Dan Grossman – Church Going in Mokra Gora

Church Going in Mokra Gora

The dominant emotions of my first two hours in Mokra Gora—a town in Western Serbia famous for its narrow-gauge heritage railway, with an old train ride that loops and curls through mountains, and is also famous for its proximity to the ethno-village that Serbian director Emir Kusturica built as a set for his award-winning movie, Life Is a Miracle—were rage and loneliness.

First, the car broke down. I was on a shared taxi from Uzice, and after dropping a customer off at a random town in the mountains, the car ran out of gas or just stopped working. It was a very hot day, and the driver, a woman, her teenager son and I sat in the shadows cast by the town’s few shops, and waited, and sweated. The driver went on his phone and made several calls, and I imagined staying in the tiny town for hours, dying of heat exhaustion. At last a silver car pulled up, driven by a very old lipless man, and all of us packed into the new taxi, though for all I know he wasn’t a taxi driver but a friend, or a father, or a ghost. No one spoke English or noted my presence. I was the ghost.

Despite the delay, I was still early for the train ride. The plan was to drop me off at the end of the line and then ride it back to Mokra Gora, where I’d be picked up in four hours. Without tourists the station seemed haunted. In front of the shop a worker in a white dress shirt sat and stared out at nothing, and in the shade another worker took a nap. I walked across the train tracks toward a hut-like wooden church on a plot of grass. Three Serbian Orthodox crosses ascended on three cones of increasing height. The body of the church displayed bare wood, but the roof contained overlapping wooden triangles that were gray and greenish, almost metallically shiny, like fish scales. On the stone porch, held up by wooden pillars, I tried the front door. It was locked, but the sunshine pulled out the smell of wood, and for a second I felt indoors, cooled.

Then the train came and tourists oozed out. From the speed with which the parents lit cigarettes, you could tell they were Balkan or Eastern European, but otherwise they resembled well-off tourists everywhere: sandals and sunglasses, loud kids, and cameras cameras cameras. The workers got up and sold popsicles to the kids. Out of fifty or sixty, I was the only one alone, still a ghost.

After ten minutes the conductor let out a whistle, I found a solo seat by the window, and the ride started back up and creakily moved us up and around the mountains. When it entered a tunnel, the only light was from the train’s overhead panels, and the whole car took on a horror movie aura that got abolished the second we emerged into bright sky. At a lookout, where we stopped for ten minutes, there was a nice view of valleys and overlapping hills, green up close, misty blue in the mid-distance, and far off shading into white. A bark-colored butterfly, with white edges, flitted unnoticed through the picture-taking crowds.

This was fine, I didn’t mind this, the only problem was that again the train started back up, creakily turned and tunneled, and stopped at a lookout for ten minutes. The tourists got out and took pictures. Then the train started back up, creakily turned and tunneled, and stopped at an identical-seeming lookout for ten minutes. By the fifth lookout I had totally lost interest in the mountains. In fact, I felt sorry for them.

If, according to Robert Louis Stevenson, sightseeing is “the art of disappointment,” then what art is the scenic train ride? An art I had not mastered. (It’s worth nothing that everyone else I talked to enjoyed the train ride.) As soon as the train pulled into the Mokra Gora station, I went to the information booth and asked where to find the wooden movie set village from Life Is A Miracle.


The lady behind the counter dismissed me the moment she heard English, while the map on the information booth was in Cyrillic. I wandered downhill and got lost. (It’s worth noting that everyone else I talked to found the ethno-village with no trouble.) The problem was that everything looked like a movie set and everything was wooden and everything was village-y. And why did I even want to find it? Life Is A Miracle was a movie I had never seen, whose optimistic title I instinctively distrusted. And the idea of spending two and a half more hours walking around in 90 degree weather by myself and not even finding a place that I didn’t even want to see, angered me, and I let me anger radiate out, like ripples on the surface of a pond, to encompass all of Mokra Gora, Western Serbia, Serbia, the Balkans, Europe, the West and Planet Earth. Fuck the universe, too, while we’re at it: there were probably obnoxious, smartphone-wielding aliens on Andromeda, and crowds on Canis Major.

Then I found my second church. It was a part of a well-groomed complex with a wooden church, a central fountain, a dormitory, a small rose garden, and a tower. There was someone inside the wooden church. Maybe he would welcome me. I approached hesitantly, and peered through the open door. It was Jesus Christ. I mean it was a painting of Jesus Christ. He held a book. In fact, many Jesus Christs stared down at me from the walls: as a baby (twice), as a preacher, with his book, on the cross (twice). When I pulled out my iPhone to photograph the Last Supper, a yellow box appeared on the faces of Jesus and Judas, as if they were my friends, going to check out the photo afterwards when I posted it online. Up on the altar, the paintings became more modern, the faces geometric and oddly green. It struck me as odd, too, to include different eras of paintings of the same divinity in the same church. Shouldn’t they at least pretend that they captured his likeness? What’s in a face? Yet I liked all the paintings, wouldn’t have subtracted one Jesus Christ from the company of saints holding flaming swords and archangels also holding flaming swords.


I still wanted to find the movie set village, but crossing the street I ended up at another church. This one was black, with big wooden slates on the roof, and behind it sprawled a poorly maintained graveyard. I love graveyards. All these tombs were Serbian Orthodox, black in color, and every 20th century tomb contained a small photograph of the deceased. It’s an interesting custom that leads to interesting questions. What photo would you put on your grave, if you only got one? As a kid or as an adult? With your spouse or separate? Their answers varied. Some wore Western business attire; others wore traditional Serbian outfits. Most were in black and white, but some were in color, looking like high school yearbook photos (the 1980s). In one black-and-white photo, the young man stood in his military uniform and the young woman with a shawl over her head, he solemn, she grinning out the corners of her lips. A more modern tomb depicted a young man who died at twenty-six, his face was etched like a hologram into the tomb, and atop the headstone, where you might expect a crucifix, was a soccer ball; below the headstone, where you might expect flowers, were three cans of beer. On another tomb, only the husband had died, though the wife’s photo waited for her. When I took out my iPhone to photograph the photographs, two yellow boxes re-appeared on the images of a man who is now dead and on a widow who is still alive. Was I moved? Was I spooked? I felt less like I was less in a graveyard than in a photo album. Or rather, I less experienced “death” than I experienced all these people experiencing “death,” and the photos were less moving than the idea of choosing to summarize one’s life in an eternal profile picture. But despite the strangeness, I felt at home: the dead, like paintings on a church wall, are always good company.

After forty-five minutes, I decided the time had come to find the famous ethno-village from Life Is a Miracle. It would be ridiculous to spend four hours in Mokra Gora and not go. With zero idea where to find it, I took a random path leading up the hill, and quickly sensed that it was the wrong random path. I knew it was a bad idea, and I very much needed to pee, but I kept going. I passed three goats on a sloping hill. I passed signs in Serbian that might indicate danger but probably not. I passed a farmhouse with chickens and flowerpots and a patio, and for a split-second I mistook a flapping plastic bag for a beautiful young woman. I was tired. I was lost. I was sweating. My hatred was ready to start radiating out, until I stopped, and it stopped. Then I did something simple but inspired: I went a few feet off the path, poorly concealed, and unzipped my fly. As relief flooded through me, I looked out at the mountains. They were more than scenic. They came alive, or were restored the dignity of the dead. Suddenly the day made sense, and a secret theme emerged, linking my initial loneliness to the shiny-roofed church to the bark-colored butterfly to the primary colors in The Last Supper to the black-and-white grin to this trickle into lush green shrubs. Ahhhh. Life is a miracle.

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