Stranded in a Serbian Supermarket

We should have been suspicious when the Hungary/Serbia border crossing at Röszke went so smoothly.

We experienced the usual collecting of passports, standing around, and stamping-of-papers border behavior, but were not subjected to the full-vehicle search we witnessed all around us. The previous few days had been hard on the border patrol, as Syrian refugees had been crossing (or trying to cross) this border in the thousands.  We chalked up their lack of interest in us to fatigue.

IMG_1078That said, the oh-so-cheerful man who processed all of our passports also requested the computerized work records of our driver. Apparently at some point in this process he said something to the effect of “if I find anything in here, I’m going to arrest you,” – which, in fact, he did, an hour later.

We were pulled over just past the next tollgate on Central Europe’s A-1/E-75 Highway, whereupon the policeman informed our driver that he’d piloted the coach for too many consecutive days. In Serbia, commercial drivers are required to take a day off after six days of driving. In the EU, the law is different; drivers can drive for twelve consecutive days before their required rest day. The bus we have been using is an EU bus, the company is an EU company, and the driver is Croatian (Croatia is an EU country). The law states that commercial drivers are subject to the rule of the country where their employer’s business is located – in this case, the EU – and the local law should not affect them. Our tour guide attempted to explain this to the police; she reported his response to be something along the lines of threatening to take all of us off the bus to stand behind a barbed wire fence. Thankfully, he didn’t pursue that option.

Somehow our driver and tour guide managed to convince the Serbian cops to make the arrest a few miles down the road in a parking lot, rather than at the side of the road by the tollgate, so we drove – escorted by a police vehicle – to a supermarket by the side of the highway. Our driver dismounted and was hauled off by the cops, leaving us stranded in the Serbian supermarket parking lot.

I actually make a point of visiting grocery stores in all of the countries I visit, so I couldn’t have asked for a better pitstop. This one was a lot like a Costco, with a sterile white décor and fluorescent lights, but there were still plenty of fun and unfamiliar products to check out. The spice section was completely dominated by paprika, and the amount of raw meat for sale was staggering. My mother was captivated by the Serbian and Macedonian wine selection, and I investigated the options for locally produced coconut-filled candy bars. We found an unusual variety of ironing boards, and an enormous quantity of powdered soup packets.

While we were browsing the aisles, our tour guide was frantically making phone calls. She managed to rather quickly commandeer another driver from Belgrade (the Serbian capital) to meet us at the supermarket and drive us the rest of the way to the city. By the time we were eating dinner, we were told that our driver was returning from court and not spending the night in jail, which had been an option. He was fined $280 Euros and sent on his way.

What’s amazing about this incident is that it was allowed to run its course. Both our tour guide and our driver asked the police to call the large and prestigious tour company for whom they work; the police refused to call. They offered the officials the name and number of the EU official in charge of commercial transportation to verify their claim that EU driving rules and not local laws were applicable in this situation; they refused to make this call as well. Apparently our driver even offered to “pay the fine on the spot” – an offer which, in most places, would get you off the hook immediately.  They refused.

Meanwhile, a bus full of 38 wealthy English-speaking tourists filmed the interaction, and wondered if perhaps they should just drive right on through Serbia without spending any money there. As our tour guide pointed out, Serbia is in the process of applying for EU admission; it’s ironic that we watched them quibble with existing EU statutes and impede tourists from entering the country.  The political events of the late 80’s and 90’s cast a nasty shadow on the world’s impression of this young country; I’m afraid adventures like this aren’t helping their reputation.

But I – and we – need to be careful here. If I judge an entire country on the basis of a few government employees who feel full of their minimal power (and we know that EVERY country country has these), I’m participating in the exact same prejudicial behavior that has embroiled the Balkan countries in violence for centuries. Comments like “that’s just like those Serbs” or “Croatians would never do this” create and contribute to the schisms that grow and fester into divisive, tribal thinking.

It’s so easy to go there, especially when impatience and frustration are a part of the picture.

With that in mind, I hear Belgrade is impressive city. I’m emptying my mind and heading in there.

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