Discovering Novi Bečej: Stories, people, history

By the paths of the past: Discover the rich history, interesting events and unforgettable people who have shaped Novi Bečej through time, as we return together to the heart of this beautiful city on the banks of the Tisza.

Petar Trbić – Štrba

Of smaller stature, as we would say in our jargon, "dežmekast" (compact), but not overweight. His hair had long abandoned him, so even as a relatively young man, he had a forehead with a few sparse strands. Probably due to prolonged standing as a shop assistant, he had flat feet, a condition he didn't pay enough attention to in time, leading to deformities that caused him to limp while dragging one leg, especially in the last years of his life.

His appearance alone didn't exude sympathy, but he still left an impression of a likable person for those who knew him. He was very good-natured and, uncommonly for jokes of this kind, often made self-deprecating jokes.

He lived with his mother for a long time without getting married, and when he did marry, which happened several times, he wasn't very lucky in matrimony. His somewhat bohemian, carefree life, similar attitude towards family, modest income, and physical appearance didn't secure him the necessary family harmony or a long-lasting marriage.

He spent the longest time in marriage with his last wife, named Maca. Everyone knew Maca, not for any special qualities, but from Perin's stories. He often portrayed her as a fierce woman, though he told these tales in a joking manner, making it difficult to judge how much truth there was in them.

He worked as a shop assistant for the merchant Petar Sekulić. His innate wit, combined with the dynamics of the workplace, brought out Štrba's characteristics not only to their full extent but also enhanced them.

Numerous jokes were created in Petar Sekulić's shop at Štrba's expense, as everyone in Bečej knew him and called him. He wasn't offended by these jokes; on the contrary, he often retold them himself, adding his own, just to make them more interesting. Each joke gained its proper measure only after he told it. The jokes spread in the community and often lingered long after Štrba's death.

It's important to note that not everyone made jokes only at Štrba's expense, and he remained unforgettable in that regard. On the contrary, he often retaliated in such a way that the "Perina prank" caused an impression, not only after his death but also after the death of the person the joke was about. For him, the personality wasn't crucial; the main thing was that the joke succeeded. He made jokes about his employer, the most reputable craftsmen, officials, priests, and others.

This placed Štrba in the forefront of the bohemian jesters of Novi Bečej. He didn't divide people based on material dependency or the pride he could trample upon. Fundamentally good-natured, he always started with good intentions, which shouldn't bother anyone unless they valued themselves more than they deserved.

Creating jokes at others' expense, which weren't always well-received, Štrba, due to his good nature, was inclined to withdraw quickly. Because of this, he was often accused of cowardice, which was in complete contrast to his overall behavior and life. He was for harmless jokes that would make people feel good and cheerful.

His love for company sometimes led him to be misunderstood. Poor financial conditions didn't allow him to buy drinks for the whole group but mostly just for himself. If he stayed longer in the pub, he couldn't afford that either. Therefore, some individuals considered him a man who wanted to drink at someone else's expense, or as it's said, a "mufljuz" (freeloader). No, Štrba wasn't like that. His goal wasn't to drink at someone else's expense; his love for company drove him to stay in the pub as long as possible. This desire often clashed with his capabilities, and he sometimes sacrificed his pride for it. However, those who knew Štrba and enjoyed his cheerful spirit usually understood him for what he truly was.

In this portrayal, I don't have in mind his last years when his strength began to wane, and even the most modest amount of alcohol, which in earlier years left no visible trace, was sufficient. During those times, despite all his good nature, he could be dull, like many people in a tipsy state. He never caused scenes or incidents during such occasions; instead, he mostly remained silent but was no longer interesting.

I want to remember Štrba as he was for the most part of his life, and that is his willingness to accept and make jokes.

On market days, the shops were filled with customers. Especially in those days, there was a crowd in the small shop of Petar Sekulić. Because of this, assistants didn't smoke in the shop; they eagerly waited to be free of customers to go out on the street and have a "half-cigarette" break. It was almost a rule then that a smoker would break a cigarette and smoke only half since cigarettes were expensive.

One market day, a customer entered the shop with a bag containing fish bought at the market. When the customer wasn't paying attention, Master Pera Sekulić took one fish and put it in the pocket of Štrba's coat, hanging on the rack.

As soon as the opportunity arose for the "half-cigarette" break, everyone put on their coats and took out their cigarettes. Štrba put on his coat, and as he put his hand in the pocket, he felt something cold and slimy. Suspecting a prank, he didn't react but went out on the street, observing the behavior of his colleagues. When he noticed that Master was paying special attention to his actions, he knew the joke came from him. However, he didn't react, and Master interpreted it as Štrba not yet realizing that there was a fish in his pocket.

Upon returning to the shop and while hanging his coat on the rack, Štrba took out the fish and put it in the inner pocket of Master's coat, which was also hanging on the rack. A day or two passed, the fish started to stink, and as the rack was near the cash register, Master mostly felt the odor.

Master addressed the assistants and apprentices, saying, "Boys, something stinks here so much that I'm getting a whiff of it, and when I leave the shop, I still sense that 'stench' right up to my house." Everyone was surprised; they didn't smell anything. When he came home and took off his coat, placed it on the rack, the stench dissipated. Now, however, the smell spread throughout the house, and his wife said, "Pero, your father, where do you roam, what are you doing? When you come home, you bring some stench and stink up the whole house." Pera told her he didn't smell it but that there was something in the shop that stank, and perhaps that odor had gotten into his clothes.

This went on for a few days, and the smell grew stronger each day. Jelena, Pera's wife, couldn't bear it anymore, so she decided to inspect Pera's clothes. Searching through the pockets, she found a decomposed fish in the pocket of the coat. Just as Pera was about to rest after lunch, she stormed in and began scolding him, "Your crazy father, where do you hang out, what are you doing? When you come home, you bring some stench and stink up the whole house." Pera remembered where the fish in his pocket came from but dared not say, as he would be blamed for engaging in such foolish pranks and what kind of relationships the boss had with those he paid.

In the afternoon, when Pera returned to the shop, he complained to the other assistants. He scolded Štrba, saying it didn't make sense - he was just joking with him to scare him a bit. Štrba accepted the scolding and pretended to apologize to Master, "I thought you would notice quickly. I didn't expect that you wouldn't stick your hands into your own pockets but into someone else's."

The boy who delivered newspapers in Bečej brought "Politika" to Pera Sekulić's shop every day. Master Pera didn't read newspapers in the shop but placed them in the pocket of his coat so that he wouldn't forget to take them home and read them peacefully after lunch.

One winter day, Štrba found an old "Politika," folded it the same way Master did, and placed it in the pocket of Master's coat. After lunch, Master sat in his armchair and began to read the newspaper. Politics and sports didn't interest him; he was focused on the middle part of the newspaper, which covered various murders, suicides, thefts, and crime in general. Pera opened the newspaper and held it with both hands, behind him and over his shoulders, and Jelena read. As she read from a distance, she could only read the headlines. Reading like this: "Yesterday, in Melenci, on a farm owned by such and such, a large wheat barn burned down." Since there was snow outside, she said aloud, "How can a barn burn down now?" Pera remembered to check the date on the newspaper and immediately realized that someone had substituted old newspapers for him. As soon as he came to the shop, he complained to everyone that Štrba was causing trouble at home because he couldn't make a joke like a normal person.

Master Pera serves a customer and praises the material as tear-resistant. When he mentions the price, the customer is shocked and says, "Do you think you're the only one in Bečej, that you can raise prices as you please?"
Štrba, who was standing next to Master, intervenes with: "Dear, if you find it cheaper somewhere else, may the boss die."
Master reacts: "What boss, what boss!"
Štrba calmly replies: "Well, the boss's house, Master."

During a break from work in the shop, Master goes to the restroom, located in the courtyard of a small single-story building where the "Potisje" department store stands today. This unimpressive building housed about ten trade and craft shops, and besides the employees in these shops, other residents of Novi Bečej also used this restroom, as there were no public ones then, just as there aren't today. One can imagine how neglected this toilet was when no one took care of its maintenance. Upon returning from the restroom, desperate to alert the assistants to instruct the apprentices to clean the toilet and take care of its cleanliness, Master enters the shop and says:
"Guys, an honest man can't enter our toilet; it's so dirty. To this, Štrba, more to himself, says: "Master, maybe not honest, but you can." Master, still pretending to be upset, asks: "What, Pero, to me?"
"No, Master, I know there's a live stench in there, so I wonder how you decided to go when the rest of us avoid it."
I mentioned that he didn't have much luck in marriage and often married. His marriages were "wild," without a formal ceremony. Everyone knew that, so on one occasion, a priest from Novi Bečej, a very serious and respected man, met Pera and asked him: "Petre, Petre, I hear you've been married several times, and I still haven't had the honor of blessing any of your marriages."
Pera, pretending to be humble, everyone would think that he was bothered by his lack of luck with women, remained silent for a moment and then replied: "You're right, but I know, Lord, the folk saying that goes, 'What one fool ties, a hundred wise men can't untie.' " He smiled and continued, surprising the priest, who, not expecting such an answer, said, "Is that so, Pero?"

During the occupation, there was a shortage of everything, especially in food. This scarcity particularly affected the poor, and Štrba belonged to that category. He was unemployed, and the source of income was the "black market." Everyone knew that his life before the war was not abundant, especially during the occupation when it was modest.

One such morning during the occupation, Štrba bought bread from the bakery, put it under his arm, and hurried home so that Maca wouldn't scold him. Passing by Ivan Juanin's barbershop, who happened to be at the shop's door, he greeted Pera, but since Pera was in a rush, he barely responded. Ivan wanted to start a conversation, so seeing the bread under Štrba's arm, he commented, "Lucky you, Pero, eating white bread."
Pera suddenly stopped, turned around, and replied: "But you, Ivan, are a foolish man!"
Surprised, Ivan asked, "Why, Pero?"
Without stopping, Pera replied, "Are you normal, to whom was white bread enjoyable?" referring to those sentenced to death, who were allowed to fulfill many wishes on the day before the execution, and that day was called "on white bread."

Especially in the morning, he was ready for making jokes. To entertain the company, standing one morning in the bar with a shot of brandy, he told those present how he had no peace from his wife Maca day or night. Everyone thought of the usual scenarios, but then he said, "She woke me from the sweetest dream and pushed me; stroking me all over, she said, 'Turn around, you put your butt on the pillow.'"

A Novi Bečej resident, a lieutenant in the king's guard, returned on leave. He met Pera on the street, greeted him, and, looking down on him, asked, "How are you, Petre, have you improved?" - meaning whether he had changed his way of life. Fully understanding the question, Pera responded with disdain, "Well, I've gained a whole 6 kilograms from our last meeting until today." He continued without any further conversation.

That's how Štrba was; he could turn even the most harmless situation into a successful joke and play with everyone, especially those who wanted to emphasize their "greatness."

Related Articles