Words and photography by Peter Marrack

“You see that guy there?” said Dragoslav. “When we were kids he threatened us with a bomb.” He gestured to a man gripping a metal ball the size of a hand grenade.

It was a hot and dusty night in Zemun, on the outskirts of Belgrade. I watched this lunatic, this alleged crook, play with his Balote balls. I had spent so much time swimming and exercising the past couple of weeks I felt delirious, spent.

I had gotten to know the Pokrajac brothers, Dragoslav and Milan, from playing tennis together at the Ontario Racquet Club in Mississauga. On several occasions we loaded our racquets into the back of Mr. Pokrajac’s red Buick (may it rest in peace) to travel to a tournament somewhere remote like Rimouski, QC. So when Dragoslav suggested I go to Belgrade on a month’s vacation, to chill with his extended family, I figured I knew what I was getting into. Now I wasn’t so sure.

That morning, Drago woke Milan and I up early to exercise at Ko?utnjak, an old medieval hunting forest near Zarkovo. In a space where famous politicians went missing, and children of war sought refuge during WWII, we found ourselves running around the dirt path and did arm exercises. After some stretches on the basketball court, we drove across town to Tetka’s place for lunch.

Drago and Milan’s Aunt Milena (just “Tetka” (“aunt”) in Serbian), worked as a vendor at the Pijaca Market, where they sold everything from Partizan football jerseys to fresh produce carted in daily and sold on stands. Tetka owned an apartment in New Belgrade, but lived with her boyfriend closer to the countryside.

Walking up the stone path in her garden of fresh tomatoes and peppers, I noticed something funny about Tetka’s house. It was just a skeleton, all cement, no windows, doors, plumbing, heat or walls. I asked Drago about it. Apparently it’s natural for Serbs to build a house with the money they have, then make additions when they can.

That afternoon we dined on wooden slats propped on bricks. We ate ?evapi, skinless pork, beef and lamb sausage, raznjici skewers, pljeskavice, a kind of Serbian burger, hot peppers from the garden, fresh bread and lots of rakija, which is pretty much Serbian moonshine.

Ivica, Drago’s cousin, acted as co-chef, grilling meats on his portable charcoal grill, smoke wafting in dark plumes towards the crisp blue sky. The women (Drago’s mother, Jasminka, and Tetka) prepped the vegetables and grains, while Milan, Drago and their two cousins set the table. I sat out on the (would-be) balcony drinking rakija and chatting up Ivica using the little Serbian I understood.

After the meal, Drago’s father Nikola told us to get in the car. We would drive to the park, he said. Nikola was a wise old Serb from the Razvodje village of former Yugoslavia. He had done well for himself. He told the girls to meet us at Zemunski Kej, a popular strip on the Danube River. There we would walk across the old army pontoon—a long retractable, camouflaged bridge—to the Great Island, which afforded views of the placid river.

Zemunski Kej was an interesting place. People rollerbladed and ate cotton candy on the old military base. Hotel Jugoslavija loomed overhead, undergoing renovations; so did the old military headquarters, a relic overgrown with weeds and grasses. The place spooked me.

We walked around for an hour or two, then left. On the way home we stopped for sicevap sandwiches, and offered to drive ?edo, Mr. Pokrajac’s friend, home. He suggested we get another drink first. The old Serb said he knew a place we could drink and play Balote ball. So off we drove in the old five-speed Volkswagen to nearby Zemun, blazing through the dusty streets and traffic to an old quarter on the outskirts of town.

“You see that guy right there?” said Drago, once we got to the Balote place—a makeshift bar next to some apartment houses. “He stalked us and threatened us with a bomb. My brother and I were kids!”

At ?edo’s bar, people played “Balote ball” as if it was high-stakes pool, outside on long gravel pits like in shuffleboard. And here was this extortionist, this Bomb Man, according to Drago, wielding his shining Balote ball, engaged in competition under the moonlight. He might very well be dangerous, I thought. I took another sip of my Jelen beer. But let him play his game. Drago will tell me if I need to duck.

He didn’t.

After a long day of exercise, food and good cheer, I collapsed on my cot almost immediately. When we got back to the house, I shuffled to the bathroom to brush my teeth, and guzzled a nightcap of pulpy homemade wine from one of the big glass jugs in the garage. A fly buzzed around my disheveled hair. I didn’t bother swatting it. I brushed my teeth and went straight to bed. We were due at the beach at 9:00 a.m.—for swimming. If trouble erupted, at least I would be fit.