I’ve decided to switch to the present tense for the rest of my travel posts. I just think I write better in it.

November 25th: My classmates and I reach Belgrade in the late afternoon. As we approach the city, grubby country-side gives way to grubby suburbs. Brick and cinder-block houses sit on plots of land that, for the most part, inexplicably do not have driveways. Rusting cars and farm equipment lurk in tall grass. No one seems to be around.

As we get even closer to the city, we pass grim Communist-era flat blocks, and squatter settlements. In one, children are playing around a fire, throwing small sticks into the flames and dancing absurdly. The outskirts of Belgrade have a surreal quality to them, as if we’ve passed through an inter-temporal, inter-dimensional portal and landed in some post-apocalyptic 90’s dreamscape.

When we reach the city center, we begin to see clear evidence of the war, and the NATO bombings. Several buildings we pass were obviously targeted. It appears that the missiles went in through their roofs and blew them out from the inside. Now they sit, charred and sagging, on piles of collapsed foundation. Around the bombed-out buildings high fences have been erected to keep people out. The current government lacks either the money or the will (or both) to clear away the rubble. Nearby buildings stand defiantly intact, but flying debris has left them pockmarked. Clearly even the smartest smart bomb cannot be control once it has hit its target, I think.

I notice that the city buses passing us on the highway are shiny and new.  At further inspection, I notice the Japanese flags on their sides and stamps that read ” A Gift from the People of Japan.” I nudge one of my Japanese classmates and point this out to her. She smiles.

We arrive at our hotel, the Hotel Slavija. It is something to behold.

Inside, it is clear that nothing has been replaced –or cleaned for that matter– since at least 1990. In front of the elevators there is a huge advertisement poster for the now defunct Yugoslav Airlines. The elevators themselves scare the daylights out of my classmates and I. None of them have all their walls. The one I get into does not have a door. Sometimes they stop on a floor, sometimes between two floors. Sometimes they drop a few floors unexpectedly. The Hotel Slavija quickly earns a nickname from its American guests: the Tower of Terror.

When I get to my room, it is small, dark, and cold, but clean. However, my sheets do not fit my bed, and I realize this will become a problem when I finally decide to pass out. I’ll deal with it in a few hours, I decide, and go to wash my face before going out to explore Belgrade with my friends. When I turn on the tap in the bathroom, the water comes out in a powerful spray. A little too powerful. I try to turn it down, but the faucet won’t budge, and the water is coming out faster now, and soaking me and the room. Great, I think, this damn thing is probably forty years old; it’s survived five wars, and I’m the one who finally breaks it. I call my roommate in, and she can’t turn the tap off either. Finally, she runs downstairs and tells the front desk. A few minutes later, a burly man in his twenties shows up at my door. I sheepishly usher him in and point to the small inland sea forming in the bathroom, and the broken tap feeding it. “I think you may have to add this to the long list of things Americans have broken in your country.” The comment just slips out. I slap my hand over my mouth, in horror. It wasn’t meant maliciously at all, I swear. The man just looks at me like I’m a jerk (which I am), and grabs the tap. He twists it closed in one motion. Suddenly, it’s working perfectly again. The man looks and me and pantomimes moving the tap back and forth. “Off, on, off, on,” he says very slowly, and makes creaking sounds (errrr-eeeee errrr-eeeee) in case I didn’t understand what he was showing me. Even without a mirror, I know my skin tone matches my bright red Cypriot scarf.

And so begins my Belgrade adventure.