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To the girl in the crowdJuly 11, 2015

The city is swamped with tourists, oozing out of temporary accommodation into streets thick with the ebb and flow of crowds. Sun fall brings a wall of people trekking across the bridge, along Belgrade road and up to the entrance gates. A few rows behind me I hear a shard of conversation, a girls lament on how locals get tickets half price. I cringe inside, both from the arrogance of knowledge and the ignorance of circumstance. A Facebook image hovers mind about how it used to be that people from Novi Sad could afford to attend the festival.

One of the hardest things to explain to foreigners is how Serbia is still developing. One one side of the coin there is a Microsoft branch that’s contributed to things they may use everyday like Word, Microsoft Cloud and Windows Phone applications. The young are very educated, they may watch the same TV shows, listen to the same music, perhaps even buy some clothes from the same multinational brands. But looking at the other side of the coin is very different, on this side “According to statistics, about 140,000 live in destitution, and every second citizen under the age of 25 is unemployed” While the majority are some place in the middle the average wage in Serbia is 6 times smaller than the uk. It’s usual to see people trawl bins for plastic bottles and metal cans, horses pull wagons heavily loaded with old cardboard, second hand clothes are bartered for, traded, sold, worn and re-enter the market system again.

For every advocate praising there is another painting a dire scene, both are unhelpful even if true.

And so back to the festival, to the crowds slowly shoving forward, the blows of whistles through the tunnels, the sequel of a first timer, the blatant advertising, the roar of the stages and the flashing of multiple camera phones. Back to the face of the girl I fleetingly saw, too far away to respond to. What would I have said to her, how could I convey that half the price is still a weeks salary, tell her that the festival is our cities only real cash cow, explain how the festival itself makes it hard for local business to fully profit, how those prepaid cards for double price drinks hurt locals much more than her. How could I convey that the price of tickets is just dust in the wind to the history of the ground she stands on, to the people who pass these cobbles on other weekends. I couldn’t.

Rather I’ll pray that she has a wonderful experience, pray that she gets infected with the atmosphere, touched by the city and comes back. I pray that now she knows the way she may come back when the fortress is not a festival ground. I’ll pray that she invites friends, tells them about the breathtaking fireworks that literally filled the sky with a ball of flame, about the relaxed people and chilled atmosphere, how the fortress provides amazing acoustics, how chill out zones and interactive areas let strangers engage, that she spreads a positive image about a country that’s not seen so positively by many. I pray that one day this will not be a country of extremes and that it learns to really use it’s yearly platform to establish a better tourist industry, because it’s a beautiful land and it really has so much to offer.

Official Festival Photo : Image source : https://www.flickr.com/photos/exitfestival/19417632099/ and it was totally amazing to be standing under!

Behind the banners : tips for Exit festivalJuly 6, 2015

exitThis weekend is Exit festival in Novi Sad. It’s going to be great, it’going to be hot, and it’s going to be an invasion of people into a town that’s all keyed up for their arrival. Last year the attendance numbers were logged at 185,000, that’s about 10 thousand more than Glastonbury. I have a lot to owe to the festival, I met my husband there, but six years on I wish I could tell every foreign exit goer these few truths.

1. There is more than one festival.
Exit festival is reasonably priced, but it’s still beyond the reach of many in the city. Not to fear though, they will still be out in force, enjoying the atmosphere. Venture beyond the camp / hotel and the fortress and come wander in the centre.

2. Prepare for heat.
It’s hot here, during the heat of the day it’s boiling. Pack talc for dry baths, loose over the shoulder clothes, wet wipes for your forehead and neck, decent sunscreen, sunglasses and if you wear hats then bring it. If you are a girl I’d also recommend panty-liners to help feel fresh. Plus, bring a bag big enough for a bottle of water, to carry around.

4. Be polite.
Learn just one word of Serbian – sorry. You will be pushing through crowds and it doesn’t take a lot to say ‘izvini‘ occasionally (pronounce i as ee). Most Serbians understand some English, though they may not have the courage to speak – remember this when you comment on their city, they are proud of it!

5. Use the buses.
The buses are cheap, just 55 dinar, it’s a flat fee per bus irrespective of how long you stay on. That’s 3 bus tickets for a pound. If you don’t want to faff with change it’s 715 dinar (just over £4) for a weekly ticket you can buy at the bus kiosks. Buses are regular and some even have air conditioning.

6. Don’t run for McDonalds.
I’m always saddened by the number of tourists who head for McD’s. If you want to use the loo then there are public ones which have a tiny fee but are lovely and clean opposite the Vojvodina hotel. If you want food then there is a great selection of places. If you want a burger why not try pljeskavica – the local burger that’s double the size and half the price.

7. Don’t forget your privilege.
Many locals won’t be able to afford the festival this year. Those waiters serving you, the street sellers, the person at the kiosk, they will earn in a day what you would earn in a couple of hours on minimum wage. Receipts are often rounded off, and it’s normal to leave the smallest coins behind – in restaurants be kind and tip.

8. Chill out.
Novi Sad is a really relaxed place, sit outside for a drink and soak in the atmosphere. Don’t worry about being late, timekeeping isn’t Serbia’s strong point. Yes you could arrive early and camp at main stage all night, but the atmosphere is dead if you go early and you’ll miss so much you could have stumbled across.

If you walk away from the stages you’ll still hear the music after an hour of plodding.

This is our home. That music you’ll enjoy will seep through the city, it will wake sleeping infants, it will lift the atmosphere and crush it when it disappears. Our calendar may focus on this one long weekend but our year still has 364 days.