Why does a journalist from Vienna write about the Balkans and the people that live there in his spare time? An attempt to explain.

The Balkans. To me, that’s the region a lot of my friends come from, mostly from Ex-Yugoslavia. Where life has taken me on Occasion. On planned trips and spontaneous ones, private and semi-professional. It is quite a few intense, contradictory emotions and memories I associate with the countries of former Yugoslavia and the people that live there.

It Started With The Neighbors

It probably started with the Gergar Family. They were Slovenians living two floors down from our place in Linz where I spent part of my childhood. The invited us on a vacation to their Homeland. The village is called Dolenči, located somewehere between Murska Sobota and the border. Back then, in the mid 80’s, this was still Yugoslavia. Those were my first trips abroad. I don’t come from a rich family.

Fatima and Safet, Ajiša and Riso, those were two elderly couples who had fled the civil war in Bosnia to safety in Austria. They taught me the first couple of words. I also used to babysit the new born daughter of a family of Croatian refugees. I only recall the father’s name, Marko.

Milan from Bosnia used to run my first regular place in Vienna, an Irish Pub, no less. Unfortunately he passed on last year. Jelena, his Croatian girlfriend has been a waitress there before becoming a hearing aid specialist. She fixed up Majda’s hearing aid and taught me a bit of the lingo.

Dule from Beograd worked there as a waiter too, to finance his university classes. He’s now got a degree in Mathematics. Occasionally we made Djuveč for one another. His was better. A bit of practice has helped me improve my recipe. At least I hope so.

Majda from Sarajevo isn’t just an outstanding photographer and artist. She is also and foremost by best friend. We’ve known each other for almost ten years now. We met through other regulars at Milan’s place. I visit her regularly.

Through Majda I’ve met Dijana and Amir. They have become close friends. Each time I’m in Bosnia they try to make sure I get to see more of their homeland than „just“ Sarajevo.

Selma I’ve met on my own. I’ve only met three people who have mastered a foreign language as well she has English without actually having grown up or at least having spent one’s teenage years in the country the respective language is spoken at. The other two are Kati and Sabrina, both from Serbia. If you hear them speak German you couldn’t tell it’s not their native language.

Ana from Zagreb became a close friend when she was investigating how government finances the Catholic Church in Croatia. Together with my friend Carsten Frerk, the foremost expert on the subject in Germany and Austria, I had co-authored a book on the Situation in Austria.

Contradictions Wherever You Look

To me, the Balkans is also the region where I have experienced a great degree of spontaneity, of hospitaly, a lust of live, poverty, decay, reconstruction, democratisation, corruption, hope, despair, and anger. Any which way you look at it, it’s a region full of contradictions.

It’s where a lot of money goes the (re)construction of places of worship, leaving little for roads and water supply, not to mention rail systems. Culture and science have to wait for the left overs.

It’s the place where writers like Meša Selimović and Ivo Andrić where born and that inspired their extraordinary works and where still happened what Miljenko Jergović wrote about. (That paradox Austrians and Germans are just all too familiar with.)

It’s where, in the same city, perfect strangers whose regular place you just walked into invite you and you give a guided tour and just a day later you witness how people are chased away with stones just like stray dogs.

It’s where water can get turned off over night, like in Sarajevo, and where there are cafes that charge more for instant coffee than for real one.

It’s where Hungarian border police keep Serbian coaches for hours, almost as if for fun, are rude to everyone unlucky enough to have a blue passport and can hardly keep themselves from saluting to everyone with an EU-passport and without a slavic name.

Where My Neighbors Are From

The Balkans, that’s also the part of the world where a lot of my immediate neighbors are from. Workers mostly, with different levels of skill and qualification, sometimes in retirement. People who work hard and look it and still get called lazy by more racist minded Austrians.

The area where I live is called Ottakring. It’s Vienna’s 16th district. There are a lof people here who themselves or whose parents have been born in former Yugoslavia.

Murat from Novi Pazar in Serbia owns the cafe right next to my place. Ljubinka, that waitress who usually works the night shift, is Vlach. Aleksandra, the morning waitress, is Romanian and speaks quite good Naški.

My general practicioner is from Sarajevo. She’s one of those old no nonsense physicians. If you caught the flu she’ll tell you to rest for a couple of days rather than preemptively and unnecessarily perscribing antibiotics. She takes her to time to talk to patients and wastes no thoughts on alternative „medicine“.

Slavica runs my other regular place. She was born in Serbia. Mostly I come to her place after having eaten at Saša’s with a dear friend. It’s a great and cheap restaurant. A pljeskavica or a small portion of ćevape costs 3,90, including kupus and bread.

The Scents, The Food…

The Balkans also is a region I strongly associate with sensual sensations. Whenever I go to Sarajevo I start smelling uštipci on the bus ride already. I gotta eat them the first day I get there. It was Ajiša und Fatima who made them for me the first time in my life. The probably best ones I got from Dijana who fried them for me one morning. She doesn’t cook a lot otherwise.

And that riblja čorba at that small restaurant close to the Danube in Novi Sad. It was New Year’s Day 2007, that much I remember. It was then that I learned how good soup can be. One bowl cost 150 Dinars, 1,50 Euros back then. It would have kept you fed all day long.

The strongest of these memories is the probably best palačinke I’ve ever tasted, 30 years ago, in that rural area of Yugoslavia close to the Hungarian border, in today’s Slovenia. They were golden, giant and filled with jam, chocolade, poppy seeds. I’ve never eaten any that good ever since.

Perhaps my fascination for the Balkans is just the hope to eat those perfect palačinke one more time and everything else is just a feeble attempt to rationalize this deep seated desire. There could be worse reasons.

Photo by Majda Turkić, taken at Galerija Boris Smoje in Sarajevo.

This entry was a bit inspired by Rayna Breuer. She runs the blog balkanperspectives.com where she publishes her reports from the region she wrote for German media. This is a translation of the German original published a couple of days ago.