Trans. Teodor Reljić
Belgrade, one year later.
Belgrade. Take two. As it turns out, take two was the best of the batch. Though truth be told, our first visit was rather discreet. Discreet and different, because both arrivals were different.
Last year, we travelled in the company of a conspicuous group – and as we all know, conspicuous groups divert your attention and fragment your point of view into many voices and many needs, all the while cultivating a simmering sense of impatience as you wait in one of the city’s squares, in a café, or at the beginning of a street and end up just staying there, trying your best to get the day’s plans going.
Last year, we were taken around a city that declared itself to us, but without raising its head too high above water; an interesting city, green, but one which left us with no chance to put any full stops in place along our journey. Instead, we ended up an ellipsis: just three dots, floating as if in mid-air.
Last year’s Belgrade was a filtered, modulated city, more so perhaps than all of the other cities we visit with some prior knowledge – cities you’ve had a chance to dream about and imagine. Last year, Belgrade was explored under the purview of somebody already familiar with its contours, determined by our collective expectations of what it should be and limited by the short amount of time we actually had to explore it – entering the city as we did always from the outside, by train or by bus.
Perhaps this was why my desire to return wasn’t as strong this time around. And if it weren’t for Ludo’s suggestion, I may not even have considered it. And so Belgrade would have remained, for at least a few years down the line, a city that was merely sampled for a brief period of time. A short trip, from the outside looking in.
Instead, this time Belgrade reminded me just how much I miss living inside a city.
Its sounds and its streets, always the same yet always somehow different, that sense of muddled familiarity that it offers. The mornings fragrant with breakfast smells: fresh bread, cheese, yoghurt, the mountains of fruit and veg occupying large benches. School too, in our case. The sprinkling of water on the pavements, the sight of lowered shutters. Then, the afternoons are warmer, more grey… what shall we do this afternoon? Shall we stay in to study, or shall we go out? A beer, perhaps, in that strange cobblestoned street, ‘a modo loro’? And the books. I barely understood a word of what was written on them, of course, but it was beautiful enough just to see them around.
Then, the yellowing evening is accompanied by musical notes as we leave the apartment to once again renounce any dietary vows we may have made – the fault of yet another local dish. But how can you say no?
As long as the dishes are accompanied by the ‘paradisiacal’ tomatoes that you don’t even have to toss – as long as there’s a bašta, a garden. Or a courtyard. Ah! The courtyards. Many courtyards, courtyards that you don’t even expect to be there, built with lightness and grace, with white seats, flowers, with customized furnishings, spiced coffees, prosecco sprinkled with rose petals… please, take me back to those courtyards.
The night which is never empty, with streets that are always full but never breathless. Constellations of popcorn stands dotting the pavements of the main street, music until late at night, until ‘late’ morphs into ‘early’. The city that shakes itself off at the end of the day, but without too much conviction, the thunder and the waters of a violent storm. At the cinema for two evenings, without an intermission, submerged under red seats. Taking a downhill walk back home, and how beautiful it is to come back on foot, how beautiful it is for so many places to be at walking distance, and capped under the trees in the park.
Last year, I wasn’t quite sure what Belgrade wanted to say, exactly. This year, I learned to read the city just a little bit better.
But… Why? A waiter asks after we specify that we’d like the menus in both English and Serbian, because we’re in fact busy learning the latter language.
The same question is proffered by many others. Why? And the eyes of our interrogators suggest further questions… Why are you here, and not in Prague, Paris, Madrid? We don’t ‘do’ tourism here, there is no sea here, there are no fireworks and there’s no spectacle or obvious ‘attractions’. Here we live and we muddle along with our daily habits, until every now and then we hit upon an oasis of nostalgia, of memory… but it’s our memory, a memory whose shape you can’t even begin to imagine. And if you try to, you’ll only get the tip of it.
Who knows what they told you about our memories? And who were they, who told you about us? Who knew you would have discovered our elegant, decadent city, green and riparian and situated at the furthest edges of your imagination?
Dear people of the ‘White City’, I’m here to confess to you that my habits were to blame for not getting to you sooner. That, and an imagination stymied by vagueness – which had to be fixed and, somehow, made complete.
And so I’d like to thank you for these days, which were extraordinary and quotidian in equal measure: a bit of work, a short walk, plenty of breaks, tiny shopping lists, a trip to a humid valley out of time, plenty of reading, four rolls of film to develop, gentleness in humbling doses, and a gorgeous loft in which to return.
It was a holiday without being one. Not really. Because, as I ended up mentioning to Ludo again and again over drinks and various dishes, holidays always leave you with ridiculously high expectations and have you moving at too frenetic a pace to enjoy even the shortest moments of calm.
I’m writing this from Malta, facing the sea which only inspires sadness, as I’m reminded that I don’t go swimming as often as I used to.
In a month, it will be autumn. And the autumn is always the more beautiful ‘half’ of summer because it’s only when the beaches are emptied of people that you can reconcile yourself to the island, learn to love it again, and make peace with your memories.
Perhaps in a month’s time I will be able to cast the pungent nostalgia of Belgrade aside, the kind of feeling that only a foreign place – barring Malta – is able to give me, after just a few days spent traversing it. Nostalgia is a spur that would have dragged me back for years and years on end.
It was a different life. I was very young, and lost amidst exams; unquiet but muted.
It was the summer of 2000. The city was Paris.