Our end drifts nearer,
the moon lifts,
radiant with terror.
is a diver under a glass bell.
--Robert Lowell, "Fall 1961"
Even in strange places, you establish routines, so I've been going to Dzidzi Midzi to write. Its balcony overlooking the street is calming, and even more importantly, it's quiet.
It has four bartenders. One is hook nosed, chubby, stubby, glum, swarthy, honest and speaks English quite comfortably. Frowning, he said to me, "This is too much," when I accidentally gave him a ten-dollar tip, thinking it was just a buck.
Sweating up and down a winding dirt road in the mountainous mist, I finally reached a scraggly, unmapped village of ten dwellings, but before I could step into China, which was right there, right in front of me, a Vietnamese soldier suddenly appeared, "What are you doing, uncle?!" Like everybody else in Candelaria, Texas, I crossed a supposedly illegal footbridge into San Antonio del Bravo, Mexico. I got slapped by a thug in Istanbul, but in the same city, a restaurant owner refused to charge me, so delighted was he to have such an exotic client.
I fell off a motorbike in Luang Prabang, but at least it wasn't moving. In Munich, I gushed to a new acquaintance, "I'm very happy to be in Berlin!"
I'm in Hunters. This was actually my first Belgrade bar, where I landed straight from the airport, still with my luggage. Cheap and true, it's a perfect pub, except for its noise pollution, though sometimes a curious song does come on, such as, just now, Manu Chao's "Me Gustas Tu", "Que' voy a hacer / Je ne sais pas / Que' voy a hacer / Je ne sais plus / Que' voy a hacer / Je suis perdu / Que' hora son, mi corazón." Oh, shut up already! Music should always be occasioned, with actual lungs and fingers. Silence is best.
The Hunters' walls are lined with horned skulls, and there's a six-stanza poem praising "John the Hunter" ["ЏОНИЈУ XАНТЕРY"]. In the men's room, there's this large message in English on the wall, "How can a MAN who can hit a DEER at 250 yards keep missing the TOILET?" Just a mile from here in 2003, Serbia's prime minister was fatally shot by a sniper, so I'm guessing folks here have pretty steady nerves and aim.
Their sense of humor is also unflinching. In a satirical article about Serbia's dreadful international image, Momo Kapor suggested that even its reputation for mass rape could be turned into an attraction, "Maybe that could be used in a positive way, for certain Western women who might want to get to know Serbian macho guys, and in light of the growing gay movement, they might see Serbia as an exceptional oasis of masculinity in an effeminate world. They might come in hordes to be raped in an exotic location."
Kapor's love letters to Belgrade and Serbia are translated into English and published as A Guide to the Serbian Mentality. This witty and informative book was given to me by a lovely lady, Jelena, who also paid for my dinner and beer. Now that's hospitality! A wonderful couple spared hours from their busy schedules to show me Novi Sad. Together, we admired statues of five literary men, all within easy walking distance. "I've never seen anything like this," I told them. "There is certainly nothing like this in Vietnam."
On the way to The Hunters, I passed a wise yet obvious T-shirt, "MY HERITAGE IS MY FUTURE," and you can see it here, as evidence I didn't make it up. I'm too literal and timid to make anything up. To have a future is to possess a home, or vice versa, and heritage as home is also the central message of Kapor's book
Like any mature love, it's complicated by disappointment and even distaste, if not hatred. Kapor, "Wherever I go in Belgrade, I see gray people. Gray is our favourite color." Much less picturesque than Paris, London, Rome, Vienna, Moscow, Berlin, Budapest, Istanbul or Athens, etc., his city is blighted by "a ubiquitous grayness," with "concrete ramparts of the new architecture, uniform Corbusieresque dwellings deprived of any beauty and any desire to build a house as a work of art." Repeatedly leveled by foreigners, Belgrade has also been "demolished by pretentious architects eager to wipe out all traces of antiquity."
So what is there to love, exactly? Your people, of course, and not just because your women are exceptionally beautiful and graceful, "Watching these women on the city streets is like seeing a fantastic modern ballet with no other sound than striking heels! Pale city girls who grow up suddenly, accustomed to city life and the yearning looks of passersby; independent, cynical, audacious and polite at the same time, with the innate elegance of millionaires behind cunningly concealed povertyit is upon them that newcomers feast their eyes until they disappear from sight, as if upon some secret signal, leaving the streets inconsolably barren and bare."
Like flowers, these women explode with beauty come spring, so that "bringing your wife to Belgrade in May is like taking rice to Chinaand sleeping with her is pure incest!" Not too PC, is it? In America, Kapor would be lynched on the nearest college campus.
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