This is a second look at Old New Year. If you want more background please look at yesterday’s post.
2001, In Belgrade right after the fall of Milosevic: We’ve been dropped back into the holiday season after it has ended in the States. The stores are still decorated with greens and Christmas balls, the kiosks have that “glass wax” type of snowflake stencil design and there are thousands of lights on all of the downtown lampposts. Colored baubles are strung across the streets and in the main square there is a lit up sign below an Orthodox cross that reads “2001.” (This is also known as “Orthodox New Year.”) Until today there has been unseasonably warm weather in the region. Mimosa is traditionally the first blossom of spring, and it first blooms on the Montenegro coast. Last year it came out the first weekend of February but this Old New Year’s Eve people are selling small bunches of it on the street.
We had expected a big celebration in the main square at midnight with singers, dancers and big fireworks, but that didn’t happen this year. In 1997 over a million turned out on Old New Year during the demonstrations and in 1998 there were hundreds of thousands at a celebration organized by the Belgrade City government, controlled by the opposition to Milosevic that had come to power after months of demonstrations. This year there were no political sponsors for Old New Year, but that didn’t keep thousands of people from showing up in Republic Square. If the streets were only crowded rather than crushing, the restaurants were more than full. The first mimosa sprigs (see below) sitting in small vases on restaurant tables presented a strange seasonal contrast to the Coca Cola Santa Claus coasters that sat next to them in this strange holiday world into which we have been re-deployed.
We had an early dinner at the Italian place across the street from our new flat, which has excellent food but a familiar décor. It has wall sized, pictures of Italy, Rome, Venice and Naples that any Italian place in Hudson County, New Jersey would have. One wall is a very dramatic likeness of an eruption of Mt. Etna. Along the tops of the pictures there are Latin phrases. Over St Peter’s it says “Ad Infinitum,” and over Venice “Et Cetera.”
After dinner we went out on the streets. It was a clear, crisp evening, about 28 degrees. Venders were out selling Belgrade’s greatest export product, political buttons. One was a smiley face with “I am a citizen of free Serbia.” I liked that but my two favorites read “F**k the System,” with a picture of both a red star and a barcode, and the top favorite, in big letters “FBI,” and in smaller letters, “f***kin’ Belgrade irony.”
I noticed three things as we approached the statue of the horse that defines downtown Belgrade, the lack of cops, the smell of cordite mixed with popcorn, and a lot of bangs from firecrackers. When one went off too close to a storefront window it shook the glass, causing the burglar alarm to sound and making the firecracker even more satisfying. After a while we noticed the only two cops on the square running. I always notice cops running. As they ran there was a huge explosion that made everyone jump. The bang brought the cops whirling around to laugh. They had put a firecracker into the beer can.
As midnight drew near folks pulled out their cellular telephones and dialed the number for time to synchronize the clocks on their phones and set the beepers to midnight. At midnight dozens of cell phones beeped and dozens of Roman candles were set off on the square. It was all very satisfying.
After midnight Suzi and I ducked into the café at the Hotel Moskva for an Albanian New Year’s tradition, baklava with Turkish coffee. We got to bed around two, which was considerably later than we did on the New Year we celebrated in Sitka.
2009: When I left Belgrade they had hung the holiday lights but not yet lit them. When I came back they were still hanging but not turned on. I suspected that I might have one chance to see Belgrade lit up in holiday glee and I was right. January 14 is my favorite oxymoronic holiday, “Old New Year.” Before the fall of Communism it was not much celebrated, but afterward, well, Belgrade is always in the mood for a party. For a few years, it was promoted as “Orthodox New Year” then “Serbian New Year” but they seem to have settled on “Old New Year.” In rural areas there are bonfires celebrating the holiday, and I hoped that city officials would light up the city one more time on the evening of January 13, Old New Year’s Eve. They did, and it was beautiful. After a walk through the lights and giving some money to New Year’s buskers (one dressed in a Lakota headdress) Suzi and I want to bed, tomorrow is a workday. But the fireworks over St. Sava’s Church at midnight made sure we noted the turn of a calendar no one ever uses.
2010: Belgrade’s holiday season lasts a long time. Christmas lights are still burning brightly. This year I was tired from travel so I made the mistake of going to bed at about 9:30 on January 13. At midnight we were rumbled awake by the fireworks welcoming in the Old New Year. (No, that doesn’t sound right but you know what I mean.) This is the last night for holiday lights.
2011: Last Friday I attended the “Old New Year” Concert at the Belgrade Philharmonic and clapped along with the audience on the popular pieces, all by Slavic composers. This may be the closest I ever get to attending the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert. Blagojevic’s Balkan Dances and Konjovic’s Symphonic Tryptich were favorites, each featuring traditional Balkan polyrhythms. Serbs are more complex clappers (and 13 days later) than the Austrians several hundred miles up the Danube.
If I made the ferry I should be celebrating Old New Year on the deck of the MV Malispina, though I suspect there will be no fireworks.