Friday, August 15, 2014

"Wait, I do know that guy"

In Belgrade, Aleksandra’s (my couchsurfing host) mom told me, in broken English, “In Serbia we built our houses close to the road.”

Serbia is at the cross roads of everything, it seems: East and West, Turkey, Rome and the Habsburgs. They’ve seen (and fought off) a little of everything throughout the centuries, the Serbs, but at a cost. “Everyone is walking on the road. There is much war close to the road.” She holds her hand over her head, as far as she can reach “This much war. It is better to build your house away from the road.”

Serbia is a place I know next to nothing about. I was surprised when our tour guide and my couch surfing host said they were alive when the city was bombed most recently, less than 20 years ago. In Belgrade you can still see the husks of buildings bombed out by NATO. I hardly know about the breakup of Yugoslavia, but Serbia is surrounded by places that feel heavy with danger and war in my biased mind: Bosnia, Kosovo. I imagine that the guttural reaction I have to these names is similar to what people in my parent’s generation are feeling when they grimace after I announce that one day I’d like to go to Vietnam and Cambodia.

One thing I learned quickly about Belgrade: they really, really love to eat meat. Even by the end of the second day, if I had to eat one more thing that was mostly a meat dish, I felt like I would be sick. It brought back memories of living in Venezuela and sighing as another steak came before me at lunch time. On our second night in town, Aleksandra and I got dinner together at the ? pub. (The pub across from the Cathedral wanted to name its’ self “The Pub Across from the Cathedral” but the Orthodox church leaders would have none of that, so the pub’s response was to call itself “?” – the Serbs are tongue and cheek like that.) It’s a traditional Serbian restaurant which means almost entirely meat.

“How about a salad of cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers, and we’ll share the two-person mixed meat special?” Aleksandra offers. I feel like my stomach is a rock from all of the meat I’ve eaten lately, but when in Rome, right?

Do I look exhausted from meat eating? I sure felt it.
But, the two person meat tray? It had 3 chicken breasts, 6 small sausages, 2 long spicy sausages, 2 steaks, 2 burgers, and some other red meat I didn’t know.

I dove in slowly and deliberately, forcing my body to take in the red meat, even as it protested. Meat is the only food that my body will actively disagree with while I chew: sometimes I have to work not to gag when I’ve had too much. Slowly, I had eaten maybe a third, but probably less of the plate. Aleksandra, the tall, skinny, sandy blonde had eaten her half easily.

“But I thought you said you were hungry?” she asked, when I said I didn’t think I could eat any more. I can’t tell if she’s slightly offended or just confused and I feel a rush of guilt. I should eat more we paid for it, but as I look back to that bit of steak on my plate my body seizes up. A traditional Serbian band of accordions and fiddles has just shown up in the court yard and more and more people are showing up to the restaurant. It’s better not to throw up right now. I try to not to feel guilt about it.

“I’m sorry – I just don’t normally eat this much meat!”

She shrugs and we pay. While I try to forget my inability to eat more meat, we walk across the river to New Belgrade, where we are meeting her friends at the Belgrade Beer Festival. Aleksandra points out several landmarks along the road and the riverside, telling me stories from her own life as well as the life of Belgrade. It’s why I love couch surfing.

The view of Old Town from across the river.
When I hear beer festival, I imagine a big tent, maybe two, a plethora of tables and a lot of people laughing and drinking beer together. Maybe there’s a band playing quietly in the corner. But as we’re crossing the bridge I realizing there are hundreds of people walking across as well, and the crowd is swelling and swelling as we move away from the business parks and into a large field. In the distance, you can hear the loud thumping of a concert base.

I realize that this is Belgrade and all that I’ve only hear one thing about this city on the road: Belgrade is a huge, amazing, all night party. Not a laid back, German-style beer festival under the stars. As we pay the roughly 3 Euro to get in, walk through the security with bag checks and metal detectors, I see open before us three state-of-the-art concert stages (one will shoot off smoke and fire in a few hours), dozens of beer stands and twinkling rides, I realize I maybe should have expected this. Thousands of people are milling between the stages, laughing, drinking and pushing their way through the crowds.

The most amazing thing about all of this is the city of Belgrade puts it on. For 4 full nights, there are 50 brands (of beer) and 50 bands. The first night, the night we went, you pay 300 dinar, but it’s really just a symbol. It doesn’t even begin to cover the costs and the rest of the weekend is free. I’m in shock and keep saying “This would be at least $75, $100 in the United States, more for the whole weekend!”

We find Aleksandra’s friends near the Amstel booth. They are all trained doctors, but Aleksandra has left Serbia to finish her specialization in Germany (she’s on her summer holiday right now) because it’s nearly impossible to be hired at a hospital here, even with a medical degree. In fact, Aleksandra and her friends spend years volunteering in hospitals around the city, in the Emergency Room for example, hoping they will work hard enough to one day be hired.

On the main stage is a Serbian rock band – “for little girls and grandmas” Yelena, one of Aleksandra’s friends tells me, rolling her eyes at the chorus of the song, which she translates to “Love, I still believe in you!” This is clearly beloved and classic Serbian rock: as the first notes are hit of each song everyone screams and cheers, then looks at each other meaningfully, raising their fists in the air and singing along, much like many-a-crowd whom I’ve sung and danced with to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”.

This band finishes and a large black man, wearing a skin-tight red jump suit with sequins takes the stage, surrounded by his sexy ladies wearing similar suits and playing the guitar. I’m 99% sure he’s not Serbia.

“Hello Serbia!” The crowd is screaming. “Show me some love, Serbia!” He’s definitely American.

If you have spent any time with me talking popular culture, you probably know that I don’t have a bit of a clue who is famous right now, and couldn’t pick most people out in a line up. But you get famous enough and once you start singing, I’m going to know that I at least have heard and sung to your music before.

That’s how I saw Cee Lo Green live for about $3 in Serbia.

Once he starts singing I’m dancing and jumping with all the Serbians, shouting “I see you riding around town with the girl I love and I’m like, fuck you!”

The closest I’ve come to partying in Europe thus far was the night Jezelle and I went out in Vienna for our Air Force roommate’s birthday. We had met a whole bunch of other travelers on the walking tour we did that day and Michael told us we should all go their hostel bar because it was a better party atmosphere. I planned on getting one drink so that I wasn’t a lame party pooper, then heading home. I ended up staying till late, but while everyone else did shots and Jaggerbombs at the bar, I sat back at the table drinking wine and talking to a well-traveled Dutch man who had just lived in Taiwan for a year. The only escalation of the night was out voices as the music got louder and louder.

But if you are only going to really go out once in Europe, Serbia is the place to do so. Warm, fun and always up for a party, the Serbs have made Belgrade into a really awesome place to stay up all night drinking and dancing. You could be in abandoned buildings, on boats in the river or in a bar in the Bohemian Quarter; whatever you fancy, there’s a party on each.

Every few hours during the concerts that night, I think about the time, I feel the aches in my limbs that have carried me around the city all day, I feel that heavy leaden ball of meat in my stomach, I wonder about the 45 minutes it will take us to get back to Aleksandra’s parent’s house. Then I tell my brain to shut the hell up, forget about that crap and dance right now.

I really enjoyed Serbia. As I’ve said, the Serbs were incredibly friendly and fun. Everywhere you go, the streets are lined with cafes and bars full of people. I was sitting in a café and a group of girlfriends asked me to take their pictures, twice over an hour. They insisted on buying me a beer after the second photo. All of that being said, I could never see myself living in Belgrade, or even staying much longer than a few days. It’s the sort of place I enjoyed dipping my feet into, tasting the lifestyle at the edges.

But that’s enough for me – I frankly don’t think I could stomach or keep up with it.

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