It was Wednesday morning. Belgrade welcomed me with a shocking cold and a thick fog.
After leaving our luggage in the hostel, and while my trip mates were sleeping, I went alone for a walk to Kalemegdan Park.
As if God would have painted with grey the whole city, all the streets were flooded by the fog. And also the park was. The mix between that grey and the blue green of the grass was beautiful enough to give my walk an interesting morning color.
I started to take pictures around me and suddenly an old man came to me to ask me something. He was holding a cup of coffee and a kind of pastry in the other hand. At first he spoke to me in Serbian, but after my poker face he started to speak English.
“What’s the time?” he asked me with a tired smile. “Ten o’clock.”
I just looked to the pastry and he answered my non-formulated question: “It is typical Serbian burek. Do you want to try it?”
After sharing a few words about the weather, the city and also about the burek, he suggested showing me the city.
“It is crazy because most of the tourists here don’t trust in Belgrade locals. They think we, Serbian people, are almost criminals. But I only want to show them the city.”
I realized since the very beginning he was a very proud Serbian. He told me about his life. His name was Alexander and he was 61. No wife, no children, no living relatives.
“Of course I don’t have so much money. However I am too proud to telling people I need it. I am only used to show the city to tourists and helping them. Then if they want to give me money, it is okay. But I never ask for it.”
Belgrade landscape in a foggy morning.
We were walking across the whole city and he showed me a lot of interesting touristic places. We drank a glass of holy and miraculous water in Saint Petka Orthodox Church, we were in a photograph exhibition about Serbian Army in the First World War, and we visited the Serbian National Assembly and the huge Post Office building.
However, since I told him I was studying Journalism, he was very interested in showing me the “real Belgrade”, because he wanted me to write about it.
“Belgrade is not what you can see in the center. Rich people drinking coffee, buying art in some gallery, going to the bank… That is not Belgrade. I will show you the real city.”
In few minutes, we found a group of young people drinking beer sitting on a bench in the street. He told me about the high level of youth unemployment and how the corruption of Serbian government blocks any trace of progress in the country.
Alexander also told me about his life before and after his retirement. He worked many years in a bank in London. That is why he could speak a surprising fluent English (of course better than mine).
After a lot of time talking about many different topics, I realized he hadn’t even finished his breakfast. Once he was done, I ask him about the most important person in his life.
“I will answer you, but before I will show you one place.”
We walk together until St. Mark’s Church, where is buried the first king of Serbia. He took me behind the church and I saw suddenly a destroyed building. It was shocking and surprising at the same time, because the ruined building was placed between two modern ones.
RTS (Radio and Televison of Serbia) damaged headquarters.
“This is the building NATO bombed in 1999.”
(There are a lot of historical and political controversies about this event, so let’s judge the story by yourselves).
Just after that, he showed me a commemorative plaque titled За што? (Why?), with the name of the people dead in the bombing. He also fingered a name: M. J. “He was a friend of mine” he told me.
“That night, before the bombing, we were playing chess together in my house, near here. We didn’t finish the game but he had to go to work. Two or three hours later I heard an explosion and all the furniture in my house started to tremble. The bombing killed 16 innocent people. My friend, who worked as a safeguard there, he died that night. He was 47 and he had wife and two children.”
I was looking at him and at the building completely shocked and moved by the story.
“We will never rebuild this place” he continued. “We want our young people don’t forget.”
I will remember all my life that immediate moment’s silence. It was such a soulful silence.
He looked at me after few seconds. “And yes. I perfectly know what you are thinking about. He was the most important person in my life.”
Story: Roberto Herranz.
Fotographies: María Teresa López Cerdán.
You can also check out my Storify story about Belgrade.
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