When snow in Belgrade… smells of childhood

Nina Marković Khaze holds a PhD in Political Science (ANU), Double Masters in International Relations and Diplomacy (ANU) and a B.A. (Hons) in Italian Studies and Political Science (UWA). Her most memorable artistic moment was a poetry book launch in Belgrade and composing Balkan ethno-music in Australia. She is currently working as an academic and journalist as well as Director of Communications at Solve Law, Manly. 

This photo was sent to me by my mother, Svetlana.  She snapped it standing on her balcony in Belgrade in the middle of winter in Serbia, and I received it at my place in Manly, Australia, in the middle of summer. 

The area in Belgrade where my mum still lives is known as “Petlovo Brdo”, or “Rooster’s Hill”, and it is the last suburb in Belgrade before you hit the sign telling you “Goodbye” on the Ibar Highway that leads towards Southern Serbia. As one of twenty-three of Belgrade’s hills, Petlovo Brdo is still regarded as one of the greenest urban areas in the Balkans’ heartland. But how can a photo, casually snapped of snow-covered low-lying pine trees and tall linden trees (many of which my grandfather had planted), which mum sent from her balcony in Petlovo Brdo via a social media app to faraway Manly remind one of childhood smells?   

Well, there is a distinct smell to the snow in Petlovo Brdo.  In proximity to Avala mountain, snow has always been deeper, whiter, and fluffier in this part of the capital city than in other areas. The air, too, is always colder and bolder, and steps in the snow brisker and louder than in the city centre areas where the snow quickly transforms into muddy puddles. The stillness of winter nights when you can only hear the snow falling will be stuck forever in my childhood memory, as well as the taste of a falling snowflake casually caught by an exhilarated child!

Jugo in snow

Brushing off the snow from my mother’s red Jugo car (one of the symbols of Yugoslavia) was always a mission. We had a whole suite of snow clearing “gear”: a cigarette lighter (to warm up the car key to enable it to fit into the frozen door lock); a brush and sometimes a shovel too (to move the snow away and dig out the car); and a squeegee (to remove any excess ice). Finally, we had to have on us a good pair of leather gloves to hold the ice-cold steering wheel – coupled with a bit of patience, as we would always need to wait for a few minutes once the car turned on to warm up the engine… before the Jugo would stall again…  The neighbours would sometimes help us push it out onto the main road, just like they would collectively engage in snow clearing activities outside our deeply snow-covered street.

As children, my schoolfriends and I were always proud to live on the periphery, despite Petlovo Brdo’s infamous reputation for street crime. Living there was meant to be more “authentic” and less imitating of any external urban influences, be they from the West or East. There was even a policing TV show made about the place, called “The Police Officer from Petlovo Brdo”! Being a remote suburb, the side streets in Petlovo Brdo were often neglected by the city council’s snow clearing services, so our little red Jugo car would often get stuck in its parking space for some time. Luckily, our Jugo was never stolen, but there were times when the petrol from the car was sucked out through a rubber pipe by the local car petrol thieves who would only leave behind their empty footprints in the snow…

Doomed comparisons

While looking at mum’s photos of pine trees bent under the heavy weight of snow in my old neighbourhood of Rooster’s Hill, I wonder about what a contrasting life experience I had as a child from my beachside life today. My 7-year-old has never seen snow and does not know its crispy smell. How can I explain to my children that I walked to school and after school activities all by myself (like all other Serbian primary school children) through half a meter of snow, always mindful to avoid open drains along the path. In winter, you could never stand directly under the rooftops since ice tips can be very sharp and painful if they were to fall on you from a height.

There were also dozens of street dogs roaming around hungry, so you would always try to avoid large packs. My grandfather fed one group of dogs outside our apartment block who would then follow me every morning to school, almost like a personal dog protection service! Lastly, if you stood too close to the roadside when the snow started to melt, you would turn into a blob of wet clothes requiring an almost immediate return home to change, as you cannot go anywhere soaking wet in low temperatures. And my primary school did not have any central heating, just like our own apartment.

Heating in Rooster Hill’s winters

My mother was mindful of frequent electricity shortages (and sometimes, water too) so she relied on both gas and electricity heating options. We had different types of heaters in different rooms. The best part was sleeping under oversized blankets. Showers were usually quick and efficient. We certainly knew how to save water in the cold winter months. It was, at times, so cold outside that we could freely leave the leftovers of dinner outside on the balcony instead of in the fridge. A massive freezer would help store all our staples – bread and even milk bags – as sometimes one could not leave the apartment building if the snow was too dense, and shops would not get daily deliveries. We would recycle everything at home, from old ice-cream plastic containers to jars and all sorts of packaging. Reflecting back, we were the champions of recycling, preserving and mindfulness in daily life, which we are desperately missing today in Sydney.

As I cast one more look at the photos of the snow in Rooster’s Hill, I feel a familiar sense of warmth and peace, despite the turbulent history of the country where I grew up. A childhood memory of sledding on the nearby slopes and making a star in the snow with neighbours will always be as fresh as ever. When I hit the beach tomorrow with family, I might pretend that I am drawing in the snow instead of the sand. The Rooster’s Hill kind of snow. With a sign that says “Goodbye” but also “Welcome” on the other side….

© Dr Nina Marković Khaze, 2022

Jugo image sourced from: