The time I talk about the thing I’m not sure how to talk about
“Ja sam iz America.” I’m from America.
It’s a conversation I have on a daily basis. This time I was on Skadarljia, negotiating a bulk price for copper votives on behalf of our latest guests. My accent is decent, but I don’t sound Serbian. The question wasn’t surprising. His response was.
“I have…a problem with Americans.”
He said it apologetically, almost conspiratorially. I wasn’t sure if he didn’t want to upset me or if he was thinking about the sale. After missing a beat, I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Razumem.” I understand, ok.
During almost a full year here, I haven’t personally encountered anti-Americanism. However, a cab driver once cheerfully noted, “these are the buildings you bombed,” as we drove down Kneza Milosa. These buildings—crumbling, weedy, and imposing—are the remnants of the Building of Internal Affairs bombed by NATO on April 2, 1999. It stands there in tatters: a faded, handwritten letter that’s difficult to decipher. Who is it for? What does it mean?
Image source HERE.
People don’t always like American policy, but they tend to like Americans. I once joined a group of Serbians as a woman started ranting about American presidents and politics in Serbian. I fidgeted in silence until someone said, “You know, RHOB is from America.” She said “I know—I like RHOB. I just don’t like Bill Clinton!” She smiled and moved on. I knew her well enough—but I didn’t know the votive seller, and he didn’t know me.
He turned his attention back toward the votives. “This is Studenica Monastery,” he began to explain. “I’ve been there!” I replied. We spoke about various churches, their history, and my travels. As friends selected their votives, he showed me another one and said, “This is Gračanica Monastery.”
I nodded, feeling a bit solemn. Gračanica is one of the most historically important Serbian Orthodox monasteries. It’s located outside of Pristina, Kosovo. I would love to see it, but it’s not a safe passage at this time. Gračanica is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in Danger, partly due to its politically precarious location. He wasn’t just showing me a votive; he was telling me his own history. As we looked at it, he said quietly, “My grandfather is buried near there. We had a house there. Now…I cannot even visit.”
I didn’t know what to say. I hear stories, from all sides, about heartbreak, loss, anger, violence. My response is simply to listen. War is difficult for me to comprehend, let alone discuss. What I do know for certain is that makes me very, very fortunate.
My friends chose their votives and he placed them in the flimsy red plastic bags I will always associate with Belgrade. “Something for you?” he asked, and when I shook my head, he plucked the Gračanica one from the display. “I give this to you,” he said, and pressed it into my hand before I could say no.
A conversation doesn’t change the world. It doesn’t mean that a stranger will suddenly like Americans, American policy, or decide that the shell of a building is an icon of a former era. But learning, and above all, listening—can change so much.
This may be a contentious post to some people. I seem to have a some new readers—hello!—and I welcome comments. I only ask that you read some of my other posts before you comment, to get an idea of who I am and where this sentiment comes from. Hvala.