I was supposed to write my usual critique of a new eatery in my beloved Beograd – I had the spot all picked out and the table reserved even. But, like most of my brethren in the creative industry, the torrential cold and nonstop deep freeze over the last 2 weeks has seen tables go unattended, work deadlines postponed, projects abandoned, and very little accomplished. Business as usual here in the capital, then. Everywhere in Europe, however, is also experiencing this annual freezing of progress, literally and figuratively.
I find my self writing this, and I have bailed… tucked tail and run from this frightful weather, the worst I’ve ever seen in Belgrade. I cannot abide snow… my English constitution has inured me to the rain, not its frozen cousin. I have taken a solemn vow to hug the equator or Southern Hemisphere during next winter, and will do so without an ounce of regret, and a giant piña colada in my hands.
The trouble with traveling away from Serbia is that I suffer the same umbilical attachment to this land that simply refuses to subside, no matter where I go, or whatever I do while I’m there. Any time I’m forced to queue somewhere in the west, I think, ‘svi bi preskočili red u Srbiji’. Every time I try and park somewhere, I think about the gloriously simple texting system in Beograd. Every time I see people paying 14 euros to enter a museum, I try and sneak in the back door. I see people paying 6 euros for two cups of tea, or 8 euros for a bar of chemical soap, it think about how much easier and cheaper so many things are back home in Beograd. That is, unless you want to run a business or engage in any form of economic growth whatsoever. Serbia has ruined me for functioning anywhere else.
I have recently read a study that confirmed knowledge I had accrued from life experience. That inputs of intense emotion, both positive and negative, create addictive neural pathways in the brain. I have always referred to Serbia as the land of extremes; extremely good and extremely bad at one and the same time. The Serbs I know who emigrate and begin lives in Canada, U.K. or some other ‘civilised’ country face similar challenges as soldiers returning from war. The world is now bland and unchallenging, the system much more-well balanced and well lubricated. Life in a ‘normal’ country is like sex in a long marriage… there are no surprises left. Life in Serbia is like sex with a bi-polar addict fresh outta rehab – her intentions are unclear, there’s a very real chance she’ll give you chlamydia and Jesus it’s a wild ride.
It’s very difficult to adjust to life back in the West after living in Serbia. As opinionated, judgmental and full of detailed advice about how to live your life, as Serbs are, their eyes are open. Serbian people are under no illusions about their government, the political situation worldwide, the reality of things, and they’re much more in tune with the simple pleasures and meanings of existence, despite the somewhat melancholy nature of such knowledge, than people anywhere in the west. You’ll see such world-weary, free-thinking types in countries like Cuba and Russia, Namibia and Brazil, places that have seen hardship and strife, and first hand what government truly means. Western governments are just as corrupt; they just have infinitely more well funded propaganda machine churning out happy pills to the docile masses that they trample under their Orwellian boots.
As perverse as this idea might seem, Serbia truly is the land of the free. The country with literally the number 1, top of the list, highest amount of unregulated Internet freedom on earth, is right here in our homeland. Very few, (I’d hesitate to say ‘any’) organizations are monitoring people’s Internet searches and private online activities. This is a mix of noble and rather apathetic reasons: Serbs genuinely believe in a larger than average degree of individual liberties… and also understand the indifference among people to engage in any serious demonstration. NATO discovered this when bombing the country, and couldn’t take down bridges, as kids would hold parties there every single night to keep it alive. As long as there was aggression, the Serbs would meet it, match it, and defeat, to the very limits of their capabilities. The peculiar attribute of the Serbs is that they seem to be able to unite only ‘against’ or ‘protiv’ something…. never for.
The ‘ne davimo Beograd’ movement is a good example of this. People gradually just lost momentum and their interest faded. Government understood, and were brilliant in their lack of opposition. Had they sent in troops and police to tear gas the population, the reaction would have fierce, and beyond their control, like we saw in Greece. The Greek government made the mistake of trying to crush the rebellion… our great Karadjordje led them and us to a proud tradition of throwing off any oppressors with indomitable force. This is a tradition that remains alive to this day. The Greeks now find themselves divided, conquered, and forced to accept German domination, through their governments allowance to take their thirty pieces of silver and run. I don’t know a single Serb who would allow that to come to pass, but I know plenty that given the lack of a cause to unite against, would rather consume their rakija and grill their ćevapi, see out the winter with a spoon of žito (oh man what on earth is that vile goop), and return to a personal sense of political enlightenment.
I digress. I write this in the shade of a renaissance monument where the temperature is a normal winter 8 degrees. The espresso I’m drinking is not a ‘produženi’ but a lungo, and makes me savour every sip. Only my beloved “Pržionica” can make equivalent coffee, and in Italy even the vending machine at the gas station serves exquisite coffee. These people take their food and beverages very seriously indeed. I’ve even seen the first fashionably dressed man since I last departed from Serbia (other than yours truly, of course).
What makes a real Serb? Leaving? Coming back? Ugg boots? A little of all… is there a need to be a ‘real’ Serb or Brit or Yank or any nationality any more…? Holding ones traditions dear is one thing… assimilating into the rest of the world another. North Korea has shown us that isolationist communism is a lethal exercise in political theory… millions have starved and the country remains a dynastic anomaly, fascinating from a political science perspective, a humanitarian disaster in real terms. My communist predilections go so far as appreciating the Gosha aesthetic; inside I remain a die hard liberal capitalist. I like soviet insignias and Yugoslavian brutalist architecture, but I also enjoy making money and engaging in business enterprise. Serbia, it seems is the perfect place to be… at least spiritually. Right at the crossroads of the east and west, half capitalist, half socialist. No wonder the call of Berlin resounds so strongly with the artistic and free thinking Serbs. Berlin seems to be one of the few places that shares this peculiar marriage of ideals; and the capital city of the new European hegemony, no less. This contradiction never fails to intrigue.
Serbs love to travel. The most well travelled people I’ve ever met are Serbs…. and their choices of destinations are very real, genuinely exotic, and they travel with the purpose of expanding their horizons, learning, absorbing, all cultures, and all peoples. Nepal, Thailand, South America, Russia, Tokyo. They’ll insist on posting the obligatory picture of themselves holding their ticket and passport at the departure, however, as if to prove they can travel somewhere.
Westerners travel to the Bahamas, to some septic, artificial resort. Not Jamaica, cos that’s ‘dangerous’. They travel to southern Spain, to sanitized beaches, shooting away Moroccan and Tunisian merchandise peddlers. Places that are designed to extract the cash from your wallet and leave you with a commemorative key-chain. The only place worth doing this kind of visit is Las Vegas… if you’re going to be gouged, then the ultimate adult Disneyland is the choice. Even then I have compared the two, and a raucous bachelor party in Belgrade is still a superior option than one in Las Vegas. To anywhere on Earth, for that matter.
Hereafter known as the ‘Boomerang’ effect, this frequent departure and return to and from Serbia, delight at leaving, warmth and happiness at returning, I am doomed to endure for some time yet. How to break an addiction? First, you have to want to… and I’m certainly not done rolling up my left sleeve quite yet.