I love it here: Every soot-stained structure is like a face with a story. From the woman shaking her rug over a terrace to the neighbors greeting each other with a quick ‘dobar dan’ wave across buildings, invariably smoking and smiling: This is a city of stories. Stories so old – as in 7000 BC old – that looking back on Belgrade’s history is like gazing into the Danube; it is too hazy to make out all the details. At the same time, Belgrade is also among the most frequently conquered cities, suffering invasions by the Celts, the Romans, and the Ottomans as well as a stand-off with the Austro-Hungarians, the Third Reich, and communism: Almost every block of the city has its own story to tell.
While the population of 1.7 million and counting is steeped in past woes, the city retains a survival instinct that keeps it looking ever forward. For example, in 2003 the city assembly adopted a planning initiative by the Urban Planning Institute of Belgrade called “The Master Plan of Belgrade 2021”. The sweeping plan encompasses traffic protocols, gas piping, urban greenery, the economy, housing, and public space. It is evidence that, once again, even after the turmoil of the 1990s and the dissolution of Yugoslavia, this place refuses to be crushed by the burden of its past.
I don’t know how western immigrants like me fit into this picture; Belgrade still has a long way to go: more urban planning, recycling programs, cycle lanes, and even basic infrastructure for buildings and road upkeep. Most of these issues require hands-on local initiatives and not the involvement of some plucky expats. At the same time, a fresh look at an old city cannot be a bad thing – and neither can foreigners with bigger incomes and a desire to create jobs. In any case, and with a new round of EU negotiations on the way, it looks like Belgrade is on track to be revitalized. In fact, much of its new job market has to do with initiatives dealing with EU admission requirements and many of them also involve foreign aid or outside investment. Still, there are fears that things aren’t changing quickly enough. I have often had conversations with locals who blame their current low salaries on foreign companies taking advantage of cheap labor and non-functioning tax laws.
Some things, however, I don’t want to see change. Take the decayed opulence of the Austro-Hungarian-inspired edifices with their broken shutters, spray-painted walls, and deformed faces of what used to be protective cherubs. Inside, these buildings may turn out to be a squatted artist studio, a cafe, or a jazz club. These buildings, and the young people who have made them their own, lend the city its distinctive character. But it is selfish to cling to this ramshackle image of Belgrade just to fuel my own romantic vision of the place.
So, what do the locals think? How do they explain Belgrade’s attraction to foreigners? I decided to ask Nikola Mihaelj. “For most westerners, it is this sense of frontier living. It is not as chaotic as some places in Central Asia or Africa, but still edgy enough to attract the people who are sick and tired of overly organized routines of westernized everyday life. The Balkans in general offer one of the world’s few remaining, relatively tamed, frontiers; Belgrade is slightly exotic, but not too much so.”
With this, he may have hit the proverbial nail on the head. Even Waiting for Godot playwright Samuel Beckett had to eat his own words after a visit to the city. “I am particularly impressed with the bright and warm atmosphere of Belgrade,” he stated.
Once the workday ends at four in the afternoon, local cafes fill with friends, families, and tourists relaxing and laughing together before heading home for a ‘Serbian lunch,’ or what my culture might call supper. Pastries, spiced meats, and – most of all – large portions are passed around a table seating entire generations of a single family. Lurid stories and morbid jokes are served up raw, much to the chagrin of on-looking grandmothers. This is the real and unsung Belgrade, the stuff that gives the phoenix its wings. These are things that urban planning and foreign investment can neither create nor destroy. In the end, what makes this city rise from the ashes is the warmth of its people.
Text and pictures, incl. the header image, by Constance A. Dunn
Header image: Culture protest in Belgrade