Miroslav... it means I’m slavic but I won’t kill you
Ah yeah, Miroslav the Serbian tour guide, what a creation. “My name is Miroslav, but people call me Mike, which is kind of like Mickey or Mickey mouse....”. Talking isn’t the verb that captures his performance. He was born to powerfully exhale words, words that exited the deepest tones of his Slavic vocal chords. “What does Miroslav mean?” I asked. “Mir”, he said, “Mir is peace, and slav, slav means of slavic origin... So I’m slavic but don’t want to kill you”. “We have a habit to kill each other”, he’d say when I’d ask about Balkan wars. He seemed to view war as something illogical, something that would crop up here and there, now and again. War was almost like clothes, coming in and out of fashion but now Miroslav had grown out of war, “If war restarts, I’ll leave, I’m just too old.” This was a man who took the ferry across the Danube when the bridges had been taken out by NATO in 1999. One day, whilst on the ferry, he looked towards the sky to see fighter jets approaching. People jumped to the water, fearing the ferry would be struck. Miroslav just stayed on board. He now seemed to enjoy the fact that the ferry wasn’t a target. He didn’t seem fazed, maybe experiencing a helpless tranquillity.
There are an awful lot of things about Miroslav I had to admire. Mike loved tourists. Not only would he tell tourists local stories but he’d tell tourists stories about other tourists. For him there were three types of tourists. There were the old-schoolers like myself, who go around like eejits with a book and pencil, jotting down any anecdotes they come across. Recent years have seen the emergence of the modern tourist, the kind that go around with smart phones, taking photos at all angles and then cross-checking the tour guide’s assertions using Google or Wikipedia. Finally, and thirdly, there are the Japanese tourists; the kind that have so little time to see Serbia (because they’re touring all of Europe in 3 days) that they adopt a recording approach, taking photos and videos of absolutely everything so they can enjoy the scenery at home in Japan for the next few years.
Mike just loved telling us about the ins and outs of orthodox-catholic churches and attacks from NATO. We’d pass by hundreds and thousands of red brick houses and red-painted buildings, symbolic of Jesus’ blood, Mike would say. “At Easter they paint the eggs red too, well at least the first one”. In Serbia (or at least around Novi Sad) they haven’t had a census in years due to the costs, but Mike wasn’t a man to hold back when it came to population guesstimates. He was all about “more people than this time” or “less people than that”. It was the trend that counted rather than the absolute quantity. You know, I’d pity any tour guide trying to elucidate the history of the Balkans, but Mike was absolutely on the ball. He gave us the key points: four official languages and a rake of monasteries. They were the regional take-aways, and few could argue with that. At one stage back on the bus, Mike shouted over to the driver (and this is my best Serbian translation) “Have you anything on tonight <insert-name-of-driver-here>? I’ve nothing on myself, so we’ll continue on ‘til about 9 pm or so”. That’s what Mike was all about, that was the way Mike rolled, doing a bit of tourism with the tourists; beyond reason, requirements and rewards.
Recently, when on tours, I’ve taken up the habit of acquiring a few local jokes, and so, when I met Miro, I thought, this opportunity is golden. “Miro, tell me a Serbian joke”, I’d said at some point. “What kind of a joke? If it’s Serbian you won’t understand, and if it’s international then it’s international, so you’ll already have heard it”, and I couldn’t really argue with that. People always expect a joke to be funny for it to be worthwhile, but the truth about jokes is that they’re more about insight than hilarity. Miro, it transpired, did have a few interesting insights, insights that told me more about reality than a history book could have.
In Northern Serbia, Miro told me, a man is referred to as “Lala”, whilst his wife would be “Sauca”, or some spelling to that effect. Now what Miro seemed to suggest was that Lalas weren’t all that interested in women, a point illustrated by the following story. “Lala, your wife is in the wheat with your neighbour.” “Is that right? Well is it my wheat?”
Then of course, Miro would have jokes about the regional beverage, Rakija. When people would sometimes ask Miro whether he likes fruit, he’d say “Yes, especially when it’s distilled”. Indeed, Rakija, made by fermenting fruit, typical boasts a percentage of 45% or up to 60% if double distilled. Miro, if ye ever meet him, is a gas man and so I’ll leave ye with his advice for drinking from a glass.
“Drink water from your own, wine from a friend, but Rakija from whoever offers.”