Be my guest

We’re moving fast, in fluorescent vests, because it’s already dark. Occasional lightnings pierce the night skies but the thunders are well delayed, so we hope to get there dry. We finally find the right address and I make the call. A young man appears promptly: “Put the bikes where you will and come in, there’ll be food soon.” We enter the kitchen, which is separate from the rest of the house, straight from the yard. It’s warm inside and it smells of food. The father of our host is sitting on a stool, with a pile of tomatoes in front of him. He expertly peels, cubes and puts them in a bowl. There’s pots of sauce happily bubbling on the stove. When the father sees us, his face breaks into a smile and he begins talking in Serbian, while his son, Mare, simultaneously translates almost word for word. “These are all my tomatoes. The nicer ones are from the greenhouse and the others I make into sauce.” It’s as if we’ve already met and know each other. I have a million questions about food and the father, encouraged by my curiosity, asks Mare: “Should we show them our pantry?” They lead us around the house to a cellar filled with various tomato sauces, rows of watermelons and pumpkins and some leftovers from the previous season. “What’s this huge metal pan for?”, I ask. “We use it to bake lamb. Ahh, it’s excellent, isn’t it, Mare?” “And this? Is it sladko?” The father grins, nods and grabs one of the jars. We go back to the kitchen and get long spoons for eating the incredibly sweet pieces of watermelon straight out of the jar. Sladko can be made of any kind of fruit repeatedly cooked and immersed in a sweet sugar syrup. It’s Serbian tradition to give these to guests. Before the tomato sauce is ready, we are treated to shots of rakija, served home wine, together with two bowls of divine tomatoes and salty sirene cheese. When the dinner’s served, we already feel like we’re part of the family. Even though we’ve heavily overeaten, Mare’s sister unpacks a pancake maker and produces a batch of deliciously thin palacinke topped with chocolate spread, another Serbian favorite. We talk more and drink a bit too much. It’s time for bed because the dad is a bus driver and he has to get up really early for work. As soon as he comes back from the first shift, he’s ready to prepare another local feast.

It’s been raining for several days and we decide to take the train. It’s pouring when we get off at Raška and we’re soaked by the time we find a cafe that will let us in with Lima. Yet it’s not all bad, it’s warm inside and the wifi connection’s good. We begin looking online for a place to sleep. Not even one accepts dogs. The rain lets up and we go out to negotiate with the owner of a guesthouse in person. “You’re welcome but the dog stays outside.” We’re not ready for this. Instead, we go to the train station again. The chief there lets us pitch the tent outside. It’s a bit cold and everything’s wet but it’ll do. While we’re setting up, a fellow, a bit older than, us shows up. He’s really friendly and wants to help. In Serbian, with a lot of gesturing, he explains that he’ll bring something to put under the tent. We try to persuade him that it’s not necessary. He asks us to wait and goes away. After a long while he’s back and after some incredulity on our part he invites us to come sleep at his place. We’re in shock. What about the dog? The dog’s ok, too. So we’re pushing the bikes along the railroad tracks, through mud and puddles. Next it’s necessary to remove the backpacks and lift everything over to the other side. We end up in a dark room at the back of a small house. Our host lights two candles, and mimes that the electricity’s cut off because he couldn’t pay. There are two sofas in the room, a wood stove, a tiny bookcase and maybe a single set of plates. No kitchen to speak of, just the stove. The bathroom down the hall has no running and reminds me of the one from “Trainspotting”. The stove is giving off incredible amounts of heat. We figure it’s been recently lit. Svitaylo still goes out several times to get more wood and the temperature reaches that of a sauna. We have to undress almost all the way; our wet stuff dries almost instantly. Home wine, sweet and bubbly, is brought home and we’re being constantly asked if we’re ok. Before falling asleep, we’re presented with two pairs of knitted woolen socks –“for winter”. I’m almost crying.

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We’re slowly approaching Peje in Kosovo and the villages along the way start to merge into one another. We’re worried about finding a place to sleep since we’re among fenced crop fields and pastures. As we’re passing by buildings, even though I know the night ahead will be spent in the tent and it’s likely gonna rain, I keep fantasizing about a sea of plush blankets and a warm room. I imagine it a simple one, with a wood stove. “Yeah… just a stove and a carpet. It’d be wonderful!” Just ahead of us there’s two fellows having a neighborly chat. At an impulse, I stop and ask, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” “No.”, one aswers, but also adds, “…aber Ich kann Deutsch sprechen.” Great! We can speak some too, so I ask about a place for tent. At first he doesn’t know but then thinks about the old house next door. Nobody lives there and we can have the garden to ourselves. Woo-hoo! We’re let in and begin looking for the best place to pitch. After a while his adult son comes with tea on an elegant platter. “Guys, it would be better if you slept inside. We have a spare room, maybe you want to see it?” “What about the dog?” “It’s no problem. If you need anything – food, shower, anything, please let me know.” So we go and take a look. Can you guess what that room looked like?

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