Muž is a cool man under pressure–until it comes to holiday shopping. He doesn’t believe in “wish lists” and usually buys (admittedly lovely) gifts the week before Christmas. I picture him entering a store, finding a saleswoman that vaguely resembles me, and handing her his credit card.
This Christmas, Muž gave me the best Belgrade gift yet. It’s not any of my previous suggestions, but it was better than all of them combined.
Muž worked with a company to publish the first year of posts on this site–two volumes of confusion, laughs and adventures. Thanks to him and to all my readers for helping to create an amazing gift.
It’s officially “back to school” time in Belgrade. Ada is thinning out, the heat wave has broken, and the bookstores are filled with annoyed parents and listless students. It’s pretty similar to September in the States, with the exception of bookmobiles lining the streets.
Unlike U.S. bookmobiles, these vans sell rather than lend. I’m not sure if they offer used books or simply cheaper ones. I only know that they are sprouting up like weeds. Weeds that never move from their parking spaces. Some of these vans, like the orange one in the background of the photo above, have been parked there since November. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t even run.
It’s been a long time since I had to buy schoolbooks, but I’ve never been able to shake the feeling of the first week of school: the sadness that summer is over, the dread of going back to a boring routine, the panic of using a graphing calculator. I always liked buying the supplies, though. I would convince myself that the perfect binder and pens would make me an organized, straight-A student. And it would work, too…for about three weeks. I still don’t know how to use that graphing calculator.
Good luck to all the Beogradjani students this year, and congratulations to all the parents who might have a little more freedom…
A few weeks ago I read The Tiger’s Wife, a novel set in a fictional version of Belgrade in the 1990s. It’s a great book, whether you know anything about the Balkans or not; it’s more (bitter)sweet for a reader in Belgrade.
The book is about many things: coming of age in a time of war, familial love and secrets, and the understanding that some things, however strange, must be accepted as truth. Incredibly, the author winds much of the tale around tigers, including a tiger at the “not Belgrade” zoo.
The walk to the zoo will be quite familiar for Beogradjani:
…the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park…there is the popcorn cart, the umbrella stand, a small kiosk with postcards and pictures…through the garden that runs the length of the citadel wall, framed with cages.
Last November, I walked through the Belgrade zoo. I strolled past the popcorn cart, the fortress walls, and the kiosks that now sell drinks and candy. I, like the narrator, smelled the musk of the wolves and the stench of the vulture’s meal. I love zoos, and was enjoying my trip. But my heart sank when I reached the elephant den.
“Twiggy” is kept on a small concrete pad. Her enclosure is dank. She repeatedly paces an exact pattern, a sign of repetitive stress disorder. The exhibit, and the animal, look depressed and tired.
Elephants need a lot of space; they roam up to thirty miles per day in the wild. Female elephants are social creatures that live in packs and help raise each other’s children. Twiggy has been alone since 1997, when her intended mate “Boy” died. (Though her widowhood might have been for the best—they never liked each other.) To say that this enclosure isn’t serving Twiggy’s needs is a major understatement.
I understand that the Belgrade zoo doesn’t have a large endowment. I understand that zoos are valuable tools for teaching us about the world and ecology; they highlight man’s role in preserving-and destroying-earth’s creatures. But I couldn’t understand how one could justify the elephant habitat in the Belgrade zoo.
This passage about an elephant in The Tigers’ Wife offered some insight:
Later on, we would read about how some soldiers found him near death at the site of an abandoned circus; about how, despite everything, despite closure and bankruptcy, the zoo director had said bring him in, bring him in and eventually the kids will see him. For months the newspapers would run a picture of him, standing stark-ribbed in his new pen at the zoo, an advert of times to come, a pledge of the zoo’s future, the undeniable end of the war.
Hope is found in simple images: a soldier’s return home; houses standing amidst earthquake rubble; a child smiling at an elephant. I’m not sure if that’s why Twiggy’s still here: is she a reminder that Belgrade is as good as any city, with a zoo like any other? If so, Belgrade doesn’t need that kind of reminder. It’s a wonderful city with a good heart and excellent people. But sadly, right now, it’s a terrible place for an elephant.
“It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last and connected.”
This book is a wonderfully written, twisted love letter to New York. It chronicles eleven people with wildly different backgrounds, each struggling to find their way in the city-and in life. I found myself skimming over some character chapters (the grieving mother, the photographer) but savoring others (brothers from Dublin, a prostitute working with her daughter). The centerpiece of it all is Philippe Petit’s walk across the Twin Towers in 1974, though the acrobat’s name is never mentioned in the book.
I’m not going to bore you with my analysis, but I wanted to recommend the book and share the quote above.
I thought the quote was a great description of New York, but then I started thinking it applied to Belgrade as well. A walk in Belgrade is a walk through history. The city has Soviet, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and modern influences within a single square mile. It also has a misunderstood population, haves and have-nots, and a will to survive. The city has been in a state of renovation since its inception, and I’m not just talking about the buildings. Centuries of invasions, uprisings, changing politics, and destruction have required the city-and its people-to search for strength amidst adversity and stability throughout change.
I’d love to read the book about that.