AN AMERICAN IN SERBIA: WHAT LIVING IN BELGRADE IS LIKE AFTER 50+ YEARS IN AMERICA
Four years ago, I arrived in Serbia. The idea was to see what living in my native city for about six months would be like after spending over half a century in America. Well, the best laid plans of mice and men…
Three months after my arrival, a temporary living arrangement became a permanent wedlock. I married my landlady. I grew a beard. I still wear it. I lost some weight. I put some of it back. So it goes… The food is great here.
The rest… well, it was a culture shock. So much rudeness. So much senseless bureaucracy. So much unnecessary regulation. So much intolerance. So much disregard for the welfare of pedestrians and bicycle riders.
Now we have been back in Belgrade for a fifth summer in a row. And on my first bike ride, this is what happened.
UTTER DISREGARD FOR WELFARE OF BICYCLE RIDERS AND CIVILIANS
Today was a beautiful day in Belgrade. After an Arizona-style heat wave that hit us last week upon arrival from the US via London, the weather this past week has been divine. Cool nights, moderate daytime temps. So today I decided to return to one of my favorite pastimes – biking along Belgrade two great rivers – the Danube and Sava.
In the 1990s, this part of Belgrade was a dump as most harbors are. Then the late Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic (assassinated in March 2001) decided to clean things up and bring the people back to the river. His government build a beautiful 5-mile (8km) bike path that meanders from the confluence of Sava and Danube to Ada Ciganlija, a river island in the Sava.
Everything looked great at the start. Here are some pictures of the Danube in both directions.
After about a mile or so, well before the Sava harbor where river cruise ships dock, I hit a barrier. No bypass. No explanation.
Because this was on a curve, I had no idea whether the bike path was permanently closed or just a part of it closed because of this construction.
I decided to follow the dusty bike and foot tracks up about the 12-ft (3m) embankment. Nothing but construction machines and junk around me.
I tried to ride the bike on what it looked like a duty pedestrian path but soon I came upon a broken up patch of rock and dirt. Like some ancient part of the Kalemegdan fortress fortification. My bike hit a rock and the right pedal jammed into my calf.
The moment I felt the pain I knew it was bad. Sadly, it was also familiar. A similar thing happened to me last year on a bike ride in Belgrade when my bike tire deflated and skidded on a dusty part of the path. Luckily, I had two band-aides in my backpack. So I stuck them on about a 4-inch would just to temporarily stop the bleeding. Then I continued the ride.
In the middle of the now famous or infamous Belgrade Waterfront, I hit another road block. This time the bike path was abruptly stopped at the Galerija shopping center. Since I knew that after that was another dusty construction site which had been disrupting the Belgrade bike riders since at least 2018, I gave up and turned around.
I dreaded that 12-ft embankment which would now have to navigate uphill. I was not alone. Three young men were pushing each other’s bike, two men to one bike at a time, up that some slope.
I don’t know how I managed to do it alone but I eventually did it. Without further harm to myself, thank God. The rest of my ride went without an incident.
Since I could not get a taxi, I started to walk home (it’s a 45-min walk). So I had enough time to contemplate what it all meant. I recalled a conversation I had just yesterday with one of the merchants at the Palilula Market (pijaca) near our home. A very friendly guy who calls himself Gary and likes to speak English with me, asked me, “how are you adjusting back to our way of life?”
“Oh, just wonderful,” I replied. Every morning when I walk to and from the Tasmajdan swimming pool, I have to inhale the stench of bitumen from the construction site around the market, and jump over hurdles, and squeeze between road making machines. It’s just great for the lungs to inhale all this pollution before and after I clear them in the pool.”
Gary laughed. “And inhale all the dust, too,” he added in Serbian.
And then I also recalled an incident last fall when some Belgrade drivers recklessly drove on the same bike path I was on today, just at a different part (see the story below). It was not the only time this had happened, either.
UTTER DISREGARD FOR BIKE RIDERS AND PEDESTRIANS
Let’s sum it up. In Belgrade, bike riders and pedestrians are like dirt. Free game for builders and drivers. The communist mindset which puts machines ahead of the individuals and nature is still present.
Twenty years ago, a Serbian politician (Djindjic) tried to be different. His government built this beautiful bike path and opened the river to the citizens of Belgrade. Alas, it was all for naught. Because the current authorities are again allowing the construction companies to put machine ahead of man. And they are still allowing reckless drivers to get away with endangering the riders on bike paths. There are never any police in sight there while plenty of them are seen handing out parking tickets or wasting time on other petty offenses.
Bottom line: BIKERS BEWARE! Belgrade does not want you.
Since that runs contrary to everything that western Europe values, maybe changing this backward government attitude should also become a condition for Serbia’s EU membership?
In the meantime, perhaps I should sue the government as well as this construction company for my painful injury. That would be “very American,” wouldn’t it?
Say, for $10 million? Do you think that would get Vucic’s attention?
As you can see from the news story below, what’s happening now is not an exception, it’s a pattern. This government has been allowing senseless construction to block bike paths for years.
PS: In the meantime, the traffic police in Serbia have recently invented a new sign: NO PEDESTRIANS OR BICYCLES ALLOWED. Can you believe that? Who are these morons trying to protect from pedestrians and bike riders? The cars and trucks? O tempora, o mores…
FROM MY LAST YEAR’S BELGRADE JOURNAL
LAST BUT NOT LEAST: RECKLESS BELGRADE DRIVERS, NO POLICE
October 2, 2021 – When I came to the final part of my ride, under that lovely bridge over the river Sava with a single bridge pylon at the Ada Ciganglija river island, I stopped to take some pictures. Then two cars appeared, both driving on the bike path.
Since this is one of my major peeves with policing in this city – the police are obsessed with minor infractions, such as parking, while disregarding some life-threatening ones, like driving on bike paths or pedestrian walkways – I used my camera to snap the picture of the two culprits.
The driver of that first car – license plate BG 2024 KO – was a woman. She veered off to the left when she was me with the camera.
The driver of the second car was a man in his 60s – license plate BG 785 TJ. He also quickly moved to the left when he saw me. Then he unleashed a barrage of profanities at me for taking the picture.
“Who gave you the right to take that picture of me?” he yelled from inside the car, having stopped it.
“And who gave you the right to address me with pertu,” I replied calmly. “We did not tend sheep together.”
I walked over to my bike and continued my ride while kept on cussing and fuming.
“Wait till the police knock on your door, you arrogant reckless asshole,” I thought in a faint hope that someone from the Belgrade police may see these pics and take action. Fat chance, I know. But it was a nice thought.
Till the next time. Bye from Belgrade.