I’ve moved to a new neighborhood.
Choryang-dong was instructive, delicious and hospitable, but like visas, passion or time itself, everything winds down. Thanks to the coronavirus, I felt a bit trapped there, so I’ve inched over to Hadžipopovac.
Entering South Korea on February 28th, I thought there was a good chance I wouldn’t be able to return to Vietnam for a month or two, but this didn’t bother me, for I could just fly to Laos, Cambodia or Thailand, or take a ferry to Japan, where I could visit friends and roam a bit, before slinking back to Southeast Asia.
I ended up hanging out in K-poplandia for four months and three weeks, nearly all of it at a Busan guesthouse. The One Way became my home. I said to its manager, “Yo Jayden, you can only check in here. You can’t check out! I’m going to die at the One Way.”
Though in a rather seedy part of town, with enough whores and homeless, Choryang-dong was perfectly safe. Even with plenty to steal inside it, the guesthouse’s door was never locked. Five minutes away, there was one of the best dumpling joints anywhere, and cheap, too. There was also a great Uzbek restaurant. The subway station was around the corner.
There was a communal kitchen in the One Way’s basement, but I never used its stove, only the hot water dispenser to fill a large bowl of instant noodles, which I’d cover with a plate. That’s my cooking. Paired with a can of Spam or tuna, I had a balanced meal. Sometimes I used the microwave to heat up instant rice or rice gruel.
Eating out, though, was economic enough. In a nearby subway concourse, I could get a hot meal with meat, and a variety of kim chis, of course, for only $4. For just over $7, I could feast at Mos Burger, a Japanese chain. For under ten bucks, I could pig out on an entire fried chicken and drain a beer.
I stayed long enough to get a customer’s loyalty card at a café. Every seventh cup was free. Giving it to me, the proprietress sometimes exclaimed in English, “Congratulations!” What a beautiful lady.
On July 4th, a handful of American soldiers invaded the One Way. Drunk all night long, they made so much noise, I couldn’t sleep, but I never knocked on their door to say, “Yo guys, can you calm down a bit?” I was young once, and America won’t enjoy too many more birthdays, I don’t think.
At the One Way, foreign guests can exchange labor for room and board. They clean, vacuum and change sheets. Though I didn’t have to resort to this, many others did. They were all young people, from all over. I met Gustavo from Brazil, Sasha from Belarus, and Tracy, a Korean-American from Los Angeles. I was the resident old man.
Sasha is a microbiology major in Bruno, the Czech Republic. She came to Busan to study English at a university, from Korean professors. Though this sounds rather suspect, Sasha was very happy with her instruction, until the coronavirus struck. Her English was already pretty good. Seeing her typing away at the One Way’s café late into the night, I initially thought that perhaps Sasha was a writer.
Gustavo came to improve his Korean, which he had learnt in Sao Paolo. His English was even better than Sasha’s. When a Spanish guest left a copy of Borges’ Historia Universal de la Infamia, I tried to interest him in the master, but Gustavo wasn’t interested. He was immersed in Harry Potter. Multilingual, Gustavo manned the One Way’s reception desk.
When Tracy returns to the US, she’ll buy a van and travel the country.
“But the country is no longer the same,” I said to her. It will only get worse, and perhaps not even safe for someone like Tracy to be cruising around. A bloody balkanization lurks.
Just before I left, a 40-year-old Korean showed up. Jung-min had owned a seven-room hostel nearby, but thanks to coronachan, it croaked, forcing him to move into a dorm room at the One Way.
A tireless traveler, Jung-min once took a year and a half to bicycle from Singapore to London, where, exhausted, he stayed for a year. Nearly each evening, he vegetated at The Gunners, downing pints. Now, he was waiting for Vietnam to reopen so he could fly to Hanoi. “I don’t care if I have to be in quarantine for two weeks.” It’s his favorite country.
With no crossable land border, South Korea is a de facto island, and its super-efficient trains and buses make the country feel even smaller. With its lush fields, hills and low mountains, the landscape is beautiful enough, but lacks contrasts. There are no dramatic peaks, as in, say, Japan. South Korean cities are similarly new. With bright, colorful signs everywhere, they contain few buildings from even half a century ago. Sprung, guys like Jung-min go berserk from the exhilarating variety of the larger world.
Busan was comfortable, but it wasn’t home, even somewhat, so nearly each day, I checked to see which countries had reopened, so I could get baffled by everything, all over again, from another angle.
At Travel Off Path, there was a helpful article, “Countries without any Restrictions or Travel Requirements,” but by July 15th, it could only list Mexico, Maldives, Northern Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, Turkey and Tanzania. Since three of those were in the Balkans, and Turkey was just a quick hop away, it made most sense to head to that cluster, so I pulled the trigger.
On my last evening, I got on an unfamiliar bus to go wherever. Soon enough, we left the bright commercial strips to climb into a poorer neighborhood, with its shabbier houses, darker streets and empty sidewalks. One by one, everyone got off until it was just me and the driver lumbering, like exhausted refugees, into a rather grim bus depot. In the dark, I trekked back down to the sweetest city I won’t likely see again. Thank you, Busan!
In 1937, Rebecca West got here by train, “Then I slept a little and woke up in a little town where there was not a minaret, where there was no more trace of Islam than there would be in a Sussex village. We were, in fact, in Serbia. We went and stood on the platform and breathed the air, which was now Serbian air. It is as different from Bosnian air as in Scotland the Lowland air differs from Highland air; it is drier and, as they say of pastry, shorter. Anybody who does not know that it is one pleasure to fill the lungs up at Yaitse or Loch Etive and another to fill them down at Belgrade or the Lammermuir Hills must be one of those creatures with defective sensoria, who cannot tell the difference between one kind of water and another.”
So Serbian air, water, dirt and smell, etc., are all different from those of Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Srpska and Krajina, etc.
Arriving from South Korea, with a layover in Abu Dhabi, the differences I encountered were much, much more striking, of course, starting from the airport, which was modest. Of the poorest ten European countries, seven are in Balkans, but who can blame any of them? There has been so much turmoil here.
Belgrade has been razed 44 times. In the 20th century, it was bombed thrice. In World War II, hundreds of thousands of Serbs were mass murdered by Croats, an undisputed fact still little known.
From the taxi into town, I was reintroduced to the concrete housing blocks that are typical of the former Eastern Bloc. Belgrade’s few high-rises are left over the 1970’s, perhaps the worst decade for architecture ever. Its gorgeous buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries have been crumbling for decades.
I passed a monstrously huge banner of Serbian soldiers, with the lead one a stern female saluting, with accusation in her eyes. This draped the former Yugoslav Defense Ministry. Bombed by NATO in 1999, its mauled remains are left as is.
At a nearby park days later, I’d chance upon a bronze statue of a small girlholding a rag doll. Framed by a black marble slab resembling butterfly wings, she stood on a grave-like marker that’s partly inscribed, “DEDICATED TO THE CHILDREN KILLED BY NATO AGGRESSION 1999.”
Most of the world, though, don’t see Serbians as victims so much as perpetrators of genocide, as recently evidenced by the Siege of Sarajevo and, even more so, Srebrenica.
On July 13th, 2012, Eric Margolis wrote:
During the mid 1990’s, the world turned its back on the massacres of Muslims in Bosnia. The UN would not call it genocide because that would have demanded military intervention. Most shamefully, the Muslim world also closed its eyes as up to 160,000 Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered, starved and tortured in Serb-run concentration camps. At least 10,000 Muslim girls and women were gang raped, some in special rape camps.
A hundred-and-sixty-thousand is an atrociously high number of victims, but how many were actually slaughtered, as opposed to tortured or starved? Surely, Margolis didn’t mean they were all starved, tortured then slaughtered? It’s an oddly ambiguous passage for a seasoned author.
In any case, Margolis had seen it coming:
In 1988, I wrote warning that Milosevic would create disaster in Bosnia and Kosova, the Albanian-majority region of southern Serbia. I was denounced in Belgrade and declared an enemy of the Serbs. In truth, I had always been an admirer of Serbs as courageous, intelligent people. But the Serbs that Milosevic rallied were the scum of the gutter, criminals, racists, brutal pig farmers, fanatical priests.
On December 8th, 2017, The Saker presented an entirely different take:
Truly, that war had it all, every dirty trick was used against the Serbs: numerous false flags attacks, pseudo-genocides, illegal covert operations to arm terrorists groups, the covert delivery of weapons to officially embargoed entities, deliberate attacks against civilians, the use of illegal weapons, the use of officially “demilitarized zones” to hide (fully armed) entire army corps – you name it: if it is disgusting it was used against the Serbian people. Even deliberate attacks on the otherwise sacrosanct journalistic profession was considered totally normal as long as the journalists were Serbs. As for the Serbs, they were, of course, demonized. Milosevic became the “New Hitler” (along with Saddam Hussein) and those Serbs who took up arms to defend their land and families became genocidal Chetniks.
On January 3rd, 2019, The Saker added:
Brigadier-General Pierre Marie Gallois of the French Army has condemned the NATO destruction of Yugoslavia, and has gone on record stating that the endless stories of Serb atrocities, such as mass rapes and the siege of Sarajevo were fabricated. Gallois also argues that the German elite sought revenge for the fierce Serb resistance during the two world wars, especially with regard to the Serb partisans that held up German divisions that were headed towards Leningrad and Moscow during Operation Barbarossa. While relentlessly demonized, the Serbs were in many ways the greatest victims of the NATO-orchestrated Balkan wars, as hundreds of thousands of Serbs were forcibly expelled from both Croatia and Kosovo while Serbia was turned into a free-fire zone by NATO for over seventy days. Washington took advantage of the conflict to solidify control over its European vassals.
The Saker’s parents fled to Belgrade as Russian refugees, and he even had a Serbian godmother, so there is a strong emotional attachment here, which The Saker freely admits.
Still, The Saker at his website has rebutted the inflated hooey of Srebrenica with some hard facts.
It’s entirely unclear, even approximately, how many were intentionally executed, instead of being killed in battle, whether by Serbs or other Muslims, or who died because of starvation, suicide or illness.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia’s star witness, and the only one convicted of direct participation in the Srebrenica “genocide,” was not a Serb, but a Bosnian Croat, Drazen Erdemovic.
On June 27th, 1996, the ICTY itself declared Erdemovic mentally impaired, yet, on July 5th, 1996, it put him on the witness stand anyway.
Even more incredibly, Erdemovic admitted he had fought for all three sides during that conflict, Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Dude couldn’t decide whom he was trying to kill or defend.
In exchange for his testimonies against Serbs, Erdemovic was jailed for just five years, then given a new identity and whisked to a new country, so who knows, he might be living next to you as John Smith.
It’s just a neighborhood squabble, you might be thinking. Who cares about Montenegroes? I’ve got my own black asses to kiss. I’m already kneeling, massa.
As always, though, there are lessons aplenty from the Balkans.
Serbs didn’t have a country for five centuries, and Croats went stateless for eight, yet neither lost their fierce sense of nationhood, that is, their nationalism. It’s not a debatable concept, but a deeply felt necessity, for how can any population with a unique history, heritage and identity not have its own homeland?
In the 21st century, such tribal thinking is not just deemed barbaric, but evil, Nazism, in short, except in Israel, of course. Gas chambers, remember?
When nations are contorted, tortured or simply enticed into any supranational entity, a correction, often violent, is inevitable, and that’s exactly what has happened, repeatedly, in the Balkans. Wholesome pig farmers convulsed against the Ottomans, Austro-Hungarian Empire and Communists, etc. There is no progress beyond this.
This innate nationalism can only be purged when a population has been thoroughly cowed and/or brainwashed into renouncing itself, but the Serbs, for all for their defeats and humiliations down the centuries, never did. There’s a magnificent lesson there.
Rebecca West, “So in the first battle of Kossovo the Serbs learned the meaning of defeat, not such defeat as forms a necessary proportion of all effort, for in that they had often been instructed during the course of their history, but of total defeat, annihilation of their corporate will and all their individual wills. The second battle of Kossovo taught them that one may live on such a low level of existence that even defeat cannot be achieved. The third taught them that even that level is not the lowest, and that there is a limbo for subject peoples where there is neither victory nor defeat but abortions which, had they come to birth, would have become such states.”
Repeatedly butchered, suffocated and written off, Serbs have rebirthed themselves, thanks to their nationalism.
When the Turks were in Belgrade, they embellished this city with 273 beautiful mosques, so where the hell are they?! Only one is left, unfortunately, and the Bajrakli Mosque almost joined all the rest when it was torched in 2004, in retaliation for the burning of Serbian churches in Kosovo.
Built in 1575, it is elegant, intimate and handsomely proportioned, with the only false note the jivey, concrete minaret, clearly a recent replacement. Inside, I admired its minbar, octagonal wooden tablets etched with calligraphy and, especially, the stone, baroque framearound some verse, a nice East meets West touch. Light angled in from high windows. The darkened dome soothed.
It’s an active mosque. Half a dozen suited Muslims milled outside, until they all left, so that I could have cleared out their mosque had I wanted to, and started World War III. Outside the gate, there was an old beggar, but she too disappeared, because I had already given her sixty cents.
Leaving the Bajrakli Mosque, I walked by Dukat, a Turkish restaurant, then Zein, a Lebanese one. The Arabic Zuwar was also nearby. Though not nearly as cosmopolitan as, say, Busan, contemporary Belgrade is no xenophobic backwater. Chinese takeouts dot the city, and there’s even a Chinese shopping center at Blok 70, in New Belgrade.
I’m writing this in a bar, Dzidzi Midzi, where American pop music is played nonstop. On its walls are mostly photos of American icons, such as Hitchcock, Dylan, Hendrix, Buffalo Bill, Jack Nicholson, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Louis Armstrong and Bruce Lee (who was born in San Francisco, graduated from the University of Washington, married an American and is buried in Seattle). Though imploding, America still mesmerizes. Tellingly, there’s just one Serb, Nicolas Tesla, and one Russian, Yuri Gagarin, who’s depicted as a generic, faceless astronaut, with a quotation in English, “I see no god up here…”
This is no touristy brewpub, but a Janko Janković joint in Hadžipopovac, a neighborhood of drab buildings, frankly. I’m paying $1.90 for a pint of Staropramen, and a flatbread sandwich with prosciutto and gouda is just $2.50.
Although Vietnam doesn’t have an embassy here, there’s a Vietnamese at the University of Belgrade. Here nine years and working on his second degree, this young man’s so in love with Serbia, he’s changed his name to Hoan Zlatanovic. Odder still was the Japanese who fought alongside Serbs and Russians in Bosnia. A self-declared “Japanese cheknik,” he risked his life while forgoing a salary and his monthly cigar.
Oddest, perhaps, is Serbia’s yearning to join the European Union, though not NATO, which already includes Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro. They’re all leaning West. Last to board, they’ll get to enjoy some choppy sailing with the big boys.
Bombing Serbia, America gave Russia and China a wakeup call, and forced them towards a new understanding. Everything changed after 1999. Again, this tiny nation played an outsized role in remaking our world.
Balkanizing, Americans can look here for warnings and inspiration. Five hundred years from now, a Serbian nation will still exist.