The games people play
My journey to The Balkans began in Havana where I met the American psychiatrist Ira Goldwasser and his lovely wife of 45 years in my hotel. ‘Come and stay with us in Amsterdam’ his wife said. I kept their card for 5 years and one day I did. That’s a story of rejection and insincerity for another vignette.
I returned to Amsterdam with the Italian I mistakenly thought I was in love with for a romantic weekend. We had time, after devouring delicious Argentinean steaks, to drop into the historic Magna Mall. I only wanted to peek in to see the Moorish architecture but for some unknown reason Franco ascended the escalator to the first floor. Odd as he hated shopping for clothes and the mall was full of trendy fashion labels like Hugo Boss and Paul Smith. I had to follow my man! The escalator ended right outside a stunning jewellery gallery. I actually gasped. Never had I seen such gorgeous jewellery. Gold and Silver metal hooped chains and chokers intertwined with ravishing colourful semi precious stones. Franco was bored of course and waited outside while I had a ‘jewellery orgasm’ running from showcase to showcase to photograph the displays. The glamorous proprietor of the gallery had bought the franchise from the owner of the enterprise, Ljilijana Cukelj Cakic from Zagreb, Croatia but living in Belgrade who happened to be there to help with the opening at 6.00 pm that same evening. I had my eye on the clock as we had a flight to catch back to London even though we were invited to the opening.
Being in the costume jewellery business myself, the beautifully displayed bespoke pieces spoke to me. In a rush I bought a gold and inter-locking sautoir and was delighted to receive a matching pair of earrings as a gift. I was in Serbian jewellery heaven. The attractive Dutch owner then introduced me to the creator of the range who allowed me to take photos of what I now call ‘The Balkan Collection’ from Belgrade. Ljilijana known as Lily and I exchanged business cards. Off I rushed with Franco who was completely unenthusiastic about my enthusiasm.
Back in Brighton I checked out Lily’s ethical website. It was interesting but I did not like the models who were her customers rather than professionals. However, I wrote to her saying that I liked and believed in what she was doing for women in Serbia. Lily called me immediately and suggested I come to Belgrade! The capital was not on my bucket list but nearby Bosnian Sarajevo was, so I planned a trip to mix business and pleasure. All I could say in Serbian was ‘How are you?’ and ‘Well or good’ taught to me by an old friend, Svetlana. I excitedly got down to making reservations through Airbnb who were in their infancy. In the old days, one could write to the host and ask questions before paying. No more, it is questions after payment!
I love traditional places full of antiques having been an antique dealer for 30 years in London and Paris. On Airbnb I found a beautiful flat with Charlotte and asked questions like how to get to Sarajevo from Belgrade. I would be flying into Zagreb on Easyjet so how to get to Belgrade from the Zagreb airport. Charlotte, who seemed to work in Brussels at times was so helpful in excellent English. She told me to use Belgrade based Geo Tours who ran cheap mini buses all over The Balkans for a mere E25. Little did I know then that her flat was seconds from Lily’s shop in the pedestrian area. I explained to Charlotte that I would staying a week, going for 5 nights to Sarajevo and then needed to have one last night back in Belgrade to catch an early morning minibus back to Zagreb.
I was so surprised when she traced me knowing my full name and wrote privately saying, as she travelled so much herself, she could book me direct and even wrote she would not charge me for the last night. That way she could avoid the commission fees and I would pay cash in Euros as she worked in Brussels for the EU and therefore needed Euros.
How kind I thought. Not knowing her taste, I wrote and asked her what she would like from England. She surprised me by saying board games as she played games with her international friends. Easy Peasy! I had originally been a games and dexterity vintage puzzle dealer between London and Paris for 15 years so games I knew very well and it was my pleasure. I rushed around the charity shops, overdoing it, and bought about 10 English boxed board games. To this I added a chic Paris notebook, Belgian chocolates, a British fridge magnet, a silk scarf and English gourmet biscuits wanting to make a good generous impression. After all she had promised one night free, hadn’t she?
The journey was interesting with synchronicity which will be written about in another vignette. I arrived at the lovely atmospheric traditional flat, housed in what had once been a bank, on the first floor with elegant marble steps behind a metal gate for privacy. That gate was to play a part in the Belgrade saga!
I had my own bedroom off the kitchen. There was a traditionally mahogany furnished salon with 2 well placed sofas on either side of a glass low coffee table and a desk where Charlotte constantly worked on her computer and laptop. Her business card had the blue British designed EEC logo.
I placed all the games and gifts on the large low coffee table. She was very pleased and as I was her first ever guest, invited me out for a welcome dinner at ‘The Little Bay’ restaurant. By coincident we had one in Brighton with opera singers so I knew the quaint style. It was there she confessed that she had 2 names, Charlotte and Farida, that in fact she was Algerian but had lived in Quebec for many years speaking French perfectly as Charlotte. One would describe her facially as unattractive and heavily overweight, very badly dressed in insipid colours not caring about her appearance. I don’t believe she had spoken about her life for quite some time and had verbal diarrhoea. Her Canadian partner had betrayed her after 10 years and so she had to leave Quebec and start a new life in Brussels which somehow led to a few years Sofia, Bulgaria and her final resting place, Belgrade. She had only just arrived as her best friend was in the capital with her husband and child, her extended family as she had no children of her own.
Her flat was gracious in the heart of the one kilometre Street Knez Mihailova, the hub of the city and right round the corner from Lily’s shop into the bargain. I was made most welcome with a copious breakfast including fresh daily bread from the bakery opposite. Everything was perfect from Monday to Saturday night. We had delicious fattening cakes at the Moskva Hotel and I made some videos. Then disaster struck!
She had never been to the gypsy market and I wanted to go on Sunday to see how the Serbian gypsies lived. Charlotte agreed with her friend’s husband on Saturday night when we all met for a pasta, that he would drive us. Sunday dawned and Charlotte was cheerful until she got a phone call that his child was sick and he obviously could not go. Charlotte became irritable but nevertheless ordered a cab to go at her expense to the market. When we got to where the taxi driver thought it was and dropped us off in a distant suburb, she discovered it was still further away and we had to take yet another taxi. Charlotte or had Farida emerged by this time was getting more silent by the moment and sulking. Was this Ferida or Charlotte I was with?
We arrived. It was desolate with no local Serbians let alone foreigners. I decided to video the stands and poor quality second hand clothes placed on the ground. I strode on ahead towards the vegetable and fruit section with the lingering ugly lump moving slowly behind loathing the place and all the gypsies, desperate to go back to the city. Yes I was selfish, I wanted to take more photos and videos. Gypsies were sniggering at us so in the end it was uncomfortable. We left by another taxi in silence. I was meeting charming Lily and one of her friends Gordana in a busy Americanised restaurant that evening. They could not believe what I showed them on my iPhone was part of Belgrade! A middle class world miles apart from the poor gypsy world.
The next day, Monday, Charlotte had kindly organised my Geo Tours pickup to Sarajevo. She did not say anyone else would be in my bedroom and so I confess I put did not tidy up too much. I left most of my clothes in my big case, taking a small one with me for the 6 night stay with Airbnb Janina. I would be back Sunday afternoon to stay the last night at no charge, so she had promised, before helping me after a very early breakfast, down the difficult marble stairs to the minibus to Zagreb airport. I recall for some reason I borrowed a collapsible umbrella of hers.
I had a wonderful time in Sarajevo and Mostar and, as the Geo bus was leaving from Sarajevo, it seemed senseless to call Charlotte in Belgrade to arrange the transport back so I asked Janina as she was local. This seemed logical but not to Charlotte alias Ferida. I received a curt text from her obvious furious that I no longer needed her help and she would no longer help because her English was not good enough and she was stupid! I still have her abrupt text on my phone to this day!
I arrived back as arranged mid Sunday afternoon to find her living room door closed meaning she was there but did not want to see me. I could hear her tapping away on the computer. When I entered my room I was horrified to find a note pinned to the wardrobe door listing the return of every gift I had given her. ‘You cannot buy friendship’ the note said! I was not trying to buy her friendship! The games were a gift because I understood she was not charging me for the last night, the other things like Belgian chocolates, a big jar of aivar that someone had given me, a notebook from Paris with the Eiffel Tower and a key ring from London were gifts from my heart, all neatly put in the wardrobe with the games and her request for me to return her umbrella! Apparently she was upset I had not put my suitcase in the wardrobe so I had been, in her eyes, disrespectful.
She left her bill including the extra night, going back on her promise but said she would keep to her word and give me breakfast helping me down the stairs with the case. I discovered that she had lied to me about playing board games with friends because during that week I commented on an extra empty room and she explained she would be setting up a games club and charging membership! I was not going to take the games back to England nor the heavy jar of aivar. What to do?
I crossed the hall and knocked on the door of her neighbour Pedrag’s second flat where he housed his antique books having closed his prestigious bookshop, a story to be told separately. Pedrag’s surprised son and assistant opened the door to see a distressed Jilliana with chocolates, a big glass jar of aivar and a bag full of games! I did not go into detail but asked him to find a good home for the English games. He promised he would try and took my email. I was relieved and went to bed early upset by the emergence of a schizophrenic Ferida!
The last morning dawned, the closed door finally open to the no longer beautiful salon. Everything had changed. Gone was the charm. The position of the sofa and the low coffee table had been moved with the desk and the second sofa, that had been opposite the coffee table, was now clumsily placed along the opposite wall near her desk. The enchantment of the room had gone. It was conventional without the warmth comfortable homely charm I had photographed and videoed. Ferida had overthrown Charlotte who told me at the beginning of the week that her landlord loved antiques, had decorated the flat himself and swore that she had not touched a thing! Now tasteless Algerian Ferida had destroyed that cozy ambience.
I paid her bill and silently we descended the stairs. She coldly and insincerely wished me ‘Bon Voyage’ and that was that! Never again will I collude with an Airbnb host. However, months later I received a delightful ‘Thank you’ email from a Belgrade school, in excellent English, saying how thrilled they were with the games they had been given!
I smiled thinking of the games people play!
Written in the Sofitel Santa Clara hotel, Cartagena, Colombia on 20.2.18 and updated on 1.3.18 in Bocagrande.