“The more important question is what am I going to do?” he said.
The middle-aged man with a Yugoslav-era mustache answered me from the kiosk window. The clerk smiled at me as he replied to my question. In Serbia, you can add additional money to your prepaid SIM card at one of these booths. I frantically gave him the equivalent of a twenty-dollar bill as I asked him what I should do if the kiosks in the country closed under lockdown. My cell phone was soon to be my only contact with home.
Within four days in the second week of March, my Fulbright Scholarship in Serbia was officially terminated by the State Department. I was enjoying a coffee in one of the cafes in the winding alleyways of the formerly Austro-Hungarian city of Novi Sad, a place with ornate, pastel architecture and a laid-back craft beer culture. A few days before, countries in Europe started closing their borders like a videogame, the 2020 final level of globalization. I thought back to a conversation I had with a fellow Fulbright friend here, a researcher in public health. She/he/they told me that countries have never and would never close their borders as we caught up in a dim, jazz bar in Belgrade. Italy loomed in the foreground.
I was raised by a neurotic, Russian Jewish family in NYC. My mother was a Soviet doctor and my brother made immigration worth it by becoming an American surgeon. So while I know almost everything about private health, I know close to nothing about public health. As far as I could tell, she was right. Not here and not me. Polaco.
Polaco: take it easy, the Balkan phrase that quintessentially described the vibe of Novi Sad.
Officially, the city’s name translates to ‘new garden.’ But Novi Sad is nothing like New Jersey; instead, it feels closer to a relaxed Californian city, especially if you’re comparing it to Serbia’s fast-paced capital of Belgrade. In Novi Sad, life was slow and languid like honey. Novi Sad is a place where other ambitions slowly fade away with your fifth coffee and the fifth hour drinking it. Looking out onto the Danube River, you see the kitsch decor of rustic plates decorating cafe walls and the Roman fortress on the other end. The present in Novi Sad is all one was looking for to start out with. Regardless of its laid-back hipsters and bars that double as barber shops, Novi Sad is nothing like California. The Danube is filled with bodies pushed under ice during WWII, a haunting statue lines the river with four sillouettes commemorating The Raid, images of the concaved bridges of the 1999’s NATO bombings are plastered under one newly built bridge, and graffiti exclaiming “Death to Capitalism” with the hammer and sickle are sprawled on Tito-era residential buildings.
The Balkans, a place outside of history in the Western imagination and a place marked by its plethora of historical events, was a region that a global pandemic wouldn’t bother with. On the outskirts of the EU, nonexistent to American bank clerks that told me to stay warm in Siberia before I departed, and all too used to empires or implosion with real armies, real people, and real weapons–an invisible contagion seemed absurd in the Balkans. This improbable absurdity resonated in my own arrogant New Yorker brain, combining a personal mix of Slavic nihilism, American exceptionalism and blinding individualism, I agreed. This was my hard-earned Fulbright; after years of envisioning this dream, a global pandemic was not how I wanted it to end. It did.
On March 15th, the president of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic addressed the public and declared a national emergency and martial law. He soon closed the airport, closed land borders, and shut down all transportation within the country. He imposed a daily curfew from 5:00pm-5:00am and a 72 hour-curfew with no exceptions on weekends. 65+ elders were put on house arrest indefinitely with the exception of three-hour blocks in the early mornings on Sundays if they needed groceries. This surely was absurdly impossible, never underestimate the power of the realm of possibilities.
As fiction bled into nonfiction, I made the decision to shelter in place. A little stubborn and a little logical, I could not fathom rupturing my journey, my Fulbright, or my dream abroad just yet. Evacuating my whole life here, going through international airports and back to a one bedroom apartment in Washington Heights with my parents, being recently unemployed, grant money that would last me two weeks in NYC with no American health insurance and a near mental breakdown–was nothing that was pulling me back. The option of remaining in Serbia as a private citizen with complete Fulbright alumni status and the grant paid in full, and remaining in an apartment and a country I could be financially independent in, seemed like the right choice. Albeit, for an indefinite period of time. In any case, I felt like I was living my life on my own terms in the face of historical consequences.
The irony of me willingly trapping myself in Eastern Europe is a full circle. As a first generation daughter of Soviet parents, whose world was dictated by the Iron Curtain, this was comical. My parents didn’t mind their circumstances too much, as they vacationed in Sochi, were financially secure, and lived in the far reaches from the metropole of Moscow, growing up in Uzbekistan. They, too, never thought the collapse of the Soviet Union was in the realm of the possible, let alone subsequent immigration to America. Now, 27 years later, their daughter was stuck in Serbia with all intercity transport, borders and airports closed in a global pandemic, not really being able to get to Belgrade, let alone NYC. It wasn’t Sochi, but my balcony in Novi Sad would do. They, too, made decisions in the face of historical, global shifts to live life on their own terms.
A colleague from the University of Novi Sad in which I worked pointed out the mathematical concept of recursion, where a function feeds into another function. In my case, this was recursive diaspora. My grandparents immigrated to the central Asian region of the Soviet Union from Ukraine and Romania on account of WW2 and my parents immigrated to NYC because of the collapse as I travelled through my career always trying to return to the space in which they left. Raised in a family looking East from the West, I began looking at the West from the East, where all too soon the geographic referent of home, that being NYC, was going to fall and succumb to Covid19, its new epicenter.
Now, NYC has its own existentialism as being the center of the universe and in turn the opposite reasons for thinking that this would never happen there as compared to Novi Sad. The exceptionalism bred from arrogance started to crack as Diblasio weeks behind Europe, closed schools and Cuomo reluctantly started to issue social distancing orders. Watching Cuomo’s debriefs and the SS Comfort float by the Statue of Liberty from afar filled me with surreal agony as once did 9/11, but my brother’s ash-covered body when he came home that day was at least something that I could see and feel. As both of my parents got laid off, my brother was put on backup for the ICU, and countless friends lost their jobs and some family members to Covid19, the homefront was in full swing. This was in fact real and it surely was there. I just wasn’t there.
However, here, even though Serbia enacted some of the strictest lockdown measures in Europe, knowing full well their healthcare capacity’s fragility and the proclivity of the people’s ‘polaco’ culture coupled with Slavic stubbornness and self deprecating exceptionalism, I bizarrely felt as if it wasn’t here. After the initial shock of reckoning with being at the mercy and will of a foreign medical system, living under martial law of a foreign army and the uncertainty of being a worlds away from family indefinitely, the feeling here is of ironic calm. Even as I write this piece about to embark on a complete three day lockdown order due to Serbian Orthodox Easter this weekend, where not even grocery or pharmacy runs are allowed, I feel an overwhelming sense of tranquility.
This afternoon, men with calloused hands drank beers outside, blasting old Serbian singers, and my elderly next door neighbor dropped off two pieces of cake his wife baked me as he showed me an ode he wrote to an old Novi Sad cafe that was by the Roman fortress. My friend Milan laughed as he recalled the last state of emergency in the country when he was a child and remembered the same siren for curfew only it was for daily bomb raids. Danilo pointed out the bomb shelter in front of his house and joked that this was the place to be during ‘one of these things’ as we entered his apartment for homemade cabbage rolls.
The defiant stranger below my balcony, outside way past curfew at two in the morning, shouted up to me for a spare cigarette, reminding me of another Balkan Romeo: a retired professor that lectured about life and death from the ground floor up to my balcony quoting Spinoza and recounting his wife’s passing exactly two years and three days ago. His children moved to Canada, a place where history happens, and left him as the last remainder, unafraid of death.
I recalled two elderly men strolling side by side just after the 65+ lockdown. I treaded behind them, smirking, all of us heading in the same direction of the Danube. As they felt themselves being tailed, they turned around startled, maybe remembering the watchful eyes of soldiers from the wars. They glanced at me and resumed their stroll, irreverent, the risk of getting arrested for sunlight and the fear of contagion a low priority.
My friend who lived through the four year siege in Sarajevo could only joke about his father’s peak boredom sanitizing the house with high grade rakija and a friend in Zagreb, whom I talked to after a whopping earthquake shook the city on top of the Covid19 crisis, was casually drinking post earthquake low grade rakija. They’ve been through worse and this, this was a faint wrinkle in time. No wonder most of the Fulbrights in the Balkan region stayed in their host countries.
This attitude echoed my own mother who, absolutely unfazed, joked about her worry that she did not buy nearly enough alcohol to withstand the quarantine but never expressed any fear or asked me to come home. I understood this as a reckoning, a ‘here we go again’ for people whose lives have been dictated by measures and greater measures, resulting in an impasse with the tides of historical events and the minute role we as individuals play in them. Surfers of history can attest to the absolute relinquishing of control and humble succumbing of individual desires to sacrifice. Today, most of the Western world has all too nearly lost or has had the privilege not to yet endure the consumption of one’s plans to historical consequences–just look at the anti-mask protesters filling up American roads with their blatant ‘individualism’ or countless articles and memes that target overcoming the brutal banality of working from home in pajamas. However, the East knows sacrifice. Most probably the stricter measures here are for the best with this laissez faire attitude to political and historical change, the only singular reclaiming of agency in the face of the improbable and inevitable by strolling in the sun, packing up your life for immigration or deciding to stay abroad. Everyone does what they can with the choices they have been dealt. Or maybe no one has the energy to put too much thought into it as they ride the historical tides.
In our current hyper-capitalist and postmodern age of alternative facts and the relative disappearance or belief in objective truth, to be asked to believe in the scientific and factual in order to face an enemy that can only be reckoned with by objective science, as well as being asked to relinquish one’s individual, personal trajectories of their own fate, is a tall order. The paradoxical paradigm of relenting to the fiction of being the heroes of our own stories is confusing in a contemporary age. This mythical truth is certainly central in the Western narrative and the underpinnings of capitalism, which is founded on ‘you can be whoever you want to be!’ and ‘one is the master of one’s own destiny.’ Even harder to swallow is the physicality of this lie as we are specifically asked to return to fundamental living, in which our immediate world should now only encompass a five block radius. Perhaps this quarantine will humble us all or even change and reshape whole national narratives or global paradigms. Now more than ever, we need to believe in the absolute possibilities of historical progression and relent. The winners usually write history, and right now, there should be none because there are no winners–the Balkans know this well. That is not to say that this is not surreal or globally unprecedented; it is. However, this wrinkle in time has been felt by numerous others of the past and present. One is lucky enough to be this shocked or scared if upheaval has never touched one before in their personal space time continuum.
In my own space-time continuum, Covid19 finally shattered any illusions I had of East and West. As a first generation American, the Fulbright symbolized the type of institution that gave me the gateway to ‘enter history,’ a statement intended with all the arrogance it connotes. This was my entry into the American dream, my access to the Western dream. The prestige of the Fulbright and most international exchange programs hinge on the irony of relocating to places where ‘history does not happen’ in order to return to the metropole of global history. Another recursion. However, there is no metropole. Covid19 accelerated and lay bare the effaced American dream as America becomes even more unlivable under duress; cities’ rent prices are tailored for Wall Street executives as unemployment skyrockets, student loans accumulate because of the audacity to seek an education (the only way to even get into one of these institutional frameworks) and the very government programs that hail it’s fellows as ‘the best and the brightest’ do not render health insurance for this next generation during a pandemic. What kind of metropole is this?
Now, when I go to the kiosk to recharge my SIM card, the same guy smiles at me knowingly, both in recognition and awe because the kiosk remained open and in turn his job. I smile back at him, with a little more self awareness of the absolute inconsequentiality of my own personal life and my SIM card, in this shared experience within the moving tides of history. Fulbright was over and so was anything falsely promised.