An Unlikely Refuge in the Year of Covid

The Wall Street Journal brings an unusual story told by a New Yorker who decided to spend the year 2020 in Belgrade.

“When Covid-19 hit New York City last spring, I was in my mid-60s and recovering from a traumatic brain injury that, by actuarial standards, “should” have carried me off a few years earlier. I had not only survived but grown hungry for life again, only to find myself holding on miserably in the worst pandemic hot spot in the U.S. Several friends died, and I watched televised images of the impromptu morgues cobbled together across the city in tents, trucks and Central Park. My neighbors and I squeezed by each other warily on trips to the lobby of our apartment building, breathing shallowly, flattening ourselves against the walls.

By August, I hadn’t left my building in months. Unmated, semiretired, my grown children busy with school or work, I realized that no one needed my physical presence. All I wanted was a place to spend one more winter in reasonable human dignity, during which I could read and think and listen to the music I loved. But every day it seemed as though another country had closed itself off to visitors, and there were not yet even rumors of a vaccine.

One afternoon when the anxiety grew too much to bear, I did several hours of research and bought a one-way ticket to Belgrade, Serbia. Just called up and booked it, as though ordering a pizza. The country was still open to Americans, the infection rate was vastly lower than in the U.S., and there was an overnight AirSerbia flight out of JFK that would take me from passport control to passport control, world to world, in eight hours on a single flight.

When I arrived, I was through customs in 10 minutes and asleep in my Belgrade hotel an hour later. Within days, I’d taken a small but comfortable Communist-era flat in Dorćol, a hallowed old neighborhood close to the Hotel Moskva and the Kalemegdan Fortress, at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. My rent was $550 a month, including utilities and a balcony. There, I thought, I might burrow in and survive for a while, waiting for better times.

Belgrade delighted me from the start. I was welcome to work outside a cafe in the autumn sunlight and greet new friends who passed by on Strahinjica Bana. Fruit dishes were presented with a little pitcher of purified honey, and the combination was delicious overkill. The red wine was hearty and succulent, tasting of dark soil. Young people rode motor-scooters through the clotted streets and said “Ciao” without self-consciousness. At times I felt as though I was in “La Dolce Vita”; in other sections of town, still recovering from bombings well within memory, I was reminded of the battered Vienna of “The Third Man.”

One of the first surprises was how easy it was to keep in touch. Belgrade time is six hours ahead of New York, so my friends on the east coast of the U.S. would call in the late afternoon and my west coast friends would ring about the time I woke up. A Facebook group called the Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club had more than 9,000 people willing to give advice in English on everything from choosing a neighborhood to cooking Chinese food to purchasing a pet chinchilla. I bought fresh produce at an ancient market, learned where the roads went and how to pronounce their names. It was the first time since my early 20s that I had no idea what the next few months would bring, which was both frightening and liberating.

But we didn’t walk around in much dread last fall. From the beginning, Serbia had taken the virus seriously but not hysterically; it was never a trigger for argument. Stores would not let anybody in without a mask, and we waited patiently at five-feet intervals without any suggestions that anybody’s “freedom” was under attack. At outdoor restaurants, the server would point out the hand sanitizer on the table and put you as far from other customers as possible—which was welcome anyway since so many people smoked.

In Belgrade, the air pollution was sometimes mind-splitting, and the mail service was impossible, yet the most unexpected things were simple. An emergency root canal and a beautiful crown were accomplished in four days for $270! And how strange to awaken to a drunken quarrel down the block without the slightest worry that it would end in gunfire.

The history of Belgrade is long and bloody—the city has been razed more than 30 times, including by Attila the Hun—and many of the streets are named for heroes of yore unknown to most of the world but immediately recognized here, where you can easily start a fierce and knowledgeable conversation about events from 1389. Because it hasn’t been a wealthy city in many years, Belgrade appreciates simple pleasures, and they are easy to find. I haven’t been as simply happy in a long time as I was on a windy afternoon watching Belgraders throw sticks to delighted dogs on the grounds of the Kalemegdan Fortress, where such games have been taking place for more than 1,000 years.

News of a vaccine was announced in November, and by March Serbia was offering treatment to any resident, including visitors. I was struck by how well-ordered the process was: A kind nurse recognized my age and fear and escorted me through the gigantic Belgrade Fair conference hall, to a doctor who greeted me tenderly, then jabbed me precisely just below my shoulder. There was the uncomplaining efficiency common to a disaster site: You behave because you must, and there is no time for foolishness. According to the World Health Organization, Serbia has by now recorded approximately 720,000 cases of Covid-19 and 7,100 deaths out of a population of nearly 7 million—a lower per capita death toll than most other countries in Europe.

I had a choice among five different vaccines—Serbia was the first country in Europe to offer the Chinese-made Sinovac—and I opted for AstraZeneca. I was told that I would have to wait between two and three months for my second dose, but by the time I came back, the rule had hardened to a firm 12 weeks—an impossibility for me, because the limit on any stay in Serbia was 90 days and I had only a few days left. There were some moments of real panic. Still, this was Belgrade, and I found somebody who listened to me seriously, mulled matters over and then found the time to give me a second shot.

From there it was on to Vienna, just beginning to stretch open once more, with vaccination records required to enter any restaurant. My form is unusual, printed in Serbian in the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets as well as English. But when our young server saw it, the coolly formal Viennese professionalism that borders on hauteur softened immediately, and I could read her happiness above her mask. It turned out that she was Serbian, from a village outside of Belgrade—another young person off to the Big City but delighted to find a compatriot who knew where she came from. Which, I guess, I do.”

The article author, Tim Page is a distinguished visiting professor at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University and the author of the memoir “Parallel Play.”

(The Wall Street Journal,, 31.07.2021)



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