Serbia’s slava festivities are quite exceptional. I have to admit that, before I visited the region, I had never even heard of slava but over years of visits, I have become quite accustomed to such events. However, it was not always that way.
My first experience of joining a family to celebrate their slava was in Banja Luka. I was still getting my head around some of the cultural idiosyncrasies and so I didn’t quite know what to expect when my friend and I were invited to the slava at a family home in the rural outskirts of a town in Republika Srpska. Portrayed as something between a religious blessing and a booze and buffet get-together, complete with the earlier slaughter of the family’s own pig, we were a little perplexed by the whole thing really. All we felt was that it must be quite an honour to be invited to join the family at this special time.
Of course, those were not the only questions that came to mind. There are all sorts of social hurdles to overcome when you are invited to someone’s home in a culture other than your own. Should we buy a present, would we be expected to take a bottle of wine, and could you even buy ‘Happy Slava’ cards? All these thoughts flashed through our minds, building the anticipation even more. Thankfully, we need not have been so concerned.
While this was not exactly slava-lite, the family had already marked the religious part of the celebration, with the blessing and ceremonial elements taken care of earlier in the day. Somehow we had managed to bypass that process and fast-track straight to the afternoon party for the younger family and friends. As our friends were in their early twenties (and we could only faintly remember those years), we became honourary members of that younger crowd and found ourselves sat at a table overflowing with various special dishes of meat, fish and pickled vegetables – plus the obligatory over-sized bottles of Jelen, bottles of brandy and plenty of red wine, of course.
Having been forewarned about my aversion to eating meat, the mother of the house had clearly been busy preparing all sorts of vegetable and cheese dishes especially for me, too. The gesture was heartening and the food was delicious, even if the constant replenishment of overflowing platters placed before me was somewhat daunting. As is always the case in a Balkan home, hospitality is never an issue.
Towards the end of an evening when our host seemed to be kept most concerned with refilling our drinks, the father of the home shuffled up alongside us on the bench. In his hand he proudly carried an unlabeled bottle of slightly tinted liquid. A friend translated as the father told us that this was one of a very small batch of special bottles of homemade rakija, long ago stashed away, only to be opened on the wedding day of his son. As that day was not yet on the horizon, the father had apparently decided that this was as good an opportunity as any to crack open a bottle of the lethal brew. Indeed, he said that our presence, as friends from overseas, was worthy of celebrating in such style.
With praise like that, and after a fair few glasses of Serbian red wine, we were in no possible to refuse the offer of a few swigs of the special rakia. After all, it would have been rude not to accept. So we savoured the taste of the first small glass, complimenting the smoothness and depth of flavour (as you do when offered a host’s favoured tipple). What followed, though, was slightly more than we had anticipated. Rather than the one thimble-sized shot of alcohol to mark the occasion, we were off and running on what felt like a rakija drinking challenge, as we followed the father’s lead and each brimming glass of spirit was knocked back in a single gulp. Glass after glass, we necked the innocent looking liquid, making various toasts as we went. It was only when our friend stepped in that the marathon was brought to an end.
We have since been to a number of slava parties in the region and they are always enjoyable and slightly different with each family. We have a better idea of what to expect now, especially if we are invited to an evening do. I must say, though, I have taken quite a liking to rakija since that night.
Marcus Agar has been commissioned to write reports for Wannabe Magazine. Click to read in Serbian or for an interview in English or Serbian.