добро дошли !

The first words I read upon landing in Belgrade  weren’t actually part of an exotic-looking Cyrillic greeting, nor were they the captions of the HSBC ad campaign that framed every other flight I’ve taken this year.  “Karen Karbiener” greeted me from a sign held up by smiling Dida Stojanovic, the American Embassy’s indispensable Cultural Affairs Assistant.  Dida had ensured a warm welcome for me well before this moment: her fact-filled, friendly emails and her assistance in rescuing a package from Serbian customs humanized complex and often mysterious processes.  We chatted like old friends on the way in to Belgrade, and I found her a great source for juicy tidbits about the city—like the location of its own Silicone Valley, a street well known for its plastic surgeons and parading patients.

After meeting Cultural Affairs Officer Susan Delja at the American Embassy, the three of us walked down Kneza Milosa to the Monument Café, a sleek restaurant with a shaded terrace humming with conversation and a scene-setting soundtrack (you’ll here piped-in music almost everywhere you walk in Serbian cities, from walking streets to public parks).  We were joined by Jeff Lash, the only other Fulbrighter to be sent to Serbia this year.   Susan recommended the cheesecake, and all of us—except you, Dida!—indulged as we were briefed on the Embassy’s cultural activities.  Though the American presence returned less than ten years ago after Milosevic fell, and Susan’s only been in her position for two years, she and her staff have been busy inviting American speakers and initiating new programs designed to build understanding and cooperation between the two countries.  “It’s a great time to be here,” Susan said, and I knew she meant it as she described the interesting challenges of raising daughters in central Belgrade.

–I know what you’re thinking.  Yes, this is a perfect place for a photo of Susan, Dida, Jeff and I.  But at this point I was still shaken from what happened when I tried to photograph the American Embassy earlier that afternoon.  The grand building at 50 Kneza Milosa was firebombed last year during the Kosovo crisis, and though the Embassy is still in full operation, they have kept the front windows boarded up and painted as white as the building itself.  It’s s ominously faceless— and a great photo opp.  You’ll have to believe me when I tell you that an Embassy guard asked me to show him the photos I had taken, and then watched as I erased them.  And to accept the fact that you’ll never know what the Embassy looks like (unless you google it, of course.  I see from what’s out there that I should have just crossed the street).

So, let me focus on a subject that’s much less camera-shy: the esteemed and energetic political geographer Jeff Lash.


Jeff’s in front of the Hotel Moscow, an art nouveau landmark in the center of the city.  The street vibe here is electric and slick, thanks to the designer-clad crowds, the chaos of power lines, neon signs, and the very cool Soviet-era building facades.


We’re headed to “Landscape of Life”, a print exhibition curated Fulbright Senior Scholar Sandria Hu.  But we’ve got a lot to catch up on since we last chatted at the Fulbright debriefing in July, so we take our time getting there.  Jeff, his wife Gretchen and sons Perrin and Addis have settled into an apartment in the neighborhood of Dorcal, near Danube-rimmed Kalmegdan Park.  He’s sharp, well-traveled, and enthusiastic about teaching political geography on this volatile ground.  Though we’re trained in different fields, we share a strong interest in how physical space shapes political and social movements.  I’m ranting about Carl Sanderson’s “Mannahatta”, which vividly shows how New York’s topography shaped its history; Jeff redirects my attention to our current environs, pointing out some unusual features of Kneza Mihaila, Belgrade’s colorful pedestrian zone.


My last visit to Belgrade was in 2006, and I was surprise how much more ‘western’ the city and its people looked this time around.  Aldo, Nike, Adidas, Zara: has it really been less than 10 years since Milosevic’s Yugoslavia?

There were reminders, however, that these gentrified streets were the site of terrible violence in the not-too-distant past.  Just a few blocks away from the scene above, pedestrians stroll by the carcasses of buildings bombed by NATO in 1999.  These derelict piles are a raw reminder of our involvement in the fall of Yugoslavia.  I can’t imagine looking at them—or not looking at them– every day.  As a New Yorker, I must consider how I might have coped with walking by the standing remains of the World Trade Center for a few years.  How quickly we shielded ourselves from that sight, even dressing the remains of the Deutsche Bank building with somber black netting.  Buildings can’t even be imploded anymore on Manhattan island; if they’re slated for demolition, they are disassembled floor by floor.

What does it do to a city, a people, to be forced to live with such monumental reminders of tragedy and pain?


Other signs of ugly trouble are literally plastered around Belgrade.  These posters went up days before the “Pride Parade” of September 20th and helped inspire the concern that led to the cancellation of Serbia’s second-ever gay pride event.  The caption says something like “we’re going to get you!” and its graphic depicts a flag-waving mob.


Yes, that’s Englebert Humperdinck’s smile breaking through this wall of hate.   What a great place to plaster and layer those ads for feel-good concerts, revolutionary exhibitions, progressive marches– even well-intentioned ad campaigns… yo Levi’s!  I see you’ve got something going here, with “Original Levi’s Stores” popping up in Balkan shopping malls, and little red tags displayed on some of Belgrade’s most influential ‘quarters.  How about bringing on that Whitmanic ad campaign where you might really help things “go forth”?  (yes, that’s Whitman’s voice reading his poem “America” around 1890, though Levi’s doesn’t mention his name in the credits.)

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Avatar of Karen Karbiener

Karen Karbiener

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10 2009

1 Comments Add Yours ↓

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  1. Avatar of Mara Scanlon

    Your lengthy posts are very satisfying to me!– so glad you have arrived safely into that amazing beauty and desolation. We are looking forward to seeing your class arrive online soon.


    p.s. The UMW students have been grappling a bit on the Digital Whitman site with those Levi ads, which are a timely bit of Whitman-gone-global-via-commercialism; there’s another with “O! Pioneers!”

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