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Charles’ Novi Sad Dream: Black Coffee Mornings, Nights by the Danube

Charles Cather has been calling Novi Sad his home for six years. If you ask this American from Illinois what it is about Novi Sad that makes it an ideal place for living, the answer probably couldn’t fit into one sentence. Still, on his YouTube channel, he tries to depict the beauty of life in our city.

Charles said he had pretty high expectations before coming to Novi Sad and Serbia. Back then, he never thought he would call this city his home and be a Serbian passport holder.

– My very first trip to Novi Sad was for Exit Festival 2011. I remember seeing and reading a lot about Novi Sad before organising my very first trip to Serbia back in 2010. My expectations were pretty high after seeing pictures of the stunningly beautiful buildings in the centre of the city, the parks, the fortress, Fruška Gora, Danube promenade, and reading some articles about the wine and food culture of this region. You couldn’t have set the bar any higher, but once I arrived in Novi Sad, it was 10 times better than that! It is the second largest city in Serbia, but it still has that small town feel. The cafes are full from morning to late into the night, the locals go out of their way to show you a good time, the city is small enough that you can walk from the centre to nearly everything you want to see in less than 20 minutes, it has bike lanes all over the city, more cafes/restaurants/bars than you can count, three malls, fun nightlife, affordable prices, diverse population, lots of history, cheap/reliable public transportation (taxi from centre to bus station is only RSD 250!) and it’s very safe.

Why did you choose Novi Sad and not some other city in Serbia?
– I’ve lived in numerous cities in Serbia: Zrenjanin, Sremska Mitrovica, Niš, Pančevo, Zemun, Nova Galenika, Kotež and Novi Sad. Back in 2014, the owner of a work & travel agency read about me in the newspaper. He reached out to me and invited me to speak to a group of 800 Serbian university students about American culture prior to their departure for America. Afterwards, he asked me to be part of the team! I immediately accepted. I moved here in September of 2014 and the rest is history.

You were born in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Can you compare life in Novi Sad with the life in Nantucket? What are the similarities and what are the differences?
– I was actually born in a little ranch community of around 1500 people in East Central Illinois named Greenup. My father was a farmer and business owner while mom worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Thus, agriculture has played a big part in my upbringing. I moved to Chicago for a couple of years before packing up and moving to Florida, then on to Mexico for one and a half years, and finally Serbia in 2010. My life is different than most people’s lives. I live in Serbia from October to May and on the beautiful island of Nantucket, Massachusetts from May to October. Out of all of the places I’ve called home, Novi Sad would most closely compare to La Piedad, Mexico. They are similar in size, very cultural, La Piedad doesn’t have tamubraši, but it has mariachi, no rakija, but tequila and the Mexicans are friendly and kind to foreigners. You could also possibly say that my birthplace’s dependence on agriculture is similar to the municipality of Novi Sad. This part of Vojvodina is known as the “Breadbasket of Europe” because of the fertile soil. The same can be said for my part of Illinois. Chicago is also similar to Novi Sad in Serb population. I’ve heard many people say that Chicago has over 200 thousand Serbs living there (I’m not saying it’s correct, but that’s what a lot of people say). It has Serbian restaurants, cafes, and lots of Orthodox churches. If we look at differences from all of the places I listed, I’d say all of them lack the liveliness and outdoor cafe scene that Novi Sad has. It’s amazing to walk down Zmaj Jovina Street in the summer and see both sides of the street filled with outdoor seating and most of the time you can’t find an empty one.

You often share your progress in learning Serbian with your YouTube followers. How good is your Serbian and is it challenging for you?
– The thought of learning Serbian language has always terrified me! I remember the first time I heard a Serbian sentence back in 2010. It sounded very rough and gruff to my midwestern ears. My Serbian friends would always teach me the inappropriate words and discuss the complexities of Serbian grammar. The 7 cases are what makes it so difficult. I couldn’t fathom why they would change my name depending on the situation: Čarlse, Čarlsu, Čarlsom, Čarlsa, etc. You also need to know the gender of each word which changes the adjectives too! The pronunciation is also hard for my tongue with sounds like lj, nj, and the two Cs (Č , Ć) that sound identical to me! My mother is always asking “Do you speak Serbian yet?” “How do you live in their country if you don’t speak their language?” I always explain to her that Serbs are actually very well educated and speak English beautifully so I really don’t need to speak Serbian. It shocks most Americans when you tell them that Serbs speak English. One problem in the American education system is that they don’t put enough emphasis on learning other languages. I was never exposed to foreign language until I was 15 years old so It’s been a struggle to learn Serbian. My job here is all in English. I teach Serbian students how to do well in job interviews with American employers, hire students for American employers, prepare them for U.S. Embassy interviews, etc., so I don’t use Serbian as much as most people. My Serbian friends here also love practicing their English with a native speaker so it’s been easy for me. I hadn’t taken a Serbian language course since I arrived in 2010, until December of 2020. I have decided to officially learn it since I’m now a Serbian passport holder. It’s actually going better than I expected. We are currently learning the future tenses in Serbian and I’m picking it up pretty well! Give me another year and I’ll be fluent.

You’ve visited many countries across the world, if you could think of one thing that singles out Novi Sad from the rest of the cities, what would it be?
– Travel is my passion! My number one goal in life is to visit every single country on the globe. I’m currently on country number 45, so I have a lot more to go. I don’t like to compare countries/cities/towns/villages because each of them are unique and beautiful in their own way, but If I had to find something that makes Novi Sad unique I’d say tamburaši, kolo and slava celebrations. If I’m not mistaken, Serbia is the only country on the planet that celebrates slava (celebration of patron saint). Novi Sad also has schools where patriotic folks can learn the local kolo (dance). It’s really fascinating that there are so many different versions of the kolo style and outfit based on region/roots, etc. The same can be said for the tamburaši. Nothing is better than going out with friends for a night on the town, eating a delicious meal and drinking the night away to a personal serenade from a tamburaši band. You won’t find that in Somalia or Madagascar. 😊

What are your favourite places in Novi Sad? Where and how do you spend your free time?
– I can say that I truly realized how special Novi Sad was during coronavirus lockdown this past spring. Once the government allowed us out of the house after weekend closure, it gave me the urge to walk to every corner of this beautiful city. It allowed me to see with my own eyes everything from Detelinara to Novo Naselje to Klisa to Satelit to Liman to Petrovaradin. There is a lot more to Novi Sad than just the centre of the city. I’d have to say my most favourite places are exploring the forests of Fruška Gora ( I know it’s not Novi Sad, but it’s close), wandering down the promenade next to the Danube on a summer evening, hanging out at Horus Nargila Bar with friends, hitting all the bars on Laze Telečkog, and marveling at the beauty of the building on my street of Dunavska Street.

Are you familiar with the fact that, in 2022, Novi Sad will hold the European Capital of Culture title? Do you think the city holds this title for a reason?
– I was aware of Novi Sad’s European Capital of Culture title and it made me very proud! My office is right next to the big Catholic church in Liberty Square so from my window I see almost everything that’s going on. Prior to coronavirus, you could always see groups of foreign tourists taking pictures of our beautiful square. I’m also lucky to know and speak to a large number of foreign visitors. They find my YouTube videos and reach out to me before and after their trips. It’s amazing to see and hear firsthand positive impressions of our city from different people from all over the globe! Many of them will say to me ‘Charles, I’d love to move to Novi Sad! How did you do it?’ Enough said!

How do you judge the cultural life of Novi Sad and what cultural institutions have you visited so far?
– Novi Sad truly lives up to its title of European Capital of Culture! Vojvodina is home to numerous minority groups who all have their own culture, traditions etc., so you are overloaded with possibilities! I’ve experienced many cultural institutions and manifestations while living in this beautiful city. To name a few: The Novi Sad Cultural Centre for art exhibit, presentations at 15+ local schools and universities, Novi Sad Theatre and Hungarian cultural centre for performance, Tamburaši Festival on Petrovaradin, Ribilja Čorba Festival on the Štrand beach, Serbian National Theatre, Brod Teatar, Dom B612, church services in many of the Orthodox and Catholic churches, ‘Kolo’ dance school for performance, and many more. I was also a guest speaker at the Exit Festival Tourism conference.

In one of your latest YouTube videos, you spoke about Christmas and New Year traditions in Serbia. Which of our traditions were particularly interesting or surprising to you?
– Even though I’ve been here for nearly 11 years, it’s still exciting that I get to experience two Christmas celebrations (25 December and 7 January) and two NYE celebrations (31 December and 13 January)! My American friends are always jealous and confused when I post about my exciting holiday season in Serbia. What I really treasure about Serbian Christmas is that it’s not about buying lots of expensive gifts for everyone you know. It’s all about tradition, family, faith and food. I also find the whole ‘badnjak’ process fascinating. Serbs will get up early, go to the forest, cut down some straight oak branches, bring them home and light them off on Christmas Eve with family and friends while drinking mulled wine. Priceless!

How did your family and friends react when you got Serbian citizenship?
– Receiving Serbian citizenship on 4 June, 2020 was one of the single greatest moments of my life! My family was amazed and very proud that I had been recognized by the Serbian government and granted the honorary citizenship. They were especially amazed that I had joined the likes of Steven Seagal and Adriana Lima as others who have received it without applying. I am the only person in the history of my family to have ever gained citizenship of another nation. I made Cather family history when Ana Brnabić signed my honorary citizenship application. I still get goosebumps every time I think about it my whole Serbia story. You won’t find a prouder Serb than me.

If you were a tour guide in Novi Sad, what are the top three places you’d take the tourists to?
– I’d take them to have a morning black coffee at one of the many outdoor cafes in the centre of the city, then a walk to the Petrovaradin Fortress to do an underground passage tour, and lastly, I’d take them to the fish stew dinner at Aqua Doria while listening to tamburaši and watching the sun go down over the Danube.

Foto: Uroš Dožić

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