An American in Serbia: From a Writer’s Notebook
AUGUST 18, 2018
ALYOSHA, A SERB WITH A RUSSIAN NAME AND LOVE OF AMERICA, AUSTRALIA
“Mr Bob?” a tall man in his mid 40s with curly black hair asked me as I left the customs are at the Belgrade airport on Saturday night.
“That’s my name.”
“I am your driver, Alyosha (Алёша in Russian, a diminutive for Alexei),” the man said with stretching out his hand for a handshake. “That’s a Russian name,” he added almost apologetically.
“What happened to Lucky?” I asked.
“He is on another job.”
Alyosha took one of my bags. We walked across the road to a parking lot where he paid for a ticket. Like Lucky, he also drove a Mercedes limo. Only his was cream color (Lucky’s was black).
While I was waiting for him to do that, I got a text from a good friend who was waiting for me to come home. I had told her I had a different driver this time – Alyosha. “Super,” she replied. “You’ll get to know all taxi drivers.” 🙂
Once in the car, I asked the driver, “so how did you get to have a Russian name?”
“Oh, that was my mother,” he said waiving her off with indignation like an annoying insect.
His mother was evidently a Russophile. I didn’t press for more information. He was clearly uncomfortable talking about his name.
When Alyosha was a child in the 1970s, he must have been teased mercilessly my other kids about his Russian name. Russia was actually known back then as the Soviet Union, a communist empire. Yugoslavia, on the other hand, though also a communist country, had taken an independent path, frequently courting both the United States and the USSR governments and playing them off against each other.
So I imagine Alyosha must have been labeled as a “Stalinist.” Which is only one step down from being called Adolf. No wonder he still sounded annoyed with his mother.
But when Alyosha found out that I was an American who had returned to Belgrade after nearly 50 years to see what living here again would be like, he opened up like a lotus flower. He told me how he loved going to the States. And said he had just received a 10-year US visa.
“A 10-year visa?” I said. “I’ve never heard of anything like that.
I described a multi-national a couple I know back in Arizona. “She is an American. But her husband is Dutch. When he comes to stay with her, they never let him stay for more than 90 days.”
“When I go to the States,” Alyosha explained, “the immigration officer in New York asks me, ‘how long do you intend to stay?’ And I reply, ’15 days.’ Then he decides for how long my visa would be good for.”
He then reached into a back on the passenger seat and pulled out his passport. He opened it to the page with a large American visa stamp.
“Here,” he said. “You can see for yourself.”
“I see,” I replied. “So it’s really a multiple-entry visa, like a ‘master’ visa, not a single 10-year visa. That must save the US consulates time and money in processing a visa for each visit.”
“That’s right,” Alyosha said. “Americans are smart. They know they can revoke that visa any time if I do something stupid.”
“I have only been to New York,” he added. “I would like to take a trip to see some more of America.”
“In that case, you will need to take at least 15 trips, not just one. America is a big country.
In terms of land mass, the United States and Europe are similar in size. The US is 9,833,000 square kilometers while Europe is 10,180,000 square kilometers. But European countries are smaller closer in size to eastern states in America – which are smaller and closer together than the vast western states.
A PRODIGAL SON RETURNS
When Alyosha that was trying out what it is like to live in Belgrade again after a nearly 50-year hiatus, he became fascinated and asked me a million questions.
“I was born in 1973, so I really don’t know what life was like under real communism,” he said. “I hear people say it was better back then. Was it?”
“Not for me,” I said. “I left because of the communists. I could not stand living in a state of oppression like that.”
“The life was good for a small minority of oppressors who have usurped the power and were living high off the hog. But for the rest of the people, it was pretty miserable.”
“I figured something like that,” Alyosha said sounding pensive. “It’s the same now with the new people in power.”
But when he found out that I had been visiting Belgrade regularly during the 1990s when I worked as a war correspondent, he became even more intrigued and animated.
He told me that in the early 1990s he had world for Politika, which was and still is the major newspaper in the country. And for several other media outfits. At the time, I also used to meet regularly with the publisher and director of Politika, and the editor-in[-chief. I tried their names of Alyosha, but he was clueless.
“Must have been too low on the totem pole,” I thought to myself. It was probably his first job after high school.
STREETS ARE BETTER, PEOPLE ARE WORSE
“So what do you think now after your first two months in Belgrade?” Alyosha asked. “Are things now better or worse than back then?”
“Well,” I said. “Back then, there was war. The country was under genocidal international sanctions. Life, which was hard during the communist era, became even harder. The city’s infrastructure was decaying. Hospitals had no medicines with which to treat patients, unless they had money to buy their own.”
“Now, things seems better. Stores are full. The streets are better.”
“Yes, but the people are worse,” Alyosha interjected.
“The people are worse?”
“Yes. The best ones have left. To get away from the savages who are in power now. Just like you did.”
“Except that I left because of a different kind of savages.”
LOVES AUSTRALIA, GREEK ISLANDS
Alyosha talked about his friends from Kos, a Greek island off the western coast of Turkey. He said that they had also returned home after spending a lifetime in Australia. Now they are running a successful hotel and “are multimillionaires.” Guess my return to my hometown reminded him of them .
“I suppose they are from Melbourne?” I asked.
“How did you know?”
“Because that’s the second largest Greek city in the world” (after Athens).
I then told Alyosha that I used to live (part time) in Australia. And how I once happen to be in Melbourne during a Greek festival.
“It was a madhouse,” I said. “Downtown streets were jam-packed elbow-to-elbow with people.
“That’s the place I would like to live in,” Alyosha said. “So how come you didn’t stay in Australia?”
“Because I did not want to work for the servants,” I said. “Australia, as well as Britain and other Anglo countries are US vassals. When Washington says ‘jump,’ their governments say, ‘how high?'”
“People who work 9-5 don’t care about things like that,” Alyosha said.
“You’re right. They don’t. But I do. If I want to compete in business, I want to do it with the most powerful in the world, not their servants.”
INVITATION TO A LOCAL BAR
Then Alyosha told me about a good friend he has in my neighborhood with whom he spends a lot of time. So he invited him to join them some evening at a local bar.
“Thank you,” I said. “But I don’t drink and I don’t care for bars especially where there are a lot of smokers.”
“But this is a really nice place,” Alyosha insisted. “And the patrons are all good local people. Higher class people.”
I said I’d think about it.
For those of you who might be wondering what taxi service to use in Belgrade for airport rides, here it is. Belgradetaxi.com scored 10 out of 10 on both of my rides. The limos are clean and comfortable, the drivers courteous and punctual. What more can one ask for from a taxi service?