|Dinners, dates and dogmas|
September 11, or Pancakes with a Massive Splash
Suzanne Vega’s song, Tom’s Diner, describes an ordinary morning when nothing in particular happens: while waiting for the train, a girl drinks her coffee, reads the horoscopes and funnies, sees a woman straightening her stockings. Everything is obviously normal, except for the fact that the girl remembers a midnight picnic with her ex-lover, which happened "once upon a time before the rain began". The rain reference adds a sad note to the song, reminding us of the Flood, the Apocalypse, Judgement Day, whatever kind of terminating disaster you will. Sometimes the remembrance of things past can ruin present bliss, or even the prospect of it.
The Zen essence of a pop song can sometimes register the trivial or bizarre, but it rarely captures the tragic moment. Our reality is, to be honest, much less tragic than bizarre or trivial. Therefore, on September 11 at 2 pm my time, when my two friends and I walked into a restaurant after a long day of exams, I really expected nothing strange to occur. I was not thinking of long-lost loves or any loss I’d even remotely consider tragic: I was not even dwelling on the fact that in a few hours’ time I was going on a date with an interesting guy. I was neither date-high nor dejected in the manner of a Balkanic Bridget Jones. It was just an ordinary day in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, in the Balkans, in the country I used to call Sanctionland during the 1990s and renamed to Bombland when some strange and hard-shelled rain started to fall, back in the spring of 1999.
The three of us had a big pizza and pancakes with syrup, nibbling — like any typical female — at delicious food (which was much too nutritious) and gossip updates (much too juicy details indeed). The pizza place, called ‘Sky’ (the name — in English, believe me — was to turn ominous in a very tacky way), is a sort of second home to us. It is one of those cosy places where you’re left alone with your food and your thoughts. The TV is constantly on, but no one ever watches it. ‘The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel,’ as William Gibson would have it in Neuromancer. The TV is as good as if it is tuned to a dead channel. Or rather, the droning of television is nothing but street noise. Both the screen and the space out there are definitely unimportant when you’re eating and gossiping with your bosom friends. Besides, when you live in a turbulent country, you train yourself to ignore TV images and headlines, otherwise you would go mad from the sheer lack of joie de vivre.
However, we were soon forced to look, listen and learn the headlines. A young girl at the neighbouring table jumped to her feet. "Look, they’re attacking New York!" she hollered, pointing at the screen. The TV was tuned to CNN, its screen showed a gigantic building, masses of smoke and collapsing walls. There was also the breaking news logo. It was difficult to gather what had happened. If the logo says ‘breaking news’, we are definitely not watching Stallone’s Demolition Man. Isn’t this smoking-hot news, I thought to myself, half in jest, unaware of the massive tragedy that was happening before my eyes. Living where I do, you quickly learn that all the shocking headlines and images are premeditated and staged, more often then not. You train yourself to disbelieve, because disbelief means sanity.
In spite of all my training in disbelief, in spite of all those grains of salt I had been taking the news with through the nauseous nineties, I felt the familiar butterflies of panic in my stomach. For a moment, it seemed to me that the clock had turned back. The carefully suppressed images popped up: I saw the patches of smoke hovering above my own town after its petrol refinery was struck by NATO missiles; I heard the bridges crumbling, the walls creaking; I remembered smoke, rubble and blood on TV for seventy-eight days; I evoked the moment when the television was literally tuned to a dead channel, the night a NATO missile hit the Belgrade Television building, and the destruction of the Chinese Embassy, hit by mistake. I remembered how once upon a time, two and a half years ago, we were all on the brink of death — or was it only our fear? — but the danger was too close to be a joke. I was such a coward then, afraid of every tremor of the earth under my feet, angry at the skies and missiles. Though I live some fifty yards from the bank of the Danube, I almost never walk by the river in the daytime. I cannot bear to see the ruins of the three bridges destroyed by NATO missiles.
On the screen, New York was tucked in a thick quilt of smoke...
September 11, or Dating in Hell
Every girl in the world knows the rule: there is no catastrophe tragic enough to cancel a date for. You put on your make-up and dress up for the party, no matter what, just like Dumas’s Queen Margot, who appeared at the ball with bloodstained hands. She knew that blood on your hands makes no difference as long as you take a bow and produce a smile. That, surely, was one of the weirdest moments in world literature, and maybe the most accurate. Nothing, neither war nor death, stops a girl from dating — especially if she lives in the historically overdosed countries. Not nice, but very true.
That evening, I went to an Indonesian restaurant with my date. We kept talking about the breaking news over the steaming food. My date’s chauffeur had to wait for hours on an uncharacteristically nippy September night while we discussed the twin towers disaster. There is simply no dating without somebody waiting for you and probably cursing your leisure. As our time began to run out, the conversation naturally turned to the chauffeur. It turned out that he, a Serb from Prishtina, fled from Kosovo after the NATO strikes had ended. While the Albanians were pouring back into the country, he had to flee towards Belgrade. He was not a war criminal, he just feared for his life. He had seen horrible scenes of carpet-bombing and had lost all his possessions in the exodus that followed. He could well have blamed the Americans for what had befallen him — but today, he was not ready for a Roman holiday. He was deeply shocked by the New York tragedy, I was told. Which was so perfectly human: could anyone rejoice over such dreadful headlines and scenes?
The dinner was OK, so was the date, just an ordinary, nice evening. What was this Suzanne Vegan day really about? I graded my students, met friends and went out with somebody who may or may not become my very special someone, and nothing really happened, except for the fact that somewhere far away innocent people were dying, together with the terrorists who had killed them, under the rubble, the victims of a weird dogma. A month later, fresh exams are ahead, new dinners with friends scheduled, and I may still be going out with my charming date, but I think nevertheless that a romance started on the day of a mass tragedy cannot but turn sour very quickly. Love and war just don’t go together, no matter how desperately you date. Something was tuned to a dead, dead channel, and with the prospect of an American counter-attack that may now last for years, I am afraid the world is not the same. It is not safe either for love or for democracy.
Vladislava Gordic teaches English and American literature at the University of Novi Sad. She lived through the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, which she reported in a diary on the Internet