AN AMERICAN IN SERBIA: WHAT LIVING IN BELGRADE IS LIKE AFTER 50 YEARS

An American in Serbia

INTOLERANCE, RUDENESS, SENSELESS BUREAUCRACY, MOUNTAINS OF PAPER – SOME LEGACIES OF THE OLD COMMUNIST SYSTEM STILL REMAIN

INTRODUCTION

About one year ago, I arrived in Serbia. The idea was to see what living in my native city for about six months would be like after spending nearly half a century in America.

Well, best laid plans of mice and men…

Three months after my arrival, I married my landlady. A temporary living arrangement became a permanent wedlock. I grew a beard. I still wear it. I lost some weight. Healthier food and lifestyle, I suppose.

Those were some of the good things. The rest… well, it was a culture shock. So much rudeness. So much intolerance. So much senseless bureaucracy. So much paper. So many loose cats and dogs.

After seven months in Belgrade, my wife and I went back to Arizona. We spent four months at our Scottsdale home. This time, it was my wife’s turn to experience a reverse culture shock – that of kindness with which everyone treated her. And how neat and clean everything was.

Now we are back in Belgrade for the summer. And the culture shock continues for me.

Buying a car in Serbia: NIGHTMARE ON FOUR WHEELS

When I arrived in Belgrade a year ago, I realized right away that having a car in an old European city is more of an obstacle than an advantage. Since we live in the city center, I could walk to most places of interest. Farther out, I would get a taxi. Taxis are cheap in Belgrade.

My wife also had a small car which was perfect for city driving. It was easy to park in small spaces and easy to maintain. But it was showing its age and she did not trust it for longer trips. So this summer, we decided to buy a new car for out-of-town touring.

I have bought cars in the U.S. I have bought cars in Canada. I have bought cars in Australia. But I have never bought cars in Europe. And what an experience it was! I am tempted to say “never again.” Lest one enjoys masochistic nightmares.

After about a week or so of going back and forth with a Belgrade Peugeot dealer about the various models and options, 10 days ago my wife and I went out for a test drive. We liked a higher model of the Peugeot line. The next day, I paid about $1,000 as deposit while the dealer processes the paperwork to get the French-made car through the customs.

That took eight days. Two days ago, my wife and I went to the dealer to pay for the car. We had previously agreed that I could do it using my Mastercard.

THE ORDEAL OF PAYING FOR THE CAR

What followed was a tragicomedy. The first attempt to pay the full amount failed. “Rejected” came back the answer from the credit card terminal. No explanation given.

Our salesman and two people from the finance department tried then two smaller amounts. We got two more rejection slips. Everybody was starting to get a little antsy. My wife and I exchanged significant glances. I had told he before that I expected some kind of hassle with trying to pay for the car by a credit card.

My salesman got on the phone with the local bank which processes their credit card payments. After about 20 mins of their back and forth, we decided to break up the transaction into three parts.

Finally, a two transactions went through in a row. Everybody was jubilant. But the next one failed. And the one after that.

We then tried to break up that last payment into two yet smaller parts. One of them went through. The next three or four attempts failed. Every time the terminal printed a “Rejected” everybody sagged.

My salesman got on the phone again with the local bank which processes their credit. This time the local bank claimed the rejection was due to an action by my American bank.

“Probably too many attempts with large amounts,” I said more to myself than to anyone else.

“Okay, to contact my U.S. bank by phone, I have to go home and use my laptop,” I said. So we called it off for the evening with three successful credit payments.

“We now own about 80% of the car,” I joked with my wife and our daughter and her friend with whom we met up accidentally for dinner. Then I showed them a wad of rejection slips.

“Just in case anyone thought that I was rich,” I joked. “Look at how many rejections I got today.”

Everybody laughed.

Once we got home and I was able to call the credit card company, I sorted things out pretty quickly. I was right. Indeed they had put a temporary block on my card because of many large transaction attempts the same day. Once I explained what was going on, they promptly removed the block.

REGISTERING THE CAR

The following morning, I went back to the dealer to complete the payment and pick up the papers necessary for the registration of the car. Yes, in Europe, you have to do it all yourself. The dealer just fills out a bunch of forms with many signatures and stamps and hands them to you.

(In the U,S., the buyer just signs the required forms and drives off with the car).

My salesman tried to be quite conscientious. Since I had told him that I had never bought a car in Serbia before, he did go through every piece of paper with me step-by-step. Except for one. Which would turn into a nightmare.

I did not know that, however, until after I arrived at the Belgrade City police station which handles car registration, and waited in line for about 20 mins to submit the documents.

A young woman went through all of them one-by-one, and then asked, “where is your insurance policy?”

“My what?”

“Your insurance policy.”

“But that’s something I was told I should get after I register the car,” I protested. “My dealer had told me these were all the papers I needed for the registration.”

Which is not entirely true. He did not tell me, either, that I needed to pay nine different taxes and fees worth about 25,000 dinars BEFORE I could submit the papers. That’s something I learned from a young man in the police line in front of me. So I had to give up my place in line, go to an exchange place (“menjačnica”) where such dues are paid.

There I dealt with a rude woman who expected me to have these payment slips (that I had never heard of before) all filled out and ready for her. That cost me over half an hour in time and frustration. And in the end, she also missed three payment slips which I had to pay at another station later in the evening.

When I called my Peugeot salesman to find out where I could buy that insurance policy needed for the registration, he said he did not know exactly but “there must be some insurance agents where you are.”

I looked around I saw no such thing. Realizing the futility of it, I even asked some passersby if they knew where there were some. None did.

In the end, I resorted to Google maps and searched for a name of the insurance company my salesman had mentioned the day before. I found out that their location was about a 20-minute cab ride away. I phoned my wife whom I was supposed to meet, and told her to keep shopping while I go and try to sort out this insurance mess.

When I finally found this insurance agency, I had to wait for the previous customer to finish her business. Then a nice man tried to explain to me what was needed. He was very longwinded and it took him half an hour to let me know that I just needed to buy a compulsory policy for the registration. And that the one the car dealer was offering was optional and can wait till tomorrow.

After he had issued the policy to me, I then had to go to a nearby post office to pay the premium. You see, the financial systems in Serbia are so archaic that all transactions still have to go through banks and post offices. Only if you’re buying things in retail stores, can they process your payments right there at the credit card terminals.

All of which is incredibly inefficient and frustrating for an American who is used to handing in his credit card, or just clicking on an iPhone or a laptop to make payments. Especially as now it was almost 6PM. I had been trying to register my car for over 6 hours and still was nowhere near finished.

Since I knew another police station in the part of the city in which I now was, I thought I might try my luck there with the car registration. Alas, the line was at least 10 people long and not moving. So after a few minutes, I hailed a cab and returned to the original police station in the city center.

NO SHORT PANTS ALLOWED IN BELGRADE POLICE STATIONS!

When I tried to enter the building, a uniformed policeman stepped in front of me and said he could not let me in.

“Why not?”

“Because you’re wearing short pants.”

“Excuse me?” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“I saw you earlier but I did not say anything because you were already at the service counter,” the policeman added.

I looked down at my steamer trunks which stretched down well below the knees. “Is this a church?”, I added. Only in Serbian churches are short pants and skirts not allowed.

Startled and amazed at the idiocy of the situation, I said to the policemen, “Ok. Now may I take your picture.? You will be the hero of a story I will write about this.”

While I was trying to get my camera ready, he closed the big iron door in my face and retreated inside. So I only caught his back in the picture (below). Later on, I also got his surname: Banović.

A woman who happened to be standing at the door when all this was happening just shook her head in disbelief. “I have no words,” she muttered.

Outraged, I telephoned my wife and told her where to meet me. After I explained to her what had happened, I said I wanted to buy some cheap pants and then return to finish the car registration, and to take a picture and get the name of that policeman.

My wife was also stunned at what happened. She had seen many ridiculous things during the last 30 years or so of living in Belgrade, but nothing like this.

“And these are not even short pants,” she remarked looking at me. “They are well below the knees.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Which is why I had already taken a picture of myself.”

We bought a pair of cheap long pants and returned to the police station. I looked for the policeman to take a picture of him but he was nowhere to be seen. I then took my place in line. Some 45 minutes later, I finally had our new car registered.

On the way out of the police station, we saw the policeman in the hallway. I asked for his name. He was reluctant to give it even though the name tag read BANOVOĆ.

When I asked him to explain his behavior earlier, he said he was just following orders.

“And who issued such an idiotic order?” I asked.

The policeman gave us the names of “Načelnik” (Chief of Belgrade Police – Veselin Milić (ex) or Ivan Divac?), and his station commander (Bojan Solem). Nebojša Stefanović is Serbia’s MUP minister who overseas all police activities.

“You should complain to them,” he said.

“But YOU were the one who enforced the order selectively,” I said pulling out of my pocket my iPhone with pictures I had just taken in the police waiting room. “Let me show you some other people in shorts and short skirts whom you did not throw out of the station.”

The policeman made a lame excuse how he must have been in the bathroom. Meanwhile, that fat man with black shorts was still inside the station. I pointed that out to the policeman.

He just shrugged uncomfortably.

“You will be famous after I publish this story,” I told him as we left the station.

He just gave me a sour grin and avoided eye contact.

EPILOGUE

The next day, I picked up the car at the Peugeot dealer. The salesman was very apologetic, almost to the point where I was starting to feel sorry for him. I tried to comfort him saying I understood it was nothing intentional on his part.

But an oversight it was. Which cost me over 7 hours in wasted time and a mountain of frustration.

“The silver lining in all this is that I get to write a story about it,” I told my wife. “When everything works smoothly, there is no story.”

Two days later, we took our new car for a first spin through Srem for about 270 km. It rode beautifully. All is well that ends well. But the memory of this nightmarish car buying experience will remain.

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