‘Madam, would you like a savage?’ A long week in Belgrade – I have been here for the annual congress of PEN, the international association of writers – has left me a left me slower than usual. Nevertheless I cast about valiantly for an answer. The Serbian air steward is glaring at me.
‘Ham savage or cheese savage?’ he barks.
I go for the cheese, some strong coffee. Awake now, I watch the plain that the Danube snakes through roll beneath us. Europe, with its frenzy of little squabbling countries is so tiny. It took the same time to fly from London to Belgrade as it does to fly from Cape Town to Johannesburg.
Serbia is a country where everyone seems to drink as much as possible. Everyone smokes too, everywhere, all the time. The taxi drivers don’t wear seatbelts. This cavalier approach to what the British call ‘health and safety’ is a relief after the fussiness of London. A week of apricot brandy, surprisingly good Balkan wine and no sleep has left me feeling fragile. Some nanny-state care is appealing.
There is a beauty to Belgrade, however, despite the ravages inflicted by Slobodan Milošević and his murderous cronies and the post-war reconstruction that left swathes of eccentric, glazed buildings in the areas flattened by the NATO bombing in the 90s. The city is situated on the confluence of two gracious rivers – the Sava and the Danube. On the horizon are rugged hills and the plain – in September a mellow patchwork of harvested earth tones – stretches as far as the eye can see if you climb to the top of the ruined castle situated at the highest point of the city. The evening air is pungent with the smell of distressed animals in the crowded zoo below. Below the city throbs. In the day it is the traffic – cars and the barges on the river. At night it is the pulse of disco music; clubs and restaurants blare forth what sounds like an endless Euro-Vision song contest.
The shadow of the protracted war lingers. At the Congress I am attending there are writers from Kosovo. This, I am told, is a major achievement. At the opening ceremony the dapper Serbian president makes a moving speech about freedom of expression and the future. He specifically mentions the presence of Kosovar writers. The audience relaxes when the gesture of inclusion is made. Other than that there is little reference that I can discern to the savage and bloody fracture that took place in Serbia so recently.
Perhaps it gets lost in translation. Perhaps the Balkans will deal with the fact that they killed each other with silence, unlike us South Africans who tried to deal with it with partial confession and half-truths. In the headlong dash towards consumption and forgetting I see in the tacky malls in Belgrade and Cape Town, it seems to make little difference in the end.
After the speech there is a performance – the composer conducts and plays her own music. It is lovely and haunting. The instruments seem to blend many threads of this part of the world’s heritage – eastern and western – and old hatreds into a captivating symmetry. My spirits lift – the potential and seduction, I suppose, of creativity – music, writing – in places reinventing themselves after annihilation.
I spend the day before I leave walking in the park that extends down one bank of the Danube before curling up the narrower Sava River. It is a Saturday so there are weddings on all the riverboat restaurants where muscular men escort slinky women with their hair peroxided to a uniform Dolly Parton blonde. At the kiosks teenagers are buying Cokes and huddling around cigarettes.
I heat drives me to sit on a bench under one of the protective oak trees. On the opposite bank is the castle. The skyline is familiar, although I have never been here before. The war – imprinted in my memory from the television footage of the time – has rolled on. The war criminals – sheltered knowingly by some in this small city are dead or on trial. Death is elsewhere, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. A young family walks past– two little boys running ahead of their pretty, pregnant mother. Her husband puts a tender hand in the small of her back, guiding her through the promenading crowd.
Peace and love seem so easy, if people choose just it.