Thought bubbles and assorted jottings
The national character
In Australia, a myth asserts that the national character was forged in a battle against the Ottoman Turks that was bravely fought but lost.1 In Serbia, a myth asserts that the national character was forged in a battle against the Ottoman Turks that was bravely fought but lost.2 The difference is that the Serbs were defending their country against a foreign invader, whereas we were a foreign invader.
Serbia has suffered hundreds of years of attacks, invasions and occupations, including months of bombing by NATO in 1999. By contrast, Australia has been fortunate—there has only been one serious foreign military attack3 on Australian soil since European colonisation. I wonder if this has contributed to a certain stoicism among Serbs and an occasional, undignified triumphalism among Australians.
As painters in Australia celebrate sunlight,
so painters in the Balkans celebrate shadows.
Canberra’s population has a greater proportion of people from the countries of the former Yugoslavia than any other Australian city. For many decades they have asserted an enormous influence on Canberra’s culture, but their contribution has remained almost completely unacknowledged. (A 2008 article in the Canberra Times4 alluded to the fact, but it went almost completely unnoticed.)
Balkan hospitality is legendary. We've made friends with people in Montenegro and Serbia who became wonderfully generous hosts. Even complete strangers can be unexpectedly welcoming. A farmer in South of Serbia invited us into his home simply because we were walking past his front gate. And it's not the only time that's happened.
Crafts and Art
Unlike Australia, the visual arts are valued in Serbia, in spite of difficult economic times. Artists are respected. Their art schools foster both innovative contemporary art and traditional skills. Some traditional crafts have struggled to survive but craft works are still being produced in the distinctive style of each region, with a remarkable level of skill.
Atmospheric pollution is common in major cities, it was even severe in Canberra during the 2019–20 bushfire season. According to news reports, older diesel cars, domestic heaters, factories and nearby open-cut coal mines contribute to a smog that sometimes envelops Belgrade. According to Ruth, it’s probably millions of cigarettes filling the air with tobacco smoke.
Serbia has a long and proud literary history. There are still plenty of bookshops in Belgrade, and most of the texts are printed in Serbian Cyrillic, српска ћирилица. Cyrillic scripts were developed gradually from the 10th century. Serbian Cyrillic was made strictly phonetic in 1818 and adopted officially in 1868.
The tradition of illuminating Cyrillic letters is kept alive today by dedicated and skilful embroiderers who often make use older forms of the letters. Latin script is officially recognised in Serbia, but Cyrillic is taught first in primary schools. Cyrillic is commonly used in signs and public notices, so navigating the streets or catching a bus is easier for foreigners who learn азбука, the alphabet.
In Belgrade, the galleries and museums display an enormous range of artworks, from traditional representational and decorative art to contemporary conceptual works.
One day, we were drinking fruit juice outside a bar in New Belgrade. A sparrow flew into a windowpane and lay stunned on the ground. We watched. One by one, each of the waiters came out to tut sympathetically and ensure that the sparrow was lying in a safe place until it recovered.
Belgrade has some beautifully renovated buildings and some building that are crying out for renovation. Even some with run-down exteriors have wonderful interiors.
After 60 years, most of the blocks of flats from the Tito era have become very ugly on the outside, but they are often remarkably comfortable on the inside. Residents have always been able to redesign or renovate their flats and take pride in the interiors. And former residents recount memories of happy childhoods spent in the communities these blocks created.
Apart from the flats, the buildings in central Belgrade display a great variety of styles with lots of lovely details—balconies, curved corners, ornaments, frescoes… but you have to look up, or poke your head inside, before you see the best of them.