Today I was given a gift. It came in the form of visnja pita (tart cherry pie). After I had asked for but before I had been given the receipt at a kafana (Serbian tavern), the manager placed this tasty treat in front of me and said, “Opet si ovde” (you’re here again). Simply by showing solidarity to this family-run kafana I received a treat. Taken aback by this kind gesture, I cut into the decadent dessert and thought about how lucky I was in that very moment. Eating alone, as I often do here, I am left to reflect and observe others during meals instead of converse, which is surprisingly meditative and refreshing. Before leaving the kafana I told him that I would bring my parents soon when they visit Belgrade. “Divno” (wonderful), he said. “Vidimo se” (see you again), we exchanged.
This instance of uncommon kindness fills me up like a cup of tea poured to the lip. These exchanges, though brief and uninvolved, add just enough human interaction to my otherwise mostly solitary existence in Belgrade. Recently I’ve been asked some iteration of “How are you?” by a number of caring friends back in the states who are curious about their friend who chose to spend yet another year far from everyone she loves most. “I’m alone, but not lonely,” I’ve found myself writing. One friend seemed concerned by this response, so I’m partially writing this to soothe her worried soul, but mostly to expound on some perks of solitude.
It seems to me that we can only find ourselves – if such a task is possible – by detaching ourselves from the external stimuli that determine so much of our lives so much of the time. I realize that “finding oneself” is a flawed phrase since we are ever-evolving beings, so to clarify I mean being in touch with who one is right now, feeling in control of one’s thoughts and actions, and living purposefully in the present. Far easier typed than done.
Though I’ve only been here for only twelve days, I feel more directed in this search for me than I have in a long while. In fact, the last time I felt this way was last summer in Japan, and the time before that was also in Serbia during Bridge Year. During each of these experiences I had the opportunity to ground myself in a new place, and I had time, glorious time, to breathe, to get lost, to wander, to read, to write, to create that self-contained world. Stillness, a serene solitude, let me open and close each day having felt like I was fully immersed in it. Rarely did virtual spaces or far-off lands receive my attention. This remains the case in Belgrade save the half and hour or so I spend reading English news online each day (and more and more my attention has been drawn to the refugee crisis which isn’t so far-off). The kind kafana manager, elderly lady with whom I ride the lift, the library clerk who leads me to the English section, the baker who sells me my favorite cheese pastry, the stray dogs who follow me hoping for cheese pastry crumbs, these are the people (and pups) to whom my attention has been devoted today. And these interactions, like the one involving cherry pie, are pure, they are unencumbered, they are here and now.
Each is fleeting, but in itself, it is enough. Each is a spring that knows no summer, fall, or winter will follow. Each is like the first moment in a friendship when two people fall into their own self-enclosed world without the weight of the actual world. Naturally, none is lasting.
These are only moments, and, as Sondheim wisely wrote, “If life were only moments, then you’d never know you had one.” When you only interact with someone as you mutually smile, noticing the other noticing you while you both wait to cross the street, you never leave that placid purity. It’s as if these moments just hang in space like a seagull suspended in the air. And the trouble is you never want to leave them. You want the bud before it blooms and bears fruit because the bud is immaculate and full of every possibility whereas the fruit may ripen but it also may rot.
The desire to hold onto a perpetual spring is valid, but summer will inevitably follow. The world is ever-changing; if you can count on anything it’s life’s impermanence. These moments are as limited and exclusive as they are pure and effortless. Just beyond them waits the world, and though its weight may complicate, it also strengthens, extends, and enriches these moments by turning continued connections into relationships and families.
When the world buzzes around you like a pesky bee trying to pollinate a weatherworn flower, you crave that solitary stillness. Those simple exchanges, be they glances or gifts, leave you feeling full and aware of your present gratitude. But the duration of a moment doesn’t invalidate its importance. I’m reminded of a line from T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday: “And what is actual is actual only for one time / And only for one place.” Our lives are the accumulation of “actuals”, of moments that refresh the spirit and refurbish the soul. In these moments, we lose and, paradoxically, find ourselves.
Walking back home from the kafana, I passed a woman with a bag that read: “Tvoj život je sada. Tvoj život je ovde.” (Your life is now. Your life is here.) Reading this felt like my burgeoning reflections echoed back at me, and in Serbian no less! Whether we are together or alone, we can augment these nourishing moments by remembering that our lives are not happening elsewhere.
As fulfilling as alone-time can be, loneliness is no fun and it often disengages us from our here and now. Fortunately I haven’t felt lonely since I arrived, thanks to these moments, and I certainly won’t be feeling lonely for the next nine days because my parents are visiting! This is particularly special because they’ve never been to the Balkans so I get to introduce them beginning tomorrow in Subotica, a town near the Hungarian border. I haven’t been taking many photos so far, but as I tour them around I’ll be sure to bring my camera and post some shots of the places we visit. For now I’ll just close this unusually introspective post with this blossoming beauty outside my apartment building: