The ad hoc circumstances of one’s arrival in a place colour and sometimes mirror the reality within it. Experience is heightened at such times entering an unknown area particularly if the place is loaded with an active history and you arrive late. This happened to us in Belgrade.
The train at Budapest was packed with all seats unreserved, in the scramble we found two on either side of the aisle, the man at the window next to me was concentrating on a sheaf of A5 papers scribbling across a centrally pasted text with green ink.
At an easing in the thrum of the train tracks we began talking, he was editing a book which would eventually be a ten volume catalogue of Hungarian Folk legends he’d collected by oral and written research over the old Magyar country encompassing Romania and focusing on Transylvania. When he found out where I was from he told me excitedly that his favourite composer was Nick Cave, he couldn’t find the words to say why but named two films that convinced him, The Proposition and The Road.
10 pm at Belgrade station we arrived two hours late, checked our luggage and walked according to a map I’d been studying, all street names in Cyrillic script, gradually getting a vague sense among backward and upside down Latin letters and Greek ciphers of the streets we were to walk. After some time winding through a few kilometres of the city and scouring the four corners of a busy intersection we stood at the entry to the only apartment block that fitted the description. All the apartment labels were in Cyrillic. Staring dumbly at the nameplates we heard the entry door being opened behind us, I hurriedly spoke the name and like a rubics cube being slid its final turn, out of eight floors of inhabitants this person told us with hesitant suspicion he was staying at that apartment and led us in.
This part of central Belgrade seemed to have a disparate unfocused urban quality reflecting a fragmented social space. On the opposite face of the intersection a branded outdoor cafe below new apartments. Adjacent to them abandoned and decayed almost roofless buildings home to a Roma family and a group of young squatters.
From our second floor room we look across at a deck with Lavazza umbrellas below which children edge back and forth in and out of traffic appealing to cars at the lights. A little boy, the oldest of the four, one hand gesturing above his head as he talks to a driver the other hand easing his body back and forth on a traffic bollard like a cartoon barrister. He develops this for sometime, closes his hand around something and runs off returning a few minutes later to the traffic. A little later his mother can be seen rounding the corner with a bag of groceries.
There is a severity to the demeanour of people in public which gives the impression of a strongly divided social space but perhaps more accurately, one that doesn’t have a great deal of external support. Each generation seems to be expressing their case in the strongest terms competing for image stakes. Young men and women diffident or swaggering, older people with an exagerrated formality. These cutout images dissolve upon contact but in the conversation between young and old there’s a real moral compass that seems to hover, as if every situation requires its own form of working out.
In the move from Hungarian to Serbian language the crispness of consonants changes to a slapping deep chested blur of sounds edged with a smoker’s throatiness. Late in the day on the train to Belgrade three young Serbian men who’d been drinking heavily on the fringes of the carriage slouched into their four seater and began a heated conversation with a middle aged woman who up to that point had been sitting there alone. It appeared to be about a paper one of the men was pushing towards her, perhaps a conscription letter or more likely a notice of deportation as his passport was also in the air and being studied by the woman who had taken charge of the issue with high verbal emotion.
While the depth of content in the conversation was closed to us, the natural curiosity to make sense of situations takes hold with other forms of comprehension. Up to that point the three men had been challenging with anyone who ventured towards them. Now with one asleep the other two were receptively listening to what the woman had to say.
She engaged reluctantly at first with a surly grab of the documents gradually becoming more heated, the men more compliant. From laying out something that required their concentration her tone changed as if directed to something further away or coming from some distant place towards them. The young man she addressed was eventually almost sobbing and palpable tenderness opened up amongst them.
I figured her to be in her mid to late thirties, thus having grown through adolescence in the conflicts of the nineties when structures of social justice may well have been figments from a previous generation’s imagination. Associations from earlier in the day with Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road in which a moral code that once vouchsafed security now sways in the understandings of those who pass through this space.