Even if you’re somewhere for decades, you only get the briefest glimpses of most people’s lives. Traveling, this is even truer. A glancing brush on the sidewalk can still resonate, however. Walk-ons and extras all, we still deserve to be read.
In Joyce’s “The Dead,” the coat girl has but two lines, but who can forget this declaration, delivered with “great bitterness,” “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.”
In Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys,” there is this frightful sketch, “There was a new boy named Bachelor, a pretty, mother’s darling of a boy, who came a little while before I left. The first thing I noticed about him was the beautiful pearly whiteness of his teeth. By the end of that term his teeth were an extraordinary shade of green.”
Belgrade in summer is hotter than I expected. Passing Caffe Loža, I noticed an “OLD ROUTE 66” sign and “Times Square” license plate among its decoration, so I entered. Inside, I saw pictures of a San Francisco streetcar, the Titanic, Uncle Sam, James Bond and even Mark Twain, etc., but no Marilyn Monroe, Elvis or James Dean.
“Wow, look at that!” I said to the young waiter.
“It’s George Washington.”
“I know, but why is it on this wall?!”
“I don’t know how to explain, but Loža is, ah, like a political organization.”
Washington was a Freemason, I think he’s trying to say.
Since I was the only customer, we had time to talk, though he couldn’t help but look down at his phone often. Real life can’t command his complete attention.
Practicing English, he asked me basic questions, “How long have you been in Serbia?” “What do you think of Serbia?” “Do you like Serbian food?”
“I like Belgrade very much,” I said. “People here are very relaxed, and there are cafes and bars everywhere.”
“Here, everybody drinks every day,” he smiled. “After work, I go to see my girlfriend, then I go drink beer with my friends.”
“But that’s expensive.”
“Not really. Almost every place here, a beer is only 150 dinars [$1.41].”
I’m assuming he’s living with his parents, so pays no rent. It’s common to have three generations under one roof. During the Socialist years, two families routinely shared one apartment.
There are no trash days in Serbia. You take garbage to public dumpsters. The destitute dig through these to scavenge glass bottles and aluminum cans. I doubt they can afford to drink every day.
In Hong Kong and South Korea, old people collect cardboard boxes to resell. White haired and bent over, they push laden carts down busy streets. Even when clearly visible, bottom dwellers are not quite seen, not until you become one of them, usually.
Just launched into adulthood, the Caffe Loža waiter anticipates an infinity of conquests and adventures. He’s already run around a bit. Rome, Moscow, Vienna… Last year, he took a two-week vacation to Turkey.
“Serbs, Turkish, we have an ugly history, but Turkey is very nice, the food is great, and the people are very nice. It is the cheapest vacation. Many Serbs go.”
He’s been to Hungary three times. “Hungary, I don’t like. Serbs don’t like Hungarians too much…” He paused to think about it and reload his English. “We’re Orthodox. They’re Catholics. Orthodox and Catholics, there is a problem. We’re close to Russians.”
“But Serbs don’t like Romanians.”
“No,” he laughed.
“They’re Orthodox, and Serbs also don’t like Bulgarians, right?”
“No,” he laughed even harder.
“Neighbors are like that. Everywhere, you have neighbors hating each other. Well, not always, but usually.”
“Like China and Japan.”
“Or Cambodia and Vietnam. Cambodians really hate Vietnamese.”
“Vietnam invaded Cambodia, took a lot of their land.”
He tried to go to the US, but couldn’t get a visa, so with much regret, he hasn’t had a chance to frolic on Waikiki Beach, Sunset Boulevard, the Magnificent Mile, Vegas Strip, Route 66, Times Square or Fifth Avenue, etc., but at America’s current rate of self-destruction, these hyped icons will be no more than desolate, smoldering ruins by the time he gets there, even if it’s next year.
I waited for Novak “by the horse,” what locals call the equestrian statue of Knjaz Mihailo. Amazingly, he had no problem singling me out. Disregarding social distancing guidelines, we shook hands, then went around the corner to a microbrew pub.
Sixty-years-old, Novak grew up just around the corner. “I was a poor kid in a rich neighborhood. That affected me. During Christmas break, my friends would go skiing. During summer vacation, they’d go to the seaside or overseas. When they asked me what I did, I said, ‘I fished on the Danube.’” Novak laughed. “My girlfriend asked, ‘Why do you keep wearing these old pants?’ She didn’t know we had no money to buy new clothes.”
A top math student, Novak studied electrical engineering in college, then got a pretty good job. Still, “I’d see someone driving around in a Porsche or a Mercedes Benz. Even with my high salary, by local standards, it would have taken me two years just to buy a Yugo!”
He had already visited the US in 1977. “I had two half sisters in New Jersey, in Netcong. It’s about an hour west of New York. One worked at a supermarket, and her husband was a schoolbus driver. When I was there, they had a huge barbecue and invited all their coworkers. My brother-in-law said to me, ‘Look at all this meat! Isn’t America a paradise?’ It’s nice enough, I thought, but I could never, ever live here.”
With his career at an impass and war impending, Novak returned to the US in 1989. “My sister suggested I pay two thousand bucks to marry this ‘nice’ Mexican woman with four kids, but I pointed to my forehead and said, ‘If I can’t use this head to stay, I’m not going to use the other one.’”
Advised by an immigration lawyer, Novak then sent out hundreds of resumes. “I had never done this before. It was a big shock for my vanity. Many places doubted my qualifications. Some asked: “Did you have real computers in… what is that country again?”
Finally, Novak got hired by a Manhattan consultancy. “I started at $34K, then moved up to 40K. Although they treated me well, they also got a great deal because they were pimping me out at $117 an hour!”
Novak would then work for a handful of Fortune 500 companies. He married a Serbian in New York, and they had two daughters. In 2006, Novak was sent to Paris, where he stayed until 2013. His marriage collapsed.
Ending up in North Carolina for work, Novak dated a black Army veteran. “She often used military slogans in her speech, such as, ‘Lead, follow or get out the way.’” Worse, her relatives didn’t exactly warm up to Novak. “They liked the ‘weird Serb part,’ but not the ‘white’ part.”
The South had its comforts. Novak loved the food, “Nice and greasy, works for me every time,” and he shared the North Carolinian’s fondness for beer.
In 2016, Novak returned to Belgrade, to the very apartment he grew up in. As we walked around, he evoked memories and associations everywhere.
Momo Kapor lived two blocks from here. Ivo Andrić lived there. This shop with colorful ties was owned by the first openly gay man in Belgrade. It was a big deal then. This was the first Chinese restaurant. Although it was run by the government, it did have a Chinese cook. When Starbucks first opened, there was a line out to here.
There was a bar here, Dobra Kapljica. When I was three-years-old, an uncle would take me here and have me drink the beer foam. He also showed me how to bang on the table to ask for another beer.
For about a year during the 90’s, inflation was so high that as soon as you got paid, you would run out to exchange it for some foreign currency, or you’d run to the store to buy whatever. At a restaurant, you had to pay at the beginning of a meal, because it would cost more at the end of it. Too many Serbs prayed to become billionaires, and it actually happened. Five billion dinars would get you one sardine out of a can.
When the Americans bombed Belgrade in 1999, they would sometimes announce their targets. Knowing Branko’s Bridge would be hit, hundreds of university students converged on it every night, so it was actually spared. The Americans couldn’t afford such a public relation disaster.
Here is the Monument of Gratitude to France, erected after World War I. As you can see, there are French and Serb soldiers, with different hats. When NATO bombed Belgrade, it was covered in a black cloth.
At the Belgrade Zoo, there’s a small archway called “Monica’s Strait,” and there’s a viper named Madeleine, after Albright.
When I was 13, my mother took me here for basketball practices. You know you’re a nerd when you mother takes you to basketball practices. I was laughed out of the court.
How people curse is revealing. Novak shared with me some Serbian invectives, “Go fuck your own picture,” “I’ll fuck your bloody child,” “May you kiss your father’s cold forehead” and, to a woman, “May you find the taste of cocks disgusting.” When someone farts, you can slap him with, “May that be the music at your funeral.” A twelve-trombone send-off doesn’t sound too bad…
Time for a joke?
“I heard this from an army major. It’s a part of my military brainwashing, I think. Different nationalities were asked how many watermelons they could carry. Modest, the Hungarian said, ‘I can carry one,’ then the Romanian said, ‘I can carry two, one under each arm.’
“The Bulgarian, he said, ‘I can carry three!’ Everyone objected, ‘How can you carry three?!’ ‘Easy, one with each hand, and one on my cock.’
“Then the Serb said, ‘I can carry five!’ ‘That’s impossible!’ everyone shouted. ‘It’s easy. I can carry one under each arm, and the Bulgarian on my cock.’”
In 2016, Novak returned to Belgrade to retire, only to resume working after a trip to Thailand. “My daughter was in Bangkok for a semester, I visited her and fell in love with Thailand.”
Although Novak managed to get a well paying job there, he only lasted a year. “I got bored. How can you be bored in a city of ten million people? I don’t know, but I got bored.”
Back in Belgrade, he’s still restless, however. “I may have a job offer in Hanoi.”
“Have you been there?”
“Hanoi is OK, but if you got bored with Bangkok…”
“It will take me at least a year to decide.”
Before me, Novak had met just one Vietnamese. “I had a coworker, called Vu. He was always very tense, I don’t know why. Our boss was British, real tight upper lip. The company won a massive project that would take at least six months to complete, and the boss turned to Vu and said, ‘I’m sure Vu can get it by tomorrow’ The next morning, Vu came in looking like a wreck.” Novak chuckled at the memory. “Vu was profusely apologizing to the boss, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t get it done.’”
By now, we were having dinner at Vuk. “This place is very old fashioned. The waiters are first-rate. For most of them, it’s a lifelong profession.”
We finished our meal with some gibanica. “My mother told me that during World War II, the chetniks would show up at a house and ask for a gibanica. When my grandpa gave them a burnt one, he almost got his throat slashed!”
“Well, if you’re armed and have all that power. He pissed off their commander.”
“So what happened?”
“Someone higher up in the village intervened. ”
War needs psychopaths, simple as that, for temperate folks don’t care to witness spilled entrails, inhale charred human flesh or have hot shit running down their pants. Even in a donnybrook, would you rather have toxic pricks or pensive sissies on your side?
Savka survived the last war here, but barely. A Serb in Croatia, she fled to Belgrade, but has been homeless for 28 years.
“Yes, 28 years,” she smiled, showing no front teeth.
“Were you a student then?”
“What did you study?”
“This is what I listened to in high school.”
One moment, you’re immersed in calculus, then suddenly, you’re running for your life and scrounging for everything, like an animal, though you’re relieved to not be punctured, shredded or crushed. Only figuratively destroyed, you push forward, and before you know it, your pitiful role is almost over, so that, finally, you’ll be equal to everybody else.
Still, Savka flashed the biggest smile, showing nothing but joy, toughness and gums.
The bright bar had people of all ages, plus a lounging dog. The NO SMOKING sign was clearly meant as a joke, for there were ashtrays all over. In the bathroom, there were six poems, pinned to a corkboard. A nine-year-old boy wore a “GOOD VIBES” T-shirt.
Here and now, at least, life’s normal, and that’s more than good enough. Maskless, Serbian smiles blossom.