Violence and cheap sex mock fading memories of Gallic charm

BELGRADE DAYS

The late James Cameron wrote that the moment when his train pulled into Belgrade station always thrilled him about as much as arriving in Stockton-on-Tees on a wet afternoon.

These days, that would be unfair to Stockton-on-Tees. Communist Belgrade was never a charismatic place. Now it is a symbol of Serbia itself, worn out, corrupted and sullen.

Here was the bench in Belgrade station where I had laid my 19-year-old head on my rucksack and slept for a night or two, waiting for the slow train south to the Aegean. A peasant woman with a small child on her breast snored on my bench, surrounded by bundles of goods. Tito's portrait had vanished from the dilapidated waiting- room. An electronic train-indicator had been installed but it did not work and the trains no longer run to Split, Sarajevo, Zagreb or Rijeka. A pungent odour still issued forth from the kebab stand to which my suburban teenage stomach had succumbed.

Returning after almost 20 years, Belgrade station and the square beyond showed that in Serbia, development had stood still. It still felt like the Seventies here: the drab shops, the ill-cut clothes of man-made fibres, the trams packed with dour humanity, the plastic typewriters, the raucous rock music, the one lugubrious pornographic cinema which rejoiced in the name of The Partisan: all functioning in a ruined economy dominated by the almighty Deutschmark.

In 1953, the Swiss cult travel writer Nicolas Bouvier stopped over en route to Tehran and Kabul.

In a Belgrade cafe sat four young whores, chewing melon seeds while they listened to an accordion player.

"They had lovely smooth tanned knees," wrote Bouvier, "a bit dirty when they had just come in from practising their trade on a nearby embankment."

The Francophile bourgeoisie still practised their pre-war courtesies: "introductions, low bows, phrases of welcome in charming, old-fashioned French ... passing the time by re-reading Balzac or Zola."

That, at least, remains consistent. But the bourgeoisie has gone, bankrupted by hyper-inflation which reached 315 million per cent and locked out of the profiteers' wartime economy. The emblems of modern Serbia are not the heroic partisan statues erected around Belgrade but the black-marketeers at each crossroads, selling petrol in plastic cans.

United Nations sanctions have brought President Slobodan Milosevic to his knees. They have, however, imposed on Belgrade a weird sense of isolation. In the International Press Centre, a dusty bar and antiquated telephones seemed like a parody on the days when the Yugoslav media was the liveliest east of the Iron Curtain.

I met a friend from the Middle East who had been a star reporter for the Tanjug news agency. But Tanjug was now Milosevic's news agency and, as my friend sipped a whisky, he told me that he had felt obliged to quit. "Here you are either incredibly rich or terribly poor," he said. The average per capita income was perhaps $1,000 (pounds 600) and our whiskies cost eight dollars each.

In one or two luxury hotels you can see the winners who have done well out of the war. The aura of violence and cheap sex is all-pervasive. Bouvier's innocent teenage whores have long gone. Today's look is that of the gangster's moll: tight miniskirts, lurid make-up and tumbling curls. They have elevated vulgarity to an art form. They probably think Zola makes strapless dresses.

Little wonder Milosevic's secret police do not want the refugee Krajina Serbs to come Belgrade. You never know whom they might settle accounts with first.

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