Dana Gavanski is a Canadian musician with Serbian heritage. She was on holiday in Serbia with her boyfriend James when the country closed its airports in response to the Coronavirus outbreak, leaving them unable to return to the UK. She wrote to us from her family's country home outside Belgrade.
It started with a precaution. We didn’t think we’d be stuck in Serbia, indefinitely. Maybe we were naïve? My whole family warned us the whole time. But my family is known to worry about most things – a very Eastern European kind of worrying born of a unique history. The British didn’t seem very worried, so we thought, hey, we’ll make it back, no prob.
In the meantime, precautions were growing here. Freedoms were minimizing. James and I still went for a walk a day, often a few hours long, exploring Belgrade together, following the stray cats into abandoned plots.
It was pretty surreal. Our plan was to visit my Baka (grandma in Serbian), for James to meet her and see more of Serbia and the places that are special to me. Only a few months ago she fell and broke her hip. The operation was thankfully successful but everyone in the family was worrying, nonetheless, because of her age - as was already the norm. In truth, she’s doing better than we all are. In any case, I didn’t know when I would see her next and we had a little opening in our schedule between tours and recordings. And so we booked our tickets a month prior unaware of what the future held…
Days leading up to the trip, everything seemed more or less normal in the UK and North America, even Italy… However, my brother and father warned us of going and said if I must go, don’t go near Baka. Keep a distance from her… or better, don’t even see her. I felt very gutted. My Baka is very important to me in so many ways I don’t know how to explain. Our relationship has always been very strong, one of friendship and mothering and many exchanges of secrets, ones unique to her, sometimes unspoken.
Baka Dana with a pear tree that’s as old as her, Arandjelovac, Serbia 2019
We did visit her and my mother but at a distance, while she giggled at our anxiety, saying “I lived through two wars,” – “at least you don’t have a gun aimed at your head!” Keeping a distance, my Baka smiled at me, looking at me but not exactly, as she’s been losing her eyesight incrementally over the years. But it made her look even more wise, as if she’d fixed her sights on an undeniable truth.
My mother is in charge of taking care of her, so she’s been understandably stressed about keeping her safe from the virus. We all are. I got this disturbing feeling every time I entered the apartment to get something, looking at her as if I was examining a photograph of a painful memory of a loved one, a snapshot of a vanishing act, of a growing distance, like I would never be able to touch her again. I think of articles I’ve read or videos I’ve watched of people expressing their pain at not being able to visit their loved ones in care homes, of an old man speaking to his wife with dementia through her room window, telling her he loves her but that he can’t go inside and she can’t come outside. Her crying seeping through the window as he, kneeling down, his arthritis ridden hands on his knees, tells her not to cry, the viewer hearing the family behind the iPhone saying “don’t cry” – that’s a real tragedy to me. Thankfully my Baka has my mother at her side.
I feel slightly weird taking this space to write about our experience during lockdown in Serbia. At most it’s really just a great inconvenience of paranoia, cabin fever and helplessness. Thankfully we have a place to stay, my family home in the country. The day our flight was cancelled (we knew of it the day before because the airport suddenly closed without notice), we hurried quickly to the countryside where my cousin and her friend drove us. The day after, it was announced that no one was allowed to drive between cities or towns. The curfew went from 8pm-5am to 5pm-5am and all parks were closed. I thankfully managed to show James the beautiful park that’s a 5 minute walk from the house the day we arrived. I used to spend summers in that park, in bumper cars, running on endless grasses, and climbing on the many marble sculptures that dot the park. He got to taste the mineral water that made this town famous a century ago – that is grossly sulphuric and metallic. I showed him the pool where I used to swim as a child, now empty and overgrown, where the photos for the album cover were taken. I showed him the two empty, gutted hotels that used to be the centre of social life in the town.
The first day in the countryside was bizarrely optimistic once we settled in. It was good to be away from the city and all the madness of tall apartment buildings and concrete emptiness. My aunt and cousin were living downstairs below us. My aunt was cheery. It was a warm spring day and we kept our distances as she served us Turkish coffee and prženica (Serbian French toast) through the window. We relished the sun thinking about the approaching summer months with a mix of sadness and relief. My aunt leaned out the window with a big smile and squinting eyes as I snapped a photo of her that remains in the camera undeveloped.
Before we left for the countryside, James and I took a long walk to the Sava Centre in Novi Beograd (New Belgrade) then back to our air bnb. I had had a photo shoot there the winter before last with the photographer Marija Strajnić and fell in love with the space. The Sava Centre is an old communist structure built in 1976 for international congress, business and cultural activities. Walking into it feels like being in the 70s, the interior otherworldly with its huge alien ventilators, and with most of the 70s print still on the storefronts. Though some businesses were still working, the huge structure, already with an air of emptiness, had a bizarre stillness added to it with the fear of coronavirus looming. I took James through the building, showing him various corners and spaces.
This was our last stroll in the city before things began turning, before hearing that the airport would shut down, before hearing that our flight was cancelled, and before learning that we would have to be in quarantine for 28 days in the countryside. Throughout the day, though the threat of coronavirus was starting to feel more and more real, though our eyes turned red from reading too many virus updates, and our ears tired from talking to worried family members, it felt for a second like any other spring day spent exploring the city.
Dana Gavanski's album 'Yesterday is Gone' is released on Full Time Hobby March 27th.
Popcorn vendor in Knez Mihajlova (Belgrade city centre)
Cat among the ruins of the National Library of Serbia, bombed by the Germans in WWII
A cat in the ruins of a house near the Library (unrelated to the bombings)
Self portrait at the Sava centre
James on the second floor of the Sava centre
James at the empty bar of the Sava centre