Travel Report: Belgrade, Serbia
Serb culture is an interesting one.
A Serb can be very romantic, sensitive, warm, and loving, but if you offend his pride, even slightly, in a heartbeat he can turn hostile, vulgar, offensive, and threatening.
Here is an example: I was in a cab going from the airport to the hotel. The driver was speaking to someone on his cellular phone. I speak Serbian fluently so I understood every word said: “My life, my reason to live, my sun, my hope, my dearest, etc.”
I do not know if he was talking to his wife (yes, wife), lover, or child; Serbs use the same loving language for everyone. The English translation does not do it justice. It is Rumi in action. It is poetry.
When another car crossed his way, in less than a second the driver opened the window and became violent, cursing, sending the other driver to the place of his birth, sending him to copulate with his own father. There is no translation that can communicate the energy transmitted. When the tirade was over, in a split second the driver was back on the phone, apologizing for the interruption and resuming his sotto voce conversation.
I do not know any other culture where such extremes are exhibited. The Mexican culture comes close, but not close enough.
Another interesting feature of Serbian culture is their use of pronouns. When two people meet for the first time the plural form of “you” is used. The person higher in status decides if he or she wants to break the distance and, if so, will move to use the singular “you”.
You know you are really intimate when the person higher in status curses you, or your sexual organs, or, better, sends you to copulate with your own mother.
When that happens it is a signal you are now intimate friends. And, in Serbia, friendship is taken very, very seriously. I could say the same of Mexico, but in Serbia it means ten times more. A friend is for life. You can give him all your assets. Years later, nothing will be missing.
Friends gather in kafanas. This is a social institution that exists mostly in the Balkans and is most common in Serbia. Kafana has no translation in any other language because it does not exist anywhere else.
It is like a restaurant, but its main function is not feeding people. They serve coffee like a coffee shop does, but people do not go there just to drink coffee. They serve alcoholic drinks like a bar does, but drinking is not the function a kafana performs.
Its function is (pI).
You can see people sitting in a kafana for hours, more than half a day or all day long. Eating, drinking, and smoking. And discussing whatever.
There is a kafana where journalists gather. They actually have their committee meetings there planning the next issue of the paper.
There is a kafana where politicians gather. Each party has its own kafana. Major decisions are made while drinking and smoking quite peacefully.
Businessmen make their negotiations in a kafana.
It looks like nothing is happening as you, a foreigner, watch them sitting for hours laughing, talking, relaxing, while in reality everything is happening in a kafana.
I was sitting in a kafana on a sidewalk, watching people pass by. I noticed that women have incredible bodies, and it is not from exercising. I did not see many advertisements for gyms (none, actually). It is not from eating fewer calories. Restaurants serve the biggest portions in the world and I have eaten in fifty-three countries. Alcohol is always served, and a meal without bread is unheard of.
Why does everyone have gorgeous sculptured bodies? Is it hereditary? Maybe it is because there is no custom of fast food, and no additives are added to the food. Maybe because the food is organic?
In my personal experience, Belgrade is the most alive city in the world. Tel Aviv takes second place. New York, so you can compare, is fifteenth place. At 4 a.m. you can find a kafana with food, live gypsy music, and gorgeous ladies going crazy, dancing on tables. Year round, young people start the night at 11 p.m.
But while dancing, singing and endlessly joking, there is also gloom.
Serbia has apparently not finished falling apart. There are fears that Sandjak, where many Albanians live, could be the next Kosovo, and Vojvodina, where Hungarian-speaking people live, might want to secede.
And for reasons of ignorance or manipulative, self-serving reasons, the government in power destroyed the judiciary system. It is politicized and ineffective. Politicians themselves openly violate the law without fear. Firthermore, government controls the media totally. Democracy exists on paper only. There are multiple political parties, but none provides for the country; most are in the business of grabbing power to exploit it.
I noticed that the government is testing the water to see how the people will react to delivering General Ratko Mladic to The Hague tribunal. There are ads offering a million Euros for information leading to his arrest.
Yesterday the newspaper reported that Boris Tadic, the Serbian President, said Kosovo would be recognized as independent only by an act of the cabinet.
What does that really mean? Nothing. Because only the cabinet can bring the taboo subject to a vote by the parliament anyway.
So why the announcement?
To test reaction.
There was none.
People really do not care. They just want peace, work, and good social services, none of which they have.
Dr. Ichak Kalderon Adizes