By David Driver
Hotel Splendid, yes, that is the real name, is on a one-way street just south of Republic Square in the heart of Belgrade, Serbia.
Down the hill a few blocks is the train station, and a few blocks from there are government buildings that were bombed by NATO during a long siege in 1999.
Some of the buildings have been fenced in and boarded up, and look just as they did eight years after the bombing stopped.
I had been to Belgrade a few times on my own, but on this occasion I brought along my friend Chris, who was also living in the same town as my family in Hungary. So here it was, a weekend about two years ago, that two American guys came to Belgrade, a city in the heart of the former Yugoslavia and off the beaten track for most foreigners, and especially Yanks.
I came to Belgrade that weekend, mostly, to watch and write about a basketball game since I had been a sportswriter in the U.S. for about 15 years. Hoops is huge in Serbia: there are several Serbians in the National Basketball Association, and the country is one of the few in Europe where basketball is more popular than football Â– the sport that we call soccer. Forget Duke vs. North Carolina or Ohio State vs. Michigan or UCLA vs. USC. When a Croatian team plays a Serbian squad in basketball, they bring out hundreds of policemen in riot gear to control the rabid fans. At one recent game, fans threw fireworks towards rival fans. And yes, they play indoors.
Chris, a university student in the town where my wife was a visiting professor, meanwhile, came along for the ride to Belgrade, and to experience as much culture as possible. He did bring along some of his books, and he planned to study on this night while I headed across town to cover the basketball game for American publications.
I had come across the 50-room Hotel Splendid on the internet, and it met several of my requirements when booking places in central and eastern Europe: the web site was in English, they responded to my e-mail in a timely fashion, and the cost was reasonable. Splendid? Well, maybe not. Hotel Reasonable may have been more fitting.
And there was a bonus. It turns out the person at the hotel who responded to e-mails was a kind man named Mike. Of course, that was not his real name. He had a Serbian name, and one at that which was much harder for foreigners to pronounce. So he went by Mike. I didnÂ’t push it; dealing with Hungarian names had been hard enough, so Mike sounded fine to me. I brought him a bottle of Hungarian wine on one of my visits to thank him for his assistance. Mike was a rarity in that part of the world: a person near the age of 60 who spoke English.
So on this night, as I headed crosstown in a cab to watch basketball, Chris said he would stay at the hotel and do some studying. I returned about 11 p.m., and by that time Chris Â– certainly more adventurous than myself Â– decided it was time to take a break from his studies. He said he was headed to the hotel bar/restaurant, which was open all night in the small lobby.
Chris is a late-night person, and I am not, so I went to bed. When I awoke, for some reason, around 4 a.m., Chris was not in his bed a few feet away from mine.
My mind got the best of me. It is 4 a.m. on a weekend, we are in Belgrade, a city our country bombed at will a few years ago, and my outgoing, talkative friend is not in his hotel room. I started to imagine the worst.
After about five minutes, and trying to decide what to do, I opened the door and was headed downstairs. That is the exact moment Chris was returning to the room, and he was more surprised to see I was awake than I was to see him.
What happened? No, he had not been kidnapped by Serbians. Chris proceeded to tell me he had one of the most memorable nights of his life Â– this from a person who used to work at bars in the U.S.
When he got to the hotel bar around midnight, he overhead a few people at a nearby table. They were speaking Serbian, but Chris picked up a few words that made him realize they were talking about the United States. And he figured out it was not all positive.
Chris joined in the conversation, which then turned to English. It turns out that two local policemen were in the group, as well as a Russian businessman. As the night progressed Chris got an honest opinion about, among other things, the war that had ravaged the region in the 1990s.
Chris said, at one point, one of the Serbian policemen showed his gun to those at the table. Chris reminded himself that it was late and this policeman may have had too many drinks. The group talked for hours, and Chris had experienced the kind of exchange of ideas that few American could imagine.
His night ended some five hours after it began. The next day we took the train back to the relative calm of southern Hungary. We had few, if any, souvenirs. But we had the memory of a night that neither of us would forget. We were willing to visit a country that some westerners may consider dangerous, and we were rewarded for our efforts with mutual respect by those from another country.
EditorÂ’s note: David Driver is a Virginia native who has been a professional journalist for 20 years. He has contributed to The Washington Post, Associated Press and many American newspapers and magazines. He has been the sports editor of daily and weekly newspapers in Maryland, and lived in Hungary from 2003-06.