Cows coming home at tea time or dusk with their cowherds, goatherds tending to goats by the side of the road or in fields, often with the cows. The cows are giant – much bigger (one third bigger I think) than I see in North West England. Unlike in May I haven’t yet seen the flocks of sheep grazing and moving around the fields, tended by their cheerful relaxed shepherds. Perhaps, having returned just a few days ago, I haven’t been on the roads where the sheep are – though often they are grazing even on the outskirts of the small and larger towns in south central Serbia and Kosovo. Perhaps they have moved to cooler spots than the valley floor. Small bright red field poppies by the sides of the roads and streams. The plastic pollution along and in all the streams now covered up by lush new green growth or washed away on its way to pollute elsewhere. Swallows darting around in the air or gliding gracefully, super fast outside my high balcony or near skimming my head on the walkway to our office, where they nest in the concrete roof space. Geraniums (as us unbotanical call them) giving colour on most balconies, window boxes, and lofts and front paths, carnations, primulas and other pretty bedding plants in municipal displays and planters, gardens, some adopted beds (by shopkeepers or residents) that looked shabby or abandoned in winter and autumn now providing extra colour. Still the strings of dried peppers hang on balconies, in loft space and eaves. There are roses and even water loving hydrangeas like in England. Earlier there were snow drops. In May there were plenty and daffodils in the gardens and wild primulas in the wooded hillsides. The oak trees were not out then but suddenly came alive. Colourful beehives are found on the hillsides, in family plots, and along the edge of fields. Road side signs in remote Medvedja, or even along the autoput to Belgrade advertise domestic rakija and med (honey). The heady scent from Lime trees drifts on the air.
Storks, large (tubby even) and tall, stalking around the fields dotted, one here, one or two there, or at dusk in their nests on telegraph poles, electricity pylons, or on chimneys and rooves. Two stalks in a nest, sitting or standing, their young they were tending in May no longer sitting with them. No, three storks in a nest, the third looks grown but slightly smaller, these are the young I saw newly born months ago. One on a roof nearby, majestic. The swallows and the sparrows compete. But little birds buzz around the storks without any complaint.
The vines growing (with roses at the row ends for pollination, very pretty), the plum trees growing (to make plum brandy – slivocic [shlivovits/z or shlivovitsa] or rakija, all incorrectly translated here as brandy but there are different types for each fruit and Serbian and Albanian people have their favourite), men forking up bales of hay in the tea time heat onto tractors laden with hay. Bales or heaps in the fields, sometimes in the Serbian villages traditional conical haystacks. Corn drying in open wire or wooden holders. New corn plants shooting up in the fields. Courgettes and cabbages. Vines are grown even in yards in the towns. Chickens run around and noisy but harmless stray dogs coexist without problem – as clueless as the chickens for wandering out into the roads, and competing with the cats to scavenge in bins. Looking at a bleak wall or run down frontage just peer through the doorway, gate or cracks and you usually see a beautiful yard, courtyard or garden. And if you like vintage Yugoslav era tractors this is the place to come. They look fine, classic working venerable machines. Every greengrocers, small shop and market or informal street seller’s pitch is piled with colourful fresh produce.
From my balcony looking across town I see the green low hills to the east (running north and south and inland to bigger hills towards North Macedonia and Bulgaria) and from the block stairwell on the other side there are the near low green lush hills to the west. Running south I can the highway that goes past the southernmost town of Presevo (sounds like Preshevo; or Presheve to Albanians) and on to Skopje, Thessalonica or Athens (or north to Belgrade). I wait to see if we will get the thunderstorms, as last year June and August were months for thunderstorms. Unexpectedly to me. Despite the heat there has been only one so far. Since writing that line a couple more but not the drama and deluges of last year yet. June was warn, last June and July hot. Such a change since the last thunderstorms in an unusually cold and wet mid May. In April there was sun and rain like in Britain, and snow, but 1 March and 1 November had been warm enough to sit on the balcony. Mid February there was heavy snow. People say the weather in Britain is changeable.
Now in the heat it is quiet but in the evening, with almost no Corona cases and most restrictions now officially lifted (previously largely ignored) many diaspora and those studying or working away have returned and the towns are crowded, outside and inside the bars and cafes. In the bigger town of Vranje, people stroll the old Corso in the evening, like the passeggiata or paseo, while the pedestrian ‘squares’ of Presevo and street in my town are thronging. Small kids race round in electric cars without fear of (your) life or limb. The daytime peace in Bujanovac (if not market day – or the shattering noise of Roma motorised agricultural equipment) broken by the tooting horns of processions of cars for the traditional wedding cavalcade. The lively exotic sounding skilled Roma musicians are a feature of all weddings – brass band music is a Roma speciality. But brass, and saxophone and clarinets and accordion seem to feature in traditional Balkan music whether it is described as Serbian, Albanian or Roma. Who would have thought that the traditional music of the ‘Western Balkans’ sounds so much like ‘eastern’ enthused trad jazz. And then, with Hollywood style glitz are the High School pupils showing off gorgeous fashionable modern dresses and brat pack / rat pack sharp suits and shirts for their High School prom night at the end of a very unusual school year. The Macedonian (Albanian) ice cream sellers doing a roaring trade at night, and people strolling in the smaller and bigger towns, often visiting the traditional Montenegrin dessert shops (or a hereditary business of people originally from Prizren in Kosovo or from North Macedonia also).
Since writing the above I saw just one flock of sheep in the cooler evening near the village of Turija. And three storks on a nest perhaps feeding younger ones. And a second flock of sheep in the evening on the higher land on the southern western edge of the bigger town of Vranje. And the diaspora have returned in huge numbers from Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Italy and France. It has become a busy Summer. As I drive, walk or cycle around the towns and villages of the region, noticeable as I’m speaking English and don’t speak any languages of the region, (probably the only British resident, and only one from Liverpool) most people talk to me in German and are disappointed when I can’t speak to them. They are almost invariably welcoming and friendly nonetheless. By coincidence one British family do live in Gjilan / Gnjilane 30 miles away. The coffee shops and kafanas (taverns), restaurants and café bars and bars (and even nightclubs in Presevo) are buzzing and packed in the morning, evening and night. The cars and excessive traffic I will write about another time. Bang on cue, a wedding cavalcade goes past, a Roma wedding. And a peel of thunder rolls in over the hills. And an Albanian wedding cavalcade. And the rain has come. The second rain in two days. The rain has really come. It won’t dampen the spirits but is a welcome relief perhaps after a baking hot July.
Kiron Reid came to Serbia in June 2020 to work in south Serbia, next to North Macedonia. He lives in the small town of Bujanovac (sounds like Booyanovats), which is populated by Albanian, Serbian and Roma residents.
Notes observing May to July 2021. 27 June, 2 July, 18 July 2021.
With thanks to my friend Liam, who asked me to write (in May last year and afterwards) on my experience in Serbia. This post first appeared on Liam’s ecclectic & personal blog (published from Manchester, UK), ‘Falling leaves – anthropological musings‘ on 28 July this year. Published as ‘Notes from South Serbia by K’ 28 July 2021.