We have arrived in Belgrade! We, my daughter S and I, arrived in that blurry where-am-I-what-day-is it state of jet-lagged semi-consciousness after a flight filled with crying babies, slamming overhead compartments, spilled wine (at least it was white and not red!) and squeaky lavatory doors. But the food was decent and the square of Swiss chocolate was a nice touch. Most importantly, it got us here!
Initial impressions came from our cab driver who pointed out:
* the remains of a concentration camp on the left bank of the Sava River (google informs me it was the Sajmishte concentration camp in which close to 100,000 Jews, Serbs, Partisans, and Roma were imprisoned by the Nazis during WWII and an estimated 48,000 were killed)
* Syrian refugees living in a park as we entered Belgrade
* the simple elegance of the Cyrillic alphabet in which each letter represents a unique sound (“unlike English” — to which I readily agreed. He didn’t seem to either hear or understand me when I pointed out that, conversely, Serbian grammar is overwhelmingly obtuse and challenging.)
* a building bombed during the late 1990’s, now fully rebuilt. “By the Americans?” I just had to ask. “Yes, by our “dear” friends the Americans.” I decided not to follow that line of conversation any further…
Arrived at our airbnb apartment smack dab in the middle of Stari Grad — “Old City,” right around the corner from Knez Mihajlova street, now a fully pedestrian zone, and steps away from my grandmother’s old apartment.
S and I walked right into the building and looked up at the completely unchanged painted images on the walls and ceiling of the foyer. I climbed the stairs, remembering the fantastic dragon finials at each landing. The apartment on the top floor has been unoccupied for years. When I told some workmen on the scene that my grandmother used to live there they asked me if it was now my apartment. I confess to a moment of wishful thinking… It did my heart good, just to see it all again. I wanted to pull out my cellphone to call my mother and let her know where we were actually standing at that point… Somehow I think she already knows and it makes her heart glad too.
Speaking of “completely unchanged” — that has been another first impression of Belgrade. I was fearful that the city would have changed so much that I wouldn’t be able to recognize it. Quite the contrary — the architectural “bones” remain pretty much the same as I remember, though clearly suffering from what we in church circles politely refer to as “deferred maintenance.” The addition of high-end stores and a booming cafe scene all along Knez Mihajlova has certainly brought the whole area to life — well beyond the excitement when the first self-service grocery store opened there in the mid ’60’s. It too is still there, but now sports the Food Lion logo.
Still battling jetlag, S and I met my cousin N and his wife M for dinner. He regaled S with stories of how I used to terrify the elders by leaning over balconies and how once I talked a peasant into unhooking a horse from his hay cart so that I could ride it. N and his friends arrived on the scene just in time to stop me from cantering off. My recollection is a bit different — more along the lines of scolding the old man about the way he was treating his horse (I was a serious horse fanatic back in the day). No matter — some family lore is meant to become embellished with time. I realized that coming from such a small and geographically dispersed family on my side, my children are not privy to much family lore, more’s the pity (or perhaps not!).
M & N now live in California — they came as students some 40 years ago and we have seen each other a few times over the years. Pure serendipity that we were all in Belgrade together at the same time on this their last night before heading off on the rest of their trip and this our first night. We exchanged stories and caught up — N gave me a heads’ up that one elderly aunt (well, widow of a half-second-cousin-once-removed, but who’s counting!) has been furious at me since my mother’s death 17 years ago for not paying thousands of dollars to restore a family monument in the local cemetery. I think perhaps I’ll give this aunt a miss this trip. My theme may be reconciliation, but with an anger burning that fiercely so many years later discretion seems the better part of valor…
We also talked politics. It seems we arrived at Nicola Tesla Airport just hours before German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is in town as part of a three country trip (Albania, Serbia, and Bosnia/Herzegovina). All three countries are hoping sooner rather than later to become part of the EU and her visit helped underscore that possibility for the three countries (and maybe there was a not-so-subtle warning to keep their financial houses in order not like you-know-who to the south of them). N is very hopeful about the current Serbian government — an unlikely coalition of nationalists (but not the hardcore variety) and socialists (a.k.a. former communists) who have come together over a mutual commitment to see Serbia enter the Eurozone. Come together? Mutual commitment? Even putting words like those in the same sentence gives me hope also.
We mentioned the conversation with our cab driver. “You have to understand,” N said, “this is a severely traumatized country and city. Once Belgrade was capital of a fairly significant European country; now it’s the capital of a small, impoverished, landlocked country seen by much of the rest of the world as a pariah. You’ll see it in their facies; they have experienced great trauma which was capped off by being bombed by NATO some mere 15 years ago. Selective bombing with notice given on CNN every night about which site was targeted for that evening so that they could evacuate. People would sit in cafes and watch the targeted strikes take out this building or the other.”
Yes, I do get it. It is multi-layered and complicated and my heart goes out to all.
“And, besides,” N continued, “for the most part they all really do get along — except when they are killing each other.”
There was evening and there was morning (which, thanks to the miracle of intercontinental air travel, stretched into yet another evening) of the first day… So much more yet to come.