The Book: The White City…Belgrade…January 2008…
“They came from what they called the “other Serbia” especially from its battered middle classes who wanted to show the world that they were not genocidal maniacs, but ordinary people who had had enough of war and authoritarianism and yearned for the boring anonymity of any other post communist country.” –Tim Judah, The Serbs: History Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia
In 1998, Ivana left Serbia when life under Milosevic became too difficult.
“When I came back Belgrade was totally different,” she says. “People dressed more internationally. There were more shops. Life was better. Serbia is now the greatest place to live because it is like Europe, but everything isn’t fully put together. Everyone is improvising. You can have the most freedom here. Paris is always the same. Belgrade changes every year.”
Returned from Mitrovica, I focus on the election and exploring Belgrade. Quickly, I discover that there is something addicting about this city. It is drenched in nostalgia and broken memories; every street seems alive and to contain a story that is both light and dark, triumphant and tragic. This makes it an easy place to dwell in.
But Serbs are friendly. And their fatalism makes them easily accepting of sadness. They understand dwelling on the past. Days become a series of rakija glasses and swirling conversations on politics and history that confuse more than clarify.
I remember little of what happens at night, but usually make it back to my bunk at the hostel I am living in called the Three Black Catz.
Hidden on the top floor of an old building the hostel is really just an apartment with bunk beds in the two bedrooms and a long wooden table in the dining room where the hulking owner, Mladen, is almost always found drinking and smoking with someone that has come in off the street.
“Tea? Coffee?” Mladen asks. “Rakija?”
Mladen fills out the registration form visitors to Serbia are still required to file with police. Then he spreads a map across the table, determined to show Belgrade as it is, but trying to make sure each guest has an experience that matches what they are looking for. Mladen, he knows people. We are all looking for something.
However, there are few guests. Most of the people that do stay at the hostel are journalists without the expense accounts to stay in the more expensive hotels or students studying economics or international relations in places like Istanbul and Budapest. In the mornings the dorms are like barracks. Bleary-eyed information hunters roll out of their bunks, shake off hangovers and power up laptops.
Mladen rolls his eyes. The thousandth person arriving to do interviews,” he says.
Though they are not guests, a band of Serbian women in their early twenties are usually present at the hostel. They study languages, literature, or history, or are trying to hold down jobs. Sometimes they clean the rooms and wash the bed sheets. Other times they surf the Internet or throw parties. They are all dreaming of bigger things and seek counseling from Mladen. He listens to them, becoming enraged when necessary, offering a cigarette, encouraging. Each of the women claim him as their best friend. One of the girls, Una says, “I can rely on Mladen. This hostel is like a home.”
As close to being a home as possible, The Three Black Catz is from where I discover Serbia and try to understand the Serbs, who I see as emotional, but fierce.
“It was fun,” the photojournalist S says. “We didn’t have to go to school. Everyone was always outside playing basketball. We could set our watches by when the planes would come. One day I remember they were late. We were asking ourselves. ‘Where are they?’ It was like a video game.”
S is describing the NATO bombing in 1999.
We are in Topciderski Park. She wants to show me the oldest tree in Belgrade, which is next to the old home of Milos Obrenovic, the Serbian prince who successfully fought for Serbia to have autonomy from the Ottomans in the 19th century.
Her description of being bombed as a chance to play basketball is strange, but not unusual in Serbia. While in some places the bombing is remembered as an incredibly tragic event, in other places, particularly in Belgrade where the bombing had not been so intense, Belgraders remember it as a time of solidarity and camaraderie.
At first they were scared and went into their basements. But after a time they came out and with no work because of the UN economic embargo, they hung out on the streets and in the clubs, pursuing the available fun.
“What do you think about Albanians?” I ask S.
“Albanians are very ugly. I don’t like how they look,” S says. “They will be very nice to you and show you many things and then…I don’t know the word in English…”
She hits me on the back.
“They stab you,” she says.
Then she says, “But when I was eight years old I was in love with a guy with a very strange name. He was Albanian. Actually I don’t know many Albanians.”
For as much as they claim to hate them, few Serbs have ever met an Albanian. In fact, only a very small number of Serbs have ever visited Kosovo. The province is pure legend to them, something they have been taught to glorify since the moment they were born, yet they know hardly anything about it, attached to it only as a symbol that for centuries they have been told is important.
One night I say to J, “Let it go man. Let the history go.”
“Let it go?” J replies. History is everything here. No nation can let go of its history.”
“With the EU can’t you let the most difficult parts go? Give certain parts less significance in schools? Make them be less important?”
“The EU? What is the EU? I am a reporter. I see people. Serbian, Croat, Albanian. It doesn’t matter to me, but Serbs are born pregnant with hatred. We think about who killed our grandfathers, our parents. In Croatia during WWII the Ustase killed 50,000 Serbs. We retaliated. I see the world as man verses nature, life verses death, good verses bad, and man verses human nature. It will always be that way.”
I cannot agree with him. He refuses to see this election as a potential turning point for Serbia. He believes that the future will only be as frustrating as the present. This is a view that, for the sake of hope and sanity, I believe is important not to take on.
J is a decade older however, and has lived through much more. He has seen his country start three wars and attempt to ethnically cleanse the land they claimed of non-Serbs. They lost all the wars, became vilified throughout the world, and even when a new group of politicians took power, little constructive was done for the country.
“NO PICTURES!” Poleksija yells.
She leaps up from the table where we are drinking rakija, runs into the middle of the room, and hunkers down with her head against her knees.
“Why are you doing that?”
“NO PICTURES! I DON’T WANT TO BE IN YOUR PICTURES.”
“You are not in my pictures.”
I put my camera away.
Poleksija sits back down. We are drinking rakija in a cold room at the stable of the Belgrade Hippodrome. Poleksija is a twenty-two year old Radical voter and an avid horseback rider.
“Why should Serbia work nine to five for corporations?” she says. The EU wants to use us as workers. We will be a worker state. Serbia is better off on its own.”
Every year Poleksija goes to Moscow to visit her father, who is an engineer there. She studies Russian and says, “I am a serious Orthodox.” Her parents are wealthy and she has also made trips through much of Western Europe and says she liked what she saw.
Still, she insists Serbia should not join the EU. Like S, she says, “There are many stupid people here.”
We walk through the Hippodrome’s stables and then she suggests I come with her to buy some drugs. While walking, she dances around the sidewalk, singing Janis Joplin songs.
We get on a bus, but only a few blocks later she jumps off and runs into a store to buy a bottle of blueberry wine and cookies.
Poleksija is pure Belgrader. Raised in the midst of the NATO bombing, the overthrow of a psychotic president and the international condemnation of her country for crimes she had nothing to do with, she, like so many Serbs, seems to try and block out the world of politics and depressing state of her country by charging after a constant state of fun.
Running into the street as traffic approaches, she sits down. “There is a rule here,” she yells. “If your friend is in the street you have to go with them. Or you might suffer the pain of losing your friend.”
Again and again she sings the lyric from her favorite Cars song, “Life could be a dream, life could be a dream, life could be a dream.”
We finally reach the neighborhood where she can buy the drugs. The bottle of wine is gone. Half the cookies have been eaten, the rest are discarded.
“Wait around the corner,” she says.
An old stadium with concrete bleachers and a clear view of anyone approaching is where she takes me to smoke the weak marijuana. When we are done she begins rocking back and forth and laughing in bursts.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she says. “I see you sitting there and thinking, trying to figure me out.”
She glares at me.
“I don’t really know why I will vote for Nikolic. But Serbia is not like the rest of Europe. It should not join the EU. Serbia is Balkan.”
“But Romania and Bulgaria are Balkan and they joined the EU,” I say.
“They’re doing worse than before.”
“How do you know?”
“We think differently. It will be very bad.”
She rolls another joint.
Afterwards, she is quickly up, shuffling around the bleachers, wiggling her shoulders, bobbing her head back and forth and singing. Marijuana doesn’t produce this effect. It is all her.
“Serbia is not ready for the EU. If Serbia joins, it will lose its culture,” she says. “And you, you report on sad Serbia. Report on all the Belgrade kids like me who are fucked up. We like too much alcohol, too much drugs, and too much clubbing because everything else sucks.”
She passes out later to children’s music saved on her cellphone. She bought the phone in Paris, on a trip to an EU country that she claims to “love.”
Yet, she insists….
“Serbia should not join the EU.”