Beds, Bacon and Bikers: A Night in Zlatibor
On July 3rd, when I finished writing the piece about my strange and interesting trip to Zlatibor, I figured that I’d probably never see it again. Marko had taken me on a tour there, and it was fun, but new and equally exciting trips awaited my next few days at Hostel Republika. Zlatibor would remain a pleasant but distant memory.
All throughout Western Serbia, Marko (aka the Prince of Uzice) is known for his careful and brilliant organization skills, especially when it comes to making sure that all his volunteers have a bed to sleep on. So when twenty-four Serbian schoolteachers stopped in Uzice for a day, we were one bed short, and I was the odd man out. It was then that Marko informed me that I’d be spending the night in Zlatibor. He said that some of his friends had a place. Since Marko is a famous practical joker, I assumed that he was kidding. He was not kidding. When I asked who were the friends, he said that I’d already met them: Peter, Bojan and Nikola. Again, I thought he was kidding. The old ghost cottage? In the middle of a random meadow? With the old Yugoslavian appliances and the sweaty bikers? Yes, yes, that was the one.
And so, after driving out to Zlatibor (mountains, ear pressure, etc…), meeting the bikers on the ski slope, and taking a run on the bobsled ride, we went to the red-roofed cottage on the sloping meadow and walked past the four bouncing chickens, past the Yugo and the woodstack and the Serbian flag, to the cottage with the biking banner hung over the black plaque of the dead Serbian woman. Marko joked that she returned every night to haunt the cottage. “Say hello to her for me,” he said, smiling, but maybe a little worried that I wasn’t kidding when I said all this was going on TripAdvisor.
The main room of the house, the bedroom-kitchen-dining room-living room, looked less peculiar the second time around. The microwave wasn’t “fridge-sized,” as I wrote, and if you saw everything from a real estate-broker’s eyes, it was truthfully kind of cozy. Atop the cabinet there was even a wooden miniature of—what else?—a red-roofed cottage. Lunch was bread, kaymak (a rich, cream cheese-type specialty of the region) and meat. Lots of meat. Salami, soft strips of bacon and prosciutto. Also sheep jerky and some kind of sausage. I couldn’t tell if my hosts, who it must be noted spoke almost zero English, wanted me to eat more and more or were offering me more and more with the expectation that I would show some restraint and stop eating. Hungry, I decided on the former, and was still munching on a piece of sheep jerky when we drove back to the ski resort to work on the biking course.
Or—they worked. I lazed. There were only four tools, and I had no idea what the guys were doing, so I lay down in some wildgrass and stared up at the slightly swaying pine trees. It was sunny, and the stripped tree-trunks made endless gold pillars in the dense woods. The ski lift was out of commission, and the wide black chairs were silent and silhouetted against the blue sky. It was very peaceful. Suddenly I was glad that Marko had exiled me to Zlatibor.
Eventually I got off my ass and went to help, though “help” is maybe not the right word. The guys worked in three groups. At the base of the path, Sergio smoothened out the dirt with a rake. Bojan and Nikola carried fallen tree trunks to make a boundary and, with my mild help, secured them with rocks. During a break me and Bojan, who seemed like the group prankster, lobbed rocks at the ski lift chairs, trying to get them to stay. Meanwhile, Peter had turned a shovel sideways and was hacking at the ground with incredible strength, clearing out rocks and turning up new soil to be packed into the boundaries. He seemed to be splitting the rocks in half. Five minutes of repeated vigorous motion without a break, sometimes ten or fifteen minutes. And all of this from someone who four weeks ago had fallen off his mountain bike, broken several bones and now had metal in his arm.
The light on the tree trunks changed from gold to pinkish to purplish to brown to gray to black, and by then it was time to go. We trekked down the mountain with our smartphones as flashlights. Back at the cottage, it was too dark to see the sloping meadows, but you could still hear the clucking chickens and now also a phlegmy pig. Peter began to organize everything for dinner. He plugged in the stove, put on the water, which we had taken from a nearby spring, and brought out the soup packets and meat. The others sat around and followed Peter’s orders to stir the soup or carry something into the yard. Peter was the oldest of the group, and the most physically imposing (his forearms were larger than my biceps), and clearly the leader. To be honest, I was a little scared of him. As we sat down for soup and more kaymak and meat, someone called him the mother of the house, and he added, in Italian I think, that he was also the father and everything else, completo.
During dinner it occurred to me that my presence in the house was less strange than the group’s presence in Zlatibor. They were all from Novi Sad, a big city five hours to the north, and they were down in rural Zlatibor for only the month, to prepare the biking course and then compete in the race. Their suitcases were open on the floor: they were also travelers. They woke up early and practiced on the trails that they fixed up in the afternoon. First and foremost, they were serious athletes, and they didn’t mind if they had to pack into an old cottage with no drinking water to make it happen. I admired their devotion, and though I still couldn’t understand what they said, they no longer felt so distant. Their words were unknowable but their voices made sense: Peter’s gruff but benevolently parental voice, Bojan’s giggling, Nikola’s brainy seriousness (he was the photographer), Sergio’s quiet attentiveness (he was in town for just a few days). For a moment only the radio, playing “Hey Ya” and “Rolling in the Deep,” seemed out of place.
Afterward, Peter and Bojan ate chocolate nogut right out of the carton with spoons. Then Bojan and I played a kids’ boardgame. Peter did dishes. A moth zigzagged around the bare lightbulb attached to the ceiling by a string (on which a bug did a tightrope walk). Bojan and Nikola went outside to take pictures of the bike for the promotional website. Sergio put on a headlamp and went for a night ride. After a few minutes, I also went outside and looked up at the sky..
My god! Stars! There was the Big Dipper. There was Orion’s Belt—or what I think was Orion’s Belt. And then, over the shed with the bikes and hanging laundry, the moon! Burning a whole in the sky. Making blue its region of night. Almost full, waning, with a side sawed off and smoothened, but so bright.
Peter came outside and my presence in the dark startled him. He went to hang clothes on the line by the shed, working intensely, and I remembered that Marko told me he’d been afraid I’d be bored at the cottage. After finishing with the clothes, he walked over and joined me in looking up at the sky. I explained to him that stars were something I missed in New York, and at the last moment I remembered the Italian word for stars: “Stella.” He asked what I thought of Serbia and I said that the people were very friendly. I thanked him for his hospitality and he said, “Nothing, nothing.” Then we saw a shooting star. I have never seen a shooting star but there it was. I knew it. We sort of looked at each other. The shooting star was red and arcing. Bojan and Nikola came to the gate door with their bike and camera and Peter asked if they saw that thing in the sky. They hadn’t. But we had.