The smallest, shadiest cities morph into international hubs under the bright lights, foreign faces, and kinetic sound-energy of a music festival. Even then, you don’t necessarily want to be caught on the back roads of Serbia at 5 am on a Saturday…
Novi Sad is actually Serbia’s second city. It’s tucked into the northern region of the country, and commonly regarded as quieter and more relaxed than the completely out-of-pocket capital of Belgrade. Novi Sad plays host to EXIT Festival, one of the biggest and best music fetes in Europe. That year I’d just seen Missy Elliot perform carnival-style for a capacity crowd, and heard Patti Smith play “Rock ‘n’ Roll N*gger” live for the first time. Voices hoarse, and dancing feet weary after a night of VIP fun, my ex-boyfriend and I made the painful journey from the festival to our car. Ended up on a dark Serbian back road as the bakeries were firing up the day’s first burek (a type pie filled with meat or cheese).
Our minds on flaky butter pastry, we came upon a group of 20-something boys, sprawled out on a curb just ahead. They were Serbian, and they seemed drunk. Some loud and cackling. Others lying on the ground, passed out. My heartbeat kicked up a notch. My ex is about 6’8, a former basketball player, no punk, and also, Serbian. But this was a tiny legion of bald-headed, black boot-wearing young bucks. I slipped off my doorknockers. This was it. The dangerous, thug-ridden, racist Serbia I’d read about in the news.
To that point, my relationship had taken me all over the Balkans. I’d canoodled with the cream of the crop in terms of young Serbia. Actors and artists; long-haired musicians with gypsy roots, who’d go from their official gig at the opera straight to the bar to perform raucous old folk songs about war and prostitutes; lawyers and city planners; the mayor of Novi Sad. Among that crew, were EXIT Festival’s 4 founding fathers, including Ivan Milijvojev, the talent booker.
“Fifteen years ago,” Ivan begins one afternoon over Skype, “there was nothing here. Everything just stopped.” Of course, the Serbian government had embroiled the country in a brutal war with the surrounding countries, most famously, Bosnia/Herzegovina and Croatia. Unspeakable amounts of blood were shed. NATO demanded Serbia stand down. When then-President Slobodan Milosevic refused, bombs reigned down all over Serbia. Ivan and 3 university friends created EXIT: 100 days of protest, music, concerts, art, and round tables on voting. The original, unofficial title was, “EXIT, Milosević.”
Everywhere you go in 2012 Novi Sad, people liken firecrackers to air missiles, and point out the surviving sister of the 14-year-old boy who was crossing a bridge over the Danube River when one of those missiles hit it. That bridge has since been fixed. Had we walked to the festival, we’d be going the opposite way right now, crossing a bridge over the Danube, (it lights up each night in remembrance), instead of strolling this concrete green mile straight into a scene from Locked Up Abroad.
The boys fell silent and turned to gawk as we walked closer. Neither of us said a word, but I could feel my ex’s muscles tense, and his breathing quicken audibly beside me. He, too, was ready for a showdown. One boy said something that my ex left untranslated, but I imagined it to be, “Look, a n*gger!” because the kid passed out on the grass popped up from the waist like something out of a zombie flick, and set his blurry eyes directly on me. We’re in front of the group of skin-headed youth now, staring them down. Finally, the zombie kid spoke. He was about to hit me with an “N” word. Just not the one I thought. “Fuck!” he says, eyes wide as he can get them. “Naomi Campbell!!” Apparently, we all looked like something we were not.
Have you ever been traveling abroad and gotten all twisted up in stereotypes?