Sauntering up Balkanska ulica I noticed her verging towards me, a black-haired girl in a black dress clicking along the cracked pavement past cheap shops selling cheap wares, swinging a tiny patent leather handbag. She sidled up to me and said:
“Do you have any gum?” Guma, she said.
I said I didn’t speak Serbian. And then she burst out. “Oh, you are speaking English maybe! How lucky for me. I would like very much to speak the English language. Unfortunately, my English is not so well. I read and understand, but I have no exercise in talk. Maybe I take you someplace nice and you can tell me some English words. Okay?”
Was she a prostitute? To be honest, I appreciated the company
“Skadarlija,” said the girl to the taxi driver as we hopped in a cab. He whirled about and drove us down the hump-backed streets of Belgrade to a cobbled lane lined with terraced restaurants where summer crowds sat listening to Gypsy orchestras. There we took seats at a local called Dva Jelen. We ordered wine and ćevapčići for which the establishment was renown. Under the awning Gypsy musicians – a couple violinists, a guitar player, an accordion player and a man on double bass, all in pin-striped suits and immaculate white shirts, polished shoes, brilliantined hair and the leader in a chic trilby – serenaded guests with intoxicating, rousing melodies which ranged from soft pathos to sudden fury; everybody sang. The girl – her name was Dragana – took out a cigarette and fidgeted with her lighter. Two portions of grilled lamb sausage with a side of diced raw onions, ajvar (a roasted red pepper and eggplant spread) and kajmak – which is neither butter nor cream cheese nor yogurt, but something in between – materialized on our table. Dragana ate with relish as though she hadn’t had a square meal for days.
“Tastes well, isn’t it?” she said. “Very much mine is good.”
We ordered more red wine and got to talking. Dragana wanted to know where I was from, and I said that I was American but that I was from Berlin and that was where I was living now.
“I was not in Berlin, but the future I will probably visit,” she said. “Here I cannot find the man of the dream. We have men, but many drink or beat the wives. And so I have decided to get acquainted with you. You like to drink? Only tell the truth. I at all do not drink much and I do not smoke, only for you I allow to drink a few wines and smoke a few cigarettes. I not against that the man would drink, but it is not a lot of and not often.”
Once started there was no stopping Dragana. Sometimes I hadn’t the slightest idea what she was going on about. After a while I gave up trying. I stopped paying attention and watched the Gypsy musicians perform at the table next to ours, stooping and slashing their violins close to the ears of the guests, who smiled, glassy-eyed, in rapt appreciation. Then the Gypsies arrived at our table.
“We’ll play you songs,” the lead Gypsy said. “We’ll play you songs in the Old Town fashion which will drive your worries away in this whirlpool of grief that is our world. We’ll play you such songs as will make your mouth water.”
I nodded and made a welcoming gesture with my hand. Thereupon the Gypsies began serenading us with their violins, guitar and accordion, sinking into a swooning languor, only to revive with an abrupt syncope, the accordionist’s plump fingers dancing over the keys.
“This is the tamburaši music,” said Dragana. “It is something like a Belgrade specialty. They are playing old songs, our songs, the old songs of Belgrade. They’ll play a song for you if you want. But you will have to pay.”
And so I asked them to play Kerta Mange Daje for me, by Šaban Bajramović, Serbian king of the Gypsies, otherwise known as “the Black Panther”. It was a song, in Romanes, about a young man going away to the army. It was the only appropriate song I could think of. I was happy that I knew at least one.
“An expensive song,” said the lead Gypsy, immediately taking me for the rich foreigner.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the first bill I found – two hundred dinar – about two dollars – and palmed it to the Gypsy, who took the gratuity with a look of consummate disdain.
After they were finished we paid up and left Skadarlija and took a cab to Novi Belgrade, to a small, ambiguous shack on the jungly banks of the Sava, where I was frisked at the door for weapons before we were let into a red-lit room where a Gypsy turbo-folk chanteuse held the floor, belting out wailing Oriental lyrics with lilting arabesques to the accompaniment of maniacal keyboards while close-shorn, bull-necked, black-leather-jacketed Serb knuckleheads reeled enraptured to the music, holding their arms up high to the firmament as if embracing heaven.
Everyone was very drunk and very jolly. We took a seat on a black leather sofa in the corner and Dragana mercilessly told me everything that came to her mind, everything gushing out pell-mell in awful English that made you cringe, her monologue flowing on like the swelling Sava.
“I wish to tell to you about the family,” said Dragana. “I wish to inform you on how I grew up and who brought up me. The grandmother and mum brought up me. Mum call Vesna, grandmother Jelena. The grandmother lives in village in Kosovo. I know nothing about the father. Mum and the grandmother do not speak about it. Mum cries or leaves when I ask about it. Therefore, I know nothing. I do not want that mum cried. The grandmother at me very kind. We often walked, went to bathe in unison and went to wood to fetch berries.”
We stayed in the turbo-folk club for one more drink before taking a cab back along the blue-lit Belgrade streets to Terazije. There, standing in front of the fountain we stood for a while taking in the warm summer night.
“I am ready to kiss constantly if it makes you happy,” said Dragana. “I want that we with it would enjoy our love, passion and tenderness.” It sounded straight out of a script. A badly written one.
And then she addressed me with something that had been weighing on her mind. “I have a favor to ask you,” she said. “I must make application in eEnglish for I wish work in Europe, maybe as au-pair in UK. I help you find hotel and then you help me with letter, okay?”
I had no idea where I was going. I was just following Dragana. We tried a couple places. Hotel Prag. Hotel Moskva. No vacancies. No foreigners. None wanted. Cold and hostile faces. Hands wafting us away. Finally we found Hotel Balkan on Prizrenska Ulica, opposite a weedy park. Rooms twenty-five euro a night. A hairy armed receptionist with bushy eyebrows sitting behind a wood-effect Formica desk took my passport. A notice on the wall inveighed against keeping explosive devices in hotel rooms. The elevator clattered to the fourth floor. In the small single room I flung open the window to the street and watched the scene down below. It was midnight and the street was still clogged with cars honking horns, while men from the city sanitation service hosed down the pavement driving the day’s rubbish into the gutters. Stray dogs prowled a dusty park opposite. A Gypsy threw a bottle at an alley cat. Gazela bridge twinkled in the distance, spanning the Sava. I turned on the TV, which crackled and fizzled to a water polo match. I watched, listening to the sounds of traffic through the open window through which seeped the hot Balkan night.
I took out a pen and a piece of paper and wrote something. Then I read it back to Dragana.
“My name is Dragana Mirković from Serbia. I like animals and I am wishing for peace in the world.”
“That is a nice start,” said Dragana.
I brushed back Dragana’s hair and touched her hand. But Dragana was more interested in talking.
“Robert, I wish to know at you how you like to have a rest?” said Dragana. “You like to go on the nature? You love what songs? What films you adore? What dances? You would dance with me? I not so well dance, but with you I would agree to dance. Theater? The sea? What do you love? Robert, tell to me. I delight in films and cooking. The grandmother has learnt me to prepare many dishes, and I am assured that to you would like. I am able prepare such sarma and ćevapčići which can prepare nobody. I am assured that it would be pleasant to you also. Robert, you were on the sea? I was only once in Hrvatska. I went with my girlfriend. We wished to go to Italy, but the girlfriend had problems with the visa and we have gone to Hrvatska on the sea. Very much it was pleasant to me. As the warm wind shrouds the body, cool water gives freshness and pleasure. There is only one missing: a man, with which to enjoy. You would go with me Robert ? I think that we would never forget such a trip. How you think?”
“Yes,” I said. “It sounds lovely.” And I meant it. It really did sound lovely. I could see my little Balkan trip already taking on a new dimension.
And Dragana continued on with her staunchless monologue which needed neither prompting nor response.
“I would like to learn from you about your friends. Robert, at you it is a lot of friends? People to whom you can trust and confide in all? And they will always give to you advice? Friends which do not want to you a pain and which in all help you? Robert, with me only one best girlfriend from whom I can speak. Her name is Milena. We grew together and studied together, together went on dances. Now she works as the teacher at school, teaching English language. Robert, and what friends you have? At you it is a lot of real friends? Tell the truth. You have photo? You can show to me? Robert, all is interesting to me also I wish to know all about you. Likely I pose many questions. I hope, that you are not offended on it.”
“Not at all,” I said, taking Dragana’s hand, but she had already launched on a fresh sequence. I was putty in her hands. In the end, unfortunately, I completely lost the thread of what she was trying to say. When I woke up to the fact that I was being asked a question I answered at random. But my words were drowned in swelling tones. Suddenly, Dragana stopped talking and just lay there next to me, silently, until she slipped off to sleep.
We got up around noon the next day, the noise of traffic streaming by on Prizrenska Ulica sneaking in through the window. That day we spent wandering the streets of Belgrade. We visited Kalemegdan fortress – a beautiful park, well-kept, with meandering paths lined with old women selling lace and mustached men hawking Serbian hats and paramilitary patches. In the moat stood Second World War tanks and cannons. In a tennis court future Serbian champions parried tennis balls, while a street musician played a kaval, the Balkan shepherd’s flute under the vaulted gateway for money. We stood admiring the view from the northern edge of the fortress looking out over the confluence of the Danube and the Sava with the flat, green wooded marshland to the north and Novi Belgrade with its socialist architecture to the west. We stood there and pondered the scene, musing over all the tribes and armies who held out here against invaders. Celts, Romans, Avars, Serbs, Turks, Austrians, Nazis, Partisans. Each had occupied this magnificent site for a while and left their superimposition.
We visited the Museum of Fine Arts. In the foyer a young boy was playing Dvořák on the piano while his teacher urged him on. Dragana drew my attention to the photos on the walls documenting the destruction of Serbian churches in Kosovo by Albanian extremists. But the old world was intact in the halls of the permanent collection. There were beautiful nineteenth century landscapes, portraits of peasants in colorful garb and monasteries in the mountains.
We wandered the streets. Belgrade market was in full swing, bustling with mustachioed peasants in green, cleft šajkača hats who had come in from the Šumadija and the Vojvodina with their plums and cucumbers, figs, apricots and tomatoes. We ate burek and walked to Novi Belgrade with its crazy kiosks and watermelon wagons. In one yard a man was slowly turning a whole sheep spitted lengthwise, roasting it over a large wood fire. It was scenes like these that gave Belgrade, particularly in its outlying districts, a paradoxical and ambiguous rural feel, which the English writer Rebecca West remarked upon when she came here in the forties and witnessed a man bring a hog-tied lamb into the reception of one of Belgrade’s finest hotels.
Belgrade is part city, part village; its culture is of the village in the city. From 1945 onwards Belgrade began to pull in peasants from the villages to man factories. The new arrivals overstrained the city’s limited housing stock, forcing many newcomers to erect substandard housing in beogradske faveles(In Istanbul, a city which parallels Belgrade in many ways, they would have been called gecekondus – literally “houses built overnight”). Many former peasants kept close touch with their villages of origin, receiving food from relatives and taking leave of their factory jobs to help with the harvest. These people became known derisively as “peasant urbanites”, “folkies” (narodnjaci), a hybrid class halfway on the road from village to city.
We passed Milošević’s forlorn headquarters, the ropes on flagless flagpoles banging listlessly in the wind, to Zemun with its Austrian architecture and Central European mood so different from the Balkan mood of Belgrade. We had a coffee at a café on the Danube and watched the fishing boats and Romanian barges toil upstream against the current of the widest river in Europe and the only one that flowed from west to east. Young couples were walking along the promenade hand in hand. The Danube with its big rank smell was wide and calm.
Sitting there drinking coffee, Dragana said to me, “Tell me about yourself, but speak the truth and try not to lie.”
“Why would I lie?” I said, wondering what had come over her since last night, when she so effusively had told me everything that came into her head, promising hugs and kisses.
“Tell me why you are in Serbia.”
“There isn’t much to tell, really.”
“I am not believing that American man is coming to Serbia who is not a spy.”
“I’m here to see monasteries,” I said
“I am coming from Kosovo, particularly Kosovo Mitrovica,” said Dragana. “I know the Americans. Do you know what the Americans did to the Serbs there? Do you think after what they did to us that they can protect us against the Albanian Šiptars?”
“Never mind,” I said. “We will go to Kosovo. Get your things together. We can leave Belgrade tomorrow.”
“Who is saying that I am coming with you, American spy?” said Dragana.
And so, stung with this stiff rebuke I left Dragana at the Zemun café on the banks of the Danube, and foregoing any kisses and farewells, I departed for the Hotel Balkan.