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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?