It’s that time of the year again, Slava Season! It’s hard to believe that four years have gone by since the very first Slava I attended in San Diego, CA when I had just started dating my Belgrade raised boyfriend. This was the beginning of Serbian culture shock for me. On the drive over, I rehearsed “Srećna Slava” (Happy Slava), eager to show off my new phrase to all the guests. It was only after being met with a blank stare several times that I realized what wasn’t right: saying “Srećna Slava” isn’t like saying “Happy New Year” or “Merry Christmas” – a phrase used to greet anyone on that holiday, it’s more like “Congratulations” or “Happy Birthday”, said only to a particular individual. I must have sounded ridiculous going around saying it to everyone, not just the Slava host. This tiny but significant detail could have saved me from appearing ignorant. Alas, it was somehow left out of my Slava briefing, and seems to have set the tone for the following years of my Serbian interactions. Preparation and a sincere desire to understand the culture left me just as confused and isolated as if I hadn’t made any effort.
Back to my first Slava – so it’s November in San Diego, and my Serb and I arrive at the door, dressed up and hungry, and carrying a bottle of wine. The host greeted us with 3 swift kisses on our cheeks and triumphantly held up a bowl of a mushy looking substance and a wooden icon of a saint. My boyfriend crossed himself (a very unusual act to protestant Christians in the US) before swallowing the stuff with a spoon. I stared at him curiously and suddenly realized I was expected to follow suit. (Zhito is the sweet gruel-like substance made of wheat, ground nuts, and sugar, and its tradition at Slavas symbolizes the resurrection and is served in memory of deceased family members. Yummy.) Several hours later, I began to grow weary of all the nodding and smiling as I stood quietly alone in my English Only mind, separated from the Serbian Only socializing. The few English words that punctuated the constant Serbian chatter were directed at me: “Eat something!”. “Try this, you’ll love it!” or “Have some slivovitz!”. At some point, amidst the turbo folk, the kolo dancing, the sweet wheat gruel, the oily peppers, and hours of loud, raucous laughter to jokes I couldn’t understand, something didn’t feel quite right, and I ended up hunched over in the host’s toilet, vomiting up all kinds of bizarre ethnic food I had ingested against my will.
Four years and many misunderstandings later and I’ve become a seasoned pro at this Slava thing. I show up well fed, thick-skinned, and ready with a bottle of slivovitz and a joke about Mujo and Haso, the Bosnian hillbillies. By now, I’m actually excited to attend them. I find myself whining to my husband in our unique language, Serblish, to stop checking himself out in the mirror and go already – “C’mon baby…… Idemo na Slavu!! I’m ready sada! Let’s Go Bre!” With a few ground rules and a thorough pre-game briefing, we can both have fun and no one gets hurt.
Our Tried and True Slava Survival Briefing:
Home Team Rules
1) No launching into a long-winded conversation in Serbian when I’m standing right there, thereby effectively eliminating me from any hopes of participating in conversation.
2) He starves himself before we go; I come prepared with a full tummy. I’ve accepted the fact that most traditional Serbian food doesn’t agree with me much. So though I appreciate the hard work and effort of the hosts, I unfortunately cannot participate in the feast.
3) Don’t ask me to eat something in front of the host. Chances are I won’t like it. Someone is bound to end up embarrassed or offended, or worse yet, vomiting in the toilet.
Its Slava season everyone, get ready, I may show up at a Slava near you!
Though I joke about the culture shock of a Slava, I do appreciate its essence. A Slava is a holiday set aside for each family to recognize the patron saint that protected them during ancient times. Though Slavas still hint at tradition with slavski kolac (blessed bread) and zhito (sweet gruel), their celebration has evolved into something more secular. I believe that a Slava is still the best place in America to witness the Serbian spirit. After all, it’s an event for giving thanks for all the blessings in one’s life and for welcoming friends and family into one’s home to celebrate their national identity and good fortune. A wise one said that “Slava is a day not only of feasting, but also a day of spiritual revival through which the Serbian national soul is formed and crystallized.” Tako Je, Bre! Let the Slava Season Begin!