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.