Fear and Luck in the Balkans






Fear and Luck in the Balkans

Less than four hours out of Belgrade, I awoke to the clamor of Serbians boarding the train. Alone in the second-class compartment, I’d been stretched across the seat getting badly needed sleep and was hoping to remain that way all the way to Sophia, Bulgaria.  It was noon. The car was warm and bright, but I could’ve slept there for ten hours, easily. I sat up and blinked at the door of the compartment. A tall woman with bleach-blonde hair poked her head inside. From behind her over-sized pink sunglasses she gave me a once over then turned and called down the hallway, her hand beckoning someone into the compartment. With a deep sigh, I stuffed my dirty backpack, which I’d been using as a pillow, into the bin above my head.

I’d left Istanbul, where I’d been living and teaching English, two months previous on a train bound for Bucharest and had traveled as far as Bosnia by trains, buses, and hitch-hiking. In Romania, I met two Germans at a hostel, and they took me with them to a wet, muddy death metal festival, a Romanian wedding  (after which we spent a week as guests in the groom’s mother’s home, where having hot water was a matter of building a fire in the water heater), and a two-day hike through the Transylvanian Alps before dropping me off in Hungary. In Hungary, I stayed for a month at my friend Daniel’s vineyard, slept in a hundred-and-fifty-year-old cottage, used a bucket for a toilet, split firewood to cook over a fire, and washed my clothes in tubs with water from a rain cistern. I became grateful for the luxury of hot running water when I walked down to the village once a week to take a shower. The lady who provided the shower was the same one who took me to the doctor when I got pink eye and arranged for me to get free medical care. (She spoke almost no English, and to this day the only word I can say in Hungarian is fertözès—infection). Daniel and I hitchhiked around Croatia, where we slept (miserably) on a dirt road, (uncomfortably) on a rocky beach, and (illegally) in the national forest. We were surprised to find that not only would people take hitchhikers across the border from Croatia into Bosnia, but that there was no border check on either side. In Bosnia we went white water rafting and flipped the boat, gasped for air in the shock of the freezing water. We saw the corner in Sarajevo where a Serb had assassinated the Archduke of Austria and ignited World War I, and we fought with each other, got lost, walked for hours with heavy backpacks, camped beside the highway, and visited war-scarred cities. Now I was on my way home, first to Istanbul and then on a plane back to the United States, from which I had been gone for almost two years. I had, for the time, slaked my thirst for adventure and willful discomfort. To go home was all I wanted, and the trip to Istanbul was a long one–two and a half days by train and bus.

The overnight train from Budapest to Belgrade, the one on which I’d planned to sleep, was so crowded that, before people thought to open the windows, the lack of air was suffocating. I spent the first five hours of the ten-hour journey without a seat in a compartment, crammed in the corridor with a bunch of Slovakians headed south, sitting on my bulging canvas book bag to protect the seat of my pants from the grime of the train floor. Despite the miserable conditions, the ride was cheerful. I’d bought three bottles of Hungarian beer at the train station. The guy wedged next to me on his way to Albania spoke fluent English, and we passed the time talking religion and politics in a jovial atmosphere of shared cigarettes and the passing of beer bottles. When a seat opened up in the compartment, the Slovakian boys in their grace offered it to me first, and I slept with my head on someone’s shoulder all the way to Belgrade.

In Belgrade I didn’t venture beyond the train station. I had time to take a look around the city and grab another overnight train, but I was tired. And anyway I’d seen enough Eastern European cities by then to take a good guess at what that one would look like. Also, Serbia made me uneasy. Or, rather, Serbians made me uneasy. This had a lot to do with the week I’d spent traveling in Bosnia.

I’d fallen in love with Sarajevo, a city of domes where the people were gracious and the water, which they claim to be the sweetest in the world, flowed from ornate fountains. The warmth and hospitality of the Bosnians, who are Muslim, reminded me of the Turks I’d been living among in Istanbul. Turks, however, are often possessed of a nationalism that is annoyingly bereft of humor. I found the Bosnians more light-hearted. In Mostar, I saw a t-shirt that read “I’m Muslim. Don’t panic.”  In Sarajevo, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians, lived peacefully together for hundreds of years until Slobodan Milosevic, who happened to be Serbian, started trouble. I’d witnessed the destruction wrought by Milosevic‘s army on Sarajevo and others cities, including Mostar, where the Serbian army destroyed a famous single-arch bridge built by the Ottomans in the 16th Century. (It was rebuilt in 2004.)

When talking about the recent war, the Bosnians didn’t come off as bitter, but their accounts did not much flatter the Serbians. In Jace, the old citadel city that had sustained particularly harsh damage from bombing, a man explained to me that people who had been good neighbors for years suddenly started murdering each other–Serbs killing Bosnians, Croats killing Serbs–and they blamed Milosevic. The country of Bosnia is shaped like a heart, and now, since the war, it is broken into three pieces.

So, my opinion of Serbians, based on biased information and likely unfair, was that they were provincial, brutish trouble-makers. It occurred to me that they might not be so fond of Americans, either. We did bomb Belgrade. I felt they had it coming, too, because, as I understood it, they remained unapologetic about the three-year siege of Sarajevo. As soon as I arrived in Belgrade, I took my American passport and my Bosnian sympathies and found the next train out of there, praying to the travel gods for an empty second-class compartment where I could stretch out and get some sleep. Until that moment, I had my wish.

The compartment was soon filled with Serbian women stuffing bags into the overhead bins and under the seats. The bleach-blonde was the only woman in the compartment making any effort at her appearance. She wore a tight-fitting pink tank top, a lot of makeup, and big hoop earrings and was significantly more tan and thin than the others, who were mostly older women with dark, short-cropped hair and flabby, pale bodies stuffed into loose blouses and t-shirts. One younger girl had a bright, pretty face, but she didn’t wear any make-up or jewelry, her dark hair hung limply and her clothes were as unflattering as those of her companions. As for me, the cargo shorts and t-shirt I’d been traveling in for two days were dirty when I put them on. I probably smelled bad and, having been convinced by an eccentric friend earlier that summer that shampoo was unnecessary, I hadn’t washed my hair for three months.

I pulled my journal out of my book bag and started writing, trying to look as absorbed in that as possible, hoping to be ignored. I would not have such luck. Upon settling into their seats, all of the women in the compartment immediately pulled packs of cigarettes from their bags, all of which I saw to contain numerous cartons, and smoked with such furious abandon, one cigarette right after the other, that I broke into my journal reflections on leaving Hungary to write, “These ladies sure like cigarettes.” The other women chatted amongst themselves, but the woman with the bleach-blonde hair, sitting directly across from me, crossed her long legs in stonewashed jeans, pushed her big pink sunglasses, some kind of cheap Versace knock-offs with fake rhinestones twinkling in the plastic, to the top of her head, and stared at me. She spoke English.

“Where are you from?” she asked, jiggling her pink platform wedge in the space between us.

For the first time in my life, I was tempted to answer that question dishonestly. At that time, during the Bush administration, a lot of Americans traveling abroad claimed to be Canadian. This denial of being American seemed to me not only cowardly but counter-productive. I realized that a lot of people resented my country, and I understood why, but I was proud to present myself as an example of an American people could like, one who was sympathetic to and not fearful of the rest of the world. In Serbia, however, I was not only fearful but not particularly sympathetic. I assessed the likelihood of anything going amiss and also the likelihood that she wouldn’t notice my distinctively blue passport when we crossed the border.

“America,” I answered.

“Where are you going?”


“What are you doing there?”

“Just traveling.”

“You are lucky.”

I considered this statement. I was an American girl traveling alone through the Balkans in a second-class train car full of Serbians. The fifty American dollars in my wallet was all I had to my name. I was, at that time, technically, homeless. This woman did not know that, but she was right.  I nodded my agreement. She continued to stare at me.

“I am going to Sophia, too.”

“Huh.” I paused. I did not want to make conversation. I also, for diplomatic reasons, did not want to be rude. “Why?”

“Business,” she replied.

I responded with a nod that I hoped would convey my complete satisfaction with this answer and lack of curiosity about what kind of business. She told me anyway.

“I’m going to sell cigarettes.”

“Ah.” I assumed she was not a sanctioned representative of a tobacco distributor. She was, obviously, a smuggler. I offered a terse smile. Although I’d been known to smoke a few cigarettes myself, I did not have any. I’d thought of buying a pack in Belgrade but hadn’t wanted to buy any more Serbian money after I paid for the train, and cigarettes, I knew, would be cheaper in Sophia. Knowing that made me wonder what profit there could be in this smuggling of them from Serbia to Bulgaria, but I wasn’t about to question this woman about black market economics in the Balkans. I wanted to know as little as possible about what she was up to. I did consider bumming a cigarette off of her but reckoned that the second-hand smoke drifting in layered swirls around the compartment was enough.

She continued to question me, which was making me nervous. I explained that I had been living in Istanbul, and that’s where I was going. She asked the usual questions. How old was I? What did I do in Istanbul? Was I married? Did I have any children?

The train rolled through the treeless plains of the Serbian countryside, which were the same as the treeless plains of the Bulgarian countryside, with which I was familiar and not excited about seeing again. The flat green terrain is great for farming but wanting in entertainment, the main feature being the picturesque villages of stone houses with red-tiled roofs that flash by infrequently and only for a few seconds. I prefer my scenery mountainous and my roads winding. Part of me, the morbidly romantic part, enjoys the fear that the bus will go over a cliff. My enjoyment of fear and discomfort is what, as much as curiosity, makes me the traveler I am.

I’d been to Sophia before and I didn’t like it. It had that utilitarian industrial feel of a city developed under communist rule, aesthetics and charm being bourgeois and all. Nothing but square concrete block buildings and unhappy people, at least what I’d seen of it. From Sophia I was looking at another ten hours on a bus to Istanbul, passing on the way through the old Roman burg of Plov Div, a place I did like and of which I had fond memories.

The normal procedure for English teachers living in Istanbul was to cross the border every three months to buy a new tourist visa. Plov Div, eight hours away by bus, was a nice escape from the crowds, noise, and chaos of Istanbul. I’d spent a few visa-run weekends on holiday there, sitting in cafes, enjoying the availability of pork and cheap liquor, and basking in the clean, orderly tranquility of Christendom while watching throngs of uniformly gorgeous young Bulgarian women wearing short skirts and high heels strut through the square. Then, on the way home, I’d stop by the duty-free shop at the border and buy a fifth of Jack Daniel’s whiskey as a treat for my friends in Istanbul, where import taxes made most liquor prohibitively expensive.

The bus trip to Istanbul would be boring, but I was looking forward to what would be my first taste of familiarity in weeks. When we passed the border between Bulgaria and Turkey there would be Bulgarian women, older ones to whom time had not been kind, taking across the border to Turkey more than their quota of liquor and cigarettes, which is two fifths and two cartons. They would ask me to put things in my bag for them, a bottle of liquor or a carton of cigarettes, and I would, because I’d done it before with the assurance of the bus driver that it was both acceptable and customary to do so. I liked helping the Bulgarian women smuggle their booze and cigarettes (if it could really be called smuggling, since it was done in plain sight and probably legal-ish enough) because it made me feel like a friendly, experienced foreigner who knew the ropes and wasn’t afraid to help some desperate women make a few bucks. Maybe it made me the kind of American they could like: one who was sympathetic and not fearful.

When the bleach-blonde woman stopped questioning me, I went back to my journal. “I really don’t know what’s up with these cigarette ladies,” I wrote. “We’re nearing the border and they’re taping cartons together. Anyway.” I ignored the women and concentrated on recounting the ordeal of searching for a place to sleep in Banja Luca, Bosnia, a city which, much like Sophia, lacked anything charming to see, when the light changed, prompting me to look up and discover that we were passing through what looked like a canyon. I perked up at this sight, momentarily transported back to the dramatic landscapes of Bosnia, which had won my traveler’s heart with their nail-gnawing switchback turns through misty canyons that plunged into icy crayon-blue rivers. (I imagined a news report: “One American was killed in a bus accident in Bosnia yesterday…”.) In a very short moment we were out of the canyon and back to the monotonous green vistas that were the only scenery all the way to Istanbul.

I saw that the women were now tucking cartons of cigarettes under their clothes and into their socks under their pant legs. The bleach-blonde woman pulled a bulky sweater over her head and loaded it with cartons. I watched with a mixture of amusement and trepidation, waiting for the question I knew was coming.  She tapped me on the knee and I raised my eyebrows in acknowledgement, the look on my face saying, “Can I help you?”

“Would you like to take some cigarettes?” She asked.

“No, thank you,” I answered, summoning the gracious manner of a cocktail party guest turning down a truffle.

“You can take two,” she said with a scowl. I opened my mouth then shut it again quickly and picked up my pen. She glared at me, disgruntled with my refusal. I couldn’t be sure, you see, that those were cigarettes in those boxes. I’d heard stories about people being asked to take cartons of cigarettes across the border and those cartons turning out to contain heroin instead, and though I usually considered those stories to be the lore of paranoid Americans, in this case I decided that a little American paranoia would be best. I was alone, and a patsy I was not. Sorry, lady.

The train slowed as we approached the border crossing. The “cigarette ladies,” as they were now termed in my journal, settled into their seats and continued their relentless smoking. When we stopped, Serbian border guards boarded the train and collected passports. As the guards looked the women over, they sat very still, the bulk of their bodies now augmented by the cartons of cigarettes under their clothes.  It was kind of hard not to giggle.  It was also kind of hard not to be afraid of what would happen if the smugglers were found out. Would they be arrested? And me, was I complicit?

I handed over my blue American passport, trying to look as friendly and stupid as possible. I tried, with all my might, to make my face say, “No, really, I like Serbians. I’ve never even heard of the Balkan wars. And if I had heard of such a thing I would surely be on your side.” The guards searched the women’s bags and confiscated a few cartons that one of them was hiding. Her face drooped. She shook her head and whimpered in protest. I wondered what kind of financial setback that would mean for her. The guards whipped out screwdrivers and removed panels from the ceiling of the compartment, where they found nothing. In about twenty minutes the train started moving again, on to the Bulgarian border.

That’s when things got a little crazy.

The women pulled all the cartons of cigarettes out of their clothes and I sensed a stirring throughout the car. A commotion. A young man entered our compartment with a screwdriver and looked at the ceiling. I understood that I was in the way, so I moved into the hallway. I wouldn’t help these women with their smuggling, but I didn’t mean to be in the way. Out in the hallway I saw that almost everyone else in the car was standing up and moving in and out of the compartments. A young man sprinted toward my compartment, pulled his t-shirt over his head and handed it to one of the women, I presumed to keep the shirt from getting dirty as another woman boosted him into the opening made by the removed ceiling panel. Cartons of cigarettes were appearing from everywhere, and people were handing them up to the young man who whose torso was in the ceiling. This kind of thing was happening, I realized, in every other compartment in the car. I wondered if this was happening in the whole train.

In ten minutes we arrived at the Bulgarian border. Again I handed over my blue American passport, more comfortable with the Bulgarians than the Serbians, at least with their border guards. This time I tried with all my might to make my face say, “I don’t know shit.”

If I was wondering why the Bulgarians weren’t checking the ceiling, I soon got my answer when the youngest of the women in my compartment passed a wad of cash to a guard, with whom she chatted in such a way that I understood this was not their first meeting. The bleach-blonde woman had now shed her bulky sweater and was jutting her head out of the window, calling to one of the guards outside of the train. They chatted for a moment and she waved at a couple of the other guards, flirting. The air of camaraderie was palpable and for a moment I felt part of it, like I was in on something, like a friendly, experienced foreigner who knew the ropes and was comfortable in the world of international smuggling. My, but aren’t we having fun, I thought. I don’t know if it was because I was glad to be back in Bulgaria, but I was no longer fearful. I did not feel like a paranoid American. I smiled at the cigarette ladies, wanting them to like me.

When the train started rolling again I moved into the hallway to clear the way for the cigarettes to come down from the ceiling. I tried to count how many cartons there were. At least a hundred. The women stuffed cartons of cigarettes into canvas bags. At this point I was impressed. I was, I believe, proud of them. This wasn’t just business. This was adventure. For these women, quite possibly, this was survival.

In another hour, the train arrived in Sophia. I hauled my backpack from the overhead rack and slung my book-laden sack over my shoulder. Having been to Sophia before, I knew the way from the train station to the bus station, and I was looking forward to the ten- hour bus ride in an air-conditioned coach to Istanbul. In three days, I’d be boarding a plane back to the United States of America. My life in the First World awaited me: a life in a land without war, where neither I nor anyone I knew needed to bribe anyone or climb into the ceilings of trains to make a living. A life in which I could, if I chose to, be safe and comfortable all the time.

On the platform of the train station, the horizontal light of the late sun made silhouettes of the other passengers streaming out of the cars with their bags, and I imagined that the whole train was filled with cigarettes and cigarette smugglers. I looked back to see the bleach-blonde woman stepping out of the train, her sunglasses obscuring half her face, the handles of a bulging canvas bag in each hand. She paused, looked left and right, then disappeared into the sun.