It is a foggy Sunday midday, and I am being escorted in a police car from Belgrade airport to Sremska Kamenica, a neighbourhood of Novi Sad. How alive is this country!
On a dusty roadside of the highway that connects the two cities, a 5-year-old girl is vehemently looking for something or someone with her black terrier. The permanent proximity of the vehicles on the road is not a threat for them. The houses have been erected so near to the highway that the roadside is a front yard for the searchers.
Soon, immensely vast plains of Vojvodina emerge. Although some newly planted trees are sometimes visible in the distance, one can see as far as the eye takes. A travel guide suggests that in winter these plains are reminiscent of the scenes from David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago. The fog makes everything even flatter than it already is, emphasising the abstract quality of the landscape. Quite suddenly, this Tarrian vision is interrupted by four military-clothed men appearing, as if from nowhere, in the middle of the plain, guns in their hands. A fact that goes totally unnoticed by the two men chatting in Serbian in the front seat!
Some travel guides urge tourists for a specific self-control in Serbia, beginning with a warning related to the quality of tap water (there have been, they say, outbreaks of hepatitis A and meningitis in Vojvodina) and ending with a list of unrecommended topics of conversation. A suggestion not to talk about the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990, for instance. Or to avoid any discussion of Milošević. However, feel free to talk about Tito, one says; some may even express a strong degree of affection towards the more stable and peaceful era of the Socialist Yugoslavia! To consider Serbia as part of Eastern Europe, or a former part of the Soviet Bloc (remember the Tito-Stalin Split of 1948!), is a misconception that could cause strong arguments.
Do not mention Kosovo in a conversation! You will probably end up in trouble when trying to travel to Kosovo. In addition to the issues directly resulting from Serbia’s non-recognition of Kosovo’s independence, there is some danger from residual mines and other unexploded ordnance left over from the 1999 conflict. Also, do not praise NATO or the foreign policy of the United States too overtly! Anti-American feelings are said to be strongest around the anniversary dates of certain events and on some national holidays (e.g., St. Vitus’ Day). Furthermore, wins or losses in sporting events could trigger violence, as someone said. On October 8, the Estonian football team surprisingly won 3-1 against Serbia. On October 10, a gay pride march in Belgrade culminated in violence. According to a newspaper article, there have been incidents of attack against the customers of the country’s few openly gay-friendly bars, the entrances of which were under the observation of the attackers. Today is October 17.
One after another, the car radio airs popular songs with a discernibly clear Turkish sound. After all, this country was under the political, economic and cultural rule of the Ottoman Empire for around half a millennium. Even though it has become a commonplace to see the Balkans as a predominantly Slavic area, such tunes themselves, alongside with the specific euphonic qualities of the South Slavic languages, are a constant reminder of the fact that the Balkans is a separate cultural region in Europe, not just a subversion of what one could call Slavic, or Russian. Nevertheless, an English hip hop song about the sad inevitability of the use of guns and the need for peace in the Balkan area can soon be heard on the radio, which adds a note of bitter melancholy into the general colouring of the situation.
The good-humoured driver seems to enjoy his status as a law enforcer. Whole groups of people talking in front of gas stations or waiting at bus stops turn their heads when seeing our car appear, as if the presence of a police officer were a rare event that deserves respect. Soon we find ourselves in a traffic jam caused by the construction works of the bridge ahead of us, and for the next 30 minutes our view on the plain is limited by a big yellow bus filled with students and old angular-faced women wearing black cotton scarves. The situation seems to be a regular part of the driver’s daily routine, something that one could even enjoy under certain circumstances, and it gives him a good opportunity to fraternise with other drivers. If one could cut these conversations out of the context of the situation, one would probably think that these men have been good friends for many years!
Despite the “flattery” by the international media from the early 1990s on, Serbs are often considered as one of the most hospitable and welcoming people in Europe. One travel guide goes further to say that even though there may be more attractive locations elsewhere, the Balkans, and Serbia as a part of it, have a spirit and a soul that is rare to find. In the following days, when working with people from each of the former Yugoslavian nations as well as from Albania, I will have a good chance to learn more about this Balkan spirit. The following days will confirm my deeply rooted conviction that real emotional openness and sincerity, mutual respect and politeness, good sense of humour and the warmth of communication, all quintessential values of human relations, have, more than elsewhere in Europe, been preserved among the nations situated south of Lithuania and east of Czech Republic. And because I will constantly be in the company of the people most of whom speak almost no English, I will have a perfect opportunity to pay attention to the nonverbal ways of self-expression of these people rather than the message they want to convey.
I will hear a variety of rare notes and different emotional shades in the way the locals speak. Therefore, my farewell with these people four days later will be accompanied by severe self-accusations for the lack of emotions in my own verbal expression.
I will learn that the locals tend to keep an eye contact that is much longer and more intense than what I am used to. In case of an established eye contact with someone, I will be the first one to turn the gaze away.
I will begin to admire the seeming lack of discomfort of the local people in the situations which require them to communicate with someone they do not know. A couple of hours after my arrival to Sremska Kamenica I will find myself in a local tavern drinking beer with my colleagues, and I will understand the words of a character from Angelopoulos’s Ulysses’ Gaze who said that in his village two people become friends by drinking from the same cup and listening to the same song.
I will be surprised by the lack of fear of physical contact, even between the people of the same sex. More than once, I will be able to see a male leaning over and freely crossing his hands around the neck of another sitting in front of him, both seeing this gesture as a common way of expressing one’s friendliness. Furthermore, I will have to reconsider my decision to stop using the custom of shaking hands when meeting someone; Balkan people do that a lot, and by the end of my trip, so will I.
I will be extremely moved by the politeness of the locals, which will find its most memorable expression in the behaviour of my hotel’s administrator right after my arrival later that Sunday: she will invite a friend to cover for her for an hour or so, so that she could show me with her car where the nearest ATM is located!
I will also experience how incredibly hospitable and sincere the locals are. Just ten minutes before my departure for the airport on the last day of my stay in Sremska Kamenica, I will be approached by the librarian of the local police academy, who, having heard that there is an Estonian guy visiting the institution, will suddenly become very eager to introduce me each and every book of his library. Many of the shelves only halfway organised, large tables with random heaps of old books on them, several postaments with a bit dusty flowers, and a few paintings on tripods to add a slightly bohemian aura to the whole scene – this type of library is worth being preserved. After having regretfully terminated the excursion a few minutes later, I will see an honest disappointment in the librarian’s face. How is it possible that I do not want to see more of his collection?! By that time I will know that such sincerity is not a rarity here: many of the learners I am working with do not try to hide their confusion when encountering a problem and are not be afraid of expressing their gratitude when they see that the problem is solved.
Another kind of honesty is clearly visible from our car still standing in the traffic jam: a large road sign covered by verses of graffiti. Even though I do not understand what it says, I recognise the rhymes and realise that it is a public poem rather than a random selection of words. A similar approach to art, I will later learn, is repeated at our hotel’s dining room, the walls of which are covered by paintings whose authors have had no other intention but to mimic the styles of Gustav Klimt and Franz Marc. None of these artists has tried to surpass others; but all of them suprass those whose main purpose is to be unsurpassable.
The cars, trucks and buses soon begin to move again, and two minutes later the wide plains are abruptly replaced by entirely forested hills. Between them runs the majestic Danube, a river so breathtakingly wide that one would think that its estuary must be quite nearby. But no, the river has another thousand kilometres to go before it eventually flows into the Black Sea. In every town it passes, one way or another, it gains a prominence.
The right bank of the Danube in the urban area of Novi Sad is not an exception here. In this evening, the promenade next to the river will be filled with elderly couples or parties of three, many of whom will be dressed in sportswear and some of whom will ask me for a cigarette. Everyone seems to smoke in Serbia. Around 7:30 every evening in the upcoming days two or three students of the police academy will be brooming the roads at the entrance of the school’s park, which is located on one of the highest slopes of the town and which probably has the greatest view on the Danube.
Despite the importance of the river, Sremska Kamenica and Petrovaradin are both full of places that have a significant value of their own. Upon my arrival to the town I will be greeted by the simultaneous ringing of numerous church bells, and I will be informed that the Fruška Gora mountain, on the northern slopes of which Sremska Kamenica is located, also hides a dozen of small Serbian Orthodox monasteries. Nevertheless, when I finally find the only Orthodox church of the town, it will be empty of people. Even the nearby standing slightly slanted kiosk in which candles and icons are sold seems to be deserted, and a yellow mystical glow emerging through the main portal of the church would make one say, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”
Some kilometres up north, the majestic Petrovaradin fortress with its towers, terraces, galleries, museums, and tunnels is located. Being the main cultural centre in the area, one of the most important musical events in Europe, the EXIT festival, takes place here every summer. For some reason, this heroic fortress will bring another superlatives about Serbia into my mind: that 17 Roman Emperors, including Constantine I, were born in the territory of today’s Serbia, second to Italy only; that Serbia was the second European country, after France, to abolish feudalism in the 19th century; that Serbia has the largest refugee population in Europe, and so on. This fortress will be the final seal to confirm the strange affinity I have begun to feel with this country in the police car on that October afternoon.
Five days later in another car, Ratko Mladić’s name will raise the eyebrow of my Serbian and Slovenian colleagues as though the news just heard on the radio disappoints them somehow. Later I will learn that it had probably to do with the inability of the Serbian government to capture the former Bosnian Serb army leader, which is one of the main preconditions of the country’s access to the European Union.
Still, on that Sunday, Novi Sad welcomes us with posters which inform that Željko Joksimović will give a performance in this town in November.