Novi Sad, November 22, 2013

The Kafana Called The Hat  – *EDITED 11/30/13

IMG_1707I fell in love with Novi Sad, Serbia on the fourth day of my trip, when we went to the kafana in the afternoon after class. We’d had a really nice workshop session at the Akadmija, about what makes something theater versus another form, gotten into a good discussion about contemporary playwriting and filmmaking, and then it was time to go. A few of the students invited me out for coffee.

The place is called The Hat, and one of the students, Milan, explained to me that it’s their place, the students’ place, where they go every day. The kafana, he says, is the real Serbian thing. Most of them are not so good, but a few are good. This is one of the good ones.

They have coffee and drinks, and lots of ashtrays because everyone smokes in Serbia, all the time.

I explained that there was, until a few weeks ago, a beloved (if mediocre) Mexican place on the Lower East Side called El Sombrero, which means The Hat, where all the musicians and a lot of theater folk used to hang out at night, because of the cheap margaritas. You would always run into someone you knew at The Hat. Maybe there’s a neighborhood joint called The Hat in every city.

The Hat in Novi Sad is old school without being stodgy. Wooden tables, small checked table coverings, a couple musical instruments decorate the walls. The students order beer, coffee with whiskey, or Rakje, the national liqueur or distillate. Even in my drinkingest college days we didn’t start in the afternoon. But then, no one is getting drunk, so maybe this is what moderation looks like here.

And they smoke. Oh, how they smoke. I’ve had a cough for the past three weeks, that, because of traveling so much, won’t go away. I try to be inconspicuous, to turn away from the smoke without seeming to ignore the smoker, but it’s a 360-degree cloud.

And everyone is so eager to talk. They love to talk. They really love to talk and learn, debate and determine, teach and learn. This is one of the most refreshing conversations I’ve had with people of college age in the past five years, I think. I tell them that they are way ahead of US college students (sorry, US college students) in their deep curiosity, in their cultural self-examination, in wrestling with the issues of their day.

I learn about Serbian extended families. “What you call ‘cousins’ – your father or mother’s brother’s kids? – We still call ‘brothers or sisters.’ That is how our families are. It’s a different word, but it’s still brother.” We talk about the histories here – Goran, next to me, is Croatian, Milan is Serb, someone else is Bosnian, another is Kosovar – there are others, too, mixes, mestizos, specifics. Around the table it’s just a fact.

“Everyone thinks we are fighting each other, but it’s not always true,” says one. “How do you explain this history to someone from outside?” They were born in one country, which became several, and might now be another. Their identities are more familial, or historic, than predicated on a certain set of borders or laws.

Serbs, I am told here, are a little lazy because they love to spend a lot of time hanging out with each other. “Sometimes, from 2PM on, if class is over, we spend the day with each other, talking and hanging out.”

Sonya bemoans the lack of mutual support. “Everyone is wanting to be Woody Allen,” she says, “As if we can all be writer-director-actor. No one is helping each other make films, even though when we work together, we get more done.”

I learn about my great cultural shortcoming – not having seen any Kusturica films. I get a lecture, a list, and the beginning of an understanding of how his work is culturally specific – “You can’t see it the same way as a Serb”, but that some part of it translates, “Because it is happy.” And that is what they want to do with their films and plays. They want to make a new Serbian cinema or theater that can be very specific to them and also reach people outside.

I learn just how pervasive US culture is – “We grew up watching your cartoons, and that is what forms so deeply our view of America.” But they also know Husker Du, Jim Jarmusch, Paris, Texas (a big debate about whether it’s the best movie ever or totally boring ensues), one of them has even seen a Jem Cohen film. And they are eager about the stuff they don’t know – Benjamin Smoke, Wallace Shawn, Richard Foreman and The Wooster Group.

In the classroom, a common dynamic emerged – there were types of students you recognize anywhere you teach: the guy who is sure he can provoke you and knows everything, but actually is interested in being challenged; the one who wants to know the right answer; the woman who is silent and scowling at first, but then slowly emerges as the most forward thinking in the group; the one who wants only practical information; the one who speaks after every time his friend does; the one who is largely lost, has no idea how lost, but is actively lost and forthright about what he thinks, so there is hope.

In the kafana, the dynamic disappears or morphs into something liquid and inclusive.

Milan, who is one of the most enthusiastic of the group, the most joyous, and also one of the most aesthetically conservative, talks earnestly and intently about the different nationalities that make up Serbia now. And about capitalism as the great fascism of our time.

I like this conversation very much. It evinces a kind of bright way of brooding and grumbling that seems unique to this place. “Yeah, but…” is the only way to interject yourself into this conversation now, even if what you are saying doesn’t directly contradict what came before. “Yeah, but,” says Goran, “Capitalism, the unifying of cultures, it’s not new.” “Yeah, but,” continues Milan, “that is the problem ,this one world thing. This idea we are all supposed to watch and eat and say the same things.”

I agree. I agree!

IMG_1721“But you know, maybe that is why it is good,” he continues, “that we are so slow to evolve, kind of backward.” No one else is speaking. Maybe a few are looking at Milan like he is crazy, or like, ‘oh no here he goes again.’

“Because I think Yugoslavia will rise again.”

Bright, brooding, grumbling ensues. “I don’t know if that is such a good idea,” Goran says quietly. Another says, “Yeah but. Then we will be moving back in time, and not forward.”

Milan is quiet. We are all thinking now.

One of the things that is hard to comprehend as a US citizen is that Serbians may have lived in four countries without ever leaving their hometown or village. If you’re over 25 or so, you were born in The Socialist Federal Republic Of Yugoslavia, which was part of the Eastern Bloc; after 1992, you spent time in The Federal Republic Of Yugoslavia after the fall of the Soviet Union, grew up in Serbia and Montenegro, and now live in a Serbia whose territories continue to change. Your alliances, and the territory of what you call home have been upended again and again. The only Americans who might have a sense of that are Native Americans 200-300 years ago.

*(A little note here – the original version of this post described Yugoslavia as a Soviet state, which I was aptly informed it was not. Tito was a kind of political wizard. For an account of the Balkans, 1804-1999, check out Misha Glenny’s The Balkans. Many thanks to Kristina Koprivcek at the Akademija Umetnosti in Novi Sad for this correction.)

Sonya says, “I like it better when we are happy. When we are sharing something and not always spinning in circles with our problems.”

“You feel like this is just spinning in circles?” I ask.

“No, no. I am just – what’s the word – restless. I want to always be doing something, not just talking.”

There is a glow here that I want to protect. I don’t want to preserve it. I want to protect it.

The next day the class is not as good. I’m still a bit sick, half the students are not there, and the half that are, are late. I let our first conversation go on too long, and then there is not time for all of them to talk about what they are working on, which was supposed to be the point. I hope they will stick around for next week’s sessions. I want to spend time with them. I want them to like me. I want to keep just a step or two ahead of them. I want to protect their bright brooding energy together.

I think some part of me knew that the Kafana would be a high point. Because you travel years so you can have those afternoons. Two hours, three hours, new and intimate. Like a date with an entire country. It can’t last. It’s worth it anyway.