In 1998 a new set of sanctions against the Belgrade regime of Slobodan Milošević was imposed by the international community. I took a UN jeep and drove from Sarajevo into Serbia, ostensibly to do some additional work for the U.N., but mostly really to poke around the city.
We drove from Bosnia, across a frontier policed by surly men with large guts, hard eyes and hard mouths. A part of the highway from the frontier town to Belgrade was cobbled surface, but about 60km from the capital we struck highway.
Although winter was thawing, the trip that we expected was not. We drove a large UN Nissan Patrol, a fine thumping old tub of screw that had seen service in Cambodia.
When we arrived, the rogue city was bathed in a glory of late evening sunlight that picked out the golden walls and copper cupolas and gold crosses of the old town. Not many people were working, and those who did were mostly working in name only, since the government was months behind payment for most workers.
In a life that had so few immediate prospects, a stroll in an evening of promised Spring was a sweet event, and the boulevardes of Belgrade were full.
We remember small things and small moments that seem to shed light and provide the fruit of meaning to the greater. Like looking at a leaf on a tree, or a seed, or a shell, or a stream, and seeing the greater force that lies within – the forest, the harvest, the seas and the rivers.
So often, I spend days looking for that small thing when I know that it is all around me, hiding itself from view, or disguised by something so familiar that I have not thought to look then. Often life itself, the hub that seems to move and thrive and grind and twist with such fervent expression some days, is hidden behind my own dull curtain, out of which – on that day – I have only been provided with a pinpoint view.
Perhaps that is one reason why travel is so useful and revealing, because everything is a mystery, everything is unfamiliar and uncomfortable and everything must be looked at and guessed at, and worked on like persistently jammed screws.
Belgrade seemed very lively that day, and no pall covered the world, there was nothing to shroud my eyes from the glory of life. The market was full with people buying with very little the very many paltry and shabby things for sale.
Most of the city existed on food from families in the country, and from trading and black marketeering. People made money to eat in any way which they could.
We stopped at a wicker basket at the feet of an old woman with pearl grey hair, and translucent skin, and bright blue eyes, and thin beautiful lips, who was selling fried sardines with sea salt in white paper cones.
We took a bag and walked away, but the old woman ran up to us when we were only ten metres or so away, and clutched my hand to press the change that I had neglected to take.
She looked into my eyes, still clutching my hand tightly and piercing me with her childishly beautiful face, laughed and said, 'Ti si zlatko kao sunce' – You are as golden as the sun !
Then again, with meaning, and jabbing her finger at me while she smiled.
You – are – as – golden – as – the sun!
All the munificence of that city, all the beauty of the soul, all the redeeming strength of human nature fell about me as she sang her words, the market poetess of that blackened-heart city.
All the force of the goodness of human nature seemed to rise from the voice of the sardine-seller.
Golden as the sun. Georgia 1998.
Burned by the sun. Camino de Santiago, 2019