I had only intended to make one trip to the Balkans, but so many questions had cropped up on that first journey that it was a torment to leave them unanswered. And so I made further trips to the Balkans every year, sometimes twice a year, by foot, by bike, by bus, and by train, from Serbia to Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, and Bulgaria and ultimately to Istanbul –  to try to get to the bottom of things. I discovered a new side of Europe – an untamed Europe, a Europe of “the wild”. I also discovered Balkan Gypsy music, for music played a leading part in all of my journeys; it came from bus radios, farmhouse verandas, Balkan kafanas, and nightclubs, wedding bands, religious processions, and solitary buskers.

In the hot summers in ex-Yugoslavia I  walked the dusty roads under towering white clouds and watched wily-eyed Gypsies on horse-drawn wagons come suddenly from out behind dilapidated shacks as beat as a hovel in Rajasthan, their limbs lithe and brown, talking animatedly with full arm gestures, unable to keep still, poised to break into song. I saw spontaneous sessions in rural stations and heard the Gypsy zurna and pom-pom of the davul under the hot sun in some fly-blown town under high Balkan mountains. I tasted aromatic plum rakija in one-horse-town kafanas where country boys loudly hailed passers-by, talking loud as was the custom of country people who had to shout to be heard from field to field. In the Muslim outbacks of the Sandžak, Kosovo and Macedonia I stumbled into dusty towns smelling of grilled ćevapčići and freshly baked burek where the sound of the muezzin mingled with half-Oriental folk music and men in romantical headgear smiled under the heat. I slept under tottering haystacks, among grazing sheep and cows, heard the tinkle of the sheep bells in the evening when isolated sounds of singing carried long distances and everything was big and full-gestured and full-spirited and not cowered, cramped and neurotic like life in the cities of the north. I met Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks, Albanians, Turks in their respective villages, slept in their barns, ate of their funeral meats, partook in their breakfast spreads before they headed out to the fields to reap. I drank their rakija, visited their dark monastery churches and mosques, pondered their eerie cemeteries.  I met the inhabitants of the Balkans under huge skies which tilted away from Berlin and Vienna to Istanbul (I suddenly felt the pull of a new magnetic force on the Bosporus).

And then coming back to Berlin I discovered that the city was a different place than I had known before I left for the Balkans, as all of my old friends had left the city and were replaced by new friends from the Balkans mostly. Old Gastarbeiter (guest-workers), war refugees,  draft-dodgers, artists, DJs and DJanes and petty small caliber criminals. I went to Bosnian and Albanian restaurants, discotheques and bars  looking  for the people I knew in the Balkans. I discovered that the city was full of ex-Yugos and I fell into their sub-cultures and parallel worlds, went to their parties and vernisages, drank with them,  danced with them, loved with them, became implicated in their schemes and scams.

Back in Berlin and seeking a taste of the food and the music of the Balkans, I ended up in Berlin’s immigrant quarters like Neukölln and Wedding, frequented immigrant music shops, patronized Albanian cafes 

and somehow I ended up at Zoran’s, a Balkan specialty shop in Neukölln that offered a dusty array of Serbian and Bosnian evergreens, homemade slivovitz smuggled from Serbia, bad Macedonian wine, imported mineral water, and spicy Serbian sausage studded with fat, just like what I had tasted in the Šumadija.

I eventually got to know Zoran, the diminutive Serbian owner with a penchant for colorful polo shirts and gold chains with conspicuous crosses, who would invite me to the back room for shots of slivovitz. Periodically, Serbian Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, from the neighborhood would stop by for a drink and chat. Talk revolved around sex and politics. No one could understand my interest in Serbia, and Zoran’s customers assumed, as had many people in Serbia, that I was a spy for the CIA. They would come in and see me and say, “Aha, the špion is here.”

Zoran: I come from a Yugo Gastarbeiter family. I was born in the town of Vrnjačka Banja in the Šumadija, where I worked my father’s fields as a child. In 1970, I came to Berlin with my mother and was employed for a time by Gillette, manufacturing razor blades. In the mid-’80s I opened up this shop on Flughafenstrasse. Those were the good old days: the Wall was still up, the Deutsche mark was going strong, and people had money to burn.

Today most of my clientele, aging Gastarbeiter like myself, are on the dole and only have money at the end of the month, when their unemployment checks come in. I had to fire two employees, and I’ve seen how this neighborhood, the Flughafenkiez, has changed – in my opinion for the worse, as the old Germans are pushed out and more and more Turks and Arabs move in. They turned the old Lutheran church across the way into a mosque and are taking over neighboring shops, putting pressure on me to move.

Five times they destroyed my sign advertising Balkan Spezialitäten and  dumped garbage at my front door. I am convinced that the mosque across the street wants to take over my shop and sell helal goods instead of slivovitz and pork rinds.

Sometimes Zoran could be seen standing in front of his shop, grinding a constant grist of curses through his teeth, calling down indemnity on the Muslims. Or else he could be seen behind his meat counter, massaging the belly of a stuffed puppy dog, muttering some kind of incantation. 

Zoran: When I go to Serbia I visit a very famous fortune-teller who can cure everything from alcoholism to cancer. She once gave me this toy dog. The dog was the protector of all Christians, she said – and she instructed me to rub the dog’s belly and pray once a day against the witches who were out to destroy me. Neukölln is full of witches: black magic witches, voodoo witches…but of all the witches, the Muslim witches are the worst. That’s why I have crosses everywhere and garlic hanging over the doors.

I’m a tolerant guy. I sell not only Serbian but also Croatian and Bosnian music. I don’t care if a singer was a Serb or a Muslim. And to be sure, I have a varied clientele. Now and then I’ll have Muslims, like this young Bosniak who asked if I cut the beef with the same knife he cut the pork. I said I washed the knife every time he used it, but the Bosniak didn’t take the beef in the end. Another time I had a Bosniak come into my shop who wanted some čvarci, or pork rinds – only he wanted it packed well enough so that his Muslim neighbors couldn’t see it.

One thing I will say is that Muslims steal the most. They’ll come in three at a time. They‘ll say, here, play this, play that, Zoki. When I have my back turned, one guy‘d reach under the counter to steal a CD. Sometimes I catch them red-handed. I pick up the telephone and say, I’m calling the cops if you don’t return the CD. And they‘d say, all right, here you are, Zoki, no hard feelings, and they‘d give it back. 

If it wasn‘t the Muslims, then it was the Gypsies.

Zoran: One Gypsy woman came in here with a baby in her arms. While I had my back turned, she took a CD and stuck it under her baby. I said, “Come, give the CD back.” She said, “What CD?” I took the CD out from under her little brat and I beat her over the head with it. “Verschwinde!” I said. “Get lost!”

The Turks, too, are a problem. When you’re out on Flughafenstrasse, you have to watch your step. When they are alone, they’re nothing. But when there are four, five of them they gang up on you. Deport them at all. That’s what I say. An airplane without seats. Standing. Then once over the Adriatic, open the doors and drop them all in the sea. Gone! No more kanaken!

I tell Zoran I can’t understand why the Germans dislike the Turks. If it weren’t for the Turks, the Germans would have only curry sausage and French fries (Pommes) – and even that wasn’t German. Zoran ought to like the Turks, I told him: his people had five hundred years of experience with them.

Zoran: We thought we got rid of them from Serbia and then we come to Germany and we’re surrounded by them here. But I’ll tell you, I don’t really dislike the Turks, Arabs, blacks. But I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have the cross.

I wanted to put in a good word for Muslims, so I told Zoran that he should try reading the Qur’an. Christians and Muslims believed in many of the same things, after all, I said.

Zoran: God should strike me stone-dead if I ever open the Qur’an. I have my religion. A joke: a Catholic priest, an Orthodox priest, and a playboy are standing before the gates of heaven. ‘So tell us,’ says Saint Peter, ‘what have you been doing with your thing?’ The Catholic priest says, ‘One hundred percent only pissing.’ ‘Okay, stand aside,’ says Saint Peter. ‘And you,’ he says to the Orthodox priest, ‘in your life, what have you been doing with your thing?’ The Orthodox priest says, ‘Fifty percent screwing, fifty percent pissing.’ ‘Okay,’ says Saint Peter, ‘stand aside.’ Finally, Saint Peter asks the playboy, ‘And you, what have you been doing with your thing?’ The playboy says, ‘Ninety percent only screwing.’ And the gates of heaven swing open. ‘Welcome,’ says Saint Peter, ‘this isn’t a pissoire.’

Zoran is the only gay Serb I know. He lives with a retired German cop, who sometimes performs cabaret dressed in women’s clothing. 

Zoran: Sometimes when I was young I would go to these bars. That was in the 70s. I’d  stand there and ring the bell, and they’d ask me, “What do you want, knirpse?” Twerp. And I’d say, “Who are you calling knirpse? I’m twenty years old.” I’d stick my ID up to the peephole, and they’d have to  let me in and I’d go sit down at the bar. I would introduce myself as Charly and demand that the queers buy me drinks. “Thanks,” I would say. And then I’d leave. I was a delightful, dapper little looker at the time, prowling the streets of West Berlin.

Then one day I met a Dutch man at the bar. He was this tall man, Iwas this knirpse. And the Dutch man, he said to me, “where are you from?” I  said he was from Yugoslavia, and the Dutch man said, “Yugoslavia! You are just the person I am looking for.“ He said he had a factory in Rotterdam where he employed around seventy Yugos. Icould come and work for him. I needn’t worry I’d have to work the assembly line; he would give me a cush office job.  No, I said. Icouldn’t do it. I had a mother here in Berlin and I couldn’t just leave her in the lurch like that. “You can take your mother with you,” the man said. “I‘ll give her a job as well.” “No thanks,” I said. I would stay in Berlin. 

Then, some time passed and I got a telephone call. It was someonefrom Holland. The Dutch man who had befriended me had passed away. There was a will, and I  was in it. But I said wasn’t interested. Who was this person to me? I had only met him once in my life. Goodbye. It was the greatest mistake of my life. Who knows, I could be millionaire now.

I stop by Zoran’s Gastarbeiter oasis with Luli, an Albanian friend of mine. Luli comes from Kosovo, and although he knows the language, he refuses to speak Serbian with Zoran out of nationalist spite. He merely asks Zoran some curt questions in English about the shop, casting a critical eye at the posters of big-titted turbo-folk stars, the icons, the folklore titles. Later, Luli asks me, “Who is this guy? How does he live? Selling those cassettes? That’s worse than the Balkans.”

When I see Zoran again, he says, “That Albanian Šiptar you brought in here – I would really like to know what he was thinking. He looked at everything in my shop, my cassettes, the pictures on the walls, frowning because everything is Serbian. Sometimes I think I ought to have a Serbian flag in my shop just so that people know right from the start, ovde je Srbija.” Here is Serbia.

We talk about vacations. In the course of his life Zoran traveled widely. In his opinion, Thailand was the best.

Zoran: You wouldn’t believe it. Sex, sex, sex. Bars, nightclubs, dancehalls! The women! The boys! I went with my mother for the first time. She just sat in front of the television in her hotel room, but I had to go outside and see the life. I went to a whorehouse. Before that, I got a haircut. Not only did they cut my hair, but they took care of my whole body as well. Over there, they do things correctly. One girl takes care of my head, the other girl takes care of my hand, another girl takes care of my other hand, and another girl takes care of my right foot, another on the left foot. And then I went to the whorehouse, and the girls there were swarming around me. They said, ‘What is your name, little man?’ I told them my name was Kurac, which means ‘dick’ in Serbian. They said, ‘Kurac, Kurac, we like you so much!’

Still, as much as he loves Thailand, nothing compared to Serbia. Zoran asked me if I have ever been to a Serbian wedding. 

Zoran: Oh, a Serbian wedding is something to experience. Three days of celebration. On the third day, the bride and groom go screw. That was always a great source of fascination for us as children. We used to sneak up to the window and try to get a peek inside.

I told Zoran that I have only been to a Serbian funeral.

Zoran: When someone dies in Serbia, it’s the worst. You can’t listen to music for a year. You have to dress in black. The day after the funeral, you are supposed to light a candle. You are supposed to visit the cemetery every Saturday for a year to have a picnic on the grave of the deceased, but it was banned because of the rats. When my mother dies, I won’t do all that. I’ve told my mother: When she dies, I won’t dress in black. I’ll still keep listening to my music.

Zoran had a girl who sometimes helped out with the shop. Her name was Claudia, half Serb, half Croat, born in Germany. She had looks to match the posters of turbo-folk stars on the walls. 

Zoran: Often Claudia and I would go out together in the evening. Not that we had a relationship or anything, because, after all, I am gay – or as I prefer to put it, ‘andersrum’, (the other way round). AndClaudia was bi, but mostly  liked men. We‘d go some place and I‘dpoint out a man. “No,” she’d say. “He’s not my type. He’s not macho enough.” Claudia liked macho men. You should marry Claudia, but she has so many boyfriends.

One day Claudia disappeared. No one knows where she went. I had no idea. Neither did Claudia’s parents in west Germany, who come to Berlin and had the police break down her door. They found no traces. I began to think that Claudia had been murdered. Weeks went by and one day I ran into Claudia om Karl Marx Strasse. She had lost her job, was in a desperate situation and had tried to kill herself by slitting her wrists, but had failed because she cut her vein the wrong way, slitting her wrist horizontally instead of vertically. I was so upset. Why didn’t she talk to me first about her problems?

One of the Yugos who hung out at Zoran’s was RokoRoko would come in to see Caludia sometimes. He was one of Claudia’s admirers. Sometimes, after Zoran pulled down the shutters of his shop at eight, Zoran, Roko and Claudia would go out nights, drink together and play darts till five in the morning.

Roko was a Croatian from Split and something in between the old Gastarbeiter of Neukölln and the new generation of Yugo hipsters and artists who fled the war in the 90s. Roko came to Berlin with the second wave of immigrants from the Balkans, in 1994 when the  war was going on down there.  He had an aunt who cleaned offices and danced in a Croatian folklore group on the weekend. She lived in a flat on Weserstrasse, so when Roko came to Berlin fourteen years ago it was at this Neukölln aunt he ended up. “Immediately in Neukölln. Beng. Right into the cauldron,” said Roko.

Roko was in his mid-forties when I got to know him: black hair, sideburns, hatchet-faced, sharp features, rings on his fingers, he looked a bit like some old chain smoking, slivovitz drinking rock & rolling Elvis fan, fallen on hard times. 

Croatians, when they came to Berlin, either went into construction or they become waiters and bartenders. Roko went from one bartending job in Neukölln to the other. I guess his steadiest job was at Louis, a German restaurant in Rixdorf, whose claim to fame is that they had the biggest schnitzel in Berlin.

Roko liked Berlin but he resisted it. He felt that as much as he liked Berlin – and that was the problem: he liked it too much – Berlin would be the end of him. Berlin took even the hardiest Balkan Man and softened him, made him into a some kind of weak bohemian. It took a real shark like Sasha to resist it. Or it took constant forays out of Berlin.

Roko: Ah, it was interesting in Neukölln in the beginning! Now it’s been thirty years. There was a different crowd back then. Mostly it was old German barflies. You could drink ohne Ende, but there was no real impulse. There weren’t a lot of young people. Just workers. No artists. Just a small scene back then. A jukebox and beer. Just like that. And if you wanted to go anywhere you had to go to Kreuzberg, where the scene was.  

Mostly it was at Zoran’s I saw Roko. 

Roko: The guy who married my aunt knew Zoran for a long time. They worked together at Gillette.  And then he started this Balkan grocery shop. And since then I visit him on a regular basis. Cool guy. In essence he is an old DJ, with the most amazing collection of evergreens. Not fast, opa-opa-opa music, but sevdah, you know what I mean?

Roko listened to the stuff Zoran sold in his shop: old Yugo schlager and narodna folk music. At the same time he liked what the German kids were listening to in Neukölln. When he wasn’t singing along to Šaban Šaulić in Zoran’s you could see him at Fuchs and Elster, grooving with students to electro-swing and klezmer.

Roko was quick to jump on the new action in Neukölln, mixing it up with the kids in the new cellar clubs. He was always a fixture at various Neukölln bars and clubs, back when Karmanoia was around. And then later at Fuchs und Elster. Sandmann. And then after that Kuschlowski.  He was the first one to introduce me to Rroma Café, the Gypsy café on Boddinstrasse, 

Roko became something like Mr. Neukölln for me. And he was always helping people get started, helping with ideas, telling about this empty shop front that was still available. This new bar that had just opened up. He was full of ideas and tips.

Roko: I keep a book. I call it my Ideas Book. All my ideas go into there. When I take a look at it I can see that only a small percentage of these things ever get realized. Maybe it will be something for my children. They can read it and do something with it.

Roko spoke about Zoran. He knew that Zoran was getting old, and Zoran, he knew wanted to pass on the shop to someone else, someone who would carry on the tradition of selling Serbian folk music, smoked sausage and slivovitz. And Zoran had hinted on more than one occasion that he wouldn’t mind if Roko took over the shop.

Roko: I had my ideas for the place. I wanted Zoran to turn it into something else, a Treffpunkt, a place to drink. A place for the kids of Neukölln, not just the old alcoholic Harz IV, Yugo Gastarbeiter. I said that people in Berlin needed places to go at night. When you went out to a bar at night and you hung out with one hundred gut gelaunte people it gave you energy.  It’s body contact. Not in a sexual way. But just body contact. Then you went home and you felt good and it gave you power for your work.

Anyway, we just needed to throw up some paint, get hold of some cheap furniture. The only thing we had to  spend some money on was the sound system. We would have to have top quality sound.

Why, I keep asking myself, did I not get involved and make something for myself? The whole time I was helping other people and giving other people tips. I was the one with the nose. Why didn’t I finally do something for myself? But Zoran was reluctant. He was suspicious of crowds of kids and hipsters. What did he want with a bunch of young people hanging around drinking? And problems with the Ordnungsamt to boot. And so nothing came of the idea.

Then Roko dropped out of sight for a while. I bumped into him one day on Hermannstrasse. He was waiting for his laundry and decided to pop across the street to visit his mother in law in the cemetery.  He was missing a few front teeth and his arm was all scuffed up as though he had had a rough night in the bars of Neukölln and had woken up in the gutter. 

“Can’t work on the construction sites anymore,” said Roko. “Too old. Bum leg. And I’m fed up with gastronomy.He had fallen on hard times, he explained after he had cadged a drink from me. Like many Yugos in Neukölln he had fallen into a hole he couldn’t get out of. He had lost his job, lost his apartment, lost his Croatian passport, was in schufer.  I stood him another drink and wished him good luck.

A bit later I heard from Zoran that the owner of a new bar on Weserstrasse had given him a job tending bar. It was a Chinese tapas bar called Suzy Wong. Roko lasted all of a month there. The Chinese theme didn’t work apparently. No one came. The bartender claimed that Roko was drinking too much. Roko was fired. The bar changed it’s concept to Spanish and altered its décor.  But Roko still hung out there. He wasn’t depressed. He knew that he would soon have his day. He had his ideas.

Roko: It’s like a boomerang. I throw it out. It spins around, around, around and eventually it comes back to me. That’s like my ideas. Sometimes I threw the boomerang too far out. Right now I’m still waiting.

It was a warm April afternoon at Zoran’s and the door was open. Serbian folk music was playing and Zoran had visitors. I said hello and shook hands all around. There were a couple of guys I recognized. There was Nenad, a Serb from Kosovo; Vojo, a Serb from Vojvodina; and Horst, a German who was married to a Serb.

Nedad laid down a box of lokum on the table under the poster of the blind turbo-folk singer Saša Matić. Nedad was friendly enough, as long as you didn’t rub him the wrong way by saying anything favorable about Albanians.

Nenad was a Serb from a small village just outside of Priština. He didn’t want to leave, but “was kann man tun?” According to the Statistical Office of Kosovo, there are 111,300 Serbs living in Kosovo in 2006, making up five percent of the population, compared to twenty-four percent in 1948. Since the war of 1999, there had been large-scale emigration of Serbs from Kosovo. The more people who left, the harder life became for those who stayed behind. Nenad lost his friends and lived in a half-empty village, suddenly a half-stranger in an unfamiliar country. So more followed, and among them was Nenad. He left his ancestral homeland never to return Ja, mein Freund. Believe it. But the rakija was good.  Forty percent. Straight from the Šumadija. Homemade. You knew it was good when you shook it and there were little bubbles. This stuff would never give you a headache.

Nenad lapped up his rakija and returned to the subject of Kosovo. 

Nenad: Let me ask you: What is the population of Kosovo? Around two million you say? And what was the population before the war? One and a half million. I ask you, where did half a million Albanians come from? From Albania. Albanian soldiers. 

I have left Kosovo for good and I’m not going back even for the holidays. The United Nations mission in Kosovo is in collusion with the Albanians. There’s a deal on. UNMIK and the KLA – the Kosovo Liberation Army – are in it together, and if you are a Serb, UNMIK will stop you at checkpoints and then call the Albanians and let them know that a Serb is coming their way so that they can pop you off. Trust me. I know.

Let’s drink to John F. Kennedy. Not Clinton. Not Bush. What religion are you? Catholic, you say? Do you know the Ten Commandments? The founders of Yugoslavia, before Tito, they made a great mistake. They should have just concentrated on making a Greater Serbia. Instead they formed a confederation of Slavs with the Croats and Bosnians. They figured they were all southern Slavs. Spoke the same language. Were brothers. But they didn’t take religion into consideration – that the Croats pledged their allegiance to the Vatican, that the Serbs pledged their allegiance to the Orthodox Church, and that the Bosnians were with the Turks. They made a great mistake. Religion drove the people apart. Do you know that in Islam there is no commandment against killing? In fact, it is said in the Qu’ran that you must kill to defend your religion.

***

One day without warning, Zoran pulled down the shutters and left without leaving a note. Perhaps he had finally made the move back to Serbia, like he always said he would. A month passed, and by chance I found myself on Flughafenstrasse in front of Zoran’s shop. It was open for business again. Two Yugo regulars were resting their paunches against the fridge full of Atlas beer and imported mineral water, with shots of slivovitz between their fingers. Zoran stood behind the counter in a black polo, also with a thimbleful of the Yugo elixir in his hand. I walked in, and after handshakes and zdravos all around, I asked Zoran to play a new release by a Serbian turbo-folk star. Zoki said “I can’t play any music now, my mother passed away.” I reached across the counter and patted Zoran on his arm. His mother was eighty-eight years old when she died.  Five summers ago, I had visited her. I was supposed to meet up with Zoran in Serbia, but he couldn’t make it, and I ended up sleeping in his bed at his mother’s small house in the Šumadija. She was a sprightly woman who spent her time tending her tomatoes and plums since returning from Germany. 

For three months, she had been in an old-folks home in Vrnjačka Banje. She died of a heart attack on a saint’s day. The priest said her soul would go straight to heaven. 

“She always said she wanted to have a singer at her funeral,” said Zoran. “But somehow I didn’t think that was proper.”

Instead, Zoran had her buried with a cassette player playing Miroslav Ilić – her favorite. The coffin slid into the earth playing “Živela Yugoslavia.” 

“That was how she would have wanted it,” said Zoran.