Once my one-day visit to Hungary was over, I returned to land inhabited by Slavs.
Not only were the Serbs who inhabited Serbia Slavs, but their religion was Orthodox. Not only was their religion Orthodox, but they said things like "Ladno" (Well ...) and "Izvini" (Excuse me) and "Da" (Yes). Not only did they say these things, but they (the guys) said them whilst inflating their chests big with air, to make themselves sound tough. In all these qualities, they resembled Russians.
I'd say that typical Russian guys were strong physically, liked to show that they were feeling comfortable and the ones in charge, and yelled often - but most were harmless.
Recently, I'd been wishing I could emulate these guys - in at least one aspect.
During winter in the Czech Republic, a few of my former best friends, plus a few girls I was beginning to become friends with, didn't hang out with me or stopped responding to my calls. I wanted to tell them I was disappointed or missed them. But, scared that they wouldn't care, I usually just stopped talking to them altogether. But, in this situation, a tough Russian would've said:
"Chto ty!? Prezident S.SH.A.!? U tebya net vremya viditsya s drugom?" (What are you!? The president of the U.S.A.!? You don't have time to see a friend?) Or: What are you!? Are your fingers broken!? Can't you write an SMS? Or: What are you!? Did you forget how to say "Hi", or what?
And, just like that, by being an intimidating yeller, the Russian would've had tons of friends. Yep.
I was well aware of the fact that I hadn't bonded with too many Slavic tough guys in the past. I figured I needed to, so I could go back to the Czech Republic and kick some lousy friends' butts.
I went to Belgrade, because I didn't have luck hitchhiking through it. In the nighttime, I went to a plaza amongst the University of Belgrade's dormitories. Some people were playing guitar and singing.
The girls of this group - compared to other Serbian women, who wore high heels and tight clothes brightly displaying their best parts - comfortably wore looser sweatshirts. One energetic girl stood while the others sat, swaying back and forth as she sang, and smoking lots of cigarettes.
They played a catchy, upbeat song with the rhythm of a song from a Russian movie, but with Serbian lyrics, and when I told them about the Russian version they said they hadn't known. They invited me to join them.
On this dark plaza, the first person to whom I extended my hand was a large, short-haired guy. "Bora," was his name. Instead of "Justin", the five girls and three guys of the group often called me Charlie or Jasmin.
I knew I could get along well with the girls, but I was worried about being accepted by the guys. Thus, when Bora asked in a brawny voice if I drank beer, I knew it would be easier if I said yes. We began passing around two-litre, plastic bottles of "Jelen Pivo" (Deer Beer).
In stumbly English, Bora told me he was twenty-four, and that he and the other guys weren't students but were from a small town called Shabats. He excitedly wished he could show me to his friends in Shabats. I wondered if he and those friends would then beat me up? Meanwhile, a small guy whose face wore a disgusted look said, disbelievingly, "Dolivai iz Michigan!?" (Is he really from Michigan!?) And when I told Bora my father had had a Yugoslavian "Yugo" car when I was young, this guy said of me: "Lzane". (He's lying.)
I was mostly clueless to what they said to each other in Serbian. I asked Ana, who spoke the best English, what some of the songs were about. She usually replied: "unhappy love". The song I understood best had a chorus that said: "veseli se s ludmi" (have fun with people).
The group played English songs, including "Wicked Game", with poorly pronounced lyrics. The energetic girl - apparently, Bora's girlfriend - kept swaying with her warm, friendly energy. I sometimes took the hand of black-haired Ana, who was calmly beautiful and confident, to dance. This impressed Bora. He said, "Whoa, Justin!"
He nervously drank a lot, and called me to him.
"Justin. Box!" he said. And he started hitting me. I boxed him back. But, he was a much bigger and better boxer than I, so he slapped my face with big hands a few times. I figured it'd be to my advantage if we changed the sport to wrestling; I'd be less likely to get a black eye, I guessed. Twice, big Bora got me in a headache I couldn't escape from. Both times, he pushed me to the plaza's concrete and got all of his weight on me. He did it rather gently, though.
He told me, "Justin. Normally, we Serbian don't like Americans." Oh? That explained the wrestling.
He said they disliked the recent history between the countries. They didn't have anything against American people like me.
Bora sat on the plaza's concrete and called, "Justin, so mnoi!" (Justin, with me!) I joined him. He told me the aforementioned little guy was a very important friend to him. They liked to go to the Drina River, which ran through canyons on the Serbian-Herzegovinian and Serbian-Montenegronian borders. They spent whole months canoeing on the river, and they enjoyed fishing for their food. It was, he said, "Nature."
I failed to tell Bora about my favorite fishing partner, my grandpa - who was now limping with a new back problem that kept him from doing the things he loved.
But, I said I was debating between traveling to Iran or going home to Michigan. Bora said, "Justin, I think your path is to America."
I returned to the singing group, while Bora lay on his back, tired from beer.
Ana's kind-hearted voice began wavering. With each note she sang, her tone changed directions several times. Enjoying the night, I patted her knee and said, "Good job." She smiled and said they were singing traditional and gypsy songs now. These were her specialty. She and the girls were students in the University of Belgrade's music department.
At one a.m., Ana was one of the first to leave. In the darkness, she told me that not only the love in Serbia was unhappy.
When she'd been five, her dad went to fight in the 1993 Balkan War. When he came back a few months later, she didn't even recognize him. Physically, he was uninjured. But, "Who is this man?" she asked her mom.
In 1999, he went to war again, against the Albanians in Kosovo who wanted independence. This land, apparently, had always belonged to Orthodox Serbs. But, Bill Clinton and NATO bombed Serbian bridges and airports for nearly three months straight.
And now, Ana said, "Not even Montenegro likes us." Montenegro, which had the same religion as the Serbs, recently declared independence and joined NATO. "Now, we're going to have to join," said Ana, unsurely.
Luckily, she said at least she had happy love story nowadays. She went to sleep, in preparation for tomorrow's studies.
Bora and the rest of us bought more beers, but our energy was low. Bora suggested I had to try "rakiya" (a local hard liquor), and he went to buy it.
A girl and I went to try to stop him. The girl said I was lucky; normally, Bora didn't like people so quickly.
"He doesn't? What does he do?" I asked, concerned. "Have you ever seen him fight someone!?"
"Yeah. He only fights people he really likes."
Oh? Ha ha! So, when he'd boxed me, that had been a sign of friendship.
The girl went on to tell me a friend had "broken" Bora's leg two weeks ago. But, that was okay, because Bora had broken the friend's leg a year earlier. Also, I'd noticed, Bora called his good friends his "sons".
When we found him, Bora was asleep on a park bench. I was happy to see the rakiya hadn't been bought. I was also happy to see Bora's girlfriend sat beside him with her arm affectionately resting on his chest.
peace, happy love, and friendship with the tough guys!
Thanks to Erika & Timeu; Tibor; Karoi & Benze; Polgar Nora & Irin; Goran; and Ivan for rides!