Contributed by Dustin L. Hadfield. Check out more of their posts from this summer here.
One of the pinnacles of Serbia’s landscape includes a single statue sprouting atop one of the highest hills in the central city of Belgrade. Победник (Pobednik) holds a lowered sword in his right hand, representing Belgrade’s war-torn past. In his left hand, he raises a dove, displaying a symbol of welcoming to all those who now enter, almost as if to say “we fought long and hard to earn a newfound climate of peace and welcoming.”
It’s true that Belgrade’s quite war-torn — it’s been destroyed, ransacked, liberated, and overtaken more than 40 times since its establishment as a neolithic settlement around 7000 BC. Most recently, the Yugoslav Wars from 1991 to 1999 have created the “Diaspora Generation,” (as my friend’s host mom likes to call it). Kids about my age (and a bit younger and older) had their lives totally disrupted by the mid-90s wars, which even required some of them to go live in the countryside with relatives until things died down, à la World War II Britain.
Flash forward to this weekend. Without going into too many details, Belgrade really seems to like to party. After sitting in a club that vibrated so much it felt like standing in a giant massage chair, to hearing about party-boats (locally called “splavs”) where the young’ns party until as late as Sunday noon. After just more than a week in Serbia, these are the two things that repeatedly connect in my mind: the statue and the splavs. While the two sound incongruent at first, bear with me: why are people partying until daybreak in Belgrade? Particularly the young who were undoubtedly affected in some way, shape, or form by recent warfare.
The first thing I see when I fit all of these pieces together is a nation of people who’ve given up. This city and its citizens have been shuffled, shaken and scarred to a point where almost no one holds a single shred of hope or faith their government will ever actually care about them. They welcome everyone with doves of peace and swords of memory because they want to say “I don’t care anymore. I can party and it doesn’t matter, because I have nothing left but to wait for the sunrise.”
As a complete outsider from the United States, it’s unsurprising that this is what I first ascertain from the situation. Productivity and power are pinnacles of American culture, and to us, anyone who acts disproportionately to this set of capitalistic mores is either crazy or depressed (or both).
But what if the people of Belgrade are a step ahead of Americans? Maybe my finely-tuned nihilistic (and undoubtedly American) perspective has warped my appreciation for these people and this city, and it’s solely this perspective that’s convinced me that all of this splav-ing and fun time is unproductive, silly, and downright useless. Therefore these people must be psychologically messed up in order to believe their eccentric behavior is okay.
That behavior may be eccentric — but only to me. Why does partying all night have to be eccentric? That’s just my American construction of the concept. After being through so much, maybe the people of Belgrade have let go, but in a positive way: after all of the fighting and hand-changing of war and disagreement, maybe the city is giving a big “F YOU” finger to the world by showing that “you know what, we’re done trying to pretend like we can control and defend this city. We’ve had conflict in the past, and we’ll have it in the future. But this moment, in the now, this is a place of peace. We are, and choose to be, the dove. And we will damn well enjoy it as long as humanly possible.” Maybe the people of Belgrade truly know what it is to be human. Not productivity-fed automatons, but people who enjoy a life they wisely know they cannot control.
I’m not from Belgrade. I’ve only been here for a week. All of these judgements I’ve made and typed are purely from observation and inference and are based on very little, if anything at all. I could be completely wrong about all of this. I probably am. But I think all of this says something else about me and my origin as well: because I’m American, and because my country’s influence is nearly global, I have the right to evaluate people and things I really know nothing about.
Maybe I need to take a page from the Belgrade’s book, and realize that I’m not in a place to judge or control, but just to enjoy what I have, while I have it.
Until Next Time,
(Note: I’ve also published this post on my personal blog. Check it out here!)