Snezana Eugenia Birckenwald-Lekic IV – I call her Snezi – is my friend in Belgrade. She’s lovely. They do not come lovelier. She would have been a duchess, a marquise or some such nobility in the great Austro-Hungarian line, but the Turks impaled most of them and the communist locked up the few that remained. And that was that. So instead, she’s an architect. Everyone in Belgrade is an architect.... an architect, an aspiring architect, or a livestock veterinarian. This makes sense: there is nothing more important to a Serb than his home (especially the size of his home) and the pork on his plate. You think I jest? I do not. However, my list is incomplete, I forgot one: there is his home, there’s the pork on his plate and there is his homeland. Nothing is more important... and more ambiguous. It has been cut up so often (cut-up, reshuffled, redrawn, divided, seceded, returned, usurped and bombed beyond recognition) that the Serb is rather confused about his “homeland” and his fellow “homelanders”. Snezana Eugenia, for instance, is of Montenegrin origin, but were she to go there now she would find mostly Russians. Smalltime oligarchs are buying up the coastline one plot at a time. Once the young Montenegrin has sold the waterfront cottage he inherited from his parents, he packs off to Belgrade to live the “good life”, which in Serbian means acting like the Russians he left behind, i.e. sitting out whole days in the cafés of “Silicon Valley”, downtown Belgrade, where flesh-and-blood blow-up dolls show their curves and wares to prospective sugar daddies. I missed the trip to Silicon Valley. I arrived a day too late. What a terrible shame. I am no sugar daddy myself, but I can still spot a good deal when I see one.
Snezi also had three friends over. There was Sarah, the buoyant, the wonderful Sarah Bananas, a recent émigré to Belgrade; and there was Penelope P, a nurse from south London who struck up much speculation about the hydrology of urine through the human body in these insane temperatures (it was 39 degrees Celsius!!!); I proposed that it must in part evaporate through the skin since none of it was coming out of the usual channels (in my case at least); Pen contested vigorously. And then there was a guy who went by the name of Francis M. An American. A man of few words, probably the only one of us who could bear the scorching heat. When I asked him about it he said he worked for the Chinese in southern Sudan. I said. What do you do? He said, What’s it to you. And we spoke of it no more. But we got along, and the next day, on a cruise down the Sava he offered to go into business with me, importing Davidoff Slims into Austria over the Danube. I have a man in Vienna with a warehouse he said. I told him I had to think about it, but when I asked him, why slims why not regular cigarettes, he looked at me like I was complete ignoramus and we spoke of it no more.
On Saturday night we had dinner on the river Sava on a splav – a floating bar, restaurant, entertainment platform and sanitary hazard (according to Sarah). We ate like Ottomans and sang Balkan classics from the repertoires of Lepa Brena and the more recent Turbo Folk. Arms flailing, foot a’stompin’, Great God I felt Balkan again!!! Sarah B proved a true siren, with middle eastern tremolo and all. We were fit for the Eurovision, I swear. Only Francis stayed quiet, preferring to practice his Cyrillic script on the back of beer coasters (maybe working out the Slims “business” model), but I could tell he was enjoying every minute, sipping on his peach schnapps with an unmistakable grin. Like a cat I took a liking to him.
At three in the morning Snezi’s friend Ivana showed up – a practicing architect and Slims smoker. I’ve met her before. She’s usually a fireball of Serbian verve, but this night she was more subdued, wracked by internal conflict over the events of the preceding hours: do you DO and then THINK; or do you THINK and then DO. The classic quandary that has defined Balkan history for the last six hundred years. But in true Serbian style she opted for the former and got down with the us til the sun rose over the Sava.
On Sunday morning, with only a few hours of sleep, I took the bus to Zagreb to visit my mom. Driving through Croatia on a Serbian bus felt like an incursion into enemy territory. I sat next to a war veteran, a chain-smoking Croat and self-proclaimed Knight of the Order of Holy Templar. He would not stop talking. The trip took almost 24 hours. It was an odyssey. I will tell you about it another time. Suffice to say that I was sad to leave Belgrade and especially the people of Belgrade. They say you either love them or you hate them – being a Croat, strictly speaking I cannot love them, so I hate them… but I love them – In any case, you have to give them one thing: they have an extraordinary sense of humor. Even their war criminals . By the time I got back to Amsterdam, Radovan Karadzic had finally been arrested by the Serbian secret service, having “evaded” them for thirteen years by masquerading as a long-haired, bearded practitioner of magnetism and alternative medicine… IN BELGRADE!! Psychiatrist turned psychopath turned homeopath. I couldn’t stop laughing. If I’d invented it myself and posted it as truth in this highly factual blog, no one would have believed it.
Back at work on Monday, at the xerox machine I had much time to dwell on my trip and on Francis M and his Davidoff Slims. It’s true that I like the word contraband and I guess I like the idea of saying, I deal in contraband, but that’s the problem, I like the idea and that’s about it. So for now I will leave it in southern Sudan with its originator. But who knows, maybe one day I will get a note from him written in Cyrillic with an offer I simply cannot refuse.