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  • Writer's pictureJames

Here There is Life

Updated: Mar 31, 2022

Tonight our dinner would consist of massive paper cones filled with freshly made fries expertly prepared by a smiling Serbian. He provided Sam with enough spicy ketchup to kill a mere mortal, she, of course, asked for more. We walked slowly while using a pointy wooden stick to pick fries out of the paper cone and enjoy our meal on the move.

On we wandered north on Knez Mihailova (Prince Michael) street, passing a teenager dancing like Michael Jackson to Smooth Criminal. Tall women clad in light summer dresses chatting with one another while walking at a pace much faster than I can muster while eating, in heels. I am of average height for a male from the U.S, yet I find myself feeling positively lilliputian in the shadow of these lovely giantesses. The street filled with people shopping, delivery men delivering, tourists ambling about, teenagers wasting time, searching for friends. I found myself smiling a bit and thinking of the phrase I feel most typifies our experience in Beograd - Here there is life.

Not simply pre pandemic life, but pre-digital revolution life. Although people being glued to their phones does happen, it does not seem as pervasive as it does in the U.S. There is an energy here that is undeniably infectious, yet difficult to explain.

The street ends at Kalemegdan, the medieval fortress sitting at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. We changed direction west towards the Sava, hoping to catch the sunset along the waters edge. In this place sits a long row of restaurants that seem a bit more posh than the ones on the pedestrian street. People out walking with their children, couples out for their first dates, ladies hung on a mans arm. People on bicycles wizzing by dodging the dawdling pedestrian traffic with the razor precision of a fighter pilot.

We continued on and stumbled upon a strange watercraft, green where the hull meets the water with a yellow window covered dome shaped like a turtle shell on top. It seemed to be some sort of tourist attraction, and we are suckers for things that make a good turn of phrase. “We’re riding a giant turtle down the Danube” would be a great example. I climbed the precarious ancient stone stairs down to the ships mooring and spoke with the tour guide that was arranging things at the dock. Fortunately I was able to stand two stairs above her, so as to be at eye level. She was direct in the Serb style I’ve come to appreciate immensely, and emulate after a fashion. She would tell me there was a large tour group coming on, and if there was still space we could get on, if not, we could reserve a spot for the next nights cruise. As luck would have it we were allowed to board the magical turtle boat packed with a large group of tourists. We found a spot on the top deck near a small open hatch and stuck our heads outside. The lower deck didn’t have all the windows open and it was stifling with heat in spite of the cheerfully bright multicolored chairs that evoked the sense of a children’s section in a library circa 1989. A man with kind eyes expertly carried a tray of drinks giving one to each passenger without spilling a drop on the ever shifting deck of the turtle. We turned westward on the Danube, passing the Great War Island in the direction of Zemun. The Sun was quickly falling beneath the horizon and the Tour Guide crackled over the speakers telling us of legends and historical lessons. The turtle spun around as the sun finally dipped below the horizon, changing the reflection of her final rays from fire orange to gentle pink. Now pointed towards the imposing fortress of Kalemegdan, I thought of what that must have looked like to sailors hundreds of years ago, sailing the Danube in order to bring wares from Budapest and even farther to the white city of Beograd. Romans guarded her from barbarians when she was known as Singidunum, a fortress on the very edge of empire over 1600 years ago.

Zemun at Sunset

The Gazela Bridge

The turtle lurched starboard into the Sava river. The houseboats lining the coast known as splavs serve as some of the most popular nightclubs were beginning to turn on their lights and blare music as darkness fell, but few revelers would arrive until midnight. We continued on, under the Red, Blue and White lights Branko’s Bridge. It was at this point the massive red moon rose among the towers of Belgrade’s newly built riverfront development. Sam pawed at me with her ‘cat attack’ motion, blonde hair blowing out the window, giant smile on her face as she pointed and exclaimed ze moon! A play on the name of neighborhood we had only moments ago watch the sun set behind. I tried desperately to take a decent picture, but nothing useable until we were under the Gazela Bridge.

The Gazela Bridge and moonrise

We passed under the Old Sava bridge, our taxi driver that picked us up from the airport joked it was "a gift from the Nazis" as it was constructed during their occupation in 1942. The city comes alive at night in response the slight respite from the continental summers sweltering sun. As we neared Ada Ciganlija, the turtle once again spun around, heading back to the dock for disembarkation. The moon rose and shrank but maintained its orange hue, the lights of the bridges danced on the water, the sounds of cars and people and music drifted over the water. In what seemed like no time at all we were climbing off of our pseudo reptilian charge, smiling at having experienced a new perspective of the city.

Branko's Bridge casting light into the Sava

Disembarking The Turtle

Sam and I strolled along the river, searching for a cafe and some wine, disappearing into the well lit streets and crowds of the city. Under Branko’s bridge a jazz trio was blowing in a way that would have drove Keroauc mad, the acoustics bouncing the sound through the traffic and all over the city, across the water and into the souls of far flung Belgrade denizens. A young couple was sitting on the nearby cobblestone ground, deeply focused on a game of backgammon. We stopped and dug the jazz for a while, marveling at the magical spontaneity of things, around every corner a new delight or spectacle.

Finally we settled upon a cafe with one of Sam’s favorite amenities, a chair shaped like an egg made of wicker suspended like a swing. In this way she can both posture as though a modern Morticia Adams, or swing, spin, and bounce about with glee all the while coming dangerously close to knocking over drinks and tables. Street musicians busked into the wee hours of the morning, the wine was good and the breeze kept us cool on a hot July night. The world continues to spin unperturbed on its axis, and tomorrow the dawn will bring a new set of delights, provided we can peek up from our phones long enough to enjoy them.

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