THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Ties that bind

Belgrades offer visitors a lesson

On Belgrade Avenue in Roslindale Square yesterday, a Serbian video crew shot some scenes. On Belgrade Avenue in Roslindale Square yesterday, a Serbian video crew shot some scenes. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / December 6, 2009

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On Belgrade Avenue in Roslindale yesterday, across from an Albanian-owned cafe and a block from a Greek Orthodox church, Serbian television commentator Vladimir Jelic was wrapping up his three-week odyssey through the American communities and byways that bear the name of his own capital city.

Jelic, a nationally known on-camera personality, ticked off the Belgrades he and his crew have visited: Belgrade, Mont.; Belgrade, Neb. (population: 178); Belgrade, Minn.; and Belgrade, Maine.

Pausing on their way back to New York and a flight home, the crew filmed Jelic as he shared some parting thoughts from Boston’s Belgrade Avenue, a street that mirrors the ethnic diversity of the American nation.

Sure, Jelic said, only about 10 percent of the hundreds of Americans he and his crew had met on their 6,000-mile road trip knew anything about Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, and many hadn’t even heard of it. But 100 percent of them had been welcoming and curious, he said.

In Belgrade, Mont., the entire six-member crew was invited by a family to join their Thanksgiving feast.

Jelic ended his trip thinking of ways he could invite some of those American Belgradians to visit him in his Belgrade - the one on the Danube River, the historic city of 1.6 million people that was settled in the third century B.C. Jelic hopes to make such a visit by US Belgradians his next project.

Some rudimentary research failed to turn up the origins of Roslindale’s Belgrade Avenue yesterday. But producer Miodrag Kolaric said that three of the four Belgrades in the United States were known to have been settled about 200 years ago by railroad workers from Belgrade, Serbia.

Given that Belgrade Avenue runs parallel to what is now the commuter rail line to Needham, it is a fair guess that the same roots tie Roslindale’s Belgrade to the original.

After several takes, Kolaric was satisfied with Jelic’s concluding on-camera commentary as he strode up Belgrade Avenue in a steady rain. The crew then headed across the street for coffee, and piled into the homey Select Cafe, at 2 Belgrade Ave. - owned by Albanian immigrants and filled with several tables of men speaking Albanian.

Jelic said that few Americans they met in the heartland had remembered much about the Kosovo war, when Belgrade was bombed by NATO warplanes in 1999 to end Serbia’s invasion of the autonomy-seeking, Albanian-speaking Kosovo region. That war set in motion a chain of events that toppled the last Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, and led to a successful democratic transition in Serbia.

It was a sure bet that the Albanians in the cafe knew, but nonetheless, one of them, Omeri Velagoshti, who said he arrived in the United States 12 years ago after winning a green card in the lottery, said the Serb video crew was very welcome.

“We have no problem with anyone who wants to live in peace,’’ he said.

And where is he from? The ancient Albanian city of Berat - originally named Belgrade.

Kolaric said the production team intended to produce a 50-minute opening documentary on their US-Belgrades trek for broadcast on the national RTS network around New Year’s Day. Then, the crew will produce four more segments on their interviews with people in each of the Belgrades, and will weave in anecdotes from stops along the way.

He said the project is using the US Belgrades as a vehicle for conveying broader impressions of America and Americans with a nationwide Serbian audience. The US Embassy in Belgrade provided a $10,000 grant, and several Serbian companies donated funds to help cover costs.

Curiously, Belgrade is the only southeastern European city other than Athens to have engendered namesakes in the United States, Kolaric said. He could not find a Sofia (from Bulgaria), for example, or a Zagreb (Croatia).

Joanne Rossman, who owns an eclectic artisan shop bearing her name on an adjacent corner, said her store carried items from Greece, Turkey, and Morocco, but nothing from Serbia, and she knew little about it or the former Yugoslavia. But she absolutely loved the idea of the Serbian TV series on towns named Belgrade.

“I think it’s fantastic - the idea that you can travel all over the country, and find one continuous word, or city, that ties and connects us all together,’’ Rossman said. “Who would think there was a Belgrade in Montana? It makes the mind wonder what else there is that connects ourselves as a country to something beyond our shores.’’

Kolaric said the Serbs didn’t begrudge the lack of American awareness of Serbia - just as he wouldn’t be able to describe the details of the civil war in, say, Rwanda. The documentary is not about politics, he said, but about how people in Belgrade live, be it Serbia or Maine.

“This is just a story about Belgrade in America,’’ he said. “We just want to show to people there, and show people here that we are connected and that we are the same.’’

“The biggest impression is that people are incredibly friendly,’’ he added. “It’s just amazing. We didn’t have even the littlest spot of not being friendly from anybody.’’

James F. Smith writes about Boston’s global ties at boston.com/worldlyboston. He can be reached at jsmith@globe.com.