RHOB: Kafana Mama
They’re found throughout the Balkans, but to me, nothing is more Serbian than a kafana. Depending on the time of day, a kafana is a bar, restaurant, or debate hall. It’s where one can spend hours eating a three-course meal or drinking a cup of coffee. Muz and I like to spend our Sunday afternoons there, practicing our Serbian and eating traditional food.
But according to tradition, it’s the last place RHOB should be on a Sunday. “A woman will make it to the moon before any of their kind turn up in a Belgrade kafana on a Sunday morning,” Momo Kapor wrote. Yet Belgrade kafanas defy the locker room stereotype. The white-and-red checkered tablecloths are clean, waiters wear button-down shirts, and customers range from octogenarians to hipster couples to families of eight. I figured that the “boys’ club kafanas” were a thing of the past.
So when I was waiting for a ride on a cold and rainy morning in Nis, Serbia, I decided to pop into the nearest kafana for coffee. I pushed the dusty glass door open and settled on a nearby chair. When looked up, I discovered what 1971 must have looked like.
It was only 11:15, but smoke hung thick in the air. I heard loud chatter when I walked in, but was now surrounded by silence. I realized that I was the youngest person there by 10 years, and the only woman present. It dawned on me that I had found the Holy Grail: a true kafana. A place where men came to be men. Rakija was at every table, the ashtrays were full, and newspapers were open to the sports section.
If I had walked in with a third eye, I would have received the same reception. I felt safe but incredibly out of place. My first thought was to leave, but I had already sat down, the weather was terrible, and I was amazed at my find. I ordered kafa domace. The kafana was still silent. I was clearly not becoming more popular.
Suddenly, the power went out. The kafana didn’t have many lights on anyway, but it was enough to get the kafana talking again. The waiter sighed and walked out of the building with no explanation. (I guess he wasn’t worried about new customers coming in.) By the time I was finished with my coffee people were shouting good-naturedly at other tables. I walked out to meet my ride, a Serbian guy named Dragan. When Dragan saw where I was coming from, his eyes widened. I laughed, explained the scene, and said, “I’ll bet they’re talking about me right now-a foreign woman in their kafana!” “They’ll talk about this for three years!” he said.
Fine by me. Besides, I can’t think of a greater honor in Serbia than becoming folklore at a true Serbian kafana.