I was unprepared for nightlife in Serbia. I’ve never felt more out of place than when I was waiting in line amidst a throng of real-life Bratz dolls in lingerie outside Gradska Kafana. I was preparing to accept the inevitable rejection by the bouncer who was turning down peeps left and right, but I was a girl on a mission to enter that club.
I think I need to rewind before continuing on about the evening’s events. The only reason I was nervously pacing back and forth in front of this kafana at 11pm on a Sunday night was because of an invitation I had received from the most fabulous person I’ve ever met: Elana. I’ve known Elana since forever, and since she’d been in Belgrade for three years, she was my in with the Serbian crowd. On my first day in Belgrade, she invited me out to a kafana (a bar-ish, clubby place unique to former Yugoslav countries) with her friends. Dress? Casual. Tag-along-friend? Of course! Revenge on exes? Obviously.
Part I: Birkenstocks
We agreed to meet up at the kafana around 10:30. I dragged along my friend, Kat, because every successful night out requires a good wing-woman. Plus I needed help navigating.
After being awkwardly confused with hookers several times while we were trying to hail a taxi, we finally flagged down the most beat-up looking car that seemed taxi-ish enough, and our driver sped us across the river to a land far, far away. We started to get worried, as Belgrade was getting smaller and smaller in the distance and we had no idea where or how far we were going. After a 20-minute drive, the taxi driver dropped us off in the middle of a field and sped away. Cue panic. The only building in sight was an old warehouse that had a circus tent roof, and other than that, nada.
To make matters worse, other cars started pulling up and dropping off the most incredible looking people on the planet. No girl had less than 6″ heels, everyone’s makeup and hair was impeccable, and lingerie was definitely happening. Just to give you an image of how we fit into this scenario, let me describe to you how Kat and I were dressed:
1) Kat – Black cotton dress with ratty Birkenstocks
2) Hayley – Cat stockings, jean shorts, a grandpa sweater, and sneakers
It was bad. We spent at least 15 minutes trying to make ourselves look more presentable, but we were past the point of being helped. Kat and I regrouped in a parking lot to resume panicking. Elana was nowhere in sight, and we were watching all these beautiful people being rejected from the club. To make it all worse, we got pity flowers from a guy because some model wouldn’t accept them. We were in no position to turn down pity flowers.
After an entire hour of cursing the poor decisions we’ve made in our lives, Kat and I finally gathered the courage to talk to the bouncer. We acknowledged that the worst was going to happen, but we also realized that we’d never see these people again, so we might as well make fools of ourselves and try anyway.
Part II: Flaming Champagne
Kat was practically pushing me into the bouncer because I was the elected spokesperson. He glanced at us from head to toe and back again with a disapproving look. With as much confidence as I could muster, I uttered, “Hi! Uhhhh I think we’re here to meet a friend??” (my voice trailing off in a high-pitched tone even I didn’t even know I could make)
And then came the miracle. Bouncer: “Elana?” Me (way too eagerly): YES!! Yes that’s her! She’s my friend!” His disapproving look changed into an approving nod, and he called someone to escort us to her table. My jaw was basically dragging on the floor while we walked past the lingerie models on our way to the very center of the room to meet Elana and her friends.
This place blew my mind. It was huge on the inside, and while there was no dance floor, the tables and chairs were a popular substitute. There were no windows, no lights, no oxygen, and the music was exclusively Serbian. The place was absolutely packed, and while literally everyone besides us was Serbian, they all knew that we were Americans (the Birkenstocks gave it away), so they all spoke to us in English. After a couple drinks, Elana gave us our formal introduction to Serbian nightlife. I introduce the 15 levels of Serbian nightlife as presented by Elana:
1-5) I don’t actually remember these ones because we arrived at level 5.
6) Music gets louder and louder. And I mean LOUD. Music is blasting at you from every direction. Good luck communicating. Don’t expect to rely on sign language either because the room is completely dark.
7) People are climbing on every available surface to dance. Tables, chairs, the wall ledge, each other… This becomes a blood sport as there are only so many elevated surfaces in the establishment. Be ready to fight for your territory.
8) Boys are starting to take their shirts off. Sweaty and dirty t-shirts are flung on you and you are being elbowed in your face because Serbian guys’ elbows are conveniently at eye-level.
9) Napkin throwing. I don’t understand why this is a thing, but people love throwing napkins at kafanas. This becomes quite the fire hazard because everyone around you is lighting up. Flammable objects are abundant, and since you are in a huge wooden warehouse with no exits, you start to become worried for the safety of the group.
10) Memory failing
11) Time to break out the flaming champagne, flares, and sparklers. Finally, some light! Careful though, the threat of an inferno becomes much more imminent.
12) Beer glasses are smashed on the floor. Good thing Kat and I had our Birkenstocks and sneakers; foot protection is imperative.
13 and 14) Furniture is being pushed and thrown and knocked over (so guys can show off their muscles). “Look at me pick up this chair and put it back down!” Conveniently their shirts are already off and the light from the flaming champagne casts shadows on their arms, creating the illusion of strong biceps.
15) People start getting hurt. Kat and I left before this level, so no need to worry! Elana showed us her battle scars from previous nights at level 15. As I said, Serbian nightlife is a blood sport.
There you have it: 15 levels of insanity that will have you dancing the night away on tables and nervously searching for the nearest fire extinguisher.
Before I sign off, I sincerely want to thank Elana, for without her presence and excellent connections with the bouncer, Kat and I would still be wandering through a field, trying to find our way back to Belgrade.