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Price of a beer in a bar: US$3.20 for a 500ml bottle of a delicious domestic craft porter in a craft beer bar in the tourist grid

Song currently stuck in my head: Africa (Toto)

Some guy got in my face in Belgrade while his friend failed to coax him out of it in real time. I’m not sure if it was patriotism or if he thought I was eyeing his wife, who was a loud woman of substantial size wearing equally loud Lycra pants. She was out of her seat and bent in half near my table, socializing with a screaming free range child or two. I wouldn’t describe it as sightly in any way, but it will draw your eyes more than once as the scene persists.

The Serbs seem to hold a grudge. Their Gen X Era genocide (I ‘m sorry, ‘ethnic cleansing’, the 90s were all about branding after all) was ended in large part by NATO bombings and they rightly point the finger West. I don’t want to put words in their mouths, but Slobodan Milosevic is lying to Jesus now so we’re left to speculate somewhat and all indications are that Serbia had more land to steal and many non-catholic peoples to murder en mass when Team America started dropping parcels of freedom on Belgrade. I travel a lot of places that have much more legitimate grievances against my Republic (Nicaragua, anyone?) and basically never encounter people who expect me to atone for it personally, so getting confronted over my goulash was not something I was prepared for. I just kept trying to say calmly and dismissively “No, I don’t speak Serbian”, but I’d only been in the country a day or so and couldn’t remember where I was, so I never finished the sentence no matter how many times I tried. The guy seemed a little drunk, though none of them were drinking. He eventually relented, seeming to complain about me, possibly to justify the scene he caused, to the waiter, who glad handed him on his way and never ceased to be polite and attentive to my table. When I left I was hoping he was waiting for me outside, not because I crave confrontation but because I was sooooo curious what I’d just been a reluctant part of. I told The Girlfriend to keep 10 feet of distance when we left, in case an unexpected confrontation took place, but there was nothing that exciting waiting for us outside.

Borders and Customs had been taking particular interest in us as well. I’d been advised to expect this by an American traveling that other direction in Sarajevo. It was just a few extra questions about our intentions; nothing heavier than a typical customs check back home. The Girlfriend was having a rough go of it generally though and started to get particularly snippy with The Officer, who ultimately put his hand on her shoulder in friendly reassurance that there was nothing to be excited about, he just wanted to know what all of the pills and lozenges she was carrying were for.

We spent 2 nights in Belgrade, en route to Bulgaria, and I really enjoyed it. Even that meal was terrific, on balance.

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Cost of a beer in a bar: they aren’t open yet

Song currently stuck in my head: Midnight (Ice-T)

Serbia

Belgrade

1:30am: Alarm pulse. Drag right.

2:30am: Depart Airbnb on foot, begin walking 3km to Centar train station, fully packed. I don’t normally carry items for The Girlfriend (trip motto: you bring it, you carry it), but this morning is an exception. I’ve taken on an extra 5 pounds (or something).

~3:15am: Arrive at Centrar train station.

4am: Train departs for Nis, Serbia.

Nis

~9:30am:  Arrival, walk along highway looking for food and/or coffee that can be purchased with a MasterCard. Limited success. Hang out in the train station. Remnants of communism are weird.

11:30am: Train departs

Dimitrovgrad

2:50pm: Arrival. Rail employees point us to a rustic bit of railway history they haven’t towed away yet. It’s always interesting to see how things used to be, to see if you can mentally fill in the blanks to see how adaptations were arrived at.

Oh, never mind, it’s the train we’re taking to Sophia. It looks like a bus out of Midnight Cowboy.

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3:35pm: Scheduled departure, delayed slightly by customs agents observing the local customs. Our passports get stamped with the wrong date, foreshadowing the deformation of time that accompanies the sleep deprivation that’s only beginning to set in. No consequence. We depart and then spend a significant amount of time waiting aboard the train at Bulgarian customs. Customs agent who collects the passports comments that it’s ‘strange’ that The Girlfriend and I aren’t sitting next to each other even though we’re traveling together. We’ve each taken window seats, directly across from each other. The train is near empty. Received our stamps.

Bulgaria

Sofia

~7:10pm, new time zone: Arrival and fumbling attempts to arrange further transport. Up until now we’ve been on one ticket, Belgrade to Sofia. Now we need to get a ticket to Plovdiv, preferably by train. Recharge our phones, knowing we’ll need juice to find our rental once we arrive in Plovdiv close to midnight. Damn good Bulgarian espresso spikes resolve and competency, if only briefly. Third energy drink purchased. Sleep deprivation is taking hold in earnest after only a few hours sleep the night before and a generally rough few days working our way from Mostar. The Girlfriend will later begin hallucinating on an ominous, kind-of-but-not-quite empty Bulgarian street with furtive movement hiding in the dark, but that hasn’t happened yet. Time warps ahead of and behind us, moves inconsistently, in fits and starts.

9:00pm: Depart. These trains are so old they have these manual door cranks that passengers are having trouble opening. Interior is 80s, probably a refresh; newer than the underlying hardware. Starting to run out of podcasts that I care about. Beginning to have uncharacteristically violent feelings toward Ira Glass, but if I’m honest those have been developing slowly for years, ever since his dismissive comments about listeners who object to the excessive vocal fry in the show’s on air talent.

Plovdiv

~11:15pm: Arrival. Navigation in unfamiliar station in unfamiliar city; underground tunnel(s). The Girlfriend is spooked, but other travelers are moving in the same direction so I’m reassured. Walk with more confidence, not less; overcompensate. Long walk, another 3km or so, before we find a building that we have no idea how to enter. No cell service, host is supposed to be present but no indication. Hate to just start knocking on doors at midnight. Don’t speak the language (hold some currency). The Girlfriend is falling apart but corralling the pieces; soldiering impressively; keeping a tenuous hold. Double back to a bar/cafe that’s recently closed but they let me connect to their wifi, cheerfully even, happy I’m not demanding drink service. Messages, clarification, asynchronous telemiscommunication. Steps retraced, ingress, positive impressions formed. Solid rental.

Midnight.