Stefan Martens translates my articles into English. That’s because my English doesn’t extend much beyond “How are you? Fine, thank you.” They really like Stefan’s translations, and I hope you have a similar opinion. There’s something else I like about him – let me explain:

He recently got married, and we passed along our congratulations and well wishes for the future. In all honesty, because he took forever to find a place to live, he was subjected to my pontifications along the lines of “when we were your age, we did it like this and that,” but he took this in his stride and didn’t make much of a retort due to the difference in age. But this is how the part about him that I like came to the fore: Whenever I say something, he objects politely. If I insist on something, he then goes for consultations with his wife before returning to me: “Fine, my wife’s convinced me, we can go with that.” For crying out loud, I’ve been married for close to 50 years, and I don’t remember ever being convinced this easily by wife – and this guy’s just been married for a couple of days! But in the end, it’s not a bad thing for spouses to surrender to each other. Stefan showed his smarts, apparently taking refuge in the formula of “surrender and be comfortable.” Back in our day though…

I’ll leave it up to you as to whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing for husbands to be easily convinced by their wives. As I started off on my “Back in our day” pontifications, the way they used to persuade customers at restaurants and bars back in the day came to mind… It’d be better if I just related that!

In days gone by, there were nightclubs that were different than those of today; I’m talking about the years when women and men didn’t get that close to each other. Villagers from the surrounding towns generally came to these types of bars in the big cities. Naturally, there was a greater abundance of patrons hailing from the villages when they got a hold of some money come harvest time. Those coming to these clubs sometimes came to eat but more often than not, they came for entertainment after a meal. The entertainment typically took this form: After the patron sat down at the table, he would choose one of the hostesses in the vicinity and invite her to the table. The woman would drink a lot of lower-percentage alcohol while correspondingly getting her customer to imbibe stronger alcohol – all while inflating the tab. They would while away the time chatting, and there were a few who accompany the resident orchestra’s poorly played music with dance. That was it! “That was it” could be perceived as condescending, but it’s not far off the mark. Is it far off the mark for such people given that the conversation the men engaged in was not of the type they could do with their wives in the village, that there was dancing and, if they weren’t married, that this was one of the few chances for them to inhale the scent of a woman? Of course, the bill didn’t come cheap; some of them accepted the bottom line, while some of them contested the matter.

A massive earthenware casserole bowl

Young single men generally had just a couple beer during the course of the event, but that didn’t save them from what came next.

“What the hell is this?”

“The bill, sir.”

“You think I’m blind? I can see that it’s the bill. How do you get a bill like that from two beer?”

The waiter would explain the matter, noting the music, the woman, the nuts, the flowers on the table…

“Really? Did I tell you to put flowers on the table?”

“You did not, but you did not ask that they be removed!”

At this juncture, if the customer was persuaded to pay the bill without dragging out proceedings further, so much the better for everyone. If he opted not to pay the bill, then it came time to “persuade” him. Efforts to persuade the customer that there had not been a miscalculation with the bill generally ended with a broken nose and a black eye for the patron, as well as a trip to the local constabulary.

Because I witnessed such methods of persuasion when I was young, I tend to get uneasy if I’m the recipient of more attention than usual at a bar or restaurant, or if flowers or mezes that I haven’t ordered come to the table, or if musicians congregate at my side for longer than necessary.

That’s exactly what happened at Dva Jelena.

It wasn’t as if I wasn’t entertaining concerns as I inspected the menu at this cute restaurant in Belgrade’s Skardalija quarter. There were names of food in a language I don’t know and prices in a currency that I’m not familiar with… Because of that – and as far I understood – I asked for simple dishes. The waiter, however, objected, recommending different choices, increasing my level of worry.

“This guy’s going to give us the tourist price,” I told myself. Soon, though, I accepted my fate and accepted his recommendations.

Soon after, a massive earthenware casserole bowl appeared with an amount of meat and vegetables in it that we could only hope to consume over a week at home. Of course, the dish’s appearance served to strengthen my premonitions about the nature of the bill to come. And, as luck would have it, wouldn’t the Gypsy orchestra start to play at our table right out of the blue?

The gypsy orchestra started to play at our table

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved the Gypsy air of the Balkans. I couldn’t resist and gave them a tip a bit on the early side. But wouldn’t you know that that just got them more excited. They probably thought the money was really meaningful, as they went as far as playing the Turkish National Anthem. I mean, really, you rise and stand when the national anthem is played, but were we supposed to stand at attention when all the other tables were laughing and dancing amid the abundant food and drink? Anyway, we managed to settle the matter, sending the orchestra on its way.

By the end of the night, it was time to learn what the damage was: The bill came, I looked at it, tried to figure it out, looked at it again and called the waiter over to explain the matter. The bill for our feast might not have been even half of what it would have been in other places.

If I find myself in Belgrade again and you need to get a hold of me, come find me at the Dva Jelena…