TE21 Serbian Moments
Where are you from?
us, on the other side of the clouds. When we docked at the gate, the passengers swarmed into the aisle between the seats, as if it were of vital importance that they be the first to exit the plane. I asked him if he was in a rush—I didn’t know what he was doing in Brussels, in the same way that he didn’t know what had taken me to Belgrade—and he said it was fine if we just stayed seated. Now that we weren’t flying anymore, it seemed like we were just two strangers again: the accidental touching of elbows and careful leg maneuvering in front of our seats. I turnedmyattention fromhimto stareat thepassengers. The flight attendant was trying to keep things orderly. For several minutes it was comical, and I heard him chuckle. I think it was precisely this laugh of his, which was at once both full of understanding and boyishly gleeful, that got me. I admitted this to him a few months later, and he told me that I must remind him constantly to laugh. I do it, as often as I can. But back then, in the airplane, he wasn’t laughing at the attendant or his fellow travelers, but rather at something that only he saw. “The largest circle I’ve ever made,” he said, taking off his glasses so he could clean the lenses with a handkerchief, “made it all theway to China.” That left me sincerely impressed. I didn’t know anyone who had gone that far. “Fortunately I didn’t flee there,” he added after noting my reaction. “A friend of mine got a job in a city near Beijing, in the eastern part of the country. I saved up for months and bought a ticket when it was on sale. How else could I have gone?” I understood the problem. A ticket to China was expensive in both Brussels and Belgrade. “After we landed I very quickly realized that I now possessed a new starting point, from that moment on. The city
was so large that the cab drivers got lost in it. And the smog? I’d never before seen such. It resembled a smart fog that had come to life. Itpopsup in frontof you, and ityawnsand swallows you. Therewas a lot of stuff I’d never seen before. In the middle of the city, amid the skyscrapers, I saw a guy tilt a slaughtered sheep into a manhole, so its blood would go into the city drainage system. I saw a plaza as large as a whole district, a palace with no end to it. I ate locusts, but that was nothing compared to the dishes that I didn’t recognize and the tastes I had no way of placing. I was at a market where I didn’t know the name of a single kind of fruit. I saw a city center at night that was more brightly illuminated than a sports stadium. I saw a temple where the light, saturated with smoke from the shrine, was as thick as milk. And the people, who were as surprised by my appearance as I was by everything around them, which they didn’t even think twice about, asked me where I was from. “From Belgrade,” I said, but that meant nothing to them. I tried “Serbia.” They looked at me blankly. None of it meant anything to them, even when I widened the picture. Theydidn’t knowwhat theBalkanswere,whereGreece, the cradle of culture, was, nor where the Adriatic or Mediterraneanwas. Theydidn’t know the locations of Brussels. Or Amsterdam. Spain. Vienna. My friend laughed, having already experienced this dilemma. He had a ready answer and his hosts would smile, too, when they heard it. Satisfied with being able to place us into their system of coordinates…They knew about Europe,” he said. Then he pointed, to show me the plane had emptied out. One of the flight attendants was beckoning us: the cleaning staff is waiting to come in with its
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