Saturday, July 07, 2007

Rural Serbia

Traveling through rural Serbia is a rather slow process. Roads are narrow and windy, and you often encounter slow-moving tractors on the road, which are either driving to get to their fields or are hauling recently harvested crops. In late June, hay wagons (either loose or baled) and combines were a common sight. Perhaps it is a good thing that one can’t cruise through the area quickly, as the landscape is beautiful and its inhabitants are rich with hospitality.

Moving onward from Garasi, we saw some horses and cows grazing in a picturesque area. Pulling over to take some photos, we saw an older woman with a child. Noticing the raspberries planted on the other side of the road in rows like vineyards, we asked her if we could buy some. Instead, she told us just to help ourselves – her neighbor who owned the field wouldn’t mind. Shortly thereafter, we saw a John Deere combine in action. A younger man took a long wooden pole with a forked end, lifting up the telephone lines so the combine could navigate more easily. Another farmer in at the entrance of the field offered my dad a drink of his 2 liter bottle of cold beer – which tasted good in the early heat. Within minutes, another farmer came, one who had lived in Chicago for a number of years.

Signage was limited or confusing at times, necessitating the occasional pause at a café for directions. Even the locals couldn’t always agree on which fork of the road to take. On one rural road, we stopped at a small farm. A man emerged from his elderly mother’s house. He was using his vacation time and returned to the farm to take care of his ailing mother. In true Serbian fashion, he wanted to offer us something sweet to eat (such as honey or slatko – a type of jam made from wild berries), but all he had was some sugar cubes. Although we weren’t too keen on sucking on a cube of sugar, we knew that it was important to honor his offer of hospitality. The man also offered us some fresh water, which he drew up from an old-fashioned crank well. Thanking him for the directions and hospitality, we moved onward.

On the right side of a wooded road was a small dirt road curving downward. Our guide thought that this might be a good place to meet a typical farmer and his farm. Little did we know that the old man would touch all of our hearts. Hearing our greeting, an 88 year old man emerged from his summer kitchen, greeting us with either a handshake or traditional 3-cheek kiss. With tears of gratitude in his eyes, he asked what fortune had brought him that he should be blessed with so many visitors. He explained that his wife had passed away on Christmas from pneumonia since they weren’t able to afford the medication. His daughter came about once a week to bring groceries and check on him. With the removal of a type of pension, he was left to subsist on less than 100 euros a month. He wore the traditional shajkaca hat, a knitted vest (even though it was hot out), simple trousers, long woolen socks and rubber slip-on boots. A layer of white stubble framed his thin face and grey eyes. Apologizing for being a bad host as he didn’t have anything to offer us, we repeatedly said that meeting him was a gift enough for us. Touring the farm, he invited us into the barn, which held two cows. He showed how he shoveled out the manure by hand with a shovel. Also on the farm were a few pigs and some chickens that roamed freely. Inside his house, the shakjaca-clad man showed us the black and white photographs of him and his wife, as well as some wedding photos of his parents. In the living room he proudly showed us a certificate recognizing his contributions as a soldier during WWII. Like most others of the region, he fought as a chetnik, a loyalist to the Serbian monarchy and opposed to the Communist movement. After giving him a baseball cap sporting a cow and outline of Wisconsin, we thanked him, gave us our goodbyes, and moved onward. Later that evening we received a phone call from his daughter clarifying the purpose of the visit and emphasizing how happy we had made him.

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