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The sun is in her eyes and she squints. Her face, which was all lines to begin with, is now like paper that has been scrunched into a ball and thrown into the waste-paper basket—perhaps it was an ill-thought-out rhyme, or a sentence that didn’t quite come together—only to be rescued by happy accident, then smoothed over carefully, the creases pressed down to reveal, quite unexpectedly, that the rhymes were, in fact, all right, the words perfectly chosen, but it was the layout that was wrong, and it needed the scrunching and the creasing to be aligned for it all to make sense. And so, though I am in a hurry, and it is far too hot to be standing at an old woman’s souvenir stall when I could be drinking beer, I linger.

“Buy a card" she says, in a heavy accent. I take a look. Dried flowers, lavender, glued on to cheap paper. I want to tell her that I did better for my class III summer holiday homework. “No, thank you," I say, and begin to walk away. “It’s only €5," she shouts after me. “No, thank you," I reply with firmness as I shake my head at how ridiculously overpriced the thing is: nearly 400 for that?!

“Turki?" she asks grumpily, as though that could be the only possible explanation for my apathetic stinginess.

“Indian," I retort, equally indignant.

“Indian!!" she says with utter delight, like she was a desi taxi driver in New York who has found a passenger from his hometown. She pulls me close and kisses my cheek.

“Indira Gandhi!" she exclaims with great excitement, her hands gripping my shoulders.

“Tito!" I venture in response, unable to think of anything else.

“Yes! Tito! Maršala Tita very good! Indira Gandhi very good! Tita-Indira friend. India-Serbia friend. You buy my card."

Despite myself, I am smiling. I had decided to hate Serbia; I was on my way to Bosnia and this pit stop in Belgrade, its capital, seemed a bit of a betrayal given the history of the two countries. But this lone woman was messing with my head, endearingly sly and slyly endearing with her poor little dried flowers smelling of glue, squinting under a hot sun on a cobbled street called Skadarlija.

The street. Maybe that is it, I think. This is Skadarlija after all, an old street in an old town. Things have always been different around here.

A scene from Skadarlija
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A scene from Skadarlija

In appearance, Skadarlija—or Skadar street—is rather ordinary. It is no longer than 400m, beginning at the foot of Republic Square, where stands a sebilj (an Ottoman-style public water fountain), rising gently up towards the memorably named Despot Stefan Boulevard, and ending at the “atrium", where a bohemian flag with the word “Skadarlija" flutters all year round. As one of its patrons, the Bosnian writer Zuko Džumhur, has written, Skadarlija is “no boulevard…or avenue…or highway" but a “common steep curved alley in the middle of Belgrade. And that would be all that could be said of this street if it wasn’t for its bohemian history".

Like Montmartre in Paris and Užupis in Lithuania, Skadarlija has always been the cool one. Long before there was a country called Serbia, and even socialist Yugoslavia was a century away from being brought into existence, Skadarlija was full of swishing skirts, drinking houses and the music of gypsies. The “gypsies" were the itinerant Romani people who, a thousand years ago, originated from the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, speak a language remarkably similar to Hindi, and are now spread across Central and Eastern Europe, and the Americas. In 19th century Belgrade, as through much of history, the gypsies lived on the margins of society, a wild-spirited, hard-drinking lot that was poor and illiterate, beaten down and treated as unwelcome refugees, but who still had a taste for life. And Skadarlija was their home.

Settled in the 1830s as the Gypsy Quarter in Ottoman Belgrade, Skadarlija was a slum, a rough-around-the-edges ghetto that had the vibe of prohibition-era hideouts and held illicit possibilities. This is a place where the city’s young—both Serbian and Turkish—disappeared to have some fun, “out of the reach of their parents and civilization". This changed over time, and by the mid-19th century, bits of the street had undergone an amount of gentrification—cobbled paving, better housing, more bourgeois residents—but Skadarlija managed to hold on to its fringe spirit, and the “long drunken history" of its kafanas—Turkish coffee houses that the Serbs had turned into bars—was now being written by the dreamers and the drunks, the penniless poets and the hopeless writers, the artists and the actors, the rebels and the radicals; like “a small Montmartre teeming with creative ferment". “By 1890," writes David Norris in Belgrade: A Cultural History, “Skadar Street boasted the greatest concentration of restaurants and drinking houses in all of Belgrade"—some of them, like the Two Stags (Dva Jelena) and Three Hats (Tri Šešira), are still in business.

And it remained liked that even as the city went through epoch-making times—independence from the Ottoman empire, the world wars, the rise of Tito, the death of Tito and finally the epic splintering of Yugoslavia that would create six and a half new countries: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and the still-fighting-to-be-recognized Kosovo.

Through it all, in the kafanas of Skadarlija, the poets and writers and artists and actors kept drinking.

Walking down the street where the souvenir-hustling Yugoslav grandmother had stopped me, I find it hard to imagine this scrumptious, lip-smacking history. Belgrade, I found, is devoid of beauty, its textures harsh and unwelcoming. The Miloševic years weigh heavily on the city, even though it has managed to find its mojo through music festivals and a hardcore party scene that is widely rated to be among the best in the world. But that is after dark; in the day, Belgrade feels like a city that has its insides clenched. Even the invitation to drink beer—“Moj Grad, Moje Pivo", My City, My Beer—seems more like the stern warning of a xenophobic, ultra-nationalist sort of place.

And so to be welcomed with open arms, to be drawn in and kissed on the cheek by a woman who has lived through some of that history, was like having a curtain pulled back. The woman, whose name I didn’t think of asking, fondly recalls the time her husband took her to the Brijuni islands in Croatia, after that country had become independent, to see Sony and Lanka, a pair of elephants that Indira Gandhi had gifted Tito in 1970. “Elephants very good," she beams.

A statue of Serbian poet and painter Ðura Jakšic, among the more famous patrons and residents of Skadarlija.
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A statue of Serbian poet and painter Ðura Jakšic, among the more famous patrons and residents of Skadarlija.

Skadarlija, today, is of course a changed place. The kafanas still survive, the pivo still flows, the buskers still strum guitars and there are occasional poetry readings, but it is different. For one—and this surprised me—it seems to attract a rather large number of elderly tourists, evidently from various parts of former Yugoslavia, who sit around bars and drink their pivo and eat their rostilj, grilled meat, faraway looks in their filmy eyes. It was a tad dampening; the old and the infirm are not what you expect in a place you have been told is the bohemian heart of the city.

But then, who knows, maybe these same old people had come here in the days when Skadarlija was truly bohemian, the gypsy strain still coursing its cobbles, and these old men and women were in the prime of their wild youth; maybe they now came to relive those days, to point to places in which they drank themselves silly, or read poetry, plotted the end of a regime, or made love under the stars—or likelier, under the stairs of the Two Deer Restaurant or at the Three Hats. They make Skadarlija feel like a leftover slice of history, the grand history of Romanis and Turks, of undivided Yugoslavia and Josip Broz Tito, and, as the old woman and her souvenir forced me to remember, the history of a Nehruvian India.

That has got to be worth €5.

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