First Prize Winner of the 2015-16 Writing Contest
SCHLEP BY MAGGIE CORNELIUS
We woke up before the sun and before the Metro had begun to run. It was achingly early. With the spring packed away in our knapsacks, we turned to leave, but before I could close the door, Lev dashed back in and plopped down on his bed. He sprang back up. Now we could go.
The voyage itself was a blur. A vacant station, an empty RER, sprinting through Charles de Gaulle and collapsing in seats purchased months before on a burst of irrational spontaneity. Three hours later, I was no longer literate and we were barreling toward the city center in a Soviet tram that dropped us on Váci Utica. A long walk down Dob and we remembered that he who saves a single life saves the whole world. More walking, a hot spat, a cold silence, more walking. At our destination, a cool passageway pulled us to a courtyard towered over by ten stories of balconies. Our host waved at us from one of them. We were in Budapest.
Visitors to Budapest are told that it is actually two cities instead of one. Buda is the older, more beautiful city on the western bank of the Danube. Pest stares back at it, big with its industry and the new generation. But they are not divided. The mish-mash of Hungarian history can be found along both of their streets, and the flow of cars and bikes and citizens and tourists across its three bridges creates an insoluble bond between them. Sometimes described as sister and brother, sometimes as a pair of lovers, Budapest is greater than the sum of its parts.
We spent four days drifting around that glorious, mysterious place. The sun beat down each day, burning luster into the city. We found the neo-classical columns of St. Stephen’s cathedral and a holy echo inside of it. We found the musical fountain on Margaret Island, lifting George Ezra with its victorious spouts. The cerulean dusk against the pastel yellow of the bathhouses, the shirtless old men playing chess and boiling in the pools. One day we tramped bikes to the Hungarian Hills and found the old world, with its terracotta roofs and wistful fields. Even getting lost was pleasurable, for the Habsburgs had left corner monuments and confectioner’s trim on every street, delighting the eye with each new detail. On the bluff overlooking the city, a Soviet statue of the Woman of Liberty stretched out her arms, offering a sheath of wheat to the eastern sky. We took it.
As much as the place promoted it, there was more to Budapest than hedonism. A certain ragtag defiance of the city’s majesty clung to the edges of everything. Our first encounter with this came on the first night, in a park across from our flat. A summer carnival was going on, so we strolled towards the pulsating music and screams of children. As we entered the event, a mighty swoop of a ride called the “T-Bone” rushed over our heads. Next the “Dreamcrusher” flew underneath it, barely missing collision. “Eastern Europe off the chain!!” Lev shouted above the din—there was no way these rides would have been permitted to operate in the States. Other signs of the Hungarian edge were more subtle, more inadvertent than purposeful. Hungary was not consciously rebelling—it was marching along as it always had done, having learned long ago that there were greater things to worry about than the mundanities of life. So in some ways, like at the carnival, the edge came through in what some would call a disregard for safety. It was early summertime, so groups of children were being led in orderly lines along shoulders of highways, heading out for field trips. In the Hills, we watched an old man go into town by barreling down a slope on a bike without brakes. Like wearing his paperboy cap, it looked like he had been doing that for years. He probably had. Other times the edge was grunge. Tevas—the original model—walked all over the city, and not because they were retro, but because they had been made well and still wore years later. Many of the Habsburg buildings had fallen into disrepair, their facades literally crumbling into the street, but it would not have been Budapest if scaffolding surrounded them.
Despite its defiance, Budapest also harbors a deep sadness that can be felt the moment you enter it. History bears down on every street in the city, but none of it belongs to the Hungarians. First it was the Turks,’ then the Habsburgs,’ the Nazis,’ and most recently, the Soviets,’ and in turn, Hungarians are estranged from the place that defines them. Attempts to move past this reality only push Hungary back in history. Their last era of sovereignty was in medieval times, and embracing that as heritage rejects their legacy of mathematicians and musicians and Rubik’s cubes and chess masters. Instead, these are replaced with primitive dress and eroded stones that people can only pretend to remember. The tangibility of the stolen past in the present deepens the city’s sadness. The fleeting memories whispered by our grandparents bare themselves to you in Budapest. Just next to the iconic Parliament, dozens of bronze shoes line the Danube’s banks. Twelve feet below their owners’ corpses lay at the bottom of the river. Nazis lined up Hungarian Jews there, forcing them to face the home that had betrayed them, and shot them into the water. This was also the place that fed the last Jews into Birkenau before the Red Army liberated the camp only a few weeks later. Memorials of these events pervade the city to the point that they are part of its fabric, and such a heritage compels many to return to the Jewish quarter of Budapest and reclaim their lost history. But with such horrors woven into your skin, how can you escape the crippling sorrow?
On the fifth day, Lev left, and the city fell apart. I was staying another day in order to catch a train to Belgrade, and for the first time all spring, I realized how very far away from home I was, and how aesthetic pleasures are meaningless without someone to share them with. I spent the day in Buda, staring blankly at socialist realism in the galleries of the National Museum. In the late afternoon I hiked up the bluff to the Citadella and came face-to-face with Liberty Statue. Up close her features seemed so heavy and artificial. The wheat she held now seemed like a burden more than a gift, and I certainly did not want to relieve her of the weight. It was time to move on.
My trip to Belgrade began with panic.
I woke up the next morning with chiggers on my ankles. At least, I thought they were chiggers. Tiny red bumps had crept across my skin in the night, sieging my ankles and preparing to ambush my calves. I concluded that I must have picked this up during my bushwhacking ascent to the Citadella, but my mind left a gaping hole for the possibility that they were the bites of a Hungarian horror that American medicine had never heard of, let alone developed a cure for. This was not the way to start the solo leg of my trip, but if nothing else, a lack of options pushed me forward. I knew how to get to the train station, not the hospital, so that was what I did.
Mercifully, a pharmacy sat across the street from the station, but my transaction only stoked the morning’s anxiety. Neither of the clerks spoke English, and I could not prop my ankles on the counter to charade my way to a prescription. The token English-speaker was summoned from the back room. We spent a few minutes muddling over chemical compounds, whose definitions I barely knew in English. Eventually a box was slapped on the counter and five figures popped up on the cash register. With a forint-dollar exchange rate of 300:1, even that was a steep price for cortisone cream. But the credit card machine asked me to accept the transaction. “Amount OK?” in Hungarian is:
Grimly I swiped my card. Surely losing $150.00 would be better than dying of chigger bites in Serbia.
Keleti Station is a vast, numinous atrium with an intercom that echoes every announcement into a sinister strobe. These announcements are made solely in Hungarian, the language used by Yoda to simulate alien tongue to Anglophone ears. Even city names lost their familiar ring to Keleti. Budapest became Budapesht, a muddled ending to a formerly crisp word. Prague became Praha, a dry, Slavic laugh. And most importantly, Belgrade became Beograd, a noncommittal utterance for a name I would dearly need to hear. The notoriety of the Budapest-Belgrade line made the station even more ominous. I discovered this reputation almost immediately when planning my trip. Google searches yielded startling headlines like “***avoid the Budapest-Belgrade night train***”. Confidants in Belgrade warned me that “the Hungarians will rob you on the night train.” Hardly glowing endorsements for the day train, but the lure of adventure and a $26 round-trip ticket had convinced me that it would be worth any shenanigan that slipped past the sun. That morning, I was not so sure anymore.
Fate’s blue screen stood at the center of Keleti, listing the upcoming arrivals and departures. At 9:30, it did not yet list the platform for the 10:05 to Belgrade, but the masses waiting expectantly before the screen reminded of the unregimented nature of train travel. And any remaining order in the station had been scattered by that Hungarian edge, that laxness bred by faithlessness in the world. The station’s vacant ticket kiosks left the impression that the trains ran by themselves. When I finally found a human behind a desk, she was unaware of the 10:05 to Belgrade. Meanwhile, fifty unchaperoned middle school students, each equipped with personal bags of Haribo gummies, clamored on railings near the tracks. Next to them old men with bulbous noses—nursing home escapees—shuffled around in bedroom slippers and muttered senile inanities. An unleashed dachshund scampered past my feet and joined his master headed to Berlin. Another passenger casually sported a rusty, uncased tuba as his carry-on to Vienna.
At 9:50, the blue screen blinked a “4” next to “Beograd.” Keleti has fourteen platforms, staggered into the station with #5-8 inside the station and the rest flanking the exterior. Above these tracks an art-deco design criss-crosses beneath the station’s arch, with white beams scintillating through the gaps. Light from the great wild yonder! It was time to take the first step towards Belgrade.
I headed to the right, walking 200 meters until I reached platforms 1-4. Two trains sat next to Platform 4. With no conductor in sight, I boarded one and asked its only passenger if this was the train headed to Beograd. It wasn’t. The next train then. This one had a conductor, who was sprawled in the front seat of a passenger car. “Beograd…?” she said, as if trying a new word for the first time. “Nem. Zegreb.” 9:56. Encroaching consternation. I verified that I was on Platform 4 and checked the train at Platform 3 for good measure. Surely someone around me was in the same predicament. The blue screen had broadcast “Platform 4—Beograd” to the entire station, hadn’t it? 9:58. There was no time to return to the atrium to investigate. I started asking among the passengers waiting on Platform 4: “Beograd? Beograd?” Only blank stares in response.
At the strike of 10, it struck me that I would miss the train to Belgrade. Panic—a flash of yellow. The most official looking man in the entire station, his credentials evidenced by his neon traffic vest, walked into the corner of my eye. The next thing he knew:
«JÓ NAPOT JÓ NAPOT WHERE IS THE TRAIN TO BEOGRAD»
A cold scowl told me that he was not a customer service rep, let alone an Anglophone, but the desperation in my voice must have tugged at some cord for sympathy far beneath his yellow vest.
“Beograd? Beograd?” I repeated, making no effort to conceal hysteria.
He reluctantly pulled from his pocket a blue screen, a miniature version of the one at the center of Keleti. 10:01. He scrolled through it calmly, casually, painfully slow. 10:02. He looked up. Turning his head to the tracks, he pointed across them, past them, to their farthest end.
In a split second of calculation, I saw only one solution to the situation. I pointed across the tracks and mimed the 100 meter dash.
He cut me off with an emphatic “NO!” and swept his arm around the station in the shape of a U. The only option was to go around.
Do or die. I bolted.
Within 10 seconds of my 400 meter dash, I knew that adrenaline and resolve would not mask the pain of this maniacal race. While my mind was set on Belgrade, my body lagged behind in Paris, where three months of cheese and Metro rides had rendered it languid and pudgy. To boot, I lugged a knapsack filled with ten-days-worth of personal effects. A split tore through my gut with each stride. Then a split tore through my knapsack as well. A clatter behind me—my hairbrush! Leave it! Bystander shouts alerted that my clothes were also being offered to Keleti, sacrifices to please the god of transportation. I slapped my hand to my back and pumped my only arm. Careening past the blue screen at the center of the station, I looked for the Beograd listing. A “13” had replaced the “4” in the platform box. I cast a mental finger at the station’s sky.
I did not know that the straightaway along the east end of Keleti would be the home stretch of my college running career. If I had, perhaps the tears in my eyes would have stemmed from nostalgia instead of excruciation. The gasps, from heartbreak, not heart attack. But probably not, because my final home stretch was a true home stretch. If you have time to summon emotion during the final sprint of a race, you are not running hard enough to be racing. Monomania takes control. You don’t feel the chiggers gnawing at your ankles or hear the kefir bottle splatter on the cement or notice that a $150 tube of ointment slipped irretrievably onto the train tracks. All you can see, think, or do is Platform 13. And if you get there in time, you win.
A final trip, a final bound, and I was on! I flung myself at the closest seat and clung to it fast. But the adrenaline couldn’t dissipate yet. Panic whipped my head around as laughter sounded from the back of the empty car. There, a swarthy Hungarian, 16oz beer can in hand, overcome by mirth. Something told me—the pierce of his eyes, that supernal smile—that he had watched my entire race from the comfort of that conductor’s chair.
Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.
Panic flipped to victorious frisson. I had beat him to the train. Fate was still chasing Platform 13, but I was headed to Belgrade.
The long ride
In true Eastern European fashion, the train to Belgrade did not depart at 10:05. It departed at 10:25. But out of pride, I stayed steadfast in my seat, forgoing the opportunity to retrieve my rip-off cortisone cream from the platform. Now there was no telling when we would depart, and my race would have been in vain if I missed the train for anything.
The train car was almost empty, but Providence, as if apologizing for the morning, placed a kindred spirit across the aisle from me. His name was Sasha, and he too was traveling to Belgrade on the idylls of youth—to visit an old chess teacher. But our introductions were interrupted by the swarthy Hungarian, who, it soon became evident, was decently drunk for ten in the morning.
“Join me!” He beckoned to the seats around him. “Do you drink?”
Beer was not needed to ease into conversation. Matyas, as he introduced himself, was full of ideas and eager to share them. He possessed a tendency to interrupt others, and sometimes even himself, with a burst of profound divination. It would go something like this:
“So tell me about yourself! Where are you from! Americans, eh? And students! Of what? Of history! ACH! HISTORY! History is a dangerous, dangerous subject, let me tell YOU! Hungarians love their history. But history is just a story, no truth to it. The truth is that history is what the government wants you to believe. Other countries don’t believe that our history is our history. This might be true...but let me tell YOU! You can’t trust other countries. You were smart to take the day train because Serbs will rob you on the night train. And remember, men can be animals.”
He nodded wisely and took a long swig of beer. Some might call Matyas a visionary. Beneath us we felt the train roll to life.
“Ah! So we’re off! You’re glad you made it, aren’t you! That was quite a race you had out there. But do you want to hear about Hungarian history? Let me tell you about Hungarian history. It all starts at the beginning of time. Many people think that it started in the Garden of Eden, but that isn’t true. Because there are other gods out there besides the Christian god. Not many people know that, but it’s true. The Hungarian people come from the star Sirius. And at the beginning of time all the gods had a war, and the Christian god came out victorious. That is why the Hungarians worship the Christian god. Did you study that in your history class? No? Well...I never was one for school. I studied architecture, but I had to get out. So many people make the mistake of staying in school, thinking that it will give them a life. They don’t know that THIS! THIS IS LIFE.”
He gestured grandiosely out the window to the Hungarian plain beside us. The summer sun beat down on the long grasses, giving everything a consecratory glow. In that moment, he was so right.
The next two hours passed in a similar fashion, until the train came to an abrupt halt in southern Hungary and Matyas jumped up and made for the door without his luggage. We called him back. In a daze, he returned and heaved what turned out to be a kitchen sink off the rack above his seat. Incredulous at his dumb luck of not forgetting the sink, he exclaimed “Kosi!” and bounded off into the ether.
The best part of the trip was behind us. Soon after Matyas's departure, the train dropped all of its carriage cars but one, forcing all the passengers to sardine inside of it. At first these conditions incubated great conversation—Sasha and I spoke at length about our history theses and chess and Judaism and street art—but the car grew steadily stuffier, sapping our energy and zapping our minds.
At the Serbian border, the train’s air conditioning was shut off. Frankly, I had not thought that there was AC in the first place; with it truly gone, the temperature rose to inconceivable heights. The loss of the AC was coupled with an hour-long stall at the border where each passenger had to go through customs twice, once with the Hungarian police, the next with the Serbs—both took smoke breaks midway through their rounds. When the train finally pulled into Serbia, the thrill of forging into new territory had worn off entirely. The train was baked. The seats were cramped. The scenery had lost its brilliance, with the most notable topographies being poorly concealed landfills and miles of dehydrated cornfields. If you look at a map, you’ll realize that Serbia is actually quite a long country compared to its Balkan neighbors, and though its south is legended for mountain lakes and craggy heights, the northern half is completely flat. This was the plain we had to cross in order to get to Belgrade. Admittedly, the distance from Budapest to Belgrade is only 250 miles, which would take four hours by car. The train took nine hours.
After an hour’s crawl through the cornfields, the train stalled again. Someone lit up a cigarette, and soon the entire compartment was a hot box, combatting heat with smoke. There was no water on the train, and I thought woefully of my water bottle laying on Keleti’s tracks. A group of Hungarian university students dealt with this dehydration by opening a bottle of slivovitz and passing it among themselves. Other passengers wandered to the back of the train and pushed a door’s “open” button to let in gasps of slightly less hot air. The automatic door would close after 30 seconds, so they would push it again. And again. And again. When they abandoned their post, Sasha and I took their place. Continuously hitting the “open” button fed our desperate desire to take back control over the situation.
And yet, no one else in the train seemed particularly disturbed by the circumstances. Of course the train is slow and stalls every 50 kilometers, they seemed to say. Of course there isn’t water on the train, that’s why you bring plum brandy along. Yes, we are all uncomfortable, but you know what? Life is pain. I was not resilient enough to adopt this mentality: I clung to the delusion that someone out there still cared about the customer’s $13 experience. Seven hours into the journey, I needed out, so I marched to the head of the train to ask the conductor what the hell was going on. When I opened the door to the next car, a blast of cool air met me. There, an entire compartment—an entire compartment!—empty, with big seats, with air conditioning! At the very back of it two conductors slumped in their seats—God knows who was actually driving the train—and they seemed too bored to care that I was trespassing in the business class car. Sasha and I passed the next hour taking turns sitting in that car (fearing that two of us at the same time would push our luck too far), but eventually one of the conductors gave a loud, irritated grunt, which we took to mean that our time was up. Why no one else on the train tried to sneak into that compartment I will never understand.
Our arrival into Belgrade was anti-climactic. The train pulled into the station, exhaled its pent-up steam, and we all stumbled off. Sasha’s chess teacher was waiting for him on the platform, so he bid me farewell and we never saw each other again. Then I stood and waited—a friend of a friend of a friend had supposedly offered to pick me up and drive me to my lodging, so my only option was to bank on that, for I had made no other plans. A few minutes later a short stocky man with a blond crew cut strode towards me.
“Are you Maggie? Hello I am Goran. What did you take the train? Don’t you know the bus is faster?”
Amidst all its joys, there is something disturbingly unnatural about traveling. Humans are meant to live in communities, where you rely upon others and others rely upon you. Traveling removes you from your place in the world and deprives you of a greater purpose. A flaneur, you drift from one novelty to the next until solipsism renders you insignificant.
Belgrade rescued me from that insignificance. It took me in and welcomed me as one of its own, if only for 36 short hours. It showed me the life hidden in the city and invited me to participate. And in certain ways, it needed me to participate as well.
Goran was the son of the colleague of the husband of my mom’s old friend whom she hadn’t spoken with for ten years. Somehow he, along with many other Belgradians, got word that I was coming and offered to greet me upon arrival. For obvious reasons I presumed this would be the extent of our interaction, but Belgrade had other ideas in mind. I soon discovered that my visit to the city was somewhat of a phenomenon. Belgrade was excited to introduce itself, to showcase its best. My visit was an opportunity for it to prove to the world that it was not a second-class city. Though its petition to join the EU had been suspended and it had fallen on the wrong side of history for the entire twentieth century, Belgrade fancies itself one of the great European capitals.
Yet it would be inaccurate to say that Belgrade’s welcome felt like coming home. For nowhere else in Europe had I encountered such peculiar social mannerisms. Belgradians are blunt. They speak their minds for better or for worse. When taking my photograph in front of a mosaic, Yulia would stop and say, “You know, I really must tell you something. You look really awkward when you stand that way. It does not look feminine at all.” But it was this honesty that made us fast friends—instead of filling silence with pleasantries, they confided in me about their latest diet and fears of flying and memories of their wedding, topics I haven’t discussed with many of my friends back home. But even then, these conversations were not needed to forge friendship. As I would find, Belgradians speak kindness with actions, not words.
In this fashion, Goran did not waste time with frivolous introductions. His English was flawless, but clipped, so that everything felt like a covert business deal. I soon realized that I would have to economize my words if I was going to make it in this city. Our conversation went something like this:
“Okay, I will drive you to your apartment. I will make sure that it is safe before you go inside. Do you want to have dinner with my family?”
“Oh, that’s really nice of you to offer, but you don’t have to…”
“Do you want to have dinner with my family?”
“Well … sure …that’s so kind of you … thank you!”
“Okay. We can eat at eight or nine. What time do you want to eat?”
“Oh, whatever time is best for you….”
“Eight or nine?”
“Oh! ... How about eight?”
“Okay. Here is your apartment. I know that it is safe here. See you at eight.”
At eight o’clock exactly three generations of Goran’s family drove up to take me to one of Belgrade’s nicest restaurants. The situation was so absurd that I stopped doubting what I was doing. At the restaurant:
“What do you want to eat?”
“I think I’ll have the pasta.”
“You are ordering that because it is cheap.” (True.) “You are in Serbia. You must eat meat.”
Goran’s family proceeded to order five dishes for me to sample. Greasy cevapcici, stewed lamb and spinach, cucumbers and tomatoes and goat’s cheese ... Everything was exquisite, but there was little time to dwell on the food—the family wanted to talk politics. Goran began quizzing me about Serbian history, going through the long list of wars and regimes it had witnessed only in the past century. From a Western perspective, Serbia has a lot to atone for, from harboring Titoism to limiting the sovereignty of many of its Balkan neighbors. One of my history professors once called it a “nasty little nation” for rearing its head and upsetting the delicate balance of 1914 Europe. Serbia, however, does not approach its history with contrition. As Goran asked me about each era of the past century, I got the sense that he viewed his country as a tragic figure. Perhaps it had made some mistakes, but it has suffered the mistakes of many others, and more than anything, it is misunderstood by those who condemn it. Recklessness is part of Serbian character, as I learned when I found a side street named after Gavrilo Princip and when Yulia shouted gleefully “Watch out! You are in the Balkans now!” as I stepped off a curb and was almost hit by a car.
When Goran’s questioning came to recent history, I admitted ignorance, hoping this would prompt him to give his take on the matter.
“Do you know about Kosovo?”
“Not so much…”
“Good. It is better that way.”
Of all the painful truths that were shared with me that weekend, that is the only statement I still cringe at. It was a huge mistake on my part not to acknowledge the U.S.’s shady role in the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade. The rub is, I might not have even known this if I had researched prior to visiting. Just as much as it is for Serbia, it is a sore point in American history. When Yugoslavia invaded Kosovo to suppress an Albanian independence movement, Madeleine Albright had given Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic an ultimatum to permit NATO occupation of Serbian territory, in addition to Kosovo territory. This ultimatum was beside the goal of the NATO mission—it was Kosovo it was trying to protect, not Serbia to reform. When Milosevic refused to comply with these unnecessary demands, the bombing began. Scars of it still pock the cityscape, and memories of it are still open wounds. Later that weekend, Yulia would loudly interrupt a tour guide from a foreign company who implied that Kosovo was now an independent country: «Kosovo is still part of Serbia!» Other friends would explain the senselessness of it all—they had grown up in Bosnia, spent summer vacation with their grandparents in Kosovo, and now the world denies that this was a part of their Serbian past. After the bombing had ceased, Belgradians woke up to find The Monument of Gratitude to France, erected in 1930, covered in shrouds. Back home, I found a copy of Ivo Andric’s The Damned Yard on our bookshelf. Tucked inside of it was a clipping of a 1999 Wall Street Journal editorial explaining the untold side of the Kosovo War. That my first exposure to this story came from a yellowed newspaper clipping that fell out of an obscure book embodies America’s approach to this part of its history. As Goran put it, it is better if you don’t know about it.
In spite of these trials, or because of them, Belgrade pursues life with an obstinate vigor that unites a city otherwise fraught by politics. Such verve is not evident at first glance—aging scaffolding surrounds all of the main museums, and communist block apartments render many of the streets subdued and anonymous. When government is mentioned, the Serbs will just laugh coldly—the government is so corrupt it is a joke. Orthodoxy, the national religion, is being used by the jingoists to promote a one-dimensional version of Serbian identity. This is evident in the construction of St. Sava’s Cathedral, incorrectly claimed to be the world’s largest Orthodox structure. Though it was started in 1935, it is still unfinished—the interior is completely hollow. While the country suffers as one of the poorest countries in Europe, the government raises an enormous billboard advertising the erection of four skyscrapers on the north end of the city that would ruin its famed Sava-Danube riverscape. Goran scoffed at the billboard and assured me that it would never come to fruition—it was just muscle-flexing of a government that would never have the money to do more damage than it already had done.
No, the soul of Belgrade can be found in the quiet cobblestone streets of Zemun quarter, in the nightlife pulse of Sava Mala, where an accordion synthes across the river confluence. It can be found in a music academy auditorium where a precocious student angers his teacher by performing a song the teacher had never heard before. It is in the gypsy who attacks windshields at stoplights in hopes of a couple of dinars, it is in the frescos hidden inside courtyards, it is in sitting at a sidewalk cafe and knowing every fourth person who walks past you. Belgrade is in the bated breath as the city watches Novak Djokovic battle for his first Grand Slam at the French Open, and it is in the fierce pride felt by all when they see him shed tears at his loss. It is in the handle of rakia that Goran tried to send me home with, and it is in the exchange,
“May I pay you for my dinner?”
“No. That’s not how it works here.”
* * *
The visit was too short, but it was time to go home. Belgrade had reminded me how important it is to love where you’re from, with all of its flaws, mundanities, and peculiarities. With a renewed sense of purpose, I re-boarded the train, but I was still struck by a deep sense of loss as it pulled out of the station. This feeling perplexed me the entire trip home (which would last three days, but that’s another story). How is it that an immediate bond can be formed between strangers, and it can last even if you never see each other again? I’ve thought about this for a long time, and the only way I can explain it is with the phenomenon of the world soul. Many before me have contemplated it. The Talmud writes that an entire world is contained in every individual human being. Dostoyevsky, too, considered this idea: in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov’s murders disturbed the balance of the universe and consequently, the balance of Raskolnikov’s mind. On a happier note, I believe the world soul animated my travels across Europe. I found it when I was lost in Krakow and we nervously laughed together as she pantomimed directions. I found it under blue onion domes in Paris when he handed me a piece of bread and spoke to me in Russian. It told me about its hopes and regrets in a vacant art gallery in Kalemegdan Park, it grasped my arm and promised me we’d see each other again on my last night in Europe. I found it in Lev and Yulia, Goran and Sasha, and all the others whose names and faces are lost to time, but whose spirits I will never forget. What drew us together is that the other contains a completely foreign universe that is somehow connected to our own inner world. We are fascinated with each other because the other is simultaneously novel and familiar.
This is a truth only travel can teach us. It shakes us out of our daily stupor, where we take others for granted and get lost in our own minds. As I pulled out of Belgrade, I realized that whatever force it is that makes this life profound, worth living, it is intensely human.