Read, Write, Run, Roam

The time I talk about the thing I’m not sure how to talk about


“Odakle Ste?” Where are you from?

“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.  


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7 responses

  1. Agnieszka

    Dear RHOB,

    The subject you’ve touched here is very sensitive. But you did it gently. Unfortunately these political decisions and activities affect all aspects of people’s lives. Lots of members of my new Serbian family died during last war here and this is very sad subject for my husband and for me. But my Muz lived for many years in US and I never heard him offending any Americans. Once I was on the phone on one of BG street speaking English when some man who was passing me by stopped and asked why I was here and if my father bombed his house in BG. I was shocked and only replayed that I’m not American and he walked away. Felt strange. I think the most important in this is that we all need to listen to these people who suffered enough all those years. We can only try to prevent new wrong decisions.

    October 21, 2011 at 7:31 pm

  2. jjb2@mail.com

    Well less than 2 days ago a Serb was killed for his property by an Albanian, and another 2 Serbs were injured in the shooting: “Albanian Kills Serb Because He wouldn’t Sell his Property” http://macedoniaonline.eu/content/view/19412/46/

    There was also a 51-year-old Serb man killed in another part of Kosovo earlier this month, and his son was injured.
    Plus the Albanians have all sorts of methods to pressure the Serbs out, such as this less than 2 months ago: “Albanians tried to burn Serb village Gojbulja”
    http://www.kosovoblog.com/news/albanians-tried-to-burn-serb-village-gojbulja.html

    Albanian killers, robbers and arsonists tend to go scot-free in Kosovo if their targets are Serbs – an they are supported/funded very heavily by the U.S. and other NATO countries. What is going on is a continual cultural genocide and a real and permanent ethnic cleansing (under so-called peace).

    And as for that man and his grandfather’s grave – Albanians have been trashing and destroying Serbian graves there wherever they can. They’ve even dug them up and lord knows what they’ve done with the bodies.

    October 22, 2011 at 4:10 am

  3. So beautifully written. You are a gem.

    October 22, 2011 at 4:24 am

  4. I think it’s possible to go further in discussing these issues. Most Serbs don’t realise that there was a range of opinion in the US, UK and other countries, and that many people were against the NATO bombing. I’ve had a few difficult moments talking about this issue, but nothing too major; on the other hand, most of the Serbs I’ve spoken to about it had visited other countries (and usually had at least some English), so my sample is skewed…

    October 22, 2011 at 8:24 am

  5. BD

    What a touching way to discuss a very difficult subject.

    October 23, 2011 at 9:43 pm

  6. Anonymous

    Very nice. I think you have the skill and sensitivity to say more if you’d like to.

    October 24, 2011 at 10:34 am

  7. Beautifully written, hun! I’ve had similar situations here, too. I think most realize here that it isn’t the individual’s fault, but it never makes it easy.

    I was on a bus with my boyfriend when I first got here in BG over 1.5 years ago. We were on Kneza Milosa, also, passing the same bombed buildings. This woman who had heard us chatting (in English) looked over at me and said, “Do you like what you see? Do you like what your country has done to mine?” I happened to be wearing my hoodie that said “Бог чува Србе” (God protects Serbs) and my boyfriend spoke in Serbian and quickly corrected her, somewhat harshly I found out. He was furious that someone would assume that I liked this. He quickly informed her that she should watch her tongue and realize that I supported Serbia more than most Serbs did. She apologized for the assumption and wished me a good life here.

    I think with many, they’ve lost so much and life has changed so much since such events, that they can’t help but be a bit resentful. I feel I would be too, if I was in their shoes. A few of my friends’ families are from Kosovo and Metohija and I hear stories. Stories I don’t know how I would handle if it was my family living in those situations. I guess it goes to ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’…

    Thanks again for your experiences!!

    PS: Those votives are beautiful!! Saw them on my birthday when I was eating at Zlatan Bokal. Almost bought some. Will probably go back at some point and see if he’s there to buy some for me and to send home. 🙂

    October 24, 2011 at 11:41 am

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