Sunday, July 10, 2011


Saint Mark's Church in Belgrade is, fittingly, a popular and incredibly beautiful church. The dome forms a heavenly canopy far overhead. On the earthly plane, the framed pictures of saints are covered with the lipsticked imprints of kisses. A sweet smell of incense permeates the cool interior.

My travelling companion, Mili X, hands me a candle. You can light candles for the living, and you can light candles for the dead, she says. It would seem, then, wholly inappropriate to light a candle for my son, because, as a teenage Zombie, he falls into neither category. So i genuflect before the ikons, kneel on this ancient stone, and light a candle for his dear departed mother. I close my eyes and pray before its flickering light. I pray she has found peace. I pray she has gone to a better place. I pray someday i may get my record collection back. I then light a candle for my son. Can't do any harm. Pascal's wager, and all that. Then, having fulfilled our religious observances for the next six decades, Mili and i rise and make our way back out of Saint Mark's. I make the sign of the cross (spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch) and we wander back to the Hotel Splendid via the back alleyways and rooftops of Belgrade.

Daylight. I pull the heavy curtains of our Splendid Hotel room aside, and gaze out across the rooftops of the houses of the Serbian parliament. Down on the street below, men with jackhammers are busily undermining the foundations of democracy. There will be no sleeping in today. I pour a few fingers of rum, polishing the nails with strawberry juice. I must brace myself for today's search for black-and-white film.

Out in the plaza, i find it is far easier to order ПОГАЧА and sit eating it with coffee than it is to find a shop that stocks rolls of film. Nobody wants old stuff like film here. Old stuff is communist stuff. Free enterprise is digital. After eating the cheesy corn bread, i wander the plaza regardless, waylaying bystanders with my retro Nikon (no, it's not a Kiev, Zenit or Lomo) in an attempt to find someone with a smattering of English who can point me in the direction of a film vendor. Eventually, a derelict wino borrows my pen, sketches out a map, and asks me for a cigarette. The map directs me to the sixth floor of a nearby office block.

The elevator is one of those contraptions where you need to be sure to keep your appendages completely to yourself. Although i suppose this is proper etiquette whilst inside any elevator. I open its double concertina doors onto a sixth-floor corridor. Part way along, a timber veneered door hangs open, beckoning film wasters with its single, lopsided, faded orange sign: "Agfa". Inside is a man in a leather jacket, black polo neck shirt, and black beret, smoking. He is sporting a black goatee, and has a surreptitious air about him. Clearly, the man is a Satanist.

Given Mili X and i are leaving the capital tomorrow, this is my last chance to stock up on the precious silver, even if i have to deal with the devil. I spy a few black and yellow boxes marked 'Ilford Pan 100'.

Pan 100? I've only ever seen this in 50, i say. Is this some kind of cheap Russian substitute? He shrugs, takes out a few rolls of the film, and places them on the grubby glass counter. He buts out his cigarette in a filter mountain and immediately lights another. He points at my Nikon and beckons. I hand it to him. He handles the rewind spool expertly, and, determining there is no film in the camera, pops the back open and quickly checks its shutter speeds and auto function. He nods. Dobro, he says. He snaps shut the back, points to the film identifier, where i shoved a tag off my last roll of Fuji Neopan. Pointing next at the Ilford 100, he gives the thumbs up, indicating that this film manufactured in some backstreet Gulag will stack up well against the fine-grained, dependable Japanese version. As it transpires, this is complete bullshit. Nonetheless i fork out a pile of dinars for half a dozen rolls, and in appreciation, the Satanist reaches under the counter and comes up with a roll marked with the unlikely name 'Gekko'. With a wave of his cigarette, he indicates this is a freebie. Back on the street, i load a roll and start shooting street scenes. Street scenes. I love street scenes.

When i first arrived in Belgrade, that is, when the JAT aeroplane landed at airport, the passengers broke into loud and heartfelt applause. I found this unnerving. I tend to take an airline pilot's ability to land a passenger jet aircraft somewhat for granted. I don't see it as something to be celebrated with astonishment, gratitude, and a standing encore. Especially when the seat belt sign is still on. But, here we are. Belgrade, however, is only a transit point. For we are on our way to that Hawaii of Eastern Europe, Montenegro. That, at least, is how it is advertised on the billboards. I'm looking forward to the pineapples. Pineapples. I love pineapples.

Twenty minutes past midnight, Sunday morning, and i am on a train to Montenegro, having missed the bus in the scrambled mess that passes for a bus station in Belgrade: a giant clusterfuck of cars, buses and people, all tooting, shouting, and blowing smoke. A bus full of passengers about to set off to a destination somewhere elsewhere in the Balkans is stationary, blasting its horn incessantly at an unmanned car blocking its path. Someone has simply parked a red Yugo right across the middle of the road and left it there, regardless of the available parking spaces dotted around it. Finally, the vehicle is lifted and manhandled out of the way by half a dozen burly Slavs.

After the bus trundles off, the inconsiderate Yugo driver appears, and nonchalantly parks his car in a marked bay. Mili X glares at him, calling him an idiotski under her breath as he stands idly chatting with waiting passengers. He then takes a big glob of gum out of his mouth and drops it on the ground in front of him. I've always wondered, while trying to pick gum off the soles of my Blundstones, what kind of idiotskis do that. Now i know.

When the late-running bus to Montenegro finally arrives, we discover it is not our bus. Our bus left an hour previously from a similarly named street just around the corner. So we hurry and harry a taxi driver across town to the train station, and squeeze onto the last train to Montenegro, and spend three and a half hours standing in a narrow corridor as it groans and wheezes. The ramshackle train does most of the groaning while chain-smokers do the rest. Eventually we bribe a train conductor and he finds us some seats. We fold them down and chase the elusive gremlin of sleep. The two female anglo backpackers beside us manage to somnambulate throughout the entire trip, including the breath-taking scenery, leading Mili X to believe they are in possession of powerful sleeping tablets. They looked and smelled to me like they hadn't had a decent night's sleep or a decent bath since departing the white cliffs of Dover. I down a few shots of rum and fall into a fitful sleep, dreaming of pineapples and Serbian women. I fucking love Serbian women.

The morning sun is bright, accentuating the contrast between this dry, mountainous green landscape and the sudden black tunnels from which it can take several minutes to emerge. Every now and then, when we burst into the blinding sun, i notice some of these chainsmoking people are staring at me. However, i resist the impulse to smile back at them in what might be construed as a friendly manner, as Serbs have a saying in common with the Russians: "He who smiles for no reason must be fucking crazy or stupid or both" and since i had no desire to appear any more idiotic that would came naturally on any given day, i adopt the same blank-to-grim-faced expression as everyone else on the train. Perhaps it's the hair. Before i left Belgrade i dyed my hair the kind of colour you would get if you poured gasoline on a case of tangerines and threw in a match.

A river meanders alongside as, and i watch as it rushes hurriedly over shallow stones, past a couple of fisherman, before winding on past a variety of half-finished houses with steeply-pitched roofs and market gardens and into the occasional town in which the houses stand in jumbled rows, one on top of the other, and disappear beyond the view from the train window as they ramble up the side of a black mountain.

We reach the old Austro-Hungarian fort town of Budva, Montenegro, after a horrifying taxi ride from Bar with a driver from the Evel Knievel School of Taxi Instruction. For this driver, the best possible place for a taxi, if not actually in mid-air flying off the edge of a cliff, is at high speed on the wrong side of a winding, narrow, mountainous road. As we cross a narrow bridge over a ravine, i see where the metal railing has been forced back in a gaping hole. Quaint plastic posies and a delightful Orthodox cross lay next to it. This spectacle energises our taxi driver, who begins tailgating a black, late-model Mercedes Benz with dark, tinted windows, Albanian plates and three antennae - id est, quite obviously a carload of gangsters - before overtaking them with his horn blaring and speeding on through completely unlit tunnels towards oncoming traffic with his headlights off. After communing at length with Jesus, for the most part silently, we arrive in Budva in the unfortunate position of having only dinars and dollars in a province powered by euros on a Sunday morning with fifty kilograms of luggage and nowhere to stay after an allnighter on a train from hell.

We buy two bottles of water and struggle up the hill to look for a room, and very difficult it is, too, carrying bottles which, as you can see from the label, contain over a hundred litres and are larger than a small child. We find a room run by an old lady who is very nice, although it would also be nice if we had hot water and toilet paper, but one can't expect miracles.