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Diary of a Plague Year

Tim Page


August 31, 2020, New York City

I've arranged for an absentee vote; I am unmated and have no dog; my children are grown and scattered; I am retired and nobody needs me anywhere; I'm tired of being alone in New York, and I despise what I see going on in the United States this fall.  

I want to leave, I have to leave.

The summer of 2020, bedeviled by Trump and COVID, has been hellish. Nobody has known what was happening, what could happen, what was going to happen, only that things were obviously going to get worse. It was like the early months of AIDS in New York, when you would run into a suddenly gaunt acquaintance on the street and then learn two weeks later that he had died from a strange new sickness. Days began and ended with counted-out pills, interrupted only by food delivery and the droning of television shows I could not follow. I stayed indoors.

And now the fortress has been breached. Two people in my building tested positive last month, warning signs were placed in the elevators, and the doormen started wearing masks and handing us our mail in rubber gloves. We kept a distance from our neighbors and when we passed in the lobby, we would turn our faces away and attach ourselves to opposite walls, moving sideways, sometimes nodding but never speaking.  For all we knew, sharing a breath might kill one of us.

Earlier this month, a 91-year old relative was admitted to a New York emergency room with pneumonia. That's all I was able to find out. His wife of 60 years had died in May.  They were loving friends to me from earliest childhood, the sort of people who'd select presents that you'd actually *want* when they came for Christmas dinner. This morning, I thought of calling around to local hospitals to find out where he was but what could they say? and why should I add to their burden? I couldn’t visit and Mort would be much too busy, fighting or dying, to interrupt with messages from another world. And so, numbed, I made some tea and started the day. He died after a few days: there was no service, of course, although maybe one will come later.

Then one afternoon, when the anxiety grew too much to bear, I bought a one-way ticket to Belgrade, Serbia. Just like that -- called up and booked it, as though ordering a pizza. And now I will be leaving on Friday night, with plans to return sometime in 2021, although that, like everything else these days, is subject to change.

Why Serbia?  I could tell you many stories about the glories, tumult, beauty and sadness of the Balkans – all true and vividly present – but my choice finally came down to pragmatism and convenience. Belgrade is still open to Americans right now, and there is a flight that will effectively take me from passport control to passport control, with no changes of plane in the middle of the night, which I could no longer manage by myself. It is presently the only non-stop flight to Europe where American passengers can leave the airport immediately after the formalities.

I’m off.

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September 4-5, 2020, in flight

The nights since I arranged for my travel have been clotted with terrifying dreams. In one, the plane had been transformed into a bumpy emergency ward, with my fellow passengers, reclining mummies, wheezing and coughing to the accompaniment of mysterious beeping machines. Another scene was set in a blinding snowstorm, and I was marshaled into a line of frozen-footed, ragged asylum seekers sharing a rumor of an admitting bureaucrat thousands of people ahead of us and around a corner.  But the line was not moving and I knew I was doomed.

And yet, as I shook off the night and banished my nightmares, the venture seemed at least plausible, potentially exciting, and maybe even renewing, no small matters at the age of 65.

I finished packing my carry-ons and took a last look around the apartment where I had lived on and off since my early 20s, wondering if I would ever return. Had I been younger, sentiment would likely have softened me and I might have stayed.  But I’m more courageous now: my car was waiting, the flight was due to take off in four hours, and I set out to JFK, leaning forward.

I hadn’t been in an international terminal in almost a year. There were more guards than travelers: everybody was reduced to a pair of suspicious eyes above light blue COVID masks. The airport looked like an abandoned shopping mall and it was almost impossible to believe that a branch of the Palm steakhouse – stuffed with vigorous, juicy young people spending too much money on meat and lobsters the size of small pets -- had once operated somewhere in the dark, behind the dingy plexiglass.

I welcomed the release from gravity as we lifted off from New York. I ate a little, pushed my seat back, took an Ambien, curled up and tried to be comfortable. And then there was oblivion, followed by a relieved sense of waking up alive and far away, amidst bustling flight attendants serving morning coffee. looked over green German fields as we flew south from the Arctic. It’s a new day and another world down there and I am pleased that hours have now gone by during which I have not understood a single phrase.

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September 20, 2020, Belgrade

It’s the beginning of my third week in Belgrade and I like the city a lot. The people are fierce in their friendliness and eager to help. My friends back home want to know about masks, so bizarrely slandered in the United States. From the beginning, Serbia has taken them very seriously, especially indoors where most stores won't let you in without one and lines are formed in five feet intervals as we wait calmly.  And why not pay your neighbors such a simple courtesy?

Outside, it is a different story: your waiter will be masked and will point out the hand sanitizer on the table, you will be seated as far from other customers as possible but then you relax and assume that the breeze will carry away the virus.  The mood is much less fearful than it is in the States. There are fewer than 500 cases in Serbia now -- way down from July -- and only some 700 deaths since the pandemic began. Everybody knows things will worsen as the weather gets colder and we are forced to move inside but we are playing for time and it will all be addressed when we come to it. If worse comes to worse, we will all die but for now let’s enjoy this gentle evening.

I am determined to survive. 

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October 5, 2020

It has been a radiant autumn -- warm and sunny every day -- and the leaves are just starting to brighten. There is an agreeably grimy edge to my part of the city -- think East Village or the Haight thirty years ago -- and graffiti is everywhere, as it often is in dynamic neighborhoods. The big difference is the minimal crime: Serbia had a grand total of 108 homicides in 2018 and at least a quarter of those were believed to be executions by the local mafia.

I do wish there weren't so much smoking. I'm told that everybody who isn't a smoker feels as I do, but there aren’t that many of us. You can read medical history on the faces of older Serbs, people hollowed and sick before their time, due largely to cigarettes.  It is almost a national pastime. The addiction is less common among young people although you'll find no shortage of it there either.  Some restaurants have begun to set aside sections for non-smokers, but many more people want to smoke than not smoke and so the air is fogged and this is the thing I like least about the city.

Today it is a month since I arrived -- already the second-longest unbroken stay in another country I've ever experienced. At my age, I no longer have much interest in playing tourist and adding to a private checklist of sights seen. I plan to visit Kalemegdan, the great fortress that overlooks the confluence of the Danube and the Sava rivers, but I feel no urgency to get there right away. A proper visit will demand study and reflection, and right now I am more interested in the passing show.

So I'm just walking through Belgrade, past butcher shop and green grocer and a pasta store that has been in operation since 1921 and the woman who sells flowers on the next corner every day with a peaceful Golden Retriever at her feet. How many children drop to the pavement every day to commune with the dog!  She not only tolerates but seems to welcome them all, thumping her tail or rolling over on her back. Nice doggy.

Those who speak English manage to make sense of things by signing on to the Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club on Facebook, a group of more than 9000 people who answer questions on everything from finding a neighborhood to reading groups to a course in Chinese cooking. I'm learning where the roads go, and I can occasionally pronounce their names. Today I was greeted on the street by a waiter who had served me a good meal a few days before. A calm, private happiness.

The history of Belgrade is long and bloody -- the city was razed more than 40 times, including by Attila the Hun -- and many of the streets are named for ancient heroes unknown in most other places and often mislaid here. The legends are deep and resonant and there is complicated history unknown to most Americans. One can imagine a great national epic -- a "Ring" Cycle or a "Kalevala" -- emanating from Serbia.

Because it has not been a wealthy city in many years, Belgrade looks for pleasures elsewhere - and finds them. I've not been so simply happy in a long time than I was on a cold, sunny afternoon watching Belgraders play fetch with their delighted dogs. Similar games have been played here since the Roman Empire.

The city is a carnivore's delight -- I've not eaten so much meat in years and it is certainly the staple dish, to the point where one waiter asked me what meat I would like served as a side dish to my meat. Fruit dishes are presented with a little pitcher of purified honey, and the combination is delicious overkill. The red wine is intense and flavorful: one can almost taste the soil. Young people are riding 60s style motor-scooters out of black and white films. At times, I feel as though I'm in “La Dolce Vita.”  In other sections of town, more recently bombed, I am reminded of the battered Vienna of "The Third Man."

I'll be here for a while. The people are kind and serious and I've never felt less than welcomed. We do not walk around in a state of dread.  And how strange to awaken to a drunken quarrel down the block without the slightest worry that it will end with gunfire.

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October 20, 2020

“We all have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.” 

These lines have been attributed to Confucius. So have a thousand others, many sounding as though they were fashioned by a renegade hippie trying to drag Hallmark Cards into the 1970s. Still, tracking down this quotation, it does seem to be from Confucius himself, and I like it even more now that I know that its pedigree.

I've been watching the American election closely (probably too closely) and I miss many people and places in the United States. God knows I'm rooting for my homeland to recover. But my writing has been my life's essence, and I could no longer do anything in New York. Here I am at least hopeful that I might create something that can be held in a stranger’s hands and tell them from the grave What It Was Like.

Reading “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” by Rebecca West, a tour of Yugoslavia just before World War II and I am astonished by how fine it is. Masterly storytelling and eternally inquisitive travel writing that remind me of Herodotus in their combination. I do not know the history and politics well enough to vouch for its veracity, but as pure writing it seems to me one of the greatest books I’ve ever read.

West on a visit to an emergency ward in Yugoslavia 80 years ago:                                                           

These people hold that the way to make life better is to add good things to it, whereas in the West we hold that the way to make life better is to take bad things away from it. With us, a satisfactory hospital patient is one who, for the time being at least, has been castrated of all adult attributes. With us, an acceptable doctor is one with all asperities characteristic of gifted men rubbed down by conformity with social standards to a shining, cornerless blandness. With us, a suitable hospital diet is food from which everything toxic and irritant has been removed, the eunuchized pulp of steamed fish and stewed prunes. Here a patient could be adult, primitive, dusky, defensive; if he chose to foster a poetic fantasy or personal passion to tide him over his crisis, so much the better. It was the tuberculosis germ that the doctor wanted to alter, not the patient; and that doctor himself might be just like another man, provided he possessed also a fierce intention to cure. To him the best hospital diet would be that which brought the most juices to the mouth; and there was not the obvious flaw in the argument that one might think, for the chicken and the compote were the standard dishes of any nursing-home, but these were good to eat.

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December 1, 2020

I’ll talk about Trump and his defeat another time. Right now, I want to forget all about him and to be grateful for the deliverance of my country. More terrible times doubtless lie ahead – he’s made sure of that – but they will have to be better than what might have been.

I'm getting concerned inquiries from friends who are hearing about a renewed pandemic in Europe.  Anything can happen, of course. But the virus has been taken very seriously here from the beginning -- we had a full shutdown in Spring -- and there doesn't seem to have been much of a general spread.  The fact that Serbia has been occupied by both Nazis and Communists well within the lifetime of many of my Facebook friends means that Belgraders know what "freedom" is and that it has absolutely nothing to do with refusing to wear a mask in a time of infection. (The frivolity of those midwestern militia macho men wearing their guns to protect them at the corner grocery!)

In this year of pandemic, I’ve scarcely been sick at all. When I stopped shaking hands, riding subways and isolated myself most of the time, germs just didn't pierce my shield and haven’t since 2019. And so it was weird to wake up today with a genuine old-fashioned cold. I'm feeling lousy but I can taste and smell, and it doesn't seem a harbinger of anything worse. I'm relieved, if still a little annoyed.

I’m thinking of all the bacteria we used to absorb in any given day. Shaking hands, social kissing, riding trains, hitting a couple of bars, taking a couple of plane trips a year, love affairs for the young or lucky -- all without a second thought. I'm wondering what percentage of those germs reach us now (one in a hundred? one in 10,000?). We have never been such isolates, and yet the deaths keep coming, although there are now, finally, rumors of a vaccine.

If a vaccine is coming, it looks as though I will have to get it outside Serbia, for I have now outstayed my legal welcome. Balkan old-timers tell of the days when visitors were able to drive into a neighboring country, have a drink, and then cross back to claim another 90-day visa and continue their stay in Belgrade. These were commonly known as "border runs." Everything is more complicated now and I must leave by December 5. I'm too old and too confused to risk some sort of deportation, although I have friends here who have been staying on for years without any trouble.

I’m also in search of better air. The buses and old cars, running on diesel fuel, puff black smoke. A cloud settles on Belgrade in mid-November, as heaters switch on, and the pollution becomes uncomfortable. An average salary in Serbia is about $1000 a month and many citizens live on far less. Electrical heating can cost $400 a winter: the same place can be warmed for about $75 if you use wood and bituminous coal, but the effect on the air is calamitous.

In the early fall, it was fun to write outside a Belgrade cafe and greet new friends who would pass by. Yes, the city was dirty and the postal system is impossible. And yet it was also a place where many things are easy -- a painless root canal and a beautiful crown accomplished in four days!

With the onset of winter and the general disappearance of the sun, the city is suddenly iron-grey and everybody is masked. We've had a surge in cases and it is time to take things more seriously than ever. The trees are either brown or bare and it will grow much colder in December. I'll be permitted to return to Serbia in three months and much will have happened and maybe I'll have a clearer path ahead of me.

For now, I'm going north to Zagreb, Croatia, four hours away by car, to start my second self-exile, and I will be watching the rest of Europe to find out what happens next. Zagreb is more expensive than Belgrade but still something I can manage on my Social Security and occasional publishings. It is vastly cheaper than the United States, the UK, France, Scandinavia and even Germany, where Berlin, near-miraculously, remains almost a bargain. London, of course, is four or five times the cost of anything in the Balkans.

I am grateful for the surprise of a long life but I want more of it and find myself reflecting on a letter written by Gustav Mahler: “I find the habit of living sweeter than ever."

Tim Page won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1997 for his writings about music for the Washington Post. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Parallel Play and Dawn Powell: A Biography. He was a Professor in both the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California. 

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