I Left My Heart In The 381

Jun
18th
2010

NOVI SAD, SERBIA — The other day my mom asked me on the phone how life was in Belgrade. “Great,” I said. “Really?”, said she.

I get this a lot. The Serbian ‘brand’ is in the toilet, despite the New York Times’ efforts to the contrary. To be sure, there are downsides to living in this town. For example, there are a few hypernationalist thugs running around beating up gay people for some reason. There’s also an execrable musical genre called Turbofolk, much-enjoyed by the aforementioned thugs (plus, confusingly, one total mensch going by the name Agbaba) and that can take some effort to avoid. It hardly bears mentioning that the Milošević regime and Balkan war of the early ’90s weren’t kind to the Serbian economy, nor were NATO’s 1999 air attacks and the attendant economic sanctions. This has left the Serbs visibly poorer than their Croatian cousins, and miles behind the Slovenes, comfortably plugged-in as they are to Austria and Italy. Speaking of NATO, many Serbs of course still get quite exercised about the Kosovo situation, which is something that as a guest of their country you’re best off not voicing an opinion about.

The Serbian Ministry of Defence: Seen better days

I’m also told of a weird social conservatism that’s creeping into some Serbs’ lives, one that’s connected with the increasingly fashionable Serbian Orthodox Church and a mistrust of all things Western. (Not to turn this into a post on religion, but the Serbian Church’s fortunes do tend to rise and fall with nationalist sentiment.) Ridiculous conspiracy theories abound in Serbia, too, amongst obviously intelligent people, my favourite being the one that NATO’s ruinously misguided and expensive bombing campaign was all about a coal mine in Kosovo, or possibly an oil pipeline across that sad and wasted valley.

And yet this town seriously rules.

You can walk into Blow-Up Bar in downtown Belgrade late on a Monday night to find it packed with a stylish and genial crowd, and the next time you visit the bartender will shake your hand, crack a few jokes in perfect idiomatic English, and remember your name and what you drink. There, you might get to see a woman sawn in half by the Amazing George Diamond, who is surely the only gay Jewish Serbian magician plying his trade in the former Yugoslavia, and probably the world. Another night you can find yourself in the leafy downtown neighbourhood of Vracar, reminiscent in parts of New York’s Lower East Side, and maybe you’ll stumble into a corner restaurant called, appropriately enough, Whatever@the Corner. The food there’s excellent, the chef’s genuinely concerned with what you thought of his cooking, and the tunes on the PA are an indie-music-lover’s dream. Warming to this musical theme, if you mosey on over to 20/44, a bar-on-a-houseboat on the Sava River, you’ll find refreshingly attitude-free local hipsters dancing to something like, say, low-fi proto-electro-funk from the mid-70s, real dirty-sounding stuff, and you’ve never heard it before but instantly love it. I’ve taken out-of-town visitors to 20/44, and they were all visibly impressed with the sheer coolness of the place. It redefines what a nightspot can and should be, and suddenly all the other watering holes you wasted your youth in start sucking by comparison.

Blow-Up: arguably the greatest bar in Southeastern Europe

It’s a hoary old saw, but the comparison of Belgrade with the Berlin of a decade ago is pretty accurate — except I find that Belgraders are way friendlier. And funnier. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been having a quiet night out on the town with friends only to strike up a conversation with somebody, and minutes later to find ourselves shanghaied into a total stranger’s car and whisked across town to the latest out-of-the-way drinkery. Once, a while back, a well-refreshed local and his friends piled us into his friend’s car to try and find a place still open at 4 in the morning. “I am Dušan,” he explained in his thick Serbian accent. (“Dušan” is pronounced “Doo-shan.”) “I used to live in Ohio. Back in Ohio, they called me Douchebag. Heh, heh. Douchebag.” He smiled gamely as my friend and I busted our guts. Fantastic stuff. Hours later an unlucky Dušan took a beer bottle to the head in a bar fight he had no part of, and my friend, a former U.S. Army Captain in Bosnia, managed to stanch the resulting geyser of blood with his bare hands. Dušan was appreciative of that, I think, and my friend got a good story out of it on his first visit to Serbia.

I can only venture guesses as to why such a cool vibe dominates here. One is that the former Yugoslavia was never subjected to the communist deep-freeze that afflicted the Warsaw pact countries: Yugoslavs could travel freely pretty much anywhere, censorship of Western media was negligible, and compared to their northern neighbours, they were fairly well-off economically. This was the case as recently as two decades ago, and that memory is still fresh. (Nostalgia for this not-so-distant past also might help explain the popularity of New Wave ’80s music on Serbian radio today.) Another factor is that Belgrade has long seen itself as the New York of the Balkans, a businesslike and cosmopolitan place with all the good stuff that goes along with that. Another guess, and I’m reaching here, maybe distastefully so, is that Serbia is almost alone among European nations in having an entire generation of young people that had it worse than their parents. It’s striking how young people here — except, notably, the children of robber-baron oligarchs, many of them cronies of a regime that literally emptied ordinary peoples’ bank accounts to enrich themselves and finance an insane war — don’t have that nauseating sense of entitlement that’s so common in Western European countries. Life dealt them a lousy hand. They grew up with war, food shortages, rampant corruption, hyperinflation, bombs raining down on their city, and punitive visa requirements even within Europe that only recently were lifted — and they signed up for none of it. Admirably, confronted with the option of resenting it all, so many of them choose to resist that urge. They simply get on with it and enjoy the good things in life, with style and humour and grace. I was very fortunate to spend a little time here.


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