The waiter poured champagne, but we had no idea what to say as we raised our glasses in celebration of the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic. “Congratulations?” offered the advertising man across from me. “Happy New Year?” suggested the psychologist on my left. We were stumped—what is the appropriate toast for a successful revolution?
Everyone at the table laughed and said whatever seemed best—Congratulations, Happy New Year, Merry Christmas, too. We were at Verdi, a popular Italian restaurant, which had been reserved for a private party by a group of longtime friends—professors, artists, entrepreneurs, actors—who were resuming a custom of assembling en masse at a restaurant. The custom came to a gradual halt in the past decade as Milosevic turned Serbia into a depressing and oppressive place. “We used to do this all the time,” said the woman who invited me. “But then people started leaving the country, and the people who stayed had less money, and if you had a big assembly like this the police would become interested. So, we pretty much stopped.”
The diners floated from one table to the next, laughing and chatting as though this were a party after the Academy Awards and there were Oscars at every table. Many of the men kissed each other hello on the cheek, two times, a charmingly Balkan custom. After a few rounds of champagne, the waiters began serving red wine from Montenegro, and after that, somewhere around 11 p.m., the first course was served; I think my main course, pesto alla genovese, arrived on the table around midnight. It seemed, in its Old World way, a very Rebecca West evening. I realized that the social atomization that is a consequence of living under dictatorship was disappearing before my eyes.
The restaurant was filled with designer jackets and dresses, mostly from Italy, I believe. I was the worst-dressed. True, anyone who is reading this and knows me will say it was no surprise I was outdressed, but when I have dinner with friends in Manhattan, they infrequently wear ties, and if they are wearing jackets, it is because they have come directly from work. This gathering, on Tuesday evening, had begun at 9:30, so everyone had changed into proper dinner attire; the jacket I should have been wearing, from Barneys, was hanging in a closet 4,000 miles away.
The advertising man had just returned from Slovenia, where he had collected an award for a political ad that recently ran in Serbia. It was a spoof on laundry detergent commercials: A woman held up a T-shirt with a picture of Milosevic and complained that it was difficult to remove the ugly stain from the garment. The miracle product that would get rid of the stain was, of course, a vote for the opposition alliance trying to unseat Milosevic. On the night my dinner companion collected his award in Slovenia, which was the first Yugoslav republic to break away, Milosevic resigned. “There were a couple of Serbs at the ceremony, and we celebrated by crashing a party given by the Croats,” he said. In 1990 and 1991, Croatia fought a nasty war to extricate itself from Serb-led Yugoslavia. “They loved us,” he continued. “Fantastic evening.”
Zoran Djindjic, leader of the largest pro-democracy party, showed up halfway into the evening, said hello to a few friends, and then disappeared upstairs into a private dining room. There was laughter at the table when we noticed the policemen loitering outside and realized they were protecting Djindjic (who also had his personal retinue of bodyguards) rather than harassing him. I asked my companions how it felt to no longer be in the opposition, and they just laughed some more. “I have only one wish,” one of them said. “I want this country to become boring. Boring, boring, boring. We have had more than enough drama in the last 13 years.”
Of course these are the sorts of people who had been needled, on the day that Milosevic fell last week, by their hardier compatriots from the provinces. When a crowd from Cacak, a deeply anti-Milosevic city that regards Belgrade as filled with sissies, marched on the federal parliament, one of the slogans they shouted out was, roughly translated, “Greetings, Belgrade cunts! We’re going to show you how to make a revolution!”
Coarse language is an inherent feature of political and social discourse in Serbia, and it is shared by intellectuals and coal miners alike. The looted shop in the middle of Belgrade that belongs to Marko Milosevic, the dictator’s son, has a veritable dictionary of profane graffiti on display that includes, front and center, the ever-popular, “Suck your father’s dick.” Mothers do not shield their children’s eyes as they walk past.
The shuttered American embassy that is down the road from my apartment has provided a perfect tabula for the Chaucers of Serbia. “I fucked your auntie, Uncle Sam,” goes one—and the genius is that it rhymes in Serbian. When I called up my interpreter this morning to double-check that graffiti, he laughed and said it wasn’t even the best one at the embassy. Another one, which also rhymes in Serbian, goes, “Give me fellatio, American nation.”
I hope that nobody of Serbian heritage takes offense at my recitation of these oaths. I have learned, in writing about the Balkans for a decade, that Serbs can be touchy when they think they are being portrayed as an uncivilized people, and that is understandable. But I think the Serbian genius for imaginative oaths is a positive attribute. In America, you don’t hear much swearing in mainstream culture, and when you do, it’s usually run of the mill stuff—the F word, etc. Very dull. Is this restraint a hallmark of a civilized culture or an anal one? After all, Serbia is the kind of place where, at dinner, a university professor will admit that one of her favorite curses is “Fuck your grandmother on a rotten board,” but in Serbia you can also see a gentleman kiss a lady’s hand. And, as readers will hopefully recall, the sartorial barbarian at Verdi on Tuesday night was the American guest.
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