The ticketing interlude

The first thing that hits as you when you enter the ticketing area of Belgrade’s main station is the smell of piss, then the sudden muting of the urban bustle just outside its walls.

We walked in, didn’t see any signs we knew how to read, and decided to start at the information desk.

“Hello,” I said to the lady behind the counter. “We want to buy tickets from -”

“Ah!” She leapt to her feet, barked a string of instructions in Serbian, and gestured violently at one of the counters in the row behind us.


“Tickets there?” we hazarded tentatively.

Vigorous nodding. Her other hand joined in the gesturing for emphasis.

Off we trotted to counter 18. Watched the pair of customers before us haggling about tickets they’d just bought, cutting off a crafty old fella who tried to slip in front of us in the queue.

“No no, you go to International. At 12,” counter 18 declared when it was our turn, flapping a hand in that general direction. “There.”



International was aghast. “You want to go to Bar today?”

“No, on Friday morning.”

“Not here,” International counter snapped, annoyed. “At counter 19.”


There was no one at counter 19. But the window said “VIP”. which was encouraging. The freshly washed denim jacket draped over the office chair, and wooden stool jammed into the door also suggested that its occupant might return soon.

Counter 19 returned after ten minutes or so, stepping over the stool holding her cubicle door open with a deftness that suggested long practice.

“Is this where we buy tickets from here to Bar in Montenegro?” we asked.

She beamed. “Yes. When would you like to go?”

“Friday morning. We would like to come back from Bar on Sunday morning.”

She tapped at her computer – a 1998-ish PC replete with clicky yellowed keyboard and 14″ CRT monitor – stuck a couple of slips into the dot matrix printer next to it, took our payment with a late model modern credit card reader, and presto, we had a pair of return tickets from Belgrade to Bar on the train.




  1. Håkan says:

    I believe this type of service was once common in every country. What made it disappear in some parts of the world? It has been replaced with people who actually help you, and who are not prevented from helping you by bureaucracy, lack of resources, strict hierarchies or complicated rules.

    I should show you something I’ve done. A while ago I shot this bartender. It’s one of the better things I’ve done recently.

    1. Charlene says:

      Håkan, I’m at a loss as to how to respond to your comment. Are you being ironic? Are you calling me out on something? Is the bartender related to any of it?

  2. Håkan says:

    I hope I haven’t offended you.

    What I meant was something like this. When having an experience like the one you described, some travellers might be irritated and say “Why doesn’t anything in this country work properly?” Well, if you go back 100 or 150 years, even a well functioning country like my own, Sweden, might have been like this railway station. I started thinking about what changes had happened since then – many small and large steps – that makes buying a ticket in my country a fairly smooth experience (actually, railway service might be going back to a situation like the one you described, but that’s another story). Also, it’s worth noting that people in a less well functioning country are not rude or incompetent – they might be prevented from giving good service by bureaucracy, stupid rules, inadequate equipment, bosses that stifle any initiative, etc. I am not calling you out – you are an experienced traveller, you might have made the same reflections long ago. Please let me know if I have cleared up any misunderstanding!

    The bartender is not related. I hope it wasn’t selfish to bring him in. After reading you and Flemmin for so long time, I wanted to show you something I’ve done.

    1. Charlene says:

      Ah! No I wasn’t offended, but the context you just provided was helpful, as was the separation of the bartender from it, heh. Being introduced to another system (of transport, banking, or anything really) is always confusing at the start. Buying a ticket on the only train from Arlanda airport into the city was just as confusing as this one, the only time I’ve ever done it (considering how many foreigners were asking people for help, I was not the only one!). And that’s in a country that has prioritized infrastructure and public systems.

      I thoroughly enjoyed this ticket buying experience (I’m sorry that didn’t come across). Most of my transport mishaps – and I have them all the time – are not normally this entertaining. But traveling wouldn’t be what it is if it were all a no brainer.

    2. Håkan says:

      Glad to hear that I cleared it up!

      All the best,

  3. Hey Charlene – I have been inspired by your story, your journey and your images. As with everything in life – there are always balances to be weighed, options to choose and bridges to build and cross. Your decision to leave all behind and travel would be so liberating, but as mentioned, so many sacrifices on so many fronts. I commend you for your bravery and being such an inspiration for the rest of us who are not bold enough to make such a gigantic leap of faith. I have sold all of my lenses and my D3X is on ebay as I write this. I have dabbled before with Fuji, but now I am in boots and all. I am loving my X-T1 and my two lenses, and I know there are great times ahead photographically. I am not as far down the Fuji journey as you, but your story and pictures really inspired me. I loved your story about the box of surprises – you must have felt like a kid at Christmas. No accident though – a result of all of your hard work. Blessings in the future. Philip

    1. Charlene says:

      Hey Philip, thanks for dropping by. I’ve made sacrifices to live like this, but it took some fairly traumatic personal circumstances to get me to do it – I’ve never written about this, and probably never will. I will say that making that decision was probably easier for me than a lot of other people with responsibilities I didn’t/ don’t have.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying your new gear – in so many ways, that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? :)

      Keep shooting!

  4. Jeremy says:

    Great story!

    1. Charlene says:

      Thank you!

  5. Oscar says:

    I remember when in 1985 I moved with my family from Sweden to the US and how amazed I was by how much more service oriented and friendly staff in stores were compared to Sweden. Since then Sweden has gone through a service industry revolution.

    1. Charlene says:

      The US blows me away with its customer service all the time, just about everywhere. I’ve not experienced much Swedish customer service in Sweden (not there for long enough), although I will say that Swedes working in Copenhagen are lovely!

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