The other side of EuropeWed Feb 27, 2013 00:20 (UTC -8)
Katya’s visa was expiring. Our passports were stamped; we were out of the EU. We followed a long line of travelers across the tarmac of Gothenburg City Airport and into a purple and pink airplane.
It was my first time flying a cheapie European airline, and while I was worried they would charge me for breathing the air in the cabin, the flight was reasonably comfortable. I was able to take my mind off of how scrunched up my legs were by looking at the ad on the seat in front of me. It was close.
There’s little overlap between the countries that Americans and Russians can visit without a visa. Our plane was headed for one of them: Serbia. It was a place I didn’t really know anything about, except that there used to be violence and stuff there when I was growing up. Things were different now, the travel guides had assured me. Belgrade—or Beograd, as it’s called when it’s at home—was moving on up in the world.
We landed at Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport and were shuttled to immigration. I had gotten used to the drill by now: wait in one of several long lines for an unsmiling uniformed officer to glance at you and stamp your passport. And no using cell phones before you’re cleared to enter. I guess that’s in case you’re a terrorist or something, telling your terrorist friends that the chicken has left the henhouse, but it’s still funny. It’s like you’re not really anywhere until they let you through that little gate.
The airport’s sterile modernity betrays its small size. Once we were past immigration, we were virtually out of the place. Almost, but not quite. Having picked up our bags, we found ourselves in a small waiting area with car-rental kiosks, an ATM, and, in one corner, an oversized analog flight board with some of the spinny letters broken.
Katya went to the bathroom, so I was alone there for a bit. I felt kind of bad about thinking it, but to me this seemed like the kind of place where foreigners—be they tourists, students, or wise-cracking cops who take the law into their own hands—needed to watch their backs a little more than usual.
I hastily made a trip across the room to the ATM and took out enough money for a few days. The exchange rate would be easy to remember: 100 Serbian dinars were about a dollar. I stuffed the bills into my wallet as fast as I could and shuffled back to sit next to the big board. I wouldn’t feel right until we had gotten to where we were supposed to be. It was a travel day, and I was in travel mode, in an unfamiliar country.
I took a map of Belgrade from an information desk. We knew which buses we could take to get to our host, a CouchSurfing user who had generously offered us a room in his apartment at the very last minute. So we stood outside, waiting for a bus, and, as if on cue, a guy asked us if we wanted a taxi. He actually left us alone eventually, so I felt a little better.
The sun set during the nearly hour-long bus ride. We debussed at a bustling bus station in central Belgrade. We dragged our bags around, trying to follow the map, but I wasn’t even sure we were going in the right direction. The streets were pretty quiet, and it was hard to find any street signs (although I did see that one street was named after Gavrilo Princip). We might have been going in a circle. After a while, a man who spoke English spotted us and offered to help. He suggested we get on a particular bus and was heading the same way.
We had finally made it to our host’s apartment. It was a tiny place, and there was another CouchSurfer staying there, a guy from California, whom we’d be sharing a room with. We were late, and they were hungry for dinner. So, where should we eat? We asked the local.
He had a thick accent but spoke good English. There’s an interesting place that I like to have dinner at a lot, he said. The food’s good and cheap. It’s a buffet. I always take guests there. You’ll like it. We can go by taxi.
The cab stopped outside a massive building that was completely dark. It was the Hotel Yugoslavia, and it had been bombed by NATO in 1999. We walked around back, to the side that fronted the Danube. Here was an entrance, and it was brightly lit. We went in and found ourselves in what seemed to be a lobby.
Our host watched as we three first-time visitors each filled out a card with our name, address, phone number, date of birth, place of birth… They snapped a photo of each of us, and we got membership cards with the name of the establishment. The name was also on a huge sign outside that I had completely missed: “Grand Casino Beograd.”
I wrote about approval voting last year (ohmygod it wasn’t last year it was the year before last, man am I getting old). The Center for Election Science, which aims to promote approval voting through its newly non-embarrassing-looking website, wants to make a slick, professional video to compete for a prize funded by the MacArthur Foundation, and they need your help. They’ve started a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the video. Read about approval voting, and if you like what you see, chip in a few bucks. For democracy.