Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Serbian Bohemia on a Deathbed

Belgrade, July 22, (Serbia Today) - Romantic bohemian living style has passed away, destroyed by steady rush, lack of time, consumer mentality, money-making – altogether, by material, success-oriented world. Who can afford to waste hours and hours, nights and mornings, in philosophical talks on the sense of life, sitting with friends at an inn’s table over a bottle of plum brandy, dipping pieces of bread in roasted meat juice and writing rimes or drawing portraits on a white table cloth?
Bohemians are now called alcoholics and considered a superfluous, useless and unwanted part of a decent society. Somehow, it seams that art, poetry and philosophy have also become unnecessary in the modern world that always has one question in mind – is it cost-effective? Once published, poetry books end up very soon in front of the bookstores sold by humiliating prices. Is it cost-effective? Definitely not.
Although the first European city to set, in early 16th century, an institution of a coffee house, public places where trade took place, politics was discussed, governments ousted, poetry wrote, where the first electric light bulb shined and the first telephone rung – Belgrade is about to close doors of its last traditional “kafanas”, leaving just a few for tourists to see what a wonderful bohemian life it had once.
It is not easy to find a proper word to explain “kafana” – a Turkish word that initially meant coffee house, and by time became a place to eat and drink, meet friends and enemies, make business deals and create art, to see and be seen; the Serbian kafana is a stage, each with its own atmosphere, a place where you can act or be yourself. Just one thing is impossible there – to stay anonymous.
“Belgrade inns used to be once centers of the public life in the capital. People met there to close a deal, do a business, lawyers consulted their clients, and a matchmaker met with a girl’s father; a debtor signed a note, a partner an agreement, almost all public and court documents, except the last will, had been dealt with in a kafana. Societies held their meetings, politicians created conspiracies and plots, and very often a sick man would come there to seek an advice from a doctor,” Serbian writer Branislav Nusic wrote in early 20th century.
Many of those cult places have disappeared; old-fashioned taverns have been destroyed to give space to shopping malls, banks or business centers or turned into impersonal modern cafes, bars, sneak-bars, fast food places or snobbish, high-profile restaurants built of glass, metal and plastic, same as anywhere in the world.
“Kafanas here are dying out. No, they are not dying out, they are murdered,” says one of the rare regular guests at the oldest Belgrade restaurant, “?” (Questionmark), that recently managed to fight back a privatization attack and remain protected by the city. It was built in early 19th century in a Turkish style, and has kept the initial looks, with small round wooden tables and little three-lag chairs. It got its name more than hundred years ago, when the church authorities demanded change of the name “At the Orthodox Cathedral”, considering it insulting, and the owner put temporary a questionmark instead until some interesting name pops up. It never happened and the sign “?” remained forever.
However, even places protected by the state as cultural monuments are sometimes destroyed, such as the famous “Tri Lista Duvana” (Three Tobacco Leaves), close to the parliament building, built 130 years ago, where the first phone line in the city was installed in 1883. The modern office building will be finished on its place soon, carrying with honor the old name, the only what have remained.
Turks opened the first coffee house in Belgrade, when they arrived in 1521. At that time, Serbs considered coffee a poison and resisted it for a while, but very soon it became a national drink, still inevitable at every Serb home; and while Turks have shifted in meanwhile to strong tee, Serbs remained eternally faithful to Turkish coffee.
Istanbul got the first coffee house thirty years later, London and Vienna more than hundred years after Belgrade. At that time, part of catholic priests declared coffee a devils drink.
Serbia’s capital had an inn owners guild in early 19th century and in 1859 Prince Milos Obrenovic passed a decree regulating work of public places where drinks or food and accommodation was provided, saying they have to be built of solid material, have an entrance from a front and not from a backyard, and in order to prevent prostitution, limited to two the number of girls that might be employed. The owners had to pay taxes to the state. Few years later, the Belgrade mayor issued an order that all kafanas had to be closed by 11 in the evening, and lanterns lightened in front of them an hour earlier.
At the end of 19th century, the city had one kafana on 50 inhabitants – there were 11 on Terazije, nine on the Slavija square, and in today’s Makedonska street there were 41 houses and 21 kafanas. Each of them had their own customers; Radicals, Liberals, Socialists – each had their own meeting place, writers and musicians, merchants and lawyers, farmers who were selling their goods on the city markets.
The first electric light was installed in “Prolece”, later named “Hamburg”, at the very spot where the power company has built its main customer services. The first book fair was held and the first film shown in a restaurant, and even the parliament held its session for a while after the World War I in one of them. In “Zlatna Moruna”, later “Triglav”, the place across the street from the Zeleni Venac market that only recently turned into a casino, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, that triggered WWI, was planned.
Taverns continued through 20th century to provide hospitality to homeless, dissidents, students, bohemians. One of them, “Domovina” (Homeland), hosted many generations of engineering students and professors.
“We used to go there after lectures, chronically penniless and hungry, shared few drinks between ourselves while a waiter would bring a baking pan with the roasted meat juice and a loaf of bread,” says 80-year old Mirjana Lazarevic.
Silently, over the night, “Domovina” turned into the modern and sterile “Speak Easy” cafeteria.
Even the famous Bermuda Triangle, where journalists and writers used to disappear sometimes for three days after entering one of three kafanas surrounding Politika house, has been destroyed when “Pod Lipom”, “Grmec” and “Sumatovac” were turned into the Pizza Hut, local grill chain Perper and a posh restaurant.
The oldest place in Skadarlija, the old bohemian city quarter, “Tri Sesira”, built in 1864 and named after a hat workshop that used to be there before and a drawing of three hats hanging over a door, with its law ceilings and small windows, plans to adapt to new times by installing a wireless internet, so that businessmen can enjoy good food, live music and time wasting of the 19th century without missing anything in the business world.
And although the few remaining traditional restaurants are trying to survive the crisis by cutting in two the prices of drinks and offering old specialties, they have fewer and fewer guests. The old bohemians either died or have no money, and the new generations, grown up in the period of the deepest both economic and social crises, had no one to teach them something about the unique spirit of a kafana where each guest had a name and unique personality.
By Ljilja Cvekic

1 comment:

  1. What a great article! I very much enjoyed reading it. Keep-up the good work, Ljiljana!