Yesterday I biked around the Wannsee, to Potsdam and back to Berlin. Then I went to Isigym, boxed a little and rode my bike to Centrala just as the bar was beginning to get crowded. I pulled up on my bike in lederhosen shorts, blue Serbia jersey and black wraparound shades – my usual summer attire.
Szilvia stood behind the bar. She is a nice Hungarian girl with a pretty little face. I’d rather not get involved, though, as she has a Russian boyfriend who sometimes shows up at the bar and is something like Berlin champion in taekwondo in his class. Szilvia gave me a beer. I lit a Drina from Zoran’s shop.
Luli slapped me on the back.
“Have a Drina,” I said.
“I see you are fast on your way to becoming a full-fledged Serbian nationalist,” said Luli.
“What now?” I said. “Because of a pack of Drinas?”
“I mean in general,“ said Luli. “You are driving my customers away with your political diatribes and anti-NATO rhetoric. Joe Jackson came to the bar and left after five minutes of talking with you. It was your fault; you were ranting some shit to him about NATO.“
“Bollocks,” I said. “Joe Jackson has the same opinion as I do. Besides, everyone hates NATO.”
I took out my pack of Drinas. Bad cigarettes, but nice package design. I slapped down the Drinas on the bar.
“Present for you, Luli” I joked.
Never mind that Luli didn’t smoke. The fact of the matter was that Luli hated everything Serbian. We had once traveled to Kosovo together, and after buying snacks in a local bakal in Prishtina, he insisted on inspecting the barcode on the chips and soda pop. He could tell just by the bar code if the product was made in Serbia. Seeing as the products were, indeed, made in Serbia, he then went off on one of his famous diatribes about only buying Albanian.
Another time, in Berlin, at Centrala, he confiscated my bottle of Serbian Knez Miloš mineral water I had bought at Zoran’s Serbian minimarket. He had even tried to prevent me from entering the bar with my Serbia jersey. But in the end he realised he couldn’t really keep me out, so he just simmered in hate, standing behind the bar in his lame hipster T-shirt and wild, unkempt hair.
“Hey all you faggots,” came a voice from behind us. It was Bardhi. He was one of Luli’s Albanian cohorts who sometimes hung around Centrala.
“Peder yourself,” said Luli.
“What the fuck is up with the jersey?” said Bardhi, pointing at me.
“Serbia soon to be Greater Albania,” said Luli.
“Why do we allow him to wear it?”
“Because we are the winners,” sighed Luli. “We let the Serbs do what they want. They say they are the wolves, but we are the bears that eat the wolves.”
But Bardhi was still not placated. He just stood there, scowling.
“Look,” I said, “if you gave me a cool looking T-shirt that had an Albanian eagle on it, I would wear it.”
“I have a T-shirt with an Albanian eagle,” said Bardhi. “I’ll give it to you.”
“I’ll wear it,” I said.
“Would you?” said Bardhi sceptically.
“Of course. I’ll wear it under my Serbia jersey. I’ll say, ‘You have a problem with that? Look at this !” I pulled up my jersey.
“This is not correct,” said Bardhi. “If you have it under Serbia that means that Serbia owns Kosovo. This is of course bullshit.”
“No, it means Kosovo is near to his heart,” put in Szilvia.
Szilvia took the Drinas and threw them behind the bar. She figured I really wanted to give Luli the Drinas. Then she lit one of the Drinas and took a tentative drag.
“How can you smoke these things?” she coughed.
“Give me my Drinas,” I said.
Anton, the Romanian queer stood at the bar.
“The Drina is a river between Serbia and Bosnia,” I explained to Anton. “It is also the name of Robert de Niro’s daughter. Not to mention a brand of cigarettes. What’s the connection? In the seventies de Niro drove through Serbia en route to Istanbul. His car broke down in the Serbian countryside and he spent two weeks with Serbs in a village in the Šumadija drinking rakija and eating rostilje. Serbia made such a big impression on him that back in the States some years later he had a daughter and named her Drina. Drina de Niro. You have to admit, it has a ring to it.”
I lit a Drina and tried to explain my love of Serbia and Belgrade to Anton. Sometimes it was the small things.
“Take the graffiti. The graffiti in Berlin is appalling. It’s meaningless. There hasn’t been any good graffiti in Berlin since the squatter movement in the beginning of the eighties. The graffiti in Belgrade is all political: Fuck NATO. Fuck the EU. That sort of thing. I wish Berlin had more of this kind of graffiti.”
Suddenly I got it in my head to remedy this sad state of affairs. I took out a marker pen and proceeded to the loo. “Evropa fick dich,” I scrawled on the mirror above the sink. “Fick dich schwules Deutschland. Balkanizacija statt Globalizacija.”
Back at the bar, I still hadn’t gotten it off my chest. I said to Bardhi, “The thing is, you can understand why the Serbs say Kosovo is theirs, can’t you? For the Serbs, giving up Kosovo is like them consenting to have an arm cut off. Only for them, it’s not the arm, it’s the heart.”
“The Serbs just have to face up to reality and get over Kosovo,” said Bardhi. “But it’s very hard for them. Everything in Serbia conspires to instill nationalism in their heads.”
“Look,” I said. “Albanians meet all the time with Serbs. Here for example. In Centrala.”
I gestured around the bar. There weren’t any other Albanians there that night. But there was Sasha, the Serb, drinking with Nino, the Bosnian, while Anton, the Romanian was chatting with Szilvia the Hungarian. Elsewhere in the bar some Israelis were talking with a party of Arabs. Back in their own countries all these people would be at each other’s throats.
“It takes Berlin to bring about these meetings,” I said. “Have a look at this place.”
“All these meetings are superficial and the rapport that takes place here is not genuine,” said Bardhi. “The danger is you begin to think that everything is okay. You become apathetic. You forget about Kosovo. You forget about your nationalist identity.”
“Maybe it’s a good thing if you forget about your nationalist identity,” I said.
“But I want my identity,” said Bardhi.
We ordered more beers. The bar was now full. Luli put on some Gypsy music. I turned up the volume. Then the neighbor from above the bar showed up and threatened to call the cops for the umpteenth time.
“I don’t know what his problem is. He’s a Bosniak,” said Luli, suggesting that he should be cool with Luli, the Albanian – coreligionist and brother in arms.
“How do you know he’s Bosniak?” I said.
“His name is Elvis,” said Luli.
“Elvis, Tarzan, Rambo…” I said. “These crazy Balkan Gypsy names.”
“There was one gypsy girl in Kosovo who was given the name Madelaine Albright during the war,” said Bardhi. “Albright heard about this and decided to give the girl a scholarship.”
“The whore,” I said.
We ate pumpkin seeds. I ate them shell and all. This was before I got properly balkanized. Or Turkified -take your pick. Bardhi said this was very bad for the stomach; the shells didn’t digest and collected in the intestines. Bardhi showed me how to eat the pumpkin seeds, cracking them open gently in the teeth and lifting the seed out of the shell with the teeth.
We cracked open the seeds and threw the shells on the floor, drank beer, talked and smoked Drinas. They looked good laying on the bar, but God help me, they were awful cigarettes.