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An insomniac walks Belgrade’s streets.

07/16/2019 When night is light!

The night is not a substance, but an event; it pervades a space freed from barriers and horizons. ―Alphonso Lingis

Another sleepless night. It is a Wednesday, so the pressure of sleep weighs heavy, but my body feels light. For a couple of hours I was in bed, I spent my time listening to the sounds my building makes when shrouded in utter silence.

In these moments of truly listening, I notice that our houses live sonic and rhythmic lives of their own. And not only through the ticking of our clocks, those old mechanical ones. Our homes talk to us by the crackling of furniture, the clanking of noisy pipes, creaking walls, the drone of our appliances, the whistling of wind through window frames… I haven’t spent enough time in Belgrade’s old city houses to claim this with certainty, but I have a hunch that the newly built homes in the suburbs paradoxically speak louder. Maybe it is the almost complete quiet enveloping them that brings them to life.

Whatever it is, my suburban home becomes animated during the night. It is kind of magical. I know the prospects of getting up early should make me fearful, but sleeplesness does not feel heavy when there are so many corners of my world I can touch with my mind when it’s dark.

Tonight, in the middle of my nocturnal scrutiny, at around 3:00 a.m., and wired as hell, I took a cab to the city center. It was really unexpected. It felt wrong, since the morning was approaching. But tonight Belgrade felt like an oversized romper. I could stretch out, move my limbs freely, and still feel warm in all of this vastness. And I had my diary with me, so I decided take noticing out on a date. 

Things I see:
Brightness, varying colors and intensities, street and indoor lights.
Street sweepers, orange suits with silver stripes, huge brooms, water hoses.
An open window, dim light, thin yellow curtain, two siluethes, a man and a woman.
A woman standing beside the staircase into an old building, she is smiling.
Feet, different footwear, walking at differing tempos, strolling and rushing, barely moving and almost running.
Kafanas, still or just open?

Things I hear:
Trafic all around, buses, trolleys, some cars here and there, mostly speeding.
Brooms scraping the pavement, garbage cans clanking, slaming of dumpster lids.
“I love you.”
Crackling of a paper bag (the smiling woman is gripping it tightly).
Music, mostly loud, laugher.
Talking, arguing, singing, muttering, cats fighting, car alarms here and there…

Belgrade is an insomniac city. Especially in the summer. Its nights are vast and bright, artifically energetic. There are no sharp corners in Belgrade when it gets dark―the balmy air, constant buzz, and the flood of lights soften this city that is rough around the edges. Its nights are tainted by nocturnal vigilance. I can’t hide from life in these streets, and it is a comforting feeling to have so much to note down.

Is it that insomniacs built this city, or does the city invent restless sleepers? Either way, Belgradians surrender to the night and day with equal vigor. Few of them have figured out the art of quiet noticing.


Credit: COLLEEN PESCI
A collage of nighttime images

You are reading an imaginary sleep diary. It is inspired by Dana, my insomniac friend and interlocutor who has developed the habit of taking notes of her nocturnal surroundings. In a gesture that subverts the narrative of insomnia as passive suffering, Dana claims the night as an enchanted time of ultimate stillness when she engages in a meditation practice that exploits her heightened senses.

The voice in the diary excerpts reflects the commonalities I have observed among people who gifted me their time and showed me the ways they live with sleeplessness—how the subjective experience of sleeplessness changes through time and how it is affected by the cityscape and the rhythms of Belgrade. I also incorporate my voice and that of the philosopher Alphonso Lingis.

It is an experiment in contemplating together, in which the boundaries between thinking subjects are dangerously blurred. Diary writing allows for spiraling inwards, which for many insomniacs I have encountered offers focus and diversion in the uneasy hours of dark.

12/08/2020 An attempt to love the night for what it is

The night invades; it is within as well as without.
―Alphonso Lingis

After that hellish lockdown, I finally feel I am coming back to myself, in so many ways. But I can’t sleep. This time the bout of insomnia came unexpected. It makes my eyelids heavy, and my heart races a bit faster than usual.

After isolating at home for so long, I now feel an incessant need to walk. All the time. Never stand still. Fast, fast, faster. I feel as if to come into myself I must first get out. Luckily, the summer is here. And Belgrade is here too.

I reached the city around 2:00 a.m., got out of the cab at Zeleni Venac, the heart of the city where all the major roads intersect. This is where I always begin my strolls, amid people, gradually moving to darker and quieter parts of the city center as my attention dims. Tonight, I started taking note when I reached Palas, a park infamous for hosting youths and vagabonds at all times of day and night. I sensed a shift: something was off, unfamiliar.

Things I see:
The inside of my mind, tonight my eyes are closed.

Things I hear:
Cicadas, birds, the hum of the Sava River.
Traffic, rarely, completely out of place now.
Sentences whose meanings I can’t discern, too quiet.
Window blinds closing, cats fighting.

Not much to write down. The night felt dark and its grip tight. How did nature invade this concrete jungle? Cicadas and birds louder than traffic. Do I even hear traffic or is it just a trail left by past encounters with Belgrade nights? I definitely hear it, but when I really put my mind to it, it takes effort.

There are new public order laws in place: no music or gathering after 12:00 a.m. on weekdays, and 1:00 a.m. on the weekend. This is when all life should grow into itself. It can happen behind closed doors, as quiet as it gets. So now, we who grew up always fearing that something, somewhere will happen under the cloak of darkness, a generation suffering nocturnal FOMO has to learn other ways to be social.

And today, after walking the empty streets of Belgrade, I realized that night is claiming her sovereignty back. She is shaking off the enhancements a restless society placed on her. What will this mean for me with my body rebelling against the clock?

I felt hopeful when I reached my house. It seems I will no longer be able to escape the night with ease, and that can’t be bad. So, I sat on my bed. I touched the night’s hollow spine and lifted her heavy limbs. I listened to the deadening absence of her voice. It was a love song to my ears. And I realized in this moment that I will have to listen more closely; I will finally have to make the night my best friend. Experience her as she is.

10/07/2021 The inside externalized

When we close our doors to forces that may prey on us under the covers of darkness, we redouble the visible night with an auditory night, an olfactory night, a tactile night.
―Alphonso Lingis

Things I see:
Two fists in my lap, clenched.
The dark blue of my sheets.
The curtain moving, arch to cavity, predictable rhythm.

Things I hear/sense/smell:
My heartbeat and stomach groaning.
The rustling of my sheets.
Memories, earsplitting.
One snippet of a song on repeat (smells like blood or rust).
The same voice I hear getting up in the morning, washing up, going about my daily chores. I can’t make out what it is saying.
My bones settling into place, teeth rubbing against each other (faint sounds, cowering, agonizing, musty).

12/07/2021 The inside externalized

Insomnia is existence as indeterminate endurance.
―Alphonso Lingis

I always thought days assume and demand. But it is the sleepless night with her annoyingly silent presence. With her death stare, the “figure it out on your own” answers, the promise of magic, other worlds, demons, and fairies that she carries around in her pockets… I feel alone. I can’t reach out to someone to remind me that this life of nocturnal silence can be shared. Mutuality at its best.

On the odd occasion I find someone willing to let me in on their nightly endeavors, now mostly confined to our homes, it can be fun, I admit. Most of the time, though, it just feels forced. I feel like people are there to cover up the night’s deafening lull. All I do nowadays is spite the night.

Just a year ago, I hated sunrise because it meant and end to my time, and all my life my nights had seemed short. They came to pass faster than days. These days, the hours drag out. I start to get anxious around sunset. I just can’t seem to get used to the temporal distortion that hits me every time I stay awake. I hate my body for making me feel the passage of time so intensely. Am I going to grow older faster? Is this unspooled time going to accumulate to some net worth of time spent on earth? There are just so many slow sleepless nights one should have to endure.

12/05/2022 When night is solid!

One subsists as a vigilance that watches where there is nothing to watch for.
―Alphonso Lingis

Tonight, I find myself trying to ignore it all. I am at my desk, looking through the window with my back to my flat while it annoyingly comes to life. The foreign object here? Me. I am disrupting the perfect harmony of my home with my sudden inability to sync up with its rhythm.

The furniture starts to sing and talk aggressively when all I really need is peace and quiet. The floorboards rebel against my heaviness. The sheets on my bed grip my skin annoyingly. Every single thing in my apartment starts to smell at night, and the smells tell no story at all. They are just reminders of the day that passed and hang in the air for no reason. Things just become things in themselves.

With my back turned to it all, I am trying to find comfort in every lit window, every movement on the street, the revving of engines, the drone of the city. And all of these are few and far between. The night took over; she won, and I might be too weak to join her! I shall have to seek a prescription for sleeping pills.

Illustrator bio: Colleen Pesci is a visual artist, educator, and curator/founder of The Casserole Series.          

Authors

Alexandra Dantzer

Alexandra Dantzer is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her dissertation research is an ethnographic study of insomnia in Belgrade, Serbia. She is particularly interested in the ways in which diverse encounters with sleeplessness map onto the broader experience of temporality of the changes wrought by late capitalism.

Cite as

Dantzer, Alexandra. 2023. “Conversations with the Night.” Anthropology News website, January 5, 2023.

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