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A Narrative Left Behind
A story about Serbia, Kosovo, and Russia stitched from the discards of a first draft
One of the inevitable consequences of writing a book (that you can preorder here) is ending up with a lot of material that doesn’t make the final cut. In my case, my first draft was more than double the length of a typical book. Candidly, my final draft and what is being published is on the long side for a first book from someone who isn’t a celebrity or household name. I’m grateful to Madville Publishing for indulging me.
Still, I have a lot of material that I have been gradually putting out on Substack. In some cases, I’ve published whole chapters, in other cases just vignettes.
I’m trying something a little different with this post. I took a first draft of a chapter and excised everything that ended up in the book. What’s left is the following. I have added some stitching in italics to glue together the chunks.
This is the chapter about my first international reporting trip in 2007. Technically, it’s my third foreign story as I reported a story from Mali in 2003 and Iceland in 2006 (sadly both stories have aged off the internet), but these were essentially freelance pieces I did while on vacations.
My trip to Serbia, Kosovo, and Russia was a deliberate reporting trip and while I got through the trip in one piece, I was a bumbling idiot through much of it and lucky I didn’t get myself into serious trouble. Enjoy.
For my first reporting trip, I of course wanted to go someplace heady despite my very limited experience traveling to heady places. My parents used to love telling the story of my first time on ice skates as a kid. My skates were splayed out to the sides as I fought to stand up, and I asked when I could start jumping barrels. In other words, I have a history of getting ahead of myself.
We were producing a program on the chilling relations between Russia and the United States, and I wanted to go somewhere where there was tension and danger that could serve as a vivid example of Russia’s increasing assertiveness in the world. I wanted that place to be somewhere that would “impress” people—to show that I was hardcore and could handle serious shit.
After speaking with several Russia experts and some former grad school classmates, I settled on Serbia and Kosovo. It was a clear example of where Russia and the United States were at odds: Russia was backing Serbia, which opposed the impending independence of Kosovo, and the United States, which eight years prior had bombed the crap out of Serbia to protect Kosovo, supported independence for the ethnic-Albanian territory.
While it wasn’t an active conflict, it wasn’t exactly Sesame Street either as Kosovo was on the verge of declaring independence and there were concerns that could spark violence. Plus, Kosovo was still quite rough around the edges with plenty of criminal and mafia activity. Ultimately, it fit the bill for me—it was journalistically sound, a clear example of a clash between U.S. and Russian foreign policy, and it would help me build street cred by reporting from a rough neighborhood.
At the same time, I would be touching down there years after the height of conflict that the real war correspondents had covered. I was late to the party and for journalists, going to Kosovo at that time was no big deal, even if the average person thought it was a big deal. Still, I had to start somewhere.
I commenced my pre-trip research and contact building. A friend who had spent time in that region (doing mysterious things that I figured it was best not to ask about) turned me onto a number of sources, and also pointed me to a perfect vehicle for my story: the bridge in Mitrovica.
Mitrovica at the time was a divided city in Kosovo (well, it still is). The Ibar river splits the city between north and south. The north is Serbian despite the fact that the entire city is within Kosovo. The south is Albanian. Mitrovica was a hot spot during the 1999 Kosovo war and most of the Serbs living south of the river fled to the north. NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR) peacekeepers deployed to Mitrovica along with UN police. Deadly ethnic clashes continued to break out from time to time after the war.
After Kosovo declared independence, things heated up as there was a significant Serbian population in the northern part of Kosovo, and the Serbs did not recognize Kosovo as an independent nation. It was all rather predictable, and could have been avoided had everyone agreed to draw the borders such that the Serbs in Kosovo would not end up as an ethnic minority in an independent Kosovo. It’s all complicated and fascinating, and I can’t do it justice here, so let’s move on.
Mitrovica, and specifically the bridge, would be the initial setting and metaphor for my report. To this day, people refer to the bridge as one that divides, rather than connects, two communities. Serbs backed by Russia on one side, and Albanians backed by the United States on the other. Journalistic poetry.
I booked my flight, reserved a room at a cheap hotel in Belgrade, and scheduled some interviews. With that, and without doing some additional planning and research that I should have, I set off on my adventure.
As soon as I cleared immigration and customs in Belgrade—which went far smoother than I anticipated—I realized I had not completed one of the most important parts of pre-trip research: figuring out the local taxi system. Every country has its quirks when it comes to airport taxis. There are few things worse than walking out of an airport and not having any idea how to avoid being taken for a ride by an unscrupulous taxi driver—is that redundant?
In some countries there are no discernible regulations and drivers swarm arriving passengers and charge whatever they can get away with. Other countries have official licensed taxis that use meters and might simultaneously have rogue or unregulated taxis, which can be better or worse than the licensed taxis. And some countries have only licensed taxis, but drivers can still find ways to cut corners and rip off passengers. Some countries have taxi drivers who might take you on a ride from which you never return. Therefore, one of the most important pieces of knowledge when traveling internationally is the local taxi system, in particular the rules and conventions at airports.
As I came out into the arrival hall, I saw a number of men with “Taxi” badges awaiting fresh meat. Several drooling drivers approached me, and I waved them off as I stalled for time to assess the situation. One driver followed at a distance as I wandered around the arrival hall looking for an ATM. I found one and took out a stack of Serbian dinars as I continued to look for clues as to how to procure a scam-free ride.
Since it was my first time traveling alone outside of places like the UK or France where you can generally count on the rule of law and consistent practices, I didn’t have the appropriate knowledge or the confidence and swagger necessary to ward off those looking to take advantage of a clueless foreigner. I didn’t feel in danger. If anything, I felt somewhat embarrassed and ashamed for being clueless in the first moments of my first international reporting trip.
More taxi men approached me, and I dismissed them all and walked outside to gather more intelligence. I saw a bus schedule and tried to make sense of it as a possible alternative to get into the city. As I struggled over the schedule, a taxi driver approached and started talking to me. I played it cool like I knew what I was doing. The gruff 50-something man with buzzed gray hair spoke solid English and he seemed to have a low Travis Bickle quotient. We negotiated a bit over the rate, and I decided to take a chance with him.
The conversation during the taxi ride is in the book.
We arrived at the Union Hotel. I paid the driver the agreed price and he handed me his card. I survived my first taxi ride as an international journalist. I entered the lobby and could tell the hotel was going to have “charm” but might not have hot water or any furnishings that were purchased after I was born. Such was my lot working for a low-budget program that could barely afford to send me anywhere.
The desk staff checked me in and gave me my room key and TV remote—detail noted, I was in a place where TV remotes were a prized commodity. I stepped into one of the most primitive elevators I’d ever seen. It wasn’t like a cool New York City lift with the metal gate and the control lever that looks like something off an 1800s steamship operated by a guy dressed as Captain Obvious. It was, shall we say, more socialist looking. You opened the outer door manually, stepped in, and either closed the inner doors, or not. It didn’t matter as the elevator would go with the inner doors open, and you could watch each floor pass by until it stopped, and you pushed open the outer door to exit. If nothing else, it seemed like it would be easy to escape the elevator in the event of a power outage, but I could picture American lawyers salivating over the personal injury potential.
I double checked that I still had all my limbs and wandered down the dark hallway. The floor felt like my foot might fall through at any moment, and the trim looked like that hyper-flammable stuff that Sears sold everyone for their basements in the 1970s.
I entered my room, and it was as expected. Everything was 30 years past its expiration date but, it would do—it had a bed, something resembling a shower, a grime-covered rotary phone, and the door lock worked.
Book content here.
That night I went out for dinner and drinks with a grad school classmate. We dined at Dacha, a traditional Serbian restaurant and then went to Absinthe—one of the trendier bars in Belgrade, apparently modeled after a bar in New York I’d never seen. My classmate left, but I stayed to people watch—well, women watch.
However, the women did not seem to be interested in watching me, so around 1 a.m. I left with the intention of taking a cab back to my lovely hotel room and its ancient TV—I had left the remote in the room, which I hoped was the right thing to do. As I was about to hop into a taxi, I noticed a giant stone church bathed in bright light on top of a nearby hill. I decided to hike up for a closer look.
I walked around the towering Cathedral of St. Sava, and in the not-too distance, I heard The Doors—I was assuming it was a recording and not the actual band, but there were still those rumors that Jim wasn’t really dead. I traced the source to a bar across the street and I wandered in. It was the smallest bar I’d seen anywhere to that point—about the square footage of a Manhattan studio apartment (if you counted the closet and pantry). It was dark and the music way too loud. Electronic dartboards flashed away on the far wall.
Stuff, stuff, stuff in the book. People I met at the bar and stayed out all night with dropped me back at my hotel as the sun was rising.
I was suspicious of the elevator and my coordination and climbed the creaky stairs to my room. I closed the door, placed the half empty bottle of beer I was still carrying on the night table and by 6:30 a.m. I was asleep. Of course, it was only 12:30 a.m. as far as my body was concerned, so it wasn’t that outrageous to be turning in so late.
Not surprisingly, I woke up a little later than I wanted to, and I immediately hopped into the shower, drenched the bathroom with the hand-held shower head, got dressed, and wandered out to the pedestrian street and Kalemegdan Park to do “man on the street” interviews.
A bunch of stuff takes place. The next morning, I take a bus to Mitrovica in the Kosovo region and spend the day there bumbling around before taking a taxi to Pristina for the night. I checked into the Grand Hotel Pristina.
I dropped my bags and went out looking for the bars I was told would be full of UN people. I asked the woman at the front desk—who of course looked like Layla—where I could find the Phoenix Bar and the Bamboo lounge. She said she had never heard of them, but the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) headquarters was just behind the hotel, so I should check there.
I walked out and passed the UNMIK building, and right across from it was the Phoenix Bar—go figure. It was a classic English-style pub, and I promptly ordered a Guinness and scoped out the room. It was quiet, but I heard one group of people speaking English. I wandered over to the burly, dark men and barged in. They immediately accused me of being a spy. I explained that I was a journalist, and they were clearly having none of it. They wanted to know why I looked like I was from Scandinavia, and they accused me of speaking with different, and non-American accents.
I stuck with my journalist story and proceeded to ask them questions about what was going on in Kosovo. They were all security workers from Trinidad, and they felt things were pretty calm. They weren’t sensing any buildup of tension and didn’t think there would be anything like the conflict in 1999, but they acknowledged that things could get hairy.
We talked a little longer and I realized I wasn’t going to get any useful contacts or interviews. I excused myself, telling the security guys I had a busy day of spying ahead and needed some rest. Why not tweak them on the way out?
The next morning, I walked out to a row of taxis in front of the hotel. I asked if someone could take me to the Russian chancery office. Two cabbies talked for a moment and indicated they knew where I wanted to go. I hopped into one of the cabs. The driver wandered through progressively smaller streets on a hillside and stopped at a dead end by the U.S. embassy. I got out and told the armed guard—who was rapidly approaching me with a concerned look on his face—that I had asked the driver to take me to the Russian chancery. They spoke in German for a few minutes, which baffled me, and the cabbie finally understood.
We pulled up at another dead end where Russian security guards immediately gave me the hairy eyeball. I argued with the driver for a minute about the fare since he went the wrong way, and then a security guard escorted me inside.
The building had a small lobby with a magnetometer. The security guy of course spoke no English and seemed to be telling me to empty all my pockets and leave all my equipment at the desk. He indicated for me to place my cell phone on the counter by the glass window behind which two more guards sat. I kept watching to see if he was going to don rubber gloves, at which point I was going to run for the exit.
He then started to wave me inside, and I tried to communicate that I needed my audio gear. I wasn’t sure for a minute he was going to let me take anything inside, but through a series of awkward hand gestures I got across that I needed my microphone, headphones, and recorder, and he let me take them into Andrei Dronov’s office.
I Interviewed Andrei, which I have written about in the book and on Substack previously since the conversation was a foreshadowing of the war in Ukraine. After the interview I returned to Mitrovica and walked around doing interview and exploring on the north, or Serbian, side of the city.
I hiked back down the hill to get something to eat before taking the bus back to Belgrade. I crossed the bridge to the little kebab shack on the Albanian side. I ordered a sandwich, and the owner invited me to sit in the “garden” behind the stand. It consisted of a small plastic table, a couple of chairs, and an umbrella. Directly behind was a railing, and on the other side was a hedge covered in razor wire.
As I sat waiting for my food, a Kosovo Police Force officer sat down, and we chatted. He was Albanian. He proceeded to spew venom about the Serbs. He had a visceral hatred of them and what they had done to the Kosovar Albanians. Then, his Serbian co-officer joined him. The Albanian officer’s demeanor flipped 180 degrees. He was all polite and buddy-buddy with his Serbian colleague. That summed it all up for me.
After my sandwich, I walked over to the row of buses on the north side and waited for the 5 p.m. bus. By 5:20, I realized was no 5 p.m. bus to Belgrade. I couldn’t determine whether I had misread the schedule—likely—or whether the scheduled bus simply didn’t show—equally likely.
I found a way back to Belgrade and describe the anxiety-inducing experience in the book. I spent one more day in Belgrade and then traveled to Moscow.
I made it through the airport without incident and after a two-hour delay, boarded the flight to Moscow. It was my first, and to date only, time flying Aeroflot. It was everything I expected it to be. The plane was a wide-body jet and the interior felt and looked like the inside of a 1974 Lincoln Continental. It was probably the height of luxury when it was built with its wide seats and garish trim, but it just looked outdated and kind of sad.
The flight was uneventful. Immigration was less so. The woman behind the desk heavily scrutinized my passport and visa and ultimately decided that the picture in my passport was not of me. She walked off with my passport to find a supervisor. I stood at the counter awkwardly awaiting my fate and kind of hoping to get hauled off into a back room for interrogation. That would provide a more badass story to tell about my reporting trip to Russia. Keep in mind, this was before Russia started aggressively cracking down on and detaining Americans, particularly journalists. I certainly would not be so blithe today about the notion of being detained in Russia.
However, it would not come to pass. The woman came back with a supervisor who looked at me, looked at my passport, and then looked at the woman with an expression that said, “Why did you waste my time?” She stamped me in, and I proceeded through baggage claim and customs and met my host, another grad-school classmate.
On the surprisingly long drive from the airport into the city we stopped at a traditional Russian restaurant to escape the traffic and down some borscht and vodka. From there, we continued onto his luxury apartment and drank more vodka before calling it a night.
The next day I woke up feeling drained—we didn’t have that much vodka, so I was pretty certain it was still the Serbian fish that was swimming around my insides. Another dose of Cipro and we headed downtown. My host dropped me off at Moscow University so I could interview students while he went off to a meeting. First, he came inside with me to the student cafe to inform employees who I was and to get permission before he left me on my own.
I spoke with a number of students about their view of Russia in the world and Russian foreign policy. I don’t know why it surprised me, but it did, that most of the students strongly supported Putin’s push to make Russia a player in the world again. These kids came of age after the fall of the Iron Curtain and knew nothing first-hand about Soviet Russia and the Cold War. Yet, they all felt that Russia had been humiliated and kicked while it was down in the ‘90s and early aughts and that it was time for Russia to become a strong, proud country again and they fully supported anything Putin did to make Russia a global power.
None of them expressed any opinions about the domestic economy, their job prospects, or any such parochial concerns, they just wanted Russia to sit at the adult table again. Again, I don’t know why that surprised me, but I felt those students were far more nationalistic and concerned with their country’s image in the world than I and my peers were when we were in college.
Granted, I was in college when the wall fell. After growing up in the Reagan era with the ever-present threat of nuclear war, we were freed from any such existential angst and America’s place in the world was secure as we entered adulthood. We Gen X’ers had the luxury of being more individualistic and focused on our lives and futures. Still, the sense of Russian grandeur exhibited by the students stuck with me.
Eventually, I started getting dirty looks from staff in the facility and I realized I had worn out my welcome. I packed up my gear and wandered outside to wait for Sergey. He picked me up and chauffeured me through ludicrous Moscow traffic to the Carnegie Moscow Center so I could interview Dimitri Trenin, the deputy director. He argued that Russia had a rather nebulous, arrogant, and ambitious foreign policy and that it was likely to become more of an eye-poker to the West in the coming years. I was impressed, though, that a high-profile Russian analyst was able to be as candid and critical of Russian politics and foreign policy as he was. Of course, our conversation took place before Putin critics started to develop an affinity for “accidentally” coming into contact with poisons and toxins.
The remainder of my interviews in Moscow all foretold the current state of play with Russia. Across the board, analysts, journalists, and citizens I spoke with all felt that Putin was going to bring Russia back and although it would never become an equal power to the United States on the world stage, Russia would constrain the United States and restrict its dominance. No one argued that Russia would offer the world any kind of positive vision or that it would become any kind of force for good in the world.
After finishing my work for the day, Sergey and I got ready to explore the club scene, which at that point was already world famous for its extravagance and decadence. I should mention that I was still feeling the effects of the Danube fish, so I was not exactly in full-on party mode, but there wasn’t a chance I was going to skip the Moscow scene.
I can’t remember the name of the place we ultimately chose. We arrived at the venue a little before midnight and got into a snaking line outside a large door flanked by a couple of ginormous bouncers straight out of central casting with their black shirts, bulging arms, and picture-perfect scowls.
At midnight, one of the men pulled out a cordless drill and unscrewed six large screws that were holding the door in place. We walked in through the door into a long hallway before emerging into what was in effect a small stadium. The place had the size and shape of a small college arena that held at least a thousand people. There were tiers of seating and standing spaces along the oval room and in the center was a floor area with bars at either end. Jutting out from the sides and up from the floor were six little crow’s nests for dancers, and there was a large catwalk platform that protruded from one end of the oval and hovered about 30 feet above the floor like an Olympic diving platform.
Sergey and I went to one of the bars and I ordered a martini. This was a club in Moscow after all, so of course I had to order a vodka drink. Except, the bartender had no idea what I was talking about. I explained through Sergey that I wanted a vodka martini. The bartender picked up a bottle of Martini vermouth and Sergey explained that to the bartender a “martini” meant a glass of Martini. I was truly baffled that a bartender in one of the largest clubs in Moscow had apparently never heard of the classic cocktail, and so I settled for a vodka on the rocks. I believe the price of a mid-shelf vodka was about $30, which was easily double the going rate in D.C. at the time.
Everything was over the top. In addition to the ridiculously expensive drinks, the music was ear splitting, the lights and video screens pulsing, the female dancers—everything you would expect among the gilded class in Moscow.
After about an hour, the show started on the catwalk. A trio of supermodel-looking women clad in perfunctory black leather bikinis and thigh-high boots lip synced and pole danced with their microphone stands to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll.” Vegas Elvis, assisted by two more supermodels in Vegas Elvis bikinis took their turn gyrating on the platform. On and on it went with bikini-clad women grinding away on the platform.
While I was transfixed by Russia’s finest on the stage, much of the crowd was not paying attention. The young, well dressed, and clearly well-heeled attendees were engaged in drink and conversation. Interestingly, the place didn’t have the “being seen” dynamic so prominent in high-end clubs in other places at the time. People seemed more casual and engaged in socializing rather than strutting and otherwise showing off their wealth and status. There were no cliched scenes of small tables of mafia thugs surrounded by mostly naked women prostrating themselves at the power and wealth of the men. I concluded that the club was not exclusive enough for that demographic and was instead oriented to Russia’s new upper/upper middle class who just wanted to have fun.
Finally, the fatigue of fighting the microorganisms I imported from Serbia caught up with me, and at 4am we left the still thronging and throbbing club. All fantasies of impressing supermodels with my new status as a globe-trotting foreign correspondent faded with the music as we exited the club with nothing more than ringing ears and smoke-infused clothes.
The next day I awoke still feeling a little fishy and went about conducting my final interviews and doing the obligatory tours of Red Square and the Kremlin to cross them off the bucket list. The following day, feeling slightly better, I returned to Washington. Of course, I had the authentic experience of a sudden snowstorm hitting Moscow and delaying my flight just enough to miss my connection in London, resulting in an overnight at a Heathrow motel and a mad scramble at the airport the following day to get my Russian vodka onto the flight.
The first few days back in D.C. I felt fine, but then the Danube fish made an encore appearance. I could go into dramatic and colorful detail with four-part harmony, but I will spare you and simply state that it reached the point where I had no choice but to go to the ER. Fortunately, the cocktail of antibiotics they gave me finally wrestled the Danube fish into submission and I could proceed with writing my story and plotting my next, and more extreme, adventure.
The intestinal distress wasn’t the only thing that lingered after I returned home. The images of all the beautiful women who looked like my ex haunted me. I felt alone and conflicted when I was around my rebound girlfriend. She was a wonderful person but was going to end up as relationship roadkill somewhere down the line. There was no way I could give myself to someone when I couldn’t stop thinking about her predecessor. My trip showed me that I hadn’t even begun to heal.