The airport of Tivat in Montenegro was quite small – approximately Gainesville sized. Seeing the comparable physical size and the volume of flights (around eight in a day) reminded me of the strangeness of conceiving of the world by nation-state. I am often sucked into this mindset myself, especially when I’m asked how many countries I’ve been to. Along with the phenomena of modern nationalism, this conception of other places and its use to compare unlike entities is something I think about often. I hear teachers compare the education system of the United States to that of Finland. My friends in Taiwan always asked how the weather was in 外國. In Jordan, in Kyrgyzstan, and all over, the locals constantly compare medical systems, social services for the poor, postal services with the USA. I wonder if the smaller nation-state is inherently at an advantage or put at a disadvantage. Iceland produces disproportionately large amounts of great artists due to a national government promoting from a small pool. But perhaps that leaves a neighbor to wallow in financial problems?
Regardless, the pollution free weather blessedly followed us from Montenegro up to Serbia. Colder (we left early in the morning with the temperature at -7 degrees Celsius), but tolerable still during the day. My shoe soles had worn thin in Macedonia and I’d been traipsing around ever since in the very German combination of thick socks in sandals. This got quite chilly, and extremely dry. I finally bought new soles in a mall we ducked into to get out of the cold. Quite amazing what a difference they make.
Our apartment was absolutely gorgeous and sparkling clean. We were let in a bit early while the hostess finished up her cleaning. A light sea-foam green to go with black and white. Even some decent pencil drawings framed near the doorway.
Brent and I were hard-pressed finding any establishment without smoking inside. The hipsters next door were smoking quite happily. The startup-type cafe down the street was also quite filled. We finally found a restaurant with distinct areas for smoking and non-smoking to huddle in for a moment. Brent was adamant about finding us dim sum for lunch, which was what necessitated looking for a WiFi equipped establishment in the first place. To his chagrin, however, there was nothing to be found across all the internets – only димсам – the Slavic version of 水餃. Deflated, Brent let me finish my drawing (mostly made up due to massive window elements in the way of my line of sight of the church across the street.
That church was Saint Sava, planned to be the second largest Orthodox Church in the world. The main area remains under construction, but the crypt below warranted an extended visit. Lavishly decorated with Orthodox icons in a new style incorporating gold leaf and what looked to be acrylic paint rather than fresco. Some icons were still in progress, and there was much to be gleaned just from looking at these half finished drawings. I delighted in showing Brent all the different saints and stories and styles.
Outside Saint Sava, we enjoyed a cheery Christmas Eve market where Brent bought a roll cake and some mulled wine to his regret. Due to Orthodoxy, Serbians follow the Julian calendar for holidays rather than the Gregorian calendar. Christmas thus falls on the 7th of January, and new year falls on the 14th. People everywhere set about preparing for Christmas eve by toting around dried branches. Branches everywhere! Apparently it’s a Serbian tradition dating back to the pre-Christian Slavic religion – they burn the branches at sundown (happily re-polluting the finally pollutant free air in earnest).
In regards to food, Brent had utterly given up on the Balkans. After the church, he navigated us to 中華 restaurant where we ate 辣子雞，炒青菜，綠茶，白米飯，and 水餃。 I scribbled another drawing of Brent to add to my quickly growing collection of Brents while we waited for our food, and our waiter (who smoked, of course), proudly showed the other patrons (all Chinese tourists) my drawing, calling me “人才”. Quite flattering! I let the group of girls behind us conjecture whether or not we were Chinese (loudly) – uncertain as I didn’t say anything but made facial expressions to show I understood. The sudden dose of oil filled me up and I couldn’t imagine eating more.
Which was all for the best. Everything closed for Christmas eve. We walked straight to the castle at the end of town, which was cold and meh, then wandered back through the aforementioned mall and the sadly closed Hummus shop. Even Brent’s planned hipster huddling location was closed. Learning from previous holiday eves, we once again turned in early, walking home past the houses of government and a horrible man who lit and threw a firecracker to the side of the sidewalk such that it exploded very loudly as we passed. People suck. Not keen on emerging again, I fell asleep after watching an episode of Battlestar Galactica which happened to be airing. We left Serbia early and hungry by bus in once again apocalyptic levels of pollution – the revelers had managed to go from the low thirties back above two hundred on AQICN in a matter of hours.