I took a trip this weekend to visit a PCV in Jimbolia, a town right on the border of Serbia. There's a daily train that runs directly from Jimbolia to Kikinda, a small city on the Serbian side. We decided to jump over the border for a few hours to make a visit.
There were about 7 of us who went (all Peace Corps volunteers from the Timisoara area). We went to the train station, talked to the border police, showed them our passports, and got on the train. The 'vehicle' was really nothing more than a bus on rails. It even sounded like a bus, with a rumbling diesel engine. We had the entire train to ourselves. The ride only lasted about 20 minutes!
After passing through the Serbian border control, the first order of business was to get some food. But, to do that, we had to get some Serbian money. We walked around town a bit until we found an ATM machine. Taking into consideration the exchange rate, we decided 1000 dinar would be enough (about 18 US dollars). The other PCVs took out their money, and I went up to the ATM to make my withdrawl. Once I put in my card and entered my PIN, the withdrawl screen appeared. It showed some quick options, like 500, 1000, 1500, 2000, etc. I selected 1500, thinking it'd be nice to have a little extra for the train ride home. Out came my money, and it was a thick stack of bills. I figured maybe I'd just received a lot of small bills. I counted it-- 15 1000 dinar notes! OH NO! I hadn't got 1500 dinars, I'd got 15,000!! Man, did I feel stupid. Somehow I'd missed that extra zero. 15,000 dinars equals about 700 lei, which is nearly an entire month's pay for me. I had certainly gotten that 'little extra' I wanted.
Since money was no longer an object, I jokingly offered to pay for dinner. We ended up going to a hotel restaurant, having some Serbian beer and eating traditional Serbian fare. It was really good. After that, we walked around a bit, and I looked for a place to exchange my wad of cash. However, nearly everything, including all the exchange houses, had already closed for the afternoon. So, it looked like I'd be stuck with more dinars than I had bargained for. Next week I'll see what I can do about exchanging the sum here in Romania (I've heard it can be difficult). If I don't have any luck exchanging it, I'll just have to be as frugal as I can till next payday. In the worst-case-scenario I'll just have to go back to Serbia and blow it all on something frivolous, like a night of heavy excess in Belgrade, or a complete set of Pyrex kitchenware.
My general impressions of Serbia are definitely positive. Although I only saw one small part of the country, I liked what I saw. The town itself was fairly clean, I didn't notice any beggars and I only saw one stray dog. There were quite a few Yugos on the streets. It certainly felt like a foreign country with signs written in Cyrillic and people speaking Serbian. But, other than that, it didn't seem too different from Romania. The food is only subtly different; all the basic ingredients are there, just arranged differently. I guess another major difference is the currency. For reasons that I suppose are obvious, this fact was prominent in my mind.
When I returned to Romania and started using lei in my transactions, the money suddenly seemed so familiar to me. I hadn't noticed how accustomed to it I've become. In fact, the other day I was looking at an 50 dollar bill, and marveling at how green and oddly-shaped it is.