Getting back from Belgrade almost was a breeze. The train left half an hour late, but managed to arrive exactly on time. But we almost had a cross border incident.
Immigration, or perhaps customs, it’s always hard to keep them apart in slightly more bureaucratic societies, asked us for our passports shortly before crossing the border. Then they asked us for proof of lodging for the past few days. Which we didn’t have.
When we arrived at our hostel, we swapped our passports for registration cards, which isn’t uncommon in countries which once belonged to the eastern bloc. However, as is also more and more common, these registration cards carry less and less weight, in most places to the point where they serve no function at all, but being the remnant of a fading flavor of bureaucracy.
When we checked out of the hostel, on the morning of our departure, we received our passports again and we took out the registration cards. I asked the boy at reception if we still needed the cards, to which his response was “nah”, after which he shrugged his shoulders and zoned off.
I asked for a dustbin, ripped up the cards and gave the shreds to the guy, which he threw away for us.
And then, a few hours later, we had customs ask us for the very same cards.
Sure, the burden of being familiar with the law lies with us, tourists, but explicitly being given very wrong information after a straightforward question makes it rather impossible to do the right thing.
Meanwhile, we were being told we had committed an offense. The cards were for registration, which was common in all countries, or so we were told. In Serbia, registration had to happen within one day, in Italy within three days, in Croatia within three weeks.
We were told we had to join the officers, getting off at the next stop, where we would have to go to court, where a judge would hear our case. And fine us.
Extremely annoyed with our hostel, but staying friendly towards the officers, we explained what the situation was and why we didn’t have the cards.
The first officer was then joined by a second, who told us roughly the same story, all in English, shortly after which a third officer showed up, possibly a superior, who told us the same story yet again. We had to open up our luggage for them to see what was inside, after which more explaining followed. Again, luckily, all in English, and all very civilized.
Then,the first of the three mentioned that the fine which would follow was not going to be cheap, expensive, in fact. I assumed this allowed them to give us an opener to offer bribes. Yet I was not going to do any such thing unless explicitly asked for in case I’d misread the nonverbal communication.
The third guy asked once more: “So you had those cards in Belgrade?” and i explained the situation yet again. “And you said this was your first time in Serbia?” which i affirmed.
“Next time, make sure you keep your registration card with you.” after which we were handed our passports back.
Still, not everyone was as lucky. One unlucky backpacker we saw walking off the train with the three officers.
Nonetheless, one stop down the line, perhaps 30 minutes later or so, he climbed back on the train again. Seemingly having complied with whatever penalty he was presented with.
Overall, I was impressed with the officers speaking English very well, responding reasonably and seemingly also being very efficient. Hurrah for Serbia. But not for its receptionists.