The Last Yugoslavs
To the right is a picture of St. Sava. This, I'm told, is the largest Orthodox Church in the Balkans and is the subject of a little piece I made recently called "The Last Yugoslavs". The Public Radio Exchange made it this week's "Pick of the Week" and editorial board member Marjorie van Halteren said "Straight from the heart, nicely done."In April of 1996, I went to Belgrade. The war in Bosnia had just come to an end and my wife Dragana, who is from Banja Luka, Bosnia, went to see her family there for the first time in 4 years. As you could imagine, it was an emotional reunion.
Below is the entire text, which, I believe also makes nice reading.
Click here to listen to the radio version of the piece. It's only 5'43"
The atmosphere in Belgrade was charged. Slobodan Milosevic was still in power, the old Yugoslavia was dead and war was in the air. And there I was, a tourist in the city on the edge of an abyss. Dragana’s two cousins, Svemirka and Goca, decided that I should see something of the city. So off we went to what they claimed was the largest Orthodox Church in the Balkans. The bus was sweltering. All of Belgrade smelled like sweat and exhaust. It had once been rich, but now it was poor, desperate, slightly beaten and resigned to more beatings. The people looked busy, going to work or to cafes. But they also looked, I don’t know, somehow lost.
And there it was, Saint Sava. It’s heaving domes not really elegant, just very big. A swollen white and grey carbuncle in the city center. And it looked closed. Could we go in? Should we? Should we say that I was an American? After all, the Americans had just bombed the Serb Army in Bosnia. I didn’t think I’d be, you know, popular.
We found an open gate and walked to the little vicary next to the church. A painfully thin young man of about 25 was sitting, reading a newspaper and perspiring in his gray polyester suit with a thin, black tie, his white shirt transparent from sweat. He said his name was Slobo. Goca and Sverminka told Slobo I was a visiting American of Serb decent and that we wanted a tour of the church. Slobo said he spoke English, nodded and, unsmilingly, led us inside for a big surprise. The largest church on the Balkans was nothing but an empty shell.
It seems that they’d been trying to finish the church for the last 80 or so years but, every time they were just about to start again, war would break out and they’d have to stop. Slobo robotically led us through the building, told us the statistics: how high, how big, what kind of stone it was made from and then he led us out. As we past the vicary he turned and, strangely, dropped his formality and asked us inside for a drink.
We sat at the table of a large room and were given tiny glasses of powerful plum brandy, slivovic. Slobo looked at me and asked, do you play piano? No, sorry. I do, he said, and he walked over to the upright piano next to the table. And then he started to play.
The music was both joyous and sad. My wife and cousins started singing along with Slobo, word for word. And then he said, do you know this song from the mountains of Macedonia? And they did, and they sang, and they drank and off came Slobo’s jacket. And then he said, do you know this song old Bosnian drinking song, and they did and they drank and they stood on their chairs with their arms in the air and off came Slobo’s tie. And they kept on singing and dancing and drinking and laughing. And then Slobo stopped playing.
And he said, “Do you know, we had the best country in the world? We had freedom and money and a hard currency, but we didn’t have to work hard like you in the west. We had good lives. We had the best from the east and the west and we destroyed it.” “Do you know, I am not from Belgrade. I am from Croatia. I was here when the war started and I got stuck.” “I am from Dalmatia.” “Do you know this old Dalmatian fisherman’s song?” And he started to play…
They knew the song. And they sang and they drank until they wept. They all wept for the country they had lost. The Croat, the Serb and Bosnians all wept, for they were no longer countrymen, and yet they were, at least for tonight, still bound by the memory of what was and what could have been, and by this music. They we’re singing as if they were the last Yugoslavs on earth.
Later that night, we went to dinner. Slobo got into a fight with a gypsy band that wouldn’t play an old Yugoslav song. Then he got drunk, passed out in his soup and ruined his suit.