And so it was that — filled with a tremor of excitement —  I embarked on another trip to Belgrade,  that wild, loud, brawling, lawless and free city in the Balkans, where the kafanas flowed with rakija and the streets were filled with beautiful girls in knock-off Versace and silicone tits. 

Some called the bus line the “Gastarbeiter Express” because it hit all the west German Gastarbeiter towns from Berlin to Munich, picking up Yugos and bringing them Serbia. 

Others called it the “Gypsy Express”, because after hitting all the main Gastarbeiter towns in west Germany, then swinging into Novi Sad and Belgrade, the bus went on to Niš, its final destination, which is famous for being a Gypsy town.

And indeed, on the grey and rainy day in August when our bus was poised to depart for Serbia a lot of Gypsies had shown up,  with their asbestos-like luggage. There were Gypsy women fumbling for their cigarettes  in  cracked faux leather handbags, little pre-pubescent Gypsy kids with gold chains around their necks.

Upon departure,one guy was already well on his way to inebriation when he stumbled on the bus at ten in the morning with a can of beer sloshing in his hand.

It was my eighth trip to Serbia. Or something like that. I had come to Serbia by train, by plane, by bike. But I liked it most of all by bus. It was always an adventure.

This time my neighbor was Zoran, a small, stocky Serb in a red polo shirt and gold chain with a crucifix on it. He was heading to Vranje, ultimately, the town where he was born and had left in 1974 to come to Berlin with his mother. The two had worked in a Gillette factory, making razor blades. Later Zoran opened up a Balkan mini-market and Yugo-music store in Neukölln.

Business was not going well. In fact, since the Wall had fallen it was all “am Arsch” – downhill, that is to say. People were less apt to part with their money. Increasingly the customers were on the dole. Not only that, but the demographics of his neighborhood around Flughafenstrasse had changed for the worse.

“You don’t get any proper people anymore,” said Zoran. “It’s just one bordello after another. One café after another. And with the new mosque across the street, there there’s no place to park. It’s simply katastrof. They should burn everything down.”

“Burn down the mosque, eh?” I said. 

“Dear God should send a lightning bolt and, pssht, destroy everything! Blow it to smithereens! You see what they do in Iraq with the churches. They burn them down until there’s nothing more. But over here, everywhere: another mosque, yet another mosque…If I was in the government: not a single one. No. Where do you want to pray? Do it at home. No. Why? If I can’t build a church in Turkey why should I have a mosque in my country?”

“There are churches in Turkey,” I said. “A lot of them.”

“But you have to have a sondergenehmigung– a special permit – when you want to have a mass. Wo gibt den sowat? Merkel is right. They don’t belong to Europe. That’s Asia.”  

“You have bad luck as a Serb,” I said. “500 years of Turkish occupation and then you come to Berlin and: Muslims everywhere.” 

“And there are ever more and more,” Zoran went on. “They fuck like rabbits. And when ten die tonight ten more are going to be made tomorrow. And the Germans pay kindergeld, kindergeld, kindergeld. How many children? One child. Good. Any more children, no money. 

“One day it’s going to be just like Yugoslavia. ‘I want my own country,’ they are going to start saying. It’s going to come. Some time. It’s not going to be long. And then the Germans are going to ask themselves, ‘Ach,how did we make these mistakes? Why did we get rid of Milošević?’ Today there was an interview with an American in Vesti : that was the greatest mistake to bomb Serbia, he said. Now! Ha! Now! After so many years!”

And so we zoomed all night through Czech Republic, ghostly little Bohemian villages flickered by in the darkness. We hit Prague. Wenceslas Square. A Gypsy in shorts and muscle T-shirt fidgeting on a tram. Nusle Bridge, the Vyšehrad in the distance. Serbian narodna music playing all the while.

“What’s new now in Serbia?” I asked Zoran, who had put on his reading glasses and was now peering into his Vesti.

“They’re looking for Ratko Mladić,” said  Zoran. “Says here in interviews they asked the old Omas sitting in the park what they felt about Ratko Mladić : ‘We’ll never hand him over. Never!’ they say. ‘And if we knew where he was we would never give him up.’

“And Bosnia says they’ll give twenty million to anyone who can say where Ratko Mladić is. But they’ll never find Ratko.  He’s over the hills and far away. He’s not in Serbia. I know that much.  But all the politicians, they know where Ratko Mladić is.”

“What do you think about the government in Serbia?” I asked Zoran. “It’s totally crap, or? They are all selling out the West.”

“All crap. Everyone’s in someone’s pocket. And the people have no money. We’ll see what democracy is.”

“Who did you vote for? The Radicals?”

“They’re crap as well.”

“Why?”

“They just want to send everyone to war.  To fight for this and that.” 

“They say there are more radical Serbs in Germany than in Serbia. What do you think about this?”

“Naja, you say Serbs. But Serbs must be people who were born in Serbia. You can’t be a Bosnian and say, “I’m a Serb”. He has an Orthodox faith, but he’s a Bosnian. He can never be a Serb.” 

“You have to be born in Serbia.”

“Then he is a real Serb. But if he’s from Bosnia he only has an Orthodox faith. But a Serb? What does that have to do with Serbia? They have totally different views than us.” 

“It seems as though the Serbs keep a low profile in Berlin. Croats are what you see everywhere.”

“No, there’s not so many Croats. But in Frankfurt, down there, there are more Croats. Here in Berlin there’s supposed to be 30,000 Serbs.” 

“But I don’t see any Serbian cafes and Serbian shops.” 

“Because if you open up a Serbian café then the Muslims or people from Sandzak will come and trash the place,” said Zoran. “You can’t do anything Serbian. They’ll destroy it right away. And when the police come two or three times then they close the place down.” 

“Who do you think are more nationalist? The Serbs or the Croats?”

“There are nationalists on both sides. But those are mainly the older people. Naja, tomorrow Tadić is in Vukovar. They want to excuse themselves for the war. Because the EU is demanding that the neighbors get along harmoniously. So the both sides should excuse themselves, for the victims.” 

Zoran shut up long enough to watch the movie. It was Ko To Tamo PevoWho’s Singin’ Over There.

In the film it’s 5 April 1941, one day before the German invasion of Yugoslavia. A motley  group of random passengers on a country road deep in the heart of Serbia board a dilapidated bus, headed for Belgrade. Among them is a grouchy World War I veteran, a Germanophile, a strange huntsman armed with a rifle, an athletic hypochondriac and a pair of gypsy musicians. During the journey, those in the group overcome their differences, bonding through a series of adventures. But the impending Nazi invasion looms heavy, putting a damper on their fun.

Along the way, they are joined by a priest and a pair of young newlyweds who are on their way to the seaside for their honeymoon, and are faced with numerous difficulties: a flat tire, a shaky bridge, a farmer who’s ploughed over the road, a funeral, two feuding families, and a lost wallet. All these slow the bus down and expose rifts among the travelers.

During the early morning of Sunday, 6 April, amid rumours of war, they finally reach Belgrade only to be caught in the middle of the Luftwaffe raid (Operation Strafe). The only surviving passengers are the two Gypsy musicians who sing the film’s theme song before the end.

Apropos the two Gypsies in the film, Zoran had his own opinions about Gypsies.

“Gypsies will always stay Gypsies,” said Zoran. “And Gypsies will always haggle with you. They never want to pay the whole price. A little bit cheaper. A little bit cheaper.  They have so much money and yet they always want to haggle with you. God made them so that they never work and yet have so much money.” 

“But there’s a lot of poor Gypsies as well,” I said.

“Poor? I’ve never seen a poor Gypsy!“ said Zoran. “They say poor. Because of the way they live. But they have a lot of money.  They go beg and drive a nice Mercedes.” 

“So how do they earn their money? Here in Berlin,” I asked.

“Don’t know. Cheating. They earn a lot more than I do with my shop. The real poor people live in Haiti.  The really poor people have no arms and legs and can’t work. But the Gypsies never work and have loads of money. Nice houses they have.” 

“But in Serbia there’s a lot of poor Gypsies. I’ve seen it. They live really badly.”

“Because hey don’t want to live otherwise. They don’t want it otherwise. The want to look all dirty so that people will think that they are poor. But they have a lot of money. That’s how they were born. Begging and stealing. Now that they’ve done away with visas for Bosnia you’ll have all the Gypsies from Bjelina over here. Stealing everything. You look and they steal. You don’t see it. You don’t see what he’s stolen.” 

Meanwhile things started to heat up o the bus. The Gypsy in front of us who had boarded the bus with a beer, was drinking slivovitz and now was acting up and yelling for the driver to play various narodna folk tunes which the driver either didn’t have or didn’t want to play, and when the lady in front of him got upset and told him to show a bit of consideration, the Gypsy said “Shut your trap, babo,” which sparked the lady’s ire: “I’m not your babo! The only person who can call me babo is my grandchild, you drunk cigo!”

“I just love this bus ride,” said Zoran, smiling. “Always some kind of scene. You can count on it.”

And then finally Hungary, the Pannonian plain just looming there, brooding in the darkness.

At dawn on the border to Serbia stood a refugee encampment. Or were they Gypsies? It was hard to tell.

And as soon as we entered Serbia we began hearing wild things on the radio, songs with a marked oiental touch. The countryside was a lighter shade of green than Germany — more sun, less rain. People worked the fields here. The land looked cultivated, in contrast to eastern Germany  where so much lay fallow.

The bus raced off through Serbia and before long we had arrived in Novi Sad. Merchants pushed their way on board shoving their way down the aisle selling odiferous sheepskin vests and wooden slivovitz bottles with hagiographic portraits of Ratko Mladić, Milošević and Radovan Karadžić. And then finally we crossed the Sava river into Belgrade, and just as we pulled into the traffic snarled streets the drunk Gypsy in front of us groaned and threw up massively on the window.

“Welcome to Belgrade,” said Zoran.

— Mungo Park