DAY 3, MAY 14: “BEST LAID PLANS OF MICE AND MEN…”

From Belgrade, Serbia

Introduction

The main purpose of my visit to Belgrade this time is to try to get a Serbian passport. I was born in Belgrade but I have never had a Serbian passport. When I left Belgrade almost half a century ago, that country was called Yugoslavia. And it no longer exists.

So before I could apply for a new Serbian passport, I first had to prove my identity with a Birth Certificate and a Citizenship Certificate. Alas, I have never had either of those, 

So for the last couple of weeks, my nephew Stasa had been helping me get them. Which he finally succeeded to do a week ago. Today, he and I were supposed to go into the Ministry of Internal Affairs (“MUP” in Serbian) office to present all these documents to a person who had been briefed about my situation by an old business friend Milan. So this story begins from the moment we entered the MUP Serbia building this morning.


May 14, 2018

“Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men…”

You won’t believe what happened this morning to our perfectly devised plan. When Stasa and I arrived at the MUP station shortly after 9AM, the whole building was dark. The electrical power of out. And without power, no computers were working. Which means business stopped. No passports or ID cards could be processed. One of the staff told us that they did not expect the power to come back up till about 2PM.

It reminded me of my wartime visits to Belgrade during the NATO bombing.  But even then, the power stayed on most of the time. Which allowed me to file my reports even as the bombs were falling.

The MUP building itself, and the tiny passport office full of stacks of paper four feef high despite everything being digitized also brought back memories of communist administrations during Tito’s regime.

IMG_4280

The second setback was that Sandra (was not there, either. She had gone out to get breakfast, her colleagues told us.

So Stasa and I waited in the hallway for a while for her return. When Sandra  did come back carrying a plastic bag with her presumed breakfast, she turned out to be a delightful young woman, just like you said. We chatted and laughed and I gave her the gifts I brought for her from Arizona (chocolate) and Hawaii (lauhala bracelet).

Sandra looked over our documents and made sure we brought everything she needed.  She kept all the originals so she could start to process the application when the power came back up.

She then took us to their cashier (Jasmina, a nice older lady), to whom I paid the fees which are required for my residence registration, personal ID card, and the passport. Sandra said she would give Stasa a call as soon as is able to do her part, so we can come back and they can take my picture, and complete the process.

So now we wait for word from Sandra.

All this reminded me of that famous poem by Robert Burns..

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, 
Gang aft agley, 
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, 
For promis’d joy 
 
(From “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785” – is a Scots Language poem written by Robert Burns in 1785)

​By the way, the phrase ​”gang aft agley” translates from Scottish ​as “oft go awry” or “often go astray”.

CYRILLIC: SILVER LINING

Every story, no matter how dark, has a silver lining. In this case, it was my signature which Jasmina needed on the application form after I had paid her the dues.

I had previously told Stasa that I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that my Birth and Citizenship certificates were in Cyrillic.  Since that was the first alphabet I learned, in school, it felt only natural that I would prefer it to Latin characters.

“I am going to sign it in Cyrillic,” I declared when Sandra put the MUP document in front of me. “Might as well start to practice my first alphabet again.”

And then I did as Sandra and Stasa watched me sign the form in darkness, by feel rather than by sight. 🙂

RSD Bob signature Cyrillic

“JEDNO MESTO” (A PLACE)

While we waited for that call from Sandra, my old friend Bane and I met at a Belgrade restaurant to shoot the breeze and catch up on each other’s lives. Later on, my nephew Stasa also joined us.

We met at a restaurant near our hotel which was also close to where Bane had a business engagement today. The name of the restaurant was “Jedno Mesto.” Which roughly translates to “A Place” in English.

As if that were not quaint enough, take a look at the urinals in its mens room. And then let your imagination fly. 🙂


UPDATE: “Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men…”

My friend Milan was absolutely right when he commented this morning about my “Best Laid Plans…”- story that “life is never boring” in Serbia. Here’s the latest from the MUP Serbia battlefront.

Sandra called Stasa this afternoon as promised around 3PM to tell us that she had finished her work on my application, and that we should now come back for picture-taking, scanning and the rest of data processing of the documents.
When we arrived, a line of people waiting to enter the small office in which 4 clerks worked as long as the long hallway. People were being admitted one at a time to submit the documents for whatever business they had. The 4 clerks also handled car registration and drivers’s license and plates.
We just walked to the front of the line and entered the office. Sandra was with a client when she saw us. I waved to her and she gave me back a big smile. She pointed to an even smaller office next to this one where a single clerk was doing all the data entry and processing. She already had about 5 or 6 people crammed in a tiny space, including a toddler who was doing his best to be heard while wiggling on his father’s knees.
“It’s all ready for you,” she said. “Just go in there to have your picture taken.”
But when I entered that office, the woman who was that lone data entry clerk, gave me a stern look.
“Sandra told me to come here,” I started to explain.
“I know,” she interrupted me. “But you can see I am busy now. So just wait outside.”
“Aha,” I thought to myself. “She sounds like a typical communist bureaucrat I remember from long ago, throwing her weight around and practicing power play.”
Like a true “Partizanka”, I giggled inwardly. She hates that we are Sandra’s favorites.
So Stasa and I squeezed in between an enormous filing cabinet stacks of paper piled up on the floor outside her office. People were coming and going around us all the time, including some uniformed policemen.

Sandra would occasionally give me apologetic signals. She said that even after the power was restored around 2PM. their computer took at least half an hour to come back up.

“We are really backed up badly today,” she said.

In the meantime, Stasa and I had met at “Jedno Mesto” (A Place) restaurant with my old friend Bane who told us that when he was the head of IT at the time the late Zoran Djindjic was prime minister, he had bought an IBM mainframe for MUP Serbia.

“No wonder then that it took half an hour for the system to boot up,” I was thinking without saying anything out loud.

“Wonder of that’s still that 2001 mainframe that Bane was telling us about,” I said to Stasa.

After about 20 minutes of us patiently waiting in her crammed office, Sandra got up and went to the office of “Partizanka” (data entry clerk). She was evidently embarrassed that we were being kept waiting for so long.

“Did you forget about me?” she asked Partizanka. “Here, I will leave your door ajar so you see how charming my client looks.” she joked, giving me a smile and a wink as she walked back tp her desk.

But Partizanka was not amused. She looked grim and avoided eye contact with me. Stasa said that she probably resented that Sandra was trying to pull her weight over the 5 or 6 people in her office who were Partizanka’s favorites.

After almost an hour of us waiting, she called us in to have my picture taken. I’ll spare you the play-by-play of what happened next. Except that after a lot of paper shuffling, and data entry and scanning, she finally gave my original documents back. But only to ask for some of them back after I had already put them away.

Finally, she asked me to sign some receipts. And as i was doing (in Cyrillic again), she kept rudely hurrying me up. As if my taking five seconds to write my name was throwing her of her schedule, and not more than an hour that she kept us waiting beforehand.

Still, I bit my tongue. “I must keep my eye on the goal line – getting my passport and the ID and ignore her rude comments,” I told myself.

“You’re now all done,” Partizanka finally told us. “You can go now. Your passport and the Personal ID card should be ready tomorrow, or the next day at the latest.”

When we got out of her office, I motioned to Stasa to for us to sit down at a quiet place and double check that we got all our original documents back. Turns out we did, but Partizanka also gave me a document that belonged to somebody else. So I sent Stasa back to return it.

“She now says we should wait awhile because there might be a problem with the quality of your photo she took,” Stasa explained.

So back to Sandra’s office we went. She checked her computer and said that the computer is badly backed up and that my file has still not come up for verification by the system. But to her, she said, everything looked good.

We agreed to hang around for another half an hour just in case the photo has to be retaken. After 45 minutes, my file was still in the queue. So we agreed that that’s as far as we can take it today. If there is a problem, Sandra would call Stasa tomorrow morning. Otherwise, Stasa will call Sandra tomorrow at 1PM to see if my docs are ready.

As you said, Milan, life is never dull in Serbia. 🙂


BACH CONCERT, DINNER AT “WRITER’S CLUB”

It is now past midnight. I am amazed to be so wide awake only on my second day overseas, despite a nine-hour time zone difference between Arizona and Serbia. Maybe that’s because of the adrenalin still coursing after an exciting day with a very pleasant evening.

Stasa, his wife and I attended a concert of Bach music at the Kolarac music hall in downtown Belgrade. Afterward, we enjoyed a leisurely dinner at the Writer’s Club, where I used to hang out with many of my Serbian literary, artistic and political friends during the 1990s, when I worked as a war correspondent.

Here are some photos from the final moments of this interesting day.


UPDATE MAY 15, 2018

ROSE FOR A THORNY ROSE?

This morning I received the following comment from my friend Bane:

BANE: Hi Bob. It’s funny but it didn’t feel like we met last some 15 years ago. Perhaps your blogs made me feel as if we meet more often.

It would be great if you were to stop by on Wednesday. Just let me know in advance.

Regarding your travel log, it would be best perhaps if you did not mention people in MUP by name (od detailed description). Someone in the back room might read your blog (after all they are the communist-trained secret police and you are a “foreigner”) and make trouble for Sandra. And if “partizanka” reads it you might find system not working for weeks, and you still don’t have a passport in your hands.

To which I replied:
Hi Bane. Indeed, it did not feel as if we had met the last time that long ago. Perhaps that is a sign that chemistry between some people is timeless.
 
Yes, I will keep you posted on what happens today. We are still hoping to go to Brestovik at some point later in the afternoon, hopefully with my passport and my ID card in my hands. And to see you on Wed morning.
 
I am also hoping that your fears about “Partizanka” prove to be just that – fears. If Partizanka has another day even half as busy as yesterday, I can’t see how she would find the time for lunch, let alone for reading my story. Still, I ask humbly – God forbid!
 
Plus, I had not included this episode in the story, but Partizanka also evidently resented when Stasa said something to me in English. I sensed that and I immediately told Stasa, “govori samo srpski!”
 
She heard me as I was standing right in front of her desk. Without raising her eyes from busily shuffling papers, she muttered, “on gopvori sprski bolje do tebe” (addressing Stasa).
 
What does that tell us?
 
First, she probably does not speak English. Which would be typical of a “Partizanka.” Second, she was really boiling inside with anger. Avoiding eye contact with either Stasa or me would suggest that. Third, addressing someone whom she had met for the first time with a familiar “tebe” (instead of a respectful “vas”), is a trademark of an (angry) communist. Remember, we were all “drugovi” (comrades) to them.
 
Anyway, I totally get where you are coming from when you wrote that, but I am praying that it doesn’t come to that. Maybe I’ll add this exchange between us to the story as “color commentary” after I get my documents.
By the way, as Stasa and I were leaving the MUP building yesterday afternoon, I thought that when we come back again, I might get some flowers at Kalenica Pijaca (perhaps a single red rose) for the Partizanka in our story. That would show my gratitude for her “kindness” (ljubaznost) yesterday, and perhaps shame her a little. And perhaps also show her that not all English speaking people are heartless capitalists. 🙂
She may have a communist mentality, but she is first a woman. And not an ugly one, either. 🙂
Of course, I would also have to get at least half a dozen roses for the real heroine in our story – Sandra.

UPDATE 2: MAY 15, 2016

MOVING THE BALL FORWARD

Early this afternoon I heard from Stasa, who has been my point man in communications with the nice lady at the passport office – Sandra.

Sandra said that my application paperwork had finally cleared their computer only this morning – so big was their backlog.

“Or so slow the IBM mainframe,” I thought.

There is still a small chance that their internal control may catch that something is amiss, but Sandra said that’s very rare.

So it all goes well, she expected to receive my passport and the ID card by the end of business tomorrow – Wednesday. Which means that that’s when we can also pick it up from her.

So fingers crossed, looks like we have now moved the ball to about the 5-yard line of the opposing team, to borrow a football analogy. So unless there is a fumble or an interception, we should be able to bring it into the end zone by tomorrow afternoon – God willing.


UPDATE MAY 16, 2018

SUCCESS! LIFELONG DREAM REALIZED AFTER A 6-MONTH QUEST

Today, May 16, at 1:30 PM, I received my first-ever Serbian passport and the Personal ID card. After a few nail-biting moments in the last three days, my lifelong dream was realized.

It took six months to get here. I took the first step on Nov 20, 2017. The passport and my new ID card rolled off the MUP Serbia production line yesterday – May 15, 2018, also the 40th anniversary of the founding of my business – Annex. In between of those two dates, things happened that might be worth a separate story in and of itself. Maybe one day I will write it.

Meanwhile, I need to take a bow and thank many of my Serbian friends without whose help and dedication this could not have happened. Three people among deserve a special honorable mention – Stasa, Milan and Sandra.

But most of all I have to thank my spirit guides. For, without their help, this would have been merely “an impossible dream.”

When Sandra, the lady in charge passport processing at MUP Serbia-Belgrade (MUP – Ministry of Internal Affairs), handed me my passport in her tiny office this afternoon, I shook her hand and said in front of four other people who witnessed the event:

“You probably have no idea, Sandra, how much this means to me,” I said. “This is a fulfillment of a lifelong dream. My first Serbian passport! You are my hero today.”

And with that, I handed her a nicely designed bouquet of red roses. She looked so touched that she blushed a little.

“It matches my shirt,” she said shyly.

Other witnesses to this (for me) momentous event were all smiles. A lady-policeman said to Sandra, “that is so sweet. I think you should go home now.”

Everybody laughed.

And so we’ve done it! Thank you one and all who have helped achieve this, including the Divine aids.

PS: For those who may be wondering why I never held a Serbian passport since I was born in Belgrade, here’s a brief explanation. The country I was born in was called Yugoslavia. That country no longer exists. So this is the first legal document which affirms my citizenship of a country that has always been the homeland in my heart.

 

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