Blogbox | Balkans

Taman on time

By - 04.08.2023

When you’re traveling the Balkans by bus, it all just depends…

If you take the day bus, normally it takes around six hours to get from Belgrade to Prishtina, or the other way.

But there I was — standing in broad daylight at the Prishtina bus station — and the large cardboard sign with arrival times, stuck behind the bus’s windshield, said that this time it would take seven hours.

I asked the driver for clarification: is it six or seven?

“Well. Sometimes it’s six hours and sometimes it’s seven hours. Zavisi,” he said. “It depends”.

I didn’t even bother asking what it depends on. Around here, everyone knows that it can depend on so many things.

Like, how long the breaks will be.

When the bus driver stops the bus and yells “five minutes!” it doesn’t really mean five minutes. What it really means is a toilet and smoking break. One cigarette, maybe two, or even three. It depends.

No clocks measure this time, apart from the one in the driver’s head. So we just stand around anxiously waiting to hear him say, “Hajde! Let’s go!” 

And when they say ten minutes, that means coffee time. Now, you cannot possibly have a decent cup of coffee in 10 minutes, so this is why it takes longer. But you never know exactly how long. 

It happened to me once that the driver yelled “Hajde!” and I had only just gotten my macchiato. So I got up from my chair, leaving a full cup on the table. The driver looked at me and waved his hand, urging me to sit back down. “You shouldn’t rush it,” he said. “We will wait for you.”

Nothing should ever break the sacred ceremony of having a cup of coffee — certainly not something like a bus schedule.

– – – –

Now we are traveling on a different route, the one between Sarajevo and Belgrade. We’re not going by bus, but by car. The driver’s name is Rada. She has been taking passengers between Serbia and Bosnia for more than 20 years now.

So here we are, sitting in a kafana close to the border, having a 10 minute break. Yes, that’s right: we will stay there for exactly the amount of time that’s needed for everyone to finish their coffee without a rush.

Across the Balkans there is a word — coincidentally, of Turkish origin — for the perfect quantity of something: taman. Much more than sufficient and a bit less than too much, taman means that something is enough, but in an utterly pleasing, comfortable way.  

At the coffee break Rada collects money from the passengers. It’s a mixed crowd of people. Some pay in Serbian dinars, some pay in convertible Bosnian marks, and some in euros. Rada takes it all, and in her improvised invisible mobile exchange office quickly calculates the prices and how much change she needs to give back. You can also ask her to give you the change in a different currency from the one you used to pay, and she will calculate that as well.

She has a small notepad in which she meticulously keeps her records. This book contains  the number of passengers she’s had, how much money she charged, how much she had to pay for the gas and road tolls, and also for her tea and food, and finally, most importantly, she calculates the difference between how much she spent and much she took in: her profit.

And though it doesn’t really have any practical value, she also writes down the number of kilometers she drove on that particular day, which she’s been adding up over the years.

Once she asked me — not without pride — whether I could guess the number of kilometers that she drove in total. I’m okay at simple math. The route is around 300 kilometers, one way. That’s around 5 hours driving (it’s a difficult road). She would often do a roundtrip in a single day, sometimes six days a week. I know that Rada likes going to the seaside. Swimming does her driver’s back good. So I calculate two weeks off work each year. That’s 50 weeks of driving a year, 20 years in a row. 

Around 3 million kilometers? 

She gets slightly grumpy; it’s actually less than what I guessed. 2.4 million, she tells me. Like traveling around the Earth sixty times.

“A difficult job,” I told her once.

“Let me tell you something. Waking up in the morning without bread, that’s what’s difficult.”

– – – –

Back on the Belgrade – Prishtina route, we arrive at a small petrol station in the middle of nowhere, somewhere close to the border between Serbia and Kosovo. 

It’s probably around 2:30 a.m. It’s very dark and cold outside. There is just the road, and this petrol station, and the small circle of shimmering light around it. Surrounding us are massive, threatening pitch-black hills and a sky without stars. 

The bus stops and the lights inside turn on. Some people are still sleeping, some are waking up. Some didn’t sleep at all.

Women with children rush to the toilet. 

The men are not expected to do anything, except to take care of themselves. Most of them are smokers and they go out in the ice-cold night to have a cigarette. You can hear the sound of a fast river stream somewhere below, and it makes you feel even colder.

Immediately the men gather in a group and start a discussion about something. They are trying to make themselves look serious — as if they are not just standing out there, freezing, because they need a smoke.

I look at them, hopping from one leg to the other, surrounded by the darkness, and I have this strange and banal realization. When they’re trying to warm up, Albanians and Serbs make exactly the same movements

Everyone just wants this, all of this, to be over, to safely arrive wherever they are headed, and to be warm and comfortable.

– – – –

Remember when I told you that the bus between Prishtina and Belgrade takes six hours? Well if you travel by night, it always takes seven. At first I couldn’t figure out why. It’s the same route, and it’s the same road. And at night there’s no traffic, so it’s not that.

When I was very young, I flew to Japan, and I learned that it takes less time to travel from east to west, than in the other direction. However Belgrade and Prishtina are just 300km away, and the direction is north-south. And we are on a bus. So it wasn’t that either.

Eventually, I realized I could just ask the driver.

“It’s simple,” he said. “If we get there too early, passengers will need to wait, before the public transport in Belgrade starts operating, and before anything is open. It’s better for them to spend this time sleeping inside the warm bus. So we give it another hour of slower driving, and we get there — taman. Not too early, not too late. Just in time.”

This blog was originally produced for a live on-stage performance at the ZEG International Storytelling Festival in Tbilisi, Georgia, in June 2023. It was made from the “deleted scenes” of the K2.0 article “The Alternative Balkan Postal System,” which was shortlisted for the 2023 European Press Prize. 

Feature image: Dina Hajrullahu / K2.0.