Monday, May 2, 2011

Our Lunch in Skadarlija

In Lepa's kitchen with Ria, a Women in Black peace activist from Belgium and her partner and Nela. Lepa is taking the picture.
Walking to the restaurant with Nela

We came out of our hotel, the Majestic, built in 1934, into its street cafe, clusters of small white tables that we could see from our room's window, so often I would be looking down at the lesbians who had gathered for the weekend discussions in the hotel --smoking, drinking coffee, the little dog Kiki, the constant companion of one of the activists from Croatia, winding herself around the legs of the relaxed women, seeing the tops of the heads of women who had already become dear to us. This day it was late morning and we were meeting Lepa and Nela to go for lunch together in the old Turkish district. (Lepa, please tell me all my mistakes or wrong memories of names and place.)Di brought with us a letter from our Bosnia-Herzegovina-Australian friend, Oli, "You should eat some nice food in one of my favorite restaurants in Skadarlija called 'Tri sesira' and have some strong Turkish coffee while there," so in a way, Oli was with us too.

The day was touched by sun and a light early summer breeze, the women ice cream and pop corn sellers were already sitting at their little carts, the cafes lining the pedestrian walkways were already filling up with their clientele, the fountains throwing their waters into the air, the shops opening, the trams clattering at the end of the square; we were coming to know this part of Belgrade very well, and best of all, was the sight of Nela and Lepa appearing out of the swirl of people. I was still wondering at the miracle of being able to see Lepa every day--this woman who had stayed in touch with us since 2002; I have shared her writings, her experiences as history flooded her countries over and over, with you on this journal so you have some idea what it meant to walk beside her on the cobblestone streets of her city, to sit in her famous in the region and elsewhere kitchen where women from around the world speak of their dreams of peace and plans for lesbian actions while her two sinuous cats leap for life all around us.

Where we are going is not far from the Square, but the streets become more uneven, cobblestones jumbled by time and passage, lead us down a hill into a street that seems from decades ago. Open air Turkish restaurants line one side, the pale new green of saplings, trees made young again by the sunlight, a lovely street. We join arms, steadying ourselves on the uneven stones, and continue down the slope until we find the restaurant we want, Tri sisira. Lepa is half groaning her displeasure, she hates all things that smack of tourism, but Nela charms her out of it--see, Lepa, not crowded, a beautiful morning. We sit on the raised wooden platform, hanging baskets of flowers bring the early summer in. Our waiter appears and soon he is taken with our different nationalities. He is a tall solid man, perhaps in his forties or early fifties, and he jokes with Di about Australia; then he hears Nela speak and finds out that she is now living in Zagreb. He turns his full attention to her, a very easy thing to do, and says something in another tone of voice. When he leaves, Lepa with tears in her eyes, explains that once he learned that Nela was living in Zagreb, he turned to her and asked with yearning in his voice, if a certain restaurant was still there. "I haven't been there in ten years." Nela translates and says, I do not think he will ever go back. So many exiles, so many yearnings for what used to be, places now seemingly beyond reach but once united. Lepa is our translator in so many ways, in the wounds of the heart that surround us.

As our lunch continues, our tomato soup, our cheese and spinach pie, our Greek salad,our drinks, three musicians arrive for their afternoon work: one smiling bass player, a short and round accordionist and a tall graying man strumming the guitar. We laugh at Lepa's grimace. The first thing I notice is the age of their instruments, the guitar is battered with its wood worn thin in places but still making lovely sounds, the men are worn too, missing teeth and anxious to please--the guitarist is also the vocalist and he sings Italian love songs. They move closer to us and even Lepa can't control herself, she knows Italian love songs. We exchange translated words, now another country's history in the mix. I am looking up at their worn instruments, the accordion is close to my ears, and I think of the other places in Europe I have heard this people's instrument--particularly in the late night streets of Mont Marte in Paris in 1961--sweet and sad and an aging man's hard work. Perhaps it is the guitarist who asks Nela about that lost restaurant--it is all possible, this conversation of what streets do you walk now and lost histories.

After a while, the musicians take a break, disappearing through the wooden doors of the restaurant. We talk, Nela sits quietly, dressed in her elegant black, her long hair streaming down her shoulders, but no airs about her, just a stillness, this activist from Zagreb. Then another moment--a man in his thirties, perhaps or twenties, carrying a sack of books jumps up onto the wooden platform and from his back throws a book on our table in front of Lepa, I am just watching, seeing the cover, it seems to be about history, Serbian history, Lepa shakes her head no and then he quickly replaces the book with another, Lepa opens it and her whole demeanor changes, she speaks in angry Serbian, I can hear the word lesbian--the young strong looking man steps back, Lepa continues and he jumps down from the platform with his books back on his back. I see that Lepa is crying again, this time with rage. She explains that the book was about one of the Serbian perpetuators of war crimes, a book that ennobled him as a true nationalist. I told him not to take another step towards me, to step back, that I wanted nothing to do with this history--and Nela adds, she also said she is a lesbian feminist, that he was speaking to the wrong woman. I thought how much Lepa had risked in that almost hidden exchange, I thought of the gay people beaten in the streets of Belgrade and Poland when they tried to march by nationalist forces as I thought of the evangelical Christian American nationalists who spread their gay hatred around the world. There we sat, in the early summer sunlight, four lesbian women, contending histories all around us, speaking many languages of loss, of beauty and of the refusal to accept national hatreds. Olds songs, new ones.

Updated on May 11, 2011
Lepa writes:
I can give you a few comments. One is that the man, the waiter, who did not go to Zagreb, hadn't been there for at least 20 years, given that the war started in 1991, when the borders closed down, the telephone to Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina also closed down and usually this is the year when they have no more connections to parts of their former loved homeland. The question he asked was, "Is the Hotel Esplanada there where it once was?" The Hotel Esplanada is a very old and famous one in Zagreb, where Nela lives.

The book that the man put in front of me was "The One," about Ratko Mladic, the one who started the genocide in Srebrenica, the one who imagined it and orchestrated it, and ended up with 8,000 people killed and 30,000 displaced forever. He is Bin Laden of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a man I suspect they will never find as he will never turn himself over to the police or the FBI or USA forces, just like Hitler never did. These men would rather kill themselves then stand in the International Criminal Court where he is wanted and expected. 

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