The Serb started the conversation with me—not the other way around.
“Amerikanac,” he said from a few tables away. It sounded more like an accusation than a question, but then I was in a foul mood, so everything was coming at me the wrong way.
We were the only two people in the only café in a blip of a town on the Serbo-Bosnian border. I’m not sure which side we were on. And I don’t even remember the name of the village, nor do I remember how exactly I’d ended up there. Only that I’d already been there for a couple of days when I met the Serb.
I squinted in the dim light and looked at him. The man was slight, nothing like the belligerent laborers who had filled the café the night before to drink their weight in fruit brandy and tease me about being a foreigner. He had sympathetic eyes and a thick grey beard streaked with black that gave him the look of a beleaguered professor. He reminded me in that moment of a more elegant Europe than the one I had been discovering in the string of depressed Balkan cities I had moved through in the last few weeks.
So I said “Yes. I’m American,” and he nodded a resigned kind of a nod, like this was all too easy for him. He was a smart man, I guessed, in a part of the world where intelligence sometimes felt suspicious, a man whose potential, like the whole region’s potential, had been so carelessly and irreversibly stifled for the last half-century. He spoke to me softly, through a mouth of mangled yellow teeth, about this and that. His words were clear and his English was good. I liked him. He asked what I was doing in “this shithole” and I said I was just passing through on my way to Sarajevo, but that I’d been there for three days and couldn’t seem to leave.
“Sarajevo is only a few hours away,” he said.
“I know, but I can’t bring myself to go. I’m not ready.”
My grand tour of the Balkans, which had begun months earlier in a flurry of energetic travel to breathtakingly beautiful places, I explained, had hit a lull, had grown tired—as long journeys with no structure have a tendency to do. Over the last few weeks, the whole thing had devolved into an aimless—and seemingly endless—wander from one shithole to another. Sarajevo was all I had left to look forward to. “So I’m stalling,” I said.
“I’m going to Belgrade. You should go to Belgrade.”
“I’ve been to Belgrade,” I said. “It’s a wonderful city. But I need a break, a pause. I need a place to think. To figure out how this ends.”
“Studenica,” he said, letting the word fill the space between us.
“What does that mean?
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s a name. A monastery. In Serbia. Near Kosovo. They will take you in. It’s a very beautiful place. Perhaps the most beautiful place in the whole country. Very quiet. I think you need a bit of guidance. And who better to guide than god himself?” He laughed.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s the wrong direction.”
“You are moving in circles, my friend,” he said. “This is no wrong direction. I will write the name down for you, just in case.” Then the Serb drew me a map, which I folded in quarters and stuck in my pocket, and he sunk quietly back into himself for the rest of the night.
A few days later, I couldn’t get the Serb out of my head. I had made it to Sarajevo, but the timing was wrong and I felt out of sorts, like I was in two places at once. So, guided by the hand-drawn map, I headed south to the hills of central Serbia. The Serb had warned me that it was not an easy place to find, and he was right. Getting there involved at least three buses—one of which broke down for a couple hours—and a seven-mile walk, making it something of a proper pilgrimage. But when I finally did walk through the gates, it was with a surprising feeling of relief more than anything else.
The monastery was founded by a Medieval Serb king who abdicated and took monastic vows. Under his son, it grew to become the center of Serbian culture and spirituality for centuries. In its eight-hundred-year existence, it has survived raids by Turkish invaders, earthquakes, and fires, not to mention the ever-shifting and highly combustible recent politics of the region. Though no longer the powerhouse it once was, it remains an astonishingly beautiful place, a bastion of old-world orthodoxy, a time-capsule, a fortified temple with two gleaming white marble churches and a mesmerizing collection of Byzantine frescoes. When I arrived, it was also home to a handful of monks and a small guesthouse run by Marko, a recovering heroin addict from Belgrade.
I got there around three in the afternoon and asked if I might be able stay for a while. No one acted the least bit surprised to see an American wander in off the road and ask for a room; it was as if they’d been expecting me. With very little conversation and for a daily rate yet to be determined, I was given a large room on the second floor with a window, two twin beds, and a desk. From my window, I could see the outer stone walls of the compound and the top of the dome on the central basilica. Here, I thought, I could finally get some thinking done. There was no way the sheer sanctity of the place would not rub off on me. With the monks, and the church, and the quiet, I might be able to stop wandering, to set my life on its proper course.
Of course that didn’t happen. Instead, I developed a routine that involved waking late and whiling away the day drinking bitter Turkish coffee with Marko, whose other main responsibility was caring for an elderly monk who had taken a vow of silence so long ago that no one there was sure when he'd spoken his last word. Not surprisingly, Marko loved to talk. He was in his late thirties and had lived all over Yugoslavia—Kotor, Sarajevo, Pristina, Zagreb—and in Prague for a year. He had studied to become a conductor but never managed to finish his degree since all of his money kept going to his drug habit. I liked Marko and like to think he enjoyed having me around. His stories skipped around chaotically, but I found that I could pay very little attention and still get the general gist of them. Everything was either “totally crazy” or “super,” except for the monastery, which was, quite accurately I think, both totally crazy and super.
Over coffee on my third morning, I asked again how much it would cost for the room. Marko shrugged my question off and said he was still waiting to hear from the head monk, adding, cryptically, that “a deal may be arranged.”
The deal, it turned out, was that I would help out around the monastery, mostly in the kitchen washing dishes, in exchange for a very good rate and meals with the monks, who ate in silence. I gladly accepted, happy to have some work to distract me from all the thinking I wasn't actually doing but was constantly feeling guilty about.
A week and a half into my new life as a dishwasher for holy men, Ekonom, one of the monks, found me in the kitchen.
“Hey Johnny.” He said this to me every time I saw him, in an accent so thick it sounded as if the words were being filtered through a mouthful of yogurt. A slight smile cracked through his wiry red beard.
“Dobro jutro,” I said, exhausting my Serbian. Ekonom was not his real name. He was called this, it was explained to me, because he was in charge of the monastery's finances. Whenever I asked him exactly what he did, he just said “farmer.”
“Today we go to hermitage?”
I had heard about the hermitage from nearly everyone at the monastery, though no one would tell me where it was or how to get there. It was, apparently, a secret I had to earn.
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