So I had my pinnacle cultural experience yesterday evening. After dinner (11:30pm) we meet up with some friends of Deni's downtown and go up to the ninth floor of this totally nondescript building. There's like 10 guys on the bottom floor frisking us and we have to go through a metal detector. Deni told me that likely only one of them had a job and the rest of his buddies just hang out to birddog chicks. Upstairs is the total club scene - re pleat with bumping base and neon strobes - not all that different from anything in the U.S. but really cool to see downtown Belgrade from some elevation. So we have one drink and head over to this island on the Danube. Everyone in the group keeps telling me how different these clubs are - how the the people from the island club would never hang out at the downtown club and vice versa and that I have to see it to believe it. The name of the place is pronounced "hua hua".
So we caravan over there, its me Deni, Jelena, Mileta (the GIS guy), Mitcha and his girlfriend, and Sasha (who is a plastic surgeon of all things) - and he's the one that gets us on "the list" to get in. We get to this island and there's cars everywhere we park in the mud amongst totally ru down buildings and dogs - broken windows with bars - totally decrepit. We walk over the levee and out this platform walkway floating on the river to essentially a huge houseboat. There are a lot of restaurants and clubs like this out floating on the Danube. We get there and its packed - o the inside it looks like a place you might see in the Delta area of California. Fishing nets in the rafters, antlers on the walls, kinda hunt club rustic with pinic tables and red check table cloths.
The people on the other hand are decked out sitting around these tables typically with a whole bottle of whatever and bunch of glasses and ice and everyone is smoking cigarettes and cigars. The crowd is mostly early 30's and its basically Deni's generation who have done well professionally, he kept introducing me to people and saying yea so and so works downtown - one guy has a dogfood manufacturing business...so their probably not rich by US standards but they are seemingly well off. There's band and its kinda cheesy loungy music, nothing that a foreigner would immediate like. I still can't figure out if Belgrade is way ahead in its embrace of American music from the 80's (and all its stylistic elements) or still stuck there. But the dichotomy is intense here's all these people sitting around rather sophisticated in this kinda tacky place with so so music (to my ears at least). Sasha gets us a table and it is PACKED I mean nowhere to be if you are not sitting. The fact that waiters can deliver drinks is a feat unto itself.
Anyway its pretty subdued and Deni tells me the band is playing contemporary Yugoslavian pop tunes from every state (Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia etc). So they keep telling me "just wait". We have a couple drinks, I'm drinking straight bourbon on the rocks they drink corona's and mojitos and redbull with vodka. The music starts to pick up and people are getting into it singing the lyrics (its like 2am) and it just keeps getting more intense. Each new song is clearly getting people totally emotional and passionate and their all singing along and slowly people start getting up on chairs and on the tables and singing and dancing and before I know the
entire place is blowing up. The place is literally bobbing up and town ('cause its a houseboat) and totally erupts into everyone singing along the band is jamming and you can't help but get caught up in the moment. This music is filled with very passionate choruses and the bridges have all these sorts of middle eastern motifs. This is because the area was controlled by Turkey at one point and some of those middle eastern influences have stuck. Deni keeps telling me yeah these are songs from every place in the former Yugoslavia and to see the energy in the room made me feel like this generation wants a united nation and wants to get along. And that's when it
clicked - its really hard to explain - but the stuff that happened here a month ago makes sense. The war in the mid 90's really made things factional. Since it ended people have slowly come to accept a new more regionalized nationalism, good or bad with their economies slowly starting to recover. And then the find out Kosovo wants to be independent of Serbia and its just another blow to that national pride. McDonalds and the US embassy are easy targets, and the sentiments expressed during the rioting is not the attitude of the people I met.
I'm here to help set an agenda for conservation of biodiversity in the region using some science and mapping. In order for this to succeed regional cooperation is essential. Deni told me that the states cooperate on three things, music, movies and nature conservation. Maybe he's optimistic, but seeing people in this bar belting out songs that night gave me hope.