Relationships are solid and stable…

… although they sometimes tremble, especially between the East and the West 

Well, that was a real competition. We were sitting in one of Belgrade’s small smoky restaurants afternoon, hours after the official meeting. But let’s start from the beginning.

Firstly, midday meeting with the Serbian Minister… topics of mutual interest and troubles. The issues at the table, tough as they could be after the war… return of the refugees, missing persons, return of documents, cultural property… Sitting in Minister’s cabinet, two of his young lady assistants will take notes, both sides of the table tense and aware of the sensitivity of the issues… In short, the array is important, unavoidable, and at the same time sensitive.

The good thing was, for a start, that I knew the Minister from before, there was some good personal chemistry between us which is, in such tense situations, more than helpful. Communication becomes easier, doors are opened to solutions instead of some personal “suspicion” closing the windows. Going through the points, in the end, we both emphasized the most important thing, which hardly needs to be mentioned – our relations are crucially important for our people, our countries, and this part of Europe.

Minister agrees, repeating that all these remaining issues should be resolved pragmatically. Without political drumbeats and noises, we went through a past that was both difficult and terrible, the objective truth about that past may be decades away from us – but we need to work patiently and gradually so that people understand the extent of suffering we need to work so that the past should not be forgotten, but we must not remain its prisoners, gradually and hopefully only the real truth will liberate. We listed down the “desirable principles” that should guide both sides in the future concrete negotiations about each of the issues from the list. Two girls wrote them down in the official note. God knows whoever read it!

Later in the day, summing up the details of that meeting in one of Belgrade’s smoky small restaurants, we agreed that one of the roots of our problem is mistrust and competition. We distrust each other, we have different political perceptions about our positions and role in the history of our relations. In many cases, it was evident that we wanted to prove to each other which one was better off, be it social development, kilometers of railroads, or basketball.

The waiter, with mustaches resembling ancient Serbian kings or Vuk Karadžić, brought the cold appetizer. Hladetina, pihtija, aspic, jelly, žulica, pače, pitije, drče, mrzletina… endless names for that simple, ordinary, and yet, if prepared with some “artistic gift,” the dish that could turn into an imaginative piece of a cube on the plate, with all these colorful ingredients inside, yellow carrots hugging the green peas, grayish pork pieces side by side to brownish slices of boiled pork skin…

And, as the old waiter put the wooden plate with that aspic in the middle of the table, adding some onion slices, salt, red pepper, and vinegar, I thought… oh, my God, it may not be accidentally, they somehow heard about the competitive relations between the two nations, now they…whoever that may be, some Force Majeure…wants us to engage in the competition over the aspic…who makes the better one!! It cannot be true! Let’s skip it, let’s avoid the trap! Where is the end of that political athletics?

But there was a chattering lady in their delegation. Instantly, she took the scene: reciting the recipe, vividly describing how you prepare a pot of hot boiling water, put the veal legs and veal tongue inside, add a lot of salt, peppercorns, bay leaves, vegetables, and…well, after an hour and a half, you know, you take out the legs, you don’t need them anymore, they were there to strengthen the jelly, then you cut the tongue into thin slices, and when the rest of the liquid boils once more and when it starts to thicken, you arrange the tongue slices, garlic, pieces of vegetable and peppercorns in the mold, and pour over with the stiffing liquid, three rows over each other – the Aspic Lady was already in the highest mode: bro, when it cools off, when you cut it in cubes, put on the plate, add some horseradish – surely, there is nothing better, nobody in the world prepares is better than us, the Serbs!  Full stop in the air! Again, my God, Serbs are the best!

But, as if to prove the long legacy of competitions in all fields, there were two guys from Slavonia on our side of the table. Yes, everything you said was nice, and the recipe is interesting – but sulc, that’s what we call aspic in our Slavonia, that’s something really out of this world. How can I tell you, it’s a tradition, an art, a divine thing! And in an instant, also, here’s the recipe. Only, you know, it’s nothing like the way you do it, in a hurry, not in an hour or so, this aspic of ours is prepared for at least a week, this is a serious and thorough matter…

Dear God, if he continues characterizing the differences between our two peoples, who are hasty and flammable and calm and steady, that may not end too well, I thought.

Luckily, the recipe was faster than politics. The proud Slavonian was already on his mission: you see, when you clean the pig’s feet, giblets, ears, tongue, and skin of everything, then when you brine it for two weeks, then when you wash everything well, then put it in cold water… yes, it must be cold so that sulc remains clear at the end…then you add carrots, parsley, celery, onions, garlic, bay leaves, salt and when you cook it on a low heat for at least four hours you see, it’s a matter of thoroughness, there’s nothing to be quick about, and finally you separate the meat from all the bones, arrange it nicely in the mold with those colorful carrots and celery and parsley and peas, and add sliced boiled eggs hey, my friend, when it cools down and hardens, then when you slice it, then spice it up with our hot pepper, let me tell you, it’s a divine thing, there’s nothing better! This is how sulc has been prepared in our country for two hundred years, he said triumphantly at the end. Now, my God, Croats are the best! Luckily, it turned out not to become a bilateral competition. The mood around the table improved with each new recipe exchanged. Perch in aspic, gazpacho aspic, onions in aspic, cold sturgeon aspic well, with stories about schvarglas, oppresenka, satrica, and similar dishes, the mood goes up, and potential competitive nervousness was avoided.

And, thinking about the meeting with Rasim, thinking about the state of our relations probably inevitable, a metaphor – yes, our relations, despite everything, are rather solid and stable, only occasionally tremble like that aspic thing!

Later, on the way back home, in the car, I was thinking about that meeting with Rasim and, somehow, started to put all our differences, open issues, all our mutual ups and downs throughout history, including the latest period of war started to correlate it with that aspic metaphor. Relations are solid, but still, they occasionally tremble. Relations are dependent on stability, but they still occasionally shake in stagnation. Again, that aspic metaphor. Who should do what? I knew we were ready to move forward, not forgetting the past but not boiling that past for years and decades. And for the other side…what time may it take to step out of the narratives that were boiling for centuries? Our car was trying to get out of the city, it was Friday, the road was crowded, and queues on the bridge to the west were an unintentional metaphor again. Police escort in front of our car, sitting in the back, I was still thinking about the coldness in our relations, playing with the words: cold is hladno, aspic is hladetina.

Suddenly, I realize that the commotion and shouting that I hear is coming from the police car in front of us, which is clearing our way, which is breaking through the column of tired and angry drivers. The police driver turned on all the speakers in the world and roared at the top of his voice: “Hey you, in front hey, can you hear me come on, move to the right, move to the right when I tell you!’” I raised my head to observe better the policeman roared from the bottom of his lungs: “Move to the right, move to the right!” And the drivers look in fear of sneaking into the right lane, full of equally angry drivers who do not allow passing.  But the policeman wouldn’t give in.

He knows his duty; he has the power. He looks at the license plates in front of him, then screams: “Jagodina, Jagodina move to the right, move, I am ordering you. Hey, old guy, hey yes, yes, you with the hat, what are you doing, you stupid, move to the right, move to the right when I tell you!”, he roars and almost touches the bumpers of that helpless, poor guy.

I wanted to help the old man in front somehow, I opened the window and shouted to the policeman, Filip, just leave it, we are in no hurry”. But Filip didn’t give in, he had the power, powerful ones never give in. “Move to the right, move to the right, can you hear me, you old man!!” Finally, the old man realized what was happening, he started to look to the left and right, looking for a spot to hide because Filip was on edge, who knows what he could do. “Move to the right,” she roared once more. But there was a truck on the old man’s right side, no way to turn right, but, at that second, he saw a small service dent on the left side, made a sharp turn, and sneaked in.

End of story, I thought. But the story is not over for Filip, the policeman. He stops the car, jumps out, approaches the old man, reaches for the gun, orders him to open the right window, and roars: “Is that your right turn? I ordered you to turn right, you turned left. What do you think who you are, who’s the boss here?”

Later on, already across the border, rushing the highway through the plains of Slavonia, we laughed to tears over that episode until it came to our minds that the episode is, metaphorically, pointing to the most important question in our relations, the one that was somehow floating in the air during that meeting with the Minister, the one that would resolve the duality between firmness, stability and trembling, in the aspic metaphor yes, question of change of direction, the question of choosing side.

I remembered that funny episode years later subconsciously. Who would have ever thought that years and years after that policemen’s show of force “to the right” and the old man with a hat turning “to the left” would become a larger political metaphor of the state of play of the entire country, at the time when the war jam in Ukraine and the violent clash between the East and the West prompted country by country to choose a side on the highway of the European future! Who would have ever thought that Filip’s eagerness to use force would turn into a metaphor for the illegal and unprovoked use of force against a sovereign country whilst this sovereign country was “standing still,” like that aspic, in the middle, in between, trembling like aspic, allowing for that East-West conflict to become its internal clash?


This serial is based on the intriguing book “Diplomacy at the Table,” written by the Croatian diplomat Hidajet Biščević, who reviewed and edited the original manuscript and selected the most interesting records, especially for our magazine. His Excellency, Mr. Biščević, is the ambassador of the Republic of Croatia to Serbia. He lives with his family in Belgrade.  

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