I returned from Belgrade on a long train ride, leaving a land of snow and smog and returning to a city of orderly trams running on schedule. The ride is long. Six hours. When you buy a train ticket in the Balkans you are paying for the transportation, for moving from one place to another, you do not pay for a seat or luxury, but the simple act of relocation. There is no nostalgia to riding trains in Europe-only good sense. It's cheaper than the bus.
My train back from Belgrade was packed to the brim with people. My traveling companion and I made reservations because I saw it happen on my way to Belgrade...people standing, crouching on their bags, hovering in the section by the bathroom puffing cigarettes out the window. For a mere 3 euros you can avoid such Eastern European in convinces. We hunkered down only after resigning ourselves to seats that weren't really ours. We shifted ourselves, put bags above our heads, cookies on the table, nestled down for the trip. She drifted in and out of sleep and I read for many hours. Still locked into a mental vacation, I spent the train ride reading the Best of American Writing, 2010, intermittently glancing guiltily at the people who stood at the end of the train car. The train seats were packed with young people, on their way back for classes or heading home from weekend trips for the New Year. (Is there something driving that need to be somewhere different for the New Year? A psychological break? An attempt to mark change in ourselves with change in location? Why do we always try to draw such strong parallels between place and person?)
However, the people standing and crouching and smoking were mostly an older crowd with long fancy coats and traveling bags. People who knew the stops in between big cities and the time the train would really arrive rather than what the train company had printed on their yellow timetable posters. It was a club of small jokes based on living through an era I can't imagine. It reminds me of the women on the train I met on my way home from Jefferson City last August, the women who told me "You can't live in the past. You have to think about the future, and since that hasn't happened yet, well then all you have is the present." I haven't thought about her in a while. I imagine if I could speak better Croatian this conversation would have repeated itself on my many long journeys and encounters with the older and wiser. It was never that she had said anything ground breaking, it was that she was there living the same philosophy. Cute as a button. Probably in her 80s, traveling. And time keeps passing. I suppose that is what is on the brain: The concept of time.
I am often frustrated by the way hours slip by, the ways we mark time in days, hours, sunsets and sunrises (no, I won't break out into the song from rent) but the bigger question is what is a reasonable way to pass that time? How do we as individuals deem quality time, well-used time, wasted time, part time, paid time, free time, time that drags and time that flies? How do we find time bending on to itself, overlapping by the reoccurrence of old faces, remembered places, and goals that seem damn determined to remain unfinished?
I'm in Belgrade for New Years. Those of you who know me know what Belgrade means to me, how it opened my heart and touched me in some cheesy kind of way.... (Ways I have thought of describing it: I felt like I was sinking to the bottom of the ocean but the pure oxygen felt so good and the fish here are more brilliant colors anyway... or I found a secret part of myself that had been hiding around the world waiting for its discovery, kind of like horcrux from Harry Potter...or maybe... it was just the excitement and the energy of a city shifting, big shifting, not just the building of a new sports stadium kind of shifting...) ah-hem. Back on topic...
I'm in Belgrade for New Years. Those of you who know me know what Belgrade means to me, how it opened my heart and touched me in some cheesy kind of way. It's nice to be back, although it’s with new people and there is snow and it is freezing in a-I-am-worried-about-my-pinky-toe-falling-off kind of way. I took the train in, sleeping most of the way, only waking up to get my passport stamped and peer into what seemed like unending whiteness where the snow and fog battled and somehow destroyed the horizon in the process, leaving only the serene to quench any expectations. I arrive to a warm apartment filled with faces of people who act like family. If you added up the hours we had spent together it is remarkable how natural it seems, in Colby's words, to wake up and talk and eat breakfast together. Why, what else would I be doing on the New Years?
Katie's apartment is in a neighborhood that perpetually smells like sulfur. I haven't figured out why or even if it is bothersome, it is simply a fact. Her apartment is 5 floors up. Its cozy, with carpet on the living floor, a comfy foldout couch, a stocked kitchen, and a couple of books on the bookshelf. Its covenants our little motley crew is composed of world travelers to whom sleeping on a warm floor is hardly a burden.
We vote on a party in a home novi-Belgrade rather than paying an entrance fee to a club or money on booze at a bar. The main square was having some event, but the cold staved us away. After a precious pause for stretching (yes we had a stretch circle) we headed out to the last stop on the number 7. Across the frozen river and sinking bridges that connected the barges, past the old dilapidated buildings, to a part of town where the streets get wider and the buildings look newer. We rode the tram till we were the last ones left. We pile out, spotting the drug store that served as our landmark. I think the 9 of us weren’t really sure what to except out on the edge of a bustling city, giddy with thoughts of new years, slipping on the ice, and happy to be with each other for the night.
I knew some people from DAH may be at this party, but I wasn't sure it was the same people I knew, however, I walked in and spotted familiar faces, faces that seemed like from a dream I could never recreate. Hugs, hellos, and remember-me-conversations transpired and then the night was lost to eating burek, drinking punch, mild dancing, fireworks getting tossed off of balconies and an epic tram ride back to Katie’s, complete with new friends and a content sleep on her apartment floor. And viola, hello 2011. Somehow, it was a new year, and I was with new people, but time had folded over on to its self and as I walked out into the early morning it felt like any other early morning, the crisp scent of snow, and the quietness of 4 am.