Everywhere Yugo in New York

By Anja Mutic
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 22, 2010

On a Saturday night in Manhattan, I navigate hipster-packed streets to meet my friend Amra at an East Village street corner. Unlike the crowd around us, we aren't here for the bar action. Instead, we head to a friend's slava, a Serbian tradition celebrating a family's patron saint on the saint's feast day.

Right across from Tompkins Square Park, we ascend to Vladimir's small apartment to find a handful of early arrivals. The host, an architect and the owner of Kafana (116 Ave. C; 212-353-8000), the city's only Serbian restaurant, takes his slava seriously. He cooks for days ahead to conjure up more than 30 dishes - from gibanica (layered pastry with cottage cheese) to prebranac (baked-bean stew) and sarma (minced meat rolls wrapped in sauerkraut).

Amra and I are given a spoonful of slavsko zito. This bready cake, made of boiled wheat, walnuts and sugar and/or honey, is traditionally given to every guest upon arrival as a sign of welcome and to pay respect to the host's saint.

More guests arrive, and the feast begins. Three plates of food later, I take note of the many newcomers to the apartment. The space, hazy by now with cigarette smoke - it wouldn't be an ex-Yugo party without the chain smoking - is buzzing with people from all over the former Yugoslavia. Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, chatting over food and drinks. As Serbian poet Charles Simic writes in his essay "Refugees": "Nostalgia is big on the menu at such gatherings." Smack in the middle of the East Village, a dead country comes alive for one night.

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, or SFRJ, as we called it, disintegrated during a brutal civil war that started in 1991 and spanned nearly a decade. During this treacherous time of ethnic cleansing, people left in droves. Some, including many of my Bosnian friends now based in New York, were forced to leave their homes with little but a plastic bag of hastily picked possessions. Others, like me, a Croat-Serb combo, left on a self-imposed exile for reasons of ideology. Men ran away from obligatory military service, women to save their lives and their children. And so our old country was split up, and the ex-Yugoslavian community abroad grew rapidly during the 1990s.

In New York, many of my ex-compatriots set up house in Astoria. This part of Queens has become a hotbed of Balkan food and culture since the collapse of Yugoslavia. Butchers proudly display suho meso (dried smoked meat) in the windows; tiny groceries stock ex-Yugo products; and restaurants dish out cevapcici (minced meat sausages). At the Bosnian-owned Brick Cafe (30-95 33rd St.; 718-267-2735; www.brickcafe.com), you can lounge over strong coffee and gossip for hours, the way the locals do. There is solace in these traits of my transplanted culture.

I moved to Brooklyn in 1999, after four years in England and two in Vermont and Massachusetts. Always drawn more to foreign cultures than to my own, I kept to myself for a few years. My friends were from all continents but none from the old country. And then, unexpectedly, Yugo-nostalgia kicked in. This term has entered the lexicon since Yugoslavia fell apart and we dispersed around the world. Like Ostalgie in Germany, the pining for the old East, Yugo-nostalgia exhibits itself in various ways. In me, it's displayed as an emotional attachment to positive aspects of the old SFRJ. I don't pine for it, but I do miss it.

There are days when I need to remind myself where I come from. So I head to Astoria. Here, I get to pick the traditional foods from back home. There's the Old Bridge restaurant (28-51 42nd St; 718-932-7683; www.oldbridgeny.com), where Bosnian expats come to chow down on cevapi, served with a flatbread and two yummy sides - a cheesy spread called kajmak and a spicy red-pepper puree by the name of ajvar. Some devotees swear by the cevapi at the no-frills Cevabdzinica Sarajevo (37-18 34th Ave.; 718-752-9528). Some days, I crave burek, a deliciously flaky pie made of phyllo pastry and stuffed with either spinach (zeljanica), cheese (sirnica), potato (krompirusa) or ground beef, and washed down with a glass of yogurt. Those days have a destination: I head to Djerdan Burek (www.djerdan.com), which has three locations around town, in Astoria, Brooklyn and Midtown West.

On any Tuesday or Friday night, I can walk into Kafana and sit down for a slice of burek and live starogradska muzika, the folk music we grew up with in Yugoslavia. Back home, a kafana was the type of place our fathers frequented, a place where they could go to get away from home and wives to chain-smoke with their friends, bonding over football and women. New York's Kafana may have taken things to another level, but there's comfort in knowing it is there, complete with the singalong and the food staples. As if I've been beamed from the East Village straight back to Belgrade.

When I crave Croatian food, I stop by Istria Sport Club (2809 Astoria Blvd.; 718-728-3181) in Astoria, an unassuming basement restaurant that serves specialties from Istria, a heart-shaped peninsula in the northern Adriatic. Last January, a Croatian Guinean friend celebrated her birthday with a Sunday lunch at Istria Sport Club. We had a feast of grilled fish and homemade pasta known as fuzi, as a few enthusiasts played boccie in the back garden on an unusually warm winter day. Around the table sat friends from several ex-Yugo republics and a few additions from years spent abroad, including Jamaican, Italian and Japanese-German.

When Yugo-nostalgia strikes on a Sunday night, I know exactly where to go. At Nublu (62 Ave. C; www.nublu.net), a trendy Alphabet City music club, Bato the Yugo and Gypsy Boogie perform updated versions of gypsy classics every week. I stopped in on a recent Sunday night and, although tired, felt my body jerk itself from the bar stool when I heard one of my favorite old tunes. The moment the music started, movement took over my body as though it were possessed.

I was born a citizen of Yugoslavia. At 18, my Yugoslav passport was declared defunct and, without anyone asking what I thought, I became Croatian. I still am, on paper and in conversation. Yet when I walk the streets of Astoria and find a store that sells the bar of chocolate I once savored as my special childhood treat, when I walk into Kafana for a meal of prebranac that so reminds me of my aunt's in Belgrade, when I have fuzi at Istria Sport Club on a Sunday afternoon, it feels like I've traveled all the way back to the old country. For a New York minute.

Mutic, who was born and raised in Zagreb, Croatia, is a New York-based travel writer and co-author of "Lonely Planet Croatia." Her Web site is www.everthenomad.com.

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