I still haven’t figured out if life in Belgrade is Zion, the last free city, and London is the Matrix, or if it’s the other way around. In England, no matter who you are, what you make or where you’re from, they’re watching you, and if you step out of line, a bigger fish swallows you whole. 24 hours a day, in every nook and cranny your movements are tracked by CCTV cameras, and ne daj bože the cops pull you over or bust you doing something, there are no discussions, no bribes, no way out. The system is king, everything. The people herd from place to place, bleating and trudging through the commercial system – The Matrix.
In Belgrade there’s wiggle room. A phone call, a favour, a few well-placed contacts, and you can spring your friends from jail or divorce a lesbian for 5200 dinars. The system is rotten, but you can still jerry rig your way through life here. People have lived through wars, and struggle to survive every day under the oppressive threat from ‘outside’ – Zion.
The portal between the two worlds, thankfully, is not a 12-inch metal rod up the spine, but a 20 minute cab ride up the highway. There’s an old joke in Liverpool that goes: why the airport was named after John Lennon – Because it was the first place he went when he made any money. Nikola Tesla didn’t have to invent powered flight, courtesy of the Wright brothers, and just skipped ahead to inventing teleportation. He never made any money from his genius, but the airport in Belgrade that bears his name and now his likeness is doing its best to recoup his lost earnings from their overpriced croissants. If ever one were to go hunting for deer and forget one’s rifle, take along one of these airport croissants and a well-placed throw could easily fell a prize buck. A harder, older, more stale and unpalatable pastry does not exist on planet Earth. It’s almost as if it were fossilized, discovered in a cave with Neolithic tools and a mummified Neanderthal – not to be confused with the security guards.
Nikola Tesla airport is a perfect microcosm of Serbian life. It’s so magnificently easy and breezy and stress free getting around and checking in and fucking off, and in keeping with the authenticity there’s not a decent meal in sight.
On the one hand, no queues, no militant anal crevice searches at passport control, but make sure and unwrap your presents and take the tags off so the customs agents don’t charge you ‘tax’ on your goods. It’s 1 hour before departure time and you still haven’t left your house? Stićićemo. At most airports you need to leave 4 hours before your flight. Here, a taxi driver will cane it up the highway and if you’re important enough, they’ll even hold the doors for you. In the UK or the US, they would hold their balls.
As with most things in this country, there is heavy dose of nostalgia with the setup. Once upon a time, JAT airways was among the finest airlines in the world… It was the mark of every billionaire or dictator or megalomaniac to engineer a fleet of world-class planes and equip the sharpest pilots and hottest stewardesses to fly the flag. Nowadays, rappers and moguls rhyme about their piddling little G6 private jets… Tito and Onassis had 50 jumbos with runway models serving champagne.
A country’s airport is the welcoming mat where all international visitors are greeted. Arriving at Heathrow is as much as a brown banana. Stepping into Bladerunner and at least an hour of passport control. The states are even worse… Even as a Brit the Americans manage to interrogate me like I just scaled Trump’s wall. At Tesla, you’re off the plane, you get your bag, and you’re in an unregistered taxi who’ll charge you triple the standard rate for being foreign (which, incidentally, is still 10% of the cost of a cab from Heathrow to central London. Only Saudi Royalty can afford cabs in London these days, and they don’t need them because they transport their gold plated Bugatti’s by cargo plane to drive them around town).
Now the Saudis bought their own Yugo, too. Replacing the old JAT fleet with Etihad planes seemed to me to be selling off our infrastructure here, which it is, but the bottom line is that since the sale, the planes, the scheduling, the airports and every part of the aerospace in this country has improved drastically.
Sure I loved, purely nostalgically, the old JAT Airways, precisely BECAUSE it was so dreadful.
Giant seats for giant Serbs, Russian trained MIG pilots, smoking sections, kajmak for dessert. Now everything is slick and new, slightly closer to the Matrix, a little farther from Zion, and I still don’t know which one I prefer. One thing is for sure… No terrorist will ever hijack a Serbian plane. Not only is our airline run by Saudis, but I can imagine any ambitious young jihadist jumping out of his seat on an Air Serbia flight would have his ass kicked immediately by half the passengers. You’d need a lot more than Swiss army knives to take a plane run by people who shot a Stealth Bomber out of the sky with a handheld RPG on a hill by a goat herder. I hear that guy runs the menu on board, now.