I keep pointing in all directions: look there, and there, and there! Gorgeous houses beneath the soot and weariness!
My Serbian company just looks and shake their heads. Apparently, they are not making any distinction between the Tito era concrete houses and the ”purebred”, prewar modernism by architects like Jan Dubovy and Dragisa Brasovan.
Looking in the mirror, contemplating the fact that I have been here for sixteen days and still don’t understand everything that has happened in this country, ever, and that I still haven’t examined every cog in their civilisatory machinery, nor looked into the mind of every single individual of it’s population.
A very grumpy and ill-mannered rain weather has put its grey bottom on the Belgrade area.
When the rain comes
They run and hide their heads
They might as well be dead
When the rain comes
The people on the streets bow their heads for the rain clouds above, hiding under umbrellas or inside the hoods of their jackets. But I feel defiant tonight and try to walk with my chin up and my back straight.
Let the stormy clouds chase
everyone from the place.
Come on with your rain,
I’ve got a smile on my face.
Perhaps not smiling. Rather scowling. Feeling strangely odd and out of place on the slippery slabs of Knez Mihailova. Watching the souvenir salesmen struggle to keep their products dry and the relief of the bored shopkeepers in the fancy boutiques when they can close at the stroke of eight.
O bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits !
Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
O le chant de la pluie !
I sit here, watching my corner of Belgrade from my window, and try to recapitulate my time in Serbia so far. It’s amazing how quickly time passes.
On thing I realise is that I feel perfectly at ease in this big, foreign city. What a contrast to the nervousness I felt before I went here! I had the notion that it should be like in Ukraine and Russia where you feel that you have to be alert all the time as there are plenty of people with nothing more to to than stare at you (and my belongings, I suppose).
But yesterday, when I walked home from KC Grad on Braće Krsmanović, I observed this feeling of safety in myself; I was relaxed as if I was walking home in my hometown. Serbians seems to be busy people with a lot of other things in mind than to make a foreigner feel uneasy. On the streets where I have walked at night, there is a certain pace among the pedestrian on the sidewalks – men and women alike. Or to put it differently: purpose seems to be the motor, and not impulse.
This Sunday, N. was my company during a long walk in Novi Beograd and Zemun.
”Nice sixties architecture!” said I, when I saw Palata Srbija.
”Terrible!” said N.
Still we had a great time together. Here in Serbia, you see my Swedish friends, it’s ok to disagree and still be friends. Actually, here people become curious and engaged—not embarrassed and confused—when they have different opinions.
We walked on, saw the peculiar ghost ships on the bank of Danube, the summer fresh greenery and the strolling families while talking about all things Serbian. Our turning point was the Gardoš Tower on the top of a hill in Zemun.
The Serbian speciality of the day was a Balkan crêpe – a palačinka from Palacinkarnica Pinokio. Another demonstration of Serbia as the number one streetfood country in Europe.
This very special day, the overwhelmingly generous family D. had invited me as a guest to their Slava.
So me and A. took the tram to Banovo Brdo and from there we travelled by car together with his family members: from the concrete of Tito era Belgrade …
… to the lovely hills of Šumadija.
Now, there was a small problem: I am a teetotal. And a Serbian slava without rakija is simply not a slava. What should be done about it? Well, A. had a very simple solution: he poured me a glass …
… and although I am a man of principles, it was not hard to make an exception; what happens in Serbia stays in Serbia.
When the freelancing roma musicians came by, I felt like I was in a Kusturica movie. I googled frantically for the lyrics of the songs I heard, but the only one I managed to catch was the one about Danube. A very interesting conversation ensued about the words of the refrain which is ”Dunave, Dunave” – a vocative form of the river’s name Dunav as the narrator of the song speaks to the river. (Please correct me if I have got Serbian grammar all wrong.)
Dunave, Dunave kraj tebe mi srce moje ostade Dunave, Dunave kraj tebe mi srce ostade
Dunave, Dunave by thee my heart I stayed Dunave, Dunave by thee my heart remained
Time to lift my heavy bottom from the chair to get some exercise! I looked at the map and decided to aim for a little forest called Zvezdara. It was uphill, uphill from Mise Vujica and along Dragoslava Srejovića I got the feeling that I left the cramped urban landscape behind for more elbow room and an open sky. The forest was a spring explosion in green of juicy, transparent foliage and the exhilarated song of horny birds. All the litter on the paths and in the shrubs made me sad, though.
A man walks with a slim, light brown dog in a leash along Bulevar despota Stefana. When he crosses Vojvode Dobrnjca he notes that he no longer has only one, but two dogs. This one is sturdy and dark brown, but it seems friendly enough so he moves on. After passing Palmoticeva he has three dogs, and after Džordža Vašingtona four – one white and one black. When he reaches the National Theatre he has a whole pack of eager, barking dogs. One by one, the dogs break free from their leashes and start running across the Republic Square, over the ridge, down the bloodsoaked slopes of Belgrade where the houses evaporate and turn into morning mist over fields of flowers growing from the decaying warriors in the soil: Serbs, Illyrians, Romans, Turks, Greeks, Hungarians, Germans, Huns, Goths, Bulgarians, Celts. And the dogs keep running over the brinks of the Danube, the plains of Vojvodina and the hills of Šumadija.
A man drives his Yugo from Zastava up Takovska. It is eight o’clock in the evening but he seems to be all alone. This puzzles him so he steps out of the car. The street is more than thirty meters wide, but the vegetation from the Botanic Garden is creeping at his feet like a green froth. As his unexpected solitude makes him more bewildered than anxious, he steps into car and drives on. Soon enough, he notices that the houses are stepping out into the street without looking, and as the TV building suddenly falls infront of his vehicle he takes a sharp left turn into a street which he doesn’t know and which wasn’t there before. He stops to read the road signs. They say ”A sad princess who spent much time travelling” and ”A weary partisan who loved hearing the cowbells from the valley”. He drives on, goes down ”The duke that hesitated and regretted” and tries to find his way out this maze by following ”A man of many virtues who wrote many stories”. Finally, his Yugo comes to a stop as the front is squashed between two houses who stretch out their balconys to hug. The street signs in the corner says ”A man who lit his pipe and tried to make sense out of it all” and ”A woman who hid among her books”.
A woman walks down Kneza Mihaila and the heels of her shoes are slowly growing higher and higher. When she crosses over to reach Vase Čarapića she overlooks the heads of her countrymen and the roofs of the cars, feeling free and agitated as she walks on. Higher, and higher she goes, and soon she can take whole blocks in one stride. When she reaches The National Assembly, she is already far out into space and all she sees where the bottom of her soles are is a pale blue dot and she has a strange sensation of euphoria that says ”nothing really matters” mixed with a deep sadness that whispers ”there must be a way” and a single tear falls from her cheek into the void of space.