I will be offline for a couple of days so I will not be able to post at my usual frantic pace. Instead, I decided to write something that will take you a couple of days to read through: a very long, meandering post, full of personal anecdotes. But there is a common theme throughout and I hope you see where I’m going with it and what conclusions I want you to draw from it.
Pigeons, crows, rats and cockroaches
I was born and grew up in a big, dirty city and I am not going back (my ex-Yugoslav readers have probably already recognized the reference to the good old song Back to the Big, Dirty City by my namesake Bora Djordjevic of the uber-popular Fish Soup band). I spent the first 25 years of my life in Belgrade, population 2 million. No, I did not feel uncomfortable there. I knew every nook and cranny of the city. I walked around town most of the time, even if that meant two hours at a brisk pace in the middle of the night from the northernmost part of Zemun all the way home south of center.
And I still think that it is a great city – a wild mosaic of architecture from Roman and Ottoman times, through the Austro-Hungarian time, the pre-WWII Serbian and early Yugoslav kingdom era and the Tito communist period, to the Milosevic decade and Wes Clark’s enriched uranium. Steeped in history, yet not trying to live in it. Some cities try to keep looking the same the way they did a century or two ago when they were at the hight of their influence. Stratford-upon-Avon keeps trying to look as if Shakespeare is still living there. Not Belgrade. Far too confident in its 11 centuries of history to care about anything but youth and future. It can be dizzying walking around – there may be an old mosque from the times of Turkish occupation embedded into the remains of the Roman fortress, looking down the street of houses built in Austro-Hungarian style in one direction, in soc-realist style in another direction and overlooked by a huge green-glass modern hotel. There is great art and the ugliest kitch standing side-by-side, European hyper-intellectuals walking side-by-side with peasants, bookstores sinking under the weight of philosophy books and Gypsies collecting scrap metal – and all equally poor.
But it hurts one’s throat to arrive in Belgrade (at least it did in 1995, the last time I went to visit, when my father was still alive). Clean air is not the first priority when the retirees are waiting for months to get their pensions. That is why I escaped whenever I could – summers in our small weekend house at the base of the Mt.Avala just about 20 minutes south of Belgrade when I was a little kid, a couple of weeks at the Adriatic coast every summer when I was little before that became too expensive, teenage years spent on the Danube river in Eastern Serbia in the village my father grew up in, and many years, day after day, at the Belgrade racecourse and the surrounding woods.
Back in 1989 or so, the rats at the racecourse got really numerous and big. Ten-pounders, some of them, I bet. They were not afraid to walk around in the middle of the day. They chased, caught, killed and ate our barn cats. Our terriers were afraid to approach the feed-rooms. We forbade the kids from going to get horse feed. Even we adults banged on the doors before going in. But gradually, we moved all the grain into bins and barrells, plugged all holes, reinforced the walls, and kept the floors as clean as possible. There was just not enough food around any more to sustain such a huge population. As it always goes, after a boom, there is a bust. The rat population collapsed and dissappeared as suddenly as it initially appeared.
I grew up in a small appartment on the 7th floor. My school (K-12) was a walking distance from home. I took a bus to school anyway, being an owl and a late riser, but I had plenty of time to walk home after classes and stop by various food establishments, or parks, or the Natural History Museum, or the library, or stealing cherries and appricots from trees along the route…
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