On my way to Atlanta in a pandemic… I’ve made it!

Or should I write „on my way to Auburn, Alabama, to my research fellowship in political ponerology”…

I figured it out. There’s a stamp in my passport that says „admitted”. I am an alien on a visitor visa and I still figured it out, and now all that’s ahead of me is 6 weeks of intensive research, discussions, writing, evening pizzas, the Southern air which feels like hot soup, meaningful human connections, inappropriate jokes we don’t disclose, real intellectually stimulating environment… There’s already 5 or 6 books I browsed through my first day in the office (although jetlagged and confused) – and I can already see I will improve my information war paper in a way I’d never expect anywhere else.

How? That Serbia maneuver worked! With some misunderstandings and stressful interrogations on the way, but it did.

I landed in Belgrade June 3rd at midnight – I thought I’d stay there for two weeks, waiting for the travel ban to pass me – before that Turkish Airlines flight takes me from Istanbul straight to Atlanta. It hasn’t been that easy in the end.

The first days of summer in Serbia passed quickly: I prepared to write about my research topic, I listened to the Rothbard Graduate Seminar online, there was this beautiful Siamese kitty in my hostel and she always waited for my snacks, there was the Danube flowing nearby – behind a boulevard full of roses, and I had coffee and lunch with an SFL friend (thank you, Libertycon!). You can visit the zoo and the botanical garden, chill on the famous Kalemegdan fortress overseeing the river front, explore the Ethnographic and National museums with formidable collections of Balkan traditional costumes and art, see the metal sphere that hides the ashes of Nikola Tesla himself in the small, yet informative Nikola Tesla museum, silently sneak into the Orthodox churches, stroll down the Michajlovska street and digest indecent portions of meat, because it’s the Balkans.

The fortress overseeing the Sava river

I recommend Belgrade and Serbia in general to any traveler looking for some real down-to-Earth fascinations. You won’t get bored. It isn’t praised enough. And it’s quite beautifully messy.

How is the pandemic down there? The city is open and alive. Some places – like the military museum – are closed to visitors, some are in renovation, but that’s about it… What is funny is that in the last 2.5 months, I managed to take an international ferry, a train and an international flight without any health controls. I only had my BT measurement taken in an empty museum in Belgrade…

The Japanese garden inside Belgrade’s Jeremovac Botanical Gardens
The church of Saint Sava
Nikola Tesla’s ashes are inside the sphere…
Part of the military museum on the Kalemegdan fortress
The church of Saint Aleksander Nevski
The life of a wall on campus
Downtown Belgrade
Where are my snacks, girrrrl?

But then… The Turkish airlines cancelled my Istanbul – Atlanta flight.

What now? The only other flights have layovers in Schengen. I call the DHS and they tell me in this case, the travel ban would catch me again (which makes sense, you will almost certainly get infected on a deserted airport, but only if you’re an alien!). I have to either fly to the US directly from Serbia (which is expensive, and only reaches JFK – and let’s face it, everyone wants to avoid JFK now) – or wait for another Turkish Airlines flight that stops in Istanbul. The next one to Atlanta is JULY 1ST…

I guess I could stay in Serbia for so long. It’s still worth it. However, I called the Turkish Airlines and figured out a different arrangement. I will fly to Chicago with a layover in Istanbul June 24th. I should be entering the US at midnight Central Time, then fly American Airlines to Atlanta and crash in the Rothbard Village at 2 pm, which would make it 9 pm in Europe.

If it works out.

Spoiler: you know it did. But oh boy, I had adventures on the way, including the worst customs experience!

I had to extend my stay in Serbia by a week, so I took an hour long bus drive from Belgrade and stayed for 5 nights in the gorgeous city of Novi Sad… In its Danube park every statue commemorates a poet, and the Museum of Vojvodina (a province in Northern Serbia Novi Sad is a capital of) has three golden helmets from the Late Roman period! The Old Town has this more westernized, Austro-Hungarian feel. Oh, and I went shopping. I didn’t pack any summer clothes, because I didn’t think I would make it to the States, and my mom’s package from Poland didn’t make it on time! So I explored Serbian second hand shops and flea markets, and ended up buying two new dresses and beautiful leather sandals.

One of the streets of the Old Town Novi Sad
ALl the restaurants in front of the Danube Park
The Danube Park in Novi Sad
Dura Jaksic, a famous Serbian bard
The Roman helmet found in the field! The Vojvodina Museum, Novi Sad
A mural in the city centre
When you walk a bit further…
Life downtown! The Catholic Church of Saint Mary in the back
The Petrovaradin fortress on the other side of the Danube (had a lemonade there!)

Time flies… My flight to Chicago is getting closer… I’m planning to spend my last 2 nights in Serbia back in Belgrade. I will have to be at the Nikola Tesla airport 4 hours before my flight to Istanbul. And I know I will get the traveler fever when I can’t sleep before a long flight – especially that now it’s even more than a long flight, it’s legally cheating a presidential proclamation. So I thought going back to the capital earlier will help me calm down…

Right? Wrong! It rains heavily, the new hostel I booked in the proximity of the bus station and taxi parking spots turns out to be non-existent (but they haven’t taken down their hostelworld website! Don’t book Hostel Jasmin in Belgrade – they disappeared, renting out everything to waterfront workers). So I knock on a door of a hostel upstairs, hoping they would let me in, and I’m greeted by a gorgeously gay receptionist and his big bulldog, Rock. I’m the only girl in the hostel, and the atmosphere is so loud, so excited, so lively! I got a separate room, I pet the amazing Rock the dog, I have my last plieskavica (big Serbian portion of minced pork with butter and herbs) in a nearby restaurant, and I think, I THINK, my last day will be calmer…

You can dream. I meet Steven, a passionate, empathetic New Yorker filled with stories about various religions, travels and adventures, and we end up talking for hours. I show him around the city, we take photos of that cat colony in a park close to the Moscow Hotel, have dinner and rakija, and lemonade, and a stroll through the fortress… The conversation flows amazingly, and I have made my peace with not being able to quiet down before THE travel. When we return, we end up drinking more, and a fellow Balkan traveler gets overexcited about some business proposal from the resident mafia. I start to feel like I’m in a Kusturica movie. Finally! But it’s time to go…

The day is here. June 24th. I pack up, get some sandwiches and get into a taxi. I make it to the airport. When I come to get my boarding pass, the lady browses through my passport. „Are you sure you’re OK with this visa?” – she asks. I reply I have called the DHS about it, and I show her my registration proof in Serbia with a stamp and that 3rd of June date. She tells me to keep these documents. Then I go through the gates and security, buy a bottle of Serbian plum liquor in case I really make it to Alabama, get my temperature checked and here I am, on my first flight, the one to Istanbul. Let’s get it started! Oh, and surgical masks are maybe even more comfortable than cloth ones. You breathe better. I still stick my nose out to avoid any possible post-traumatic panic attacks…

Time to go!
One down, two to go!

And then, I’m at the IST airport. It’s weird for me to look at the Turkish border. Why? Because they wouldn’t let me in! Turkey has a travel ban linked with your passport, and I’m under it. Thankfully, this doesn’t include layovers. And the food court is closed… So that everyone is crowded in that one place that is open. A sip of traditional black tea, a sandwich, letting everyone know where I am – and I make my way to that Chicago gate.

The airline pre-filters passangers: I have my passport, my visa, my letter of invitation with the address, and then someone asks when was the last time I’ve been inside Poland… „Because if it’s less than 14 days, we will have a problem”. I show him my Serbian registration and I’m good to go. Smooth and respectful! And there’s this sweet American girl, an English teacher in Turkey, who just adopted a ginger kitten and is flying with her back home!

The gorgeous IST airport
Let’s go! IST traffic in a pandemic. Turkish airlines back in the sky!
This baby girl (yes, it’s a ginger girl!) was flying with us!
Sunset over the Bosfor passage…
And what is YOUR take-off jam? 😀

We fly overnight. And no, you never sleep well on a plane… The darkness of the Great Lakes shows outside of my window around 7 AM European time, so in Chicago, it’s midnight and I’m exhausted. And now it’s time for the most stressful part, the part that determines everything: the US customs.

I was expecting… I don’t know what I was expecting, but certainly not what has happened.

I have entered the US 6 times before, and the more return stamps I had in my passport, the more friendly the officers acted. Once the fingerprint machine broke and they said „just go”. Once the question was „Holiday? Awesome!” – and BAM, there’s a stamp.

Not that day, and it’s not what you think… I approach the officer and his first comment is about the miserable state of my passport. I know, it’s soaked, it’s old, I’m getting a new one when I get back anyway. What am I supposed to say? It’s still a valid passport. I’m holding my yellow folder and he asks what kind of documents I have there. I said, there’s my invitation letter with my address in the US, my registration proof in Serbia, and some other things… He takes everything! Which means he browses through my old boarding passes and my Soviet propaganda paper drafts in front of me, and I can’t even say a word. I’ve never felt a vibe that unfriendly before, not in San Francisco, not in JFK (quite the opposite, ironically!), not in Boston. Then he says he has a question about me and he’ll be right back. I thought it’s related to the travel ban, so I wait.

But no, we weren’t on the same page. I am singled out for more interrogation in a separate room, but at least they call me right away. Another officer takes my case. Asks me everything – about my job (you know, officer, I had this PhD project, but my advisor is a narcissist and stopped talking to me, and I was also in an environment terribly infected by all kinds of KGB propaganda, so I started doing economics and philosophy instead), about where I live (well, officer, so I lived in France, then Poland, then Sweden, and when I get back, I’m first going back to Poland, but maybe also Belgium and Germany, I don’t know yet)… Sure, there are things you never say to a customs officer. I don’t remember my replies. I tried to keep them short and dumb.

So, where do I live? When do I go back? Do I have a job? When is my flight back? Why don’t I have it printed? When is my flight back again? What was I doing in the US before? How do I know my friend from Upstate NY? Am I in a relationship with that person? When is my flight back again?

And then… I hear „I just can’t make sense of your story. It’s weird. Why were you in Serbia for so long? Why couldn’t you fly from Poland?”

I INFORM the customs officer about the TRAVEL BAN. he looks confused. He said „if the airline won’t let you in, that’s between you and the airline, not between you and the US government”.

Facepalm times hundred. I lived in Serbia so long because of a proclamation that is written black on white on the White House website, and the airlines just know about it and pre-select people! Am I singled out for interrogation because the customs don’t know about the bans and my Serbian registration looks „weird”?!

At some point I just burst out „check whitehouse.gov” to that officer.

Not my best line, I know. But come on.

He gets defensive. How dare I attack his job! „Oh, I check it every day! This is my job! You know about economics, but I know immigration! If you want to be misinformed and live your life like this, it’s your choice!”

Wow. A tiny narcissistic-like rage even, I’d say.

I tell him that I have called the DHS three times about it.

To which he replies: „These guys don’t really talk to us.”

So now you know the level of communication between US government agencies. And the level of an officer that asked me WHAT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SCHENGEN AND SERBIA IS and then called me misinformed.

In the end he calls me back with a stamp on my passport. And yeah, I am admitted. For a limited stay, not the usual six months:

„Because you said your flight back is August 7th”

He wouldn’t normally let me in, so he wrote down „limited stay”. „Because you said your flight back is August 7th”. Guess what, I said it because it’s true…

I say a very quiet and frustrated „Thank you”, although in my mind it sounds like „Bye Felicia, it’s all that I wanted” – and I proceed to the domestic American Airlines terminal, because now it’s time to get to Atlanta!

It’s still dark. I don’t know whether to sleep or not. I’m at the gate 4 hours before the flight and I blink, and the sun is up, and we board, and it’s so easy, and the American Airlines steward that helped me check in my bag was so nice and helpful, and the TSA experience was completely smooth, and a cleaning man asked me if I’m lost when I wasn’t, and everyone seemed just so caring after that customs experience, and I gaze at the Midwestern landscapes from my window, the neverending fields and what probably is the Mississippi river, and Atlanta is cloudy and sticky, and I find my Tiger Auburn driver, and we go to Chick-fil-A and chat about everything, because he’s used to picking up Mises fellows.

I crash in the Rothbard Village. I made it! It happened!

I couldn’t remember the next 14 hours. I woke up in Alabama and it’s like I’m in a new universe. And yes, I did go to my office the next day! The seven hour difference is helpful when going west!

The last one to go! The easiest part!
Is that Mississippi? Name this city for me!
… where the players play 😀

Opublikowane przez agnieszkakonstancja

Freedom, not manipulation.

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