This has been an odd summer in Serbia. Speculation about the date for forming the new government evoked the feeling like in the famous play ‘Waiting for Godot’. Of course, the big difference is that eventually we got the government, while in the play Godot never comes.
But waiting time is good for reflection and for doing something out of the ordinary. I used it to think about what is going on in Serbian sports, to try to learn to paint icons, and to travel with my family from Serbia to Western Ukraine.
Growing up in the Netherlands and being a football fan, ‘Red Star’ and ‘Partizan’ were famous names for me. In 2003, I even had the pleasure of seeing Partizan play Porto (at that time European Champions), the first Champions League group game in Belgrade, and in a packed stadium Partizan managed to hold its own – it was a draw.
Later, they did the same against famous Real Madrid. When I returned to Belgrade in 2013, I was of course hoping for some good football (after years in Africa and South Asia where you don’t see any). But, every year, another disappointment came. This year, I was more hopeful than before, as it was Red Star, former World Champions, to give it a try.
The game I saw was, unfortunately, a sad spectacle, an indication of how deep Serbian football has fallen. I can only hope that with an improving economy, this tradition will also be revived, as these famous clubs belong on a European podium…
I am also spending some time doing something that I wouldn’t do in almost any other country. I enrolled in a class that teaches people to paint an Icon. Travelling around Western Ukraine in the summer and having visited most Serbian monasteries (though Gracanica and Decani remain on my ‘to visit’ list), the beauty of this tradition is beyond almost any to me.
Learning how one paints Icons has been one of the more interesting experiences. One wonders why this is not something more widely known. I never knew it was possible. However, this also shows again that, like in the case of Pimnica in Negotin, Serbia’s roman ruins and Lepenski vir, Serbia has lots to offer, but finding out what is often too difficult. By the way, my first Icon painting endeavor is quite ambitious: Saint George and the Dragon.
A third issue this summer, that is not part of my ordinary life, is borders. We crossed many on our long drives to Western Ukraine in July. And we invariably stood in long, long lines. On the way back, we tried to avoid endless line at Horgos and opted for Backi vinogradi crossing instead.
Oh, but there were Hungarian policemen waiting for me there. With a smirky smile on his face, one of them told us: “If you want to avoid lines, go to Kelebija. We have closed everything else.” What remains with me is that he seemed satisfied I would have to drive for another 40 minutes.
I was also surprised to see that these days the Hungarian border guards even insist on checking diplomatic vehicles for stowaways. Having grown up as a firm believer in European Integration and borderless travel, this was sobering indeed. But still, if one thinks the Serbian-Hungarian border is bad, try the one with Ukraine…
One final thing that is cause for reflection is that Serbia, like many other countries, is getting its own brand of impatience. Serbians that I meet outside my work circle (whether they are sports coaches, artists, doctors and dentists, restaurant owners or others) have certainly grown more exasperated with politics, and the cynicism that comes with this is something that has a dangerous potential, especially if it comes from those people whom one would normally think of as more reflective and measured.
All in all, now that ‘waiting for Godot’ is over, and we go back to serious work, it does convince me once again of the need for us to continue to work as energetically as possible to help bring this country back where it belongs (as I said in my first B92 interview almost exactly three years ago).
While we may not be able to help revive the sleeping giants of Serbian football, or address the broader developments of which border crossings are a symptom, we will be working to help bring back a sense of ‘can do’, that same sense that built Serbia’s great cultural heritage, produced a world champion in football, and can be seen in some of the more promising innovative enterprises that we see.
Originally published on B92 Blog on August 15, 2016