I did not know what to expect from Serbia. A guide book can only tell you so much about a place, and it's usually restricted to descriptions of cultural monuments and directions on how to find them. For places like Paris, Rome, or London, where historical sites are carefully preserved with ample funds and great care to give the citizenry and tourist a grand view of each places past and present achievements, your Frommer's or Lonely Planet guide is quite useful. But Belgrade is different. Sure it has its own unique set of cultural sites, but unlike the aforementioned Western European capitals, Belgrade's attractions seem confused in their diversity - here an Austrian fortress, there a uniquely Serb orthodox church, and between a smattering of Turkish buildings - and sometimes dilapidated for lack of funds and by war. Museums in Serbia are not much more useful in helping one understand the country. Many I have visited are more repositories of information and artifacts, light on analysis and English language translations. If there is any visibly explicit clues that can hint at the mentality of the people in Serbia and inform about their history, they are most likely to be found in the street graffiti, skeletal remains of bombed out buildings, and the nonstop nightlife of Belgrade.
The second hostel we stayed at featured a rotating retinue of overseers, and one of the nights we were there we met one very interesting older man who lived right above the hostel and was looking over it as a favor to the owner. He had been an engineer for a large and successful state-run construction company in the former-Yugoslavia. He had traveled all over the world, from Iraq to Mongolia, working on large projects. As Yugoslavia collapsed he witnessed the size of his construction projects shrink and shrink until the company went belly up. I could tell that this was very sad for him.
He was very knowledgeable about history and gave all those listening a very thorough introduction to Serbia. He despised Milošović for the corruption and doom he brought to the country, and saw the current situation in Serbia as worrying, especially since the same corruption as in Milošović's day was still, by his estimation, alive and well. Hearing the perspective of this man who had been through the ups and downs of Yugoslavia was especially interesting, though also quite sad, for things had fallen far from the old days. Still, he was about to receive his pension, though undoubtedly less than what he probably expected when he was younger and his company was, at least in appearance, thriving.
The choice the Serbian Tsar Lazar made all those years ago at Kosovo was to be the sacrificed black lamb and to choose the heavenly glory offered by the gray falcon. Those choices, Ms. West comes to understand, are the scourge of those who wish to be good, and in the process sacrifice doing good. Those who hold up the goodness in life would rather be sacrificed for their goodness than to aim for victory which would allow the manifestation of goodness. It is in Yugoslavia, Serbia specifically, a place "which writes obscure things plain, which furnishes symbols for what the intellect has not yet formulated," where West is able to realize this indelible conflict in human existence that resonated severely in her time at the brink of the most destructive war in human history.
Today it seems that we - in the liberal community of the U.S. specifically - have forgotten how to think in the terms symbolized by the black lamb and grey falcon. We are caught in a despicable war in Iraq which has jaded many to the fundamental questions of goodness and what things are worth fighting for. In Serbia the question still lingers, even as many try and ignore it. The question of what the goodness worth fighting for is, who holds it, and which side is offering to work for its fulfillment still remains. Those we talked to on our short stay in Serbia are forced to deal with these questions as very few Americans ever are, and regardless of whether they choose to approach it nationalistically or otherwise, the fact that the questions still remain is important. As in Rebecca West's time, Serbia is still the place to go to grapple with the eternal problems of human existence.