The Yugosphere: Not Just Balkan Nostalgia

'Yugo'-rooted ­Viennese struggle with clichés and their heritage

Top Stories | Jelena Kopanja | October 2012

The Balkan classic, ćevapćići (Photo: Wikicommons)

It is Saturday night. Boys in tight T-shirts and close-cut military hairstyles throw around boisterous jokes, encouraged by shots of schnapps they have just taken. Tipsy girls in miniskirts teeter under an onslaught of laughter.

This is a common scene anywhere in the city on any given Saturday night. Tonight, however, we are on Ottakringer Straße.

The some 2.8 km-long street that divides Vienna’s 16th and 17th districts is known as Balkanmile or Balkan Straße by many former Yugoslav migrants who live, work and come to play there. It is the artery that feeds the community’s gastronomic longings for homemade Balkan specialties like ćevapćići sausage or pljeskavica patties. It also satisfies its cravings for the heart-wrenching, vein-cutting music called "turbo folk" – a mishmash of folk, techno, pop and ethnic rhythms that can make the most unassuming body suddenly find itself dancing on a table.

It’s a cliché, says Ivana Cucujkić, 29, a former deputy editor-in-chief of Biber, a monthly magazine for "new Austrians" catering to second generations. But this cliché just might ring true, she says.

Co-author of a recent article on second generation former Yugoslav migrants for the Austrian weekly Falter, she describes these young people’s "schizophrenic homesickness" (schizophrene Heimatnostalgie), or longing for their parents’ home country even if they had never lived there.

"They have this weird nostalgia for something that they know only from holiday visits. It is a strange feeling, heightened by the fact that they are not 100 per cent accepted here [in Austria]," says Cucujkić.

There are approximately half a million people with roots in former Yugoslavia living in Austria today, of whom around 150,000 were born here.

For the most part, the young Austrian-born Bosnians, Serbs or Croats speak better German than naš – literally translated as "ours" – a catchall term for former-Yugoslav languages. They go to Austrian schools and work in Austrian companies, but on the weekends flock to Ottakringer Straße to let loose to the latest turbo folk beats, played at most clubs in the area.


"Match not exactly made in heaven"

The relationship between Austria and its former Yugoslav community is a complicated one. Cucujkić describes it as "in transition."

"It is like a marriage, but not one made out of love. But then you grow to love each other because you have to – you can’t choose your family," she says.

Unlike during her vacations in Serbia where she was free to run around, Cucujkić remembers being confined to her house in Vienna as a child. "I could never play outside – because there was no playground close enough to go to alone or because the neighbours would complain about the noise." She thinks it is a longing for this same experience of freedom that pulls at her peers’ heartstrings.

The Balkan Wars of the 1990s brought yet another 115,000 refugees to Austria – mostly from Bosnia – and some 60,000 stayed.

"Where are you from?" is still a question that haunts the second generation. No matter that they were born in Austria, usually that unavoidable "ić" at the end of many last names still labels them as "foreign".

"If they would not ask me this question all the time, I would not be asking it myself," says Cucujkić, a native-born Wienerin. As years go by, she says she feels more and more pulled away from Austria and toward her Balkan heritage.

And although the "ić" is much more visible in the public sphere today – not least because of swimmer Dinko Jukić, who represented Austria at the recent Olympic games in London – some people are deciding to change their last names because they feel it is costing them opportunities and jobs, as the Vienna-based monthly magazine Kosmo ( wrote last month.


The "ić" that made it in Austria

Bernhard Jelović, 32, the owner of one of the few alternative Lokals on the ex-Yu scene – one where you would be hard-pressed to hear turbo folk – says that he never had any trouble because of his background. Sure, discrimination and prejudice exist, but so do opportunities, he says.

"If I am capable, and I am, nothing can stop me," says Jelović, who took over Café Talisman in the 16th District’s Liebhartsgasse three years ago. Before his takeover, Talisman was known as a Serbian café, attracting mostly Serbs. Jelović, whose parents are Croats from Bosnia, says he made it into a "Serbo-Croatian" café.

"Well, I actually prefer to call it an international café since people from all over come here," says Jelović, Viennese by birth.

Divisions exist. There are cafés preferred by Serbs and others preferred by Croats. There are occasional fights along ethnic lines. Sometimes, fearing loss of identity, the second generation clings onto nationalist ideas they do not fully understand, both Cucujkić and Jelović agree.

But more often than not, the partygoers on the Balkan street and other parts of town with an ex-Yu scene are united in their love of turbo folk, a genre dragged through the mud for its association with nationalism during the bloody 1990s, but now largely absolved of its former sins by popular adoration.

A peek behind the tinted glass of a popular turbo folk hangout, Diamond Club, on upper Ottakringer Straße will reveal not a bordello – as the impenetrable exterior suggests – but a bunch of guys, arms around each other’s shoulders, belting out the words to latest hits, their girlfriends bobbing to and fro on stilettos.

It is secretive façades like Diamond Club’s that are partly responsible for the bad reputation the Ottakringer Straße has earned in the Austrian tabloid press in recent years. People fear what they do not know, says Antonia Dika from the City of Vienna’s urban renewal organization Gebietsbetreuung Stadterneuerung, and this migrant milieu is often perceived as a dangerous area.

She is one of the people behind Reisebüro Ottakringer Straße, a fictitious travel agency that in the past has offered tours of the Ottakringer Straße but also exhibitions and other events aimed at getting the other side of the story.

"Our goal is to show that this diversity is potential and not a problem," says Dika, who adds that the immigrant influx has in fact revitalised the neighbourhood.

The idea for such a unique approach of marketing the area as a tourist attraction followed the remark of District Council President Franz Prokop, that Ottakring, with its large former Yugoslav an Turkish migrant communities, would in fact be a perfect holiday destination if it only had a seaside.

"We are trying to fight prejudice and bring people together who know little about each other, but have fixed images in their minds," says Dika.

Just as one usually grows out of turbo folk sometime in one’s 30s, Ivana Cucujkić sees ex-Yugoslavs and Austria "growing out" of this complicated relationship with the third generation.

"I would like that one day, when my child goes to school, his or her background would not be an issue at all. That this ‘ić’ becomes a normal part of the society," she says.

Yet one "ić" has surely made it in Austria – the plump roles of minced meat called ćevapćić, served with lepinja (flat bread), onions, ajvar (sweet pepper spread) and kajmak (clotted cream). It is as at home at ex-Yugoslav dinner tables as it is on menus of traditional Austrian Gasthäuser.

Delicious, if a little greasy; a perfect end to a night out on Ottakringer Straße.

For more on Ottakring and the Yppenviertel, see "The Yppenviertel – A Tradition of Hospitality" in May 2012 TVR, and "At the Brunnenmarkt: Cultural Bazaar" in Sept. 2007 TVR.

Other articles from this issue