He sat in a cafe named Snow White, he said, just a block up from the Laguna Publishing House, where Zarko and David Albahari were speaking with their editor about the last details for their book about music.
He ordered ice coffee and voda sa gasem. He gave up his pitiful Serbian when the waiter spoke to him in perfect English.
He read Momo Kapor’s Guide to the Serbian Mentality, an essay called “A Cafe Named Nostalgia.”
His coffee was in a tall glass. A holy trinity — a straight straw and a crooked straw and a tall spoon — rose up out of the coffee and the whipped cream that topped it.
He sat there writing about his coffee, he said, and wondered how the men at the next table saw him. Did they see the writer at his cafe table writing brilliantly about his coffee?
The waiter returned. You are reading a Serbian book, he said.
Yes, he answered, I’m reading it in English. Do you know Momo Kapor?
Of course, the waiter said.
Of course, he thought to himself, and the bodyguard to the President of Serbia had read Peter Handke’s The Moravian Night in Zarko’s translation. How is it possible for one small country to have both literate bodyguards and, on the streets, the most beautiful legs in the world?
He had always felt an erotic tug, he told me, when he thought of Europe, but the long and stylish legs moving in such quantities and with such qualities along Belgrade’s pedestrian streets were something special.
Of course, the waiter said, and turned the pages of Kapor’s book until he came to a drawing of the city and the Sava River intertwined with the body of a young woman.
The waiter turned another few pages and showed him where Kapor wrote about that very cafe: “Snezana (Snow White) . . . was the first place where croissants appeared — which was an unprecedented miracle. Croissants . . . heralded in 1950s Belgrade the beginning of the end of dreary socialist cuisine.”
The waiter left and he thought, he told me, about his visit to the Zepter Museum the day before, a private collection of contemporary Serbian art just up the street from the cafe.
A young woman (with legs) had welcomed him in the beautiful foyer and asked, in perfect English, if he would like a ticket.
Yes, he had answered, I’d like to see your collection.
That will be 200 Dinar, she said, unless, of course, you are older than 63.
He asked her to repeat what she had just said, not quite sure he had heard right.
If you are older than 63, entrance is free.
To be exact, he finally managed to say, flushing a little as he told me this, I am not over 63 but exactly 63.
That’s good enough, she said, and handed him a ticket.
I’m no longer who I still think I am, he told me. Without even the courtesy of asking to see a document of my age, of my agedness, she handed me a ticket. It’s a catastrophe!
He entered the museum despite the catastrophe and looked around the way he always did, moving steadily through the rooms until he found himself drawn to a painting.
He stood for a long time looking at a man half-reclined on what looked like cardboard below a window looking onto a railroad car partially obscured by steam. The man looked back at him, out at him, reprovingly, perhaps, a dark gaze that unsettled him. Mica Popovic was the painter.
Zarko and his co-author came from the publisher and Zarko introduced him, he said, to David Albahari. The three of them sat at a corner table and drank coffee. He told Albahari he had just finished his novel Götz and Meyer and that he especially liked the way the narrator repeatedly questioned whether he was describing Götz, or was it really Meyer?
He spoke with Albahari (who has lived in Calgary, Canada for 20 years) in English. He spoke with Zarko in German. Zarko spoke with Albahari in Serbian. Albahari was quiet, reserved. His eyes darted and flashed, not reserved at all.