When I was a kid, my mother passed on three books to me that she had read over and over again when she was a child. „Kleines Herz – Kleines Glück“ by Greta Hartl is the story of a girl of dark skin growing up in Vienna in the 1960s, enduring horrible racism, experiencing great friendship, and finding herself growing up. In the story, the girl starts writing to her father, a doctor in the United States who had left her in her aunt’s care after her mother’s death. When she is old enough to write letters, she tries to get in touch with him and receives back a wonderful letter and a box of gifts from her father. Among these gifts is a mysterious music record on vinyl. The girl’s aunt does not have a record player so she impatiently looks for a way to be able to listen to that record in private. Finally, she walks into a record store and kindly asks the shopkeeper to play it for her. The shopkeeper refuses and says they only play records they sell to customers. The girl negotiates until they agree that she will buy a random record and the shopkeeper will play for her both the one she bought and the one she brought with her to the store. It is a moving moment in this wonderful book that is so important to me and also describes the lengths we go to make something happen that is of magic importance to our lives.
More than ten years ago, I went to the Western Balkans as a young journalist for a story on individual feelings of identity in the region and how they developed ever since the war had ended. I spoke to a lot of young and old people and got to know many of the countries that were formerly Yugoslavia. I fell in love with this wonderful place of beauty, kindness, and plain craziness that has seen and is still experiencing so much pain, hopelessness, and hardship. To illustrate the story I was writing for an Austrian magazine at the time I needed photos that expressed the emotions people conveyed to me during interviews. Someone I had run into in Kosovo had a friend in Belgrade who knew an American photographer also based in Belgrade who had a photo project called „Only Unity“. The guy’s name was Matt Lutton. I emailed him and he sent me some of his pictures and I immediately realized that he had worked on the same story I was writing. The pictures were perfect for what I was planning to do and I talked my editor into paying for them instead of using stock photos. There was one picture that fascinated me particularly. It showed a young woman dressed in white. She is standing on a pile of garbage in Belgrade’s Roma settlement Gazela. It is not a nice place to live and the struggle of those who call Gazela home is in that photo. But there is more. When I think of the picture it sometimes starts moving in my head and the woman’s posture becomes more triumphant and radiates great resilience. The photo is alive in my mind. So naturally, I had to meet the man who captured this strange and impressive moment.
A little later, we met for the first time at Cafe Centrala in Belgrade. We probably drank a lot of beer and rakija and we talked about the Balkans and our fascination with new countries that had just gained independence. We started with Kosovo and ended up with South Sudan, which had become independent a year before. On this day, we just dreamed about going there one day and getting to know the world’s newest country. Little did we know that only a few months later we would find ourselves packing for our trip to Juba. The trip to South Sudan is another story or several stories but I distinguishedly remember us sitting together with friends in Belgrade after we had returned. We were exhausted, impressed with and horrified by what we had seen and learned, and there was mud on all of our stuff (rain season in South Sudan). The group of journalists and other strays around us looked at us as if we were absolutely insane (and maybe we were) while drinking beer and eating pizza at Brodić, a bar on a boat on the Sava river. We often went there to share interesting stories about the reporting we had done and wanted to do. These guys are a little older than I am and I had tremendous respect for how they managed to do tough analysis and reporting and show the wrongs of what was going on there without ever writing the place off as „failed states“, as so many did at the time and are still doing today.
Call me nostalgic, say I romanticize my connection with the Western Balkans region. I probably am. I still believe, my efforts to make more people believe in a better future for this part of Europe and Europe as a whole is one of the things in my life that make sense. It helps with my work that in my head I still sit in a bar in Belgrade or Tuzla, a restaurant in Prishtina or a cultural center in Mitrovica, at the beach in Budva or in some village no one in Vienna, Paris, London, Brussels or DC has ever heard of with friends I made in that very moment.
Matt moved back to the states several years ago, got married, became a father, and got a job that includes the luxury of a regular salary. I ended my journalistic career (if it ever was one) and started working in politics, where I still focus on the Balkans whenever I can. But before that happened Matt and I saw each other in person one more time. We had a beer at the train station in Belgrade and he showed me a dummy of his Balkans book. All of us, who have spent much time working there carry at least one unwritten book about that time in our hearts. Matt’s first draft was a little notebook. He had mapped out the structure of the book, the stories he wanted to include, and the pictures he wanted to use. I was amazed, jealous, and looking forward to buying that book once it was finished (it is still not finished).
I read somewhere that it is in human nature to want to own moments, even though we can never really do that. We love to preserve memories and try to turn immaterial treasures into physical ones by taking pictures, buying souvenirs, and writing stuff down. Matt’s book could capture part of the memories from that time, the people you meet there, the food, and all the crazy shit that happened to us there and how it changed us. I keep begging him to finally write this damn book and I made a mess of my living room spreading out all the pictures and notes that I have taken traveling through the region over the past ten years, that would be part of my Balkans book if I ever write one. Matt’s picture of the young woman in the white dress would have a double page in there. My fascination with this picture took me places and it connected me to people who are my friends to this day and hopefully will be as long as I live.
A few weeks ago, I wrote to Matt on WhatsApp and asked him to please look for that photo on his computer, because I strongly feel that it belongs on my wall and in my life. It has opened doors I didn’t know where there. I had it printed at an art print shop in Vienna. I was so excited about this and good mad at myself when I described it insufficiently to my best friend because I wanted him to understand the magic of being able to get this picture. A weird feeling of a kind of homecoming of my treasure followed me around. For ten years the woman in the white dress has randomly popped up in my thoughts like a song that gets stuck in your head. I could not be happier now that I will be able to hang it on my wall.
I could have expressed myself better in German. However, I had to make this sacrifice for Matt to be able to read it too. My heartfelt thanks for that picture and for being my friend for so long. You must finish your book on our favorite crazy place for us to remember it when we are old and lose our minds. Your stories, your journalism, and your art still matter. Besides, this place we love so much can use all the good friends it can get. We need to lay breadcrumbs for them to find it. Also, it is just mean to show the dummy to me and then never actually going through with it. And to everyone else, who reads this: Feel free to back me up here!
You can see the photos including the one I am talking about in this post written by Matt here: Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere.
And this is where the print ended up: