Peter Maass

I love the black market.

When I arrived in Belgrade I didn’t have a chip for my cell phone, and I needed one in a hurry. Normally, getting a chip for your cell phone can be quite a hassle in Serbia—you go to an office, you stand in line for several hours, and when you get to the front you are told that chips are not available until the next day or next week. If you arrive in the city on a Friday evening, as I did, you can pretty much forget about getting a chip until Monday at the earliest.

Unless, that is, you venture into the realm of the black market. I called a friend who I know to be capable of arranging such things. She made a call or two and soon phoned me back to let me know that she had located the required merchandise. It was in the possession of a woman who worked at a cell phone company. It is normal here for insiders to take advantage of the shortage of chips by acquiring a stock of their own and selling them for twice or three times as much as they would cost if you, the buyer/victim, went through the normal, slow-moving channels.

And so, late on Saturday night, after finishing my work, I got into a taxi with my interpreter and headed down a row of unremarkable apartment buildings. On an ill-lit corner ahead of us, an attractive blond woman in tight, dark clothes was waiting. We stopped in front of her, rolled down the window, and a brief conversation ensued in whispers, at the end of which, 100 German marks was handed, discreetly, to the lady in black, and she handed me a chip, discreetly. I snapped it into my cell phone—and presto, I am wired up. Mission accomplished.

The existence of a black market reflects a dysfunctional economy, and a dysfunctional economy is usually one in which many people are poor. In Belgrade, it’s not Third World poverty of the traditional sort but a strange version of genteel, Balkan poverty. Before Slobodan Milosevic came to power more than a decade ago, Yugoslavia was a relatively prosperous country, and Belgrade was a sophisticated, lively place. Four wars and international sanctions have ruined the economy, creating the inefficiencies and imbalances that have given life to a thriving black market.

All of which means that if you are a rich foreigner (at least in the eyes of Serbs), you can get whatever you want for a price that is a fortune to the locals but a bargain to you. And that’s how I ended up moving out of the Hyatt Hotel yesterday and into a delightful though quirky apartment in the center of town. It was, of course, a black-market transaction.

The Hyatt is nice but located across the Sava River from the center of Belgrade, so I told a friend, Ivan, that I wanted to find an apartment on the convenient side of the Sava. I know Ivan because a year ago, when he was in a financial pinch (a condition he shared with most of his countrymen), I stayed in his downtown apartment; he moved into a rented apartment that cost half as much as I was paying for his, and he pocketed the difference. (He also set off a fire in his rented accommodations after falling asleep smoking a cigarette, but that’s another story.) Ivan, who no longer smokes in bed and is in better financial condition at the moment, partly because I am employing him as my interpreter, made a few calls and announced, “I have found you a flat.”

The apartment is on Kneza Milosha, a major boulevard on which are located the defense ministry and army headquarters, which were flattened in the NATO bombing last year, and the foreign ministry, which my tax dollars helped destroy, too. It is an Ivan-style arrangement: The twentysomething woman who lives in the apartment has moved out and is staying with her parents. One of the nontraditional aspects of our rental agreement is that there is none—aside from a handshake and an exchange of 450 marks for a two-week stay, nothing else has been required. No contract, no security deposit, and I’m not sure the woman knows my last name.

It is a pity that one can do this only in places like Belgrade. Imagine, for a moment, that you could visit a wonderfully located apartment in Manhattan—let’s say a loft in Tribeca—and pay the owner less than $250 to get lost for two weeks. Alas, unless Milosevic figures out a way to ruin our economy as he has Serbia’s, it is unlikely to occur.

My new home is somewhat odd. It has no drapes at all, so everyone in the neighborhood can see what I’m up to, no matter where I am in the apartment, including the bathroom. At times I think I am participating in a Serbian version of “Big Brother,” though I have done my best to foil the game by stringing up a towel across the bathroom window. So far, no one has complained about me breaking the rules.

Another curious thing is that after opening the front door you have to walk under a low arch in the entrance hallway; the arch is narrow and has an odd overhang on its left side that can take your head off, so as a precaution I tend to duck when I walk into my new home. It’s a bit like the movie Being John Malkovich, in which John Cusack worked in an office that had ceilings no more than 5 feet high. The “Malkovich” metaphor is not entirely inappropriate for Belgrade, because I occasionally feel, especially after ducking under the arch, as though I am going through a crazy man’s portal.

I have wanted to ask the apartment owner about the drapes—why, dear Lord, are there none?—but I am hesitant to do so. I have spent a number of years living in this part of the world and learned that sometimes the explanations for strange things are stranger than the things themselves; you’re better off in the dark. At the moment, I quite like the apartment, although half of the illumination comes from bare light bulbs hanging from wires that descend from the ceiling in ways that would drive OSHA inspectors mad, and the dozen or so jugs of water under the sink indicate that I should prepare for hard times in the realm of running water. But instead of constant knocks on my door from hotel staff asking whether they can check the minibar/clean the room/turn down the bed, I am left in tranquility, listening, as I write this, to a rather accomplished pianist downstairs play a wonderful sonata.

So, the black market is treating me rather well, but I realize it exists only because the legal market is inefficient and corrupt, and for the sake of Serbia, I wish it were different. The ideal, though, would be an economic system in which you had a legal market that functioned well, as it does in America, and a black market alongside it. OK, I know that’s not possible, but getting phone chips late on Saturday nights, scoring a downtown apartment in a matter of minutes—I don’t think Kozmo.com can do that for me.