Ich bien ein Belgrader

Ich bien ein Belgrader 

Tirana Times - http://tiranatimes.com/

By Alba Cela 

If it was not for a seminar addressing the complex dynamics of investigative journalism, I think the likelihood of me taking the initiative to go to Belgrade on elections’ eve would have been rather slim. As one should always be grateful to coincidental tunes, I set out to this trip which proved to be rather tedious (with one annulled flight and a subsequent delay.) Fortunately, Belgrade was worth it. 

At the beginning of my journey I frankly did not know what to expect: would there be awkward reactions to my nationality? How would this city look like after being subject to so different historical developments? A fan of the element of surprise I refrained from google-ing up images. 

The seminar is blessed with a short duration and plenty of time is allocated to exploring. What better choice for journalists who could debate (at their highest pitch) the responsibility of investigation and truthfulness to provide a challenge to all existing power structures, can take days! 

As a former student in Budapest, I must say Belgrade satisfied my nostalgic cravings of the beautiful Hungarian capital. The resemblance, from the wide and peaceful Danube to the picturesque avenues lined up with glorious shadows cast by the buildings, is mind satiating. The streets are vivid and the people are beautifully tall. The stone paved alley of Skadarska (Belgrade’s Bohemian quarter) with walls full of intriguing poetry or graphics , the bars of “Silicon Valley” (no match for their extremely poshy counterparts in Tirana), the Austro-Hungarian traditional buildings, the charming churches and the quiet waters of Sava all combine in a atmosphere common to Vienna, Budapest and Prague. The so very European culture of leisuring around on foot, enjoying coffee on the street-sides proves to be reassuring no matter where I find myself. 

I think back at the most recent televised reports on Belgrade. Named spectacularly (yet wrongly!) as “living with the enemy”, they misrepresent the beauty that one can discover here. The developing artistic spirit of the city, its diverse and rich collection of rakia-s made from any fruit you can think of, and most of all: its mind blowing cleanliness. Nevertheless, to my hopelessly optimistic Serbian friend the fact that contacts are being started can be only positive. 

“We should make a report on Tirana!” Zoran adds enthusiastically. I shiver to the idea of what the report would be. An explosive combination of muddy streets, horrible traffic jams and crowded luxurious bars. Hmm… 

My short visit includes a visit at the Royal Palace, lately re-inhabited by the Karadjordjevic family. The polite royal couple greets us warmly and starts showing us around the gracefully decorated palace. As we, the visitors, are all journalists, a short press conference is improvised in one of the halls. Provocative questions and diplomatic answers are exchanged for a while. Silence over my question about Kosovo, then the recognition of the fact that it is a hard issue to deal with. No pushing. After all we are here to enjoy the Belgrade sunset from the royal rose balcony. 

The hospitality is sordidly Balkanian, same as the obsession with history, distorted or not. An eerie silence accompanies me and my guide, a Belgrade connoisseur despite not being a native, when we reach the bombarded Army quarters that have not been rehabilitated yet. “We should do something about this- Zoran says, - after all we can’t enter NATO carrying the relics of our conflict with them.” 

From graffiti on a balcony, I read “Ne damo Kosovo.” My rusty and insufficient Bulgarian comes handy in deciphering “We don’t give Kosovo!” Well, neither do the rest of us! So let those diplomats handle it if they can. The afternoon sun is just too warm and the joining point of Danube with Sava too beautiful to miss among the nationalistic cacophony. 

In the landing dusk, one can see the lights of Zemun, an historical little town where Zoran lives to escape the noise and chaos of the capital. “Zemun used to be under the Austro-Hungarian when the rest of Belgrade and especially the Kalameydan quarter were under the Turks. Even today, he tells me- my roommate jokes when we come downtown, ‘Lets go see what the Turks are up to!’ he says.” 

If history could always lead to heartfelt jokes…! I tell him about another little town at the outskirts of Budapest, Szentendre, founded by Serb villagers escaping the ottoman onslaught. It is quite a tourist attraction nowadays. Its streets carry Serbian names and there is a gorgeous monastery there. Zoran has heard about it. When he dwells upon the account of the Ottoman times we again feel the pressure of two different historiographical narratives looming around the fragile link of friendship. 

At the end of the day it’s the Serbian New Year’s Eve and they inform me, in the central square, Kostunica has joined hands with Ceca to deliver an address that is both celebratory and political. I am not interested. I am to wake up early and walk through every street I can. And in the evening, try some cevapcici (the next best thing to what you can get in Sarajevo) or a mouth-watering Moskva torta.

And at the end of this experience, I rediscover that the longest distance is the one that two people have to travel in order to know each other. At the end I feel like borrowing (and inevitably adapting to the situation) an expression from the beloved departed J.F. Kennedy: Ich bin ein Belgrader!