Huddled on Hard Benches


“When you go to jail tomorrow, do not be angry. Anger might work where you are from. In Serbia, you must laugh.” The cigarette salesman in the driver’s seat lets out a rumbling chuckle, giving a thumbs-up as he jumps a gear and slips between a police cordon and a lamppost. “You must laugh!.”

We accelerate through the unmarked waltz of traffic in a monolithic roundabout. “In 1999, we danced on the bridge all night with bullseyes on our chests, daring the bombers to attack us.” A siren echos in the misty twilight over the Sava; he drops to second as we stop in front of a gray apartment building.

“Someone made t-shirts with the bull’s eye. There was a DJ on the bridge, a party. Bombs fell, but the pilots avoided us. We considered it a victory.” The day before, we had paddled between pock-marked bridge pilings, marking the site of a less fortunate bridge that NATO bombs had dropped into the Danube. “Remember, you must laugh!”

In the morning, we laugh with the inspector as he tells us of the busload of Afghan refugees he arrested over the weekend. He insinuates a turban with vague hand gestures. He is proud, describing the bust in hunting terms. We force more chuckles. When a duckrow of Prussian blue bulls in through the gate, we make eye contact, hoping for news. Instead they break off and unlock a side door to reveal a barred hallway filled with squatting people illuminated in dusty light. A wrinkled man looks at us through the bars, squaring his mouth and rearranging his qaraqul. As the steel door closes again, his white beard splits in a smile. He winks, and we are alone again.

We play backgammon on a cloth board to pass the time. It is November, and we huddle in jackets on hard benches through a series of unheated buildings. We begin at the Department of Strangers, an Orwellian construct shaded in concrete and peopled with immigrants and foreigners in various stages of hope. Our passports were confiscated the night before: “You have made big felony. Deportation.” We were told to report here. Upstairs, hulking police inspectors in horizontal striped shirts pace dark hallways. Across the street, the abandoned Ministry of Defense drips ferrocrete from bomb holes and collapsed facades.

At Mohacs, where foolish Louis finally succumbed to Suleiman the Magnificent, we left the EU. We were warned of pirates on the river, erupting from fog-addled sloughs, and Gypsies camped on crumbling riverbanks, ready to rob the shirts from our backs. To the Hungarian border guards, downstream lay only desolation. They laughed at us, and us at their prejudice. We filled out a half-dozen forms in a half-dozen languages, and we were asked again and again: “Do you have any stowaways on board?” and “Do any of your stowaways have tuberculosis?” When the guards saw our canoe at the dock, they laughed, and handed us our passports. With no border post on the river and assurances from the EU post, we entered Serbia in confidence. Checking into a Belgrade hostel, our hosts turned us in to the police.

Midday, the station chief batters his way into the room we are being questioned in. Everyone jumps to their feet. He looks us all up and down with unwavering granite eyes. His phone breaks the silence from a belt-clip. He was in his fifties, a man accustomed to being obeyed. It rang, “What is love? Baby don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me...” He lets us listen to its 90s-techno glory, then steps out, no smile above his starched collar, to let the inspectors continue with us.

The court room is heated, and thankfully free from cigarette smoke. An episode of Law & Order embossed with Cyrillic subtitles plays on a television bolted to the wall. The judge has the remote on her desk, and drops the volume a few bars before we begin. With the inspectors help, they figure out what law we had broken - “entry by unusual means” - and declare our fine at 22,000 Serbian dinars. We argue against deportation: we would lose our boat and gear, ending our canoe journey from the coast of France to Istanbul. The judge takes pity by giving us six days to clear the border.
We joke in leaving that they should name the law after us, as it appeared we were the first people to have broken it. Everyone has a good laugh at that one.



Z B Martin

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