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Îivjeli! Raising a toast to my visit to Serbia. (Courtesy of Jim Bartley)
Îivjeli! Raising a toast to my visit to Serbia. (Courtesy of Jim Bartley)

I was ready for anything at the Serbian border – but not this Add to ...

Sometimes things don’t go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.

I sat in my rental car on a narrow gravel road outside a Serbian customs office. Inside it, guards held my passport.

I was in Ljuba doing research for a book. That morning I’d come through the Croatian town of Vukovar, its café patrons enjoying perfect summer weather, seemingly oblivious to the cratered and gutted buildings still studding the streets from a war that ended years ago.

I was carrying a considerable stash of Deutschmarks – enough for two weeks in the cardless economy of Serbia. I’d been criss-crossing newly established international borders in the former Yugoslavia, and this was, in fact, my second entry into Serbia. Stupidly, I had neglected to declare my cash at the earlier border post. But now I realized that omission might cause me problems. If the guard asked, I would have to be honest. In this cash-only, crime-rife economy, non-declaration of large amounts of money was serious. They could confiscate everything, could even place me in custody.

The young guard returned. He asked if I had drugs. “Nema drog,” I replied. He asked about cash. I swallowed, and stated the amount. He considered me impassively, then said in English, “Big boss coming. You wait.” He went through my bags in the trunk, not even blinking at a big plastic soda bottle of plum brandy. He left me to wait.

Dire scenarios ran through my mind. Could these officers access my entry data from a few days ago? Had they already done so? They could demand a bribe, a large one. Or they could play by the book and leave me penniless. I had chosen the scenic back roads that seemed a more pleasant route to my destination. Now I was sweating. I suddenly felt at the mercy of bored and war-scarred men, stranded in the Balkan outback. Serbs call it vukojebina: where wolves make love – the middle of nowhere.

Again the guard returned. He leaned close and growled, “You would like a beer.” It didn’t sound like a question. I was led behind the customs trailer. Was I about to meet the wolves? Another guard and two grizzled men with farmer’s tans sat on old kitchen chairs around a fire. An iron pot hung from a tripod. I was handed a beer, and then everything changed. We clinked bottlenecks: “Cheers!”

A car arrived: Big Boss. In the trailer he sternly told me I must always declare. I signed a form, then he told me I was staying for lunch. A man appeared with skinned rabbits. Into the pot they went. We had rabbit stew, salad and more beer than I could wisely accept. It felt surreal. Stanko, the Boss, then told me to follow him to his house. I sat in his garden with his wife, son and mother: more beer, brandy, homemade sausage.

In the end, I was hours late for my meeting in nearby Sabac with a professor of history. When I told him my story, he shook his head with a wry smile. He seemed torn between pride and embarrassment. But I think pride had the edge. He raised his glass: “Welcome to Serbia.”

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