The Serbian word for family is Породица, or porodica. This is the first thing that comes to mind when I look back on this past weekend which I once again spent in Požega, Serbia.
For context: my roommates and I arrived in Požega alongside a Serbian friend of ours and several of his friends and classmates who have known one another for several years.
Upon arrival we were almost immediately taken to our friends home for a late lunch. In a typical fashion, it consisted of a Serbian salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, and cheese), a platter of grilled meat, local cheese and kaymack, and home made bread. Our dinner table was located on the front porch, with an enchanting view of the surrounding mountains that became even more enthralling as a booming thunderstorm rolled in.
Despite being complete strangers to everyone except the friend who had invited us we felt right at home, comforted by that special brand of Serbian hospitality and openness.
Later, the priest we had met during our last visit arrived and shared that the following morning we would be attending the consecration of the Church of Savinac, a small village outside of Požega. He informed us that we would need to entertain ourselves for the next few hours as the whole crew went to practice for the mornings service and turned us over to a friend of his who wanted to learn more about the United States.
What was meant to be an hour rehearsal somehow lasted about three hours, but we hardly noticed: we had posted up in the restaurant of Požega's only hotel and had somehow devolved from giving thoughtful advice about the US to our new friend to discussing the monstrous size of crabs in Australia. So it goes.
In a fashion that resembled our last visit to the city, we were whisked off to what originally was planned as dinner and then ice cream but somehow happened in the inverse. Which meant, that at 11:03 PM on Saturday, May 20th in my 20th year of life, I found myself eating a kaymack bread bowl with six Serbs in a small pekara in Požega, Serbia.
Just over an hour later we returned to the hotel and I think I speak for all three of us when I say we were asleep before our heads hit our pillows.
The celebration the following morning was attended by about 1,000 people and consisted of a three hour church service followed by a feast of Serbian cuisine- namely roasted meet and fresh vegetables.
As strangers to most of these people we expected to primarily stay on the sidelines, an afterthought to the locals who we had traveled there with. However, this was not the case:: not only were we given special access to standing room in a church that absolutely cannot hold all of its members, but we were also introduced to several prominent members of the community.
This hospitality is not unique to Požega- I have found Serbia to be among the most welcoming countries I have visited. For example, if you are visiting as someone's guest, you won't pay for a single thing. It is considered rude to let guests pay for their dinner or transportation- of course, with the expectation that you return the favor if given the opportunity.
On this particular trip I felt incredibly at home, especially during our last few hours in the city. With only a few hours left until our bus back to Belgrade, we assembled at our friend's grandmother's apartment for coffee. While I couldn't understand much of the conversation, it was heartwarming to see our new group of friends in their natural habitat, laughing with one another in that way such a way is enabled only by significant familiarity.
As we sat in the living room surrounded by six young Serbian men and our friend's mother, grandmother, and younger siblings, I expected to feel like an intruder, but the feeling never surfaced. Instead, I watched a family in their natural habitat: siblings goading one another, with a mother hovering in the background; a grandmother immersed in a game of tic tac toe with the youngest brother. It took me back to many memories shared with my own grandmother, who recently passed away, who somehow had the endless patience to play such menial games with my brother and me.
Soon, we said our goodbyes and were each gifted a wool hat and slippers, handmade by the grandmother- a gift I will always hold dear.
Like last time, I had arrived in Požega no idea what to expect. And, also like last time, I was pleasantly surprised by what the city had to offer: in a previous post I quoted Serbian artist and writer Momo Kapur, who described the spirit of Serbia as "that feeling that you are at home, that you cannot be ruined because you are among your kind" and this description remains the singular string of words I've found that can encapsulate the exact nuances that make this place so unique.
About Požega, Serbia
The city, Пожега, in Serbian Cyrillic, is located about three hours outside of Belgrade and is home to what is known as the most beautiful square in Serbia. It is known for its raspberry farms which can be found throughout the surrounding area. There is also a city named Požega in what is now Croatia: during the years of Yugoslavia, the Serbian city was renamed Užička Požega in order to differentiate.