Greek Odyssey Part Four. “who wants to be a millionaire in Belgrade?”
…continued from part three…Baz pulled over to allow the engine to cool down, was it at a point of overheating and the smell of burning oil was palpable…
…as we drove towards Belgrade, I spotted a building that looked like a road side cafe and told Baz to pull over. He looked drained from the Wuzzen Pass experience, as we all were. The side road of the building had a few trucks parked up so we guessed it was open, despite it being quite early in the morning.
Bread and Sausages
It was a simple place. A few wooden tables with nothing on them. There was a counter where a lady stood behind it. A few men on separate tables in the corner of the cafe eating. It was silent, no one took any notice of us. I walked up to the counter and asked if they were OK to take Austrian Shillings in payment for food and drink. The lady looked at me, I guess it was difficult to understand what I was saying [ English] for her – but she kinda got the drift, as I had shown her some Austrian money as I asked the question. She nodded her approval.
I had no idea of the exchange rate of Austrian Shillings to Yugoslavian Dina – But I was past the point of caring. I just wanted to buy hot drinks and some sort of food, hoping that would refresh us all for the next part of the Odyssey.
Peering through the counters display glass and I spotted some sausages. They were on a plate and I presumed they would be cooked in a microwave or something. I pointed to them and held up three fingers whilst pointing to myself, Baz and Ged. And then the Sausages. I did a mime of drinking from a cup. The lady nodded. She pointed to the tables and then to herself and then to the tables. I totally understood her instructions and we sat down. Less than five minutes later she walked over to us with three bowls, each had a sausage immersed in what looked like hot brown water – She placed then down and walked back to the counter to collect three mugs of coffee (black) and a plate with three pieces of bread on it. She gave me a piece of paper with 32 Dina written on it – I gave her 10 Austrian Shillings and said “OK – keep the change.” She smiled.
Baz looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. He then placed the sausage on the bread and began to eat it dipping the bread occasionally into the brown watery liquid. Ged and I did the same. We drank the coffee and five minutes later we were walking back to the Van. “Better than Nothing.” Baz said. “Let’s get to Belgrade and get some local money.” Baz said to me as he recalled that the road to Greece was definitely a National Motorway that had ‘Tolls’ – So we would have to pay as we progressed to the border with Greece.
The Five Star Experience
Driving to Belgrade was uneventful and only took a three or more hours, we entered the City from the North West and headed into the centre. It was quite. The sky was overcast and grey, the building looked grey too and there was an uneasy feel about the place. We drove around a central point and finally I spotted a sign for Hotel. “Park up here Baz, I’ll nip into that large hotel and exchange some English pounds for Dina for the Tolls.” Baz parked up and jumped out the Van and crossed the empty road towards the large building with Hotel on a large sign that was attached to the front of the building. As I walked through the rather grand doors I noticed a Five Star placard – which was good to see. No worries here I thought – I walked over to the large counter and press the desk top bell.
A few more rings later a gentleman in a grey suit came from a side door and asked me in perfect English how he could help me. I told that I would like to exchange currency from British pounds to Dina. “How much?” He asked. “Oh I don’t know probably two or three hundred pound I should think.” I said slightly vague as I was thinking that Baz may need some money to travel back Austria after he left me in Greece. “I see, well it may take a little while, as the hotel needs to gather the Dina.” I had no idea what he was talking about. “Please complete this form and provide identification.” He said politely. I was expecting that I should need my passport, so I handed it to him. “Please take a seat.” He said smiling and walked back through the side door.” – I waited and waited for what felt like an eternity. I read all t he magazines on a table and then was thumbing through the postcards to the side of the desk. And still no sign of the man who been trying to assist me.
An hour or two later that he finally emerged. “Do you have a bag Sir.” He asked. I didn’t. “ OK, no problem, I will provide for you.” He asked me for my British money, all of which was in fifty pounds notes, so it was very easy to count 300 pounds quickly onto the Hotel desk. He looked at the money and then looked at me. “Ok, Sir, I shall be back in a moment.” He said and disappeared again.
Another half an hour passed and the man came back through the door carrying two paper bags. He placed them on the desk and placed my passport beside them. “Ok Sir, please sign the form here, and here, and here and write your passport number and today date here.” I did what he asked – He then handed me my passport and gestured that now I may take the paper bags. I picked then up – and looked inside – They were full to the brim of money. I must have looked a little stunned. “May I ask if you have transport Sir, only it would be unwise to walk the streets with this amount of cash, at this time.” He said with a concerned tone in his voice. I didn’t know what he met by ‘this time’ was it the time of day? Or maybe the time of year? – I didn’t bother tom ask and wanted to get back to the van rapid.
I was sure Baz would be pulling his hair out. I ran back to where the Van had been parked but it had disappeared. So I stopped and looked around and saw the van turning around at the top of the square – It stopped besides me and passenger was opened by Ged- “What the Fuck? – I’ve been driving round and round this bleeding square for ages. – An army uniformed bloke moved us on and told us not to stop anywhere in the square or he would want paying.” I jumped in the van and we sped off.
the cost of Crossing into Greece
As we drove down main road I was counting the Dina – it was ridiculous that just 250 British pounds could equate to so much Dina – I’d exchange a thousand pounds into Greek drachma before leaving the UK and that was crazy too – but this – it must have been over a million Dina, I gave up counting at 650,000.
The atmosphere and the feeling of Belgrade was not good (it was only 8 months before the start of that tragic Serbia- Bosnia ethnic cleansing war) – Baz felt the bad vibes too, as did Ged and I – any decent human being could feel the evil in the air – “Right, we ain’t stopping till we get to Greece. Ged, you take over the driving when we have crossed the border. I want out of this bloody country as soon as possible – I think its gonna kick off.”
That statement by Barry set the tension for the rest of trip through Yugoslavia. It began more and stressful as we managed to get through each Toll crossing – The price of the ‘Fee’ seemed to rise the further we went South – It started at around 125,000 dina then 250,000 then 320,000 – It was long before we were running out of Dina. After driving all day and through to the early night-time, we pushed and struggled to sat awake. Baz asked me to keep talking about anything, to detract him away from the terrible roads. Which although were supposed to be motorways – they were not. Tarmac in the middle flanked by dirt roads the transport lorries through up a fog of dirt that was not only difficult to see though but incredibly dangerous.
We finally managed to get to the last Toll before the crossing into Greece. I’d run out of Dina – I gathered all my foreign currency of French Francs, Austria Shillings and put the in one pocket – Then placed a bunch of notes of Drachma’s in the other. I was sure the guy would accept them to allow us through the border. We pulled up along side the small Gate Office – He asked for 300,000 Dina- I Offered him Drachma first – He refused and said he wanted American Dollars. I told him I had none and offered him Austrian Shillings. He refused again and said “Passport.” His had was held out and Bz handed him a passport. He them instructed us to park up at the side of the border crossing. Which we did.
“Who’s passport did you give him Baz’” “Yours” He said. I looked at him with wide open eyes. “Look, if we arrested, then it’s you who go to jail – And then I can come back with Dollars and get you out.” He logically reasoned with me. Whilst we having this conversation and a smoke – a truck pulled up besides us. Several Army blokes jumped out followed by a what must have been an officer – “Out.” He shouted at us through the openVan window. We obeyed. “Hands up.” He said in good English. He walked over to us and I asked if I may speak. He nodded.
The soldiers in the behind the officer held their guns in readiness for trouble. I explained the situation. For some reason, probably nervous energy I told him the whole story, like I did with the Guard on the Austrian border. This time I threw in the odd Greek word – Like “Malaka “ when explaining the Toll man would not accept Drachma’s. At this point the officer said “Wait.” And stayed with our hands up while the officer walked across to the man in the Tool box – He walked in and we watched him as he smacked the guy around about the head a few times before coming back to where we stood. “Please, put your hands down.” He said – “Here is the passport. ” I said than you and took it back. “Give me 5000 Drama’s.” The officer asked – I gave it immediately. “Ok, my Mother is Greek – So I welcome you to travel on your way to Greece and I wish to you have a nice Day.” The officer said in an American Accent. He saluted us and both he and the Soldiers got in the Army Truck left.
After a slight “What.” moment we jumped into the Van and headed South leaving the mountain and Belgrade and Yugoslavia behind us…at last we were going to be in Greece in less than 4 hours – And the Art Odyssey would start in earnest.
Manchester Born the artist enrolled in the Manchester High School of Art at the age of 11 years old. After a succcessful career in design the artist dedicated his life to Art in 1988. First solo exhibition UK 1989. The artist has exhibited and curated Art shows since 1995 in Europe and the UK. His main studio is located in Southern Sweden. (studio 5).