Our Man in Belgrade – Part 3

Staying in a typically dated, Soviet Style hotel for months on end was an experience. The staff made Parisian waiters seem attentive to their customers’ needs. The waiters would typically be gathered on one side of the dining room, like a bunch of schoolboys at their first dance, except they did not have eyes for the guests at all. We were there as guests of the Yugoslav government. We were poor academics. What possible motivation could there be for them to interrupt their gossip and actually bring something to the table?

Talking of academic exercises, the act of choosing from the elaborate menu (it was after all a top hotel) was the height of futility. Every meal was like the Monty Python Cheese Shop sketch…..Onion soup? No. The Pate?…Mmmmm, not in stock. Beef steak…It’s off. It was a bit like playing ‘Where’s Wally?’ trying to find the two items on the menu that actually existed that day. However, rather than admit there were shortages and just printing a limited daily menu, standards were not to be lowered. Instead, ordering involved a time consuming game of charades especially as most of us could not speak Serbo-Croat and they could not speak any other language. After a month I learned to speak ‘Menu’ in Serbo-croat, which at least speeded up the ordering part of the process if not the delivery part.

On those evenings when I could not find any of the other delegates I liked, probably because they were drunk in a bar somewhere, sleeping together or both, I would hang out in the lobby and attempt to chat with the very few guests in the hotel who were nothing to do with the University. One evening my eyes fell upon a very attractive but young (16 year old) American girl who seemed to be at a bit of a loss. We got chatting and it turned out she was waiting or her mother. A few minutes later her mother arrived. She was a very elegant American lady, probably in her late 30’s, who apparently was the Eastern European Arts correspondent for the New York Times but who very sensibly lived in Paris most of the time. She was a regular visitor to Belgrade and evidently spoke Serbo-croat or at least miscellaneous Slav.

We engaged in adult intercourse, of the conversational kind and got on well. I am really not sure why given I am a total Philistine. Anyway, she told me that later on that evening she was going the see a famous dissident Yugoslavian poet perform and would I like to join her? I must confess to an almost total lack of interest in poetry in general and Serbo-croation dissident poetry in particular, but I was bored and she was good looking so of course I jumped at it.

It was rainy and getting dark in downtown Belgrade. We left the hotel and started to walk. There were not many people around, especially in the district where the hotel was located. There were Milicja guarding various Ministries, a few people walking purposefully but not much else as we headed toward a less salubrious part of town, where the amount of ‘street life’ then started to grow.

Suddenly, my escort (and I use that word as it was used in the 1970’s to mean companion or guide) said, ‘We are being followed. I know, there is a cinema we can go in and lose him.’ A few hundred yards down the road and around the corner, we stepped into the local fleapit cinema. She bought tickets and we went in. The cinema probably held about 200 people. There was no camber and the seats were all hard wood, like school chairs. Of greater obstruction to viewing than the lack of slope ( the film was already underway) was the thick smoke generated by multiple smokers of cheap cigarettes. It was like a scene from a film about mythical ‘foggy’ London town. Still we shuffled in and found places to sit. I looked up at the screen for the first time and there was Marilyn Monroe from 25 years earlier with Niagara Falls in the background in black and white, with Serbo-Croat subtitles. It is my most lingering memory of my time in Belgrade.


We stayed for about half an hour, and the she (my escort not Marilyn) told me to go to the toilet and use the emergency exit and meet her outside. She would do the same. Apparently, this clever manoeuvre resulted in the loss of ‘our tail’ and we proceeded to a private restaurant where she seemed to know the owner. An exchange of words, some furtive glances and we were shown to an upstairs garret full of seedy looking artistic types, also smoking cheap cigarettes. ‘The words ‘dimly lit’ , ‘cheap cigarettes’ and ‘Slivowitz’ sum up much of my experience of authentic Belgrade at that time.

I duly found a place to sit and proceeded to get very drunk, to the dulcet tones of  dissident Serbo-Croatian poetry as performance art. I have no idea how long I sat there.  It seemed an eternity. My hangover the next day, confirmed it must have been several months at least. I still come out in a rash at the very mention of the words ‘Serbo-Croation poetry’, fortunately it is not much of a problem these days.


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