There is a curse saying that all the people born in Belgrade are forever doomed to live with Belgrade inside them. Even if they may not live in Belgrade any more. It continues to exist and grow inside them. If it has nothing else to sustain itself, it feeds on their memories. Not so much on memories of the streets, markets, steps or benches as on memories of all the people who live there. The people who are Belgrade.
Those people, just like the city itself, fall and rise again. They were, like the city, knocked down so many times in the past that they themselves have lost count. They were alone, misunderstood and scared. Those are the people who change your life, not by their desire to do so, but by the mere fact they exist, so unique and so true to themselves. They are not the people who live next to you, they are the people who, from the very outset, live inside you. Just like Belgrade.
Those people are not like the other people, nor is that Belgrade like the other cities. They leave a mark on you, they teach you a lesson, they chisel you so aptly that you can never belong to anyone but yourself. They happen unexpectedly. Maybe because they sit behind you in secondary school, because they failed the same exam you did, because they buy coffee at the same place you do, because they get off at the same stop you do.
Belgrade is the only city that can cry with you. It is the only city that lets you leave knowing that you will love it even more then. Belgrade sometimes drives you away only to teach you to have more respect for what it has given to you.
Belgrade is the only city that has managed to save its bridges by hundreds of meters of its citizens’ hands clasped together with their fingers interlocked, save its window panes by kilometres of Sellotape and save its banks by thousands of sacks filled with sweat. Belgrade is the only city that has succeeded in keeping its citizens’ dignity for them by giving new opportunities to those who have repented. Even those who swore they would never set foot on its territory again returned to it because it does not consider anyone an unwanted guest. Belgrade is the only city where all the South Slavic languages are spoken in all their various vernaculars, all the dialects, all the accents, because it is only there, at the navel of the Balkans, that what you say is valued more than how you say it.
In all its humbleness, it is so grand that it endows you with the knowledge of the world. It teaches you not to be afraid of distances, expanses, infinity and wide boulevards. In all its poverty, it is so proud that it teaches you to walk with your head held high even though you may not have anything else apart from who you are. It teaches you how to be moderate, how to show manners and stand up while shaking hands with people. And finally, quite paradoxically, despite being a province when compared to some world metropolises, it teaches you how to quit the provincial mentality.
Even when you miss it, it does not call you back. It just screams inside you, driving you even further away, not letting you forget everything it has taught you. It encourages you, it teases you and in the end it pats you on the shoulder. It knows you can do more, you can go further, that you will rise, that you will survive. And that you will only become better with time. Just like itself.
There is another curse saying that all the people who have ever lived in Belgrade, even for a short period of time, even if they were not born in it, will continue living with Belgrade. Even when they return where they came from or go somewhere else. Because Belgrade is not just a city, it is a way of life. Ask them, they will tell you themselves.
And, yes… There is an auspicious coincidence by which there is no single person in the world who has not encountered someone from Belgrade. Because of this, there is no single citizen of Belgrade who does not carry the world inside themselves.
Translated from the Serbian by Svetlana Milivojević-Petrović
This post is also available in: Serbian