Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Nis: or, You're Gonna Have To Roll Me Out Of Serbia

Our first stop in Serbia was Nis, the largest city in southern Serbia.  We were Couchsurfing there with a pair of brothers, Filip and Novak. The pair complement each other well. Filip is a straight-shooter, earnest and driven, with a good sense of humor and decided opinions. A medical intern, he is knowledgeable about all things health-related, and is studying German to improve his employment opportunities.  Novak, a physics student, is wry and cynical.  He is both acutely intelligent and acutely critical.  He has a full beard and a bony frame, with long, thin fingers that twist as he talks: about CERN and the Higgs Bosun, about Game of Thrones, about his dream of one day meeting a sassy black American.  Unexpectedly, he does the best imitation of a black girl I've ever seen-- and this from a man who's never met one in person. Globablization of culture, ladies and gentlemen. Both brothers were engaging and extraordinarily well-informed, and played off each other in conversation. I felt immediately comfortable and included, as though I were with my own brother and cousin, or among friends.  The first night at their house we stayed in, but ended up awake until 5:00 in the morning-- not partying, just drinking homemade rakija and talking until the break of day.

The next day Filip took us around the sights of Nis: the fortress, built by the Turks; Crveni Krst, or the Red Cross, a preserved Nazi concentration camp; the Nis synagogue, now a museum, where we saw an exhibit on the typhus epidemic; and the Cele Kula, the Skull Tower.  This last was a particularly grisly warning from the Ottomans following the first failed Serbian uprising in 1809.  The Turks built a tower, using as bricks the decapitated heads of the Serbian rebels killed in battle. It once contained 952 skulls; these days the tower is significantly truncated, most of the skulls having been removed.  Still, one gets a sense of what a horrific and disturbing sight it must have been.

When we got back from our tour, Filip's mother had prepared the most amazing meal I've yet eaten in the Balkans.  But before I get into gratuitous food porn, I should pause here and explain something about southern Serbian hospitality.

To be honest, I was a little apprehensive about travelling in Serbia as an American.  Remember Kosovo, where everyone blindly loved Americans and all things USA? Well, the Serbs were on the other side of that conflict. The bombings represented the first time NATO acted without the approval of the UN, and against a nation not actively posing a threat to a member state.  For better or for worse, the NATO bombings in 1999 gave Kosovo its independence-- but the price was hundreds of Serbian civilian casualites and widespread urban destruction.  You'll understand the temptation to introduce myself as being from somewhere innocuous, like maybe New Zealand. ("Great sheep you got here!")

It's true that there is no love lost between the average Serbian and the U.S. government. I've ended up in some awkward conversations: "You're an American? Ah, yes. The enemy." Or Bill Clinton trashing, which I didn't realize was a thing, now that everyone's moved on from Monica. People's war stories have been hard to hear and know how to respond to-- like the man in a cafe who told me his 9-year-old daughter died during the NATO airstrikes. I was also nine years old in 1999. It's a strange guilt to wrestle with.

And yet, when people are facing us as individuals-- even those who lived through the hell, even those who lost family members-- they have been consistently welcoming, open, astonishingly generous.  I experienced a culture of hospitality in Muslim northern Cameroon, but even that did not prepare me for the way we've been taken in here.

The man who called me the enemy followed that matter-of-fact label by offering me beer and a cigarette.  Filip and Novak remember being hustled to a bomb shelter in their father's arms while their city exploded around them-- but they were happy to pour us another rakija and talk about it, then ask us questions in turn.  Their mother (who deserves sainthood, or at least recognition as a master chef) demonstrated best of all the kind of hopitality I'm talking about.  Her English was limited, but she communicated in acts, primarily those of feeding us-- which brings me back to the food.  From the first time we arrived in the house, she spread a laden table before us: homemade sauerkraut, winter pickles, homemade ajvar (the red pepper and eggplant spread I've been eating by the jarful), cheese, bread, meats, and kajmak, a sort of cross between clotted cream and thick yogurt.

Getting back to that dinner, though: this amazing woman had devoted herself to the labor-intensive process of preparing sarma, Serbian stuffed cabbage rolls, and stuffed paprika peppers.  There was a tray of glistening, golden-brown sarma stuffed with meat, peppers, onions, rice, potatoes, spices-- and a second tray, equally full, without meat, because Filip had mentioned that I am a vegetarian.  I was sorry to have doubled her work, but not sorry about the results: I single-handedly demolished half the tray, longing to keep eating, but aware that my stomach was uncomfortably full of delicious, creamy cabbage and sweet pepper.  "Does your mother ever just tell you to order a pizza?" I asked, rocking back and forth in the vain hope that it would speed my digestion and allow me to continue gorging myself.  "No," the brothers responded, immediately and in unison.

We went out that night to a beergarden with a handful of Filip's friends. They were a fun and raucous group, and once again we stayed out late.  When we got home, Filip and Novak's mother had left out an entire homemade spinach and cheese pie, just in case we had late-night munchies. Between the four of us, we demolished the burek in about 37 seconds (conservative estimate).

Filip, Will and I at a kafana, a sort of traditional pub with live music
We enjoyed Nis, and particularly enjoyed getting to know Filip and Novak and their family.  Being welcomed into a home gave us an entirely different perspective on the city and the culture of southern Serbia, and we are enormously grateful.

Coming up next: Belgrade and Novi Sad!

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