I landed in Belgrade with instructions to grab a taxi to a nearby hotel parking lot. I sat with an understandably confused Serbian taxi driver in an empty field of concrete, borrowed his phone and his fluent Serbian to make sure I was in the right place, and waited. Just when doubts begin to creep in, just when I start to wonder "am I really in an empty parking lot in Serbia waiting on a strangers' promise??", a car pulls up and out hops a smiling Marko, early thirties and a Djokovic look alike, the national squash champ and my host for the night.
Through the city we drove past a major park packed with new visitors- nearly fifty thousand migrants seeking refuge from from conflict zones and instability in regions like North Africa and the Middle East, reaching Serbia as the gateway into the rest of Europe. Mini-settlements formed seemingly overnight by everyday people pushed away from home or pulled into the lure of finding better lives. As they waited here in Serbia, this park was theirs. What happens now? Does the government allow this? Marko shrugged. "What can we do?"
We kept driving. With P. Diddy's "I'll Be Watching You" circulating from the car speakers, Marko toured me through the statues fortresses of Belgrade built first by the Turks and then the Celts sometime in the 6th century. At a table along a narrow cobblestone street in the old city, Marko ordered us his favorite grilled meats smothered in local cheeses as he took me back in time: the messy split of Yugoslavia after a brutal civil war in the early '90s, memories of the NATO bombings as a teen in '99, the tensions with Kosovo today.
It's past midnight when we arrive at the gates of the club in the forest. The guard on patrol is sleeping and Marko doesn't want to wake him so we climb over the fence; Marko tosses my bag over once I've made it. The second guard inside the center let's us in to my home for the night: a couch at the cocktail bar opposite the main squash court, bright neon lighting of the Jana Spring Water vending machine twinkling in the darkness. Marko leaves me with the guard, who offers me some water before he tunes back in to watching Serbian Animal Plant.
Teeth brushed in the men's locker room and with Jana shining in the background, off to bed before squash a few feet away the next morning. At dawn a couple hours later, the first bar waitress would arrive to the bar next to the squash court in the forest outside of Belgrade, politely tap me awake on the shoulder and ask if I don't mind getting up and dressed before the first customers arrive.
Passing through Bulgaria I trained with national team player, Stoil Toil, banging around the basement walls under a worn, sprawling athletic center. Stretching afterward, Stoil stopped the conversation: "I don't believe!" as he pointed to the side wall of the court. Out of a barely visible hole came a mouse, and as the mouse, the Bulgarian and I looked around at each other in mutual bewilderment in the basement, I wondered if it was just about time to head out of Bulgaria.
I spent the last free days off on the coast of Lithuania with my Vilnius friends Domas and Agne, who decided the cap to any Lithuanian summer was to go camping. The week prior we had camped for a night at a lake outside the city, which was and still is surreal to me that these two had a life where they could finish work, pack the car, camp in the woods and be back for work the next morning.
This time we headed for the coast and the popular seaside town of Klaipeda. There I coached a little squash clinic and later we pitched tents, grilled fish and snuck into a music festival on the beach, soaking in the last pieces of Lithuanian summer as I prepared for more tournaments ahead.