Tag Archives: Salonica

Salonica p.s.: cool map

8 Dec

Click here to see full size:

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Ekathimerini: The ghosts of Thessaloniki are still here, by Leon Saltiel

8 Dec

When I say that “Salonica and Izmir are both giant graveyards for me” this is part of what I mean.

Thessaloniki’s Jewish cemetery as it was before it was destroyed in 1942, during the German occupation of Greece. The cemetery was established in ancient times and on the eve of the Second World War counted approximately 500,000 graves in an area of 350,000 square meters, making it probably the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe and maybe the world.

Seventy-five years ago today, during the German occupation of Greece, began the destruction of the historic Jewish cemetery of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city. The cemetery was established in ancient times and on the eve of the Second World War counted approximately 500,000 graves in an area of 350,000 square meters, making it probably the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe and maybe the world. Within a few weeks, wrote an eyewitness, “the vast necropolis, scattered with fragments of stone and rubble, resembled a city that had been bombed, or destroyed by a volcanic eruption.” According to a report by the US consul in Istanbul, “recently buried dead were thrown to the dogs.”

This act was not a purely German initiative. Besides, one can visit Jewish cemeteries today in the center of Berlin. The initiative came from the local authorities, which for a long time had tried to remove the cemetery from its location, close to the city center. “And this damned German occupation had to come, when, with the collaboration of an ironic fate, this old unsolvable problem of Thessaloniki found its dramatic solution,” in the words of Thessaloniki intellectual Georgios Vafopoulos. In its place today is the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

Its destruction traumatized the Jewish community, which at the time constituted 25 percent of the city’s population. It removed the symbolic roots of the Jewish residents from their native city. They were eyewitnesses of the sacrilegious flattening of the tombs of their ancestors. This destruction solidified the convergence of interests between the German and the local authorities, to the degree that it was described as the “harbinger of the soon total destruction of the whole Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, the most numerous center of the Jewry of the Orient.” In fact, a few months later commenced the transport of the vast majority of the Jewish population of the city, some 46,000 souls, to the extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In 2014, during the inauguration of the monument for the destroyed Jewish necropolis on the grounds of the university, Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris stated that the city “is ashamed of this unjust and guilty silence” and the stance of the city authorities at the time. The late vice rector of the university, Ioannis Pantis, stressed that, “today, however, the Aristotle University, free from guilt syndromes, regards this past, the history and loss of the Jews of Thessaloniki, as part of its own history as well.” Indeed, in recent years, a lot of progress has been made in the context of Jewish memory in the city, as shown by the planned creation of a Holocaust Museum, the re-establishment of the university chair of Jewish studies, the multilevel educational initiatives at Greek schools and the integration of this history into the school curriculum, the annual march of memory and the placement of memory stones.

Nevertheless, there are still issues that remain open: With the destruction of the cemetery, the place became a huge quarry and its materials were used for construction purposes. In Thessaloniki’s Cathedral of Saint Demetrius, one of at least 17 churches in the city for whose construction materials from the cemetery were used, one can still find marbles with Jewish inscriptions, from the “500 pieces of marble” which those then responsible had requested in October 1943 for the “reconstruction of the temple.”

The Royal Theater of Thessaloniki was laid in 1943 with “250 square meters of plaques 50 x 50 cm from marble from the former Jewish cemeteries,” according to the tender of the municipality, which can still be seen today. Vafopoulos narrates that German officer Max Merten “was jumping on them with his boots, saying that he could hear the squeaks from the bones of the Jews.”

The university’s medical school, established in 1943, used tombstones as anatomy tables, “constructed three troughs made of concrete and took bodies from the cemetery which were put inside for the practice of the students.” Unfortunately, notwithstanding how macabre all these facts may be, such examples in the city are many and visible to this day.

This sacrilege was legitimized by the widespread use of the materials by so many city institutions and the deafening silence that followed. The mayor and the university authorities made an important first step – admittedly with a grand delay. Seventy-five years later, in the name of historical memory and in a spirit of respect, brotherhood and humanity, the other institutions have the responsibility to expose this history and the origin of the materials with which they were built.

[My emphases]


* Leon Saltiel holds a PhD in contemporary Greek history from the University of Macedonia and is a postdoctoral fellow at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva with more than 15 years’ experience on human rights issues around the world, the majority of which was working with the United Nations institutions in Geneva.

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P.P.S. Salonica and the myth of the Olympus view

6 Dec

Ok, see, now a fictional image/painting is something I’ll accept:

Oh, no, wait… That’s Ararat.

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P.S. Salonica and the myth of the Olympus view

6 Dec

Someone is trying to counter my post Salonica and the myth of the Olympus viewwith what’s obviously a doctored image:

The nerve! Click on image below and tell me that’s not photo-shopped!!!

But “keep trying”.

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Write us: with comments or observations, or to be put on our mailing list or to be taken off our mailing list, contact us at nikobakos@gmail.com.

Salonica and the myth of the Olympus view

23 Nov

One of the lesser sells people use on me when they try to sell me Salonica, a city I really dislike, is the view one supposedly has of majestic Mt. Olympus across the Thermaico Gulf, especially in the winter when it’s snow-capped. The bigger sells are the city’s buzzing, genteel corniche, (I guess nice, but not nearly as beautiful as any of the promenades of Athens’ southern suburbs, from which you can see the sun set on Aegina, Salamina and the Peloponnese in the distance on most days), the food, it being the great refugee metropolis after all (uniformly mediocre), Salonica’s supposed διάχυτο romance and eroticism (?), and the many Byzantine monuments; the only one I buy is the last.

Salonica, like a lot of central and eastern Macedonia has a generally muggy and humid climate in the summer, and a foggy, misty one in winter, so I have never been in Salonica, in any season, on a day when I could see Olympus across the gulf. But…a few moments ago Nikos Michailidis@NikosMichailid4 tweeted a picture of the city from its older, upper town, captioned: “Ηλιοβασίλεμα και στο βάθος Όλυμπος…”“Sunset and in the background Olympus …”

And you know what?

I can’t see Olympus in this photograph either!

Keep trying.

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Write us: with comments or observations, or to be put on our mailing list or to be taken off our mailing list, contact us at nikobakos@gmail.com.

Salonica and Izmir are both giant graveyards for me: I dislike them equally.

7 Sep

If it weren’t for St. Demetrios I would never go to Salonica, and I try to never have to be in Izmir except when passing through to go somewhere else.

Yugoslavia: Yeah, you found a very cool stamp. Do you have any clue what it means?

12 Nov

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It shows the extreme lengths that the Yugoslav government went to throughout the 1920s and 1930s to hold the country together, under Crown Prince and then King Aleksandar — also known as Aleksandar the Unifier.  At some point during his reign, I think after it became clear that Croatian separatism was determined to obstruct the functioning of the Skupština and the Yugoslav government in any way possible, Aleksandar redrew the constituent regions of Yugoslavia which corresponded to various ethnic groups, and introduced new administrative banovine which were given the ethnically neutral names of the main rivers that ran through each region.

And yet even despite those reforms Serbs still tried to placate Croatian separatists by allowing them — and only them — to retain an ethnic name for its historical region: what’s shown as the “Hrvatska Banovina” on your stamp.

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There is, I think, in much of Serbian pride, or even in Serbian arrogance, a certain sense of what in Greek we call φιλότιμο, “love of honor” crudely put; perhaps a better term would be “noblesse oblige”.  Since Serbs and Serbian blood pretty much created Yugoslavia singlehandedly, by fighting off the Austrians and defeating the Ottomans (along with guaranteeing us possession of Salonica ’cause they kept the Bulgarians busy while Greek Crown Prince Constantine strolled into the city like the conquering hero), you might have expected that they would work to keep a Serbian kingdom ,under the Карађорђевић (Karađorđević) dynasty, where all other ethnic groups — who did nothing to fight for south Slav independence, except tangentially the Macedonians — would simply be subject peoples to the Serbian crown.  Instead, they made a sincere and honest attempt to make the noble experiment of south Slav unity actually work, democratically and harmoniously.  There was even an ideological current running through Serbian intellectual circles of a plan for unification with Bulgaria and even Greece into one greater Balkan state, which would have made it harder for the West to push us around and fuck us up like they did and do; maybe even made us more valuable to the West than Turkey, the tail which wags the Western/US/NATO dog.

And I think King Aleksandar, for all his theoretical faults, was a genuine personification of that sense of Serbian noblesse oblige and ἀρχοντι.

And for his efforts he was assassinated in Marseille in 1934 by a Macedonian separatist in cahoots with the nasty-piece-of-work, Vatican-supported, Croatian Über-Nazi Ustaše.

And that’s what your cool stamp is all about, Charlie Brown.

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King Aleksandar I

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

NYT: Armenian Genocide — “For too long, Turkey bullied America into silence. Not anymore.” — Samantha Power

30 Oct

Not 100% sure how I feel about this; see “Screamers: Genocide: what is it and why do we need the term?.  I voice my major apprehensions there.

But “bully” is such an apt term for the Turkish Republic and the Turkish body politic (“thug” also comes to mind), that I think anything that puts Turkey in its place is a positive development.

29Power-sub-superJumboCredit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

Power’s money quotes:

Although Turkish officials may see the vote as retaliation for Turkey’s recent forced displacement of Syrian Kurds, that operation — as well as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sweeping human rights crackdown in Turkey and his purchase (over American and NATO protests) of a Russian air defense system — simply reduced the impact of Turkish blackmail.

……..

First, as a baseline rule, for the sake of overall American credibility and for that of our diplomats, Washington officials must be empowered to tell the truth.

Over many years, because of the fear of alienating Turkey, diplomats have been told to avoid mentioning the well-documented genocide. In 2005, when John Evans, the American ambassador to Armenia, said that “the Armenian genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century,” he was recalled and forced into early retirement. Stating the truth was seen as an act of subordination.

When I became ambassador to the United Nations in 2013, I worried that I would be asked about the Armenian genocide and that when I affirmed the historical facts, I could cause a diplomatic rupture.

Second, when bullies feel their tactics are working, they generally bully more — a lesson worth bearing in mind in responding to threats from China and Saudi Arabia. The Turkish government devotes millions of dollars annually to lobbying American officials and lawmakers: more than $12 million during the Obama administration, and almost as much during the first two years of the Trump presidency. Turkish officials have threatened to respond to genocide recognition by suspending lucrative financial ties with American companies, reducing security cooperation and even preventing resupply of our troops in Iraq.

On Friday, the Turkish ambassador warned that passage of the “biased” House resolution would “poison” American-Turkish relations, and implied that it would jeopardize Turkish investment in the United States which provides jobs for a “considerable number of American citizens.”

It is easy to understand why any commander in chief would be leery of damaging ties with Turkey, an important ally in a turbulent neighborhood. But Turkey has far more to lose than the United States in the relationship. The United States helped build up Turkey’s military, brought it into NATO and led the coalition that defeated the Islamic State, which carried out dozens of attacks on Turkish soil. Over the past five years, American companies have invested some $20 billion in Turkey.

If Mr. Erdogan turns further away from a relationship that has been immensely beneficial for Turkey in favor of deepening ties with Russia or China, it will not be because the House voted to recognize the Armenian genocide. It will be because his own repressive tactics are coming to resemble those of the Russian and Chinese leaders. [my emphases]

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Memo to: a certain generation of “progressive” Turks

4 Aug

From: NikoBakos

Re: the final and total castration of the Turkish military

Date: August 2017

Ataturk Mausoleum Yildirim Chiefs of staffPrime Minister Binali Yildirim of Turkey, front right, and the chief of staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, third from left, visit the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk Mausoleum before the Turkish Supreme Military Council meeting in Ankara on Wednesday. Credit Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

ARE YOU HAPPY NOW???

I have two groups of friends in Constantinople:* one a group of mostly Alevi**, first-generation urbanites (from Dersim and Antiocheia); another of at least several urban generations, who are pure “White” Turks in every way.

A sub-category of this second group of friends (who are fast becoming ex-friends) are/were or considered themselves to be “leftists” (“I should cough” as one of the characters in Hester Street says).  These were always violently allergic to anything that had to do with the military, Turkish or otherwise.

Peaceniks, of course, our rift began when it proved completely in their interest to paint me as a super-American hawk during the Iraq war, even if I’m deeply un-American in my self-identification and was never a supporter of Bush’s adventure.  I simply did not know what to think about the idea of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein and took issue with their knee-jerk, anti-American attitude, with their facile certainty they knew what to think.  In the end I just decided that anybody who was automatically against the completely justified invasion of Afghanistan and the removal of the Taliban — and if that’s a tragically uncompleted project, that doesn’t mean the initial result or victory was not worthwhile…ASK ANY AFGHAN — was going to be a robot-thinker about any kind of American intervention or just about war of any kind, so I couldn’t be bothered.

Of course, these types DON’T KNOW ANY AFGHANS to ask, because they’re shameless hypocrites living in their pleasant, sheltered suburbs in C-Town, who know our Cyclades better then they know the rest of their own country — certainly better than I do — and wouldn’t dare head out to Afghanistan, even on a dare.  Why do they irritate me so much?  It’s simple.

If the original sin of the Right is selfishness, the original sin of the Left is self-righteousness, by which I mean the need to see one’s self as morally correct no matter what, even if this means a breezy indifference to the realpolitik or the reality of what’s really happening on the ground.***

Of course, they were steadfast in their belief that the Turkish military was an institution of bastardized Kemalism that was the greatest anti-democratic force in their society.  This was their justification for eventually rejecting their parents’ admittedly corrupt CHP as well, Turkey’s Kemalist Republican party.  And yet it’s ironic that the Turkish military’s “anti-democratic” orientation has repeatedly prevented the complete descent of that society into chaos.  One of these types has a whole sob story she used to recite to me about how, as a young girl in the 70s, she was terrified every day when her father left the house that he wouldn’t come home because of the terrible and constant terrorist violence that was then occurring on the streets of Constantinople.  But it was the military that put an end to that violence in 1980, like it was the military who got rid of Menderes, architect of the 1955 anti-Greek pogrom, in 1960.  And as soon as Erbakan started exceeding his limits (btw, he was the first who tried talking about limiting alcohol consumption and tables on the street in Pera and Galata), the military got rid of him too in 1997 — not exactly cause and effect there.

As a Greek, there’s obviously little love lost on my part for the Turkish military.  I just feel that if Turkey’s twentieth-century history, culminating in the Erdoğan phenomenon, has proven the country to be incapable of forming a democratic civil society that doesn’t spin out of control into violence, corruption and chaos, then you just don’t have the luxury of being anti-military.  Furthermore, from our perspective, Erdoğan’s pre- and post-“coup” military is a far more threatening force than it was previously.  Violations of Greek air space have increased exponentially under Erdoğan’s tenure, as has his, and formerly Davutoğlu’s, irresponsibly imperialist Neo-Ottoman language.  And just like it wasn’t a military junta that organized the pogrom of 1955, it wasn’t a military government that invaded Cyprus in 1974, ethnically cleansing and occupying 40% of the island to protect a Turkish minority that is only 18% of the island’s population.

Lately there had been a weird shift in their attitudes though, as it has slowly sunk in that they had supported (“I voted for him!  My God!!”) the most un-democratic, anti-consitutional, religiously retrograde, paranoid, chip-on-the-shoulder lunatic to rule Turkey since Abdülhamid (photo below).  After the takeover and purging of the daily Zaman in March of 2016, I ran the idea past a few of them: “do you think it’d be a good idea for the military to step in? …they already have more unconstitutional dirt on him than on most Turkish heads of state.”  And even the Teşvikiye girl who had worried so much about her father, didn’t get apoplectic on me like she would’ve done in the past; she simply mumbled passively, in the static cadences of Turkish passivity: “I don’t even think they’re in a position to do anything at this point.”****

AbdülhamidAbdülhamid

Worse was one who said to me: “What Turkey needs now is unity.”  Well, your compatriots have actually shown a quite impressive amount of unity in the face of the Erdoğan challenge.  Every time he has engineered some sort of spectacular violence to terrify them over the past almost three years, they have unitedly come back, in elections and referenda and the mob-mobilization they have always been so good at, to give this “most un-democratic, anti-consitutional, religiously retrograde, paranoid, chip-on-the-shoulder lunatic to rule Turkey since Abdülhamid…” an even greater mandate on power than he had before: Daddy please save us!

Infantile beyond belief.  Is that the “unity” you wanted?  There was great unity in the mob hysteria that this supposed coup was met with (no, I don’t believe it was Gülen; no, I don’t think it was the army, unless it was army that already knew it was going to be sacked; no, I don’t think he didn’t know; I’d probably refuse to believe that Erdoğan wasn’t the architect of the whole thing — see the New Yorker‘s great Dexter Fillins’ “Turkey’s Thirty-Year Coup”).  They displayed impressive unity lynching poor little Mehmetçiks just following orders on the Bosporus Bridge (scenes guaranteed to make the hair of Greeks and Armenians stand on end), impressive unity in the Nazi-style rallies the Great Leader has convened, impressive unity in heckling men from the army and journalists and writers being led into a show trial that can quite possibly end in their execution or certainly life sentence (see “Inside Erdoğan’s Prisons” in the Times) and with the kerchiefed teyzes screaming for blood outside the courthouse in Ankara — and I’m sure they’ll show impressive unity in supporting the reinstating of capital punishment if that goes up for a referendum soon.

Turkish thugs and soldiersTurks beating up young conscripts on the Bosporus Bridge, defending their democratic right to elect a dictator who has abolished Turkish democracy for the most part and soon will have the power to go after whatever’s left…Turkish “unity” in action.

IS THAT THE UNITY YOU WANTED?  The unity of Kristallnacht? (or the “Septembriana” — same difference.)  The unity of Nüremberg?  The unity that comes with thinking that you can enfranchise the newly rich, provincial pious, those with absolutely no democratic education — or education of any kind — and that they won’t turn on you like swine before which pearls have been cast?  (Plato said that the “demos” — the people — shouldn’t have the right to vote because they’ll always vote for the tyrant — τυραννόφρων; Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor says precisely the same thing.)  Did you want the unity of the Italians and the Germans who respectively put Mussolini and Hitler in power with their vote?  Or the Americans who voted for Trump?  Or the Russians who voted and will again vote for Putin?

Tabrik migam, then.  You got it.

And this is the cherry on your birthday cake: Erdoğan replaces the military chiefs of staff with his own men.  Good luck ever getting rid of him now.  He’s now in a position of total control, with no challenges whatsoever.  You’re stuck for life.

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* The days when in the p.c. stupidity of the metapoliteuse we used to refer to Constantinople as “Istanbul” — I mean when speaking Greek…airport announcements and newspaper by-lines used “Ιστανμπούλ“…in Greek…are over.  I’ve now taken to calling it Constantinople in English as well, as Turks are free to call Salonica Selanik or Bulgarians and Macedonians Solun and I have no problem.  I’m not going to tell others what to call cities historically important to them; it actually makes me happy.  For more on this see my: Names: “Istanbul (not Constantinople)”…and Bombay! and keep an eye out for my “Boycott ‘Mumbai” campaign” post.  In general except an upswing in South Asian posts as we approach the seventy-year anniversary of Partition.

** My friends bear out the truth that Turkey’s Kurdish-Zaza Alevis and Syria and Lebanon’s Alawites are religiously the same branch of semi-Shia Islam.  The ones from Dersim have recognized that Syrian Alawites are also Alevi like them, even if that hasn’t made them Assad supporters; and the ones from Antiocheia (Antakya in Turkish or Hatay province in the logic of Turkish science fiction nationalist narrative) are just plain Alawite Arabs, who have understood that if there’s anything separating them from Syrian or Lebanese Alawites, it’s only the Turkification campaign they were subjected to when Turkey annexed that part of then-French-mandate Syria in the 1930s.  If papers like the Times feel the need to add the caveat that they’re different in every article they publish on the subject, it’s because they’re ignorant, the Turkish Press Office has made a fuss every time they don’t add that caveat, and it’s easy to think that people separated into difference by the ethnic nation state aren’t religiously brothers.  I’ve written extensively on this in a Twitter dialogue I had with a Turk who thought everybody should fight “lies and defamation” against their country when they appear in the media:

Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis: closer than I thought

Turkish Alevis and Syrian (or Lebanese…or Turkish?) Alawites — a Twitter exchange

Alevis and Alawites addendum: a “p.s.” from Teomete

More on Alevis and Alawites…or Alevis and Kurds…or Iraqi Kurds…or…Christian Kurds…or Assyrians…or…

Look out for Alevis in the current struggle in Turkey.  Whereas Kurds proper are not trusted by the political establishment or most Turks because they’re convinced they’ll never give up their separatist aspirations, Alevis, who suffered terribly under the Ottomans and the early republic and still do on some level, are still loyal to the Turkish Republic and Turkey itself.  This puts them in the position to become the secular backbone of all democratic impulses that still exist in that country, something like African-Americans in the United States were in the mid-twentieth century, since their form of Islam does not aspire to becoming the State itself, as all forms of conventional Sunni Islam do.  They were a disproportionate share of the casualties and deaths that occurred during the crackdown of the 2013 protests, not because they were targetted specifically, but simply because they were already a disproportionately large percentage of the protesters.

*** It may seem irrelevant, but this type always reminds of a passage in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy in which he trashes this kind of moral correctness by trashing the New Agers of his time:

“Only the other day I saw in an excellent weekly paper
of Puritan tone this remark, that Christianity when stripped of its
armour of dogma (as who should speak of a man stripped of his armour of
bones), turned out to be nothing but the Quaker doctrine of the Inner
Light. Now, if I were to say that Christianity came into the world
specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would be an
exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth. The last
Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were exactly the people who did believe in
the Inner Light. Their dignity, their weariness, their sad external care
for others, their incurable internal care for themselves, were all due
to the Inner Light, and existed only by that dismal illumination. Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do,
upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love
enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just
as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the
morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of
the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land. Marcus
Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish
egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of
passion. Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what
these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most
horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body
knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher
Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god
within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.
Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light;
let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street,
but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in
order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards,
but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a
divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian
was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely
recognised an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible
as an army with banners.”  [All bold emphases mine.]

**** “yanlış oldu” — See Loxandra‘s amazing “duck with bamya” chapter; I never tire of recommending it.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Belgrade: Random notes from July 2014

7 Sep

beograd-1910Belgrade 1905 (click)

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“Post”-something. Not post-apocalyptic or Blade Runner-ish or all the nonsense that people used to write about the city in the nineties or after the war (when, maybe, I don’t know, it did feel like that), but definitely the sense that something is over and no one has any real idea of what this is now or what’s coming next. A certain optimism about the future though, which is probably just an inherent trait of its inhabitants, both leavened and sobered by the kind of biting black humor that’s not the only thing that reminds me of Russians.

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You’re already one foot out of, or may have already left the Balkans here. This was particularly striking to me after seeing so much of the southern Balkans just a month or so ago. Where I have come from, I mean, to compare to? Argyrocastro is an Ottoman jewel in stone; Ochrid a truly archontiko little city. The rest: Tirana, Podgorica, Tetovo, Skopje, the garish hideousness of Priština; were all obviously Ottoman wood-and-plaster hovels until the communist cement blocks went up.

Here you’re in Mitteleuropa already, in a city in that never was — except for temporary occupations — but could’ve been, a handsome Hapsburg town. It’s most beautiful from the opposite shores of the rivers that hem it in all around, with the city high on the bluffs overlooking its entire region. It reminded me of Kiev a little in this sense, though a much more recent city in terms of basic architectural stock and without Kiev’s glut of spectacular Baroque churches; in fact, until the first Serbian uprisings of the early nineteenth century, the population was predominantly Muslim. (Actually there’s hardly any religious architecture of any quality or beauty at all. There’s the small, pretty Baroque cathedral of the city just outside the walls, in what was probably the suburb where Christians were allowed to live in Ottoman times and that’s about it. All the city’s other churches that I saw are these genuinely grotesque Neo-Serbo-Mediaeval monstrosities of Orthodox nationalism; the kind they’re building all over Greece now too.)

Knez Mihailova and Kralja Petra Streets — the main pedestrianized drags — and the Cathedral spire at bottom.  (Click on all)

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But you understand a great deal about Serbian history just by standing up on the peak of the Kalemegdan fortress, the sprawling castle that covers the highest, northernmost peak of the peninsula and you realize that you’re standing on the last, frontline hill of Balkan rock, where the Danube meets a whole huge complex of river networks from north and south and that the expanse of green mixed with suburb spreading out in front of you is the beginning of the vast Pannonian plain that stretches out to the Carpathians in one direction and eventually the northern European flatlands that flow all the way to the Baltic in the other. (See map at top.) Apparently and according to Misha Glenny, the Ottomans called Belgrade the “darul-al-jihad,” the House of War (though why this wouldn’t apply to so many other places, I don’t know) and you can see how easily defensible but also temptingly assailabale the site is; it’s the one place you have to control to continue your drive either north or south.

Belgrade-Kalemegdan-at-dawnThe Kalemegdan (click)

Kalemegdan from across Sava(click)

You also realize just how far north – when you think that Stefan Dušan’s empire stretched as far south as the Gulf of Corinth and he often held court east of Salonica at Serres – the center of gravity of the Serbian nation has shifted over the centuries, to lands so completely different, even ecologically, the flora and fauna, that it becomes easier to isolate a glorious mediaeval past in some mythic compartment in the nation’s head – the two sides of the Aegean, in our case, for example, were never so different – and that that can have all sorts of psychological consequences. I’m, of course, thinking of Kosovo mostly, but more on that later…

DusanTerritory_14cStefan Dušan’s empire at its height (click)

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Lots of leafy attractive streets, at least in the neighborhoods that stretch immediately south and east of the Kalemegdan. Funky sidewalk cafes and bars. Only a couple of very late nineteenth-century neo-classical structures. Most of the city seems to be a twentieth-century creation: attractive Art Nouveau and Art Deco apartment houses; some later stuff that could kind of be described as late Bauhaus-y even, like some neighborhoods of Tel Aviv; more proof that Yugoslavia was far cooler than any other communist country and more reason to be pissed off that things ended they way they did. A certain shabbiness, that I thought only added to its charm, but that made me wonder what’s going on economically. There’s way too much high quality housing stock in potentially high quality neighborhoods sitting there looking empty and uncared for and under the right circumstances the whole place seems primed to launch into a massive gentrification and real estate boom. If I had any extra cash lying around I’d buy something now. In any event, for a city that’s been beaten up badly three times in less than a century – maybe not as bad the third time but in a manner just as morally reprehensible – it’s looking ok.

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IMG_0828The Rakia Bar, my favorite spot in all of Belgrade, delicious rakia made from anything imaginable, quince was my favorite, lugged three bottles of it with me, supposedly to share with friends in New York, but they all got swilled down in Russia.  The Rakia Bar is the site of the famous: …rakia with M., and what’s with me and all the Djoković… post from July.  (I think whether you say ‘rakia” or rakija” is a regional dialect difference, with the palatization that the “j” represents more common in “south-western” dialects: — western Bosnian, Herzegovinan, Montenegrin. — but not sure.  I know that “river” is “reka” in some regions and “rjeka” in others.)

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And some of the city’s few remaining Ottoman-era, or at least Ottoman-style, buildings.  The top being the residence of some saint or something — the bottom the royal residence of some Obrenović mistress I think.  Very uncharacteristically of me, I just wasn’t into too much historical research while there.  The city is just too much fun.

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The food is great; predictable but always competent and consistently delicious. A bodybuilder’s paradise: every plate comes piled so high with a mountain of grilled protein that no normal-sized person can be expected to pack it away, but appetites here, in every sense, are big. A vegetarian’s nightmare: and if you persist in your adherence to that silly creed, expect to eat a lot of very good tomatoes – in the summer at least – with huge grated piles of a great cheese they have that’s somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between feta and brindza. If you’re a vegan…and/or have gluten issues too so you can’t eat the great bread either or even try the börek, then maybe arrange for sessions to be fed intravenously at a local hospital or just don’t come at all.

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On the sign and menu of an otherwise sedate, old-fashioned feeling Bosnian restaurant with great ćevapi, the ubiquitous little köfte, a homey cellar place that feels like an old Moscow traktir or something… If anyone can explain the symbolic intention behind it, they get my Umberto Eco semiotics award for 2014.  Really, can anyone tell whether this is supposed to be a joke or not?

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Much more in keeping with Serbs’ smart, cerebral, black humor: this t-shirt, marking the hundredth anniversary of the start of WWI, which I thought was priceless: “It’s a matter of Princip.” Fantastic…

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The language is – excuse my language – a total hard-on. I’ve already got my affinity for Slavic phonemes from my Russian days — though sometimes it seems they came out of the womb with me – and on top of it it’s tonal, too, with rising and falling stress and long and short vowels like classical Greek. The combination is magically sexy and something I could listen to for hours dumbly without understanding barely a word. It also makes it, unless you’ve dedicated some serious study to it phonetically, almost impossible to pronounce correctly. The street I lived on was called “Dobračina,” for example, in Dorćol (from the Turkish “dört yol” — “four roads.”)  And taking my cues from my Russian, which is really no great help since it has free stress and constantly surprises you also, I would say: “Do-bra-či-na.” But whenever it was repeated back to me it sounded like “Do-bra-či-na” or Do-bra-či-na” or even some combination of both, but never like what I had said; the lack of dynamic stress makes it sound like emphasis comes scattered in varying degrees of strength all over a word and not just on one syllable. Tempting to take it up. But I have to resist NikoBako tendencies to scatter my energies all over the place at once and never quite acquire full mastery of anything. Maybe later.

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The place’s greatest pleasure is its people. They have a quality that I’ve always struggled to express in English but is nearly impossible and makes me constantly have to resort to other languages. The somewhat dated Spanish “altanero” works – “alto” is your cue there – as does the more popular term still in use in Spain, the complex of traits referred to as “majo,” which I’ve tried to describe several times elsewhere (such as in this post: Un Verano en Nueva York).  “Αγέρωχη” works, the word Cavafy uses to describe Anna Comnene, which Keeley and others, I think, mistakenly translate as “arrogant” or “haughty,” but which for me means something like “breezily confident” and again could almost be a cognate for the Spanish “airoso.” But it’s a type of confidence that isn’t entirely about your ego, but one that obliges you to be open and generous and welcoming with others as well. The media and its pundits have fed us so much crap since the nineties about Serbs’ pathological and self-aggrandizing sense of their own heroism, that it’s impossible to even tell what’s true or not. But if they are that conscious of their heroic mantle, they certainly wear it lightly, like a people who have nothing to prove to you or really could give a shit about what you think of them. This means almost none of the tough guy, hyper-butchness we might be conditioned to expect. In fact, despite the borderline cockiness, women and men are almost always polite and unfailingly warm; sweet and tender even, like Russians when they get in their Russian moods. And with Serbs you don’t have to pry off the cast-iron mug first to get to the sweet part like you have to do with Russians.

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One great thing about Serbian women, aside from leggy and sexy and gorgeous and everything else you’ve heard: they’re real pals. This is going to sound totally sexist to some, but I didn’t mind the first time I was called sexist in my life and it certainly won’t be the last. They have this uncanny ability to hang out comfortably with guys. They’re not cloyingly clingy. They don’t demand attention through passive-aggressive silence or sulking and they speak freely but without forcing themselves into the center of the conversation. It’s not an attempt to ingratiate themselves with their man or his friends. It’s simply this extremely attractive capacity to go along with the rhythms and patterns of male camaraderie without sacrificing any of their femininity. Serbian men should consider themselves extremely lucky.

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And on a related and final note: it’s not a myth; it’s a fact that I’m sorry to report is true. One out of three people you pass on the street deserves a head-turn and a second looking-over; you simply can’t stop yourself. One out of…I dunno, I’m just stupidly throwing out numbers here…six or seven…or at least one person in every kompaniya/parea let’s say, are simply knock-outs: tall, long-and-strong-limbed, great noses, good jaws and a higher percentage of crazy green-hazel eyes than I’ve seen in any other country. It’s dizzying. And they know it too and there’s no false humility about it either and of course that only concentrates the effect.

Sorry, only the one pic below, which isn’t even mine.  I’m still too shy to photograph people without having a press i.d. round my neck.

Anyway, there are places you go to and say: “That was nice…” and then they go into your travel archives.  And then there are places that you know, as you’re leaving, you’re not finished with.  Belgrade I’m not finished with.

Belgrade street scene(click)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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