My first instinct when I come to any new area is, and always has been, to find a map. Maps give me framework, function as a bridge between the abstraction of relative location and the reality of the ground upon which I stand. A map in my hand is a panacea to the chaos of culture shock and the first building block in my confidence upon arriving in a new region. With a map in my hand, I can be the one to lead me and mine to safety--or adventure.

Belgrade taught me that this is often a laughably useless notion.

Welcome to Belgrade

Belgrade from river Sava

Belgrade is the capital of Serbia, itself the monolithic heart of the former Yugoslavia. The city has been conquered over fifty times in the last thousand years; it has changed regimes over one-hundred. It has fallen head over heels for socialism, flirted with military dictatorship, and has a complex history with monarchy and empire, the full extent of which is perhaps known only to the immortal stones of Kalemegdan, the crowning fortress that oversees the broad convergence of the Danube and Sava rivers.

I came to the city in February, a wide-eyed political science student set to dive into the sociopolitical mire of the Balkans for a semester. Amidst the chaotic shuffle of introductory classes, linguistic crash courses, and the all-important landmine avoidance lecture, my small group of fellow Americans finally found a free night, unbound to the itinerary. As we were inquisitive souls whose thirst for experience led us far from the path beaten through the libraries and lecture halls of home, we sought to explore the authentic culture of this mysterious land. As we were twenty-year olds in a European country, that exploration invariably ended at a bar.

And that’s not a bad way to take the measure of Belgrade. As we were to find out that evening and over many more like it, the throbbing bass across thousands of pubs, clubs, cafes and bars forms the city’s vigorous heartbeat. With venues ranging from New England-style colonials to anchored riverboats to winding halls cut out of stone cliffs, and atmospheric diversity to match, the city spills forth like a Slavic New Orleans—merry debauchery and spontaneous celebration of life run endless laps around the clock, through streets and buildings that bore witness to the rise and fall of nations.

Searching for home

Belgrade under snow

At the night’s end we emerged from the bar and dispersed into the brisk evening. Our group diminished as new friends peeled off to freshly memorized streets of hostels and host families, and at last I found myself walking alone. As I passed from the apartment canyons of the trendy city center to the broader boulevards of the old city, I realized, with the gentle, gut-tickling chill of the greenest tourist, that I had no idea where I was.

I spent much of the next hour on that frigid February night meandering from the dubiously comforting glow of one streetlight to the next, searching for a familiar road that I could follow home. My shivers finally overcame my shyness and I asked a stranger in barely passable Serbian how to get to ulica Kraljice Marije (Queen Maria Street). I was informed with a smile that I was standing on it. As they walked away, I turned to look at a nearby street sign. It read, in stark, humorless print, “Ulica Dvadesetsedmog Marta”.

Although my command of the language did not yet approach the elementary, I knew that that did not read Kraljice Marije.

I sighed, resolving to pick a direction and hoof it until the street signs became more agreeable. I passed dozens of street names that stood out to me in nearly alien letters. Those I could read spoke of titanic figures and mythical events: kings, queens, battles, and revolutions threaded this city. Communist officials brushed against monarchical victories, greeting one another with stoplights and traffic circles, parting with a disdainful laugh at chronology and thematic organization. 

My mind, mellowed into thoughtful contemplation by cold and drink, began to make sense of the chaos. I recognized it as the result of countless top-down attempts to sway public opinion--two thousand years of history viewed through innumerable regimes, each one doing away with streets dedicated to the dissenting and disfavored, raising up those dedicated to the politically salient in their place. Again and again this would happen, and it must have been constantly interrupted by coups and occupations--whose perpetrators begin the process anew. No wonder these streets had two names, or five names, or even no name.

I emerged from one of the latter, an unhappy marriage of utilitarian alleyway and charming pedestrian path that played host to several rusted Yugo hatchbacks and a pair of skittish cats, to behold my building looming out of the snow before me. Having found my doorstep through luck more than any other factor, I took once again to the trusty map and found to my dismay that Kraljice Marije went by no fewer than four other names within its half-mile existence.

A street by many names

Belgrade downtown

Although I have no definitive proof regarding the particular boundaries, logic and order dictate this: Kraljice Marije, named for the 20th century exiled Yugoslav Queen Maria, starts at the intersection of the highway towards the south of its expanse. It runs for a few blocks before inexplicably turning into Dvadesetsedmog Marta, dedicated to the coup on March 27th, 1941 that would go on to install the communist regime of Yugoslavia for half a century on.

Another eighth of a mile and, in defiance of all conventional history and reason, the street becomes ulica Džordža Vašingtona. Against all odds, this stretch is named after our first president, George Washington--who (unless I have been grossly misinformed about the nature of national sovereignty) never once held office in the region.

To cement this veritable who’s-who of utterly arbitrary historical names, the street culminates as ulica Cara Dušana, named after the renowned 14th century emperor of not only medieval Serbia but its considerable regional holdings.

This is hardly an unusual experience within the region. The roadbed continues in either direction; it would not unduly surprise me to learn that Belgrade is comprised of one long, winding street whose name changes thirty-eight thousand times and rests beyond the ken of any mortal map.

Sometimes shrewd cartography fails, but that’s not a big deal when you learn to embrace Belgrade. If you wander far enough, you’ll find the right street. And if you wait long enough, the right street just might find you.

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Sam Rapine is a firefighter/EMT and traveler who writes when nothing is burning. Check out his other travel stories on Matador Network and Outpost Magazine, or look for his fiction published as Owen Rapine. He also caved and made a Twitter, @RiotousRapine!