Balkan Road Trip Part I: We Ordered a PandaPosted: October 1, 2016
I was sat in London Stansted Airport, minding other peoples’ business, when the noise started. A hawking blare that turned the bustling departure lounge into descending chaos. My headphones were snug tightly into my ears to give the illusion that I was listening to music, a million miles away from the happenings around me, but in truth, they weren’t even plugged into my iPod. The four lads sitting along the bench opposite were dishing out some serious banter and when they started mixing it with pieces of highly intellectual conversation I considered asking if I could join them on their trip. I do this quite a lot, the not-actually-listening-to-music thing. I don’t know if anyone else does. I’ve never been so inclined to ask. From the meaningless information that is now fed to us through tabloid journalism and reality television both day and night, however, I can’t see myself as being in a minority here. Curiosity did indeed kill the cat. The shutters of all the shops were pulled across as an automated voice of calm broke out over the speakers:
“A fire alarm has been activated in another area of the building. Please remain where you are and await further instruction. Feueralarm wurde in einem anderen Bereich des Gebäudes aktiviert. Bitte bleiben Sie, wo Sie sind und warten auf weitere Anweisungen. Avertisseur d’incendie a été activé dans une autre zone du bâtiment. S’il vous plaît restez où vous êtes et attendre d’autres instructions.”
What did everyone start to do? Freak the fuck out of course. I felt like a mind reader as passengers rushed to the gates of their respective flights already displayed on the departures board. Each brain was computing the exact same question in its native language: ‘How will this affect the ability for my flight to board and leave on time?’
Well, that’s not entirely true. There was clearly at least one person who wasn’t at all phased by the commotion and that was because she had managed to sleep through the entire thing. Although we effectively had an air raid siren blaring like there was a B-52 bomber overhead, and the old woman to my right was snoring away like she was a bear in hibernation. With a Fanny pack strapped awfully tightly around her midriff, drool slithered down her chin and stained the pink t-shirt which barely covered her droopy tits and fat folds. Whether consciously or not, the automated voice was telling her to remain calm and she was doing just that.
My flight took off on time of course and I landed in Trieste Airport fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, at 14:30 on Friday 23rd September 2016. I scooted through passport control and past the baggage carousel, following the car rental signs. Trieste is less an airport and more an airport hangar; or rather, the shed which is situated next to an airport hangar where spare parts and tools are kept. I approached the service desk and handed over my driving licence, passport, and credit card to the smiley Italian local behind the counter. Lara, the Italian princess from the book and Vienna, had invited me to her hometown. From here, we planned to commence a whirlwind road trip through the Balkan states that would eventually result in us visiting five countries, and crossing seven state lines, in one weekend.
Being that we would be mainly on her turf, I had left my road trip buddy to organise the majority of the logistics. This included sourcing a vehicle for our journey, which in hindsight may not have been the best idea when she convinced me to book a Fiat Panda because it was ‘the best deal’. Only as I was filling out the mandatory paperwork did it dawn on me that I was stupid to have gone along with this logic. It may have been the best deal, but there isn’t much glamour to be sourced from trundling along economically in the slow lane. Was a purple Lamborghini really too much of a budgetary constraint?
As this thought was festering, my partner in crime snuck up behind me and jumped on my back in excitement. We hadn’t seen one another in three months and it was a delight to finally be reunited. Ever since a sad departure in Vienna’s Landstraße train station I’d been looking forward to the next time I’d see that cheeky smile, and there it was. Her eleven-year-old sister, along with her best friend Michela, had chauffeured her to the airport, but it was myself that would take the wheel from here on in.
“Excuse me, Sir,” said the car rental guy, holding out his hand. “All the paperwork seems to be in order. Here are your keys. Have a very pleasant trip.”
I took them and started to laugh. “Thank you so much.” The keychain sign indicated that it was an Opel Corsa we’d been allocated. That cheeky smile on Lara’s face quickly faded.
“Sorry, but I think there has been a mistake,” she blurted in fast Italian. “We ordered a Panda.”
I made a slit-of-the-throat gesture behind her back and the guy at the counter seemed to get my message.
“Unfortunately there are no Pandas available,” he responded, winking at me when Lara glanced away for a brief second in disgust. “If it’s any consolation, the Corsa is clearly an upgrade, though.”
She turned to me and glared. “You changed the booking, didn’t you?”
“Not at all,” I said, unconvincingly, picking up my bag and walking with her sister to the car park. Lara shuffled along behind us, trying to maintain her best smirk but failing to do so in the happiness of having me present.
Never having driven on the right-hand-side of the road before, I got into the driver’s seat of the car and just stared in bewilderment. The foot pedals felt familiar, as did the steering wheel, but having the gearbox and rear-view mirror to my right seemed alien. I manoeuvred slowly onto the main street, following Michela’s beat-up purple Clio, and kangaroo hopped my way into second gear. It was all rather surreal, but having successfully navigated a couple of roundabouts and imagining I was back cycling my stolen bicycle around the streets of Maastricht, where I’d spent six months on ERASMUS, I soon got the hang of it. As we hit the mountainous coastal road that wound its way down towards the city centre, I rolled down the windows and let my own road trip mixtape blast from the speakers.
“Pull the sheets right off the corner of the mattress that you stole; From your roommate back in Boulder. We ain’t ever getting older.”
Trieste is a seaport city that is tucked into the North Eastern hook of Italy and occupies a narrow strip of land between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia. We stopped sporadically along the way to admire the blue water views and catch up on life, before eventually broaching the city limits. Here I faced navigating through a maze of cobbled streets that spiral up the hillside and then back down. Most are barely wide enough to fit motorbikes, never mind hire cars driven by someone more used to a mirroring perception of a vehicle’s dimensions. After numerous laps, close calls with brick walls, and miraculously avoided encounters with other drivers, I eventually just abandoned Ben at the side of the road. I had been initially confused as to why the car had been given the name Benzina, it even having been written like a name badge on the fuel cap, until Lara pointed out that it was actually just the Italian work for petrol. I may have blushed at the time, but that soon faded. The name Ben, however, was to stick for the entire trip.
Convinced by Lara that Ben wasn’t going to be sitting on four breezeblocks when we got back to him the next day, I grabbed my bag, locked the doors, and we headed down a meandering staircase to the high street. Her flat was situated right above the Apple store on this shopping boulevard and the plan was to dump our stuff, quickly change, and then head out for dinner and drinks. Lara would be moving to Ljubljana for University the following week and this was the last time she would be seeing her hometown friends for a while. Not that an excuse was needed to party in Trieste. The place has so many bars and pubs you’d think it was run by alcoholics.
“It’s Mardi Gras up in the clouds.
I’m up so high, I may never come down.
I’ll try anything to drown out the pain.
They all know why I’m getting drunk on a plane.”
I was under the impression that I’d be meeting her mother and maid, which was making me apprehensive enough, but halfway down the flight of stairs, Lara decided to drop the bombshell that these two ladies were out of town. My initial sigh of relief was cut short, however, when she informed me that her father had returned back from a business trip that very afternoon.
“I’m not meeting your dad,” I said, stubbornly. “Nope. No. No.”
“You don’t really have a choice,” she responded, sympathetically. It was clear Lara wasn’t too keen on the situation either. “He knows you are coming, but just remember that he thinks we are going away with my German friend also and is under the impression we are picking her up from Ljubljana Airport tomorrow morning. Go will that and it will be fine.”
These last four words were less than convincing. I entered the flat and immediately found myself face to face with a stern look of mistrust and suspicion.
“Hello, Sir,” I said, squeezing his outstretched hand in more of a vice grip than the firm shake I was going for. “I’m Chris. Nice to meet you.”
“Hi,” he responded, the glare in his eyes switching from that of suspicion to that of pure, vile, hatred. The sole word that came from his mouth seemed to linger for eternity.
“I hear you just got back into the country today then?” I continued, trying to clear the stale air of awkwardness with some generic shit chat.
There was further silence. Then, instead of responding, the Serbian-born man turned away and picked up a knife. Thoughts ran through my head of waking up in a dumpster the next morning with missing limbs. I instinctively checked my vital signs. All clear. I then thought he may have picked up the knife as a metaphor for how he planned to cut the thick layer of tension which had built up to suffocating levels. It was no use in hiding my intentions. The man was reading me like an open book. A book he may have wished to have ripped the pages from and throw on a blazing bonfire.
To his credit, therefore, he simply turned around and got back to chopping vegetables on the kitchen worktop. I breathed a sigh of relief, dumped my bags in Lara’s sister’s room, which had simply a cot-like structure surrounded by Barbie dolls, and we headed straight back out. Her sister was going to be rooming with her so that I could be kept out of harm’s way. I put up zero protests.
“How was the typical Balkan Father?” asked the bespectacled guy opposite me, an earring glittering next to his matted brown hair. I would have initially pinned him as gay were it not for the cute girl on his arm. “Lara told me you were coming to visit.”
I was sitting at a table outside a late night café near the main square, having just been introduced to a bunch of Lara’s friends from school and God-knows-where-else. The girl seemed to have more connections in the city than a news reporter.
“It seems like the whole city knew about my arrival,” I laughed, taking a large gulp of beer. I still felt a little shaken from the ordeal. “If I had been walking on eggshells in that apartment, then there wouldn’t be a single yolk left in the coop that hadn’t been burst. Do Balkan fathers have a reputation for being so stern?”
“You can say that again,” he nodded, taking a sip of his white wine spritzer. I again took a glance at the girl to confirm that they were indeed a couple.
“I thought he was going to stuff me in a duffel bag and toss me out to sea, only for my decomposed body to be picked apart by crows weeks later.”
“That sounds about right. Pretty much par for the course. Don’t sweat about it.”
Knocking back the rest of my pint we then dispersed and headed to the bar where Michela was working. It was owned by this shifty Chinese dude and looked more like a fast food takeaway than a watering hole. I attributed this to the fact that it was probably acting as a front for some law-evading operation. I’ve seen enough gangster movies to know that this guy was far from a Mafioso, but definitely covering something up. I was being given free beer, though, so decided to just keep my mouth shut and roll with it. The owner even humoured me with some Japanese alcoholic tea when I asked why there wasn’t any rice wine on the spirits menu. Sat at the bar stool and chatting to Michela’s boyfriend, who had coincidentally done his ERASMUS at my home University, I became rather drunk. When it was suggested, therefore, that we head to a club that overlooked the sea, I was nothing but game.
“Can we go back, this is the moment. Tonight is the night, we’ll fight ‘til it’s over. So we put our hands up like the ceiling can’t hold us. Like the ceiling can’t hold us.”
Paying a fairly steep €10 entrance fee, we danced up to the bar and exchanged our free drinks tokens for beers. The dancefloor itself was literally the pier from where boats used to dock, with a raised platform at the back housing the DJ and his hired dancers. Lara spent the time bidding farewell to a number of her friends whilst I danced around like a lunatic to the mix of Latin and chart music. Knowing that we had a long weekend of driving ahead, as things started to wind down we wandered back along the shorefront, hand in hand and casting a gaze to a distant green light across the bay.
“That’s Gatsby’s American dream right there,” said Lara.
“It’s also the green light to the start of our little journey,” I responded. “Tomorrow we head further on up the road… and further away from the typical Balkan father.”
For Part II of our epic Balkan road trip please click here.