A Paris-bound rambler finds clarity during an abbreviated pit stop in Belgrade
Past the shoppers and street vendors into downtown Belgrade I pressed, focused solely on finding Petar, my only contact in the Serbian capital. It was summer. I was twelve days into a trip across Europe. The reasons for my continental adventure were conscious and unconscious. What I knew was that I felt an urge to keep moving, to see Turkey, the Balkans, southern Europe, and Paris before I returned home to Virginia. What I did not know was what I was moving away from or towards, what exactly I was trying to find.
My itinerary spanned five weeks. My budget for the trip was tight, which is why I had contacted Petar in the first place. Through a sketchy social network for travelers, I had asked if I could crash on his couch during my stay in Belgrade. To my amazement, he responded, and in the affirmative. His email said, “I’d be happy to host you.”
Two weeks later, I was en route. The trip had begun on a night bus to London from Glasgow, where I’d spent half a year waiting tables after finishing undergrad at a small liberal arts school in Nashville, Tennessee. From London I had taken a discount flight to Bulgaria and a train to Turkey. In Istanbul, I had come down with a nasty stomach bug after unthinkingly drinking a glass of tap water. The sting persisted. Because of complications involving famously unpredictable Turkish and Bulgarian trains, the three days I had planned in Belgrade had become one.
I was weary and bewildered after the day-long train ride through the Balkans. I couldn’t speak a lick of the Serbian language. I needed to find Petar, and quick. I bought a phone card in a convenience store and tried Petar from an ugly red payphone caked with stickers advertizing psychics and illicit encounters.
“Hello, you are here!” he answered. His English was British-tinged, sturdy, quick. Later he would tell he learned English from playing online games.
“Yes! Can you tell me where to meet you?”
“Okay, you are in city centre?”
“I’m near Kalemegdan Citadel, on a wide, busy street.” I craned my neck and squinted past the grimy phonebooth glass. “The K-nez-Mee-hail-oh-va.”
“Knez Mihailova! Belgrade’s finest boulevard! Okay, I see,” he pondered aloud. “At the end of the shopping area in Knez is a bus stop. Take the number 31 bus and go, go, go, go, go until you see a big, big church. I will wait for you there.”
The instructions were vague, but I followed them anyway, not having any choice. Sure enough, a half-dozen stops down the road, just as Petar had said, a church appeared, its onion-shaped turrets, once copper-colored, now an oxidized Statue-of-Liberty green. I exited the bus and hustled up the sidewalk.
I knew Petar was looking for me; I was unsure what to look for in return. I made awkward eye contact with several passersby who vaguely resembled what I could recollect of Petar’s online picture before I heard “Hello, Will!” from up ahead.
Petar, grinning, motioned me over. His hair was sandy brown, unwashed, disheveled. He wore flip-flops, long shorts, and a striped tank top. His bearing was wide-stanced. He looked like fun. He shook my hand then hoisted my backpack into the trunk of his Citroën clunker.
“So,” he said, adjusting his seatbelt inside, “what do you want to do while you are in Belgrade? See things, go places?”
All I really wanted to do in Belgrade was hang out, I told Petar. I didn’t have long. I mentioned the Turkish stomach bug, said that first I could use some rest.
“Damn Turks,” Petar said. It was unclear whether he was joking.
At the top of a hill, we pulled into a parking lot cluttered with scraps of garbage and broken green glass and parked next to a dumpster. Behind it lay a mattress with weeds growing through. I exited the car and followed Petar along a walkway made of crooked cement squares towards a door with no screen or glass in the frame.
With a jab of Petar’s finger the door yawned open. We headed up three flights of stairs. The apartment, respectable, slightly messy, could have been in Baltimore, Detroit, Dallas. I found its averageness reassuring. A bachelor lived here. There were dirty dishes in the sink, pictures of drunk friends on the wall. Petar was studying to become a doctor. There were stacks of medical textbooks on a desk corner, a knot of electric cables on the floor.
Petar poured juice into two green glasses and sat down across from me on the couch. I worked up the nerve to ask him about the wars of the 1990s, whether Serbia’s bloody past was having any bearing on his life now.
“It has a daily effect,” Petar said. “I still think about it all the time. Everyone does. Time has passed, my generation is now working and starting families, but it’s part of our lives, as if it were still happening. Now, for example, when I have money, I ask myself, ‘Should I buy groceries? Should I save it? Or can I buy this television, this computer program, get my car fixed?’ This type of thinking comes from war.”
He said it made no sense to brood over the past. “Sadness turns to anger,” he continued, “and anger ruins your life.”
I couldn’t believe his candor, his eloquence. I wanted to express my gratitude but just then his cell phone beeped. It was a text message from his girlfriend. “She wants to meet you,” he said. “I have an idea.”
Petar told me to shower and take some medicine for my stomach. In the meanwhile he made sandwiches. He called his girlfriend back and made arrangements for us to pick her up.
Before we headed out the door, he turned to me. “One other thing about the future,” he said, “about this after-war life we’re living here. We Serbians, we have this crazy will, this crazy will, and when we want to do something, no matter how long it takes or how hard it is we do it. Look at Novak Djokovic.”
“The tennis player?”
“Twenty-one years old and top three in the world,” he said. “No fancy facilities, no amazing coach, just that crazy Serbian will. Know that. That’s Serbia too.”
It was three in the afternoon. I was sitting in the back of Petar’s muggy car. Any relief the medicine had provided back at his apartment had been undermined by the short drive through the streets of central Belgrade, a bumper-car course of tight curves and dawdling pedestrians. We rounded another corner and a blur of blond and black slid into the passenger seat. She kissed Petar then turned to me, smiling over the seat, unguardedly.
“Hello Will,” she said. “My name is Ivana.”
Ivana was gorgeous, her face round. Her hair and skin were as light as her mascara was heavy. A black sequined purse rested on her tight-jeaned knees.
Transfixed, I forgot all about my sickness. As Petar pulled away, Ivana stayed turned in her seat. She described her family roots in the north of the country, her arrival in Belgrade to study psychology at the public university, her dream to visit New York City and stroll down Madison Avenue, see Times Square, walk in Central Park.
“So beautiful, in autumn,” she remarked of Manhattan, as if she’d been there before.
“Here’s the Ada,” Petar announced, conductor-like, a few minutes later.
Ada was short for Ada Ciganlija, a popular lake on the southwestern edge of the city. A fountain of water gushed from a blue metal box in the middle. Across the way there was a beach of fine, beige, trucked-in sand. All around people were jogging, the sun beating down on skin, fat, and muscle alike. Kids played tag and soccer. Youths crowded around stereos or lay sunbathing, knockoff sunglasses steeled against strong rays.
We took a table at a café near the boardwalk. Petar asked if I would like to try pear brandy, a Serbian “speciality.” My stomach cried no but curiosity clap-mouthed my reservations. “It is my only day in Belgrade,” I thought.
Petar signaled to the waiter leaning against the entrance and ordered in Serbian, pointing to the two of us and then separately to Ivana. She looked up from her Marlboros and said something in one percussive syllable. The waiter returned with two shotglasses of pale yellow liquid for me and Petar and a glass of something brighter for Ivana.
“So,” Petar said, grinning as he leaned in, “in Serbian we call this kruškovac.”
“Kroosh-koh-vack?” I tried. Ivana cracked a smile.
“Something like that,” Petar continued. “It’s part of rakija, which are brandies made from many kinds of different fruits. It’s a big Serbian thing, and a lot of us distill our own rakija. The kind I ordered is one of the better brands. I wanted to order this so you could taste and enjoy it.”
Ivana interjected with some brief remark to Petar, which he relayed to me. “It’s best when you drink it all at once,” she had said. “Should we, how do you say, shoot?”
He held his glass in the air; his eyes were locked squarely on mine.
We drank. The brandy blazed down my throat. “Wow,” I said, coughing. My stomach turned a somersault. “I should have mentioned,” Petar said, sounding only somewhat apologetic. “It’s about one-fourth alcohol.”
Slowly the afternoon began to shimmer. Petar followed up the brandy with beers. We talked about our educations. Petar had two years left in medical school. I told him more about my travels, that my final destination was Paris by train.
“Paris,” Ivana said wistfully, white smoke slipping from her mouth, “I would like to go very much.” She muttered something in Serbian to Petar. “She says she’s never been on a train,” he translated. As he spoke he turned and met Ivana’s eyes, chuckled, then turned his gaze to the gravel at our feet.
The exchange must have revealed a great deal about their relationship. I figured Ivana’s words were a plea to Petar to book train tickets for the two of them, that Petar’s laugh was an echo of the war-spawned frugality he’d mentioned to me back at the apartment, but my musings were interrupted by the realization that I would be leaving later that night, that it was unlikely I would ever see these two again, that all we had was this one day, a day that was drawing hurriedly to a close.
I shifted in my chair. Everywhere you went, there was too much to know and tell and never enough time.
When I finally looked up, both Petar and Ivana were peering at me, silent and empathetic, wondering, perhaps, what had put the furrow in my brow. I finished my beer in a kind of defeated last swig. Petar insisted on taking care of the bill.
The sun was mostly down over Belgrade. The trees were thick with shadows. From the café we made a pass through the woods around the darkening lake. On the far end of the water there was a collection of large stone slabs, some of them arranged in triplets like rigid granite Pi signs.
“We call it Serbian Stonehenge,” Petar said, preempting my question.
In the distance, behind the rocks, the specter of a rusty green overpass chafed against the strange artistry of the arrangement. A few teenagers sat among the stones, smoking. Suddenly, as we paused among the rocks, words began to pour from me.
“Being in Europe doesn’t keep it from seeming any less strange,” I started. “It’s like the more time I spend here, the more different it seems to become. A while ago I spent a year in France and the whole time I was there I had this we-are-the-world kind of notion that people were mostly alike.”
I was extrapolating, growing more vague, and I knew it. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say but something kept my mouth from going still. I stood to face them.
“But I was wrong. Like pear brandy. Where else can you find pear brandy? I mean maybe a few places, okay, but not like what I found today on a fake sandbank when I’d been in Serbia all of four hours and I fell into company like yours and Ivana’s” — she was looking up at me from a new cigarette, listening, smiling between drags — “and you see people living their lives and going home and moving on to whatever the next thing is and you know that you couldn’t find this kind of afternoon anywhere else or with anyone else, even with the same set of people and circumstances and a carefully coordinated attempt to recreate what was best enjoyed off the cuff, unplanned.
“I have to leave again really soon, see, but I’m getting used to that, too. What I mean to say, I guess, is that this is the kind of thing you look for while you’re wandering around traveling, staying away from home on purpose, just to find the foreignness of the Ada, and Belgrade, and Serbian Stonehenge, and you guys, and, and… ”
“Pear brandy,” Petar said.
My speech came to an ungraceful halt. I was out of breath. I put my hands on my hips, not certain of what my rambling had accomplished, acutely aware that I had talked for too long. Petar stared up at me with an indulgent smile that swelled into a deep laugh, and then we were all laughing, the three of us, there on the rocks in the fading light, and then we fell silent.
Ivana managed one last pull on her cigarette before grinding the butt into the grass with the toe of her pretty black flats.
By the time we made it back to the car the night had turned chilly. It was time for me to get to the train station and head toward points west, toward Paris and whatever lay beyond Paris. Time to push onward to the foreignness of the next thing.
Will Fleeson is a press officer at the French Embassy in Washington, DC. He is currently completing a collection of short stories set in Paris.