Last Sunday was Orthodox Easter, and the day before was both May Day and Beltane. I don’t think I’ve eaten so much in the span of two days since I left the States, and my (once dwindling) waistline thanks me for it.
And for a moment it all felt so normal, like I belong here and I’m taking part in some tradition that we celebrate every year. And dare I say it, my deadened heart Grinched just ever-so-slightly to the charms of Belgrade. Maybe not three sizes, but possibly two.
And this is when I love traveling. When you’re staying at some place that invites you in like family, and you’re treated to homemade local food and drink like you belong. I’ve been asked more than once if I ever get scared – if I fear being assaulted or kidnapped or harmed – and yeah, I do. But it’s oddly rare.
I should probably care more. I mean, there was that time I got kidnapped in Paris. That time I got held at gunpoint in Mexico City. The very short, but very abusive relationship I somehow found myself in when I was last in Ohrid. But it’s usually not this.
It’s not even usually like, for instance, getting my cell phone stolen twice in South Africa, or like when, just recently, I got all my money stolen my second morning back in Belgrade.
Y’all are probably right, I should be more concerned. I should probably have never lifted myself onto the back of a strangers’ moped in Bangkok or gotten into all those cars way back in the before-time in Rome. But I did, and I’m here. And I never really questioned that I wouldn’t be.
Until last week.
It was the first of May when he first came by. He asked for a bed but could barely stand, and I guess they thought he could explain himself better if he slept it off a bit. I had taken a nap myself, and he had already come, told a sob-story about a girl who broke his heart, and fallen asleep in the half hour I was in my room. This is the part I was filled in on later when I woke.
And basically, there’s no real story here. He slept for an hour or so and woke up still drunk. So drunk he couldn’t speak or walk properly. He explained he was in the middle of a bender, one he couldn’t and didn’t want to stop. “I have a disease,” he kept saying. And then he left his suitcases, and walked back out into the streets of Belgrade, his refunded cash from a bed he never really used back in his wallet. He said he’d return the next day for his things.
But Orthodox Easter came and went, and we never saw him.
But he did remember, and he finally showed up the next evening. A couple of the volunteers carried his stuff downstairs to the curb for him. They asked him if he was alright, he said he was. He said he had a flight to New York that night, that he was getting a cab.
And look, guys. I don’t know if there was a flight or not. I don’t know if he had a plan at all. All I know, for sure, is that by the time we noticed that his suitcases were still sitting on a bench by our front door the next day, that he was already dead.
He was murdered in Zvezdara over 2500 dinar, which is only slightly more than I paid for my lunch at Jedno Meshto a couple of days ago.
Shortly after we noticed his suitcases, the cops did too. They poured onto our block like ants. They parked their paddy-wagons and cars on our cobblestone, pedestrian street like it was normal, and they tagged and bagged each one of his things. They even found his passport, an item I myself feel nervous whenever I’m more than a room away from. I’ve racked my brain and can’t imagine a scenario where I would leave it on a bench, and willingly walk from it, as if I could simply retrieve it later.
Then, the rumor mill went crazy.
Blic said he argued with us. He didn’t. He was annoying, he was shitfaced: but he wasn’t particularly argumentative. At least, not when he was drunk, because there was another inter-hostel rumor that he was violent when he was sober. Obviously, I have no idea if this is true.
I’ve heard he was killed with an axe, a brick, and in a fist fight. I can’t really say which one is correct, but everyone seems to agree that his face was left disfigured, enough to be difficult to identify.
But we know for sure that he left the States and, after a bender that went on for three days that we know of, lost his life in what was either an abandoned or a murderers house, depending on which news outlet you believe.
And things feel different now.
I’m at Istanbul SAW right now, colloquially known as “Old Airport,” waiting for my flight to Tbilisi. This is my sixth time here, so it’s now tied for first place with Shanghai’s Pudong as the airport outside of the States that I’ve been to the most amount of times, narrowly edging out Mexico City and Johannesburg by a single visit.
But it all feels just a bit more fragile now, you know? All these airplanes, all these miles and cities, even my own break-up benders – it could all end swiftly just by trusting the wrong person.
Of all of my worries in the last 421 days that I’ve spent trying to get to Tbilisi – about where my next job was going to come from and what country would take me and when my visas were expiring and if I’d catch this goddamned virus – none of them were: will I get murdered today?
But the thing is that I’m just as likely, probably statistically more likely, to get murdered back in the States than out here.
So why do I feel, now that this man is dead, like all of this is so goddamned tenuous, like I’m tempting fate with every flight I catch?
When I land in a little over four hours, I’ll go through immigration. As long as all of my paperwork is in order, and it should be, I’ll be granted a free, 365-day visa on arrival.
And though I’m not sure right now, less than a week out, I feel like I’d like to use at least 60, if not 90 or more of those days.
Being in the Balkans has been at times glorious and alternatively terrible. I’ve dodged rapists and thieves and covid-deniers and who knows what else. And now that I’m finally getting off this roller coaster, I feel a bit…
And I would like to take some time to revel in that feeling, because relief is not something many have been regularly privy to during the pandemic, and I am realizing that I have a lot more to recover from than I had thought.
Here we go.
I’m still in Belgrade, waiting for my second shot.
I have two more weeks here, which seemed like a daunting amount of time to spend in Belgrade at some point, and now doesn’t seem so bad since I’m embroiled in a rigorous copyediting project anyway. If I have to work all the time, I might as well do it here.
The thing I can’t figure out about this city is why everyone seems so obsessed with it. People love Belgrade, like, an inordinate amount, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why.
Granted, being here now during corona is not ideal. It’s clear just from walking around that so much of what makes this place great is this sort of Balkans-style flaneur culture: this combination of a stroll and a meander where you find yourself perched on a stool at some cafe or some bar unexpectedly. Though they’re mostly closed right now, it’s clear that the culture here surrounds watching the sunset from your favorite park and convening in the evening at your local.
But for those who got here during the pandemic, what in the fuck are they seeing that I’m not?
There are a couple of possibilities, here.
Maybe I’m just fucking jaded from doing this for years. Even I’ll admit: the smokestacks in the skyline and vista over the Danube were intoxicating when I first got here. But then there were one-too-many sleepless nights and toxic dudes punching walls and that before mentioned selfish bitch that was apparently sent to me to test my sanity. And then I gave up, and I just let it be the shit hole that it is without the rose-colored glasses of gazing upon something new.
Maybe I’m just too poor. Maybe all the best shit to do here in Belgrade is too expensive, and I’m just not privy too it. But dude: I was poor in Oslo and I don’t hate it. I love Oslo! So this would have to be just a contributor at best.
Maybe, and I think this is what’s actually going on, this city is actually somewhere in between. Maybe it’s not exactly the wonderland that all these Italians and Russians think it is, and maybe it’s not quite the devilish hellscape I think it is, but rather it’s just a normal European city in which I’ve managed to have a terrible string of insanely bad luck.
If everything goes as planned, I’ll be flying to Tbilisi on May 10th, exactly 421 days since the last time I tried to go. But the last time, the country closed completely two days before my flight. Georgia has been my goal for so long – and for so many travelers – that it’s become a running joke at this point.
Where you headed next? Not Georgia, hahaha. That kind of thing. You get it.
My vaccination card will finally get me into the one country I’ve been trying to get to for the whole pandemic, a card I’ll get on the 9th. So why am I, in my mind, fantasizing about going to Croatia and Kosovo and Turkey?
Have I…dare I say it…loved my time in the Balkans?
And will I be adding Belgrade to that list before I leave here?
I made it back to Belgrade.
Tassi got the call Wednesday morning, so after she went and picked up her visa at the embassy, we left for the lab to get our PCR tests, then to the bus station where we found out we’d have to take the night bus at 7 pm. That would have, under normal circumstances, meant that we wouldn’t arrive in Belgrade until 2am, but seeing that out bus was an hour late, it was closer to 3:30 by the time I checked into my hostel.
I already hated Belgrade, and my last few days here have given me little more reason to like it.
First, all of my money got stolen out of my bag while it sat on my bed, and the hostel owner told me I made it up, even though he was actually the one telling an increasingly twisted story about a possible thief that was impossible to decipher, to parse out of it which parts were true or no.
And then some Ukrainian kid stole my phone charger right when I couldn’t really afford to replace it.
And then I got turned away, two days in a row, when I showed up at the vaccination site.
On Friday, my first attempt, they told me to try the next day. That they were already finished but I could try again.
Saturday was worse. I went a half hour early, and at first it seemed promising; a woman was just about to usher me into a tent to fill out some form when another stopped her. “Do you have residency?” she asked, and when I shook my head no she broke the bad news. Serbia was no longer inoculating tourists. Though they were touted world wide as offering the shot to anyone who cared to show up, that it was merely a rumor at this point. It was now illegal.
I started to tear up. And I tried to swiftly think of a way to reason with her: I’d take any brand, I’d come everyday, I’d only take what was going to expire or what was left over. What actually made it out of my mouth was just the word “please.”
I’m not sure what happened, but they told me to come back the next day.
And I did.
And because that kid stole my charger I almost got lost on the walk there: it’s a 45 minute walk from my new hostel across most of central Belgrade, and without a map I nearly didn’t make it. When I had already been lost for about ten minutes, I thought about just going home.
But then, in the distance, I caught a glimpse of the fountain in Slavija Square, and I while I didn’t know what time it was nor how late I’d be arriving, I knew exactly the way from there.
And when I showed up the same woman who told me it would be impossible looked left, then right before waving me into a tent. And there another woman helped me to read the simple Serbian form that was required before you were inoculated.
And then I went into a little trailer where a doctor asked me a few questions: do you have any allergies, do you have any symptoms? No, no.
And even then I wasn’t sure if this was merely some kind of screening before I’d just be asked to leave and return later, until she asked me to remove my hoodie as to expose my left arm.
And when she removed the needle from me and asked if I was okay I burst into tears.
I have spent the last year dreaming of this moment. Even when covid vaccines were only speculative, I hung onto this nebulous day, somewhere in the future, when I’d finally get it and my life would return, somewhat, to normal.
And the last year has been so goddamned scary; those lonely months in Johannesburg and those tragic weeks in Egypt, and all the time I’ve spent in the Balkans chasing this goddamned shot. And then it all hit me, all at once, how so much I’ve endured and how many of those fears can end now.
“Are you okay?” they kept asking me while I struggled to breath beneath my tears.
“I’m fine,” I finally managed, wiping my eyes with the backs of my hands, “I’m just so relieved.”
And I am. I AM SO FUCKING RELIEVED, and I may have nothing left but it’s hard to care when in three weeks I’ll be fully vaccinated from the very thing that’s plagued me, and the rest of the world, for far too long.
I’m ready, now.
I’m ready to really get started.
So. Some stuff happened.
I’m back in Skopje, having just returned from Tirana.
Let me explain.
Last Tuesday, fearing what was laid out in a somehow simultaneously vague whatsapp message that was circulating that was supposedly outlined by the Sebian government and new lockdown regulations in Macedonia, Alex decided, around 11 in the morning, that we should leave for Tirana immediately. I agreed to go.
And with my memories of my time there – of lounging about upstairs at Art Hostel with my girlfriends and spending long, balmy mornings with coffee and way-too-many-ciggarettes on their third floor deck – I was eager to take the opportunity to return.
So I packed my things in a hurry, and we fled in a cab to Struga to meet the slight bus that would usher us there. Struga is super close to the Albanian border, so it wasn’t long before we reached it; it wasn’t long before I continued on to Tirana while Alex was held at the border.
Now it seems fucking prophetic that I said, just the day before, that I was willing to walk from him at any time, because there I was, faced with the choice to either grab my things and return to Ohrid with him, or continue onto Tirana to surprise Dylleyne.
I chose the latter.
And now I’m back in Skopje, back in the Favella with my girlfriends, regaling them with stories about what an asshole Alex turned out to be; how he used every opportunity to try and monopolize my body and time, and how his constant drunkenness contributed to this.
But what’s very crazy is that soon, likely sometime this week, I’ll be returning to Belgrade with Tassi.
Belgrade. The first city that I’ve so holistically maligned since Paris destroyed me when I was still only 20.
Because, you see, there seems to be a slim chance that I can really, actually, get the vaccine there. And this year has been too hard, to uncertain, too terrifying to pass up that opportunity.
Let me explain.
It was back in December or January when Lovage first told me that it looked like it might be possible to get the vaccine in Serbia. She sent me a link where you could fill out a form to express your “interest” in receiving the vaccine. I’ve basically heard nothing. I emailed them a couple of times to see if I could get more information, and didn’t hear anything specific back.
But then I met Tassi. She’s been living in Belgrade since she first got stuck there over a year ago, though she only yet has a tourist visa. She’s already had her first dose, and when she returns to Belgrade, though we’re still unsure exactly what day that will be, she’ll get her second.
And she did this via a method that had never even occurred to me: she just showed up at the vaccination center and asked for it.
Right now the three of us are all in Skopje, meaning Tassi, Nalini, and I. And as soon as Tassi gets a phone call from the Serbian embassy here to alert her that her residency visa is complete, she’ll swiftly retrieve it, we’ll get our noses swabbed, and high-tail it for Belgrade.
And I don’t know, y’all. I’m scared. I’m scared because I fucking hated most of my time in Belgrade, and I don’t even know if showing back up will mean I’ll even get this shot.
And it’ll cost me nearly $100 just to get back there that I don’t fucking have.
If there’s a chance, even a slim one, that I can put even a small part of the fear and uncertainty of the last year behind me, if I can at least assure that I don’t have to fear the virus anymore, isn’t it worth it to try?
It’s just crazy because when I left I swore I never wanted to go back, but now I realize how I might be able accomplish something I’ve literally been dreaming of for over a year in exactly the wrong place.
So. I guess some stuff has happened.
It could be as soon as Wednesday, though I’m not yet sure. But it looks like I’ll soon be crossing back across the Serbian border, headed for Belgrade.
But goddamnit. For all that I already dislike it there, Alex fucking loves it. And because he can’t get into Albania, he could also show up in Belgrade at literally any time.
But remember that bitch I dragged out of that hostel in Stari Grad because I assumed she, too, was part of out kibbutz? At the very least I’ll know that I wont see her, because I know for a fact that her Serbian visa has now expired.
I’ve weighed the pros and cons, and I’ve already decided I can’t not go. But. A lot of those decisions are hinging on the factuality that I can get the vaccine.
What if I can’t?
Years ago, after a not-too-trying but really jarring breakup, I bought a one way ticket to Panama and decided to backpack through Central America. It was only after I got there that I realized I was doing it the opposite way that everyone else does.
See, as it would seem, most people started in Mexico, and slowly made their way through this skinny part of the world before boarding a boat to Cartagena from Panama city. It only took me a few days traipsing about the city aimlessly to realize that there was a huge part of the culture of traveling there that I was left out of by going south-to-north instead.
But the Balkans, in any direction, is exactly like this.
The cool thing about traveling around here is that you can do it in any order, at any speed, and you will invariably run into the same people everywhere, or at least someone who knows them.
There are a couple of auxiliary cities to this: largely because of Turkey’s budget airline combined with current Coronavirus regulations, you can add Istanbul, for sure, to this list.
Back when I first got to the Balkans, I ran into Anastasia, who was my roommate back in Istanbul, where we lived in the very same hostel that I first met Alex.
And now I’m here in Ohrid with him, drinking way too much and, honestly, wondering if this is going well.
This morning, I did the same thing I usually do. I woke up in the morning, grabbed my laptop, and headed downstairs to make coffee. When I turned from the coffee pot, I saw Alex strolling in to say good morning, apparently having woken up about 15 minutes after I had.
And then he kissed me. At 8:30 in the morning in the middle of the kitchen.
And then he proceeded to annoy the living shit out of me while I was trying to work this morning. I’m pretty sure I said “Sasha, I have to work,” at least 15 or 20 times. But here’s the thing.
He doesn’t actually give a shit about me or my work.
And so a day into this experiment, this one where I left my girlfriends whom I fucking love back in Skopje to come meet a man a handful of hours away – albehim an age appropriate man, finally, that I’ve known for months – I’ve realized that I’m not here to forge some kind of relationship, or even rekindle the friendship we had back in Istanbul or Belgrade.
I’m here to get eaten out and then gracefully take my leave.
I’m here until Thursday. I already have my return ticket back to Skopje, and honestly, I’m cool with lounging by this lake for a few days and drink rakia with my coffee in the morning. But this is not something that will continue after that.
And it’s too bad because it doesn’t have to be like this. This behavior that, quite frankly, I’ve already endured too much of from him, this pseudo-controlling bullshit where he believes he can dictate what I will and will not do with my time and my body doesn’t even have to occur.
Tonight while I was cooking dinner, I literally had to tell him: “look dude, you don’t get to tell me what to do. I’m not your daughter, and I’m a person.” And the look he gave me in response belies that he has no intention, whatsoever, of stopping. There was no indication that he even knows what I mean.
But hey. I tried.
Nalini always says that the Balkans, at least right now that so many of us are reigned in here by a web of regulations, are like a Kibbutz. While I never got to experience this phenomenon in Central America like I could have, I’ve certainly had a crash course over the last handful of weeks.
And this exactly has been my favorite part of the last few months: the ability to have or find a friend everywhere you go, to have a support system ready to embrace you when something goes wrong. And I guess that’s why, back in Belgrade, seeing Alex’s face made my last two horrendous weeks there fade away, simply because his face was familiar.
But someone simply being familiar just isn’t enough to excuse their behavior.
Back in Tirana I wondered if my (not too) brief fling with the Italian made me wonder if I was capable of making acceptable decisions surrounding these kinds of nomad trysts. Like, was I still recovering from crippling isolation in Johannesburg? Was I still letting loneliness lead my life?
But I’m telling you that if I had to, I could walk from this right now. And I will if I need to before Thursday.
And while I’m legit fucking sad that this probably wont pan into anything, it was fun for a second. It was fun to get called away to a lakeside mountain town to trade stories of borders and planes and these times that we’re all enduring together.
And I think, when it’s all done, that will be my favorite thing that I take with me.