On the Shore of the Ibar

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.

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Labeling Rakija bottles with Dragana and Dejan's mother in her home.

Labeling Rakija bottles with Dragana and Dejan’s mother in her home.

Dejan's parents "small garden" being tended by Dejan's father. They bottle their Rakija in the small shed in the back left corner.

Dejan’s parents “small garden” being tended by Dejan’s father. They bottle their Rakija in the small shed in the back left corner.

Pouring the Rakija into the bottles.

Pouring the Rakija into the bottles.

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Dejan sealing the bottles with wax.

Dejan sealing the bottles with wax.

Bottling Rakija

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A performance of traditional Serbian music.

A performance of traditional Serbian music at the fair we attended last Sunday. It took place in a small village about an hour’s drive from Kraljevo. Many small merchants came to set up stands and there were many performances of traditional dances from the surrounding areas. Each had their own slightly different clothing.

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Handmade cloths in traditional Serbian patterns.

Handmade cloths in traditional Serbian patterns.

A display of traditional Serbian foods.

A display of traditional Serbian foods.

Winner of the mustache competition!

Winner of the mustache competition!

My host family and their stand to sell rakija at the fair.

My host family and their stand to sell rakija at the fair.

There were many of these tents along the center path of the fair, serving freshly roasted pig and lamb with bread and vegetables.

There were many of these tents along the center path of the fair, serving freshly roasted pig and lamb with bread and vegetables.

The night before the fair, we attended a masquerade party at the home of a painter. The mayor and ex-mayor of Kraljevo, as well as other artists and friends of the hostess joined in for drinks, dinner, dessert and dancing.

The night before the fair, we attended a masquerade party at the home of a painter. The mayor and ex-mayor of Kraljevo, as well as other artists and friends of the hostess joined in for drinks, dinner, dessert and dancing.

A Weekend in Kraljevo

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A Weary Traveler

Disappointment sours first at expectation, leaving a pucker in the cheeks when the taste of reality must follow overly-sweet fantasies. I try to check my imagination as I travel to each new city, knowing that – for better or worse – the experiences ahead will not match anything I envision. On the bus from Belgrade to Kraljevo I instead indulged in my homesickness. With each departure it returns in small waves. I was sad to leave Mirjana and the already comfortable familiarity of her home and neighborhood. Only my backpack sat in the seat beside me and I pictured it replaced by friends also admiring the passing hills and bright red rooftops of Central Serbia. These thoughts and the thick heat of the sun through the window sent me into a sweaty sleep. I awoke as we drove through a large University city, squinting my eyes to find some clue as to its name – was this Kraljevo? Mirjana had recruited the old man sitting across the aisle from me to be sure that I didn’t exit too early, or late, and he leaned towards me, gesturing. Not Kraljevo; he waved onward. His expression as he shook his head and waved his hands exposed his distaste for the passing city. Of the three Serbian cities I have briefly seen, each a bit smaller than the last, fleeting impressions have been very misleading. While driving, it is the drab, gray block buildings and their gaping windows that loom over the streets. Sloppy graffiti is scrawled on nearly every one. I never spot the busy cafes and colorful storefronts of pedestrian walkways. I never notice the parks and green lawns every few blocks, nor admire the flowers that hang below nearly every window.

Our bus stopped in a gravel parking lot on the outskirts of Kraljevo. The old man pointed his finger excitedly at the floor to say, ‘here! Here!’ Dragana and Dejan (the j makes a y sound in Serbian), my hosts and owners of the rakija distillery, were waiting at the door of the bus when I stepped down. I tried to match their broad smiles despite my exhaustion. We drove to their apartment building in the center of the city. We took the elevator to the eighth floor. They offered me rakija and jam and water – a traditional welcome. I met their 7 year old daughter, Lena, and Dragana’s mother. Dragana, Dejan and I asked the familiar, formal questions, learning more about each other from manner of speech and gesture than the words we spoke. This was what I had been waiting for, eagerly, for the last few months, weeks and days, but I ached to be alone. I think Dragana must have understood; although I’m sure they had many more questions for me, she kindly showed me to my room and left me to unpack.

Kraljevo, like Belgrade, was built along the banks of rivers. The Ibar, the closest to our home, is much smaller and more shallow than the Sava and Danube – at least the stretch I’ve seen. Dragana and I walked down to a cafe along the water’s edge on my first morning to deliver a bottle of Rakija. Men stood knee deep in the middle of the river, fishing, while children sprang from the pebble beaches into the shallows. I have been in Kraljevo for five days now and found a new balance. I am writing this on Tuesday, but it will be posted Wednesday morning while we drive the three hours to the village Gledic, where Dragana grew up. The distillery is in Gledic and we will stay there for a week, working. Mirjana will come to visit for a few days, hopefully, as well as a group of Rotarians interested in the business. Dragana just told me that we may have more company as well; a branch of a national television station located in Kraljevo wants to do a story about my visit. Villages throughout Serbia are losing their youth to the cities and it is difficult to find even paid workers willing to return, much less a student volunteer from America. I won’t have internet in Gledic and will give updates upon my return. I’m hoping to put together a few posts and pictures about the last five days in Kraljevo that I can schedule for the week that I’m gone, but no guarantees. When I return I will have been abroad for three weeks. I will spend another week in Kraljevo: tentative plans are to visit a veterinary clinic, hot springs, and spend more time with Dragana’s colleagues before a final few days in Belgrade, a trip to Northern Serbia and then two days in Berlin.

The transition to Gledic will bring with it a new period of adjustment. We will rise early and sleep early as well. I am not morning person – poke, prod and push, even if someone manages to get me up, it is equally as likely that I will end up back in bed as out the door. And morning is a flexible term. (Don’t worry, I haven’t inflicted this struggle on my host families). I have accepted this as the price of being a night person, though; I get a second wind around midnight , when I do my best writing and often have my best adventures. But relinquishing my nocturnal schedule is a small price to pay for these opportunities.   I am always blown away by the hospitality – beyond hospitality – I encounter when traveling. Individuals and families open the privacy of their homes to me, struggle with a foreign language, offer me (vegetarian!) food and drink, include me in their daily lives, introduce me to their friends and families, plan excursions to show me their cities and countries… and sometimes for weeks! It took less than a day here for my homesickness to fade – Dragana and Dejan have never visited the US before but they will have to come to Madison so that I can return the many favors.

Hints of posts ahead – Dejan digs Wu Tang, Serbian rock’n’roll, a masquerade, a traditional fair and bottling rakija by hand.

A song for weary travelers: Jack Straw. This is my favorite Grateful Dead song, a tough call but I always listen to it when homesick and despite all expectations, it never disappoints.

The windows here don't have screens, but rather lace curtains between the sill and room - I woke up to find this buggy hanging out on my notebook by the window. My first chance to use the "portrait" setting of my camera.

The windows here don’t have screens, but rather lace curtains between the sill and room – I woke up to find this buggy hanging out on my notebook by the window. My first chance to use the “portrait” setting of my camera.

Evening view of Kraljevo from my bedroom window.

Taken on my first day in Kraljevo

The Ibar. Taken on my first day in Kraljevo.

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Belgrade, View from the fort Belgrade, Fairytale Fort View of the Fort from belowFort Hillside, Belgrade
Atop the Fort with skyline

Old Belgrade

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No Buildings Built by Chance

“ How many Vezirs or rich men are there in the world who could indulge their joy or their cares, their moods or their delights in such a spot? Few, very few. But how many of our townsmen have, in the course of centuries and the passage of generations, sat here in the dawn or twilight or evening hours and unconsciously measured the whole starry vault above! Many and many of us have sat there, head in hands, leaning on the well-cut smooth stone, watching the eternal play of light on the mountains and the clouds in the sky, and have unraveled the threads of our small-town destinies, eternally the same yet eternally tangled in some new manner. Someone affirmed long ago (it is true that he was a foreigner and spoke in jest) that this kapia had an influence on the fate of the town and even on the character of its citizens. In those endless sessions, the stranger said, one must search for the key to the inclination of many of our townsmen to reflection and dreaming and one of the main reasons for that melancholic serenity for which the inhabitants of the town are renowned…As in so many other things, here too it is not easy to determine what is cause and what effect. Has the kapia made them what they are, or on the contrary was it imagined in their souls and understandings and built for them according to their needs and customs? It is a vain and superfluous question. There are no buildings that have been built by chance, remote from the human society where they have grown and its needs, hopes and understandings, even as there are no arbitrary lines and motiveless forms in the work of the masons. The life and existence of every great, beautiful and useful building, as well as its relation to the place where it has been built, often bears within itself complex and mysterious drama and history. However, one thing is clear; that between the life of the townsmen and that bridge, there existed a centuries-old bond. Their fates were so intertwined that they could not be imagined separately and could not be told separately. Therefore the story of the foundation and destiny of the bridge is at the same time the story of the life of the town and of its people, from generation to generation, even as through all the tales about the town stretches the line of the stone bridge with its eleven arches and the kapia in the middle, like a crown. ” – Ivo Andric, The Bridge on the Drina, translated by Lovett F. Edwards

When I first arrived in Belgrade, my hostess and I were equally worn and disheveled. We spoke few words before I lugged my bag into the trunk of her BMW and climbed into the front seat. “Hello” and then a kiss on each cheek – “three times in Serbia”, she instructed me. Once we were in the car she explained that she did not speak English. Mirjana was a translator; familiar with Portuguese, Italian and Serbian, but her English was gathered from music and TV shows and its similarity to other languages. She lives alone in a an apartment in the center of Belgrade without a vehicle, preferring to travel by foot and bus – or trolley, when business calls her to New Belgrade, the other side of the city. She had borrowed her son’s car for the evening and struggled to work the stick shift while juggling languages, spitting out an English word or its Latin root with each jerk in gear change and each halting stop at the traffic lights. I gathered that she had grown up in Belgrade and raised her son in the city; both mother and child had spent time living in Africa.

Mirjana pointed out various buildings along our way to pick up her son from work that night. We passed a former government building of Yugoslavia, the previous headquarters of The Communist Party, and others that had been built or destroyed during the more recent years of Serbia’s tumultuous past century. “Don’t be afraid when we speak of bombings – to speak of bombings is normal” she insisted. Her reassurance did not have quite its intended effect – I was torn between a grin at the oddity of her words and grief at the reality they blithely acknowledged.

We drove through a park, dark and grassy with a leafy canopy and many young couples wandering its paths despite the late hour. Mirjana stopped the car along the side of the road and stepped out without explanation. I followed and she offered me a cigarette as we made our way through the trees. We emerged from the cover of the park suddenly. The riverbank ahead of us pulsed with the music of clubs and restaurants floating on boats along the shore. Belgrade’s Fortress Kalemegdan rose above the opposite bank, a stark and stalwart guardian of the delta where the waters of the Danube and Sava mix. Mirjana’s son, as it turned out, was a DJ; a part of the new electronic wave sweeping Belgrade. The club where he worked each evening had a drab wooden facade and covered entrance but opened up into a bar filled with young professionals lounging on white sofas and chairs. The dark wood offset the murky green of the river Sava lit from below. Mirjana and I stepped to the side to wait for his set to finish. We were woefully underdressed and out of place, drawing questioning glances even in our obscure corner.

“Has Belgrade changed much?” I asked her.

“Belgrade? No… Buildings, yes, there are new buildings. But from my generation to the next… not so much.” A cigarette hung from her lower lip as she searched for the right words. “There is a certain…” and ash dropped from its tip into the water – “alegria”: a word she could not match in English; an attempt to convey an energy and enthusiasum evident in the youth swarming the streets of Belgrade each evening.

The next morning we set off on foot to explore the city. My muscles have developed for biking, not walking, I realized after the first day; my calves still ache and my hips will not soon forget the hills of Belgrade. We walked through the fortress and main thoroughfare of Belgrade. Here, more than anywhere, the contrast between old and new Europe is apparent. I first noticed this distinction in Lille. Cobblestone streets abruptly gave way to smooth pavement as old brick apartments bordered freshly painted homes. History had been requisitioned time and time again, architecture repurposed rather than destroyed. I have a friend who firmly believes in ghosts and I wonder what she would say about these streets. It was easy to picture Lille a century and a half earlier – free of cars, an older French ricocheting in shouts from windows with flapping shutters down to the storefronts. In the US there is such an uncomfortable relationship with the mistakes of our past and we are often too eager to bury evidence of our misdeeds, too quick to claim them obsolete. Lille and Belgrade have no such luxury – at least not to the same extent. In Belgrade, a crumbling building raises as many questions about its destruction as about its pending reconstruction. Some bombed out shells are left standing, hollow, to serve as reminders of the conflicts embedded in their national memory.

Mirjana’s first reaction was to smile gently when I brought up questions of the 1999 NATO strikes, dwelling on the fierce friendships birthed in the everlasting nights spent playing cards, dancing and singing as the city fell around them. She told me they would watch the television each night around 7 or 8 and see the planes taking off from Italy -“and we knew in one hour they would arrive in Belgrade.” They would frantically prepare dinner and set the table so they could all be sitting together when the attacks began.

I will miss Mirjana dearly when I return to Madison. We spent three days living together, my first three days in Serbia. Her intelligence, generosity and strength of mind astound me – I will ask her more about her experiences when I return to Belgrade at the end of August – she is truly a remarkable woman. The quote at the beginning of this post is taken from The Bridge on the Drina, a book written by Nobel Prize winning Bosnian author Ivo Andric (1892-1975). I will keep reading it as I travel from Belgrade to Kraljevo, and then to Gledic.

To lighten the mood, please enjoy this short clip from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia brought to you, again, by the troves of my brother’s ipod. Song of the Post- Dayman: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzaVd6zl2bA And Audrey, if you’re reading this, I fully expect a similar musical number upon our roomie reunion.

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Oona Euro Trip 730 118 Oona Euro Trip 730 112Oona Euro Trip 730 114 View of Old Belgrade from the Fort

An Evening in Urban Belgrade

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