The Exaltation of the Divine

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Fruška Gora, Serbia – April 2012

On a gentle mountain in northern Serbia, there are many holy places. They call this one Krušedol. It is said that there are 500-year-old frescoes in this sanctuary. This is why I have come.

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Monks glide through passageways and courtyards. Soft footsteps and the swish of long, black robes. They are stately presences, but visitors are welcomed with a humble bow of the head.

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Inside the main chapel, a baptism is taking place. A lone chandelier, candlelight, and dust-speckled sunrays illuminate the rich primary colors. The baby’s screams drown out the priest’s monotone chants. I’m told that I can go no further than the entryway. I lower my head and step back, stifling my disappointment. There are frescoes in the entryway, too. Peeling and slightly faded, but still vivid.

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I lift my eyes and stare into the faces of ancient saints. The paintings that I’ve seen from this era, in books and museums, have been two-dimensional and lifeless. There is a soft benevolence in some of these expressions. And is that a twinkle of amusement that I see in their eyes?  The expressions vary – in others I see apprehension. We tend to create and recreate that which we understand. Those were turbulent times.

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The frescoes cover every corner, sweeping across the ceiling like holy constellations. The result of days, weeks, months spent in communion with the creative force. I imagine the artists, elevated and contemplative, escaping the earthly realm through exaltation of the divine.

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An American Tourist in Serbia

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Belgrade, Serbia – April 2012

As I stroll the streets of Belgrade, brightly colored Hop On Hop Off tourist buses, which are as common as McDonald’s in European cities, are nowhere to be seen. It seems they only circulate during the summer. I never take those buses anyway. The best way to know a city is to learn how to navigate it. I walk from the old Ministry of Defense Buildings to St. Sava Cathedral to Kalemegdan Fortress to Skadarlija, Belgrade’s old Bohemian quarter. When I take out my camera, I get looks of curiosity and amusement. The only language I hear around me is Serbian. I luxuriate in my tourist solitude and walk until my legs ache. It’s as if I have Belgrade to myself.

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When I told people that I was planning a short trip to Serbia, I got two reactions. My Hungarian acquaintances advised me against it. My American friends said, “Wow, cool!” with the instinctive cheerleader enthusiasm that means they’d never heard of Serbia.

The sky darkens and distant thunder rumbles. I head in the direction of the hostel, dodging raindrops that are as thick and heavy as globs of spit. When I travel without my husband, I try to stay at guesthouses or hostels, if they have private rooms. I do this mainly for safety reasons. If there aren’t many guests to keep track of, the staff is more likely to notice if someone doesn’t make it back at the end of the day.

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When I walk in the door, the owner offers to make me a cup of Turkish coffee. He asks about my day. I tell him that it was great, but he wants details. His expression is one of concern. He wants me to love Belgrade.

I tell him what I saw, including the bombed out Ministry of Defense buildings, the result of an American-led NATO strike. “What do you think about Americans?” I ask. “You can be honest.”

“The Americans that I’ve met are kind. It’s not right to judge an entire country for the actions of their government.” He looks at me for a long moment. “We are not like the Western media says we are.”

I nod and look him in the eye. “I no longer just take the word of anyone about anything. Especially not the media’s.”

A faint smile arises from deep within. He nods and says no more.

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I’m invited to join some other guests for dinner. Afterward, they go out drinking. I decline the invitation to join them, because I feel the first sinister twinges of a migraine. The last place I need to be is in a loud, smoke-choked bar. I intend to go to sleep, but the night reception guy at the hostel is so gregarious that I find myself drawn into a long conversation about Serbian national parks, heavy metal music, and the traits of particular nationalities based on his experience in the travel business. I tell him about the bands that I saw back when I was his age. He’s young enough to be my son. My headache retreats. I bask in the rare pleasure of having a comfortable conversation with a stranger. He tells me about his previous place of employment: a dirt cheap hostel near the train station. More than once he had to brandish his brass knuckles to get the guests to obey the rules. “Stag party assholes,” he says with a shake of his head. “At least we don’t get that at this place.” He launches into a tirade about the nationalities that are the most difficult to deal with.

I laugh. “Okay, so what do you think of Americans? Be honest. I can take it.”

He takes a deep breath. “Like everyone else, I grew up hating Americans. But since I’ve been working in this business, I’ve met a few and they’ve all been cool. They really don’t know shit about the world, though.” A shadow of annoyance passes over his face. “They act like they’re scared of everything. No one’s going to hurt them here.”

Later, as I lie in bed, I try to put my finger on why I feel such an affinity with these people. I’ve always been drawn to those who have an edge. They’re often protecting themselves from new disappointment and pain. I also understand the frustration of not being able to defend oneself against rumors.

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The next morning, I catch a bus for Zemun, a historical district on the outskirts of the city. I ask the driver, in what I hope is understandable Serbian, if I can buy a ticket. His eyes widen in surprise. He waves me to a seat without taking my money. I get off the bus in front of the abandoned Hotel Jugoslavija, a massive, Soviet-era monstrosity. Behind it is the river walk, which leads all the way to Zemun. The migraine is lurking somewhere in my skull. I hope it waits until the end of the day before it pounces.

The sun is high in the sky when I reach the village. On the climb to the tower, I cross the path of a young man pushing a baby in a stroller. I instinctively smile, but his expression freezes my heart. This is no ordinary rage. It’s the rage of someone whose spirit has been shattered.

The migraine emerges, tentacle by tentacle. I hurry back to the city, because there’s one more place I must see before I’m imprisoned by pain.

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The Nikola Tesla Museum consists of a few small rooms. Some of his magic machines are on display, including the coreless transformer. Tesla’s ashes are encased in a golden sphere. I join the small tour group. Three perfectly clothed and coiffed American dudes stand at the front of the line. Their Abercrombie & Fitch ensembles and Converse sneakers are accentuated by smug, gloating expressions. They are in Belgrade for the infamous nightlife, no doubt. I remember something the night reception guy said last night: It doesn’t matter if a guy is fat and ugly, if he speaks English, Serbian girls think they’re SO hot. That kind of tourism is alive and well in all of the former Soviet bloc countries.

The tour lasts fifteen minutes. For the finale, we clasp long fluorescent light bulbs while Tesla’s coreless transformer crackles, sending electricity through us to make the bulbs glow.

Outside, the wind has picked up. It whips my hair and shoves me across an open park. People scatter for cover. I giggle with anxiety. Will the lingering electricity in my body attract lightning? The sky opens up. Even my umbrella is no match for the torrent. I duck into an Orthodox church. A service has begun, so I stand near the door and act like I’m a participant. Some of the others look at me with warm, knowing smiles as they chant their prayers. I am welcome to take refuge here.

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A Not-So-Subtle Reminder of a Not-Too-Distant Past

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Belgrade, Serbia – April 2012

A lone guard paces back and forth in front of the former Ministry of Defense buildings, which were bombed in an American-led NATO strike back in the nineties. His gait is slow and shuffling. He has a goofy grin on his face and his military uniform looks like it’s been slept in. I pull my camera out of my purse.  This morning, I asked the owner of the hotel where I’m staying if it was okay if I took some photos of these buildings. I had read on a couple of travel forums that people get offended. “It’s fine to take photos. The buildings are still there so that people will remember,” the owner said. “But thanks for asking.”

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The guard doesn’t so much as glance my way as I snap photos. Neither do people in the cars that pass through this busy intersection. A tram pulls up just as the light turns red. It is the after work rush hour, so it is packed so full that people’s faces are smushed up against the glass. I start to giggle, but the orneriness of their glares makes me flinch. It would be an interesting photo, this painfully crowded tram against the backdrop of the crumbling building. The light will be green before they can push their way out and chase me down. But empathy wins out. There are some photos you just shouldn’t take. I wait until the tram is gone and then I raise my camera for one final shot.

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