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Belgrade's beach for the troubled in spirit

The lake known as Ada Ciganlija is a mid-city oasis. It's also a reminder that Serbia remains isolated on a continent that sees the Balkans as unrepentant for wars and crimes past.

July 05, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman

BELGRADE — Call it a Riviera or call it a lake, call it whatever you like but be careful -- the pebbles are hot, the drinks are pricey and the laid-off security guard, the one with pink skin and a cross around his neck, needs a wide berth when he slathers on his suntan lotion.

The man is a greasy mess, a two-tone walking finger painting. But with the sun on his face and the water at his feet, Mario Kostic has found repose amid girls in bikinis and silver-haired men eating sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil and speaking of those days when the trains ran on time. Yes, they did. The buses weren't so rusted and jam-packed, either.

"This lake is our little treasure, shall we say," says Kostic, his blanket unfurled on the shore near blue umbrellas he can't afford to rent, the ones where women with waterproof makeup sip Campari and play chic in the shade. "At the moment, I'm unemployed. The financial crisis, you know. The mountains are a bit expensive for a vacation. This is a beach for those who have no money."

Wander through Belgrade and you'll see and hear much the same: the ruins from NATO bombings a decade ago, half-finished churches, a woman doing tricks with a python and grim men who look like gangsters out of a Dick Tracy comic shooting bubbles from toy guns they are trying to sell to children whose parents are perusing used books near a Gypsy girl playing a violin.

Cross into New Belgrade, past the shopping center and the arena advertising a Leonard Cohen concert, and there on the right is a Balkan oasis for the troubled spirit, the lake known as Ada Ciganlija. It's been here since they built a dam decades ago at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.

Cafes, loudspeakers blaring turbo-folk, and a water fountain shooting a crystal stream toward the sun have recently appeared. Those with waxed cars and tinted windows do not swim here, but they bike and rollerblade on bows of asphalt at the edge, a spandexed procession of haves.

It is the not-so-well-offs carrying bag lunches and bus passes who plop on the pebbles and dive into the water. The lake is a class dividing line; those closest to the shore have less in their pockets. But it is also a reminder that Serbia, the most stubborn chunk of the carved-up former Yugoslavia, remains isolated on a continent that regards the Balkans as unrepentant for the wars and crimes of the past.

Many Serbs come to the lake because they are denied visas to vacation in other European countries, especially in the West, which wants to limit economic migrants from the East. The European Union, which has admitted struggling nations such as Hungary and Latvia as members, is in no mood these days to open up to a hard-pressed, nationalistic Serbia. Serbs sense a conspiracy to keep them down.

"We need visas and, as almost everyone on the planet knows, Serbs are not welcome," says Kostic, who believes that if the world was playing fair, he would be fixing, as he was trained to do, tiny mechanisms inside air conditioners. "We need to go ahead and make peace to get things moving forward. Many people are trying to leave. There are no jobs. But this is a beautiful country. I would never leave it. I'm a hardened patriot."

Veljko Bulatovic, in plaid shorts, is a soon-to-be seminarian. He's walking along the pebbles, looking for a spot beneath the trees, where the "tomato tourists" gather with homemade salads rather than buying lunch. Beyond them, in a state of tangled teenage bliss, a boy kisses his girlfriend out near the buoys. She laughs and swims away.

"After all that has happened -- the sanctions, the wars -- there is somehow still no real peace. The West doesn't respect us," Bulatovic says. "As soon as some progress is made, something else happens. We get bombed, and now we've got this global financial crisis. We're Serbs, so we're used to it. I was in first grade during the NATO bombing. I was in diapers during the Bosnian war."

It's hard to escape that nasty bit of recent history. Even in the wee hours, say around 2 a.m., one can watch porn on TV and then switch to snippets from the war crimes trial of ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj, accused of conspiring with former President Slobodan Milosevic to "ethnically cleanse" Yugoslavia. Euphemisms and strange juxtapositions -- such is Serbia, day or night. The lake is an escape.

Radojko Pokimica has been coming here for 40 years. He's got bushy eyebrows and a straw hat that sits on a picnic table next to a folded newspaper in the shade. He buys one beer a day, relaxes for a few hours, takes a dip and heads home before it gets too hot.

He retired 18 years ago as the general superintendent for Yugoslavia Railways -- back when Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia were all the same color on the map.

"I have no idea where this country is headed now," he says. "I'm not optimistic. The problem is leadership. There's a world economic crisis, but we've got our own problems too."

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