Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

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

Îivjeli! Raising a toast to my visit to Serbia.

Courtesy of Jim Bartley

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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."

Story continues below advertisement

Share your 500-word travel adventure with us. Please send it to

Report an error
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to