A moment lived in Serbia by Shane J Cassidy, a traveller from Ireland
“What do you think? That Serbia will bend to the will of NATO? Or the EU? People forget that we held off the Turkish empire as it roared across Europe. People forget that.”
“People may forget it – but you certainly haven’t”, I thought as my enthusiastically nationalistic guide enlightened me on centuries of Serbian history.
I was in Belgrade and it was 10pm on a warm September evening. Bright yellow squares decorating large high rise apartment buildings indicated that most Belgradian’s had returned home for the evening. The night sky was clear and a warm breeze blew lightly. The 13.35 express from Budapest had delivered me into the heart of the Balkans and wandering into the night with my camera and map, I hoped to discover what Belgrade looked like lit up at night.
Upon arriving onto the main street, I stopped a tall, rakish looking man with sharp features in the hope of being pointed towards the Orthodox Basilica, which I had been told was a must-see in the evening. Sensing that this was my first time in the city, Peter agreed to direct me but suggested altering the plan slightly.
“I’m walking in the direction of the only 24hr Post Office in the whole world. Would you like to see it?”. Feeling the Basilica could wait, I told him I would and slipping into easy conversation, we strolled unhurriedly in the direction of the post office.
Peter was a Serbian but had lived abroad for 20 years, only recently returning to settle back in his place of birth.
“When Yugoslavia was at it’s height, every single man, woman and child could be mobilised in times of war. My father was an editor of a magasine and I was a student but we knew exactly what our duties were should it have been required.” He spoke openly and with a healthy trust for a new acquaintance. I appreciated his candour and he was easy company and I felt privileged to be privvy to this private walking tour of the city. As we moved through the city, Peter would casually point to different buildings.
” This is where NATO bombed during their siege of our city”. Indignant to how his country had been treated, this proud Serb generously shared his knowledge and helped me understand the many complexities and contradictions of Balkan life. Over the course of the next hour, we touched on a number of wide ranging subjects, from the assassination of former Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić to ex-wives, his – not mine, before finally returning back to our original meeting point.
At that moment, I understood the feeling of being totally intoxicated without having touched a drop of alcohol. As we shook hands and prepared to part company, I offered to buy him a drink to thank him.
“Thanks but I can’t, my wife is waiting for me and she will already be suspicious why I’m gone so long!”. He shook my hand vigorously and then he was gone, disappearing into the Belgrade night.
I visited the Basilica the the following night and there is no doubt that it is a beautiful sight to see it lit up. But the memory I will hold close is the sign of Peter’s eyes light up as he spoke passionately and openly about his wonderful city.