Belgrade, I love you

April may be the cruellest month, as TS Eliot wrote, but it is also the time of year when Belgrade shines the most.

That is not only because many of the city’s key anniversaries fall in April – the first mention of the name “Belgrade” in 878, the handover of the Belgrade fortress in 1867 and start of construction of New Belgrade in the marshy plain across the Sava River in 1948; it is also because the skip in the city’s step returns with the cherry and magnolia blossoms and with the prospect of another seven months of nice weather.

April in Belgrade, as captured in the eponymous song April u Beogradu, sung by Zdravko Colic, ex-Yugoslav pop-sensation and heart-throb, is the city at its most romantic: balmy spring dusks envelop young lovers as they stroll by the Sava and the Danube; cafe gardens burst into life; children start playing on the streets and the air is filled with signature Belgrade perfume of flowers and cat urine. It becomes easy to remember why this city, for all its faults, is such an amazing place.

There is its eclectic, non-standard beauty.

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The ridge holding the old part of the city soars above the Pannonian plains, offering sweeping views stretching kilometres into the north. Buildings of wildly different styles, sizes and states of repair jostle for attention and bear stories of the city’s many destructions and renaissances.

As you stroll through its varied neighbourhoods, other cities also come to mind: the elegant streets of the Old Town evoke parts of Vienna or Rome, New Belgrade’s brutalism transports you to some Soviet-era city in the Russian steppes, while the unruly suburbs bring to mind similar parts of Beirut or Istanbul. You can walk through the whole city safely, certain that if you lose your way, someone will help you. And if it all gets too much, the relative proximity of its many green spaces make it easy to escape its often manic bustle, whether for a jog or a barbecue.

This eclecticism also extends to the habits and attitudes of its citizens, who were a diverse bunch from day one.

From the start, the city was a blend of different cultures and religions. It not only drew in people from all corners of the Balkans, from Serbian inn-keepers to Greek merchants and Albanian artisans, but its permanent, indeterminate sense of great potential and bounty just around the corner also attracted German engineers, Russian intellectuals and Czech architects. It is a city whose neutrality during the Cold War allowed Belgraders to enjoy the influences of both blocs, forge ties with post-colonial states from Nicaragua to India and develop a complex understanding of global relations. In 1967 and 1968, that free-thinking ethos took them to protest against the US war in Vietnam as well as the lack of freedoms in Yugoslav socialism, and adopt the still-beloved slogan “Belgrade is the World” [Beograd je svet].

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Even now, although the city’s importance has diminished, Belgraders sate their curiosity by attending dozens of festivals, galleries and other cultural events, ranging from displays of Japanese anime to recreations of medieval warfare, all of it at relatively affordable prices. It is a city of people who watch Indian and Turkish soap operas, listen to British music and grew up on a cuisine that blends Central European and Middle-Eastern tastes. It is a city whose often multi-lingual inhabitants remember being forced to read Balzac, Hemingway and Dostoevsky at school and will always surprise you with some news from the wider world. It is a city that routinely mixes and matches these influences and makes them its own, from the subdued Belgrade Modernism of the 1920s to the raunchy turbo-folk of 1990s.

For those looking to have their views challenged, living in Belgrade is a treat, as the cultural battle for the heart of the city is always alive.

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Belgrade is the city where new plutocrats live in the same buildings as unemployed workers, and where those who feel that Serbian society is too far from its traditions constantly rub shoulders with those who think it can never be far enough. Given the lack of set hierarchies and a generally relaxed attitude, it is a city where you can get in touch with anyone and find your place.

While it was the city where Slobodan Milosevic assembled supporters for his expansionist plans, it is also the city of tens of thousands of people who marched for peace during the Yugoslav wars throughout the 1990s and eventually deposed their nationalist president. It is a city that pines to be the New York of the Balkans, while selling t-shirts of Vladimir Putin riding a bear.

The constant, dizzy-making dance of its dark and light sides and lack of a veneer makes Belgrade a city where anything seems possible and whose future can take any imaginable form – exciting for those with an open mind, and frustrating for those who like clear distinctions and expect it to be like somewhere else.

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Unfavourably comparing it to what they think a European city should look like, some people call it a “mega-qasaba” and blame the long centuries of Ottoman rule for all its failings in terms of orderliness, disregarding the rich mix of cultures that this period created. Others think its openness to new influences rather than past traditions make it un-Serbian, and take Belgraders’ thirst for anything new and foreign as contempt for the rest of the country. A certain type of visitor, used to understanding foreign cultures through soporific tours of museums and visits to tourist-friendly restaurants and bars, unsurprisingly finds it incomprehensible and underwhelming.

To love Belgrade does not mean being blind to its many pitfalls – from the limits of its cultural offering to its frequent unfairness to some of its citizens – but it does mean adopting the Belgrade mind-set, which appreciates openness, languor and a good dose of black humour.

While the list of things that I hate about Belgrade grows daily, from the insalubrious characters who often end up leading the city to any new pot-hole that dots its streets, the list of things I love about it grows as well.

Whenever I feel angered or betrayed by Belgrade I remember scores of Belgraders by birth or choice whose creativity, smarts and warmth never fail to surprise – and the April sunsets over its rivers, watched from Kalemegdan Park, as the lights of New Belgrade start to twinkle.

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This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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