Even on days I intend to relax, I end up being quite busy here in Serbia. Today was no exception. I’ll begin with Saturday evening.
My original plan was to cruise the local pubs. Instead, it was pouring rain, and I stayed in. I took the opportunity to follow up on a “homework assignment” given to me by my friends from Glas yuga in Kosovo: to watch a film by Emir Kusturica. While relatively unknown in the United States, Kusturica is one of the most recognized directors of the late twentieth centuries having received numerous awards from European film festivals at Cannes, Berlin, and Venice among others. The film I saw was called Black Cat, White Cat, a quirky love story set in the midst of the Roma community in the Balkans. Without getting into detail, it was one of the best movies I have ever seen. Check it out, seriously.
When the rain finally stopped, I joined a group of people from the hostel at Bar Idiot, a popular watering hole here in Belgrade. It did not take me too long to break away from the group and start hanging out with local Serbs. Among the many people I met was a linguist at the University of Belgrade who told me a bit more about the ins and outs of the Serbian language. She also offered to kick a few people my way for the discussion I will hopefully be holding at the American corner in two weeks’ time. I eventually made my way back to my fellow hostelers, and we hung out drinking until the bar closed at around 2 am. Afterward they headed down to the Sava River to experience the clubs that sit along and on the river, while I headed back to Manga to get some sleep.
This morning, I packed up my things and planned to hike over the the Hotel Royal where I will be spending the next few nights. Then a strange thing happened. As I was finishing up my brunch in the basement, the traveling Chabadniks I met over Shabbat headed down the stairs. Apparently they had met an Israeli who was staying at the same hostel the evening before, and he had invited them to visit. In fine Lubavitch style, we chatted for a bit, laid tefillin, and took some pictures.
By this time, it was already around noon so it was time for me to get moving. Once arriving at the Hotel Royal, I discovered it was really anything but. For 48 Euro a night, I’m not sure what I expected, but this is definitely a budget hotel. My room is very stark; only the bare necessities here. They provide linens and towels, but no internet access. On the up-side, the rooms are clean, the staff is friendly, the air conditioning works, and the price is right. There is a Mini Maxi right down the street for quick grocery trips and the hotel is ideally placed for access to the city center, the major museums, and the university’s main block of buildings relevant to my studies.
And it was here that I expected my day would end. Rather, I called up a friend of a friend who lives in Novi Beograd to see if he wanted to get together. Not only did he want to meet, but he insisted on showing me a darker side of Belgrade, the Sajmište Concentration Camp from the Second World War. I knew that Yugoslavia hosted a large number of Nazi run concentration camps and I knew that Yugoslavia was the first territory in Europe that the Nazis proudly declared judenrein thanks to the efforts of their killing camps. What I did not know was that one of the major camps was right along the Sava River from the main part of the city, now the gateway to Novi Beograd. It was here that the Nazis interned and murdered most of the region’s Jewish women and children as well as many Roma and Serbs. What remains of the camp is a ruined watchtower and several barrack buildings, ironically now inhabited by a large percentage of Belgrade’s current Roma population. A large, plaque-less monument to the victims of this camp stands along the riverbank, but it is doubtful that many people, even locals, know what it is meant to memorialize.
When we were not talking about the history of the camp, we were discussing Serbian politics and the conflict in Kosovo. In stark contrast to every other Serb with whom I have spoken on this trip, he expressed no real emotional attachment to Kosovo. While arguing that the territory is historically Serbian, he believes it is lost to Serbs forever and that they would be better to reconcile themselves to this new reality. He believes Kosovo is an issue Serbia’s political elites use to score points and really nothing more. When I asked him why it was he thought that this was a salient point for the Serbian electorate, he told me it was mostly due to history and national myths… but he believes these myths are just dead weight on the Serbian national consciousness holding them back from dealing with more immediate issues of economic development, European integration, and social progress. He insisted that no one really referred to Kosovo as the Serbian homeland until 1998 when there was a feeling that violent conflict would erupt there.
These arguments, and many of the other political arguments he made throughout our discussion, do not seem to me to represent the Serbian mainstream, even among the younger generation. That being said, I definitely need to seek out more people who so completely reject the idea of Kosovo as an important part of Serbia if only to get a well rounded picture of anti-nationalists in this country. Maybe the discussion at the American Corner will bring some of these people out of the woodwork?
After what quickly became a heavy day, I wandered back to the Hotel Royal to retrieve my laptop and find a restaurant with wireless internet. Now having eaten dinner and written this post, I’m going to pack things up for the evening. Later this evening I will catch a cab to the airport to pick up my friend coming to town for the week, and hopefully tomorrow will be a little less heavy. I am looking forward to some sightseeing and relaxation over the next few days… but given how things have been going, I am sure some other interesting research opportunities will present themselves too. As always, wish me luck. It has clearly been holding up so far!