For weeks leading up to today's solar eclipse, street vendors here did a brisk business in special eye-wear for viewing the event. The locally made items' rather unfortunate brand name: "Ray Charles Protective Glasses."
Government authorities had other advice. Don't watch the eclipse at all. In fact, stay indoors. Draw the shades. Watch it on TV. If you have to drive, turn your headlights on.
So alarming was the drumbeat of warnings in newspapers and on television that Belgrade's streets were eerily empty at midday today. Flights were suspended at the city's airport. Buses were canceled. So were kindergarten classes. Restaurants and cafes were closed. Most markets were shuttered. Trains were fitted with special window screens.
Residents said downtown Belgrade was more deserted than at any time during last spring's NATO bombing campaign.
"Leave the house only if you have to," warned a front-page headline in the government-controlled newspaper Politika. A bulletin from the Serbian Health Ministry said the eclipse could cause not only permanent eye damage, but other harmful effects because of a sharp drop in temperature, sudden reheating, changes in humidity and "unusual" winds, not to mention "diminished visibility."
"All this can induce rapid heartbeat, spasms in the stomach, itchiness, a sudden jump of blood pressure, higher blood sugar and frequent urination," the ministry said. During the eclipse, it said, children should be kept "in a closed and darkened space."
The paper said emergency rooms were expecting a busy day because the eclipse would be hard on people with asthma and "psychologically unstable persons."
Unions said the best way to protect their members would be to give them the day off. Belgrade taxi drivers asked if they could charge the night fare during the eclipse. A Yugoslav motorists' association urged members simply to stay off the roads. "Between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., diminished concentration of drivers should be taken into account," it said.
After all that, the big event came as something of an anticlimax. As seen through a pair of "Ray Charles" glasses, the dark shape of the moon slowly inched across the face of the sun, blotting out all but a sliver at the bottom. At its darkest, shortly before 1 p.m. (7 a.m. EDT), the partial eclipse gave the sky a late-afternoon cast but never produced the blackout that people seemed to expect.
"This is a crazy country," said Sveta Davico-Jelicic, 55, a retired architect. "We were walking around when the bombs were falling, and now we went into hiding."
Cynics said the official overreaction may have reflected the authorities' eagerness to shift public attention away from an opposition campaign against the government, among Yugoslavia's other problems, while demonstrating concern for people's wellbeing. Then again, said law student Mila Vukoje, 21, "You know what kind of people Serbs are. If they hadn't made all that fuss, everyone would have stared at the sun, and 90 percent of Serbia would be blind."