I need to get some friends, I thought to myself while lying on the couch, my eyes shifting between watching my brother stretch and the television screen. How does he get his body to bend like that? Is that even normal?
“You wanna go out and try to make some friends with me?” I ask desperately.
“No,” my brother says emotionlessly, forming his body into the bridge pose.
“Why not?” I whine, “All you do is play football, sleep, and stretch. Come on; it’ll be fun.”
“I gotta stay focused,” he exhales intensely. “Plus, I don’t have time to get drunk and party.”
I want to continue the discussion, but I know there is no point. My brother isn’t going to help me find companionship; he’s too busy becoming the next Ronaldo. And I hope for the sake of my pathetic social life, he does. Oh, right. My social life. As of today, I have extended my walk around the neighborhood to three blocks. I’m too nervous about exploring past the main shopping street. But I’m getting pretty frustrated, which means it’s just a matter of time until I take firm action to preserve my socializing skills.
“Where can I make friends?” I say out loud in hopes of anyone answering me.
“Go to the park, I see tons of people there at night,” as he exhales.
“The park? I’m not going to go to the park at night. I’m not going to make friends with drug dealers. Plus, I’ll probably need a language translator.”
My brother stops stretching and looks at me, “I’m telling you, the parks here at night are the place to be. Everyone speaks English here, it’s not like you need to carry an English-Serbian dictionary around.”
It’s around nine o’clock at night. I’m sitting at the kitchen table, tapping my foot on the sticky titled floor, ready for the right time to go to the park.
Is nine too early? I don’t want to be the only one there… Natasha, you have no friends, it literally doesn’t matter. Wait, maybe I should have downloaded an online translator? Just go.
I leave the apartment and walk one block over to the park. It’s full of young people drinking beer, smoking, and occasionally peeing in nearby bushes. There’s something comforting about seeing youth culture alive and well. I spot a group of people around my age, sitting on and around a park bench, laughing while enjoying some beers. Bingo, those are my people.
“Hello,” I say awkwardly while approaching the mixed group. One of the guys is smoking from an antique pipe, while another one is holding a didgeridoo. Why did you pick the weirdest group in the park? “Uh, I’m Natasha and I, uh just came to Belgrade, and, uh, I’m looking to meet some people and hang out.”
There’s a moment of silence as they all stare at me, and then, a sudden burst of excitement.
You’re American? No, wait, you’re accent is more Canadian. Eh? You look Serbian though.
Did you see South Park’s impression of Canadians? It’s hilarious, you need to see what Canadians look like.
Ah great, we love meeting new people, have a seat, please. Do you want something to drink? We have some cold beers. Do you smoke? Here, take a hit of this joint.
What are you doing in Belgrade?
I’m flustered with emotions and trying to process all the questions. Is it really that easy to make friends?
After a couple of minutes of talking, more and more people arrive, with the circle becoming bigger and bigger. I don’t know anyone’s names, yet, I feel like we’ve been friends for years. At one moment, the group begins to bicker with each other, deciding on where to go.
A guy wearing torn skater shoes and a reggae cap pokes my shoulder, “we decided to take you to Freestyler. But just to let you know, none of us actually like that place. But you have to go there at least once to see one side of Belgrade’s nightlife.”
I smile and say, “okay,” because I have no idea what he means. Why take me to a place that you don’t like? More importantly, what is “Freestyler”?
We start walking through the city, across the main bridge, and down some side stairs. Normally, in Canada, I would be concerned for my safety, thinking this was just a ploy to steal my purse and leave my unidentified body under the bridge. There’s a reason why women are taught to do everything in groups of two. We arrive at the front of ‘splav’; think of it as a giant houseboat, without the house. Below the sign, “FreeStyler”, two giant bouncers dressed in black stand in front of the doors, staring at us with peculiar looks, ones that say, there’s no way you guys are at the right place, you must be looking for a pirate ship-looking club Povetarac that’s down the street. The bouncers soon realize we’re at the right place and reluctantly let us in.
I walk in the club behind my new friends, swaying along to the song Mr. Saxobeat. The club is dark with streams of blue light, exposing hundreds of heads. Napkins are being thrown in the air by the bartenders, people yelling at each other with excitement, handing each other shots. I’ve been to clubs before, but most of them have a hunting-vibe to them, where women on the dance floor are circled by men for hours, until one brave man slides up behind them silently, trying to cling on to a waist in the hopes of not being rejected.
That doesn’t mean this club isn’t without faults. The women look like inflated blow-up dolls, and the men are this close to ending their steroid cycles. But the energy doesn’t seem to match. There’s more behind the facades of the desperate and insecure. I get handed a shot from one of the hands I’ve been hanging out with. The group clinks glasses and slings the shots back in unison.
The guy smoking from the antique pipe earlier in the night comes over to me, yelling into my ear, “did you look up?”
I didn’t hear him, “Everyone looks like sex dolls here. I hate this place, and at the same time, I never want to leave.”
My head tilts upward, where half-naked women are dancing above us, grinding against support beams, dry-humping the alcohol-filled air.
“What is this place?” I yell back into his ear.
“This is Belgrade.”