The aisles in my local supermarket had been ravaged. Swathes of stock were missing – toilet rolls, baked beans, washing powder, flour, fresh milk, fruit and veg – and in their place yawned bare white metal shelves. Outside in the car park there was a snaking line of patient people waiting in the spring sunshine to be let inside the store.
I paused in shock. The last time I had witnessed this was while living as an exchange student in Belgrade in 1986. In what was then the capital of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, shortages and perpetual queuing were the norm. Adaptability and opportunism were essential. As was keeping a well-stocked larder, learning how to ‘make do and mend’ and not wasting a single gram of food. All skills I have put to good use again as Covid-19 causes havoc around the world.
The pandemic has triggered other memories of that memorable year. The sense of isolation that resulted from living in a country and city where I knew no one and barely spoke the language. The unintelligible actions of people and hard to fathom rules of living in country where party membership mattered above all else. The exhaustion of trying to comprehend and keep up with it all.
Dealing with the darker sides of life there was hard then too. Manipulative people lied through their teeth in the hope of taking advantage of the naïveté of a teenage western girl. I became hyper-vigilant, avoided eye contact with strangers and walked swiftly through the brown coal-laced, smog-filled streets. It was exotic, unnerving, and raw; so very different from living in my hometown of Edinburgh. I still hanker after the intensity, the edginess of life in the maze that is Belgrade’s streets.
There were good times as well. Ones that leave me yearning to return. The warmth and hospitality of my host family and strong sense of community in my apartment block and street. In a socialist society you really are all ‘in it together’; we shared a cranky old heating system and the same scarcity of goods after all. I enjoyed the delight on the faces of my host family when I returned with western goods from the British Embassy shop. A rare and privileged treat in a predominantly grey world.
I travelled to every corner of the Yugoslav experiment that year – or at least to those where trains or buses went. I visited Sarajevo, Zagreb, Ljubljana, and Novi Sad, went skiing in the powder-snow covered mountains of Kopaonik and travelled along the coast to the glamour spots of Budva and Sveti Stefan and the tourist towns of Dubrovnik, Rovinj and Rijeka. All the time noticing the many things local people had in common as well as the growing fractures pulling them apart. Without knowing it what I was witnessing was the calm before an ugly social, economic, and political storm. The menace of war loomed.
Of all the places I visited it is to Belgrade I would love to return. The city was my base. A complex place strategically located at the point where the mighty Danube and Sava rivers meet. It wears its tumultuous history proudly and unapologetically: bullet-marked public buildings line some streets, austere Russian Orthodox churches glower from park corners and modernist housing states are a stark reminder of its communist past.
I would so love to go back. To grip on tightly while riding one of the worn-out trolley buses that rattle along its streets. Raise forkfuls of hazelnut cake to my mouth in the cafe of the Hotel Moskva. Stroll through the grounds of Kalamagden park and find out if there are still old men sat smoking like chimneys on park benches while playing games of cards and chess.
But most of all I want to return to the local market my host mother Marija and I went to every weekend without fail. I want to smell the heady summer scent of locally grown strawberries and marvel at the red flesh of sun blushed tomatoes and the mottled green skins of watermelons piled up high. Catch a whiff of freshly baked bread and cheesy rolls.
When I do, I will take with me the battered blue notebook of handwritten recipes that Marija taught me to cook – some scribed in English and others in my rough and ready Serbo-Croat (I never did get the hang of writing in Cyrillic). We will cook together side-by-side in her tiny galley kitchen; make a favoured dish and with each mouthful eaten remember all our shared experiences during that remarkable year. Ones that taught me how to be a survivor and never to take for granted even the smallest of life’s gifts.