The End Is Near
Overnight train to Belgrade. The station at Skopje belongs in a horror film...
I have to be fair although it’s nowhere near as fun. I am only here for one day, not very much time to shape a conclusion of the city. Moreover, it is Sunday. As with most European cities, only the minimum of shops is open. As it is midsummer, half the city is in Budva, either burning itself on an uncomfortable and dirty beach or recovering from their hangovers from the night before. It is practically the sole destination promoted in every travel agency’s front window. A few Serbs may have accidentally gone to Turkey. But they were not paying attention and missed the special week’s offer for hotel and entertainment on the Montenegrin coast.
If Belgrade were any more lifeless, everyone remaining in this very ordinary metropolis would be driving around in hearses. Extremely ordinary and at the confluence of the Suva and Danube rivers, Belgrade has nothing spectacular with which to welcome visitors that they could not get more of or better of elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Its Old Town is not old, rather a grid of streets not as architecturally monotonous as everywhere else. Sure, Belgrade sports a castle. It even overlooks the Danube. Yet it is so
Worse than The Commercial
all mentos advertisements should be banned...
uninspiring. The view is of, well, Communist apartment blocks in the background and ferries docked with no place to go because no one is on them. This is not Budapest for sure. Belgrade couldn’t hold a candle to its northern Danube competition. The few bridges that do span the Danube are functional, but lack any sense of aesthetics.
So deficient in sights or places of curiosity (and Internet cafés, for that matter), I took particular and very private satisfaction in what I found to be the most worthwhile niche in Belgrade. One block above my hotel are the remnants of the destruction wrought by a N.A.T.O. air attack in 1999. It looks as if it happened yesterday, smack in the middle of downtown, too. I also recall that the U.S. missed one of its targets and bombed the Chinese embassy, causing quite the embarrassment. The concierge at the hotel explained to me that the city has left it there as a reminder to it citizens what the West, and particularly the United States, did to them. Perhaps it should also serve as a token to what happens when your country indiscriminately exterminates Muslims, such as in Bosnia and Kosovo, I
Well, Well, Well
Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force
uttered under my breath. Just to get a feel for the event. I stood by the fenced off damage and feigned ignorance when asking pedestrians just what I was looking at. They all answered in the same manner, as if the bombing were a matter of course. And in the strangest way, they actually deserved it. No one replied with heightened emotions or anger. No one cursed the West or the Americans. It was sort of like an “Oh, well” attitude to it. So odd.
Additionally, in the capital of a country that took our servicemen as prisoners of war, I felt neither hostility nor animosity from anyone. My being an American was all in all very mundane and generated no negative reaction. Even the sheer mention of Milošević would send Belgrade folks into a rant about how they never wanted him or thought he was so terrible. Fascist Hitler, I was told.
A visit to a Belgrade bookstore, there were one or two I managed to find open, is awfully enlightening if you are willing to turn over a rock or two. To start off with, Serbs speak the same language as Croats and Bosnias, but read in the
We Did This?
Such action by Bill Clinton put an end to the siege on the Bosnians...
Cyrillic script as opposed to Roman. What surprises me is the vast amount of books in Roman and how pervasive the alphabet is all over Belgrade. The travel section is the best, however. There are dozens of guidebooks on Greece, countless publications dedicated to Budva, and a good selection for New York, Egypt, and the major European attractions. But within the other former five Yugoslavia republics, I came across almost nothing except a healthy amount on the Croatian coast. Perhaps I saw a dusty 2001 copy of the highlights for Ljubljana, but that was it. When it came to travel within Serbia, there wasn’t a single volume on Kosovo. And forget Bosnia. The same could be said for the current history section. No Serb wants to read about how events developed in Bosnia in the 1990’s, or no Serb has published a prominent version that puts his or her own country in a favorable light. Good luck trying that. And when that does happen, I will unapologetically remind anyone that keyrings and framed photos with the images of Milošević and Karadzic are on sale in plain sight at the Belgarde train station.
In pockets of Eastern Europe, the vestiges of communism’s oligarchic evil still hinders an entire aging generation, now disenfranchised from the world they used to know. They surrendered their freedom to choose, dream, travel, and aspire for a better life in exchange for an artificially created workers’ paradise wherein the state would provide for them. Then, in 1990, the state in which this generation entrusted their well being simply dissolved. Ill-equipped to compete or even comprehend the events swirling around them, they have been left behind, many destitute, bewildered, and extraordinarily bitter. This generation held up their end of the bargain; they were good little soldiers, only to have the rug pulled out from under them by forces the sources of which they had always been led to believe were their mortal enemies. Now victims of a vast corruption, which did not at all disintegrate as easily as the state, they accept nothing at face value and multitudes have ceased investing their efforts and resources in a society they see as not pertaining to them. Until this generation of senior citizens is gone and is replaced by a wave of fresh faces unimpaired and unfamiliar with the dysfunctional system of which their elders were casualties, Eastern Europe will still lag behind the modernity and vivaciousness the West has been enjoying for so long.
Was Patton right? Should we have continued through to Moscow after defeating Germany? Pundits will predictably say the Soviet Union posed no threat. The United States and British rightfully respected agreements reached at Yalta and Potsdam. But it is 60 years on and millions of lives ruined and nation states choked under the military stranglehold of a regime that destroyed its own people and denied them the yearning to be free. Looking back, was Patton right?
It is now only apparent that the seeds of freedom sown during the downfall of communism are just starting to sprout. And hope becomes more apparent, even in countries as such as Albania and Ukraine where communism killed any concept of hope. Young people oblivious to the past wish to build a future in the countries they love and call home. Reasons now exist to longer pack up and leave at the first opportunity. It is not perfect, but innovation and an entrepreneurial attitude have begun to seep in. This was impossible years ago when hope was something you couldn’t even read about in the newspaper.
Travel to Eastern Europe is still unconventional but for a few places. It has revealed its most rugged people in Ukraine and how far Poland and Hungary have advanced in such little time. It still suffers from the scars of war, yet opens a profound window to its history, which is by and large discounted compared to its European neighbors to the West. It is my contention that if you want to see Europe before it loses its classic character, come to the East. It will not be many more years until the charms in which I have relished no longer deliver the same impact and genuine sense of satisfaction. The true sense of Europe lies here in the East. And so does its future.
What a great ride it has been. I have been rather blessed.
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