We are heading to a cocktail party in Strahinjica Bana, a well-known entertainment street that houses all the popular, hip and ostentatious Belgrade establishments. There, it’s common to encounter a fine balance between the real and the fake, the scum and the glam, and I find it both endearing and tragic because I’ve always remembered it that way.
Ivke, who is hosting the party, is an old friend of mine whom I haven’t seen in quite a while. Nik, a mutual friend, is filling me on the dailies on the way there, as they’ve spent time together more consistently throughout the years, though, he admits, less and less frequently lately.
From the sounds of it, Ivke has changed a lot. He’s with the in crowd now: fancy clubs, VIP booths, champagne, models, big client accounts, shiny cars, “and all that high society”.
I am suddenly wistful for our nights spent sitting on sidewalks, sharing a bag of peanuts, talking about nothing important and everything meaningful, scoping out alternative galleries for the wine and crackers, and endless afternoons lazing on his uncle’s rickety splav* on the Sava river. (*the rafts are timeless Belgrade institutions that are scattered along both banks – the Old and the New Belgrade – converted into restaurants, clubs, and bars).
I don’t even know where the party is held, but given the address, I assume it’s in one of the fancy, expensive lounge bars in the ‘Silicon Valley’ (what the street is affectionately known as due to the prevalent plastic surgery trend). I cringe a bit at the thought of the crowd that will convene here tonight. And how far we’ve come since the ramshackle raft.
But, to my surprise, we enter an apartment building instead. Now I am thinking that we are heading to one of of the apart-bars, which were very popular during the 90s and early 00s here.
People modified their own apartments to function as bars, serving drinks, music and privacy. They were not illegal, but they weren’t exactly licensed either. I always liked to think of it as wartime- and post-war-sanctions anarchy. No ordinary bar could come even close to achieving a cozy vibe that was guaranteed there. Some of my favourite nights were spent in those establishments. The odd few still exist, though they are being weeded out.
The apartment building looks vaguely familiar, but I can’t pin-point it. Climbing the last flight of stairs to the 3rd floor I see ahead of me a green door with a yellow knob, and a flash of familiarity bursts through dated recollections. This was Ivke’s aunt’s apartment, and I’ve been here only once. No, she didn’t own a bar of her own.
As soon as the door opens, all the just-formulated opinions about him and his changed personality promptly dissipate when I see him slightly disheveled, smiling, barefoot, with a stained kitchen cloth draped across his shoulder.
Before I even think to look at Nik accusingly, Ivke’s arms clasp around me. We simultaneously rasp that it’s been too long and that neither has changed much and it’s so good to meet again.
He ushers us in and the setting overwhelms me: 9 people are sitting and 3 more hovering in a small kitchen, everyone so at ease in this laughter-, cooking- and spice-infused space.
A few people scoot over to make room for us, but I am still confined in Ivke’s arm that is reaching out behind my neck and firmly gripping my shoulder. I admit to him that I didn’t know where we were going until I saw the yellow knob. He laughs, then leaps to the stove to attend to the two huge stewpots.
He fills two more steaming mugs of mulled wine while he is happily shuffling between the food, the drinks, and the background music, entirely in his element.
The ‘cocktail party’ is, in fact, a casual gathering, for no particular reason or occasion – he just had a case of red, the perfect one for his home-made (“special recipe”) mulled wine. He also decided to cook up a big batch of thick pasulj, a pork broth with beans and potatoes.
He says he only makes a few specialties but the food is not as important as it is having everyone together. He tells the crowd that next time he’ll make pihtije. A roaring applause ensues. OK, the dish is a known delicacy, but, with all due respect, it’s quite nauseating. Here’s why: it’s a gelatinous cake made from condensed pork fat.
I say I won’t be in town then.
He bursts laughing, and he looks so lighthearted and content. He bends down to my chair and quietly says that he’s sorry he can’t devote more attention to catching up with me right now, and maybe this wasn’t the best idea for the first meet-up after such a long time. But throughout the course of the night I don’t once feel shortchanged, although questions keep stacking in my mind like legos.
A friend of his asks me where do we know each other from, and as I recount the story of our meeting on the Montenegrin coast so long ago, he smiles at something that isn’t even in this room with us right now.
The people slowly disperse, fed, buzzed, and buoyant. I just want to keep talking and hold on to this feeling. While he is washing the dishes I sit on the counter, and we continue on about all the experiences throughout the years that have shaped us.
Nik implied that you’ve been ‘moneypulated’, I say, so I was a bit sulky on the way over. We’ve fallen out over the years, he says, our roads simply diverged. As the time passes, you feel the need to filter out some relationships if they don’t inspire you, he continues, speaking in general terms. You may find that you are not growing with them, as they are trapped in time, the past their only component.
But some friendships can brave the time-outs, even when so much can and does happen in an ambiguous interval called ‘the meanwhile’.
He walks me home in the snow, but I don’t feel cold because we are smiling about life, with life.
[and the final scene]