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Friday, July 25, 2008

beautiful Belgrade

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.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Ingrid Betancourt

Human beings can be beautiful beings. This week is the week of Ingrid Betancourt, the almost saintly, the beautiful, the spirited Ingrid Betancourt, six years captive in the Colombian jungle, whisked from hide out to hide out, shackled down with neck chains – punishment for her five escape attempts – a magnificent, courageous woman. She brings tears to my eyes. I’ve been dreaming of Ingrid Betancourt. At work I mouthed her name over the xerox machine. I sat with Fer Ruiz from payroll and gaped with him at her photo on his desk. For half an hour we sat in silence. I am awestruck, possibly in love, certainly in the thrall of Ingrid Betancourt. A hundred times I say her name and still it warms my heart. Tomorrow, on the bus to Belgrade, I will think of her and I will wonder, as I have been wondering all week, why we are not all like Ingrid Betancourt, beautiful and spirited human beings.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Goni's children

Goni’s oldest is 17, but he looks barely barmitzwa-eligible. He makes up for it in smarts though. The first thing he did when I came into the living room is put down his Torah-sized Sudoku anthology and quiz me on Balkan history: wasn’t montenegro part of greater serbia, why is kosovo not a legitimate nation-state and so on and so forth. Salomon, leave Lui alone, Goni said like to a four year old. I said, bring it on Sal and we did some more Balkan-back-and-forth until he was satisfied, NOT that I'm an ok guy, NOT that I'm unlikely to pull a Burt Reynolds on his mom and start slapping her around for fun, but until he was satisfied that I am indeed a Croat, a real Croat and not a crank. That was Sal. Then came Geraldine. A 19 year old doorslammer, a beautiful, mouthwatering doorslammer: black curls, black eyes, teeth like the inside of a coconut and her feisty tongue, a raspberry popsicle. I fell for her like a lead balloon.

Geraldine: Who are YOU?

Me: Lui, my name is Lui,

Geraldine to mother: Mom, he’s like three!!

Me: TWENTY three, I’m twenty three years old.

And that was that. She slammed the door on her way out. Sal looked up from his numbers and told me not to mind his sister, that she was just flirting. Goni’s bosom heaved. This was more than she could bear I could tell. So I left it at this. In the hall I kissed her and touched her gold pendant that spelled the four letters of her name, Goni, oh Goni, and I became intensely warm and excited. Then I heard a door slam upstairs and I left.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

new horizons

Today I heard on the radio that somewhere out in some faraway galaxy a whole sun collapsed on itself like a souflé. It was getting too heavy for its own good, taking in more and more sun-particles and space dust and suchlike, sucking it up from everywhere until its own gravity was so overwhelming and its density so extreme that it just collapsed. Bang. And you know how much energy it released? More that the sun – our own little sun – ever will in its lifetime. But where does that stuff go? Does it go up in smoke? Does it go through cosmic stomachs, like a cow, from one to the other, from one universe to the next. Does it get filed somewhere as “spent”, boxed or pdfed? Or does it just sit out the rest of its days in darkness doing funny curvy things with space and time and light. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about stuff these days, broadening my horizons and such. Too much concentration during the Euro threatened my wellbeing. For two weeks my head was crowded with nothing else. There was only Arshivim’s cannonballs to goal, Luka Toni’s fakester tumbles in the penalty area and Ribéry’s tragic oh so tragic fall. I even fell for the only football player who looks like a woman, i.e. Emanuel Torres – i don’t know if it’s Emanuel, but that’s what I call him because it makes me think of Emanuelle with two Ls – a bullfighter a head taller than the rest, but with soft feminine features. It all really got started when the Dutch – the most powerful, the most explosive team of the tournament –were knocked out by eleven cheeky teenagers from Russia. It tore me apart. It was an affront!!!!! I became obsessed and from then on I could think of nothing else. And I mean nothing else, not even the message Goni left me on my voicemail Lui, it said, I may be forty years old. I may have two kids nearly your age, but I’m THEIR mother. Don’t treat me like I’m YOURS. Call me. I called her a week later, but mostly out of despair because I’d just finished watching Turkey fall against the Germans (ten blond falcons swooped down on their dark-skinned adversaries. It chilled my blood. Bastiaan Schweinsteiger is a weapon of war). I called Goni. I called her and hung up almost immediately. Why? It was a fair question, and I thought about it, and then I thought about Anna. I thought about Anna for a long time, like ten minutes, maybe more. I thought about her arms flicking up and her jangling bracelets and her deer-eyes. I got warm inside. And then I went out to find her. I left Brendan at home (since Italy’s disgraceful exit, Brendan has been conscpicuously quiet, pumping iron in his room. I like him this way: deflated). I went to the Waldorf hoping to see my stray deer. I showed up at twelve. There was just me and that black girl from Queen’s night– remember her: statuesque, amazonian. She was sipping a girl-drink with a guy at the bar. He looked like a posh deck hand from some millionaire’s marina. Blond, heavy diver's watch and a Macramé bracelet. I felt stupid so I left and went straight to Goni’s. I met her kids. I’ll tell you about it. Gotta go. Going to Goni’s. Gotta run. Oh, one more thing, guess what... Glendale S-pin won the counties. Bee kicked derriere big time. the Christel Verstraeten delivered. Oh, and one more thing, guess where I’m going next week. Guess.. BELGRADE!!! Gotta run.