To be fair, I got off to a bad start in Serbia. Getting surrounded by a pack of wild dogs, being told how American’s and Muslims were hated by my hosts, and being accused (sort of jokingly) of being a spy kind of put me at odds with this country. In fact though, even though my host rubbed me the wrong way, the fact is that he really was doing his best to introduce his country, show me some interesting things, and when it comes down to it- to provide a bed to strangers in the best of hospitable traditions.
The guys were interested to hear the history of Hawaii and how it was stolen from the Hawaiian people by imperialist American missionaries. Obviously, I’ve left my country and as I’ve stated in the past, I’m not a fan of the unbridled military industrial complex, unconditional support of Israel, or the empty culture of consumption, waste, work, and die which the United States has spawned throughout the entire world. And to be fair, I don’t live in a country that was bombed the the United States and her NATO allies. I didn’t spend my teen years wondering why my friends were killed by U.S. bombs or looking at schools that were destroyed by NATO, or wondering why Muslims and Christians were continually slaughtering each other in the Balkan wars of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Understanding that, helps to understand the scarred psyche of the Serbian people, in particular those who spent their childhood and teen years in complete and total hell.
Still, Serbs are difficult to sympathize with. Like Israelis, they are in your face about the righteousness of their country and their actions. Serbs don’t recognize Albania, Croatia or Bosnia or Kosovo or any of the other countries that have splintered from the former Yugoslavia. To Serbs there are no Croats, no Kosovars, no Albanians, no Bosnians. Only Serbs pretending to be something they are not. My host was surprised when I was offended by jokes where Hitler is using Jews as pieces of a Tetris game as he throws them off the cliffs. I told him that the only Hitler jokes I want to hear are ones where Hitler ends up dead and humiliated, but most of his ‘dark’ Serbian humor cast Hitler as a kind of good guy. Incredibly offensive. When I asked him to stop with the Hitler jokes, he wanted to tell me dead baby jokes, I stopped him before he could begin. I don’t laugh about dead babies. Finally, he asked what kind of joke I wanted and I suggested an American joke. This led to one that did make me laugh.
Slobadan Milosovich and Bill Clinton were meeting in Washington once and Bill Clinton left the room for the moment and warned Slobadan not to push a button. Of course Slobadan pushed it and a hand came out and slapped him in the face.
Milosovich vowed revenge and several months later the same scenario unfolded in Belgrade. Milosovich left the room and warned Clinton not to push the button. Clinton pushed it but nothing happened so he pushed it again and again.
A few minutes later Slobodan came back in the room and said the talks were over. He asked Bill Clinton where he would go. Clinton replied that he would go home to the USA. Slobadan laughed and replied “What USA?”
In fact, we did have a pretty nice day. After watching funny Yugo commercials like this one from the 1980’s,
we piled into Marko’s old Opel and after the five of us push started it, we piled in again and set out for the mountain where the Serbs have rebuilt the Avala TV tower that NATO forces blew up during the Balkan war. With slick bottomed shoes that had a few holes in them, I wasn’t quite prepared to hike up an icy mountain, but armed with two massive bottles of beer, that was what the plan was. As we climbed and I kept looking back to see Marko sliding and falling, he would shout orders to me about how I was climbing the wrong way and how I should change my technique. I did my best to ignore him as he heaved himself up the hill out of breath and sometimes slid down while still telling me how I was going about the climbing the wrong way.
Serbs drink from morning to night and apparently it was normal to bring a few gallons of beer on a hike with us. When we reached the top, Marko told us that he didn’t want to go up the tower but would wait for us. We left him sitting at a picnic table with two huge bottles of beer while we went up to see the view. It was impressive and the white all around.
The Avala Tower (Serbian: Avalski toranj) is a 204.5 m (671 ft) tall telecommunication tower located on Avala mountain near Belgrade, Serbia. It was destroyed in NATO bombardment of Serbia on 29 April 1999. On 21 December 2006, the reconstruction of Avala Tower commenced and the tower was officially opened at a ceremony attended by the highest state officials on 21 April 2010. It is currently the tallest structure in Serbia and the Balkan region. The tower was one of the last buildings to be destroyed before the end of the NATO operation. A special bomb was used to destroy the tower. The blast was one of the loudest explosions heard throughout Belgrade during the NATO bombardment. Between the date of its destruction and 11 September 2001, it was the tallest building ever destroyed, succeeding the Singer Building. As of 2001, it is the third tallest building ever destroyed (behind the two towers of the World Trade Center in new York).
The funny thing about Serbia is the sense of just how fucked up it has been for most of its recent history. I mean, really fucked up. I heard more than a few Serbs deny that there were any genocides and a few more mention that the genocide was justified because they were killing Serbs. They being Muslims mostly.
I had wanted to see some of Belgrade and perhaps go to one or two of the museums since it was Sunday and most of them would be closed the next day, but Marko vetoed my suggestions even though the other passengers also said they wanted to see some of those places too. Instead he took us to the Ada Ciganlija river/lake as the sun was starting to go down.
Ada Ciganlija, a river island on Sava River with an artificial lake in the center of the city. The lake has an 8 km long gravel beach, which is visited by thousands of bathers during the summer. This is a great place for sports and picnics (barbecue is allowed in the allotted space) . It also contains a lot of cafes and restaurants, some of which are opened whole year round. In summer, it is swamped with people wanting to cool down in the water.
It was cold, my feet were wet, and there didn’t appear to be anywhere to go since this was obviously a place where people come when it is warm. When I said that I was tired and didn’t really have the clothes to enjoy the area, the others agreed, but once again Marko insisted. He would have dragged us on a walk of several kilometers lecturing us about how the English language works, why Croats are really Serbs, and how American’s never left him any feedback on couch surfing except I realized that I was done being dominated. I kept myself from saying what I felt “Hey, you fat fuck. I’m tired, cold, didn’t have any lunch, and already told you I don’t want to be here and I’m a fucking English teacher and what you are lecturing about is WRONG! Hitler was a prick, Serbs committed atrocious war crimes, and your house smells like shit which by the way, it looks like you have in your bathtub.” Yes, I held myself back and simply said. “Marko. I’m not going any further. I’m turning around.” He argued, told me I was a complainer, and finally when everyone else agreed with me that it was enough we turned and went back to the car and then back to his house.
On the drive home, Marko drove like a madman and spent huge amounts of time cussing at other drivers even though he was obviously at fault. It was too late for me to leave at this point and so the evening was spent listening to Marko rant about how this crazy guy who made a video of a double rainbow had marketed himself and made himself rich by being weird. I assured him that he was far more weird than the double rainbow man.
At one point, I excused myself so I could call my wife and tell her I was okay. Marko came barging in and demanded that I stop what I was doing so he could show me the video of the double rainbow guy. I tried to ignore him but he insisted and finally, I had to stand up and get in his face a little. “Hey, I’m talking to my wife right now and in fact, I don’t care a single bit about you or what you are saying. Get away from me.”
I woke early and left at the first light of day. Despite the many Serbs I’d met who were kind, intelligent, and interesting(including Marko’s roommates) – Marko left the biggest impression on me. I’m sorry for that Serbia since I realize it’s not fair to everyone else there.