In Moscow, sometimes on my way home from work, I would stop and sit at a concrete park next to my apartment complex. Two large, stone fountains acted as practical decoration and nothing more. Pink and grey granite blocks paved a walkway for brisk locals, hurrying up and down the underpasses, just trying to get to the nearest Metro station. Colossal, imposing structures of the city loomed over us.
On a crisp spring afternoon, during the early fall, or in the midst of the summer heat I would often grab a seat on one of the clean and orderly benches just behind a towering statue of Lenin. Depending on the time of year, the sun would either hide its face, or proudly pop out from behind the buildings. Or there would be no sun at all, and the shadow of early dusk would hover on my back, the city lights turning on and making this город (city) of mine even more beautiful.
And in Lenin’s shadow I would find peace, stillness, and silence. While taking a single, selfish moment of reflection before carrying on with the rest of my day, the blaring white noise of the Садовое Кольцо (Garden Ring Road) would soothe my thoughts, and bring joy to my mind.
Over two years later, I find myself, here in Belgrade, often doing the very same thing. In the poetic late October, pink skies light up a dreary scene as I take my mark. And on a day like today, the thick mud of a snowstorm long-passed clutters the sidewalks. The faint smell of mist in the air promises early spring, yet reminds us that winter is, in fact, here to stay a while longer. A day like today, is when I grab a seat at my spot in the park at Vukov Spomenik.
But here I don’t look past the proud shoulders of Vladimir Lenin. No… instead I stare dazedly onto the hunched ones of Ćirilo i Metodije (Cyril and Methodius)…in a city of a much smaller scale. I can’t help but ponder about how much and how little these two monuments have in common. What do they represent?
Both figures ushered in a new era for their nation or region of the world. The saints, a new alphabet, and Lenin, a new political and social regime. Both mark a stage of transition.
There are no piercing sounds drifting over from the Садовое…rather the subtle chaos of the meager Kralja Aleksandra whispers in the background. No one shuffles by me to clean the streets as I sit in silence. No one to clear the sidewalks of the piles of wet snow, and no one sweeping up old cigarette butts or the plastic wrapping of someone’s afternoon snack. There is a harsher life here; yes a harsher life, and warmer smiles.
There is no distinct smell of sawdust and exhaust seeping through the Metro doors nearby: the subtle signs of an underground world beneath my shoes. Instead, a rusty old tram with chipping red paint hurriedly rattles past me…hurriedly, yet in slow motion.
But here, I see cheerful neighbors greeting one another. Smiling business-owners laugh and gossip, cigarette in hand, while a grey lens envelopes the crumbling backdrop. Just like on the streets near Lenin, shops line the roads. And their keepers recognize you, greeting you with a Zdravo, komšinice! (Hello, neighbor!) Instead of a что вы хотите? (What do you want?)
I recognize traces of a language I once knew…this language is still evident within me, but is fading into the distance by the letter. Words are replaced with…the same words, just with a funnier pronunciation. Or words I once held dear, I now use with an entirely different meaning.
Is there any significance to my being in, living in, and loving either of these two cities? Am I not a foreigner in both? To which am I a native? Which will unapologetically accept me for who I am? Who I am…Who I am…
The two saint brothers crouch over, the tops of their heads sprinkled with pigeon poop. Claimed by every Balkan nation as their own, they lack a single identity. They look small; weak.
But I miss the rigid sternness of Lenin’s face, of its domineering authority. I miss the dynamic neighborhood skateboarders swiftly gliding at his feet, under the powerful, steel structure.
This spot of transition brings on a painful form of nostalgia—the good kind: wishing I were home. But I am “home.” Inspired. Lonely. Safe. Free. All at the same time…and in the same way I felt sitting here (there) many moons ago. I don’t want to forget. I close my eyes to be transported back and just like magic I take a seat, and the rest of the world doesn’t matter.