Mika Aleksic: Being with Belgrade is the privilege of our time
Mika Aleksic - director, skilled pedagogue, expert in educating children (or little people, as he likes to call them) and helping them become good and successful people. The famous Mika Aleksic is the embodiment of Belgrade’s spirit and his name is always uttered with respect.
This professional has given flight to many great names through his work in Radio Belgrade and the acting school “Stvar srca” (“A matter of heart”) over the course of multiple decades. Name such as Nikola Kojo, Nebojsa Glogovac, Vuk Kostic, Mirjana Jokovic and many others.
Mika Aleksic talks for 011info about his successes, our capital city, his childhood memories and explains why love is the foundation of all success.
You were born in the place where today stands the Cubura park. We could say that to this date you remain connected to this part of the city.
I actually believe that Belgrade is located on the brim of Cubura. It is my opinion that the place of your birth defines you. Just like any culture is defined by its geographical position and conditions in which it was born, grew and lived. The basis of any culture is geography and they are closely connected.
You know, when you say ‘a piece of the sky you can see above you’, that’s not a piece of the ski, it’s a ribbon bordered by your vision range which rotates. It’s a circle and what we see is a part of that belt. We are arrogant and self-centered if we think that the city belongs to us. I think that we actually belong to it. And it’s not only about belonging but it’s all connected in one circle.
When you rest your ear on the pavement of Cubura and hear the cobblestone that was covered under it long ago and the brook of Cubura that today courses through the sewage pipes - towards the South boulevard, it is the murmur of this city. It’s a sound that no matter how much you cover it with something new, it stays there forever. It may be important to anyone who is researching their roots - the memory of what Cubura truly is.
That’s why some parts of the city are Belgrade itself, no matter how much they change.
And by the way, I don’t see change as something that’s always bad or undesirable. Nobody has the right to keep you chained to the past, that just shouldn’t be done. But we shouldn’t destroy the past either. We shouldn’t trample over the times that happened here. It’s not right to cover it in asphalt like it never existed. It’s like ancient jewelry that you save for your granddaughter or their daughters.
So you have good memories of your neighborhood since you were young?
I am seriously proud of the fact that I haven’t forgotten any of my childhood. Some people only remember the good times, but I hold onto everything that happened.
We used to play right there near the St. Sava school. The St. Sava temple was a place where we spent many of our best moments when we were kids. In the summer we would go to Skerliceva street and in the winter to Neimar, to go sledding.
Cubura was a very unique place to grow up. There, we knew exactly how much anyone was worth, and it wasn’t measured by us, but by Cubura itself.
For example, when a serious fight would break out, there would always be someone who said “This guy can’t go and this guy can’. I have to admit, I wasn’t always happy that I could never go. “You can’t go because Mare said you can’t”. He’d explain by saying that we protect some Cubura kids so they wouldn’t end up liko Toza who lost an eye. That happened in a fight that broke out over a cherry tree on the border of Neimar that kids from Cubura picked from. It was a beautiful cherry tree. Huge.
There are so many memories. We knew every part of Cubura. Scientist Micurin was nothing compared to us. We knew exactly where figs grew and what kind. Where we could find cherries and apricots and plums. It was all ours, from Cubura.
Back then it was normal to bring your school report card to “Brother Aca”, a Cuburian bon viveur who owned the first car in our neighborhood. I could still feel my palms burn from how hard we scrubbed that car with little rags. On the weekends, he'd take every kid for two spins around Cubura.
We had to bring our report cards to him for checkups. If you did well, you could even get a few coins. What your report card said was what determined whether or not you got to go be in a fight.
I should say, speaking of those fights, they were more Olympian than you might be imagining - just a contest to see who is stronger.
That’s how there was room for everyone in Cubura - for a brawler and a poet equally. Everyone had their role and got respect for it. There were ways to judge how brave, or athletic or smart someone was, what they were interested and talented in.
It was all Cubura and everybody knew that all of those things mattered.
But still, the ‘bad boys’ were popular.
I remember my most important piece of ‘bad-boy’ cred I ever earned. A group of us boys were walking along - from the smallest to those who just had their growth spurts and were lanky and walked as if on stilts because they weren’t used to their new legs yet - and we run into this broody young man.
We stop, because we’re in his territory and there’s a round of questioning. At this point, we’re just waiting for a chance to run away - he can’t catch us all. That’s how important authority was.
And during that initial exchange the guy says to me “Hey you, big-ears, listen up…”
I interrupt him and say “You know what’s the difference between you and me?” he looks at me, shifts from foot to foot and says “What?”
And I say “I may be in diapers now, but when I’m in my prime, you’re the one who’ll be in diapers again”.
He just stared at me for a while and finally said “Go on by.”
And that’s how I earned us the right to walk down that street without fear. I won such a huge victory and I didn’t really even realize what I’d implied back then or how he took it. Either way, we never had to run through that street again.
As you said, those were the good old days. When people say that nowadays they usually mean that we’re struggling in the present.
People keep saying what bad times we live in, horrible, terrifying. Then, talking to ‘little people’ with whom I’ve worked most of my life, I realize that they always think their present is the worst things have ever been. It’s not easy to explain to them that these are phenomenal times, fantastic times. The times of their growing up and childhood. There are no better times than that.
No matter when it is, we always think our childhood and growing up were the best times. Even when they happen in the middle of some political or other strife. It’s always the most important time we can remember - growing up. The time of childhood and growing up is so important and beautiful and impactful and there is no other time. The same goes about life. We don’t have any other time in our hands except the one we are living right now and it is fantastic.
If we translate that to life in Belgrade, then the time spent in Belgrade is always the best time, there’s no better. I don’t know if you can agree to that, but it is what it is.
That’s where my positive outlook on Belgrade comes from. Which is why I think that Belgrade should have a sub-title that says “Eternal city”. Those are certain bonds connected to creativity and love. This love is key and that’s where we get to the soul of the city.
What is the soul of Belgrade?
It is, without question, love.
The core of this city’s soul is this ability to not be alone. I think this is the most valuable part of Belgrade and Cubura’s soul. I am a huge local patriot.
The problem that people have is that they are, as Aristotle said, social animals. They have to live in a community. But we have reached a time where we are crammed together more than ever, bigger in numbers than ever, but also lonelier than we’ve ever been.
It’s almost as if our loneliness is measured by how many people there are around us. It’s terrible. Then there is no communication there, only pain. You have a situation where a million people are around you and you feel alone as a log. And then you can’t wait for some tired soul to sit on that log and rest and you hope that you won’t rot until the next person comes along.
That’s the true spirit of Belgrade - the ability to not be alone.
You know, when you go to a city as a tourist, the first thing you notice is some tourists speaking loudly. They feel like they’re in a place where nobody knows them and it’s an illusion of freedom.
But when you walk around in Belgrade, which is full of various foreigners, you don’t see that, and there’s a good reason for it. They don’t need to show that they’re tourists. There’s none of that noise here. In Belgrade, the Chinese and the Bulgarians both blend into the city’s murmur.
Another thing is this feeling that people have just from being from Belgrade. It’s a semblance of tolerance, but it’s a nice semblance. Nobody bothers you. In many environments, even in the animal kingdom, the new guy is always suspicious because he might have pretenses towards your territory. Maybe the history of Belgrade is the reason - we’ve always had to defend our territory. Before this, we never asked the question ‘what are you doing here’? That’s the tolerance. That’s why Belgrade is an open city. It was defended through difficult times but people who weren’t born there often joined the defense. They defended the spirit of Belgrade that they adopted and which became a part of them.
This is why this city is important for the birth of new people. It defines them no matter where they go or live. You can’t forget it, lose it or make it disappear.
That’s the second value you get by birth as you inherit a part of Belgrade’s souls.
The soul which nobody has managed to conquer so far.
Belgrade can’t be conquered. You don’t root for Belgrade not because it’s proud in itself, but because those are morsels that it doesn’t tolerate. Being with Belgrade, that’s a privilege of one’s time.
Belgrade gives you a foundation to love and broaden your horizons, to feel good about where you are and knowing that there is always a place for you no matter who you are.
Is it easier for someone who isn’t from here to adopt Belgrade as their home than it is with other cities?
This depends on the tradition and culture of where they are from. Generally it depends on the collective soul of the city. Paris, for example, is a really gorgeous, open city, but if you go to live there either alone or in company, you will be temporarily there for as long as you’re alive. Here, nobody imposes any time limitations on you. Not like a price or anything that matters. This readiness to share with you the space, time and soul of Belgrade definitely doesn’t exist in other places. I think a small number of people do have that, but they are so few that it’s not even noticeable. But in Belgrade it’s very observable because most of its people are that way.
Life, for what it is, is an integral part of Belgrade. Continuity in life speaks of time and our city’s longevity and Belgrade is made up of its people.
I feel uncomfortable even in a tavern when there are a lot of people at my table and the outsider isn’t. I kind of don’t feel right. You know how many times the situations of ‘Hey come sit with us’ happened? There are more people at our table, the atmosphere is good and the guy was sitting there alone.
On the other hand, in some other places and in some other cities I saw all sorts of things, even people skipping over someone laying on the ground. I hope that something like that never comes to Belgrade. We have the Belgrade soul which isn’t just physical. In the centers of some larger cities these heartless spaces can be beautiful in terms of architecture, but…
How does one become a Belgrader in your opinion?
Belgrade doesn’t create Belgraders. It never has, nor can it, nor are Belgraders born. You become a Belgrader through the art of living, the art of accepting Belgrade’s soul and blending it together with one’s own. Only in that way can you make the alloy known as Belgrader.
That’s why you have people who were born and raised here and are not true Belgraders and those who moved in a little while ago and are.
You have a great love for travel. Can you highlight an interesting experience?
I got a little confused when I met this great woman, a professor, who knew a lot about plants. Tired of city life, she moved to Stara mountain where we first met.
Her theory was that plants move throughout their life cycle. And not just in the sense of a seed being carried by the wind or a bird to some new soil.
Namely she found out, and has proven, that if you know plants very well and you go to someone’s house - of course, this goes to the more rural parts of the country - you can tell by the plants what their owners are sick from.
I accompanied her to test the validity of that theory. How suddenly if someone is suffering from gallbladder problems, dandelions and wild cumin start growing in their yard. They come up all the way to their porch and under their windows as though offering to help.
And when the person disappears, the plants go away as well.
Throughout your life you’ve worked with young people and had many conversations with them.
The key to conversations are questions and answers. There is no other mechanism. Today it seems we are in a time where questions and answers make us uncomfortable.
When I was a tiny human myself, I knew - or at least was told - that tiny people are different from each other and measured through questions. That the old people should, through their answers, offer some kind of value scale of their own. There was that kind of crazy (in a good way) mindframe for a young person when they show up with questions…
Often some questions stay unanswered because we don’t have people who would give satisfactory replies. And every question asked by little people deserves an answer - there should be no taboos.
I was unlucky, or lucky, to asked many questions and had problems not understanding certain things. For example, when someone decided that zero should be an even number. The answer is simple and I know it today, but my math teacher thought I was violating the rules of teacher-student relationships. I got a reprimand for asking this question.
In other words, when something else is shoved in place of an answer, we get a problem.
To give an example.
“Would you like something to drink?”
“Well, I don’t know…”
So you see, even the most banal questions become some kind of obstacle. It’s a part of education. The art of thinking and using your common sense. I don’t see it as any different than us being exposed throughout our lives, to an inner seeking of measure and what will is, which is partially biological in nature.
We are born in such a way that one part of us is will and the other is the soul. And you know yourself, a will without a soul is nothing. Will is dangerous. But a soul without a will doesn’t mean much either. The contents of the soul are love, kindness, knowledge, understanding, empathy…
When I say “yes, I was born in that Cubura” and if you ask me why I think that matters, it is because I am sure that Cubura has a soul.
I am a film-maker and I find the movie 21 gram very interesting, which is how much science estimates a soul weighs. On the other hand, there is no way to answer what the soul actually is or how it’s made. We guess. But it exists and it’s important.
On the one hand, you have strict criteria for admitting children into your school “Stvar srca”. On the other, everyone you’ve worked with have become successful people. What is the secret of your work.
Learning to think is the only thing our education system never uses. Not in schools anyway. The little people need to learn everything. To see, to crawl, walk, eat...they have to know it all. Through the school system and from their parents, they learn the practical things. But the one thing they don’t learn is how to think. Nobody teaches you that.
While growing up, some natural things have a lot of influence, as well as laws and social affairs. And we all think that’s not the case and it’s all up to us. That’s the delusion of young parenting, nature does have a lot to do there.
I worry that it’s technology that shows us this problem more than anything else. We know how quickly the little people adopt these things. And all for one reason - they don’t care what’s behind the mobile screen or tablet. They know that when they push something, something else appears, but don’t care why it happens.
It’s the kind of information absorption that doesn’t lead to knowledge but to practical value. We learned the abstract parts of math in school Today they teach us sets and subsets first thing in schools because the abstract way of thinking is closer to little people than to those already formed.
When it comes to the art of thinking and speaking, there’s a lot of space for advancement. It’s absurd that in various schools we educate so many young people who are actually functionally illiterate. What kind of university teaches Serbian language as a subject? Only a small few.
Mind you, they teach foreign languages, but not our own. And the basis of culture and thinking lie with our mother tongue. This is why today we have semi-literate journalists, editors, writers. Something isn’t right in the system. And we have the most beautiful language in the world. It doesn’t take a lot of smarts to learn. When it comes to the number of vowels, Serbian language is equal to Ancient Greek and Latin. We have long words, but we have a lot of vowels so they’re easy to pronounce. Our Vuk Karadjic tailored it all just so, with all the flaws and things he didn’t get to finish - he was a world-class tailor.
Look here, thirty symbols - thirty letters - thirty sounds. It’s unique to Serbian language.
Other languages have semi-sounds, silent sounds or thousands of characters. But Serbian language was constructed beautifully and we were born with it and we don’t even get to learn all of it properly and enjoy the art of speech.
And that’s how you get a doctor who, throughout his education, doesn’t even read a comic strip, let alone a newspaper. He emerges as some grand specialist and then you realize he can’t put together a sentence in Serbian. But he speaks excellent English, professionally speaking.
It’s like the little people who come to the group and don’t know what the nearest park to the Republic square is called. They know nothing about Belgrade to a point that amazes me. It’s like they are living temporarily in a hotel.
That’s why I give children assignments to tour exhibits, theatres and other content in Belgrade because it all exists for them. They have to get used to it and make it a part of their growing up.
So you are trying to be a positive influence on them?
My influence is limited in itself. You know what they say, far from sight far from mind.
It’s not just about recognizing, even through hints or just intuitively, the little people’s interests, skills and future position. You can see in every person what they’ll look when they are old, what wrinkles and body shape they’ll have even if they are a child now.
How to recognize that is a matter of knowledge and experience.
Stories say you’re also an excellent handyman and great at interior design.
I’m not a professional handyman, but I like the craft. I installed my own floor heating and radiators…
I also worked on the first bachelor apartment for Vuk Kostic - from tiles to the bar counter and plaster work.
It’s simple work, but the simplicity is enjoyable and it sticks to you until you’re hooked and you start loving it.
In my life I’ve built several houses and apartments. In that way I’m also Vuk’s because I know he has ‘slippery’ fingers and that the money he got from some inheritance would get away from him. That’s why we had to turn the inheritance into something that would have meaning, use and value for a young man. I knew that from personal experience.
When I was young, I took out a credit to fix my attic and then went on a vacation. It was a good thing I turned at least a part of that money into some boards and pipes for adaptation, though I spent most of it on my trip.
Of those memories I couldn’t build a single one into the apartment and I had to do it all by myself because I couldn’t afford a handyman. Electrics, heating, tiles, construction ...I did it all by myself and that’s how I got into it.
How do you see your future?
My future is small. It’s as though you asked me about my marriage. It’s not about how long it will last but about how long it has lasted already. But the answer lies in the past. My future is in the past, much like anyone who's at an age which biologically dictates their status.
Does it also dictate my soul status? In a way, but in my case not by much.
I don’t like to talk about things that will come, like I’m focused on it and worrying about the coming times. Most people wait for it with some kind of fear, but I’m open and eased about it. Mourning what’s to come is a bad habit and fearing it is even worse and there comes a time when it becomes irresponsible to plan too far ahead. People’s plans are nothing but a road to success. But more and more we have been witnessing that the society has polarized. That the older part is participating in the successes of youth by wishing it hadn’t happened. And my goal is opposite - to help the young succeed more.
The only thing that can speak of my success is the skill and work of the little people I work with. My only role is to form a responsibility towards their gift because they can mess up a lot by being irresponsible with it.
I believe if a man is ever remembered by anything, I’ll be remembered by the people I worked with.
Are you currently teaching someone who might inherit you or think someone like that is out there?
I don’t think that’s something anyone can decide or even think about. It’s a matter of time. But maybe I can answer indirectly.
At the Belgrade’s Legal University there is an assistant teacher and a docent who were my students. At the Music academy there are docents who were in my group. In FDU there are 11 of them - assistant professors, docents and now soon to be a professor who were in my group.
I think this is the answer.
It’s not about anyone replacing me, nor do I think it matters if they do. If you mean the continuation of this applied pedagogy, then it’s already happening. At the theatre directing board, acting, montage, organization, drama board - my students are already there, working in the education process in one way or another and applying what they’ve learned.