Belgrade, the Whale City


Dear Ch.,

I’m still in Belgrade, the Whale City – that’s how I call it. In your letter you are asking me where it is and what’s so special about it. Well, I’d better tell you, first, about the whales.

There is a Russian fairy-tale about a resourceful bumpkin-boy and his companion, a magic humpbacked horse. Once, while on a quest to win the hand of a beautiful princess, they come to the shore of the Ocean and see a whale that carries on his back a village and a forest. The inhabitants of this whale village dance, sing, get married, raise kids, rear pigs and cows, take care of their gardens, hunt for rabbits, mushrooms and berries – all of it right there, on the whale’s back, as if they lived in a regular village. The whale suffers from all this activity, but doesn’t know how to get rid of it and go under water again. Eventually, in the course of their quest, the boy and his horse discover that the whale has been punished like that for swallowing far too many ships, and to get his freedom back he must release all the ships, which he, eventually, does.

I don’t know about crime and punishment in Belgrade – it’s a touchy subject here, in Serbia, as everywhere else in the world – but with its hilly landscape and restlessness that comes from somewhere deep underneath, Belgrade reminds me of that settlement on the back of a whale.

If you go to the Brankov Bridge that runs across the Sava River, and look at the right bank, where the Old Belgrade is, you will see the city, spread over the gently rising hills, as if growing from under the water. The multitude of boats – fishing boats, house-boats, freight boats and party-boats – float calmly along the banks and mark the line, from where buildings in all shapes and styles begin their ascent. Huts of brick and clay cling to grey examples of socialist architecture. Church domes pop up here and there. New high-rises glint with steel and glass. You cannot see the ground under the mishmash of brick and concrete; pools of green look like lichen on the side of an old brick or a strange, petrified creature. And this creature lies under the streets of the city for such a long time, that it became practically undistinguishable from the city itself. Antennas, turrets, and chimneys reach up, like spikes on his back, and flowerbeds surround him with currents of sweet smells. Cars, people and animals stream along the streets day and night, like blood cells inside the animal’s vessels. And when it’s getting dark, windows start flickering with yellow lights, like half-closed eyelids, and curtains move gently in the night breeze, letting out faint sounds of music and the lives of others. And if you listen carefully, you can hear that the creature has not yet turned into stone, that it is still alive and breathing slowly, dreaming its dreams under millions of night-lights, not bothered with thoughts of any sins or absolutions. Waiting for something or somebody to wake him up.

With love from the Whale City,





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