A bunch of hats, seven girls and a town with a story

Photo: Tamara Miljevic & Katarina Dajc

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I often think that I do not know enough about my closest surrounding. And it’s true. And then I decide to visit more places in Serbia. The old people used to say ‘You have to be familiar with yours in order to appreciate the others’. This old people’s saying has often proved true, so now I don’t have any doubts concerning them.

And the last time I decided to travel around my surrounding I was invited to a tour of the famous hat factory Begej in Zrenjanin. It is a very close surrounding, about a half an hour’s drive from Novi Sad. The call for adventure was initiated by Dragana, my new virtual and real friend, a girl who makes miracles from the soil, and these miracles are called earth architecture. We didn’t have a lot of time to spend together, Dragana and me, but it was enough for us to recognize each other and know that we can be the companions of crazy adventures such as a tour of the hat factory.

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Begej factory has been closed for some years now, but they still have plenty of hats in stock meant for all the ladies and gents of style and taste. When you say Begej hat for me it stands for quality. I remember my mother’s hat of the same manufacturer that used to be kept for years in its’ special bag, almost untouched, and I also remember my feeling of awe while snooping among my mother’s things. I used to look, touch and try on almost all of the stuff from there, but my hand certainly didn’t dare to go near “it”, this Begej hat. A hat store with the same name (Begej) in Novi Sad has definitely inspired my young mind to think of this strange cult of hats. It used to have a shop window full of hats stacked on a stand so they looked like a lot of people’s heads in the window. All of this used to attract my attention every so often, and I used to watch all these hats with admiration – small, ladylike with lace, big wide-brimmed, the ones made of canvas and, and those made of rabbit’s hair – my imagination would simply open up and I used to fantasize about who would buy that hat, where he or she would keep it and in which occasions would he or she wear it.

After the closing of these stores my fantasies regarding the hats started slowly to fade away, but the idea of a hat remained something like a silent concern and a subject of genuine admiration. The call for a tour around the factory was crucial for awakening my old fantasy and translate it into reality. Except there was a small difference – the reality was even better than my greatest fantasies of trying the hats in the Begej store. This time I was allowed to try out all the hats from all over the factory, hey! It was a sweet hour of running up and down to the mirror and back, viewing the huge long colorful shelves with different models of hats from our dreams. The spirit of little girls suddenly woke up in us and came to life in this fairy-tale place of color, the machine oils fragrance and the huge metal shelves.

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After the factory visit we drank a coffee like real ladies, proud of our catch.

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With hats on our heads, one of a sudden, a magical story of the town of Zrenjanin opened up. I do not know whether it was up to the noble sense that came from the awareness of having a hat on my head or was it the whole atmosphere, but these stories just opened up in front of us – about the rich Jewish merchants who used to own most of the houses and shops in the main street, Art Nouveau buildings, the churches, the first photographic studio, and all of the factories that remained from the old ages. What a rich little town it was! And there is a story about which says that until the eighties Zrenjanin used to produce everything what was necessary for living – from food to clothing. Well, of course in those circumstances they were able to make hats as well!

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The old glory of the town is still there, it could be seen at each and every corner. There are still ghosts of old industrialists and traders floating around, it just seems like everything slowed down, stopped for a minute and took a nap. So I suggest you put a hat on your head and go on a tour, and pay close attention to every detail – you may hear voices, the bustle, the sounds of machinery and factory workers’ argue, anything is possible, and perhaps even the nap could be interrupted and life can continue where it once slowed down and almost completely stopped.

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