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

INTOLERANCE, RUDENESS, SENSELESS BUREAUCRACY, FILTHY SIDEWALKS, MOUNTAINS OF PAPER, BIG COMMIE BROTHER STILL WATCHING PEOPLE – SOME LEGACIES OF THE OLD COMMUNIST SYSTEM STILL REMAIN

INTRODUCTION

Nearly three years 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, the 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 senseless bureaucracy. So much unnecessary paperwork. So much intolerance. If you pause in traffic for a moment after the light changes to green, people honk behind you.

So many loose cats and dogs. And the poop they and their owners leave behind on sidewalks. Such as this scene at Kosta Stojanovica Street, in the center of town, within half a mile from the national parliament building. All of these dog shit piles lay within 10 yards of each other. on June 1, 2021.

At Kosta Stojanovic Street

After seven months in Belgrade back in 2018, 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 – at the kindness and smiles with which nearly everyone treated her. And how neat and clean everything was.

Now we are back in Belgrade for a third summer in a row. And my culture shock has morphed into resentment. What are we doing here? Why are we putting up with all this rudeness and shoddy treatments by people whom we are giving our business? (like waiters, store clerks, and various other service attendants). And the trash in the streets. And the congestion and the stink of car fumes.

Here’s what happened on just the first working day back in Belgrade.

May 31, 2021

SERBIAN JUSTICE SYSTEM: GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT – PART I?

After a long absence from Serbia, it was not surprising to find a large pile of mail in our mailbox. But five little paper slips did arouse my curiosity. They were delivered by a messenger of a Belgrade court over the last six months. But there was no indication on them what this was about. It just said I should appear at a court because of some sort of an infraction.

So on May 31 we went to a courthouse on the outskirts of Belgrade to try unravel this mystery.

It turns out all this had to do with a traffic infraction I allegedly made back in October. of last year. I never got a ticket. Nor a summons. Nor had any idea why I had to go personally to a courthouse on the outskirts of the city to find out what this was about.

It turned out a traffic camera caught my car on the Brankov bridge “driving in the yellow lane.”

“What’s wrong with that?” any American would ask.

“Because that’s only for buses,” a nice lady judge explained before she lowered my fine from 100,000 DIN ($1,000) to 10,000 DIN ($100). But which we had to pay in an even more distant suburb of Belgrade.

And then we did not have to actually pay it. The man at this police station in Timbuktu said I had to sign an agreement admitting the fault and agreeing to pay. The actual payment will be made after they return this piece of paper to the judge who sent me there .who would then send me an invoice.

Convoluted? Confusing? Complicated?

Well, wait till you see the filing system of a Serbian court.

A silver lining of sorts in all this was this scene we caught at that Belgrade courthouse. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” as the saying goes. So here are three photos I took of the filing system at that courthouse.

May 31, 2021, Courthouse at Ustanička 14, Belgrade

BIG COMMIE BROTHER STILL WATCHING PEOPLE

UPDATE JUNE 3 – The banks are usually the places where one can see the best how bureaucratic a country is. Next to the governments, they are typically the most laden with ridiculous rules. What happened today was a case in point.

I wanted to transfer €600 from my Belgrade foreign currency account to an account in Britain. The US-based global bank I use for such purposes gave me the instructions to wire the funds to its correspondence bank in Frankfurt, Germany. From whence it would then direct them to the recipient’s account in the UK.

Had I done it in the US, transferring the US$ equivalent from my American bank account, this would have taken less than 2 minutes and about 10 keystrokes.

Here, in Belgrade, my local bank manager told me I had to come in person to initiate such a wire transfer. After waiting in line for about 10 minutes just to enter the bank, I was told by a teller that I had to fill out a form with dozens of entries (see. below). Another bank manager also joined the conversation.

Having seen the lo the look of incredulity on my face, the teller and the manager assured me that they would help me fill it out.

“What is the money for?” the teller asked.

“What?”

“Why are you sending this money?” she repeated.

“What business is that of yours?” I snapped back. “It’s my money and I can send it to whomever I want.”

That’s when the manager stepped in and explained that, “according to the laws of the Republic of Serbia, the purpose of a wire transfer must be stated.”

I just shook head in disbelief. “So the Big Commie Brother is still alive and well here,” I said.

“Okay, just give me back my documents,” I added and left the bank. I would send the money to our daughter a different way – the American way from my US bank – I thought. Without any of this fuss and bother.

And that’s what I did the next day. Over the internet. In less than five minutes.

NOT ALL BAD

Bane Andjelic, a longtime friend of mine who lived in the US in the 1990s and then returned home to help rebuild the country after the NATO bombing in 1999, had this reaction to my above missive:

“I think you are viewing the life here through negative lenses only. US and Serbia are not comparable in any way whatsoever. If you compare us with Europe, you will find that bureaucracy is the same or worse in Italy, France, even Germany. Italy is certainly more dirty. French waiters are quite rude all the time.

There has been an influx of foreigners, particularly Americans in the last year who work remotely and have found their new home in Belgrade. Many have blogs. They all say the people are friendly, food fantastic, life pace amazing, cost of living low, weather fine. Of course there are negatives, specially when dealing with the state.

Today I went to Katastar to take out Certificate of ownership. They printed out a web page (that I could have done at home) and stamped it and charged me 1.400 dinars. When I enquired what the money is for, they said for the stamp. I was upset, but that lasted just a few minutes.

You need to put on your rosy glasses and relax about many things here – they are not going to change in a 100 years.”

I replied to my friend, “when I first got here (three years ago), I did have rose-colored lenses. Now they are clear.”

And I addec, “I agree with you that bureaucracy in other EU countries is the same or worse. I experienced that as a global business consultant not just as an individual.”

We just spoke to another daughter who lives in Austria. And she is fuming about all the nonsense rules to do with Covid they are having to follow in Vienna.

SOME GOOD THINGS

It wasn’t all bad during our first three days here in Serbia. One good thing was that the nearby (wonderful) Tasmajdan olympic-size swimming pool was open. So I have been able to swim every morning, something that I badly missed last year when Covid first struck here and elsewhere in the world.

Tasmajdan indoor swimming pool

Not only was the pool open and well used, but it was completely renovated since I was there two years ago. Everything was spanking clean and very professional looking.

Another good thing I discovered while walking to the pool was this recycling booth (below).

I have never seen one like that before even in the US where we have had trash recycling bins for decades.

Alas, I have also never seen anyone use it over the last three days.

“Maybe people think 🤣🤣🤣 this is a cash machine 🤣🤣,” our daughter from London joked.

“Or a Las Vegas-type one-arm bandit?” (gambling machine) I joined the spoof.

😀😀😃

And another thing. Today is my birthday. So Starbucks sent me a link to a free drink through they app. .Which is good just for today. And yes, there is a Starbucks in Belgrade. Has been for some years now.

I went there today. A young man at the register looked at the Starbucks message on my iPhone and said, “sorry we don’t have that app here.”

“In other words, I cannot have my free drink today for my birthday?” I said.

“Not necessarily,” he replied. “This one is on us,” he added pulling a Starbucks card from his belt and swiping it as he processed my order.

“Happy birthday!” he said.

After seven months in Belgrade back in 2018, 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 – at the kindness and smiles with which nearly everyone treated her. And how neat and clean everything was.

Now we are back in Belgrade for a third summer in a row. And my culture shock has morphed into resentment. What are we doing here? Why are we putting up with all this rudeness and shoddy treatments by people whom we are giving our business? (like waiters, store clerks, and various other service attendants). And the trash in the streets. And the congestion and the stink of car fumes.

Here’s what happened on just the first working day back in Belgrade.

June 11, 2021

SERBIAN JUSTICE SYSTEM: GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT – PART II?

YELLOW PERIL” STRIKES AGAIN

Things were beginning to settle down a bit since the initial culture shock we experienced upon returning to Belgrade about two weeks ago. And then the “yellow peril” struck again.

A few evening ago, we were chatting with the manager of a bar below our apartment.

“Thought I’d tell you something the ‘red hair’ told me while you were away,” Frankie said with a raised eyebrow look that suggested he was about to impart upon us some important information. “She said the police came looking for Bob.”

The “red hair” is the designated gossiper on our street. That’s why last year we cut off any flow of our information to her.

“Really?” I said, feigning surprise, so as to rei.

“No kidding,” he said.

“And did she say what they wanted?”

“No.”

So that’s when we explained to him the rude awakening we experienced upon returning to Belgrade and finding a bunch of court notices in our mailbox. And that it all had to do with a traffic infraction back in October of last year.

We told Frankie that we had settled the whole thing right away but not before wasting a whole day running the papers between a distant courthouse and and even more distant police station (see the above SERBIAN JUSTICE SYSTEM: GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT – PART I).

Fast-forward to Thursday afternoon…

My wife and I were relaxing and spending the day with our 10-year old grandson when the door bell rang a little after 5PM.

“I’ll get it,” I said.

When I opened the door I saw a policeman standing at the bottom of our stairs. He was lean and about 6-feet tall with a shaved had.

“Is there Slobodan Djurdjevic here?”

“I am Slobodan Djurdjevic.”

“I have a court order here for your arrest,” he said showing me some kind of a paper.

“What?” I said. “Is this some kind of a joke?”

“No, Sir,” the policeman said. “Here you can take a look at this judge’s order.”

I did and indeed that’s what the order said. And then I noticed that this was again the same kind of a traffic infraction as that first case which we had settled 10 days earlier. So I explained that to the policeman.

“Well do you have some sort of a paper to prove it?” he asked.

It was a perfectly reasonable question. But I had already expunged that first case from my mind and could not recall at the moment whether or not I did have something in writing.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Let me go to my office and check.”

While I was inside, my wife was talking to the policeman trying to explain what happened when we went to the court on our first day back (May 31). Later, she told me that the policeman had threatened to cuff me if I could not produce proof of that I had reported to the court earlier.

I did find the paper from that earlier case and showed then to the policeman. Upon a closer look, he said, “that’s not the same case. And it’s not the same judge, either.”

“But it is the same offence,” I said. “Let’s look at the date of the alleged infraction. Maybe they charged me twice by mistake?”

Alas, there was no date on the policeman’s document and the judge’s order.

“Tell you what,” the policeman finally said. “Why don’t you go and see this judge tomorrow. And if you can straighten everything out with her, bring to my office her cancelation of this arrest warrant tomorrow evening.”

He then wrote out his name, address and the phone.

“Unbelievable,” my wife and I said to each other after he had gone.

COURTHOUSE VISIT #2

The next morning I took a taxi again to that far-away courthouse. The guard at the door took one look at me and said, “you cannot come in in shorts.”

This brought back unpleasant memories of my trying to register my new car two years ago (see “Buying a car in Serbia: NIGHTMARE ON FOUR WHEELS,” July 2019).

“Well these shorts are pretty long,” I suggested. “They are past my knees.”

“They are still short,” the policeman insisted. “But let me take these papers to the judge and see if she’ll receive you.”

He returned five minutes later said, “second floor, courtroom 91. But know on room 92 and tell them who you are.”

“What’s this mystery about? Do I have to knock three times, two short and a long, or something like that,” I wondered, “like some kind of a code?”

When I knocked on courtroom 92 and announced myself, a flustered lady in her late 50s shuffled out of there and went into the courtroom 91. “Wait here,” she said before disappearing from view.

More than half an hour later, I was invited to enter. I explained to the judge what happened with the policeman. She pulled the file on her computer screen. It turned out I committed another “yellow line” infraction. This time on Oct 2, 2020 on Bulevar Despota Stevana.

“Probably returning home from Visnjica,” I muttered to myself.

“What is it with these people,” I also thought to myself. “Why are they so obsessed with yellow lines that they would even want to cuff you if you cross one?”

Well, apparently that’s a traffic infraction here. The “yellow peril” for me evidently.

“We just have to make a report about this,” the judge said. And then her secretary started to ask me questions, like my name, date and place of birth etc.

“You have all of that,” I said. “You stated that in the charge sheet. Do you want me just to give you my personal ID card?”

“No, no… that’s not necessary. “

“So you want me to say these things out loud so you could verify that my ID card is legit?”

“We just have to make this report as if you were being questioned.”

And then she asked me if I were married, if I had children, etc. After I rolled my eyes again, the judge told her secretary, “just skip that and move on.”

Eventually they produced this piece of paper which I was to take to the police station back and beyond in Rakovica. I took one look at it and saw that the top of the page was ripped off.

“You want me to take this to the police station with this hole?” I asked.

They both look at me as if I had fallen from Mars. I figured it was time for me to get out of Dodge.

For, this time, I knew the drill. This judge would send me also to that godforsaken police station in Rakovica, a Belgrade suburb back and beyond. Where my wife and I would wait for over an house for me to sign a document that said that I am guilty as charged. Which reduced the fine from 100,000 dinars to 10,000 dinars (around $100).

In the evening, I took the arrest cancelation order to the policeman. He was very apologetic. “Sorry I jerked you like that,” he said.

“I know. You were just doing your job,” I tried to comfort him.

“Why could they just not mail me a ticket?” I wondered. Then our daughter would have found it in the mail and I would either pay it online or she could have paid it in person if it needs be.

No. It took them eight months since the infraction (from Oct 2, 2020 till May 25, 2021) to send me a “cease and desist” notice. Which I did not receive because we were still in Arizona back then.

And then they followed it up a few weeks later a policeman who wanted to cuff me.

“Only in Serbia!”

“I don’t want to come back to Serbia even for two days anymore,” our daughter from London exclaimed upon hearing this story.

“And what am I still doing here?” I wondered myself.

Old commie factory, now defunct

FIRST WEED-WHACKING AT OUR VISNJICA PROPERTY

BUT BUYING THE “TRIMMER” WAS AN ADVENTURE

It seems nearly every shopping trip here is an adventure. But buying a power landscaping tool like a weed-whacker? (or a weed-eater). That was guaranteed, I thought. Because I have never seen anyone use such a tool around here. But I never suspected it would be THAT adventurous.

After perusing the net, I decided to start with this company – Okov – in New Belgrade. It was far away from where we live in the city center, but they were advertising a weed-eater – “trimmer” in Serbian – for around 18000 Din (regularly 21000+ Din). So I thought I’d give it a try.

The building of Okov was very impressive. Like a small shopping mall. And full of customers. “That’s a good sign,” I thought.

From there on, things went downhill. Rather than recall the story blow-by-blow, I will just publish here the Serbian original with an English translation of a letter I sent this evening to the store manager:

“Ja sam danas dosao da kupim ovaj trimer koji sam video na vasej sajtu: BC 500 B Trimer za travu benzinski 1.9kW 50.8ccm 25.5cm AL-KO

​Kada sam usao u radnju i nasao ga, covek u crvenoj kosulji je premestao neke kutije pored tog alata. Ja sam ga pitao da li on radi tu u radnji. On je nevoljno klmnuo glavom.
Kada sam ga pitao da mi pomogne oko tih trimera, on je opet nevoljno dosao. Kada sam ga pitao koliko su oni teski, on je samo slegnuo ramenima. Kada sam ga pitao da li su ta dva modela jedini koji vi prodajete, on je klimnuo glavom potvrdno. I vratio se raspakivanju svojih kutija.
Ja sam onda video u daljini Stihl trimere koje sam ranije koristio i znam da su odlicnog kvaliteta. Skinuo sam jedan sa zida da isprobam tezinu. Bio je ok. I odlucio sam se da ga kupim. Ali trebao mi je i canister za benzin. Video sam ih na dnu donje police iza nekih kutija. I kada sam se sagnuo da ga izvadim, slucajno sam gurnuo jednu od tih kutija.
Sada je onaj vas sluzbenik u crvenoj kosulji (Mirko) odmah doleteo ka meni i drsko me pitao zasto bacam kutije. Ja nisam mogao da verujem da neko moze musteriji da se obraca na taj nacin. I bez daljne rasprave trazio sam da govorim sa menadzerom radnje. 
Mirko me je odveo kod jednod drugog momka u plavoj kosulji i rekao mu da zove menadzera. Nakon sto ovaj to nije uradio posle nekoliko minuta, ja sam mu prisao i pitao ga gde je menadzer.
“Da li mogu ja da vam pomognem?” plava kosulja me je pitala.
“Da li ste vi menadzer?”
“Pa jesam,” on je rekao sa oklevanjem sto mi je dalo do znanja da nije. “Menadzer je zauzet u skladistu,” on je izmislio jos jednu laz da bi zastitio svog drskog i nesposobnog kolegu.
“Zasto ne pisete menadzeru preko mejla?” on je predlozio. Sto sam ja nameravao da radim i tako i tako.
“Ja cu to da uradim. Ali mu i vi kazite da je izgubio danas 30000+ zbog ovog Mirka. “Da je ovo moja radnja, takav sluzbenik bi vec bio van onih ulaznih vrata da trazi ovi posao.”

JUNE 12, 2021

Evo to vam je Mirko. A onaj u plavoj kosulji iza tezge je bio taj koji ga je branio.
E sad me bas interesuje, sta cete vi da uradite nakon sto procitate ovaj mejl?
Bob”

ENGLISH TRANSLATION

I came today to buy this trimmer that I saw on your site. BC 500 B Grass trimmer petrol 1.9kW 50.8ccm 25.5cm AL-KOK When I went into the store and found it, a man in a red shirt moved some boxes next to that tool . I asked him if he worked there in the store. He nodded reluctantly.
When I asked him to help me with those trimmers, he came reluctantly again. When I asked him how heavy they were, he just shrugged. When I asked him if those two models were the only ones you were selling, he nodded in agreement. And he went back to unpacking his boxes.
I then saw in the distance the Stihl trimmers I had used before and I know they are of excellent quality. I took one off the wall to test the weight. He was ok. And I decided to buy it. But I also needed a gas canister. I saw them at the bottom of the bottom shelf behind some boxes. And when I bent down to take it out, I accidentally pushed one of those boxes.
Now that officer of yours in the red shirt (Mirko) immediately flew up to me and brazenly asked me why I was throwing the boxes. I couldn’t believe that someone could address a customer that way. And without further discussion, I asked to speak to the store manager.
Mirko took me to another guy in a blue shirt and told him to call the manager. After this one didn’t do it after a few minutes, I approached him and asked him where the manager was.
“Can I help you?” the blue shirt asked me.
“Are you the manager?”
“Well I did,” he said with hesitation which let me know he wasn’t. “The manager is busy in the warehouse,” he invented another lie to protect his cheeky and incompetent colleague.
“Why don’t you email the manager?” he suggested. What I intended to do and so and so.
“I’ll do it. But you tell him he lost 30,000+ today because of this Mirko.” If this was my shop, such a clerk would already be out that front door looking for this job. “
Here is Mirko and the one in the blue shirt behind the counter was the one who defended him.
Now I’m just wondering, what are you going to do after reading this email?
Bob

I then went on to a nearby Woby Haus store. A similar story though a much smaller store. The salesman there also barely condescended to speak with me. He warmed up and relaxed after awhile but his products were of shoddy quality. And he did not have the Stihl brand which I was now determined to buy.

So I googled Stihl products in Belgrade and found a company in Kosutnjak that specialized in that brand. That was far away from the outskirts of New Belgrade where I was at the time, but I thought, “what the hell… if I am going to buy something, I will buy the best.”

Half an hour later I arrived at the address given at the Lopex company website. It was a private house. No business signs. Not even a driveway.

So I called the number. “Oh that’s the home of our owner and our legal address,” a voice on the phone said. “The store is actually at Poenkarova 6.”

“And where is that?”

“Neat Stara Hercegovina restaurant.”

“What” I was stunned. “I could have walked there from my home. We often eat at that restaurant.”

Alas, that was now also about half hour’s drive away from Kosutnjak where I was. So I headed back home and to that Lopex store.

When I got there, the service was like night and day compared to my previous shopping experiences. The salesman – Nebojsa – was wonderful. He showed me everything about his Stihl trimmer’s operation to the minute details. He even started the motor indoors to make sure it worked properly. And he gave me several useful items – gratis (on the house).

I walked out with a 30000-Din trimmer with all the accouterments and headed straight for our property in Visnjica for a “test drive.”

And it was successful. I did not work long as it was a humid 36C outside. But at least I have proved out that the trimmer works fine so I can return on a cooler day to finish the job.

All’s well that ends well, as they say.

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