When I first got involved with the rock camp movement in 2013, I never imagined that I would eventually join the Girls Rock Camp Alliance board and have the opportunity to meet so many radical and amazing program organizers and volunteers from around the world. Fast forward to 2019 where I would receive an invitation from Rok kamp za devojcice to participate in their third annual camp in the town of Knjaževac, Serbia. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought about visiting Serbia, let alone working with a rock camp there. One of the most beautiful aspects of the rock camp movement is that we are all part of this larger, international community.
To quote the GRCA’s Points of Unity: ‘We are not alone and our work transcends borders. Our collective power is grounded in our membership and the communities our members come from and work with. We can hear each other across oceans and the landscapes we call home, and we work in solidarity with each other and other liberation movements.’
I must name that I had a significant concern prior to participating in the camp. As a non-Serbian speaker, would my presence be harmful or take away from the program experience for the campers and/or adults? This is something I grappled with until I arrived at the camp.
After a stressful morning of travel (and almost missing my flight), I landed in Belgrade and was greeted by Tatjana, the program organizer who I had met months earlier at our annual Girls Rock Camp Alliance conference. It was, of course, nice to see a familiar face after landing in a country where I essentially knew no one. We took the 4-hour journey from Belgrade to Knjaževac by car, where we would meet up with the campers, mentors, and band coaches who were already at the camp site.
I didn’t know much about Serbia before planning this trip so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The drive was lovely - filled with green pastures, fields of sunflowers, farms, and mountains. The countryside in Serbia is quite beautiful.
Upon arrival, I was introduced to so many people I had a difficult time remembering everyone’s name. I really felt welcomed to the space. Here I was, the random American visiting the camp. I just hope people didn’t feel too nervous having me around.
The camp itself took place at a high school facility in the town of Knjaževac - with a dining hall, dormitories on site, and plenty of rooms to serve as workshop spaces, instrument instruction rooms, and band practice spaces. This was my first experience participating in a sleep-away/overnight camp, so I was excited to see how everything was structured.
Having not slept at all the night before, I ate dinner that evening and went to sleep around 8:00 PM local time. I could blame the jet lag or lack of sleep. But in all honesty, I’m a bit of a grandpa and get tired easily.
Each day was structured about the same - morning exercise / stretching led by rock camp extraordinaire Tamara followed by breakfast and instrument instruction workshops. Lunch was followed by a workshop and band practice. Dinner was followed by an evening workshop or activity facilitated by the organizing team.
A kitchen staff prepared breakfast, lunch, and dinner for us every day. They cooked a variety of traditional Serbian dishes so I was able to get what I consider the full Serbian experience in Knjaževac!
In between the instrument-based sessions, the mentors and band coaches usually hung out together outside at a picnic style table that rested underneath a large tree, often shaded from the elements. They would chat and drink coffee. Stray cats often visited the campus looking for scraps of food from us or the kitchen staff. One cat in particular, who was given the name Pijon (it’s French, look it up), took a special liking to Selena, one of the organizers. We joked that Pijon was Selena’s child.
I could sit here all day and type up these little details about camp week. There were so many special moments for me so I will limit myself to the top 3.
First, I had the honor of being interviewed by 3 former campers turned volunteers. They prepared excellent questions and interviewed me in English in order to work on their English language skills. The interview was recorded by 3 campers who were part of the sound engineering track at camp. I had so much fun with this interview and was happy to share more about the GRCA and myself.
Second, I had the privilege of co-facilitating karaoke night for the campers. Tamara and I kicked off the evening with our rendition of Backstreet Boys’ I Want it That Way - a crowd favorite. The campers had so much fun singing along to each other’s songs. Sadly, we had to cut karaoke night short because it got late and we were making too much noise.
Third, I really feel like I was able to bond and form relationships with the adults and campers. There were moments when I felt guilty about conversations needing to be held in English in order for me to understand what was being said. But usually someone (mostly Selena) would make a joke out of it and yell ‘in English, please’ to the group. I got to learn more about the culture in Serbia, the camp itself, the lives of the folks running the program. There was one night in particular we all went on a walk to take group photographs. Following group photos, the campers got to take their band photos at a nearby playground. I noticed two campers who were trying to flip a water bottle and make it land upright. I asked if I could try it and the next thing you know, there were about 12 of us in a circle taking turns trying to flip the bottle. At that moment, I knew the campers were entertained by me and I had officially gotten their approval.
Unfortunately, I was not able to stay for the final concert. But from visiting the band practices, I knew everyone would do an amazing job. Unlike previous years where the campers learned to play covers, this was the first year they wrote original songs. I hope they know how proud I am of them! I have no doubt they are proud of themselves (if you’re at all interested, you can watch the final performance on YouTube here).
My time at camp came to an end when I caught a 5:00 AM bus back to Belgrade the day I was scheduled to leave Serbia. I was fortunate enough to ride back with Radmila, this incredible human who owns a gallery/cafe/events space called Papergirl Galerija that Rok kamp za devojcice uses for office and meeting space. We got to chat during our 5-hour bus ride together about life, photography, and the culture in Serbia. After arriving in Belgrade, Radmila let me store my luggage at Papergirl and showed me around the city for a few hours. We grabbed breakfast at a nearby cafe and did some sightseeing on our way to the Kalemegdan fortress. I saw the Danube river and snapped a few photos (and some selfies, of course). On our way back to Papergirl, we stopped at another cafe for an afternoon refreshment. I had a delicious Serbian beer called Salto. We returned to Papergirl, I grabbed my belongings, and took a cab to the airport. I felt sad leaving Belgrade. It marked the end of such an amazing trip.
Overall, my time in Serbia was an unforgettable experience. I left feeling like my impact was a positive one. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to visit again - either the camp or the country itself. As we say at the GRCA, joy is a revolutionary force. Thank you for all of the joyful moments and memories, Rok kamp za devojcice team! I will forever be grateful for the time I was able to spend with you.
Here are some photographs of my time in Knjaževac and Belgrade: