Wednesday, May 30, 2007 at 10:55 AM

My Serbian ‘Pilgrimage’

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

I appreciate it when people have good things to say about their Caribbean vacation. After all, the livelihood of my people is dependent upon tourists having pleasant experiences and then enticing others to visit with their personal stories. But it’s always a struggle to contain my indignation when these people presume to tell me how wonderful my country is after spending a few days there lounging on a beach at some all-inclusive (invariably foreign-owned) resort. After all, these resorts reflect the daily lives of islanders about as much as Mars reflects the daily lives of earthlings.

Therefore, it is in a spirit of enlightened ignorance that I share the following story of my Serbian vacation. Never mind that I traveled there knowing more about this country than most tourists are even interested in knowing about my country, The Bahamas.

Serbia, of course, is all that remains of the former Yugoslavia: a polyglot of ethnic groups that were marshaled into a Balkan state by Western powers after World War I. But since this story is about my vacation, I shall venture no further into the history of Yugoslavia or the internecine conflicts that led inexorably to its implosion into several independent states. (However, I invite you to read the Related Articles below for a little of my thoughts on some of the issues that continue to bedevil Serbia’s national identity and economic development.)

I am always incredulous of stories by well-traveled tourists who claim to have experienced foreign countries “like the locals do”. Because the only way this is remotely possible is to have a trusted friend – who is a native of the country in question – serve as one’s host and personal tour guide. Therefore, I am extremely grateful to my friend of over 20 years for inviting me into her home in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, taking me to so many interesting sights and sharing so many local insights (gossip about Srpska posla) during my five-day visit.

On our scenic drive from the Airport, my eyes were drawn to what appeared to be Soviet-era buildings that have become eyesores as much from decades of poor maintenance and disrepair as from the ravages of war (including US bombs which destroyed a few of them in 1999). But I was also struck by the prevalence of graffiti defacing so many structures, which prompted me to remark that Belgrade must have imported the graffiti that seemed to disappear from New York City overnight many years ago.

Nevertheless, there were signs of urban renewal. And nothing symbolized this more than the Beogradska Arena – a decidedly post-Soviet complex (opened in 2004) with a seating capacity of over 20,000 that was designed to feature everything from sports events (especially basketball) to cultural programs (like the rap concert 50 Cent performed there in November 2006).

But my questions about Belgrade’s beleaguered buildings and crumbling infrastructure then prompted my host to disabuse me of any expectation that tours of Belgrade’s architecture would be the highlight of my visit. Not that I had an abiding interest in or possess the academic training to assess the architectural merit of these buildings. In fact, my questions merely reflected my informed concerns about Serbia’s enduring geopolitical and economic malaise.

Meanwhile, as we sauntered about on our daily walking tours, I was pleasantly surprised by the vibrancy of city life in Belgrade – which projects the surreal character of a bustling city struggling against itself to avoid devolving back into a sprawling village. Indeed, except for evidence of its urban decay and the fact that I did not see a solitary black face amongst the teeming masses during my visit (more about that later), we could easily have been walking along the streets of London or Paris. Although, since Belgrade is hardly known as a favorite tourist destination, I was constrained to wonder whether Serbs spend more of their days gallivanting and sitting in street-side cafes than they do at work….

At any rate, our walks pass Belgrade Palace, the monumental main post office, Hotel Moskow, City Hall, the Houses of Parliament, the National Theatre and other landmarks to Terazije street and down to Kalemegdan were not without some architectural highlights. But Kalemegdan – Serbia’s largest municipal park – was a sight to behold and experience.

This park grew out of a military fortress, which dates to the 3rd Century and was reinforced and relied upon throughout its history by Serb oppressors (including the Romans, Hungarians and Turks) to keep foreign enemies and preternaturally-pugnacious Serbs at bay…. It features “artillery structures, medieval fortification with its ramparts, gateways, barbicans and the excavated ruins of a castle, the Roman remains”.

Yet despite these man-made attractions – including our pilgrimage to the quaint little Church of Sv. Petka where a couple very dear to me was married in 1946 – the highlight of Kalemegdan was looking down from our fortress promontory onto the natural wonder (i.e. the confluence) “where the Sava river gives itself to the Danube”.

Alas, I suspect I may have betrayed my overzealous interest in the tortured political history of Serbia by lobbying my host to take me to Dedinje to visit the shrine of Joseph Broz Tito, the dictator who – from 1953 until his death in 1980 – commanded solidarity and allegiance amongst the fractious peoples of the Balkans to the amorphous state of Yugoslavia.

Of course, my interest in Tito stems from the fact that he played his role as a pawn in the Cold War (geopolitical) chess game between the Soviet Union and the United States with more élan and self-determination than any other Third-World leader. But I suppose it’s a reflection of the resentful or ambivalent regard many Serbs have for him that his shrine is housed in a little shack more suitable as a resting place for gypsy patriarch than
as a memorial to the most influential leader of the former Yugoslavia.

We spent the final day of my trip in the Serbian countryside visiting the monasteries of Koporni, Ravanica and Manasija. And since I’ve already admitted that I don’t have much interest in architecture, and given the fact that my articles are suffused with religious apostasy (or iconoclasm), I can appreciate how this might seem a hypocritical sojourn. But just imagine going to Paris and not visiting Notre Dame…even if only for purely secular reasons….

At any rate, it just so happened that as we were ending our tour of Ravanica, several school buses filled with students from local villages pulled up for guided tours – which I gathered are as much a rite of passage for “good Serbs” as pilgrimages to Mecca are for Saudis. And it was here that my acute sense of being a black man in Serbia was brought into stark relief.

Because even though I noticed curious stares from people in the streets of Belgrade, no one ever uttered a word to me. By contrast, there was no mistaking the endearing and intriguing stares in the eyes of almost every one of the students who passed us by on their way into the monastery. And, just as my host was interpreting their not-so-subtle whispers (“wow, there’s a black man”), a statuesque young girl, about age 12, approached us. In perfect English, she asked my host, strangely enough, if it would be okay for one of her friends to take a picture of her and me. I was only too happy to oblige…. Others followed, including some curious enough to ask to touch my hair and skin. Again, I obliged.

(Incidentally, I hasten to note that in my interactions with people – from Serbs who served me in restaurants to those who fielded my queries at tourist sites – they were all exceedingly cordial, helpful and even friendly!)

Truth be told, however, the most memorable part of my trip was spent indoors chatting expansively over lavish meals at the homes of local Serbs – as we did for hours every day. Indeed, I could not help thinking that whatever my Serbian friend lacks in material comfort – by admittedly ostentatious American standards – is more than compensated for by family and friends who indulge her passion for good food and stimulating conversation to almost bacchanalian excess.

My only regret is that the few phrases I managed to mumble in Serbian provided little more than comic relief for these multi-lingual folks whose command of English would make most of my American friends blush with envy. But after this brief visit, I feel comfortable declaring that:

Ja se ponosim sto sam pocasni crni Srbin

NOTE: Click here to plan your visit to Serbia.

Related Articles:
Kosovo: wither Serbia’s Alamo
Death of Slobodan Milosevic
Serbs fail (once again) to honor promise to turn over war criminals
Serbian war criminals hiding in plain sight

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