The rumors are true—Serbian hospitality is fantastic. And if you haven’t heard any such rumors, let me begin spreading them. I could title my Christmas week spent immersed in another family’s traditions something like: ‘A Serbian Christmas—an illuminating and rich cultural experience.’ But that would be a bit stiff and formal, so I prefer: ‘A Serbian Christmas—one can never consume too much cake.’
While enjoying a savory fish paprika soup on Christmas Eve, I experienced one of those wonderful flashes of bliss that occasionally come when I am simultaneously living fully in the present moment and experiencing something new and different. As the family chattered around me in Serbian, I relished the spicy flavor of the soup and looked thoughtfully at the plate of garlic, apple slices, walnuts, and the bowl of honey. To symbolize good health of the body, heart, and brain for the coming year, I dipped a piece of each food item in the honey and took a bite, leaving the remnant on the plate. Thinking the fish paprika was the main part of meal, I made the mistake of enjoying two servings, urged on by the mother. In the midst of the stomach-bulging third course, I acknowledged my learning curve of Serbian holiday meals and vowed to live by the old adage: It ain’t over until they bring out the kolače (cakes). And believe me, hard economic times might prevent serving meat or cause scrimping on other parts of the meal, but there will always be kolače in the Balkans!
My friends’ house is quite small, and to me it felt like we were continually around one another. As I slipped into the groove of constant social interaction(while stealing away for some solo runs and walks), it became easy to appreciate the experience of a closer family community. Because hospitality is such an important value, if someone invites you into their home, they really take care of you. My friends have little money, and I found my treatment as a guest a remarkable demonstration of unconditional generosity. Meanwhile, it is considered good taste to bring a gift. My gift, a little Christmas pitcher with matching cups, caused many exclamations of “yoi,” and hands being thrown up into the air. I was both relieved and gratified that my gift brought such pleasure.
At midnight, we attended Christmas mass at the big Catholic church in the center of town, an experience that was new for me. As I tried to think warm thoughts in the large, unheated cathedral, I found that I rather liked the experience of ushering in Christmas Day in christian community. Afterwards, we walked through frozen streets toward home and our after-church-snack that was waiting for us, and—you guessed it—two kinds of kolače.