I was afraid of Serbia and that made me want to go there. A sense of danger has always held a strange attraction for me. The idea that something awful could happen can actually draw me to certain places. Serbia happened to be one of them. My fear was not really based upon experience, only imagination. I only ever met a handful of Serbians in my entire life, they were all friendly. My fear stemmed from how I would be received upon entering the country. Though it had been a decade and a half since the United States military dropped bombs on Belgrade, I wondered if there was still some residual anger over American intervention into Balkan affairs.
I left Budapest on a morning train heading south to Serbia with a certain feeling of trepidation. I really did not fear for my personal safety. It was more a fear that I might run into difficulties at the border because I was an American. Of course, I was being irrational. I had already met an American on this trip who had been to Serbia and survived the experience. He told me there was no problem crossing the border, but did mention the fact that he been detained on the Bosnian border. He was forced to spend the night in a holding cell at a border post after the guards had noticed his prescription bottle of Xanax. It was totally legal, but he thought they were looking for a bribe of some sort. He advised me that if I ever got detained to just keep saying call the American consulate. I kept that in mind as the train slowly made its way along the flat lands of southern Hungary.
The Familiar & The Foreign – Pass Through Places
I was nervous, but the tension heightened my awareness on what should have been an otherwise sleepy trip through a provincial hinterland. The train car was only about half full. I found myself studying passengers that were sitting nearby. A Roma couple sat in the aisle opposite me. The woman was young and not unattractive, she was also several months pregnant, judging by her bulging belly. Her male companion, a skinny man with a slender face, looked to be in his early 20’s. He opened up a paper bag, pulled out a huge loaf of bread along with a giant sausage. He then proceeded to devour it within a matter of minutes. This was an impressive feat, to the point that the woman burst out laughing while watching him ravenously finish off this impromptu meal. After this I spent an inordinate amount of time studying them. They eyed me suspiciously, making comments to one another when looking my way.
I spent much of the trip aimlessly thumbing through my guidebook as the train slowly rattled along through a pastoral landscape. We rolled past towns and villages with the usual range of bizarre Hungarian place names such as Fulopszallas, Kiskoros and Kiskunhalas. The kind of places that are only known to travelers during the time it takes to pass through them. Even by the standards of Eastern European travel these places were remote. And yet in the most remote places something always seems familiar, whether it is people riding bicycles, villagers tending a backyard garden or children playing in the street. At the same time, there are constant reminders of the foreign such as sounds of a foreign tongue being spoken and unintelligible words on signage. This incongruity of the familiar with the foreign was disconcerting, adding to my apprehension.
Crossing Borders – The Way It Used To Be
It was an excruciatingly slow ride to the border. For no apparent reason, the train would halt amid a landscape of pancake flat fields, where black soil stretched in all directions. Nothing would happen for a few minutes then the train would start to slowly move once again. As we neared the border my pulse quickened. The closer we got, the more my heart pounded. I kept thinking that any minute we would be at the border. Anyone who does not think the European Union has transformed border crossings should measure the amount of time it takes to cross the border from one EU member to another as compared with crossing from an EU to a non-EU member. In the latter case, there is no welcome sign that you glide by at eighty kilometers per hour, instead there is a first stop for the exit process, in this case with Hungarian officials. This is usually quick and painless.
Then there is a crossing to the other side, where the way things used to be in Europe still holds true. In the case of Serbia, it meant we halted at border control and waited for officers to enter the train for passport checks. It is ironic that while I waited to enter Serbia, I was already in Serbia. If I was detained and not allowed to enter Serbia, I would be held in Serbia. Understand that? Some would say that border control lies in a geo-political netherworld, a land of ambiguity. That is true enough, but no matter what officialdom says when you arrive at a nation’s point of entry, you are in that nation, subject to its laws whether or not you agree with them.
Welcome Without A Smile – Crossing Over
Sitting on that train at the extreme northern tip of Serbia, I knew that my immediate future lay in the hands of people I had never met, who spoke a language I could not possibly comprehend, whose culture was foreign to my own. And something told me that there was no place I would rather be. The moment when the compartment door opened and an accented cry of “passport control” echoed forth I felt a rush of adrenaline. The dull thud of boots foretold the border official to come. He was stocky with a hard look on his face, serious and proper. He took my passport, turned it to the page with my photo and essential information. He eyed me for just a moment then flipped through the passport until he found a blank page. He took his stamp and punched it methodically, handed the passport back to me and said, “Welcome To Serbia.” He did it all without the hint of a smile.