Goulash Disko

Taking a break from the summer schools.
Meeting old friends on a beach.
Helping out at a music festival. Long sunsets over the water.
Tribal hipsters talking out of their asses about peace.

I really need this right now.


The ferry shoves off from Split, Croatia. That's where you leave behind wheezy tourists, tangled nests of highway and a Roman palace in exceptionally well-lit decay. You bustle among everyone else who's looking for tickets and plant your bag in some corner of the deck where seats are still free. Or maybe you stretch out on the floor. Destination: an island called Vis.

A bit more than two hours to go and you're not sure if there's internet onboard. You take out a book. Turn down your phone, maybe. From the corner of your eye you catch dreadlocked silhouettes turning the corner. You see occasional guitars, the patchwork of colourful pants. They look homemade. All of us driving in from odd corners of the continent and making for the same point on the map. There's something in you that doesn't feel the need to hold its breath anymore.

You step off the boat.

The bus waits for everyone and suddenly you're on it and winding through the mountains. You see it: a bay tugging itself out from behind short, rounded peaks. An island out in the water beyond that; you eventually learn it's called Biševo. The big attraction's a low cave where everything turns blue at noon. They tell you this in the town, where you'll be spending the next number of days. It's called Komiža.

If you take a long enough walk people are going to ask if you're here for Goulash Disko, the festival that descends on the bay, slowly and then all at once, on the second weekend of September. It's one last big push before locals start their retreat from the cafes, pizza bars and tourist agencies that make up the lion's share of their livelihoods. From there they head back home or wherever they earn winter money.

Volunteers have already been here a few days – if you turn down certain alleys you'll see them, barefoot or tattooed, painting pastel signs or slinging hammocks between tree trunks. Organizers prep days' worth of public and unlisted music sets. A few young bartenders look apprehensive yet giddy. Respectable tourists from Italy, Germany or Austria have no idea what they've walked into. But this is why you're here.

This is why I'm here.

That, and because of an old roommate. This is Goulash Disko's sixth consecutive summer, and my friend Matic has been here nearly since the beginning. His first time was the festival's second and he's been fixing details for it ever since. "Come on, you idiot," he says when I start making excuses, "you're going." It's through him I meet Goulash's founder, Yves Taquet.

Like me, Yves has spent a bit of time in Central Asia. An avid biker, he crossed the 'Stans on two wheels and rolled through a pass into China. Goulash Disko is his job for half the year. After all this he plans on biking down the Adriatic coast – thinking of anything, I'm sure, other than coordination and tracking people down online.

The cycle starts every year in March, when Yves plots setlists and revs up the paperwork. The festival began with just a few hundred spots and has grown, this year, to about a thousand and a half. The tension between throwing the doors open and keeping things an intimate affair is something most of the organizers admit to. Yves started everything with his ex-wife and they even got married on this very beach. We're chatting at the volunteer shelter when she comes in through the door – they hug and everybody spoons rice and soy meat onto each other's plates and we prep to head down to the water. Here you're family even when you're not family anymore.

I'm just one of a bunch of new volunteers this year, and an inner circle of organizers (invisible until they become unmistakable) spends a slowly reducing amount of time with each other before moving on to coordinate the rest of us. There's something about having a baby and seeing it grow. Friends start inviting their friends and you lose track of who's all here.
We cross downhill and pour through a number of alleys before stepping out onto a stony waterfront edging the bay. Waiters bring local beer to middle-aged revellers and small children ask for seconds of dried fruit and sherbet. The guy working at the cafe is glad we're here and eager for all this to end. There'll be hope for catching up on sleep then. We head to the small fort near the edge of the pier and find the lights've already started.

Yves and the other planners are careful to include locals in the process, and one of the things they do for the community is host a complimentary light show in the days right before Goulash. Hungarian designers set projectors up at angles and beam a wash of coloured shapes onto landmarks. Animals, geometry, third eyes. People take selfies in front, their faces and clothes for a second unrecognizable. We sit inside a geodesic bloom on one of the main squares and folks press rolling paper into each others' fingers.

Someone brings rakija made with sage, along with new wine. Someone else tells me my face is too scrunched up during the day – they weren't sure if they liked me. Now we're all cool. Another brings up Putin and how simple it is to stand against fascism in the West. People lean into shoulders or laps and ignore various slices of nonsense and look at the stars. Nothing is complicated, the same guy continues. Right now I almost feel like agreeing.

No one knows how long it is before we pack up and head to a bar run by Čedo, an institute unto himself who has the kind of space that divides locals into folks who come and folks who don't. It perches on the edge of the town center and, inside, we settle in among low lights, vintage posters, old Goulash signs and an inflated alien tucked into ceiling tiles. There's only enough room to squat tight on the couch. Like friends.

People take turns pumping YouTube with dub and disco cuts and two girls start yanking everyone on their feet and people pass the an astonishingly fantastic cheap cherry liquor. Outside people smoke and we're all moving and someone's watching me watch everyone else. The space transforms into the type a certain kind of tourist, with the voice of a hunter or mercenary, would evaluate as awesome.

A British tourist comes in and says "this is awesome." No one's watching the time and men become unselfconscious. Half of us have already left and some of the others tip over onto the loveseat. The rest make it back home somehow.

And then just like that it's the next day. We paint more signs and it's inescapable how Goulash means something quite extraordinary to everyone separately. One notices there are Goulash people and, for the next week, they're home for the holidays. The festival starts in two days and there are rumblings of a pre-party tonight. Of course there are. And of course it's on a beach accessible by only boat or what basically amounts to a walk in the jungle.

But arrive we do. My toes nestle into the soft chips scattered over the rocks. A girl swerves between a few dancers, tells me her name is Sunny and gathers empty bottles. She says locals have a complicated relationship to tourists, even to Croatians who aren't from here. She comes from Zagreb and does marketing; it's difficult explaining to people what it means to work from home. People she knows moved here for ten years already but she's not sure she'll see out her third. Looking for options. She starts saying more but gets pulled onto the dance floor.

Lonely people jive in groups. A girl next to a tree sways in a way that invites only the primest of specimens to approach. The same guy comes over and tells me my angry face is gone. "I like you now!" he yells in my ear. The place is called Solar Stage and the DJ pulses a set that has us reaching for words that don't exist. So we move.

There are signs reading DANGER near the path at the foot of the hill. Friends lie on rock shelves and curl into the music like into sleeping bags. Someone I know is afraid she's been sending someone she likes drunk texts but it's been him messaging her all night. Half the crowd's pretending to have a good time and the other half relaxes into what they've been counting the days for. It hits me that, for at least a week, sleep becomes as unneccessary as all the foreign languages you learned once in grade school.

Matic stumbles out of the crowd and grabs me by my shoulders. "Now you understand," he pulls my ear into his face. All this changed his life – he was a basketball player, once, then switched over to business when he hurt his leg. Goulash smacked him upside the head, made him realize he'd long been adrift. "Some of these folks are the smartest people you'll ever meet. PhDs and other shit," he looks down at me, "You'd never know."

"I tell my bosses," he continues, "to sort everything out so that when I'm here I'm really here. So my brain isn't all over the place. I want to bring my favourite people." He droops and hugs me the way clouds cover stars. "Go away. I'm just getting mushy now."

And I go, heading toward the base of the hillpath nearly barefoot. Earlier, trying to jump back on the boat taxi, I felt the current lift my sandals away like an offering to the moon. Lights on the water, round stones under my feet. And the boat floating off in all directions at once.


I wake up at the volunteer headquarters occupying the local biker club. For the past three nights I've been sleeping under the auspices of a disco ball, Che Guevara, a stripper pole and the Confederate flag. I mistake the guy in the sleeping bag next to me for someone else and stumble off toward breakfast and a shower.

Most of the volunteers are given four six-to-eight hour shifts in exchange for food and a ticket to everything. A month back I wrote asking if they needed anyone else – they told me to write something about the festival and take two shifts. My first is for tonight.

In the mornings and afternoons I head down to a local cafe to work on my own stuff. Writing web content, figuring out where I'm going to live this fall. The freelance life of too many projects at once or not enough. The guy who works here doesn't have to ask anymore: save the corner table, some green tea with a wedge of lemon. A beer if I'm here late enough.

When I finish early I head to the hammock forest to read a book. Listen to the stages below. Watch the sun set, eventually. It's set up at the top of a cliff overlooking the beach – during the summer it's a tent village of questionable legality. Everyone's relocated to a nearby park during the festival, which itself requires feats of diplomacy. We're not the first foreigners to lay a claim to this stretch of the island.

But this afternoon I head back to the bike club to meet Vlejd.

"Goulash took all my friends away," he says when I ask why he comes, "so eventually I had no more excuses."

This is his second festival but his first as a volunteer coordinator. He works at an escape room in Zagreb and coming out to the island is itself an escape. "Here it's all about taking care of people, making them happy. It's important. Being fed and appreciated." He adjusts his glasses. "Until last night I'd only been to the beach for half an hour – I came, people were there, we were all tired, they were happy to see me. I was happy to see them. We caught some beats – I like this music. I'm a beat junkie. It's my pressure valve, you could say."

He looks at his phone. Says he's not supposed to be multitasking while talking to me. Types something to someone.

He describes constant connectedness as something unpleasant, but all the same he needs to be on top of stuff. Has to make it all happen. It can get a bit stale. "On the other hand," he says, "we can solve problems in no time. We make shit happen – we've got parallel chats with the volunteers, the core group, the folks taking care of the musicians. There are people being rowdy on the boat? We take care of it it in fifteen minutes. Production problems? It boosts morale when people turn their heads and say, what the fuck, it's already solved? No drama?"

He leans back into the picnic table, "It's fulfilling. Usually when you're on vacation you don't want to be stuck on the phone. At first I felt like I wasn't doing anything at all here – just typing things to people. But when stuff happens I feel good. Everything is preventable. I designed shifts weeks in advance, then it all broke a week in advance, ha. That's Goulash, let me tell you. I'd like to do some of the things other volunteers do – I want to know what work I'm giving out."

We look south, toward the bay. There's a dog nearby and it doesn't approach anyone but doesn't go anywhere else. People fill beer cups with water and clean up after cooking. Another administrator sits at a computer next to us, contacting volunteers at the tent camp, the main stage, first aid. People partying everywhere and us reaching each other like through cans connected by string. Making sure everyone's alright. That people are on their feet. Having fun. No danger. Or at least a little less danger. That everyone's together, in the end. Suddenly it's getting dark.

"I'm busy, but on the other hand I'm at the virtual center of everything. It's an adrenaline shot, that's one thing." He laughs, "but I'd like a swim, sometime.
Getting to the main stage means veering through narrow alleys and out down a path along an abandoned factory. The town's largest church stands on top of a hill some distance away. I have no idea what road heads up there. You hear nothing at first, not while you're near the houses. But when you get closer it starts as a beat and then bass and then a jam. You turn a corner and see light on the water. The Hungarians set up their projectors and cover the beach with designs that shift whenever someone moves. And everyone's moving.

I flash my volunteer badge and the bouncers don't check my bag. The decor team have transformed the place into a faux-tribal paradise – palm branches cover the info stand and the bar, and multicoloured ropes hang from the pole holding up the stage-pavilion. Someone's set up a small, gauzy tepee nearby dubbed THE MINISTRY OF LOVE AND GRATITUDE. People lie on the stones or gather on the stage platform. There are either DJs or live bands. Dub, house, acoustic. A Mexican horn outfit wraps up before the next guys explode into a Balkan rendition of Game of Thrones. I'm manning the ticket booth and it's opening night.

It's probably the best place, along with the info booth, to be working evening shifts. Everyone's excited. You can listen to music while having something productive to do. I'd feel awkward standing on the beach for hours, just like that. Coming here alone's like stumbling into a high school clique that speaks a different social language. They know who to name-drop and when to dance and they look like they've been doing this for ages. Some seem conspicuously nonchalaunt. Others are just here for a good time.

Tena's one of the few who's been here nearly since the beginning. She runs me through the computer system that prevents festival entry from becoming a stampede. Who's paid already, who crowdfunded. Who's a guest, whose guest. Artists to the info table. We slide bracelets onto hundreds of wrists. Tighten them so they don't fall off. Some are too constricted and they ask for scissors and another wristband. Some have friends who haven't paid and ask for entry anyway. The unlucky ones sit in a corner near the steps and scour iPhones for e-ticket receipts. Some older tourists come by and ask to stop in – someone stole their dingy and they want to see if it was commandeered to the beach. In your off-moments you might feel power, the possibility of making someone's weekend by sliding a small piece of fabric over the table. Volunteers stand in a chain and grab at people trying to rush through.

I ask Tena about her story like I ask everyone about their story. "I'm just here, you know?" she returns to the keyboard, "I'm glad to be around." The night goes on and she eventually kisses my cheek and ropes a spare Goulash bracelet from 2013 just under my palm.

Locals pile in closer to midnight. They get cheaper prices and some wonder why they can't just walk in. Closer to 1am they ask, it's our beach, what the fuck? What are all these bracelets? That's why we have Tin – he's younger than me but has worked parties since he was sixteen. And he accepts no bullshit. "I don't take nothing, not even drink," he says. "I see things that fuck you up." He laughs, grabs my upper arm and turns to inform an intoxicated Croat that, no, it isn't happy hour. Not here, anyway.

But eventually we retreat for the night and dedicated crashers can make it in past 2 or 3am. By then we're already in front of the speakers, spread through a crowd pulsing out from center stage. I look up and see badges mixed in with party-goers who have no idea we watch, from time to time, to make sure everything's alright. Or at what point we give up watching. When we drop into the rhythm. Two girls from the info stand move through the crowd and flash smiles at every man who attempts pulling them into a dance. One sways on the steps beneath the sound system while the other picks up loose beer cups. They switch and the other kicks stray cans toward the stone walls. They laugh and spread out to different stretches of floor.

Čedo's people stream in from all sides. Someone stands on a raised corner and watches his colleagues move through the crowd. People circle the pole and it being less about being sexy than about movement. About being seen and it being okay. The beats dip low, pound at steady rhythms. The word LOVE moves across a strip of bright yellow lights. Love, among other things, being a chemical. Chemicals circulating the room. Someone standing off in the crowd with a kind of ecstasy on their face as if praying thank You for not striking us down. Not yet. A young woman weaves through the tightening crowd and twirls an incense stick over our heads.

Then it's like we're all pulled toward the middle. Matic towering over everyone nearby. The girls from the info stand dancing for nobody in particular. Yves stepping in from the back, where he was observing and bobbing his head. Tena turning her hands in the air. We lean forward, our badges bumping against the shirts we're wearing or not wearing. For a few minutes no one looks at each other and everything's perfectly, miraculously clear. And then we drift.

The final beat's a long, drawn out warning that morning's just up ahead. I find myself in a corner and tuck spare bottles into garbage bags. Nobody's anxious to be going anywhere until everyone's already gone. Then there are just a few of us sitting, backs to the speakers, staring at the sea. The sun peeks slowly over the water. I look over at my friends for a while. And then for a while again. And then we're gone too.


Some people leave on Saturday, trying to make it back to wherever they have work come Monday. Taking a break, attempting sleep. The volunteers manning the tent village hydrate themselves against the sun and hug anyone on their way out. People look for stray glass or footwear on the beach. The dance pavilion, in the mornings, strikes one as the kind of place that gets smaller the fewer people are inside.

"I can be myself here," says Iris, the coordinator for the info stand. It's her first Goulash and she's by far the youngest on the planning team. "I didn't really know at first, but Goulash is like my happy place now. The ways you bond with people. I, you know, I cried tears of joy. You know how they say when you have a job and you love your job, you don't work. I work all the time because I love it: working behind the scenes, taking care of people, that's me. I can't be happier than when other people are happy."

She pauses to sip her water. We're on the beach, and at the end of a long string of attempts all weekend to get her to sit down with me. People mull around the booth and the flakier volunteers bob in and out of attention. There are shirts, towels, hammocks, all with GOULASH printed in jaggy font. People debating the creepiness of past logos. Asking questions clearly answered on the sign above them. Asking everything multiple times.

In regular life, Iris works in Zagreb as an administrator and production hand for creative businesses. "I hate the forms, the finances, but I get an adrenaline rush. How we can get more money, all that. It's an art to get money today, especially in the Balkans. I like to provide, to give. Goulash is close to me because this is the music I listen to. These are the people I want to be friends with – boyfriends, girlfriends, whatever." The sun seems to move from afternoon to morning to near-evening. People gather in near-piles. Folks exit the water in various stages of dress. Generators start their grind and I forget what day of the week it is. The last one, she reminds me.

"Production, vibe, atmosphere – we can feel here love. Everything is so soft." She holds up her fingers, "I want people who aren't here to come, to help for four days. 24/7 of love and freedom. Before coming I felt like a bird in a cage, trapped by production. By the things I love. But I came."

Before long it gets dark again. Maybe in a few minutes it'll be noon. Hungarians manning projectors. People tottering from whatever it is they totter from. Others looking for release, stability, arms that'll hold up when they drift off. People around us performing, performing the things they want others to see. The things they want to see themselves. The intimacy of performativity not entirely unlike liturgy. The things we do again and again any explaination sounds dumb. Ritual. Codes to stop us from touching the things that can't be touched without total collapse. The ways people touch anyway. The desire to run deep. The desire to stay at arms-length. To dance at arms-length. To be dancing here, with them. And this sky.
I mention to Iris how many foreigners keep coming back to the Balkans.

"Balkans, Balkans. Everybody here, they come to escape something." She looks at the water and her shoulders start dipping to the rising bass. "Sometimes I wonder why we can't make things like this out there. Like, why we kill each other," she sighs. Our hands running over stones. "Ego."

Iris, her stiff bob of hair, her drooping eyes. The way she takes my elbow as she speaks. The way words come up again: love, release, escape. The ways this whole thing is an escape that costs some people nothing. The ways this could be an escape that means everything. The mercy involved in letting us be us.

"My weakness is that I believe in humanity. We did this theatre exercise once where we had to go forward to the front of the stage as if all the energy of dead humanity were pusing us. So many people struggled, like they were being held back. But me, no – I nearly ran all the way to the end. I can't not think of all the beautiful things people have done."

And there is beauty here. It's weird – sometimes not entirely obvious. How many people pretending, how many feeling alive. How many coping with shit and that being entirely understandable. We talk about a book where Marco Polo tells the king of the Mongols that he doesn't know if there's any inferno when we die but there's one we make by being together. And there are two ways to escape it: becoming part of inferno until you no longer see it, or find the things inside inferno that aren't inferno. Giving them space. Making room.

We laugh about words like paradise. This place isn't paradise. There isn't paradise anywhere – not where we are, anyway. We bring the world with us to the island – project our lives and fantasies on a beach that doesn't need any more baggage. I see the guy from the cafe I sit in to work and he doesn't look like he's thinking about morning. No one's guarding the ticket booth anymore and the crowd thickens. The stage stretches loudly and makes room for every single person. Some dancing on stones and some over cracks.

And me too, a foreigner, projecting my own shit onto everything here. My own questions. Onto Iris, onto Goulash, the water. And it not being important because we're all here, and we're moving. We move to the other beach. On boats or through the forest. People dancing in front of speaker-towers taller than they are. Us sitting near Solar again, on a few rock shelves. Watching people. People watching us. Everyone tired and no one going anywhere. People handing out beer in large plastic glasses. Older tourists making their way down to see the fuss. People talking about police who never come. Not in uniform.

The people I came with leave as the sun comes up and I'm alone, but when you dance with strangers for hours it's somehow less complicated to start up conversations. The main stage shuts down and boats take people to the far beach and when they reach land people making tasteless jokes about refugees or Normandy or the ark. Everything official is done but people keep playing for as long as they feel and everybody's feeling everything.

I don't believe I'm still on my feet. All of us with an energy independent of limit or realism or choice of chemical and this, all this here, is the first time I feel Goulash. Really feel. You look at the people around you and there are no words. Then you sit down and find words. Ask names. Play in the sea – a sea looking completely different though you've been staring at it for ten days now. The sun as if it hasn't left the sky for weeks. Later there'll be buses, ferries, eventual sunset. But for now this's the kind of place no one leaves. The kind of place you imagine with all your friends. All your friends already here.

And they are.
Josh Nadeau is a writer, hitchhiker and Goulash volunteer.