Serbia | Why Is Everybody Around Me Always Getting Slung Out Of Places?

Jack and I left Sarajevo the morning after our grand day out, and took a bus several hours north, to a town called Tuzla. Neither of us particularly wanted to go Tuzla, but a one-night stopover there split what would have been an nine-hour bus ride to Belgrade into two bus rides of only four hours or so.

Tuzla was – and hey, I’m sorry if you’re from there – not… brilliant. It wasn’t a bad place; there are restaurants and shops and houses and that sort of thing. There was a small wooden mosque which we went to stare at, and outside the town centre there was a big outdoor swimming area with three lidos, which the tourist information guide for some reason refers to as ‘lakes’ despite them being tiled.

Beyond that, however, there’s just not much around. We went on TripAdvisor and found a list of the top things to do in Tuzla: number one is a small fountain in the town centre, number two is a little park beside the little fountain, and number seven is a visit to the tourist information centre. The thirteenth best thing to do in Tuzla is apparently just ‘ride in a taxi’.

Jack and I spent one night in this peculiar town, during which we ate a pizza that was not very delicious and went to bed early. Jack sleep apnoea’d his way through the evening, and I lay awake in our shared room in the old people’s guesthouse we’d booked, staring at the ceiling and listening to dogs barking in the street.

Next day, I worked a little on my laptop in the morning and early afternoon, during which we sat in a café in the town centre and baked in the heat, people watching. We stocked up on trip supplies from a little supermarket, and Jack talked to the cashier woman in the same jovial tones he talks to everybody he meets in the Balkans: “DOBAR DAN!” he bellows, with a big grin that guarantees him whatever he needs without hassle. When I speak other languages I get all quiet and timid – with Jack it’s the opposite.

My Bosnian (and Slovenian and Croatian – they’re all basically the same, although don’t tell the locals that or you’ll get slapped) is very basic: ‘dobar dan’ means ‘good afternoon’, but you can just say ‘ciao’ if you prefer; everybody understands. You can say ‘ciao’ for goodbye too, which makes things pretty easy. To say thanks you say ‘hvala’, to say please is ‘molim’, and to say sorry/excuse me you say ‘oprostite’. That’s about as far as I got with the language; beyond that it’s all just wild gesticulating.

In the middle of the afternoon we took the bus to Belgrade, Serbia. Our bus was a gargantuan old orange and silver thing that looked like the sort of tour bus Elvis would have travelled in back in the 50s when everything was massive – giant cars and buses and fridges and suits. My seat was right at the front, immediately behind the driver, which meant that I got bathed with all the lovely air conditioning that always seems to bunch up around the front of the bus and not make its way to the back. In high school the cool kids always used to sit at the back – then you grow up and realise that the loveliest air and the best view is at the front.

I was so very excited about the journey to come, in fact – bouncing around in my seat talking to Jack, pressing every button on the ceiling above to figure out which did what – that the driver had to tell me to calm down.

“Easy, easy,” he said, looking bewildered.

We left Tuzla with an empty bus, and I began to hope we might stay empty the whole way – much nicer like that. I had four seats to myself up at the front. Bosnian buses are weird, however: they don’t pull up at clearly marked stops, like Flixbuses do. Instead they appear to just stop wherever they fancy, picking people up and dropping them off at will.

After thirty minutes, a tall and knobbly old man got on and sat in the seat across the aisle from me. He was having trouble with his bag, and the bus moved off before he’d had a chance to sit down. He gripped on for dear life while Jack and I helped him store his bag, then he sat down, neglected to put on his seatbelt and immediately fell asleep. I watched his head loll around dangerously, wondering if he would fly down the aisle and into the driver’s cabin if we had to break hard.

I didn’t have to wonder for long. Our driver – nutter – nearly crashed about eight times over the course of our journey, and each time he slammed on the breaks. The first time he did so, the old man nutted the back of the seat in front and dropped his wallet and money everywhere. I had to go scrabbling around on the floor to give it back to him while he rubbed the nose he’d just bonked. He put his seatbelt on after that.

The old man thanked me for assisting him, speaking Bosnian, and I nodded and smiled – but when he continued to talk to me, I was forced to explain that I couldn’t understand him because I don’t speak Bosnian. The old man furrowed his brow at this, and then began showing me things out of his bag: his bus ticket, his driver’s license, some bills. I wasn’t sure what the purpose of this exercise was, and I was very sleepy after having been kept awake by snoring all night, and I’d been deeply excited for a quiet four hours of podcasts and rest and idly looking out of the window daydreaming. Alas.

The old man took out his passport and showed me it. A younger version of him stared out from its pages, adorned with a thick, narrow moustache.

“Hitler,” said the old man, and I laughed.

My laugher at this seemed to spur him on, and next he showed me a pair of fingernail clippers, for some reason, followed by a bag of Bic razors.

“We, er, have those in the UK,” I said, a little baffled.

About one hour passed this way: the old man showing me weird things from his bag, and me nodding with increasing exasperation and repeating the phrase ‘I’m sorry, I really don’t understand’. I didn’t want to be rude, and I wasn’t sure what else to say. He carried on talking animatedly, without taking a breath, writing numbers down on a piece of paper and showing me. I think he might have been a mathematician or a scientist in his career, but I’m not sure.

After two and a half hours we reached the border – late, always late in the Balkans – and all filed out at the Bosnian side for passport inspection. It was dusk, but the heat in the shadeless sunlight that remained was still intense. I got my passport stamped without issue and sat on the ground in the weird No Man’s Land between passport gates, smoking while I waited for Jack and the rest of the bus to pass through. But one person didn’t.

The old man, for some reason, remained sat on the bus. He stayed on there for thirty scorching minutes, until finally the armed border guards were forced to board the bus and help him off. There was a lot of talking, a lot of coffee drinking and smoking and walkie-talkies and black boots kicking rocks in the dust, and then our driver moved the bus through the toll gate and told us all to board. All of us, that is, except the old man.

He stayed behind with the border guards, clutching his belongings. I had no idea what had happened, and there was no-one to ask. I just sat back in my seat and watched the old man shrink in the distance as our bus continued on to the Serbian border. He was a long way from home.

“Jesus,” I said to Jack. “I wonder if they’ll get him a taxi back to Tuzla.”

“I wouldn’t count on it dude,” sighed Jack.

But there was nothing we could do. The rules are different in other countries.

Two more hours on the motorway and we arrived in Belgrade. I thought about the old man for the remainder of the journey, hoping the border guards helped him get home. Maybe the next bus to pass through in the opposite direction picked him up.

It was strange arriving in Belgrade: no bullet holes. No skeletal ruins, no shrapnel scars, no scorch marks, no ‘welcome to hell’ graffiti. These two countries had been at war, and it was bloody obvious which one had been the victim. Belgrade was the first typically ‘city’ looking city that I’d been to in weeks – skyscrapers, neon, cranes, apartment blocks with balconies, cineplexes, restaurants.

The bus dropped us off, and we walked together through Belgrade. Jack is like me in that when he arrives somewhere new, he prefers to walk to his accommodation rather than take the bus. It helps you get your bearings; there’s no sense stepping off one bus and right onto another and ferrying yourself neatly from door to door – you’ll never get the lay of the land that way. Instead we walked for an hour with our backpacks through the city at night, sweating and panting but glad of the exercise.

Exploring Belgrade by night revealed a very clean, modern, wealthy-looking city (particularly when compared to Mostar, Sarajevo and Tuzla). There were a great many grand, Vienna-esque buildings, interspersed with the more Spartan, brutalist facades of communist architecture. The streets were quiet and felt safe. Old dingaling trams rattled past, and young people sat in bars and restaurants chatting and drinking. In the many parks we passed through, people took their dogs for late night walks and coupled canoodled on benches.

“Dude, I can’t believe how… nice this all is,” said Jack.

We had a drink in a bar-restaurant to break up the hike to the hostel, and as I sipped my lemonade I looked around at any middle-aged people. It’s weird – the Bosnian war was only 30 years ago. Anybody over the age of forty-eight could have fought in it – could have been the ones who loaded the artillery that reigned down on Adi’s family home. It was a strange thought. I tried not to think about it too much; I didn’t want to be walking around with assumptions and stereotypes in my head.

Half an hour’s more sweaty tramping, and we reached the neighbourhood of our hostel. All at once the nice buildings stopped, and once again we found ourself wandering through a lamplit graveyard, with dogs behind flimsy wire fences barking and snarling at us. When we arrived at our hostel, we met a very drunk Serbian man, who was harassing staff and other guests and refusing to leave until the police arrived to hurl him out.

We really know how to pick ‘em.

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