It’s been a wild ride since we left sunflower oil-producing Hungary for the unknown lands of Serbia, and if there’s one thing we can say for sure so far, it’s that people here are crazy. Crazy is awesome.
It began with our first lesson on the ultimate Serbian cultural custom: The rakija connection. We stopped to check out a viewing point in Fruška Gora, a beautiful forest south of Novi Sad, and pulled up nearby a group of festive (borderline rowdy) local dudes who were crowded around a picnic table with an accordion, busting out tunes in the only way you can bust out a tune on an accordion (with gusto!!). There was a lamb skewered on a spit, spinning slowly nearby. When we got out of the car they all stared at us, but we hopped across the road to check out the view.
There was no one else but a couple of younger tourists, who were stood in a gazebo having a discussion in English about something while gazing out at the green forests bubbling down into a valley. It had bucketed down rain that morning but now the sun was shining. Everything was fresh and vivid. It was beautiful. I took some snaps that later struck me as unimpressive because of how the day went from there.
Back at the car, we’re about to slide in when the group of dudes starts hollering for us to come join them. We hesitated, but why the fuck not? And before we know it we’re surrounded by singing and dancing, gesture-fuelled conversation and ogling eyes in my direction from one sloshed older guy described as the group’s “mascot”.
It was noon, but they had clearly been at it for a few hours. We hadn’t eaten breakfast, and while Mook nursed his big cup of Coke as the designated driver, the guys gladly poured me a bottle and a half of beer that went straight to my head. And then out came the rakija.
“Just one is ok! Two no, but one is ok for driving,” persuaded the guy next to Mook who was reportedly the sheriff in a nearby town. “When you are in Serbia, you drink rakija! Before breakfast is ok too.” It was clearly not polite to refuse this stuff, so we all bumped our plastic cups and beer bottles, laughing at the funny situation as we made eye contact. I finished mine with a proper swig and they promptly filled it back up. Mook sipped his slowly, but found that the glass somehow kept replenishing itself.
Proudly, though, he managed to stick to just one. The party continued with lots of big gestures to help along conversations far more interesting than would have been possible without the help of the rakija. But then the rain returned, big and heavy. We clamoured under trees and tarps waiting for it to finish its course, and when it did Mook and I took that as our chance to leave before the rakija started flowing again and we got too drunk to leave. We gifted them a bottle of wine from Hungary, said our goodbyes, and after a round of photo and handshakes, we were off.
We made it to the viewing point and I dashed into the woods for a wee behind a tree. When I came out, Mook had walked down the hill 20 metres to where the guys in the Suzukis had coincidentally stopped. Cans of Becks in hand, they were all chatting with a lot fewer gestures than needed with the guys we met earlier. One of these guys was David. David is crazy, and awesome. His personal motto, we learned over time, is “Be positive!” and no matter what the issue is, he slides it in to remind you that “it’s not a problem, it’s just a situation.” There’s some people you just have to have faith in and you just have to go with, and he’s one of them.
First he invited us to go swimming. Okay, why not? We piled into their cars and sped through the mud to an artificial lake in an old quarry. We jumped in, passed around some beers, had a relax. Then we were off to a roadside cafe, where we again explored the world of rakija while we sat and chilled.
A man of many talents, we learned that one of David’s passions, aside from exploring the forest at high speeds and having three-day goulash parties, is making recycling bins out of old metal drums and installing them around the forests in the area. Some of the parks won’t let him install them without the proper paperwork, so instead him and his crew have guerrilla operations to put them in without permission. “Be positive!” Awesome.
He also helps out at a restaurant in town, Marina, where later he treated us to an amazing dinner with heaping piles of delicious Serbian meat that no mortal man could finish, washed down with local wine and, of course, more rakija. From there it was a pub, and then a game of 1am basketball. He was unstoppable.
The next day, after some half-assed sightseeing at the Petrovaradin Fortress, we met up for coffee. While we had slowly crawled out of bed just in time to check out of our hostel that morning, our new friend had been up with the sun doing business. “I had to wake up early this morning and have rakija in the police station, for one of my friends,” he explained. The brilliant Serbian custom for sorting out little troubles: have a drink with the cops.
We had planned to scoot down to Belgrade in the evening, but David was having none of it. Next we were off to a local winery (more info soon) where we learned a bookload about wine in Serbia, talked history and politics, and (of course) completed the drink of the day. David’s parents’ house was nearby, and while an epic and unseasonable thunderstorm rolled through we were treated to an assortment of homemade snacks like spicy cured sausages and a (much needed) vitamin-packed kiwi shake prepared by his lovely vegetarian mum. Wash it all down with wine made by his father, and then it was off to dinner at a little Italian restaurant in Petrovaradin with pork knuckle and salad.
Completely knackered from all the booze-fuelled action and generous meals, we crashed at David’s apartment while he continued on to his usual haunts. By the time we managed to get up and out it was 1pm, but when we met our unstoppable host at Marina he had already been to the market, buying supplies for the restaurant.
It was time to head off to Belgrade, but before we left there was one more stop to make. After a last shot of rakija we headed to a garage to get Jagger fixed up. Our ride had developed the uncanny ability to fill up with water overnight, and for several days every morning we were greeted with a swamp on the floor of the car. When the mechanic pulled up the carpet there was an awesome hole in the floor where water had been overflowing from the drains. He patched it up free of charge, we said our goodbyes, and we were on our way.
On the way out of town we stopped to get some petrol. An attendant flagged us in and filled up the tank. Right before we left David rolled up, honking to remind us that we forgot to give him the keys to his apartment. Whoops. And he had one more lesson to teach us about his country: “In Serbia, never let someone else fill up your gas for you. Sometimes they steal it!”
There’s probably a lot of preconceptions rolling around about Serbia–it’s a little-understood country that has seen a lot over the decades, and the media hasn’t always painted things in a great light. But so far we’ve had an excellent time and met some truly fantastic people, many of whom are almost (but not quite) as positive as David. Serbian hospitality has to be some of the best in the world, if you can handle all the rakija!!