Dateline: May 20, 2012 – Joca, Serbia
I always knew we could count on Marc Inoue’s amazing connections to find fish for us anywhere in the Balkans. But who knew that these same contacts would also keep Guido out of jail? (Barely.)
Most sane people would ask “ANOTHER road trip to the Balkans? With Guido and the Fungus?”
This is The Fungus, which evolved in the back seat of Guido’s car. For background on this, and more details on Marc Inoue, see http://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/07/09/guidos-fungus/
You must wonder what I was thinking, and in hindsight, I wonder what I was thinking too. You would think we would have learned to avoid anything that used to be called “Yugoslavia.” After disasters there in July and October of last year, you would think we would have never returned. But NOOOOOOOOOO, I hear the ghost of Belushi wail. We had to try it one more time, because I for some reason felt the need to catch a fish in … Serbia. Surely the weather would cooperate. Surely no one would lose a close relative unexpectedly. Surely my insistence on doing these things in very short timeframes would have no consequences. And surely we would not have an encounter with police.
Well, I finally found someone that the Fish Gods hate a lot more than me. As a matter of fact, a lot of deities seem to have it out for Guido, as, in the course of 48 hours, he managed to run afoul of the Fish Gods, the Weather Gods, the Traffic Gods, the Food and Beverage Gods, and the Serbian National Police.
The journey began on a Friday morning – I landed at Frankfurt and Guido picked me up. We set out on the 1000 kilometer trek to Croatia, with appropriate stops for UMF*. As we drove by Bled, Slovenia, I couldn’t help but think of my mother passing away – it was almost a year ago now. We picked up Marc in Ljubljana and stayed overnight in a renovated castle in western Croatia. We stayed up way too late, talked fishing, and ate a series of meat-intensive dishes.
In the morning, we needed to get from Croatia to Belgrade. It’s a long way from Croatia to Belgrade. The road is generally flat and straight, reminiscent of Germany’s Autobahns, but with an important distinction – Serbia has speed limits.
We made it! Little did I know that disaster awaited about an hour after this picture was taken.
Somewhere on this Red Bull-fueled marathon, as Guido drove right at the 75mph speed limit, Marc and I may have gotten bored and begun to gently chide him. We offered kind advice, like “My grandmother drives faster than you.” Even the Fungus said “Step on it, old lady.” After a while, this must have gotten to Guido, because, before we noticed it, he was going substantially faster, on the order of 125mph. But while we may not have noticed it, officers of Serbia’s National Police DID notice it, and when they finally caught up to us near the small town of Sremska Mitrovica, they pulled us over.
I know what you’re thinking – “It’s the former Yugoslavia, pay the dude off and be on your way.” Well, it doesn’t work that way any more. Because of all kinds of anti-corruption initiatives, there is NO WAY for these guys to do things the easy way – they are on videotape directly to a central control every moment, so they hauled us down to the station. Guido had been arrested in a small town in Serbia.
Guido at the Police station before booking.
As I watched Guido descend into the panic that invariably follows being arrested in a small town in Serbia, Marc, who had what passed for Serbian language skills, began sorting out the details. Just like it works in most places, a serious speeding ticket needs to go in front of a judge. In Serbia, this is supposed to be an immediate process – get pulled over, go in front of a judge, pay the fine, move along – or get thrown in the dungeon. However, this was a Saturday, and they could not find a judge. We were going to be guests of the Serbian Police for a while. Technically, Guido was the only one under arrest, but it would seem tasteless to leave without him.
We also didn’t know the range of possible consequences. The cops didn’t really know, but some huge amounts were floating around as possible fines – 2000, 3000 Euros. Marc was on the phone constantly, trying to reach local friends to see if they could help. As it turns out, one of these calls saved Guido a lot of trouble.
“My wife is going to kill me.” Guido mumbled over and over. We tried to comfort him, but we did have to face it – if there was a big fine, his wife was WAS very likely to kill him. As the hours dragged by, Guido withdrew from the world and would only speak to a puppy that the police had adopted. “My wife is going to kill me.” The puppy rolled over onto Guido’s shoes and made it known he was not housebroken. (The puppy I mean. Guido, as far as I know, is housebroken.)
The puppy, moments before the accident
The station was spartan but unattractive, but as the hours went on, the cops began to take pity on Guido. Someone offered him a warm Diet Coke. The puppy growled at the Fungus, then rejected Guido and went to sleep on Marc’s leg. I said kind things like “You’re going to be some bad man’s girlfriend in prison.”
I also got to know the cops fairly well. Officer Branko, the younger one, was a good guy. He was trying to do his job, and he felt genuinely bad for Guido. As we had hours to chat, I learned a good bit about him. He is father of two boys, including a particularly maniacal 3 year old. They don’t pay him much – they just get by, but he is proud of being a policeman and very proud to be Serbian.
We became close with our captors. That’s Officer Branko between me and Guido. The older guy, who I called Officer Stalin, didn’t speak much English and gave us the impression he would have beaten Guido if no one was looking.
They finally found the judge around 3pm. We solemnly headed over to the courthouse, a cheerless concrete affair in the middle of town.
The Sremska Mitrovica courthouse. Like the judge, the vending machines were old and didn’t work.
The judge, not amused by being disturbed on a Saturday, handled the matter in about 3 minutes. 1000 Euro fine. That is not a typo. About 1500 dollars, and Guido wasn’t allowed to drive in Serbia for 6 months, starting Monday. (To be fair about it, Marc and I paid a good portion of the fine, but it was still likely that Guido’s wife was going to kill him.)
And it wasn’t over, because we had to pay in local currency at a post office or bank. No problem, except it was a Saturday, and all the exchange houses, banks, and post offices we could find were closed. With officer Branco’s help, we found an exchange at the back of a convenience store and then, with about two pounds of local currency in hand, we found the one post office that was open. As we shook hands with the policemen, Officer Branko quietly told me “Only a 1000 Euro fine? You must have some very big friends.” Officer Stalin just scowled.
Mark holds some of the cash used to pay the fine.
We were done, but the day was pretty much shot – we got on our way around 4. Guido drove the remaining distance at 55 mph, and we didn’t say a word. I was beginning to think that Guido was some sort of German version of Spellman. Nice guy, hopeless fisherman, occasional brilliant luck. But that’s not fair to Spellman. Spellman catches fish occasionally and has a World Record, even if he does end up covered in poop now and then. And Spellman didn’t lose his driving privileges in Serbia.
We reached Belgrade, and at the modest speeds Guido was driving, we had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. The road through the capital was wonderfully winding, which was nice, because in my life, I had been graded on a bell curve, but never curved in a Belgrade.
We finally arrive in Belgrade. The photo is so clear because Guido was going about 12 miles an hour and backing up traffic.
We met one of Marc’s friends – Vlad – at a cafe, and of course we were forced to have coffee before we could do anything. It became quickly apparent that Vlad was well-known – people stared at him and a few folks said hello. He’s a tall, good-looking guy, so I figured he was either a movie star or an athlete. During the conversation, it was revealed that he is Vladimir Grbic, a volleyball player who is something of a Serbian national hero. He has two Olympic medals to his credit, including the 2000 Gold. He is also very well-connected, and it was the call to him that kept Guido out of jail. (And saved him about 2000 Euros on the fine. 1000 Euros, as it turns out, is the MINIMUM for speeding. Guido’s Andretti-like effort would usually call for a 3000 Euro fine and some time in the slammer. Wow.)
My “celebrity shot” with Vlad. Like Phil Richmond, he’s damn tall. No matter what my bass-obsessed friend Jim Larosa says, I am 6 feet tall, and Vlad positively dwarfs me.
We finally got to the lake around 6:30 in the evening. Needless to say, I was a bit eager to get onto the water, and even though they offered me a cup of coffee I was terribly rude and started fishing right away. I immediately caught stuff. It wasn’t big stuff, but it was stuff, and this was my 74th country where I had caught stuff.
My first catch in Serbia. At the time, I thought it was a new species – Crucian Carp – but it turned out to be a Giebel Carp, which I have also caught in Germany and Poland.
Once I had caught stuff, the guys wanted to go out and try for some Pike. It was just too darn hot – the guide, Drasko, got a couple of small ones, and the beer came out.
Marc, Drasko, and Guido during the evening Pike session. Drasko is just about the coolest guide name ever.
The beer stayed out after we landed, and a full-blown party developed quickly. Food was served, with large glasses of Rakija – a strong local distillate which tastes like it is made from yogurt and dogs.
I tried to duck out of the festivities and get some sleep, but this wasn’t possible. The noise continued, and we only sat down to dinner around midnight.
This is not a good country to be a vegetarian. As a matter of fact, it might be against the law to eat anything except meat. Dinner was roast pork topped with roast chicken, with a schnitzel appetizer. There were a few side dishes, but these were either other meat dishes or onions. The only vegetable I saw the entire weekend was Marc on Sunday morning.
Marc struggles with good sense and gravity at 4am.
Because we had such a long drive ahead of us, we only planned to fish a few hours on Sunday. Wakeup call was an ill-conceived 4am. We struggled out of bed, tripping on things and making loud noises. Guido, who was having a rough weekend anyway, slipped on a discarded pork chop and bashed his shin.
We did make an effort to fish. I went to a lakeside stand and attempted to get some kind of odd species. It was a lovely morning, and my headache and I enjoyed quiet moments in nature, interrupted only by deafening sounds like a bobber going under or the worms thrashing about in the bait cup.
The guys head off into the breaking dawn to cast fruitlessly for Pike.
A minor triumph. I finally caught a White Bream large enough to count the anal rays and confirm the species.
Guido went casting for pike with the other guys and got nothing. Indeed, I forced him to use the float rod to catch a Bleak so he could at least say he got something in Serbia besides a conviction.
Guido and his sole catch in Serbia.
We then headed in to eat. The Sunday brunch would have passed for a bachelor party in some countries, a riot in others. There was loud music, a bunch of friends, great homemade food, and the strong drink was flowing. I dare say most of us were not in the best shape, and whoops and animals noises echoed out over the lake. To be clear, no one had whooping cough and all the animals were asleep. It was shortly before 9am. On a Sunday.
The owner had his own private label wine. I don’t read Serbian, but I imagine the text is either a disclaimer or an apology.
Steve struggles through breakfast with Marc and Vlad.
The group stumbles outside for a photo. From north to south, that’s Steve, Vlad, the Owner, Drasko, some guy who wandered in from the forest, and Guido.
We got on the road around noon, which, if everything went perfectly, would put us back in Germany around 1am. Of course, things didn’t go perfectly. Toward evening, we got Mark home to Ljubljana. As we said goodbye, he implored “Please, PLEASE let me take you to Croatia where there is good fishing next time, instead of these awful backwaters where there are more police than fish.” We ate a quick meal, then peeled out to head north through to Austria, then southern Germany, then home.
It was already well into the evening when we were tearing along the autobahn in Austria. I was taking a nap, and was partially awakened by a bright flash, then moments later, I was fully awakened by the sound of Guido swearing non-stop. I looked behind us, and the Austrian Highway Patrol was pulling us over. Guido rolled the window down, spoke to the officers for a few minutes, and then was released without a ticket. Guido drove off without a word, and I asked him why he had been pulled over. He was less than forthcoming, and I had to work on him for another hour or so before he confessed.
“I was trying to take a picture of you when you were sleeping, as you post on your blog, and I may have swerved a bit so they pulled me over to see if I had been drinking.” He was not pleased by this.
I smiled and said “It Serbs you right.”
“Shut up.” Guido said, and we drove on into the night.
*Unsupervised Man Food. Things like Burger King and gas station burritos that we eat when we aren’t supervised.