The scene by the marble tomb was too quiet, too peaceful. Outside the late-afternoon sun burnished the trees and tall grass of a gently sloping meadow. Through a wide glass window I could see Belgrade below, far enough away that the sounds of traffic and city life could not reach me, as if the city were deserted.
It was two weeks into our trip, and our group was at the Museum of Yugoslavia in Belgrade, Serbia. The tomb was that of Josip Broz Tito, the onetime dictator of Yugoslavia and a leader who was able to bring peace and prosperity to a nation with a history of ethnic conflict. After his death in 1980, the federation fell apart in a series of brutal wars and ethnic cleansings that gave rise to seven states, including Serbia.
My host parents tell stories about life before the dissolution of Yugoslavia: how students from Africa came here to study, how Serbians could travel anywhere in the world because of Tito’s alliances with both the Eastern Bloc and Western democracies, how each new generation could look forward to a brighter and more prosperous future.
Today Serbia faces a variety of economic and social problems. Many young people have moved away, settling in other countries where they hope to have a better life. Democracy has been far from stable since Slobodan Milošević, the leader who led Yugoslavia to war, lost power in 2001. The Prime Minister was assassinated in 2003, and the current government is intent on controlling the media and suppressing dissent. A 2010 poll found that 81 percent of Serbians believe that their lives were better under Tito.
Standing at the tomb in the House of Flowers as the sun sank towards the horizon, I was reminded of a scene in The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. The protagonists find themselves in a dying city in a dying world, a world cursed to destruction after its leaders became warlike and corrupt. It was hard not to think of Belgrade in the same way: as a shell of its former self, a city condemned along with the rest of Serbia by Milošević’s warmongering. With the city silent below it felt as if the end of the world had come and gone here. It felt as if the tomb of Tito were also the tomb of Yugoslavia, of Serbia, of Belgrade.
It was five hours later and I had rarely felt more alive.
Along with a couple other members of my group, I had gone out to a jazz club in the city center. It took us a moment to find, as it was in an old apartment with no signage on the street that we could see. We eventually found the entrance, however, and once we stepped inside we were in another world.
The walls of the apartment were painted with colorful murals and model hot air balloons dangled from the ceiling. The patrons smoked and drank and talked and laughed. A child came up to me and tried to sell me a rose to give to one of the girls in our group. A couple danced to the music, arms around each other, smiling.
The music was incredible, some of the best live jazz that I have ever heard. The saxophonist and trumpeter leaned into the microphone together and found each other’s groove; the singer belted out a sultry melody and the guitarist laid down a solo. After the song ended, the drummer came up to me— we had met at a music store a week before, as it turned out—and we talked for a few minutes. I introduced him to my group and he promised to keep me in the loop about local shows.
He went to rejoin the band and the music started up again. Here, listening to them play, talking to my friends, watching the couple sway from side to side and look into each others’ eyes, I felt an ocean away from Tito’s grave.
I have known for three weeks that these stories went together: the grave and the club, death and life. I waited to write this blog post, however, because I did not know what it meant that I could feel such melancholy and such joy on the same day in the same city.
Perhaps these stories affirm the importance of finding happiness where we can, while we can, as the world falls apart. Perhaps their meaning is more positive: that the center will hold, even in the face of war and economic troubles, if there are still people who can find joy in things like art.
But I think that the moral of these stories is simpler than that. I think that they reveal that life goes on, regardless of the grand narratives that we attach to a place or a people. Serbia has faced and is facing hardship, but people here have normal lives nonetheless. My host family reads books, talks about art and literature, goes to their cottage on the Sava to spend time with friends. My colleagues at the news organization where I work, even as they fight to protect democracy, tell jokes and go out in the evenings and raise families.
These people resist the reductivism with which Americans view Serbia. Problems like ethnic tension and democratic backsliding and the aftermath of conflict must be addressed, certainly, but they must be addressed because they affect real people who are trying to live real lives amidst the chaos of the modern world. And as long as they still can, as long as there are jazz musicians and couples who dance together, the sun will not set for good on Belgrade.