After finishing university, I didn’t really know what to do. I was never one of those people who would say in grade four they wanted to become a teacher, and then ten years down the road, they’re sitting in a classroom, watching children pick their noses and take naps. Though it wasn’t something I wanted to do, I was jealous of how easy it was for them to transition into adulthood.
But, I wasn’t going to succumb to societal pressure and join the teaching brigade or become a secretary. So, in a moment of panic, I bought a flight ticket to visit my brother in Belgrade. When it comes to ambition, my brother had some nuts. He left home at sixteen to test his luck playing European football. And it just so happened, he chose to train in Belgrade. Sure, I could have walked the romantic and whimsical streets of Paris, or had a steamy Latin love affair in Madrid, but I had a free place to stay, and well, I like free.
You could say I was unprepared for my trip. I didn’t speak any Serbian, and all I had was an outdated English to Serbian dictionary, or as it’s called in Serbian, englesko-srpski rečnik. I could have learned a couple of Serbian phrases during the plane ride, but I was all about going with the flow. In my head, I thought why learn the language before a trip when you could learn the language buying apples at the public market or getting your hands greasy over a plate of ćevapi. You know, why not go full Eat, Pray, Love on this? I clearly had no idea what I was talking about but felt I had it all covered.
After the twelve-hour flight, I landed in Belgrade, tightly gripping onto my English-Serbian dictionary from anxiety. Deep breaths, you can do this. My brother wasn’t going to meet me at the airport. He had told me before the flight he had football training, so I would need to take a taxi to his place.
“What do you mean?” my voice quivered over the phone. “I have to get to your place by myself? You’re not even going to come pick me up?”
“Sis, the life of a football player is intense. I don’t even have time to shit, I gotta keep my eye on the prize. But it’s easy, just take a taxi to my place. Tell the driver you need to get to Obilićev Venac Ulica 4.”
My upper lip started to sweat, “wait, Ob-i-li-ci Van-ac Oooooo-lica?”
“Are you having a stroke? Okay, listen, I’ll text you the address and show it to the driver. Just don’t speak it, I have no idea where you’ll end up. I gotta go do crunches. See you soon.”
While I waited for my suitcase at the baggage claim, I replayed the conversation with my brother in my head, trying to remember how he pronounced his address. I was helpless. I grabbed my suitcase and walked towards the sliding exit doors where an endless stream of people stood outside, waiting for their loved ones. There’s nothing worse than walking through an arrival gate alone, no matter what, you always feel like a loser. Just pretend you know someone, act totally cool.
In a moment of anxiety, I gestured to a balding middle-aged man holding a sign that read, “taxi.” I smiled, he said, “taxi?” and I nodded back. Remember what he told you, don’t speak, you’ll end up in a cornfield. The man took my suitcase, and we walked to the parking lot where he stopped at a grey Mercedes Benz.
There was nothing really memorable about my driver, aside from the fact he was balding. When someone’s balding, it just becomes a part of who they are. I got into the car as he waited in the driver’s seat for the address. I quickly showed him my phone; he nodded and started to drive. Well, this was pretty easy.
After a couple of minutes, I realized I didn’t have much money on me. Oh shit, I didn’t ask how much the ride costs. I hope I have enough to pay him. I opened my dictionary and went to the “common phrases” section. Hm…how do you ask how much a taxi ride is….this will take forever. Why didn’t you download a language translation app? Screw it, just look at the meter and pray.
I closed my book and looked at the driver’s dashboard. There was no taximeter. Where’s the meter? I continued to search for any signs of a meter or taxi license. They can’t have meterless taxis here…holy shit, this isn’t a taxi. Oh my god, I’m just in some guy’s car. You idiot, you aren’t even in a taxi. Okay, think fast; think fast. I took out my phone, but of course, I was suffering from a chronic case of cheapness and decided not to pay for an international phone package. You couldn’t have just paid the stupid fifty dollars, now look at you. You’re in a car with some balding man. You’ll enjoy being fed to the god damn pigs, girl.
I pulled out the dictionary and started flipping through the pages. Okay, okay…hmm, you need to tell him to stop the car, or you’ll call the police. You is “ti.” Okay, so “ti,” okay, okay, now look for “need.” I quickly flipped through more pages; this is going to take forever. Okay, need is “trebati.” Yes! Wait, why don’t I just say stop? You’re not Tolstoy. Okay, good, I’ll just yell out stop. He’ll stop…he’ll have to. I ferociously turned page after page to the “S” section. St…start…no…strung…no…sssstop. Okay, “zaustaviti.” What? How do you even say this? Zaou-stav-eti? No, Zao-stav-ete? Oh my god, see, this is what happens when you aren’t prepared. I’m going to die in some village while my brother is doing crunches. I slowly looked up to see the driver staring at me through the rear-view mirror, he has murder in his eyes, I can see it.
I closed the book; it was clear the English-Serbian dictionary wasn’t going to help me. Listen, you’ll just need to fight your way out of this. Don’t forget your phone or passport. Running is clearly not your strong suit, but you have no choice – run, just run. I peeked at the driver’s hands nervously, okay, his hands are the size of oven mitts, but that’s okay. Let’s just hope he has bad knees.
The car stopped on the side of the street. He’s probably going to drag me into the basement of some apartment. I’m done; it’s over. The driver got out of the car. I closed my eyes, breathing deeply, you got this. My door opened, and he stood in front of me, “please” he said. I slowly got out of the car and stood in front of him with fear in my eyes. Shouldn’t you be running right now? He stuttered, “uh, 1000 dinars.” My face relaxed, and I looked around, quickly scanning my surroundings, “this is the place?” He gave me a tired smile, “da, Obilićev Venac 4.” Shocked, I dug into my wallet and pulled out my 1000-dinar bill, “uh, hvala.”
He drove away as I stood there with my suitcase for a moment, letting the backseat dry up a bit. Dragging my suitcase behind me, I headed down the street, looking for apartment building 4. My brother was waiting for me outside. “What took you so long? I was scared you went to the wrong place.” I looked at him emotionlessly, “Yeah, I know. Me too.”
Nataša Franzisca Ivanović