Maria and I have always wanted to travel to Europe together, and the stars finally aligned this year on our tenth anniversary. So, we began planning a trip through Italy (Rome, Florence, and Venice). This mostly required a bit of clever budgeting, timing the trip with my Mom (our very free, and very awesome babysitter), brushing up on our history (both antiquity and the renaissance), and an overdose on Rick Steves travel books.
But first, if we were going to cross the pond, we would need to plan a stop in Serbia to visit my relatives.
I had been to Serbia several times in the past, but it had been fourteen years since I last visited. Before that, I had been there in 1995. Both visits were after different wars in the Balkans, and all of our time in Europe during those visits was spent with our family, refugees of the Bosnian war, now living in a village named Stepanovic.
This time however, my wife would be with me, and we would only be staying for two days.
We flew into Zurich, and then caught a connecting flight to Belgrade. My Dad, who was visiting there as well, and Baja, a bear of a man, with an impressive mustache and a fun loving spirit, were both waiting for us at the airport.
Stepanovic is about ninety miles north of Belgrade. The village is close to the city of Novi Sad, known outside of the region mostly for the Exit Festival. One of the largest music fests in Europe. We were greeted in Stepanovic with a table full of food and drinks, as my grandmother and great aunts and uncles smothered us with hugs and kisses. It was as warm and true a reunion as I could have hoped.
We immediately began our night of catching up, drinking, and stuffing ourselves. Admittedly, my Serbian is a little rusty (I sound like a Balkan Yoda), but I did my best to translate for Maria, as multiple conversations erupted around us.
At one point, Deda Nikola, my great uncle and namesake, surprised at how much my Serbian had deteriorated, decided to let me know what I now sounded like.
His impersonation went like this:
He scrunched his grizzled, and mostly toothless face, and said “Waaa waaa waaa waaa.” And then he pointed and laughed at me. His impression was spot on.
A few Slivovic shots later, and I remembered an old joke about a man on the side of the road. In my slurry Serbian, I attempted to tell it. I’m not one to embellish, but this was a Herculean effort.
The old joke:
A man, sits next to his goat on the side of the road. He is approached by another man, who is driving a scooter. The driver asks the man with the goat for the time. The man, still sitting next to his goat, lifts its testicles and says 10:30. The driver thanks him and leaves.
A few moments later, the driver pulls back up to the man with the goat, and asks him how he can tell the time by lifting his goat’s testicles. The man tells the driver he’s moving them out of the way so he can see the clock from where he’s sitting.
It may not be as funny written in English for a blog, but trust me, when you mime moving goat testicles to the side, this joke works.
It was mid-morning, and I was a bit hungover. I sat outside the house in a small shed, that doubles as an outside kitchenette, with my great-aunt Duska. We smoked and drank Turkish coffee. Life was good.
Later in the day, Maria and I left for the city of Novi Sad to do a little sightseeing with my dad and Baja. In the city, my wife was lucky enough to witness her first bribing of a police officer.
We were pulled over after about ten minutes of driving in the city. A police officer came up to the car, he noticed the license plates (American), and wanted to know if we had insurance, and if this was indeed our car. The car was ours, but unfortunately our insurance was expired. I remember thinking that first world problems were sometimes also third world problems.
My dad and Baja exited the car and spoke with the police officer. I sat in the back with Maria, and translated what I could. A twenty euro handshake was administered, and we were free to go. My wife’s expression during this was worth every one of those euros.
Soon, we got around to the sightseeing. We strolled around an impressive old fortress that sits on the Danube River. After that, we walked around the old city, ate ice cream (more on that later), and listened to a couple of talented mandolin players.
After a quick stop at a village pub, we were back in Stepanovic. Maria and I sat with Duska once more, sipping on our coffees, as Baba Mica (my grandmother) napped on the couch next to us. Soon though, she awoke and looked up at me, groggily. She asked if I had eaten, and I told her that we had ice cream in the city. She sighed, and said “Fuck ice cream.” And then rolled over.
My grandmother has a beautiful way with words, especially the colorful ones. To be more specific, she swears like a sailor and it’s fucking spectacular.
Fuck ice cream became the catchphrase for the rest of our trip. It followed us through Italy, and it may even follow me to the grave, sitting chiseled powerfully atop my tombstone. The perfect epitaph.
Our last evening in Serbia was spent socializing and barbecuing. In the morning, it was heartfelt goodbyes and some tears (not by me though, I’m very manly). And after the last of our farewells were complete, we were off to Nikola Tesla airport and ready to begin the second leg of our trip.