“We go in there to sign the papers and exchange the money,” Andrea, our interpreter, said.
What? Where? In a bar? I was confused.
We’d parked across the street from the municipality building in Bačka Topola, the capital for the region where we were buying our Serbian farmhouse (or as the previous owners called it, “the country villa”). So naturally, I thought we were about to make things legal.
Andrea explained that we would sign the paperwork and exchange the cash and then we’d have it stamped by officials. The whole scene seemed like a movie. It was disconcerting enough to have come to the closing with cash, especially since the sellers wanted Euros instead of Serbian dinars or Hungarian forints. It basically meant we’d needed to withdraw the money, have it exchanged in Budapest, hop on the train, and then hope we weren’t questioned by customs or border control as to why we were carrying so much cash.
Andrea could tell from my facial expressions that I was a confused, so she indulged the American and explained how the process works. But her explanation didn’t help much and I still felt a little uneasy as we entered the tiny bar.
I’m not sure what the old Serbian crones thought when we entered, but they looked as perplexed as we felt.
We all crowded around the bar table and looked at each other awkwardly. Andrea said the attorney would arrive shortly with the papers, and then she left because she said she had one small change. I was hoping the change was in our favor, but we’d never really know because the contracts were in Serbian.
While the couple we were buying the house from, the Banciks, were lovely – it became increasingly strange sitting across from each other, not talking. Thank God Oscar, a friend who works for us and fluently speaks Hungarian, Serbian, and English, was waiting outside. I asked for him to come in and interpret.
Whew! Finally we were communicating with each other. It was nice to get to know the people who owned the house before us. Istvan had actually grown up in the house and it had been in his family for generations; that made the whole situation more comfortable.
The attorney eventually arrived and, in a matter of minutes, the papers were signed. We handed over our envelope stuffed full of cash and they handed us what seemed like a thousand house keys. Then we were off to make the deal legal.
Judging by the process so far, I figured it would be a “wham bam thank you ma’am” deal when we arrived at the office and there was no one standing in line. But no, it wasn’t going to be that easy.
We were required to pay the taxes and some other fees (I’m still not positive what they were for), and of course we couldn’t pay them there; we needed to go to either a bank or a post office. And it would take the workers 2.5 hours to stamp the 6 signed contracts. Ughhh!
With time on our hands, Oscar asked the Banciks if they’d like to go to Stara Moravica and show us around the house. They agreed, so we all piled into Oscar’s tiny car and we were off again.
We could see the boyhood twinkle in Istvan’s eye as he showed us around his childhood home. It was such a lovely experience, as if they were passing the baton. He showed us how to turn on the water and the electricity, and showed us his mother’s antique Singer sewing machine and the wood shelving unit they used in the cellar to keep things cool before the new fangled refrigerator invention.
It was like being transported to another time.
It touched me deeply when they expressed their happiness that we were buying the house because they knew we’d love it and give it a new life. It was clear to me we were connected at a very profound level by this home.
It never stops surprising me how people in this part of the world, while they do things differently (which often seems crazy to us), display a general level of trust in their fellow human beings. So in the end, what started out feeling like a drug deal from a movie actually turned out to be the biggest score of all – the changing hands of a grand house and the beginning of a new friendship.