I found the Serbian punks. They arrived in a flock. They arrived in a flock of long hair and shredded tank tops and bright red lips and scruffy beards. I found the Serbian punks and they listen to Pink Floyd. Their bands play at cafes along the river Ibar, beneath stars and beneath thatched roofs.
I met the Serbian punks. They didn’t believe that I was American. But I only speak English, I protested. They heard ‘Oona’ as ‘Una’ and laughed. I met the Serbian punks and they are young. They clutch at each other on the dance floor, twisting to the electric guitar as more and more Serbians stumble down the stairs from the street to the riverbank, fleeing the bars for fresh air before being sucked in anew by the raw sounds of Yugoslavian rock’ n’ roll.
The Serbian punks come alive at night. When Dejan, Dragana and I arrived at the cafe of her childhood friend it was 9 pm and deserted. We watched the three person band set up and tune their instruments. The sun set and darkness cut us off from the river, isolating us and the band in the cafe’s cement circle, wall-less, bound only by the break from light to dark. The band and I eyed each other curiously. It was my second night in Kraljevo, my first evening out in the city, and I was giddy with the hope of hearing some American songs. I had spent the last hour or two in silence sitting in front of The Turist Hotel with Dejan and two Rotarians conducting business in Serbian. Their discussion focused on the food and drink to be served next weekend in Gledic, when the local Rotary club will drive to Rakija Iz Rakije for an evening of music and networking at the distillery. They included me in the conversation when they could, but I was lost in observing the people wandering around the statue that marked the center of Kraljevo, a circle surrounded by shops, cafes, bars and restaurants. Children, their parents, and students home for the summer filled the walkways, dull expressions lifting with the heat. Dragana walked the few blocks from the apartment to join us, and we left for the riverbank. The sounds of the crowded sidewalks faded behind us and we passed a discotheque, flashing lights wandering over the empty dance floor that would be full by the time we returned.
The Serbian punks are pale with pink cheeks, like vampires of old surfacing to feed on vibrations when freed from the oppression of the sun and the heavy Balkan heat. As the band began to play, they sang to their friend, a woman dressed in black from her straight cut bangs to the laces of her ankle boots, smoking a cigarette on a stool at the bar. With each second or third song, a few more people would arrive, kissing the woman on the cheek and laughing before dispersing to wooden tables beside the band. It was their style only, and their homage to this woman, that marked them apart from the increasingly muddled audience. Newcomers wore tight dresses and stiletto heels that tapered into pinpoints of a different counter culture. The shirt collars of their dates’ polos were folded in rejection of the village lives of their ancestors. Dejan, Dragana and I took gulps from our glasses of dark, domestic beer, participants in the melee even seated. Dejan pointed emphatically at Dragana – she, she used to be punk, he shouted and she laughed. When I married her, he repeated, punk! Another beer, another beer, and another – our empty glasses exchanged for full ones as Dejan waved down the bartender each time he passed.
Serbia is a country of punks. Emboldened by my second or third beer, I slapped my hand on the table – one moment. The band was taking their set break and I slid from my bench towards the bar. The lead singer who had been crooning the American love songs of decades ago stood with the woman by her stool. English? And he replied with a heavy accent, sharp eyes inquisitive below the brim of his hat – eh not so good. I tried to ask about their experiences as a small Serbian band – where do you come from? Do you travel? Do you only play covers? But was stymied before the first question. Your name is Oona? He doesn’t believe you’re American! You are not American. The Serbian punks crowded around. Dejan interrupted with a hand on their shoulders, grinning in his Red Hot Chili Peppers shirt. Another band member approached me as Dejan continued my previous conversation in Serbian. Classic -Cat Power, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, New -Fidlar, The Orwells, Jeff the Brotherhood… And from my city- PHOX, The Hussy, Fire Retarded, and my name scrawled on a scrap of a label from a liquor bottle begged from the bartender. I wandered back to Dragana and our table cheered by this small success as the band again picked up their instruments. Dejan stood and began to dance at the first song; the entire audience sang along in Serbian. I waited for a song I recognized before allowing myself to be pulled up towards the music. Dragana joined another song later. The only people still seated lingered in the back of the cafe and leaned against the bar. Time was measured in the bars of the music, the flow of lyrics from Serbian to English and back again.
The Serbian punks circled around the band as they packed up their instruments. The three of us spilled from the glowing cafe into the darkness, the sudden silence short lived as we returned past the discotheque. This is a New Serbia. The centuries of history that have molded the landscape and people apply more to each individual village and more to broad regions than to the country itself, than to the nationality ‘Serbian’. I found the Serbian punks. They work in office buildings and attend national universities. They are like my host mother, Dragana, working tirelessly and sometimes without pay at an NGO that assists victims of domestic violence. She battles bureaucracy daily, and those who wave aside her efforts as unnecessary supplements to already established social services. The Serbian punks are like my host father, Dejan, a police officer who plays Wu Tang Clan on the drive to sell homemade plum brandy at a traditional folk festival in the mountains. The Serbian punks are like Dragana’s colleague, Lazar, committed to creating a ‘food museum’ to exhibit the power of food as tangible history and its ability to preserve the well-being of disintegrating communities, even as he participates in the wave of urbanization and internationalism that has sparked their collapse. The Serbian punks crowd in cafes and on the banks of rivers, like those fertile shores that birthed the first civilizations, before they disperse into the Serbian night.