About Michael Jelley

My name is Mike Jelley. I used to work for the Audit Commission in the UK (as a Data Analyst), and then I came to Belgrade to live with my Serbian girlfriend, Biljana (who I have since married).

Ya Ya Serbia And The Zen Mind

In my early days in Serbia I thought the phrase ‘Ya Ya Serbeeyaa’, oft heard, meant ‘egg egg Serbia’, or ‘Eggy Serbia’, because I’d learnt that ‘Ya Ya’ means egg in Serbian. However, as I heard this phrase more often, predominantly by older people, and usually with a shake of the head or a roll of the eyes, I realised it was actually a phrase of disparagement and resignation. Basically the person was saying, ‘well this is Serbia, what the f+ck do you expect’? And this one statement could explain everything from the price of milk to corrupt politicians.

My theory is that anyone who has lived a long time in any country usually becomes sensitive to injustices or inefficiencies in that country. And so as people grow older, in any country, they are more inclined to include in their conversation with others some lament about their particular grievance with that country.

In Britain that lament might be, depending on one’s views, any one or more of the following: the condition of road surfaces, the number of speed cameras watching the roads, the rudeness of the young (or old, or shopkeepers), the amount of bureaucracy, the levels of taxes, the European Community’s laws regarding the proper size of a banana, etc, etc, etc.

I suppose a similar phrase in Britain to ‘Ya Ya Serbia’ might be ‘Only in Britain’, and any of the afore-mentioned situations could invoke that statement from neighbours as they talk over the garden fence and crossed their arms, and shook their heads from side to side.

What’s interesting about the phenomenon of ‘Ya Ya Serbia’ or ‘Only in Britain’ is that it’s far less likely to be spoken by foreigners. A Serbian in England or an Englander in Serbia is far less likely to be bothered by those events and situations that really drive the natives crazy? Why is this?

I think that the majority of those issues which really bothers people who’ve lived in a country for a long time are more likely to be the ‘stone in the shoe’ affairs than the life shattering ones.

And so when I hear of, or see, any such minor irritations in Belgrade I shrug but don’t think too much of them. My wife, however, might feel a great sense of ‘Ya Ya Serbia’ because she has heard/felt/experienced a multitude of such specific events in Belgrade over her lifetime and each one planted a ‘small stone in her shoe’ and now each stone feels like a boulder. Her ‘Ya Ya Serbia’ is the cumulative effect of all these little specific events.

So how does ‘Ya Ya Serbia’ tie into Zen? Well apparently Zen monks acquire a sense of peace because they don’t allow all the small irritations and attachments to grow inside them. Unlike us regular human beings they live in the present and don’t harbour a growing list of annoyances – they let things go.

Perhaps, being a foreigner in any country puts one in more of a ‘zen-like’ state. All you see and hear is new, and you are more focussed on the present as you go about your activities. You don’t harbour a long list of location (or personnel) specific minor resentments that can boil over whenever some new (but similar) minor incident occurs because you haven’t been in the country long enough for those ‘stones in the shoe’ to feel like boulders.

Don’t believe me? Take a 3-month holiday in another country and notice how your sense of ‘Ya Ya’ disappears as you focus on your new environment and temporarily let-go of your pet hates.

Royal Palace Belgrade

I remember my early explorations of Belgrade’s ‘sights’.

Kalemegdan was one of the first, and even now one of my favourites, given that the path one takes within its depths determines whether you pass beneath ancient boughs, or alongside players of chess, or upon battlements, through flowered gardens, across open grass or more.

I was first taken to another ‘sight to see’, Republic Square, on a snowy winter morning. As snowflakes drifted down around me, I saw a great bronze statue of a man, mounted upon a horse, pointing fiercely into the distance. This it transpired, was Duke Mihailo, who during the mid 19th Century completed the expulsion of the Turks from Serbia and liberated the remaining 7 cities that lay still under the spice and silk heel of Turkish rule.

From the Duke Milhailo statue we’d strolled along the street named after him, Knez Mihailova, Old Belgrade’s vehicle-free chic main shopping destination. We ambled in and out of the clothing stores and bookshops passing beside buildings whose pleasing architectural styles ranged from romanticism to renaissance, partaking of coffee halfway to warm our shivering bodies.

It was summer when I first went to Ada. Bronzed bodies shimmered under a punishing sun, and youths splashed at the water’s edge. We hopped from café parasol to café parasol drinking coke and seeking islands of shade. Melting into comfortable divans, we watched the world flip-flop by, before hiring bikes and free-wheeling along the lanes of the park at a speed that evaporated the sweat from our faces and cooled us down.

My first gaze from the heights of Avala came during an autumn day of bright sun but chill air, when hiking along the wooded paths was marked by faint clouds of mist from our breaths. I took the elevator ride to the top of the tower thinking I’d arrive in a large room – only to walk past the elevator doors and find myself standing beside a wall of glass and a very visible drop of many hundreds of meters to the ground below. Great view – but knee trembling for those uncomfortable with heights.

Given that the title of this article is the ‘Royal Palace Belgrade’, you may wonder why I have not mentioned the place as yet?

Well, this narrative follows chronologically my explorations of the ‘sights’ of Belgrade and the Royal Palace never interested me during my early days in the city..

Visits to the Royal Palace are often included in tours to the Royal Grounds, and labelled as tours of the ‘White Palace’ (the other palace on these grounds). Photos of the White Palace aren’t inspiring, and having seen many stately homes in the UK, those photos were enough to put me off taking the tour for a long time during my time in Belgrade.

Which is a shame, because its a must-see tourist destination which I did eventually make my way to.

Situated on the hills above Belgrade, I adored the wooded grounds upon my first glimpse of them. As our minibus approached the palace, shafts of light from a spring sun penetrated the boughs of the trees and marked our way.

We saw the White Palace that day, a severe neo-Palladian structure, built in the 1930’s and used by both Tito and Slobodan Milosevic when in power. Sporting a vast ‘chequered floor’ stateroom (known as the black and white salon), a royal dining room and a golden salon furnished with rococo furniture, this whilte columned building impressed me.

It was the Royal Palace that awed me, however.

Sporting a façade made of white marble mined from the Adriatic island of Brac (which was also used for the White House in Washington DC), the Royal Palace is small but gorgeous. My jaw dropped as I wandered around. Carpets, tapestries, Serbian folk motifs and frescoes competed to ensure every space pleased the eye.

Decorated in (what I learned was) the Renaissance and Baroque style, authentic furniture and paintings greeted me at every step and reinforced the message of splendour and wealth.

The billiard room and cinema in the basement, had me daydreaming just how I would spend my time if I lived (as does still the Serbian Royal Family) within these walls.

If you visit Belgrade, there are many places you should visit – but make sure the Royal palace is not be the last!

Food Glorious Food!

Let’s face it: air, water and food are integral to our lives. Serbian water and air is relatively indistinguishable from that of England’s water and air, but the food can differ.

Sure, England has pork and Serbia has pork, England has potatoes and Serbia has potatoes, people scoff Mars bars here, and they do so in England too. But after a while spent in Serbia I began to crave food products from there not available here. Also too, I began to develop a taste for some local food here, not available there.

This article details my hunger pangs.

I am English, and these are the ‘foods’ I miss:

Fish-and-ChipsBattered Cod and Chips: lemon soaked golden batter that parts under the knife to reveal succulent ripe white cod. Cod that melts on my tongue and makes my toes tingle and curl. Hmm… what could top that? Oh, yes, the salt and vinegar coated chunky chips that nestle alongside the battered cod (or sometimes the curry sauce covered chips that nestle there).

In Belgrade I can obtain fairly nice battered fish, and I can obtain nice tiny fish – but please – somebody – anybody – tell me where I can find battered cod and their sidekick chunky chips.

lemon-chickenChinese Food: Belgrade has Chinese takeaways and Chinese restaurants, but the taste (especially in the restaurants) is qualitatively different from that in England. When I return to England, the day after I’ve gorged on battered cod and chips I tend to find myself in a Chinese establishment, either a ‘eat all you can’ buffet restaurant (preferably where the Chinese themselves eat), or a takeaway. The exotic flavours that hit the tongue from a plate of ribs dripping with barbecue sauce, or the bursts of enjoyment you receive from chicken oozing with lemon sauce, are 48 frames per second of intensity compared to the 24 frames per second I’ve received from Chinese food here.
For some reason the Chinese cook differently in Belgrade. Maybe they simply tailor their product to the taste-bud preferences of the native population?

alldaybreakfastThe All Day Breakfast: The best time to indulge in a fried breakfast is midday, and the best location (in my biased opinion) is a greasy spoon café (i.e. truckers café, or ‘delboy’ type food establishment located on a minor side-street). True, this food is unhealthy. If the doctor could give you a prescription for a heart attack – this would be it. But, who can deny the illicit pleasure of slurping tea from a chipped mug between mouthfuls of banger (sausage), bacon and yolk covered chips? What greater luxury is there on a Friday lunchtime, after a stressful week at work, than deciding whether to tackle a standard, large or belly-buster all-day-breakfast and then to dine on the most flavoursome saturated fat this side of Cholesterol city, whilst reading the sports section of a daily tabloid. Working class heaven.
We’ve tried our own ADB’s in Belgrade, but without easy access to sliced bacon, British style sausages and black pudding – it’s just not the same.

TwigletsTwiglets: You either love twiglets or you hate them (like Marmite, but that’s another tale). Hopefully, you loathe twiglets because that leaves more for me. And so by deduction you realise – I love twiglets. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a twiglet lover watching television on a Christmas evening is in want of a huge tub of the aforementioned yummies to bide time with. What can be more fulfilling than licking that yeast extracting coating from the knobbly wheat sticks, until your tongue is brown? Hmm…..
Can’t find them in Belgrade.

These are the ‘foods’ I’ve developed a taste for in Belgrade:

CocktaCockta: A Herbal Coke? WTF? What foul commercial rip-off is this, I first thought, when coming to Belgrade. Then I tasted the tangy liquid heaven and upgraded to swigging litre bottles from brown paper bags in the park. Gee, this stuff is addictive, it’s replaced coke as my soft drink of choice and it doesn’t give me insomnia if I drink it all evening in a bar (unlike coke or coffee).
I’ve not seen Cockta in the UK – why not?ChocBananas

Chocolate Bananas (soko stark): Do we have these little chocolate banana treats in the UK? I don’t know. We’ve got little banana like soft sweets, but I don’t think we have any with chocolate coats. Maybe it’s best if the UK doesn’t import these – because they’re subversive. You buy them en-bulk with the intention of munching maybe one or two of the little devils a day, and yet come sundown they’re all gone and you have a pile of wrappers on the coffee table next to you, and and very minor sense of guilt. These things are lush with a capital L.

PorkyScratchingPorkie Scratching (cvarci): I love porkie scratching. The interplay between risking breaking your molars by crunching the brittle skin, and the salty meaty flavour makes for a dynamic snack experience. The trouble is, in England porkie scratching comes in a little bag, containing hardly enough of the salty wonders to fill your mouth – and more often that not nowadays you’re cheated of the real article and offered puffed up artificial nonsense that don’t mean a thing because it ain’t got no zing.
Imagine my delight to discover that almost every butcher in Belgrade can scoop a hundredweight of the genuine non-additive chopped barbecued pork-skin into your backpack whereupon you can munch away to your hearts content.

Side-note:

My Serbian wife spent six months in England and experienced similar pangs and cravings as me, though of course for different food items. She missed the Serbian foods: Smoki, Grilled piglet & Burek, and she grew to delight in eating: English cakes & tarts, jacket potatoes and fresh shellfish (which are lot more expensive to purchase in Belgrade).

Just like Cats & Dogs

Are you a cat person or a dog person? The question might bring images of cute furry things lapping at milk, or forces of nature chasing after thrown balls. You might assemble all manner of whiskery, purring, barking, tail wagging images into a weighted mental Pinterest board, and arrive at a decision concerning which of these types of Pets really are ‘mans’ (Human’s) best friends.

But, in this instance I’m asking you another sort of question entirely. Not what of these two pets you’d choose to keep, rather, which of these two beasts you’d be if some divine power looked into your skull and reconfigured your genes based on the animus it saw lurking there.

If you weren’t human would you be a dog or a cat?

What has all this to do with Serbia?

Asked by BalkanDailyNews to write a blog entry, noting perceived differences between Brits and Serbians, I set about scribbling down ideas – only to realize I had to weld them into a coherent article.

Under pressure, I decided upon a non-too-serious analogy: that Serbians (or at least, Belgrade) people have something of a cat-like nature, and the British (or at least Bristolians) have the canine essence within.

For example, when I first came to Belgrade I remember standing where I thought the queue was, in a mobile phone shop, only for new people entering the shop to ignore my presence and start making demands of the shop staff (who were currently dealing with other customers). This lack of a Serbian gene for queuing, wasn’t an isolated incident. If I need to get on a bus, served in a bank, or to buy tickets at the cinema, then I’ve learned fast action with elbows works wonders.

See the dog/cat analogy? A dog, if ordered, will wait until you’ve put his food in the bowl before eating it. A cat will rush in to make sure it gets there first.

And we’re talking about more than just queuing. The comparisons expand to structure, laws and rules. Brits have lived in a caste driven structured society for centuries. We’re more lax nowadays, but we’re still driven by paperwork, bureaucracy and a need for order. Just as dogs crave their master’s order, we Brits need the system to work and people to fulfil their roles. A risqué BBC television programme, poor school food or a missing traffic warden will lead to a flurry of complaints from ‘citizens concerned about the appalling decline of society’.

Serbians observance of laws, however, resembles one of those friendly tom-cats who eight out of ten times will come along and purr as you stroke it. But, when it’s not in the mood will twitch its ears in your direction but otherwise not flinch. Not the dog-like need to obey the rules for this cat – its got its own mind.

So, what does this independent cat do with itself? Not demand walkies or stupidly run after balls thrown in the park. If there’s nothing important to do, then this cat will sit on a windowsill and watch the world go by – it knows how to relax. Similarly, a Serbian eschews the nervous hustle and bustle of British life – and takes time to sit and stare from a café, coffee in hand.

This relaxed cat might hiss at the proximity of a rival, but he doesn’t gather in packs and fight with territorial rives – as might stray dogs. Similarly, the evening streets of Belgrade are filled with leisurely relaxed throngs, and even the most timid old lady has no fear of walking through a park under the moon. Whereas, the evening streets & parks of British cities can be less pleasant.

A dog will roll in the mud, then scramble amongst the leaves – and take half of them home on his coat. A cat will preen itself and ensue a constantly fine coat. A cat cares a lot more about its appearance than a dog. Cast an eye at the average British street and islands of style are muddled with a smorgasbord of lapsed fashion. Whereas, the men and women of Belgrade purr with an eye for style that only the Italians can rival.

One more point… my Serbian Mother in Law said, ‘Dogs mess anywhere, whereas cats are more careful. The British messed over many nations in the last few centuries, whereas we’ve only soiled our own backyard.’.

I’d reply ‘Who’s to judge what is ‘mess’, and what is ‘fertilizer’. 😉