Real Belgrade

 

Published in CorD Magazine

For years there have been heated debates concerning when Belgrade “resembles itself” the most. As it is with any other antagonism in Serbian society, so is this one characterised by raging ‘kafana’ debates, but fortunately this conflict is very harmless and as its only consequence is that it leaves a damaged ego now and then.

Belgrade likes to be spoken of as a cosmopolitan city, and that it truly is. The traditional openness is sometimes the subject of ridicule, but it cannot be denied that Belgrade accepts newcomers without restraints and that Serbian hospitality is something that most foreigners notice first. Of course, it happens that someone on the street doesn’t speak English, there is a moody expression on people’s faces sometimes, but that doesn’t interfere with the overall impression of a pretty good dose of openness. Still, all these could perhaps be short-lived tourist impressions. One could say that an eternal topic for the citizens of Belgrade is a discussion about newcomers and what their influence is on the spirit of the capital. Serbia is a small country, and no matter how well known a phenomenon of a large city is, Belgrade is practically the only real big urban centre and, therefore, basically the only choice for those who wish to be as close as possible to the media, cultural institutions, the highest political echelons and business opportunities.

Like any other metropolis, Belgrade is magnetically attractive to the rest of Serbia. In that sense, we can only repeat well known phrases which go for any other similar city of the world; about hundreds of people arriving here every day in search of their dream, about how a big city is a city of big chances and how succeeding in Belgrade is a great challenge. That practically means that after a few generations it is already difficult to tell who is “a true Belgrader” and who is a newcomer. The structure of the population is changing literally with each moment and so these discussions are mostly a waste of time. However, anyone who arrived in Belgrade at least a day earlier considers himself more of a citizen of Belgrade than someone who arrived a day later and that is already enough to spark a juicy argument. However dangerous some arguments may be in Serbian society, this one definitely falls into the more harmless group: a bruised ego, some shame, an apology of the type “I didn’t mean it like that” are for the most part the end result of such an exchange of opinions.

Most of those who have spent more than a few months in Belgrade consider themselves sufficiently qualified to judge those who arrived after them. If you tried to establish what makes someone “a true Belgrader” you would get a bunch of complicated rules, unclear explanations, questionable moral and ethical values, simply put, a collection of useless theories. “True Belgraders” drive aggressively and fast, they give their seats to old people in public transportation, they say “thank you” and “excuse me” when it’s necessary, they don’t listen to turbo folk and they go to the theatre at least once a year. “True Belgraders” introduce themselves when speaking over the telephone instead of asking too loudly “Is Mika there?” and they yell at you if you tell them that they’re wrong. “True Belgraders” know where to buy good wines and they don’t drink “Jelen” beer out of a 2 litre bottle. If you do not fit into some of the mentioned rules, then you fall among the group of those suspected of spoiling the famous Belgrade spirit and who should be barred from entering the city.

However, that’s not how things are done in democratic and civilized countries. You could say, therefore, that true Belgraders are leading a constant struggle to return to the right path those of them who went astray, and in so doing save Belgrade from total ruin. When you start a conversation about that subject, one of the first things that you will hear will be how Belgrade looks completely different at different times of year. Of course, this does not refer to weather, but to everything that a large concentration of people does for the atmosphere of the city itself. The favourite theory of “true Belgraders” is that the city resembles itself the most during summer. Like any other big city, Belgrade is also full of seasonal workers, students or, in short, people who are in it due to various circumstances and who use every opportunity to go back to their hometowns. Summer is for the most part a time when a whole army of students, businessmen, people who are here only because they have to be here, leave the city and go back to where, by definition, their home should be. To many, such an empty Belgrade represents actually the true picture of its inhabitants and the realistic impression that you should get. The facts are on their side. The city is half empty, public transportation too, the streets lose the familiar city commotion, cultural institutions, parks, and everything else looks like cheap horror movies in which a town suddenly becomes deserted in the face of a mysterious danger. The fans of this theory recognise only this Belgrade as the true one and they will explain to you at length how you can only get to know the real spirit of the city when these people, who only make the city crowded during the year, leave.

The truth is exactly the opposite. Only after the holiday season is over, when the army of students start moving again and when all the institutions start working does Belgrade truly look like itself. You can tell that the summer is over by different signs: long queues for buying schoolbooks, start of the school year and the suddenly louder voices of children in public transportation, theatres announcing their repertoire for the next season, the public buses can’t be entered without martial arts knowledge and of course the inevitable tanned complexion of those who are returning from their summer holidays. The two faces of the same city are an interesting contrast: the city that during the summer is like any other Serbian province suddenly becomes a bustling European metropolis. For some people’s tastes and standards, Belgrade is still too noisy, definitely too dirty, sometimes truly unbearable, but the start of every autumn is a sign that life within it still breathes with full lungs.

Even those who are full of criticism at its expense, and those who grumble how Belgrade has become intolerable for normal life, don’t have the time to deal with that anymore. Simply put, there’s too much good fun, too many excellent cultural events and too much relentless pace for one to truly desire the return of an empty town in which the main summer pastime is waiting for everyone to come back.