Rottweilers And Serbs in Niš

I first saw “f--k Serbia” written on a bathroom wall at a Brooklyn gas station.  It struck me, then, as an odd thing to write, but in Europe it’s a pretty popular bit of scrawl.  I’ve seen it a lot lately, in Croatia and Slovenia and on walls in Macedonia and Albania.  The point is, Serbia isn’t well liked by its neighbors.
In the gathering darkness of a warm evening in Niš we came across a strange, violent dog competition.  Men and women sat in lawn chairs, smoking and talking.  We spent some time marveling at the strange things we happen across.  Traveling – at its best – brings you completely unexpected rituals and cultural spectacles - like this circle in the trees, where people calmly watched Rottweilers attack a man over and over and over.
We aren't in Serbia to judge or rehash history, but 1992 wasn't that long ago.  It's difficult to come to a place like this without questions.  What are Serbs really like?  In general, they've been either incredibly friendly or quite brusque.  They aren't especially crazy about America.  People our age have been wonderfully open and friendly.  In general, they're a lot like most Slavic people.
The dog show was a ritualized display.  One could sense the anticipation of tensed muscles, the quickened panting before the leap, the sharp whines imploring the trainer to loosen the leash.  Attack dogs are strange things, and it takes a particular type of person to want to train them - someone who wants to both control and commit violence.
A young, thin man stood behind a kind of blind with a baton in one hand and a protective tube over the other arm.  When he jumped out and began looking threatening, a dog was supposed to run up to him, bite the arm tube and shake it while being beaten by the baton.  Sometimes, the dogs weren’t quite sure they wanted to attack.  Sometimes they were over-eager, and wouldn’t stop mauling the tube when they were supposed to.  It was frightening the first few times, but we got used to the gnashing teeth and brutish behavior.
Even to uninformed watchers like us, it was obvious which animals were better trained.  They were generally the calmest, and the quickest to loosen their bite when told to.  All of the dogs, though, were admirably non-threatening and well-behaved when they weren't about to attack.  There weren't any fights between the animals, and there was almost no barking.  We felt very safe wandering amongst the wagging tails and lolling tongues.
We feel safe wandering around Serbia, too.  Serbs are good people.  I wish, more than anything, that I wasn't suspicious of them. They don't deserve it.

Apparently, Niš is a Rottweiler hotspot.  Some ten kennels in town are devoted to the breed, and their owners wore t-shirts advertising their services.  Affection between Serbs and Germans hasn’t historically been strong, but the breeders and trainers have names like “Vom Haus Engle” and “Vom Hasen Haus.”  (Also, the hilarious “Rott-Angels from IceBerg.”)  The Deutch bent seemed strange, but there was a clear militaristic, close-cropped-hair aesthetic that isn’t exactly German but emulates a popular idea about Germany. We wondered, watching the show, if some Serbs feel a connection between their country and other old antagonists - a wounded pride, maybe.  Perhaps a desire to be understood for what they are today, rather than what they were.
This kind of dog show happens in other countries, of course.  It's not a specifically Serbian thing, but it resonated with us here in a way that it may not have elsewhere.  It brought to the foreground something that we'd been thinking without wanting to, a question that doesn't quite seem fair - not "who are Serbs?" but "are Serbs the same people that they used to be?"  Rottweilers are very friendly dogs, generally - but they can also be frighteningly vicious.  
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