Beware of Englishmen in Civvies

July 16, 2013

Novi Sad, Serbia

By Marko Djurica

At the Exit Festival in Serbia’s second city Novi Sad, you won’t find any signs pointing the way to the closest place to egress, but only signs for “emergency escape.” It is intentional so that concertgoers don’t get confused that the party continues outside the fence, but I came to see it as a hidden message.

The festival is held on the grounds of Petrovaradin, a medieval fortress on the banks of the Danube River, and has been drawing crowds from the region and from Europe for over 14 years. The original festival grew out of a post-war student protest movement against the regime of former Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic. The name was meant to be a clear call for the Milosevic regime to step down and for society to leave the consequences of a terrible dark decade behind. The festival climaxed in the mid 2000s when it was recognized as one of Europe’s top ten festivals. Since then, it has all been downhill.

This year the very existence of the festival came into question because the past few years have been less successful and the fact that the festival is financed, in part, by the Serbian Ministry of Culture. But really, if you are one of the best European festivals for years, how can you need financial assistance from the government? The organizers justify the high ticket prices as necessary for attracting big stars to perform, which other than Atoms for Peace and David Guetta, I didn’t see or hear about.

So what’s necessary now for the Exit Festival to find its own retreat from the sorry direction it has taken? It has major advantages in relation to the region’s festivals — spectacular location at the fortress, a camp sandwiched five minutes from the city center on one side and five minutes from the city beach on the other side. But if you ask the foreign visitors, 90 percent of whom seem to be from the UK, for their impressions, they tell you only, mouths still agape, that they are astonished how cheap everything is. Of course, they are speaking of the food and drink. Or maybe it is connected to what Wikluh Sky, frontman of Bad Copy, a Belgrade band known for its sarcastic and parodical lyrics, said at the end of his concert: ‘Beware of Englishmen in civvies.’ He was simultaneously riffing on the preponderance of Brits and warning concert-goers about the plainclothes policemen at the festival. Embedded in his admonition is the widely-held sentiment that the festival has lost most of its rebellious spirit both because of the foreigners and the highly organized and fairly heavily policed area.

When you enter the fortress grounds, there are about fifteen stages with various themes trying to attract your attention. Other than the main stage, the dance arena, and the ‘Fusion’ stage, which showcases so-so musical acts, the rest of the stages are more or less empty. To be clear, whoever wants to hear random people sing Rihanna or Dino Merlin on the karaoke stage, or listen to trance on the trance stage or at the so-called “Latino” stage where they teach you dances like at a cheap hotel on the Mediterranean. You know the kind where the waitress brings you breakfast and at night there is a program for kids at the same time as the aerobics class for pensioners. It seems to me that offering these various stupidities just brings attention to the point that there are fewer people at the concert because the musical acts are weak.

But in spite of it all I had a great time at the festival. The unbelievable melodies of the Atoms for Peace are still in my head, as are those of the ever-hilarious Bad Copy. I was happily crossing the bridge from my hotel to the concert when one of the many girls selling rakija, our homemade brandy, in tubes approached me.

“Hey want a rakija?”
“No, thanks, I don’t drink.” (I lied)
“Come on, just one! You can’t go to Exit sober!”
“Really, no thanks.”
“Well what would you say if I offered you something other than alcohol”
“I think you need to beware of Englishmen in civvies!”

(Translated from Serbian by Valerie Hopkins)

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