BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — The Moskva Hotel coffeehouse opens at 6 a.m., and the first through its doors are the old men, the gray-faced early risers with the solitary habits of widowers, and they bring their morning newspapers and settle down to sip Turkish coffee and contemplate world events.
Outside the Moskva's towering windows, the streets are still dim at this time of the morning, and pigeons bravely stalk the wet pavement. Then the sky lightens, the traffic thickens and the broad sidewalks become crowded with people hurrying by on the way to offices, classrooms or early appointments.
Rade Stankovic is 74, and he tolerates a distraction from his newspaper with an initial reluctance, his eyes rolling up suspiciously from the page, his head scarcely moving.
"Yes, why not?" he responds gruffly when asked whether he is such a fixture of the Moskva coffeehouse that its waiters know, without asking, to bring his coffee with medium sugar. He smiles, warming to the interruption.
"I am an institution. Like Moskva Hotel, I am dependable."
Indeed, the Moskva Hotel and its street-side coffeehouse have been a fixture of Belgrade life for the past 81 years, enduring innumerable crises in the Balkans as well as two world wars. It still seems, somehow, someway, a part of an older Europe, an essential feature of this historic city, its central meeting place and listening post.
For Stankovic and the other old men in the first wave of customers, the coffeehouse "is a place for a man to come and be in peace and read the papers." The day's news absorbs their attention.
"The dollar," said Stankovic, as if issuing a warning. "I think it is going to fall further."
Change in Clientele
By mid-morning, the old men have left the coffeehouse, going on to such errands as buying provisions for the evening meal at the old city marketplace three blocks away, or getting the soles of last winter's boots repaired. The old men are replaced at the tables by another group, younger in age but of mixed background and purpose.
There are the businessmen, meeting at mid-morning for hurried discussions, their serious tones and expressions befitting an economic climate marked by an inflation rate of 150% or more. Mixing among them are university students carrying book satchels and alcoholics reaching with trembling hands for the day's first brandy.
Women, too, in town for shopping, meet friends at the coffee shop. They murmur over steaming glasses of tea and \o7 sacher torte \f7 and prop plastic shopping bags against their ankles.
Haze of Cigarette Smoke
The coffee shop fills with cigarette smoke. Four massive chandeliers, each with 100 bulbs, grow dim in the gray haze. There is no such thing as a "no smoking" section here, and the ventilation system is a revolving fan suspended from a 20-foot ceiling.
Zirko Lukic, who has managed the Moskva for 25 years, recalls that the hotel building was remodeled in 1973, but the coffeehouse was little changed. The marble floor and red marble pillars remain, although some panels of faintly tinted mirror were added along with some strips of yellow fabric applied where paint once sufficed.
The improvements were designed to thrust the decor somewhere into the second half of the 20th Century, but they succeeded mainly in tarting up the room into a socialist hodgepodge. But they did not impair the essential character of the coffee shop, nor its position as Belgrade's central meeting place.
"Everyone comes to the Moskva," Lukic said. "People say our coffee is excellent, and it is true that the waiters and waitresses are very good. For the regular customers, they always know how they take their coffee or their tea. It is a point of pride with them."
Pride in Moskva Pastry
The manager has no less pride in the pastry the Moskva serves. It is produced on the premises by a chef whose artistry has won prizes in Vienna.
Still, Lukic admits, it is tradition and location that remain the Moskva's chief assets. "There is no place like it anywhere in the city," he said.
Some patrons come alone, simply to read a book or magazine, often passing hours amid the buzz of conversation. There is an unemployed, or unemployable, philosopher, a daily fixture, aging gracelessly with bitten nails and tobacco-stained fingers, his eyes glittery as he scribbles notes in the margin of his books, interrupting the dead authors with his arguments and improvements.
By late afternoon, the scene changes again. Livelier customers from schools and offices arrive in waves and crowd around the tables, now laden with soft drinks and beer. The cigarette smoke becomes even thicker, and the noise level rises. In the early dusk of autumn, storefront lights appear outside. Commuters crowd the bus stop near the door.
Uncle Milan, Violinist
Uncle Milan, as everyone calls him, arrives about then. Milan Malinovic, 82, is a retired violinist from the Belgrade Symphony, and he leads a five-member orchestra that plays every evening in the Moskva coffeehouse.