Think about the last time you ordered too much food. When was the precise moment that you realized that you had overdone it? Was it sometime between ordering and when the meal came, as you sat contemplating how delicious it was all going to be and suddenly thought that it sounded like an awful lot? Did it happen when the food arrived, or began arriving, and you saw how much there was and tried to estimate just how large your stomach actually is and whether it could hold everything? Had you made it half-way through, or even further, before you began to question your resolve? Or was it after the meal was finished, the last possible morsel consumed, and nothing was left on your plate but that ubiquitous lettuce leaf, haughty and judgmental and staring at you as if to say, ‘You actually did it, you glutton. Are you proud of yourself?’? I remember the last time I did it. It was just yesterday, in fact, in a town in Serbia, and I have almost fully recovered.
Nestled in the northern Serbian region of Vojvodina is the eclectic little town of Subotica. I spent the hour and a half drive from Novi Sad staring out the window of my bus, watching gargantuan white clouds do battle with fierce-looking, dark thunderheads and hoping that the side of light would win out for the day. The sky on one side was that picturesque blue that neither film nor canvass ever seems to capture quite right (though I’m sure some of you could give me examples of where they do), and the puffy clouds were warships sailing toward the darker seas beyond. It was a gorgeous sight, and although the forces of grey eventually overwhelmed the blue, it was not before I had enjoyed a lovely afternoon spent strolling around the town.
If you should find yourself coming into Subotica by bus, do not be put off by initial appearances. In fact, do not be put off by initial appearances in general, unless the appearance is a zombie. There is nothing to be gained in trying to get to know a zombie better or inquiring into its hopes and dreams and favourite architectural movements. It will literally eat your brains while you’re waiting for an answer. Subotica, on the other hand, will surprise you. Like a zombie, it sneaks up on you a bit and catches you unawares, but thankfully that is where the similarities stop. Stumbling down the passenger door stairs and onto the street below, Subotica did not appear to be anything special. It was not until I crossed the street and penetrated a bit deeper into the city center that I saw just what it has to offer. I was met almost immediately with vibrant squares full of people eating ice cream and children carrying balloons. There were lush, green parks, exploding with colour from the recent rains, and the buildings themselves seemed to be alive.
The latter is not so surprising when you learn that Subotica is a town with heavy art nouveau influences. Almost everywhere you turn your eyes are met with bright mosaics or rich, candied rooftops, and above it all stands the enormous town hall and its majestic clock tower. Standing in Republic Square and taking in all of the colour and detailed artwork, I felt as though I were in some sort of open-air museum. The effect was intense but also very pleasant.
At the time I still had no idea where I was because I had stumbled upon all of this on my way to the tourist information center to pick up a map. Once I finally made it there, I discovered that a news organization was interviewing one of the employees there about tourism in Subotica. It was their lucky day, I suppose, because they got to interview an enthusiastic American tourist who had lovely things to say about Serbia. AND I got a free hat!
Subotica, as I mentioned above and in my post yesterday, is very close to the Hungarian border and there is a large Hungarian minority living in the town. To give you an idea of what I mean by large, Hungarians make up less than 4% of the population of Serbia, according to the 2002 census data. In the province of Vojvodina, they make up roughly 14%, and Subotica is nearly 40% Hungarian. To put this in perspective, Subotica only has the eighth largest Hungarian population in Vojvodina. Nevertheless, this is a significant minority, and Subotica is by no means shy about it. Everywhere you look there are signs in Hungarian, and the streets are filled with shouts, laughs, whispers and phone calls in that sweet and strange Finno-Ugric tongue. Words like igen and kösönöm (‘yes’ and ‘thank you’, respectively) roll off of lips as easily as da and hvala, their Serbian (and Croatian) equivalents. As someone particularly interested in minority populations and language contact (as well as someone who wrote his thesis on Hungarian minorities in Vojvodina and Transylvania specifically!), it is no surprise that all of this got me excited. What excited me even further, however, was the prospect of getting some Hungarian food.
Once I had familiarized myself with the town somewhat, still in awe of all of the glittering fountains and secessionist architecture, my stomach let me know that it was time to eat, and my taste buds chimed in that they would settle for nothing less than something spicy and difficult to pronounce. I headed back to the tourist office, where the TV crew had long since packed up and left (I can only imagine that they were immediately given raises upon showing the footage to their superiors, perhaps even enough money to retire on), and asked where I should go for good Hungarian food. Without hesitation the man there told me to go to Népkör. Now when I ask for restaurant recommendations and get an answer as quickly as I did yesterday, I worry a little bit for the old pocketbook. Yesterday was no exception, and yet somehow I let it go. I wanted good food, this guy was telling me where to get it. Enough said. And I needn’t have worried even a little bit. Although it was by far my most expensive meal in Serbia to date, it came out to just under €10, with tip, for two huge dishes and a full glass of wine (none of this one deciliter stuff in Serbia, I’ve come to find out).
I entered Népkör in much the same way that I had entered Subotica: through the wrong door. The entrance that I chose opened into an enormously empty room that looked as though it had been set for royalty that had never bothered to arrive. Tables were immaculately dressed in white robes and adorned with fancy place settings. Visions of Habsburg princes and heirs to fallen thrones danced in my head. But as nice as this scene was, it was nevertheless a bit off-putting to find in a restaurant at lunchtime. But it was my mistake, after all, and I soon wandered my way into what I assume must have been the lunch area. Here were the people, and a chorus of Slavic and Hungarian rose above the popular music of a couple of decades ago and welcomed me to a free table. Europe, you know what I like.
Almost immediately a kind woman approached me and asked me, first in Hungarian and then in Serbian, what I would like to eat. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what she asked. I had learned in Belgrade, and even in Novi Sad, that people generally did not want to fumble about and play my sure-I-speak-Serbian-just-with-a-funny-accent-mixed-with-different-words-and-grammar game, so I mustered my best Serbian-tinged Slovene to ask if she spoke English. She did not. I was thrilled. I told her that I would speak Slovene to her, and she smiled and nodded. They get paid to smile and nod, I suppose. Actually, that’s not at all true. In fact, I think they get paid extra to frown and ignore you. ‘Service with a sneer’ is alive and well in Europe, ladies and gentlemen. But this lady smiled that pleasantly awkward I’ll-do-my-best smile and I asked her for a menu. ‘Igen. Yes. Da.’ came her response, along with a nervous little laugh at the end. Lady, you’re doing just fine.
It was the last that I would hear from her, as a waiter who spoke English came once I was ready to order. This is the part where I get back to the intro and talk about stuffing myself silly. I knew that I wanted goulash. How could I pass that up? At just over a euro, it really couldn’t be all that satisfying though, could it? And that beef tenderloin thing sounded so good. Hmm… There was a pause when I ordered both of these, and that was the moment when I first suspected that I was in for a long lunch. The waiter didn’t try to stop me. He had probably seen what happens to people who get between Americans and their food. It is not unlike how a mother bear reacts to someone stepping between her and her cub, although with a lot more growling. So he nodded and smiled. The poor guy was probably tempted to raise his hands, palms out, and say, ‘Whatever you like, as much as you want.’ And that done, I waited for my food while one of my favourite Blondie songs, ‘Atomic’, played on the radio (yup, right up there with ‘Dreaming’, ‘Sunday Girl’ and ‘Heart of Glass’).
Allow me a moment to describe to you the sumptuous feast that awaited me. The goulash was the first to arrive, in a tureen that more closely resembled a punch bowl than a soup service for one. The rich and spicy broth sent up steam that fogged my glasses as I ladled it into my own bowl. As it poured out I saw that it was filled with carrots, potatoes, tender pieces of beef and little white dumplings, all stewing together and doing their best to get along, just like the Serbs, Croats and Hungarians of Subotica. One bowl of delicious goulash down, I filled another, and another after that, until I reached a fork in the road toward Happiness. A decision had to be made, and it was not a happy one. At the rate I was going, I was going to fill up on soup and not have any room for my main course. I could either continue with reckless abandon or drain off the broth and eat only the solid parts of the soup. Oh, but the broth was so delicious! In the end, wisdom prevailed, but she shook her head at me and asked why I hadn’t called on her a half hour earlier when I was getting myself into that mess in the first place. Secretly, however, I knew that even wisdom stole a quick and longing glance at that bowl of broth before the waiter whisked it away.
The wine, a Merlot, it turns out, was fabulous, and it complemented the goulash very nicely. It was to complement the main dish just as well, as the spices seemed to find some kind of special harmony with the fruits and tannins. I stared down at my plate after the first few bites and wondered if I could possibly be in Serbia with such a decidedly Hungarian meal. The beef tenderloin medallions were topped with a kind of onion-mushroom-shredded beef ragout that bit my tongue in just the right way. There were zucchini boats filled with rice, dill and cheese that were almost better than the meat, and then there were the potatoes! Boiled to perfection (and if you can’t imagine boiled potatoes making your mouth water, I would argue that you’ve never really been to Europe) and garnished with a delicious dried herb that I could not readily identify, but that my waiter kindly informed me was parsley. Really? Parsley? That’s what parsley tastes like? I thought it was just there to make the food look pretty. My fellow Americans, we’ve been doing something terribly wrong.
On this very trip, just a few days ago, I had a discussion about portion control with Hamilton and his friend from the US who was also visiting Serbia (and whose name shall henceforth and forevermore be Archibald Wheeler, of the Paddington Wheelers). We were discussing the law of diminishing returns and how finishing your food in order to get your money’s worth didn’t really make any sense. After all, what you were paying for was to get full and satisfied off of a tasty meal, not to see your reflection in your empty plate. Don’t get me wrong, finishing your food is to be lauded, but if you just can’t manage it, why should you make yourself sick simply because you paid for it? You already got what you paid for, and adding to it is only going to rob you of the experience that you spent your good money on. Hypocrisy, thy name is Peter.
I could barely move by the time I stopped eating, even though my plate was far from clean. I did not finish all of the potatoes, and the ragout, though very good, ended up getting rather strewn about (I’m just not a mushroom guy). At least the petulant lettuce leaf with its leaky tomato would not have cause judge me, I thought, but it merely smirked and reminded me that not only had I eaten myself into discomfort, I had not even managed to finish. Touché, you rascally lettuce leaf, touché.