Right here, at the very tip of Belgrade, on the Kalemegdan fortress promontory overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, is where Central Europe ends and the Balkans begin. Ahead stretches the flat Pannonian plain into Hungary and Central Europe. At my back the city of Belgrade, straddling the ridge of the first hilly outcroppings of the Šumadija, which will join up with rugged mountains, not flattening till they end in the stony coast of Montenegro on the Adriatic. It was into the Šumadija that I was headed.

The Šumadija takes its name from “šuma”, or forest. The woods of Serbia, dark and enveloping, which spread over your head as you left Belgrade, were the last shelter of a desperate people and the rallying-point of the nation. Here is where the Serbs hid out against the Turks during the Serbian uprising against Turkish occupation, the center in which arose Serbia’s struggle for freedom. It is said that the Šumadija is the “heart of Serbia”, where Serbia is most Serbian. The countryside is bejeweled with some very fine Byzantine churches and monasteries, and it was my intention to visit some of these.

After a second night in Belgrade, at the Hotel Balkan on Prizrenska ulica where I had a paltry breakfast of toast, one hard-boiled egg and tepid tea I said goodbye to the “White City” and left at dawn while the city was still asleep and the dogs still snuggled in the gutters. I  walked up Kralja Milana street, past the cathedral of St Sava – the biggest Orthodox church in the world, with its ten meter high golden cross, visible from far and wide. I skirted Red Star football stadium, passed the last of the socialist tower blocks – the soliters – “vertical ghettos”, as they were called –  until I was at last in the country, the Šumadija, which begins pretty much where Belgrade peters out.

Avoiding traffic, I opted for off-beat country roads, where I passed wild-looking, lithe, sinewy Gypsies in a mud-splattered horse drawn carriage sitting on bales of hay, the women slung with babies. An emerald green lizard darted across the road. Great, towering, cotton-white clouds gathered over the lush green landscape of fields, vineyards, fruit orchards, beech and oak trees. Scythes swished through deep hayfields. The smell of mown hay and manure filled the air.

I walked alone past farmsteads where farmers sat on verandas drinking their morning rakija (plum brandy) and coffee while  accordion accompanied folk music with wailing, melismatic Oriental vocals wafted from radios. I was beginning to fall in love with this half-Turkish Serbian music. The Serbs like to portray their country as a bulwark of Western culture against the Muslim East and the Turks. They style themselves as guardians at the gates, proud of holding out against the Muslim tide. Yet sometimes they forget how influenced they really are by the Turks. For centuries they wore half-Turkish dress, furnished their houses in Turkish fashion, (still) sprinkled their language with Turkish words (“sat”: time, “para”: money, “budala”: fool….), dance in Oriental style, arms held high. In 1903 one observer wrote, “Strangers find great difficulty in distinguishing between Christians (Serbs) and the Turks (Slav Muslims) in Bosnia, for both wear turbans, embroidered waistcoats, loose open jackets, trousers gathered at the knee, and heel-less shoes with toes that turned up”.  More recently, one commentator  from the nineties advised readers who wanted to become hip to the Muslim mentality to read the books of Serbian early twentieth century writer Bora Stanković’. “Through Bora Stanković you will be able to study Islam better than if you go to Istanbul,” he wrote. “You don’t need to meet any Muhammad or Ahmed. Just look to us Serbs and you will see that there is so much of the Muslim mentality left in our country. This is a sad fact.”

Additionally, today Turkey is the preferred summer holiday destination for Serbs who view the West with intense suspicion.

Listening to their songs, I couldn’t help but feel that their Orientalized music wouldn’t have been out of place in a Turkish kebab house in Berlin. In fact, Serbian music has had  an Oriental tinge ever since the days of the Crusades when the ecclesiastical melodies of the Serbian Church were brought from Syria, introduced to the Balkans along pilgrim routes which by-passed Constantinople. It was another kind of music that greeted your ears in Serbia and it didn’t tally at all with anything that I expected; you heard it and you realized that Istanbul wasn’t far now.

I liked the music and I liked the Serbs, even though they as a rule don’t like foreigners. I don’t mean the individuals that I got to know both in Serbia and abroad, but the people as a whole, as a generality. The feeling towards foreigners is one of suspicion. Westerners are believed to be crafty and intriguing and recent events during the wars only confirmed this. Serbs are nervous about spies.

On the road from Belgrade I met two camo-clad travelers who looked as though they were making a pilgrimage to some Serb-nationalist shrine or other, as it indeed turned out they were.  Upon exchanging greetings they stopped, uptight and wary. They seemed greatly alarmed at the appearance of an American and stopped to learn what I was doing in the middle of the Serbian countryside.

If I was a tourist what was I doing here and why wasn’t I in Split or the Dalmatian coast where foreign holiday-makers  went to? What was I looking for in the Šumadija?

I explained as best I could that I was heading to Topola, an old church and mausoleum where the Serbian Janissary turned freedom-fighter, Karađorđe is buried.

“We are going there also,” said the one. “But what is he to you?”

Đorđe Petrović, who was better known as Karađorđe, “Black George”, was the military commander of the first Serbian uprising of 1804 and the founder of the Karađorđević dynasty, which remained in power till the Second World War. 

The Serbs, under Karađorđe, were the first Balkan people under Turkish domination to raise the flag of revolt in 1804. Karađorđe was an illiterate peasant of the Šumadija,  who made a little money by dealing in pigs. In the wooded hills outside Belgrade his loose band of followers led the life of outlaws and fought doggedly against the Turks. A Serbian hero to this day, recent research has nevertheless suggested Karađorđe may have been Albanian. Something which is anathema to nationalist Serbs , and which they will hotly deny.

 “Are you sure you are not a spy for CIA?” asked the one man reproachfully. “Eh? But watch out: the best spies are Serbs.”

This wasn’t the first and it wouldn’t be the last time in Serbia that people would accuse me half in jest of being a spy. I didn’t fully grasp the politics of Serbia, but anyway, politically speaking I didn’t give a damn. It was still possible for me to get to know Serbs fairly well without the dimmest idea of their opinions. But whether that was also true for them?

Being American played a role in all my dealings with Serbs. About America the Serbs were never indifferent. Some showed loathing, like the one on Knez Mihailova street in Belgrade, who, when I asked directions to a famous kafana, inquired after where I was from, and when I said I was American, glared at me fiercely, “I am from Kosovo. Mrzim Amerikanci” – I hate Americans, he said.

The NATO bombing of 1999 inevitably came up with these two camo-clad Serb pilgrims.  I had mixed feelings about the bombing of Yugoslavia, and I said I didn’t buy the Albanian claim to Kosovo based on ethnic preponderance.  That ninety percent of the population of Kosovo was Albanian didn’t make it any less a part of Serbia. 

“It is like in fifty years Mexicans in  California announcing independence  from the US and joining up with Mexico because thy outnumber white Americans,” said one of the Serb travelers. 

“Kosovo is of such symbolic importance, with its churches, monasteries and battlefields,” said the other. “It is the heart of Serbia.”

But – one might object – what about persecution and suppression of Albanians? To be sure the Serbs over the last hundred years had handled the Albanians of Kosovo below a certain rank, disdainfully excluding them from any proper voice in Yugoslavia. But about atrocities, mass graves, genocide, I wasn’t persuaded. All  these things could be debated, like what really happened in Račak, the alleged massacre in Kosovo where it was said scores of Albanian civilians (or were they soldiers?) had been killed, and which finally tipped the scales towards NATO intervention. Račak too, unlike, mind you, Srebrenica in Bosnia – where undoubtedly ethnic cleansing had occurred – was subject to debate and had been blurred in my mind in conversations and newspapers by conflict of versions, rumor and recrimination. 

But it didn’t seem to matter, or even seem plausible to the two travelers, that there was an American who didn’t support the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. 

“You are American, yes? So you are here spying, are you?”

I hadn’t come entirely unprepared. I carried a copy of Peter Handke’s A Winter’s Journey, or Justice for Serbia in my rucksack to forestall precisely these kinds of conversations. In the book Handke argues for a more objective and impartial approach to assessing the Yugoslavian war and Serbia’s role therein. Handke didn’t trust Western reportage from the time of the Yugoslavian conflict.  It was one-sided and merely mirrored the prejudiced perspectives of commentators. Handke wanted to penetrate “behind the mirror” and see Serbia first-hand, which he described at the time as “the most real country in Europe”.

At the moment my limited  Serbian was proving  to be a bit of a stumbling block. So I took  out the book and brandished  it like a passport. The two travelers were simple men, yet they knew about Handke and his defense of the Serbs, that in 1999 he had received the Order of the Serbian Knightfrom Milošević for his services, something which pundits like Salmon Rushdie were quick to clobber him for. 

I didn’t feel like tagging along with these two Serb nationalists the entire trip, so in a small town around twenty kilometers from Belgrade I found a railway station and boarded a train heading south. The train was full and I only managed to find space in the corridor, next to the toilet. The door hung off its hinges and it stank  of piss. Sitting on my rucksack I got in a conversation with a  Serbian student named Miloš, who also wanted to know what I was doing in Serbia. Miloš liked it when I said I was here visiting monasteries. He was full of suggestions and asked for my map, circling the monasteries I had to visit. 

“You must go to Ostrog,” said Miloš. “It is the most beautiful monastery in Yugoslavia. With my girlfriend I was there and I remember very well fucking her  under the stars. It was a night to remember.”

The train rolled on through the green countryside.  Heavy clouds were gathering. 

A man came up to us. He was drunk, staggered along the corridor and up close he reeked of rakija. He said something to me which I didn’t understand. 

“He wants some of your water,” said Miloš.

I gave him my water, he gulped it down avidly  and threw the empty bottle out the window. 

Lighting flashed. Thunder boomed. 

“Who are you and what are you  doing in Serbia?” the man wanted to know. 

“He is visiting monasteries,” said Miloš.

 The man embraced me and gave me three rakija infused kisses on the cheeks.

“You are searching for God,” he said.  

Then the ticket controller came along and I paid  for my ticket, but the drunk had no ticket. 

“I am a poor refugee from Kosovo, who has been driven from his home by Albanian Šiptars. I have nowhere to live,” he said.

The controller waved his hand and let him go. Which ticket controller on a train in the West would relent in the face of a similar hard-luck story? I wondered. It impressed me how ready the Serbs were to bend the rules. How different they were from the Germans.

The man sat down next to us and, breathing fumes, explained what he had lived through in Kosovo. The Albanians had come and plundered his house. He saw them lug a barrel of slivovitz from the basement. He was sad and he had to laugh at the same time. Here they were, Muslims allegedly, and they were taking his rakija. Then they hoisted an Albanian flag from the chimney. He went to Belgrade and was homeless, sleeping in the train station in the middle of January.

“Sretan put i pazi na sebe,” the man said. Bon voyage and watch out for yourself.

After about an hour we arrived in Aranđelovac. This was my stop; from here I would go to Topola. Miloš got out here as well. He would bring me to a hotel where he knew the receptionist. It was dark now as we walked across a badly-lit park. Miloš took out a cigarette and chucked the empty packet on the grass. 

“It is dangerous walking in Serbia alone,” he said, “especially at night.”

“Yes?” I said.

“Are you  not afraid to being here alone?”

“No,” I said. “Should I be?”

I thought of the Gypsies. In Prague, where I had lived for four years, and where slandering the Gypsies was  a national sport, the Czechs had done their best to alarm me about them. Gypsies would rob you for ten cents, they said. Never trust a Gypsy, they admonished me.

“Maybe I should be careful of the Gypsies,” I said.

In much of Eastern Europe – in Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary – shopping malls, promenades, smart bars and cafes were off-limits to the Roma, the threat of skinhead violence combined with the simmering contempt of the masses forcing them into a kind of liminal shadow existence, where their only option was to fall into a life of crime. Serbia, it seemed, for all its mad nationalism, appeared to be more accommodating.

“No man, we have the Gypsies under control,” said Miloš. “We have been living in peace with the Gypsies for centuries. You don’t must be afraid of no Gypsies.”

We walked on in silence. Looking for some easy conversational theme, I asked Miloš: ‘”What do you think about Radovan Karadžić?”

“What do you in America think of Radovan Karadžić?” said Milos.

“We don’t like him all that much,” I said.

“We also don’t like him,” said Miloš. “Not much.”  

The subject was dropped for the time being. We passed a playground where youths shot hoop under dim street lights. Miloš  pointed out a tree bedecked with flowers where a couple days earlier a young man had crashed his car, killing himself and two others. Finally we arrived at the hotel next to a café blaring loud folk music, the exterior of which was plastered with posters of third rate narodna folk singers. 

Miloš could not persuade the receptionist to give me a special deal, but it didn’t matter, the rooms were no more than twenty euro. But very seedy. Like in many crummy Yugo hotels the bathroom facilities were filthy and inadequate and there was no proper shower, just a hose over the toilet. Tired from a long day of walking I lay on my bed and stared at the water stain on the ceiling while listening to the loud turbo-folk music blaring from the cafe next door and young people hooting with laughter and bawling out the lyrics to the schlager hits in voices slurred by drink. All night the music throbbed and the kids hollered. People liked music in Serbia, and they liked it LOUD.