There’s nothing like having a sealed train compartment full of Serbian farmers blowing smoke in your face on your 30th birthday. One of the strangest elements of expatriate life is that you sometimes find yourself celebrating major occasions with people you just met, rather than friends and family.
I had just started a tour as an American Foreign Service Officer in Macedonia right before my 30th birthday and my wife, who was completing a graduate degree in Chicago, hadn’t yet arrived at post. So my options were to spend the auspicious occasion with people whom I barely knew, or spend it alone. I told Marija, one of my Macedonian colleagues, that I planned to take the train up to Belgrade, but didn’t mention that the trip would take place on my 30th.
“Nobody takes the train,” she said. “They gas the compartments and then rob everyone.”
I ignored her and turned up at Skopje’s forlorn train station on Saturday morning November 9, for my birthday trip to Belgrade. I love train travel and thought that it would be a pleasant way to spend the day. I had a compartment all to myself for the first hour of the trip, but shortly after we crossed the Serbian border, a group of four boisterous Serbs barged into the compartment.
There was a teenager named Ivan, two haggard, middle aged women whose names I didn’t catch, and a middle aged man named Slavica who wore a garish jacked with the words CHICAGO HAPPY MEMBER CLUB emblazoned in a huge font across his back. I couldn’t help but note the irony: I was spending my 30th birthday with a member of the Chicago Happy Member Club, rather than with my wife in Chicago.
Immediately after sitting down, Slavica slid the compartment door shut, lit up a cigarette, and blew the smoke right in my face. I pointed to the no-smoking sticker on the door. He gave me a puzzled look and a shrug and kept smoking, so I opened our window. In the Balkans, and in other parts of the world, fresh air is seen as a dangerous thing- perhaps akin to spending a holiday at a leper colony or having unprotected sex with an H.I.V. positive prostitute-which causes all sorts of illnesses.Slavica slammed the window shut and when I protested he got up and crouched over me, menacingly hovering with his rancid breath so close to my face that I noticed he had cat-like whiskers growing implausibly up near his eye sockets. He barked at me in Serbian and then stormed out into the corridor to finish his smoke.
The uglier of the two women, who had greasy spiked hair and wore baggy leather pants, went out, grabbed Slavica’s cigarette from him, came back in, took a puff on it and blew the smoke ostentatiously in my face. Happy Birthday.
My new friends spoke no English, and I spoke no Serbian, but I had a trusty phrasebook. The spike-haired woman wanted to see my passport, in order to determine where I was from. After our unpleasant introduction, the last thing I wanted to do was pull out a black, diplomatic passport from the United States, a country that had just bombed the Serbs only three years before.
In order to confuse and repel them I start speaking Albanian but they refused to believe that I was from Albania. Slavica eventually came back in and tried to make nice by riffling through my phrase book in an attempt to get to know me.
After an enormous amount of phrasebook effort, I gathered that neither of the two women were his wives, although he indicated through various crude pelvic thrusts that he was interested in introducing the less homely woman to the HAPPY MEMBER CLUB, should the opportunity arise. They had all just come from a market town and were headed home to Leskovac.
They were paprika farmers, who had been trying to sell their crops at the market. Slavica wanted to know how much a kilo of paprika went for in the U.S., and was disappointed that I did not know. I eventually admitted to them that I was American and this seemed to please everyone, most of all, spike hair, who seemed to be the only person in the compartment who hadn’t warmed to me.
By the time they departed, we were all old friends- doing shots of rakija, singing songs (them, not me), and giggling about dirty words in the phrase book. Before she alighted onto the platform, the slight-less ugly woman handed me a scrap of paper with a hotmail address on it. We shared no common language, but vowed to stay in touch. Sure we would.
A few hours later, I arrived in Belgrade and after only a few minutes of walking around the town center, formulated a snap impression: Belgrade may have the world’s most beautiful women. After eating a dismal plate of General Tsao’s chicken, I repaired to a crowded basement bar, where I was invited to sit with a group of three twentysomethings who spoke English- brothers, Marko and Nikola, and Nikola’s girlfriend, Tanja.
Marko said they had beckoned me to their table because I looked foreign and they wanted to practice their English. When I told them I was American, Tanja said, “don’t worry we won’t talk politics.”
Instead, we talked about cutlery.
“You probably didn’t know that the Serbs were the first people to eat with knives, did you?” Nikola asked.
I admitted that I hadn’t known that, but Marko quickly corrected his younger brother.
“It was spoons, you idiot, not knives!”
A lengthy discussion ensued in Serbian, and Tanja finally concluded, “we were the first to use knives AND spoons.”
“What about forks?” I asked.
After another lengthy Serbian language discussion, Tanja said, “probably forks too, but we’d have to check about that.” After the cutlery claims, Marko boasted that the Serbs had also founded Paris, and had “given the Romans their technology.”
“Really?” I asked. “What were all of your neighbors up to when the Serbs were doing all these things?”
Not much, according to them. Montenegrins were lazy and would cheat you. Macedonians were country bumpkins and really shouldn’t even exist as a nation. Albanians were sub-human and prone to crime. Bulgarians smelled bad and were ugly.
I tried to change the topic, and was encouraged to “study Serbian history, learn the Serbian language, eat Serbian food and take a Serbian wife.” When I mentioned it was my birthday, Nikola said, “Happy birthday, now buy us some drinks!”
Read more from a Traveler in the Foreign Service here.
Image via Flickr, Velja123.