When I’m in Belgrade, Hotel Moskva is one of my favorite places to visit. It’s a charming, luxurious hotel that feels akin to “The Plaza” in New York. The peach-toned building has an emerald green roof and a vivid red carpet draped over the front marble staircase. Somehow, this vibrant structure withstands the changing seasons, especially in winter when Belgrade seems the most dull and gray.
I’m one of those oddballs that prefers winter over summer. Maybe it’s my love for Christmas that clouds my better judgement, or my contempt for the sun which burns my pale skin. Who knows? I prefer days when the world is covered by a white blanket of snow, when I can throw on a bathrobe and fill my home with warm candles. Or better yet, when I can head to midtown in my best wool coat to go ice skating. Most New Yorkers will tell you that the Rockefeller Christmas tree brings out a particular kind of anger in them. They dislike the tourists, they hate the capitalist element, and they especially loathe when 49th and 50h are closed for traffic.
I don’t particularly enjoy those things, either. But I am one of those New Yorkers who stops to look at the Rockefeller Christmas tree each time I pass it. In 2018, I remember my good friend, HG, crying as she looked at the tree. “Are you serious right now?” I laughed, making fun of her. She nodded and continued to bawl with happy tears. I didn’t understand that feeling until this past 2020 Christmas. I stood away from the tree at a Covid-restricted distance, admiring it from a far. It was the first time I was unable to stand directly underneath the tree and look up through the branches at the enormous glowing light bulbs. NYPD surveilled a fence around the tree as tourists snapped photos from the sides.
I suddenly remember my eyes filling with heavy tears, wondering, what is happening? I had never seen midtown so dead in my life. The few people standing near me were wearing masks stained with flurries. People I cared about were gone. Travel restrictions were still in order. I hadn’t seen my fiancé in a year, and my engagement ring felt a little bit more like a costume each day. My last year of college, the one that was supposed to be filled with opportunity and fun, was online. Racism and xenophobia regarding the virus and not regarding the virus. An anxious election had just passed, with votes being recounted and disputed.
And yet the tree was standing there, completely oblivious to what was happening below. It donned the face of a previous New York, of a time when reality seemed a bit kinder. And that was enough to make me cry.
Hotel Moskva isn’t exactly a Rockefeller Center, although it does house it’s own stunning Christmas tree each year. For me, however, Hotel Moskva is where I can go to feel grounded. In the winter, I know that the lobby will be lively and decorated in holly and gold. In the summer, the large outdoor patio comes alive: brown wicker furniture under huge umbrellas, relaxing piano music, iced tea pitchers and pink flower beds. I’m not saying you should cry here, but I think it’s okay to cry here if you want. I won’t judge you, anyway. It’s the perfect place for people to watch, to unwind after shopping at Knez Mihailova, or to take a quick nap if you’re so bold.
Beyond this patio, Belgraders put on their masks before going into stores. Or their waiting, masks half-off, for the next bus to arrive. Businesses are reopening across the street with fresh hand sanitizer pumps on display. Others are permanently closed with graffiti consuming the doorways. You can’t see it from the patio, but further down the street is a local market with fresh flowers, delicious fruits, and crisp breads.
Hotel Moskva has a rich history that I don’t want to ignore. It’s one of the oldest gems in Serbia and a part of the Historic Hotels Worldwide. It’s survived centuries plagued with disease, war, bombs, poverty, secession, and more. It housed thousands of people in its existence, still possessing all the original materials it was constructed with. It sits proudly in the street with character and vigor. Maybe that’s why it feels so safe to be there.
This week, I went by myself to Hotel Moskva to clear my head. I sat down on a white cushion wicker bench and ordered a vanilla latte in Serbian. To my left, two business men spoke in English with thick accents. I tried not to listen, but it was so hard. How exciting to hear English like this!
“My barber is a freak,” one man said. He sported a gray suit. “He tells me he’s only ever read one book his whole life.”
“Let me guess. Bible?” the blonde man said back to him. Another gray suit.
“Of course,” the man said back. “And I told him, ‘aren’t you embarrassed? You’ve lived for forty-six years, and all you’ve read is the Bible?’ But he corrected me. He’s apparently read the Bible fifteen times. So that counts to him as fifteen books.”
The blonde man shook his head in disapproval. “Embarrassing.”
“Oh look, now he’s on Instagram posting shirtless. Guess what the caption is?”
“Our bodies are temples. What verse do you think he stole that from?”
I was tempted to butt in, but I thought maybe it was best to remain a mystery — to not reveal I was that American girl in Belgrade. For all they knew, I was a Serbian woman eating a smoked salmon sandwich, not understanding a word of what they said.
Ignoring their conversation, I cracked open my book, White Wedding by Milly Johnson. I mean this without any shade toward the author, but this is one of those silly feel-good books that you take to the beach or read in the car (if you can stomach that — I get car sick when I read!) It’s about three women who meet in a bridal shop, all with different anxieties about getting married.
I wish I could say that I was reading White Wedding right now to fill up a frilly space in my heart, like wedding jitters or summer romance. Instead, I’m reading it because I’m grieving. Which is why I decided to go alone to Hotel Moskva in the first place.
I recently learned that my ex boyfriend’s father passed away from Covid-19 last April. I don’t know what is appropriate to admit I am feeling. First is guilt; I feel awful that I only just learned this. I wished I could have expressed my condolences much sooner. Next, I am shocked and saddened by the news, even though my ex and I are no longer in each other’s lives. I am hurting for his family, who truly are wonderful people, and their loss. I feel strange to have known this man. He was always kind and generous to me, and now he’s gone. And finally, I feel anxious. I can’t process his absence. I feel an urgency to get up and do something, but there is nothing to do. I have cried intensely at least twice.
This news has brought up so many questions. One being: is he even mine to grieve? So much loss has surrounded everyone since March 2020, it feels impossible to carry all of it. I sometimes dream I am drowning or that I am in a stranger’s car. Other times I am awake and feel I don’t belong in my body, that my hands aren’t really my hands. When I feel this way, I just want to be somewhere that feels more real and alive than I do. In New York, that’s Rockefeller. In Belgrade, that’s apparently Hotel Moskva.
So I sat with my grief and confusion, with my book and my sandwich, among the flower beds and wicker chairs this Tuesday. I am allowing myself to feel what I do for the time being. To anyone out there reading this, I hope you are well, I hope you are healthy, and I hope the same for your loved ones. When you are feeling bad, I hope you have a safe haven that you can visit. And if you don’t, I hope you find one soon. It doesn’t have to be a luxurious hotel or sparkling tourist attraction. It can be the right book or a fresh set of bed sheets.
Writing a blog, even.
That American Girl