he suffered performance anxiety. He had to go back in there, and eventually came back a shattered man. I'm pleased to report that she stayed on duty the whole time.

What to do? One option was to visit the Belgrade National Gallery. I've never done any fine arts study, but have a general, tourist's interest. Andy's was better than that: "I've done one painting, which is hanging on my wall. I'm going to sell it soon. I should do more."

Andy was an unmarried engineer, not much younger than me, a bit of a hypochondriac. He'd been on the road for only two days, but already was carrying too much, with a couple of bulky plastic bags of bootleg DVDs he'd bought along the way.

He was a rabid conspiracy-theorist, and seemed to go out of his way to develop an unworkable, warped view of why and how things work. For example, he didn't believe in evolution, and trotted out the usual fundamentalist arguments for creationism. But he had no religious beliefs.

Not even St Nikolai Tesla.

I think I was the only non-engineer at the Tesla museum. There were about a dozen young men there, on a pilgrimage, for them, to a sacred site. Given Andy was an engineer, he might also have been a worshipper, but he wasn't as impressed as I expected.

For example, the museum has a working model of Tesla's innovative 1896 electricity generator. Tesla supervised building the plant that captured the hydro power of Niagara Falls, developing nine newly patented ideas. Andy pointed to the model and scoffed, "The Ancient Greeks actually invented this."

Lunch was overdue. Every touristy, mock-Italian cafes we passed along the way Andy loitered, whining he was hungry. I kept walking, and he sulkily followed. I was looking for a worn and weathered tavern I had read about, and found it just as Andy was about to sit down in the street. I told the waiter I was hungry and wanted to try Serbian food and left it up to him. Andy quickly burnt up the goodwill by claiming he couldn't eat anything except fish and chicken, and the exasperated waiter finally made a suggestion that was acceptable. It turned out, when his roasted hot pepper and onion chicken stew arrived, that Andy didn't eat spicy food either. I tasted the sauce. It was fantastic. He just picked the chicken pieces out of it, carefully scraping off the sauce.

The Serbs were polite and friendly, and it was quite easy to get engaged in a conversation. Except Andy put them off a bit. Waiters can spot a non-tipper by their cheapskate aura when they walk through the door. I watched him scoop up my part of a coffee bill that included a minor tip and pay the entire amount with a bigger note. He kept my tip. The waiter saw it too, and his lip curled.

For dinner we went to a street/area called Skadarlia. It's the arty, bohemian part of town. It's cobblestoney and picturesque enough. We tried a cellar bar, then another one, an eventually found our way into a scruffy old restaurant. The place was jumping, a five-piece local band of wizened, white-haired musicians fiddling away. "Gee," said Andy, "I'd love to jam with those guys. I wish I'd bought my bass."

My return train left at 5.30am. When I last spoke to Andy, he was setting three alarms for his 6.30 train. He needed three because he usually ignored the first two. I doubt the other people in the backpacker bunkroom would be sleeping through them all.

I asked him what he knew about Istanbul, where he was headed. Not much.

As he liked buying bootleg DVDs, I suggested he see if he can get a copy of a movie, which he hadn't heard of before, based on life for a westerner in Turkey: "Midnight Express".

Seeing its set in Turkey they might have a dubbed copy available.

I'm sure they appreciated him asking.

Travels with Andy © Ian Buchanan May 2009
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