1. The White City
In the summer of 1999, during the post-war period in Serbia following the NATO bombing, I spent a few contented months in Belgrade.
I say ‘contented’ because the four miserable wars that had haunted that broken country were drawing to a close after so much hatred, so much misery, so much violence.
I felt somehow rejuvenated: I had found a group of young friends, all Serbs, who distracted me from my work and, more importantly, from myself.
Belgrade was a new experience for me. I had spent the Bosnian conflict on the other side of war – besieged Sarajevo, largely with Bosnian Muslims and Croats. I was never given a visa to what was referred to – in an ungainly way – as ‘rump Yugoslavia’.
Denied access to Belgrade, I had fantasies of the White City, as it is known. In Sarajevo, which was deprived and dangerous, we imagined Serbs existing with things we painfully lacked: water, heating, access to food. The Serbs did have those commodities, but they were suffering their own existential exile, as well as sanctions; and worse, innocent people who had nothing to do with politics or war, were being treated as international pariahs.
The Yugoslav wars began in Slovenia in 1991 and ended in June 1999 in Kosovo. That summer, I felt a heaviness lifting. Restrictions were easing. I installed myself in the nearly empty Hyatt Hotel, an ugly building overlooking public housing on one side, but with a view of the Sava River on the other.
I was there for the long haul, armed with a map, an address book and a few airy summer dresses I had picked up in a flea market before the NATO bombing started in March. I had a driver who was also a part-time martial artist. I began exploring an entirely different former Yugoslavia, not the wartime Bosnia I had known. I met with war criminals, mafia bosses, sanction busters, small-time thieves: men who stole truckloads of La Perla lingerie at gunpoint in Italy and drove them across the borders to Serbia.
I met with spirited young revolutionaries who, the following year, would overthrow the government and get rid of Slobodan Milošević for good. I met spiritual healers and country people, relatives of Milošević, gymnasts and karate instructors, musicians and actors. All of them were coming out of a long, dark hibernation.
I was used to life during wartime, but it was really my first post-war experience. In both cases, life seemed frozen. I remember entire winter months passing while I was living in Sarajevo being unaware of the date or even the day of the week. One day would merge into the next: rise, do some jumping jacks to get warm, find something to eat, find some water to wash. Work. Sleep dreamlessly. Fear forces you to live in the present. In war, there is no future and there is no past.
Belgrade, post-war, had a similar rhythm. Most shops were still closed. So were museums, universities and clubs. My new friends, in their early twenties, were a lost generation, coming of age during war. Their lives were halted in time, a predicament they accepted with grace, sometimes even with humor.
They appeared to be floating. Their university degrees were suspended because classes had been stopped. Some of them with specific interests in subjects such as archaeology weren’t allowed to travel to sites that were now in the hands of the military.
Others, studying art history, could not go to the Louvre or the Prado or the Uffizi. Even if there were international flights, they could not get visas to enter France or Spain or Italy.
That summer, I began to understand this concept of time. The seasons were changing – the wet April and muddy May when NATO led the bombardment against Serbian targets shifted into a humid, luminous June. The trees in Kalemegdan Fortress, where you could see the Sava and Danube Rivers meet, were verdant and lush. Nature was moving ahead, even if my friends were not.
Still, we made merry. We went to coffee bars and picnics and drank much Montenegrin wine; we went to parties in dusty apartments with portraits of the Serb royal family pre-World War I.
People did not discuss their time of war, their confinement. ‘We have lived through enough,’ my friend Ivana told me. ‘I don’t have much more to say.’
I also remember the heavy sorrow I felt in Belgrade those months, as I walked down the empty Knez Mihailova, past the French Cultural Center windows smashed by angry Serbs when French jets bombed their positions. My many years in Yugoslavia have left me with an indelible streak of nostalgia. Days, months, years – time I wished to be over because I was uncomfortable – could never be restored.
Even now, if I am in Europe in November and see a flock of storks passing overhead, I am transported back to wartime Croatia and hear the voice of a friend telling me how birds migrate from the Balkans to Africa, sometimes traveling for days without stopping. I remember the yellow field we were standing in; the color of a muted gray sky.
I remember being halted in a car in a snowstorm in the Krajina for hours. We were stuck in a snowdrift, the car would not budge, night was falling, temperatures were dropping. Suddenly, an ancient man, dressed in a World War II uniform, silently let himself into our car. He spoke no English and reeked heavily of onions.
He sat in the back seat with me, said nothing. After half an hour or so warming himself, he raised his hand to thank us, opened the door and disappeared into the whiteout of snow.
Nearly three decades later, I telephoned the two friends who had been in the car with me. Did this happen? Or did I dream it? Both vaguely remembered the man, although not the uniform, or the smell of onions. One recalled that the man abruptly disappeared into a snowdrift, as if he were a character in a deep dream.
The other wondered if we had conjured him: that part of the former Yugoslavia had also been heavily fought over in World War II; perhaps the old man was a ghost.
I find myself, in these months of coronavirus confinement – mine taking place in France – in a similar mood to my wartime years, mainly in Yugoslavia. The French call it le flottement – floating.
For reasons I cannot explain, as I grow older, my memories of the past become more vibrant. And unlike my time in Sarajevo, here in the rural Alps I dream every night, with great precision and detail. Dead friends come back to me, speaking, give me specific messages.
‘Why are you here?’ I asked my much-loved and long-passed sister-in-law, Betsy, who in a dream sat on a chair next to me.
‘Why would you ask a question like that at a time like this?’ she responded, annoyed.
Another night my two dead brothers, Joseph and Richard, came together as children, building an enormous snow fort of ice. I could hear their childish laughter. My brother Joseph wore red mittens. I felt the cold of his soaked wet mitten pressing against my cheek. The past, my ancestors, seemed linked to me more than ever as my life ground to a halt and I watched the news of coronavirus spinning across the planet, destroying lives.