“Serbians don’t think about yesterday or tomorrow.”
I met the Dancer on a soupy wet night in Belgrade. He told me right off that he was an actor and lived in a theater. My ears perked up at the mention of his interesting profession, and I began asking questions. This is what I do: I sniff the air for interesting stories and then follow a scent like a floppy faced hound dog.
The Dancer seemed to have an interesting story.
His acting was through the medium of interpretive dance and his troop followed the performance philosophy of the 19th century Frenchman named Antoinette.
Home-brewed Rakija, a general word in Serbian for liquor, in a water bottle.
“The actor has to be like snake,” the Dancer began explaining his trade, “you need to feel the vibrations of what is happening and then act with it. What you think about time, love, life needs to be expressed through movement that is not pantomime.”
He spoke an understandable, yet sort of Tarzan, form of English. He laughed big as he drank home-brewed rakija – which is jus a general term for grass roots liquor in Serbia – out of a used two liter water bottle. The Dancer was a big man. “I am a 100 kilo dancer,” he laughed as he filled up my shot glass for another round. We drank down the grape inspired fire/ poison with relish, making sure that we maintained eye contact for the toast.
“Ziveli!” we roared as we toasted each other.
In Serbia, toasting someone without eye contact means that you are sentencing them to seven years of bad sex. I did not wish to lay this weight down upon my new companion, as he seemed to have enough problems with the opposite sex.
“I have never had a relationship for more than three months,” he laughed as he drank. “I get to two months with girl, then I start to go crazy.”
Being a man who has lived and traveled with women before, I understood his conundrum. No, I did not wish to give this fellow seven years of bad sex, for I felt that he should at least get something from his short and tenuous relationships.
The grey cityscape of Belgrade.
“How did you become an actor?” I asked the Dancer.
“It was an accident,” he answered, “I make a telephone call then I am actor.”
I suppose it is as simple as that in Serbia.
The Dancer then excused himself as he went outside to smoke a cigarette. I followed him with my smoking pipe in hand. There was something else that I wanted to talk with him about. He lit his cigarette and I packed and sparked up my pipe. I asked my question:
“What was it like in Beograd during the NATO bombing during the Kosovo war?”
The Dancer looked at me straight, and without hesitation answered, “It was the best time of my life.”
I reckoned that he was around the same age as me. When I was a comfortably sheltered 18 year old university student in Connecticut, this guy was an 18 year old kid being bombed by fighter jets. There was a big difference between our late adolescences.
“The best time of your life?” I questioned.
“Yes, “they are dropping bombs and we are playing checkers. It was the best time of my life. We played checkers all day and then drank with the soldiers all night.”
This almost sounded too fun. And to think that I once pitied these people from my university hole in the USA.
Graffiti in Belgrade.
“We were not scared,” The Dancer continued, “the bombs were falling on us, but we were not scared. There was no reason to be scared. There was nothing that we could do about it other than go on with our lives. They bombed Beograd for three months. Every night the kids would have a concert in the city center. We would see the planes flying overhead and be like “Fuck you!” with our middle fingers pointing to the sky.”
He then spoke of a philosophy of resistance that I could not ever have known as a wannabe activist in my youth:
“In Serbia, we have a word, ‘prcos,’ which means . . .ah, it is like if you tell me to move this cup,” he spoke as he moved a glass on a coffee table, “and I say, ‘no, I will not move the cup, you will have to kill me before I move the cup. That is like ‘prcos'”
That, I assumed, was how it was in a Belgrade under fire. I then remembered an old Serbian adage that I had heard previously in the day:
“Germans hear that there is a war in Iraq, and they stock up their pantry. Here in Beograd, we hear the bombs falling, and we go to the cafeteria. We know what we have today, we don’t know what we will have tomorrow.”
I thought over this kind of resolve in the face of fire, it then became apparent that I was in a region of the world that has grown accustom to war, that has grown accustom to air raid sirens, bombs, and the downhill rolling ball of war and destruction. Wanting to get to the routed of the crisis that existed in the former Yugoslavia, I asked the Dancer another question:
“Is there any real difference between Serbians, Croatians, Bosnians, and the other people who once made up Yugoslavia?”
The Dancer roared with his two arms in the air as he said, “We are all the same! Go to Croatia, they are just like me; go to Bosnia, they are just like me; go to Montenegro, they are just like me. I look at you and I don’t know where you are from, but I know that you are not like me.”
“Well, at least you do not need to worry about them anymore,” I tried to reassure my new friend about the breakup of his country. My attempt fell severely fallow. The Dancer then expressed a solemn nostalgia for Yugoslavia.
“Yugoslavia was free. You could sleep anywhere and nobody will do anything to you,” he spoke with a sort of reverence before telling me about the greatness of the old, Tito lead Yugoslavian socialism.
Bridge over the Danube River leading to Belgrade, Serbia’s capital city.
There seemed to be a deeply held uneasiness in Serbia about the outcome of Yugoslavia’s breakup. This did not come as a surprise. A once large nation divided itself up into around eight different small countries based on perceived cultural differences.
“When Yugoslavia was breaking up,” a fellow traveler told me, “the people all chose ethnicities to belong to. But they are all really mixed.”
I now look at a map of the Balkans, and it is apparent what can happen when group and cultural identity is taken to the extreme. The former Yugoslavia is an example of what happens when people attempt to define themselves – with guns and bombs – against that which they think they are not. As the world becomes increasingly united and monoculturalize there seems to be an underlying drive for humans to divide themselves up into smaller ethnic units, to divide themselves up by tribe.
I will travel to Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, and Macedonia to further dig into this story. I intend to look into the question of why people seem to inherently resist monoculturization, and why people are willing to die for a knowledge of self rule.
I wonder what the Bosnians, the Croatians, the Kosovars, the Albanians, and the Macedonians will have to say about the Dancer’s claim that they are “All the same.”