Since I've neglected this space for a while, and since I'm off to Rome on Wednesday, I'll leave ya'll with a fairly long story of my trip around the Balkans last year. Enjoy!
A week looking for banks, motels and car mechanics
As sure as July brings me sunburns and mosquito bites, the little voices in my head start whispering that it is time for me to travel. It doesn't matter that I don't really have the money. It doesn't matter that I have an old car that I'm not really familiar with, having bought it only the week before. It doesn't matter that every time I go, I come back cursing the day I left. The voices are insistent, persuasive and always - always I tell you - successful.
The status as of 2004 was that I had already been to 26 European countries, and so I wanted to go to places I hadn't seen yet. Most of the countries that were left were in the Balkans, which had the benefit of being cheap to travel in (or so I thought). I therefore made a couple of alternate travel itineraries using the Michelin travel engine and was basically ready to go. Since driving all that time alone could get boring, and since I thought I might even be able to get some sharing of expenses, I put out a couple of travel ads online to see if anyone would be crazy enough to come along.
To my surprise, I got a couple of answers - first from two Danish girls going from Copenhagen to Prague and then from a Swedish guy who was hitching his way to Rome to see a Simon & Garfunkel concert (yes, they're still alive). After exchanging a few emails and googling their names to establish that they weren't escaped lunatics (the most likely people to accept any invitation of mine), I agreed to take them with me. I packed my bags, loaded several dozen CDs in the trunk and set off for adventure.
Day 1: The Hitchhikers
I started out in the early morning of Monday 7/19 and the journey out of Norway and down along the Swedish coast was uneventful as usual. There wasn't all that much traffic, but there were a couple of road construction sites along the way and I was delayed a little in a traffic jam in Gothenburg. The Swedish guy lived just outside Malmø, which was on the way to Copenhagen. We had arranged to meet at the central train station in town, which took me a bit of time, luck and Zen driving to find. (Those of you familiar with the writings of Douglas Adams will know what zen driving is - you pick a car that looks like it knows where it is going and follow it... the method works surprisingly well).
The Swede, whose name was Leon, was a nice guy, as one would expect of an S&G fan. He also seemed to approve of the rest of the music I had lying around - Creedence, The Pogues and Travis to mention some. He told me he was an experienced hitchhiker, having done this for years and he'd been to several countries all over Europe. It was a great way to travel, and cheap he said. Now he was heading down to Sicily, where a friend of his had a place for the summer, and then he would hitch his way up again to Rome for the concert. I briefly toyed with the idea of going to the concert myself, but it was to be held very late in the month and besides, the thought of battling the traffic in Rome was a bit too much for me.
We had gotten instructions on where to go in Copenhagen, yet we still managed to get lost, but a couple of frantic phone calls and some illegal turns brought us to Malmtorget, a square in the middle of town where the two Danish girls were waiting for us. We exchanged greetings, loaded their surprisingly light baggage (I mean, they were GIRLS, right?) into my trunk and set off towards Rødby, and the ferry that would take us to Germany.
The Danes were... well... Danes. Those of you who have read about my 2002 trip will know that I have a strong affection for this people, and these girls were no exception to my idea of the typical Dane - nice, relaxed, friendly and pleasant to converse with. Michala was 26 and a student of psychology (I'll probably pop up in her master thesis...) and Lisbet was 29 and a teacher.
We sped out of Copenhagen and flew low across the Danish countryside and managed to just make the ferry connection. I think we were among the last 5-6 cars to get on the boat, and it pulled out just a couple of minutes after we'd gotten on board. The girls had packed enough sandwiches to feed a middle-sized Ethiopian village for a year, and even brought along some juice, so we had a small picnic at a table and chatted about all sorts of things. The more I got to know about my fellow Scandinavian travelers, the better I liked them.
As some of you will know, passengers on this ferry are given a coupon entitling them to buy a single pack of tax-free cigarettes. Leon was the only smoker, so we generously gave him our coupons, but he came back with a disappointed look on his face - they wouldn't even let him BUY more than one, regardless of how many coupons he had. This insane rationing, paired with the horrible food, the bad service, the long lines and the general noise and clamor that is the Rødby-Puttgarden ferry, made me think that this must be how life was like in Eastern Europe before the wall fell (the difference being that on the ferry you can actually buy stuff, and they won't shoot you when you try to leave).
Day 1: A suicidal fox and a friendly Italian
After a couple of detours caused by a severe lack of signposts and the combined effort of the four of us to read the maps and directions I'd brought along, we finally found the right road out of Puttgarden. To my great surprise, this was the exact same road I had traveled two years before. Back then, I had thought I'd made a wrong turn and taken a detour, but the roads WERE actually this bad and I felt a slight sense of vindication. This time we drove in broad daylight, and the landscape wasn't as bad as I had feared. It wasn't all flat and boring, there were some wooded stretches and we passed some nice looking little villages on the way. We made good speed (or so we thought) but we were still regularly overtaken by Mercedeses and BMWs with German number plates. We concluded that the single most unifying theme of Scandinavians (and possibly the rest of Europe) was a shared hatred of German drivers.
We made a brief stop in the formerly East German town of Schwerin. Leon had been here before, and he knew of a big castle in town, right next to the lake Schweriner See. There was some construction work going on, just as there had been two years ago according to Leon. We got some pictures of the castle, and took a timeout to discuss what we should do about lodgings for the night. One of the girls had an English Lonely Planet guide to Germany and quoted a place in Potsdam, which supposedly charged as little as 8 Euro for a night. Ever the English teacher I politely pointed out that she was looking at a restaurant and that the price quoted was for main entries. We still decided to head for Potsdam, since it was likely to be cheaper than Berlin and much easier to drive in.
We were back on the autobahn and doing a healthy 140 kph (ca 85mph) when tragedy struck. Two years earlier, it had been all I could do to avoid committing mass murder on a wide variety of animals hurling themselves at my car on the rural roads between Puttgarden and Schwerin. This time we hadn't seen any, and we certainly didn't expect to see them on the motorway, but an unfortunate fox chose the time of our arrival to cross it. It was getting darker, but visibility was still ok when we hit the poor creature, however, traveling at that kind of speed I had no chance of avoiding it.
I hit the breaks hard and pulled over to the side of the road. We put out a warning sign and started walking back to see what had happened. There was nothing on the road, not even a drop of blood to be seen, so I began to fear we'd only injured it. I was having visions of the scene in "The Long Kiss Goodbye" where Geena Davis breaks the neck of a deer with her bare hands and I wasn't really looking forward to making the attempt myself, not even on a substantially smaller animal. Fortunately, we found the fox a couple of meters from the road, lying dead cold in the grass. There was no blood to be seen, so I assume it died from internal injuries. Hitting a ton of metal at that speed, death must have been instant. We stood scratching our heads for a while, but realizing there was nothing more to be done we walked back to the car and drove on.
I have bitched about the road signs around Berlin before, and this time will be no exception. We managed to miss the right exit and had to drive more or less at random, towards what we thought would be Potsdam. At a tiny village we saw some hotel signs, but typically for Germany everything had already closed and there were no bells to ring. Fortunately, we happened upon an Italian restaurant that also had some "zimmer frei" signs. There was still light in the windows, so we quickly parked and went up to bang on the door. They were in the process of closing for the night but the owner, not being German, was still willing to give us a room. He quoted a price of 50 Euro for a double room, which was really nothing to complain about, but the girls quickly responded with a counteroffer of 40. He scratched his head and went back inside to confer with the wife (who was German) and made a final offer of 45, which we immediately accepted. The price included breakfast, so I figure we got a good deal.
The rooms were small, but comfy, they had bathrooms, and TV sets. We went down and asked if he could still serve us something to drink, and to our great surprise, he could. We were shown to a table and they even provided Leon with an ashtray. We sat and chatted for a while, and it was really only our concern for the well-being of our hosts (who were still sitting up waiting for us to be done) that made us break up for the evening and head for bed.
Day 2: Road repairs and hookers
We were up and ready for breakfast a little over 8 in the morning. I had slept well and had a good, hot shower and had found to my delight that the water pressure was hard enough to almost peel the skin off my back. In May I had spent over a week in England, and hotel showers there are usually a mere drizzle. While chomping on bread and salami we watched some kind of talk show, which seemed to consist mostly of dubbed clips from American shows - Jerry Springer and the likes. There were also some cuts from German-made programs, and I am happy to report that European TV is more than able to compete with the Americans in terms of absurdity and tastelessness.
After breakfast, we headed out on the A10, the ring road around Berlin. The idea was to let Leon off at the first gas station on the road south towards Leipzig, so that he could travel the shortest route to Italy. However, we didn't find a gas station for miles, and then the rain started to really pour down, so in a rare attack of pity I suggested we drive all the way to Leipzig and then turn east to Dresden and Prague from there. The others didn't seem to have any problems with this, and so we took a detour of a hundred kilometers or so. There was some road construction here too, but most of the way we could do about 130-140kph. Just north of Leipzig we stopped at a gas station and said our goodbyes to Leon, promising to write him and demanding a detailed account of his travels as soon as he got back.
As we got closer to Dresden, we fell victim to German signposting again. According to our map, there should have been a road outside town that would lead us onto the E-55 for Prague. However, the signs for Prague took us through the very heart of Dresden, where the traffic was insane and there was a lot of roadwork going on. It was a very hot day, and we were all cursing the goddamn Germans for dragging travelers through town, when what we really wanted was to be on our way to Prague. Maybe it's their idea of a tourist trap, maybe it's sheer incompetence, maybe it's pure, Kraut evil.
As we approached the Czech border, we suddenly got stuck in absolutely horrible traffic. We were still a few miles away from the border, and things were standing almost completely still for as far as the eye could see. For a time we were afraid that the line was stretching all the way to the border, but it turned out that the problem was that a lane was closed for repairs for just a few meters up in one of the tiny villages dotting the road. This was causing 30-minute delays in both directions and again we cursed the stupidity of the Germans.
We drove on to the border, along a stretch of road where two years earlier I had been stunned by the amount of garbage and filth along the roadside. Fortunately, it was almost all gone now, and the scenery was really nice. The border crossing went fine, as the Czechs hardly bothered to look at our passports. I knew from experience that to drive on the motorways here, I had to buy a "vignette", a kind of short-term road fee designed to suck money out of tourists, but to my surprise, the first two gas stations didn't have them. Not for the last time on the trip, I was surprised at the lack of language skills among people working in shops close to a border - you would think they, of all people, would find it good for business to know a little English.
As we started to go downhill from the border area I knew what was waiting for us. I had already warned the two Danes that we were about to enter one of Europe's main "meat markets", but they were still as shocked as I had been myself two years earlier at the sight of dozens of little cabins along the roadside with half naked girls offering their merchandise and waving to the cars going by. Business seemed to be slow and there were hardly any cars parked outside the cabins.
We stopped at a gas station on the way and took a good, long look at a couple of maps of Prague. We decided on what exits and streets to take and yet managed to get thoroughly lost almost at once. We never saw the exit we were supposed to have taken, and again I had to rely on Zen driving, inching closer and closer to what I felt had to be the center of town. Finally, we found a street name that was on the map and from there on it was smooth driving. The girls got their gear out of the trunk and we said our goodbyes, promising to exchange travel stories when we got home. [Note to ya'll: I'm still waiting for yours!]
Day 2: Being a thief in the night
I drove out of Prague and headed for Bratislava. I had some loose plans to meet my uncle there (he's married to a Slovak) but by now I was several hours behind schedule and was planning to avoid the road fees in Slovakia, so I cancelled and instead drove straight to Hungary. Two years earlier, this border had been the most difficult to cross, but now it went like a dream. I'm guessing the Hungarians have had to ease up now that they're members of the EU. I saw some signs for "vignette" here too, but I couldn't see any in English, so I drove on like a thief in the night, making up an elaborate defense speech in my head in case I was pulled over.
The Hungarian gas stations were well equipped, and they all seemed to take credit cards. The motorways were good and I felt upbeat about the place - until I hit the point where I took of from the main road that is. I was hoping to reach one of the little towns close to the Romanian border, and this sent me off on a long and confusing drive through the Hungarian countryside. I was never certain about where I was or if I was actually on the right road but I miraculously managed to find the right town and stopped at a decent-looking hotel called "Aqua". I guess the little fountain outside was the justification for the name, seeing as how there were no lakes in the area and Hungary is decidedly landlocked.
I got a room for the night and the girl at the reception swore that there was an internet cafe in town, and that the man on duty in the morning would be happy to direct me there. The room was hot and stuffy, but I opened the window and after just ten minutes, things were getting quite pleasant. I was just about to drift into peaceful slumber when I was brutally shaken by a massive clanging of heavy bells. I had failed to notice that there was a church across the road, and this goddamn (literally) building was now sending out noise every hour, on the hour, all through the night.
Day 3: Gypsies and stray dogs
Despite the best efforts of the church across the road, I managed to get a few hours of sleep. The person on duty that morning spoke excellent English, but denied that there was an internet cafe in town. There was however an internet room at the town hall, which he gave me directions to. Needless to say, I never managed to find the building.
I drove on through the Hungarian countryside and soon came to the Romanian border. There was only a short line of cars there, but it was moving at an incredibly slow pace. I don't know if the Romanians give full body cavity searches as a rule, but for some reason they must have been very thorough with the people in front of me, because they spent about ten minutes per car on average.
Meanwhile, all one could do not to suffocate in the heat was to open the windows or stand outside the car to catch a little of the breeze. We were briefly entertained by the sight of a zeppeliner flying overhead, and I found it somewhat symbolic of Romania to look up at this vehicle, whose great time in history had really been the 1920s. Seemed most things had stood still since then.
When it was my turn, the border guards hardly bothered to take a look at my Norwegian passport and I was waved through. Once inside Romania, I found the roads to be surprisingly good. There were some uneven stretches and bumps in the small towns I passed through, but out in the countryside, they were actually pretty decent. Dozens of farmers were sitting in the shade of the numerous trees that lined the roadside, offering their merchandize to the drivers - mostly watermelons by the looks of it. I know some people find this particular fruit (or is it a vegetable? Who knows? Who cares?) to be heaven on earth, but personally I've never really acquired a taste for rotten water.
One interesting feature of the flat and boring Romanian landscape was all the gypsies - or Roma as they're called in Politically Correct. They could be seen everywhere, driving their rickety wagons with a horse or maybe a donkey in front. I passed a huge garbage dump just outside a small town, and it was teeming with Roma scavenging for useful objects. Half a dozen wagons were parked at the bottom. The Roma people in Eastern Europe are almost wholly excluded from the rest of society. They hardly ever marry outside their own ethnic group and social relations with others are pretty much limited to business. They are subject to much contempt and racism, and they generally make up the absolute bottom layer of society, both socially and economically.
Rural Romania had clearly benefited little from throwing off communism. In the Czech Republic, in Slovakia and in Hungary, you see construction work, western cars and western brands wherever you go. They have their problems, but the direction is clear, and most people are upbeat about where they're going. In Romania, little has really changed, at least in the countryside. Most of the houses I passed looked old and worn, many were crumbling. Walls were cracking or had lost most of their plastering; the cars were usually of various old Eastern European brands - Skodas and Ladas. I was now on the main road to Bucharest, and I was sometimes overtaken by flashy Mercedeses with Romanian plates, so I guess there has been some development in the cities.
I stopped at a gas station to buy some refreshments, and they grudgingly accepted my VISA card there. I drove on and after a while I hit Timisoara, the city where the uprising against Ceausescu had started almost fifteen years earlier. It was a crowded, noisy, stinking place. The streets were not in good shape and at every traffic light, there were Roma children offering to wipe windows or just plain begging.
Another feature particular to Romania is the incredible number of stray dogs. They're everywhere, and the roads are littered with dead dogs rotting in the sun. As I drove across a bridge in Timisoara, I saw this little dog - couldn't have been more than six months old - standing at one side and trying to cross over in the insane traffic. Now I'm not one of those bleeding heart morons who generally care more about animal welfare than human welfare, but there was just something about this dog that made the whole terrible mess that is Romania become more real to me.
I was rapidly approaching the Serbian border and I was running low on gas. Most stations I stopped at would not, however accept my VISA card, nor the Euros I had left. Finally, just before the border I found a place with a VISA sign in the window. It was a worn down station with the kind of gas pumps that probably haven't been seen in the west since the 1950s. The owner spoke no English and only a few words of German, but his French was surprisingly good (much better than mine anyway) and we agreed on how much gas I was to get, and at what price.
I went inside to get some cold drinks, and tried to explain that I wanted this charged to my card as well. Apparently, it was his wife behind the desk, and from the argument between them, I figured she thought he was not charging me sufficiently. From the looks of her, she wouldn't have stopped before they had my kidneys and cornea in addition to all my money, but the man seemed accustomed to his wife's greed and brushed off her heated verbal assaults. He made a major point out of providing me with not just the VISA receipt but also a special bill to show the exact amount of gas and the exchange rate, and when I left, he followed me out to the gas pump to point out that he had filled the agreed amount of gas.
Day 3: Car problems and four letter words
I came to the border, where two police officers stopped me and demanded 2 Euro as an "exit fee". They provided me with a receipt, so I don't think it was their private little scam, but you can never be sure in these countries. The guy at the Serbian entry point spoke excellent English, but was still an anal jerk and so I had to wait several minutes while he was examining my passport in all kinds of ways. Another bored-looking guard insisted I open the trunk but he never bothered to look at my luggage. Instead, he settled for asking stupid questions.
"Anything to declare?"
"No" ... yeah, your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries ...
Do you have any drugs, narcotics?
"No" ... only the usual amount ...
"Tourist or business?"
"Tourist" ... No, I'm really a Croatian agent ...
I finally got my entry stamp and drove on. The roads in northern Serbia were considerably worse than the Romanian ones, and this surprised me. Most road signs were in both Latin and Cyrillic letters, but signposts were scarce and for a long time I was uncertain if I'd gotten the right road. As I was approaching Belgrade, I noticed a clanging sound under the car every time there was the slightest bump in the road. I stopped at a gas station, but they had no mechanic. They guys on duty spoke nary a word of English and German between them, but they were very friendly and seemed amused at hearing that I had driven all the way from Norway.
As I drove on the sound was getting worse, and I decided to try to drive into Belgrade to find a mechanic. Belgrade is a BIG city, and traffic was heavy, but I eventually managed to find a gas station. They didn't have a mechanic, but a young man there spoke a little English and directed me to a "garage" a couple of blocks away. As I left, I saw the other, older attendants slapping his back and laughing, clearly proud that he'd been able to communicate with me.
The "garage" turned out to be a row of shops, all providing tires. Just as I pulled up to one, another, rather flashy looking car came up next to me, and its owner spoke excellent English. He explained my problem to the three people sitting outside the shop, but they shook their heads and told him there were no mechanics in this street at all, and they didn't really know where I could find one either. They clearly had a little argument between them before one of them finally admitted that they at least had a pit, so if I would drive my car inside he could go under it and see if he could find any obvious problems.
His research consisted of a vigorous shaking of my whole exhaust system, to the point where I though he was going to rip it clean off with his bare hands. Finally, he beckoned me down to take a look. There was a crack in the exhaust pipe at the first joint at the front of the car, right under the engine. Through hand signals and various sounds he explained that it needed welding, but that he also had no idea as to where I could get this done. I offered them some cash for their help, but they wouldn't hear of it. With a sinking feeling of despair, I drove on towards the center of town.
A few blocks down I happened to see a "garage" sign down a small sideway, and after a couple of illegal turns and dead ends, I finally managed to reach it. This "garage" (a word they use liberally in Serbia) only did car washing, but one of the guys on duty spoke a little English, and he directed me to another place where they could help me. He explained that the name of the place consisted of the four letters AMSJ, and that this was what I should be looking for.
I tried to follow his directions and soon ended up in a small alley. There were lots of "tourist"-related signs in Cyrillic, but I also saw a small sign with the letters AMSJ, so I thought maybe this wasn't a repair shop at all but some kind of tourist info where I could get further help with finding one. To my surprise and despair it was merely a travel agency, and the receptionist hardly spoke any English at all, nor German or French. Tearing my hair and cursing the carwash guy, I got in the car, but had only gone ten meters when I saw the same four letters again, this time at a big compound just across the street. I tore through the crossing traffic and threw the car into their parking lot. There were lots of bright yellow vehicles here, and they all had the blessed words "road assistance" painted on them.
I went up to some guys sitting outside playing cards and asked if anyone spoke English. This set off a flurry of activity, and they finally pulled me up some stairs and into an office to see the one guy who apparently spoke English. He was a very helpful and efficient man, and his English was very good. He explained that they didn't have any welding equipment, but he would let one of his mechanics have a look, and then try to find a garage for me. The man in question was hauled out and I was asked to start the engine. The mechanic listened to the sound for a few seconds, chewed on his moustache and said something in Serbian. The hood of the car was opened and he immediately pointed to the exact same place where the guy at the tire shift shop had shown me a crack.
While the repairman continued chewing on his moustache and shaking his head sadly, the executive went and called a garage. He came back and informed me that I was lucky, as there was apparently a man who could fix this, and he was open until 8 PM (it was now almost 6). Since I was wholly unfamiliar with the streets of Belgrade, we agreed that another AMSJ employee, who was going home in that general direction anyway, would lead me to the garage and take care of practicalities.
I have never been on a more crazy drive than this one. We were flying low through the streets of Belgrade, my car sounding like a gang of Hells Angels revving their engines. By sheer dumb luck, I managed to hang on for the whole 20-minute drive, and arrived at the garage more or less in one piece. The road assistance guy spoke only German, but he pulled out pen and paper to show me the exchange rate, and what I had to pay in Dinars (600=8.5 Euro). I only had Euros, so he handed me back a thick bundle of local currency. He also made it clear that the welding mechanic was to get 500 Dinars and not a penny more.
There was a small cafe next to the garage, so I went in and asked for a glass of Coke while the chain-smoking repairman welded my car. The friendly lady behind the counter didn't speak any English, but I just handed her some notes and she took what she needed and gave me my change. I miscounted the amount I got back, so when I went to buy a second glass I forked over more than twice the price. She was honest enough not to take advantage of this and pushed back the excess amount with a smile.
Finally, the car was ready, and the mechanic assured me everything would be ok now. He got his 500 Dinars and gave me instructions on how to get to the motorway to Nis, the second largest city of Serbia, where I was planning to stop for the night. I managed to miss the exit twice, but finally I got on the right road. The drive out of Belgrade was a surprisingly pleasant one. The landscape was more varied here, and there were some very nice views over green valleys. The motorway was very good, and I was feeling considerably better about things in general.
Day 3: Into the night
I stopped at a restaurant along the way and stuffed my face with something called "mixed grill". It consisted of several chunks of various meats and some chopped onion, and that was pretty much all. I also got a huge side order of French Fries, and this I feasted on to my black little heart's delight, washing it all down with Coke. (Note about the degree of gastronomical sophistication in Serbia: They have a brand of ketchup named "Pizza"). The meal had been good and the service too, so I tipped lavishly, but then I discovered that the bill lacked several of the items I'd bought, so I went inside to find the waitress. She was a bit apprehensive at first, but when she discovered that my complaint was that I hadn't paid enough, she was positively delighted. Apparently, honesty among customers was a new experience to her.
Just outside Nis, I took off towards Bulgaria, and the motorway ended abruptly. Night had fallen, and I now found myself in pitch darkness on quite horribly paved roads winding up and down what seemed to be mountainous terrain. Here, the few gas stations still open would not take my VISA and I was directed towards the border. After a while, the road started to slope downwards and I passed through a number of narrow tunnels, again horribly paved. Outsprings of rock hung out over the opposite lane for much of the journey, but since it was so dark I couldn't really make out any of the surrounding landscape.
I was getting tired and sleepy, but coming around a bend I got quite a shock. A ghostly, white wall appeared through the darkness, rising high into the sky. I still don't know what it was, but there seemed to be some trucks standing around, so I'm guessing it was some kind of mining area or maybe a quarry. At least it managed to wake me up.
I stopped at a hotel not far from the Bulgarian border. The lady on duty spoke no English, but she knew a little French (though much more than I did). We managed to establish that she didn't take VISA, and wanted the ridiculous sum of 50 Euro for a room. Still I was in no shape to argue or even to drive on, so I accepted. We agreed that I could go into the small town of Pirot after breakfast the next day and find a "bankomat" there.
The room was spacious, but a bit hot and certainly not worth 50E. The bathroom had peeling walls, and water (at least I hope it was water) was leaking from somewhere, because the floor was wet. I had been warned against drinking tap water in Serbia, but I was too thirsty not to. It had a slight taste to it, but I never got sick or anything so I suppose it wasn't too bad after all. As I lay there in the dark trying to sleep, sick and tired of bad roads, lack of English skills and lack of cash withdrawal options, I made my mind up that I would skip Turkey and Greece and just make a brief trip inside Bulgaria before heading straight home.
Day 4: Dirty cops
The next day, a big, tasty breakfast consisting of ham & cheese omelet and white bread put me in a better mood. After breakfast, I had to head in to Pirot to find me some real money, and the lady from the night before tried to explain the way to me in French. I think I got it right, but as I was about to leave, she announced, almost in a reverent tone of voice that "le proprietur" would accompany me on the way. The owner was a fat, balding little guy with a relaxed attitude to soap and water. He spoke a little Italian, but no English, German or French. We managed to locate the "bankomat" and went back to the motel. I got a terrible exchange rate on the Dinars I paid compared to the 50 Euro I had been quoted, but I suspect I paid the correct amount of Dinars but would have gotten away with less if I'd held a hard currency like the Euro.
"Le proprietur" meanwhile barked an order to one of his employees, who started cleaning my window shield, which at this point was covered in dead insects. I noticed several times on the trip that the Balkan societies are considerably more hierarchical than most of Western Europe, certainly more than Scandinavia. I got the feeling that it was really a great honor for me to have been accompanied by the owner himself on my way to the bank.
I drove on towards the Bulgarian border and at a tiny village, I spent most of my remaining Dinars on gas, as I had no idea when I would next have the opportunity to fill up. A few seconds after leaving the station, I rounded a bend and was waved over to the side of the road by two Serbian police officers. Apparently I had been so focused on not pulling out into any traffic when I left the gas station that I had missed the sign with the speed limit being 40. After a bit of fumbling with the laser machine, he showed me I had been doing 57 kph. In broken English, he informed me that the fine would be 1500 Dinars. I had only 400 left, but he shook his head and told me that I had to go into this little village just down the hill, and find a bank, and get more money.
Having no desire to confront two armed Serbian police officers, I drove back a few hundred meters and found the town's only bank. One of the women behind the counter spoke English, but she explained to me that the bank could not take any credit cards at all, and that the only place in the area that did, was back in Pirot. I pleaded with her to write a note, in Serbian, to this effect and she obliged. There were chuckles all round in the bank office, and I think I provided the day's entertainment for both the employees and the customers present.
I drove back to the two policemen and noticed that a German car had been pulled over and that the driver was now hassled for money. The policeman I had spoken to earlier looked at my note, and grumbled. I pleaded that Pirot was a long way back, and that he could have my remaining 400 Dinars. After a while, he shrugged and pocketed my money in his shirt. I never got a receipt, so I suspect it went straight into his pension fund or his college fund or his kill-the-Albanians fund or whatever it is Serbian cops put aside money for these days.
At the border, there were several lines of cars waiting. It was hot and horrible, so I rolled down the windows. Being thoroughly fed up I also put on a CD with AC/DC and Sex Pistols and played it on full blast just to annoy the locals. After some time the western cars were waved out of the lines and into a fast lane treatment. Upon entry into Bulgaria they produced a couple of strange "fees" which separated my from the last few Euros I had left, but at least I got a receipt this time.
Day 4: More car problems
I drove on slowly towards Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. The roads were generally ok, but the speed limit was surprisingly low, 60 km/h most of the way. By now, I had decided to go down to Greece after all, so I was looking for the road that would take me south. Without my sparse knowledge of Cyrillic, I would have missed it completely, since almost none of the destinations were listed in Latin letters. I stopped at a gas station to buy refreshments (they accepted my VISA card, bless their greedy little hearts) and they confirmed that I was on the right way.
Just outside a town called Pernik, I got a sneaking suspicion I was on the wrong road. I had not seen any exits for the road I was supposed to have taken, but I was clearly heading towards Pernik, and the road south should have taken off before the actual town. However, there were no exits or places where I could cross over, so I had to drive for several minutes to the opposite side of the city. Here I pulled in on a gravel road and backed up, preparing to turn the car around and head towards the town again. As I drove onto the main road, a sound from under the car told me something was wrong, terribly wrong. There was clearly a big hole in my exhaust pipe, and I barely managed to throw the car in at a bus stop.
I went out of the car and opened the hood. Beneath the engine, I could clearly see the pipe. It was broken clean off at the place where the Serbian mechanic had welded it only the day before. Panic was slowly seeping in. I had the number for the Bulgarian road assistance, but my cell phone had not received a signal since I left Romania, and I was penniless, with a broken car in the Bulgarian countryside. Way to go, I thought.
Day 4: An honest cop
As I stood scratching my head, a rusty, decrepit old Lada pulled in at the other end of the bus stop. As I approached it I could see that the couple inside were clearly Roma. The man behind the wheel spoke no English and only a few words of German, but I was able to communicate that my cell phone didn't work, and that I was trying to get in touch with Bulgarian road assistance. After much waving of hands and rapid talk in Bulgarian, he pulled out one of the flashiest cell phones I ever hope to see, dialed the number and spoke for a few seconds. He then made gestures indicating that I should remain on the spot, and that a car with a light on the roof and a man with a cap, would soon come to assist me. He also indicated that he wanted the outrageous sum of 2 Euro for his twenty-second phone call. I took him to my car and showed him that I only had one Euro to my name, and gave this to him. He grudgingly accepted it, but kept on mumbling to himself all the way back to his car.
I remained by my car alone for a few minutes, reveling in a combination of heartfelt self-pity and outrage at incompetent mechanics, useless cell phones and greedy gypsies. Soon, a greenish Lada stopped on the other side of the road and a man in police uniform approached me. "Great", I thought, "another extortionist come to scavenge for hard currency." To my surprise and pleasure, I soon found out that I was completely wrong.
The policeman spoke a little English, and for the next couple of hours he was my guardian angel. He started by pulling out a cell phone and calling the mechanic to inform him of what the exact problem was. I explained that I had no money, only a VISA card and he assured me we would find a bank to solve my problem. I asked him about the road to Greece, and he explained that the road I thought I had missed was closed and kindly drew up an alternate route for me. His English was so-so, but from our conversation and from watching him interact with others, I got the distinct impression that this was a good-natured, jovial guy. Throughout the day, he seemed to take immense pleasure in solving problems and interpreting for me, and I suspect my mishap provided him with several months' worth of good stories to share with his colleagues in the local police force.
About ten minutes after his call, two Bulgarian repairmen arrived in an old truck. They looked under my car, and there was much ooing and aahing and shaking of heads, in the manner used by mechanics all over the world to indicate that this would be an expensive affair indeed. They managed to move my car onto the truck and drove off to their garage, while I got in the policeman's Lada to drive to the local bank. I tried to put on the safety belt, but he just wagged his finger and chuckled: "diz iz polize car, no one vill ztop uz". I gave a quick smile and gripped the sides of my seat in terror. He started rolling down the windows - "no air condition", he explained. I rolled down the windows on my side - "Russian air condition", I replied, causing a long and hearty chuckle from the driver's seat.
We flew low through the horribly paved streets, the insane traffic and the suicidal pedestrians of Pernik, dodging near certain death as a matter of routine. At one point, he was talking animatedly in his cell phone, which he was holding with his right hand, while changing gears with his left hand and trying to turn the car in a busy intersection with the help of his knees. By now, my life was passing quickly before my inner eye:
(Animated talk in Bulgarian)
I can see a light... nurses, doctors... they're cutting my umbilical cord...
(Big truck approaching)
Period of extensive drooling, snot wiping and soiling self... Kindergarten...
(Wild honking of horns, mad swerving to avoid oncoming traffic)
First day of school... "Mommy, I don't want to go"...
(Barely avoiding being crushed to death)
"Will you please come up to the blackboard and solve this equation?"
"But I don't want to..."
Finally, we pulled up outside some rather fancy looking buildings, and I discovered to my surprise that this city had a bank affiliated with Western Union, no less. We went inside and the policeman walked past the lines and leaned over the counter, his police badge pushed out as far in front of him as his pudgy physique would allow. The woman behind the counter patiently explained that there was an ATM outside the bank, and that there was absolutely no need for managerial assistance at all. This seemed to disappoint him, but we finally went back outside again and immediately found the machine.
I withdrew an unseemly amount of Bulgarian Lev, not sure what kind of costs to expect from the car repair. On our way to the garage, the policeman stopped outside a small shop and came out with two bottles of cold water - one carbonated, one still - and handed them to me. He explained that they were cheap, even in Bulgarian terms, and that this was a gift. We eventually reached the garage, where he went inside to talk to the repairmen. Knowing fuck-all about mechanical contraptions, (and Bulgarian, for that matter) I just wandered idly around outside for a while. He eventually emerged, explaining that he had to go elsewhere on official business, but that he would be back when the car was ready.
Day 4: Nods and shakes
The repairmen didn't seem to speak any language besides Bulgarian, and since I politely declined their offers of cigarettes and coffee (my preferred methods of suicide are fat and sugar), I just took a seat in the shade and started writing down notes for this travel story. After about five minutes, a girl of about 18-19, in decidedly western clothes, walked past me and into the garage. I could hear a few exchanges in Bulgarian, ending in an excited squeal. A second later, she came round the corner, hand extended, grinning from ear to ear: "Hhhhello! You speak English!?!"
I never did catch her name, but it turned out she was the daughter of the owner of the garage, and that she'd had some English in school earlier. She had attended private school, which seemed to be common in Bulgaria among those with any means. However, she hadn't had English in three years, and she was desperate for someone to practice it with. Pernik apparently didn't get any tourists, so it was very hard for her, she explained. She tried to listen to English-language music and watch movies (some Bulgarian TV channels don't dub movies, bless them), but it wasn't the same as live conversation. I was more than willing to oblige, happy about finally finding someone who spoke the language fairly well.
I learned quite a bit from this conversation. Life seemed to be tough for young Bulgarians, and many just wanted to get the hell out to make some real money abroad. Greece was a common place to go, and Greece and Turkey seemed the preferred destinations for holidays (Turkey is by far cheaper than even Bulgaria). Pernik was a boring, dead-end place, and the only areas with any tourism were Sofia and the holiday resorts along the Black Sea (Varna and Sunny Beach, mainly).
My newfound friend explained that she'd just come home from Sofia, where she'd tried in vain to find a job. Her ultimate dream was to become a film director, and she had applied for university in the fall, but wasn't sure if she would be accepted. She was most interested in hearing about my travels, and was especially keen to hear what things were like in America. She got a dreamy look on her face just pronouncing the name, always an endearing feature to yours truly. "Bulgaria now has much of the freedom of America", she said. "But in America, if you do something wrong, there are laws. Here, if you have money, you can do whatever you want." When I told her about the helpful policeman, she was very surprised. "Nobody here likes the police. They are all corrupt, and if you pay them, you go free." She also told me that the reason why my original road to Greece was blocked was that they were adding a new lane. This had caused a shutdown of the whole road. "Nothing ever gets done on time in Bulgaria", she sighed.
Several times during our conversation, I noticed something that was both amusing and slightly unnerving at the same time. When agreeing, she would shake her head and when disagreeing, she would nod. I had heard about this before, but never actually seen it. I inquired about it, and she laughed and explained that in many areas in the Balkans, the visual signs of approval and disapproval are the exact opposite of most of the rest of the world. You nod for no and shake your head for yes. It may sound funny, but it is actually a very strange experience when you're in a conversation with somebody. Expressions of yes and no are some of the most fundamental concepts in any language and any communication between people, and when someone sends out totally contradictory signals, it is easy to get confused. I guess one could construct several bad jokes about how this strange custom might explain some of the everlasting tensions in the area...
Representative of aggressive, paranoid, Balkan country #1: We've had problems in the border area recently; would you happen to know anything about this?
Representative of aggressive, paranoid, Balkan country #2: *nods*
#1: You're sneaking across the border?
#2: *nods vigorously*
#1: Are you trying to steal our land?
#2: *nodding wildly*
#1: You're not denying it?
#2: *shaking head*
#1: You want war, then?
#2: *nodding head off*
Nods and shakes aside, we had a very pleasant conversation for a while. Eventually the policeman returned, this time with a colleague. The repairmen were done with my car, and their price was a measly fifty Lev (25 Euro), which is about what a Norwegian mechanic will charge you for answering the phone. The mechanic guaranteed that this repair would see me through until I got back to Norway, but that I should get the pipe changed once I got there. On my way out of the city, I was accompanied by the garage owner's assistant, since it was his route home anyway. As mentioned, the guy didn't speak any English, but with hand signals and grunts, he was able to direct me through the narrow alleys of Pernik.
After I let him off, the police car got in front and just outside town, the policeman stopped and let out his colleague. I then tailed him for about ten minutes, to where the road took off for my alternate route towards the Greek border. This road was on no map, and I would probably never have found it if not for the help I had received. We stopped, and he got out to give me some final instructions. I thanked him profusely for his help. He just shrugged. "I'm a policeman. My job is to help people." I nevertheless slipped him 20 Lev and insisted he take it. He made formal protests, but I gathered it was a welcome gesture after all.
Day 4: An unfortunately named dining place
I drove on towards Greece and after a while, I came to a gas station that had some kind of eatery by the name of "Sit 'n Eat" attached. I felt like I was entitled to a healthy serving of junk food after the day's ordeals, so I went into the restaurant section to see what was to be had. They didn't have any menus in English, but pictures of all their main dishes, so I just pointed at whatever looked least likely to put me on an autopsy table.
One of the ladies behind the counter spoke a little English and I was able (or so I thought) to communicate that I wanted a side order of fries and as little vegetables as humanly possible. I walked around idly for a bit, and then returned to see if my order was ready. I peeped over the counter, just as the lady was putting cucumbers (another variety of rotten water that I don't particularly care for) on something that looked suspiciously like my dish. "Please, no cucumbers!" I squealed. She looked up and said in a laconic voice "iz not your food". I gave a sheepish grin and found myself a table in the busy seating area. Looking around me at the crappy plastic tables and the food remains on the floor and on the tables, I quickly renamed the place "Eatin' shit". This thought amused me to the point that I chuckled out so loud I caused a general consternation among the surrounding guests. I guess you had to be there.
The food was rather bland, but really nothing worse than could be expected from this kind of establishment even in the West. I still don't know what kind(s) of meat I had; I suspect it was (mainly) chicken. I stocked up on snack and water before leaving, and asked the English-speaking lady at the counter what the exchange rate was. She thought for a while. "Vone Euro iz vone point ninety-five Lev". Then she paused and grinned "But zat's only in Sofia". Apparently, they appreciate hard currency in Bulgaria too.
Day 4: More dirty cops
I got in the car again and kept driving. Again, the speed limit was only 60 km/h, even though it was a four-lane highway of decent standards. Bulgarians are no less aggressive drivers than the rest of the Balkan peoples, and I soon had a big truck almost coming through my back window. Not wanting to be the subject of the headline "Norwegian tourist smashed to pulp in horrible accident", I increased my speed. Around a bend, I was suddenly aware of a police car at the side of the road, but too late. I was waved over to the side of the road. The policeman spoke a little English, and I tried to explain why I was going over the limit and politely pointed out that he had failed to pull over the truck, which was doing the same speed I was.
He listened to my protestations with a vacant facial expression that clearly said, "You're a rich tourist and I'm a poor policeman, but when I'm done with you, the difference will be considerably smaller." He started ticking off my violations, with the exact opposite logic I had implied. "Driving fast in front of a truck..." etc, etc. Clearly, there was no point arguing. I gave a resigned sigh: "How much?" He scratched, looked at his fingernails and pondered this for a while. "With all these things... at least 20 Euro". I forked over 40 Lev, which he immediately pocketed, without giving me a receipt. He then had the courtesy to inform me that I would likely encounter a police car about every 20 kilometers from here to the border, so I should take it easy.
He hadn't exaggerated much. I passed several police cars along the way, all standing ready with their lasers, hoping to add some hard currency to their presumably meager salaries. I mostly kept to the low speed limits, except for stretches where I had a good overview or where the valleys were too narrow to permit any cars along the side of the road. I also took advantage of the fact that most cars coming in the opposite direction would flash their lights if there were police around.
When I got to the border, I still had a considerable amount of Lev left, so I went in to change them back into Euro. I got a few notes and coins and went out to the car again, but in a touching display of honesty, a clerk came running out after me to hand over a few coins of Lev that were left over. The border passing went very well, the Greeks hardly bothered to look at my passport.
Day 4: The Glory that was Greece and the hell that is Greek traffic
The roads inside Greece were mainly of a better standard, but not everywhere. Curiously, there were several stretches of rather plain, narrow road in between the four-lane motorway sections. There was no sign of traffic cops, and the speed limits were much higher. I flew low across the countryside, but everything from fancy BMWs to rusty old Fiats were still overtaking me regularly. Greece has the 2nd highest traffic mortality rate in Europe, and that was BEFORE they won the 2004 European Football Championship ("soccer" for you yankee savages out there).
I kept encountering signs that said "welcome to Macedonia" or variations thereof. Macedonia is the name of a northern Greek province, in addition to being the name of one of the now independent republics of the former Yugoslavia. The similarity in names has caused a lot of tension between Greece and Macedonia - or "FYROM" as it's called (Former Yugoslavian Republic Of Macedonia). The Greeks have been utterly paranoid about the issue, and for several years in the 1990s, they would block EU aid to FYROM, although no one except the Greeks ever understood what this NATO member of 10 million people had to fear from a dirt-poor nation of 2 million.
The landscape was quite nice for most of the way, with some stunning views over valleys and fields. At one point, I was driving straight into one of the most incredible sunsets I've ever seen. The sun itself was unclouded, but there were several small, oddly shaped clouds just around it, which made it look like several rays of light were beaming out, and the edges of the clouds were golden. Combining my (lack of) geographical insight with a squint, I could just imagine the clouds to be the Greek islands, with a huge sun in what would be the mainland. "Ah, the glory that was Greece", I thought (Edgar Allan Poe, for you Euro-savages out there).
I stopped at a small gas station to get some refreshments and was immediately greeted by one of the biggest rottweilers I've ever seen. Fortunately, it was easy to see that this was one of the more docile members of the species, there was none of the alertness or tension you sometimes see in guard dogs. This one just strolled over and looked up at me with big brown eyes. I stretched out a hand, and promptly had it slobbered in dog drool (it probably still smelled of the meal I'd had in Bulgaria). Inside, there was a fat little guy in a singlet, watching some kind of show on TV. He gave a heavy sigh when he understood he had to lift his fat ass out of the chair, but still found it in his heart to allow me to purchase a can of Sprite, which was about the only digestible thing he sold. I would have bought something for my newfound canine friend, but there was absolutely nothing in the way of foodstuff there, so I just got in the car and headed off towards Thessalonica.
Darkness was falling and outside the city, I hit a horrible traffic jam. The motorway was absolutely packed, and the lines moved slowly. There was a constant honking of horns (Greece's unofficial national anthem) and the air was hot, humid and polluted. My plan was to locate the road to Skopje in Macedonia, but I couldn't see any signs for it, either in Greek or in Latin letters. I tried asking a few people in cars that were at one point or another stuck right beside me, but no one seemed to know. I drove around the center of town more or less randomly when I saw the signs for a Shell gas station. Surely, they would know about roads and directions! On my way there, I also saw a sign for a town that should be on the way to Skopje, so I figured I was doing ok.
Unfortunately, I chose to stop at that Shell station. Here, some brainless little snot shook his head and directed me in the opposite direction. He was probably around 16-17 and his English was sufficiently good that I trusted him. I made an illegal turn and headed back the other way. Again, traffic was horrible and there was a constant cacophony of horns and shouts. I asked a couple of other drivers along the way, but again no one seemed to know where the road to Skopje was, nor did the names of any Greek towns along the way seem to ring any bells. Possibly these drivers had all been stuck in Thessalonica for months, even years and had now gone completely mad and were just driving around without aim, without hope, without souls. This would explain Greek traffic, at least to me.
Finally, about twenty minutes down the road, I pulled up at a red light. Beside me was a flashy BMW, with a yuppie-looking guy behind the wheel. He was smoking a huge cigar. "Speak English?" I hollered over the sound of cars and mad Greeks. "Sure", he grinned, puffing on his penis enhancer. "I'm trying to find the way to Skopje!" I croaked. He shook his head "Well, you're going the opposite way." He pointed behind him. "Just turn around and keep going the other way." I thanked him profusely, and after a few more illegal turns and some honking of horns, I was on my way back. I had been on the right road after all, when that little Shell punk gave me the wrong directions. His incompetence had cost me forty minutes, and I could barely resist the urge to pull in and slap him around for a good forty minutes more.
Day 4: Swedish spoken here
Instead, I drove on through the Greek night, zooming out of town, past little villages. Nowhere could I see any signs indicating accommodation along the way, so I decided to head for Polikastro, not far from the border. This was a town of some size, bound to have motels and such. At an intersection just outside town, I saw a road sign with a bed. I took off from the highway and pulled in at a two-storey building. Right next to the motel was a gas station with a cafe. On the other side was a nightclub or stripper bar or something, with various "Girls!" signs and similar. Possibly this is what passed for the red light district in Polikastro.
Outside the motel, a group of elderly men was sitting, drinking, talking, and playing cards. As I walked towards the door, one of them got up and accompanied me in. "Speak English?" I asked, with little or no hope in my voice. "A little..." he wagged his hand. He looked out at my car. "Where from?" he asked. "Norway", I replied and handed over my passport. While he studied it, I took in the scene around me. There was no real reception area, just a desk with a phone on. The whole lobby was being reconstructed, and there was dust and concrete blocks and mechanical stuff lying all over the place. "How much for a room?" I inquired. "Forty euro. The room has air conditioning and a bath." He waved his hand towards the mess: "We're expanding. Next time you come, you can eat in here."
I suddenly got a strange feeling something was not quite right. It took my tired little brain a few seconds to catch up before I got it: The guy was addressing me in Swedish. I shook my head (possibly producing a rattling sound). "You speak SWEDISH?" I asked (in Swedish). He nodded and grinned. "I lived and worked fourteen years in Stockholm". It didn't take me long to establish that his Swedish was worse than mine, but we had no problems communicating. I accepted the quoted price and went upstairs to my room. It wasn't very spacious, and quite hot, so I left the air conditioner running full power, and went downstairs again.
I went out and headed for the cafe, and the little Swedish speaker jumped to his feet and followed me in. He was strutting around in the typical manner of a Balkanese proprietor, so I asked him if he owned the gas station too. He confirmed this. There were no menus in English, but he listed some items in Swedish. He barked some instructions to the waitress, who was extraordinarily attentive the whole time I was there. I gather I got the VIP treatment, since I allowed him to show off his foreign language skills.
The food was standard roadside cafe stuff, which left me full, but not much more. I retreated to my room, which by now held a refreshing 18C (64F). The remainder of the evening was spent in bed, watching dubbed American movies. My brain had long since tipped over into that state of mind where even the silliest things seem hilarious, and watching Eddie Murphy and Angela Bassett in Greek was good entertainment, trust me. Eventually, I drifted off into sleep, lulled by the wonderfully soothing sound of the airconditioner.
Day 5: Money, money, money
In the morning I was quite eager to get on my way again, so after a quick courtesy chat with the motel owner's son (whose Swedish was almost non-existant, even though he'd been born and raised there), I headed off towards the Macedonian border.
The crossing was quite uneventful, as was the rest of the journey towards Skopje. The landscape was not very different from that of northern Greece, though possibly a little more hilly and a little more lush in places. I passed through some very nice valleys and hills - there were several narrow, but quaint-looking tunnels along the way, along with equally narrow and quaint-looking bridges over deep, deep gorges. There was, however one unnerving thing about the scenery - or rather the lack of such: For many miles at a time the motorway going the opposite direction would simply vanish. I could look out across a breathtaking valley vista, and yet I was quite unable to locate any road going from Skopje back towards Greece. All I could see was miles upon miles of road leading north. It may not sound like much, but it was a very strange feeling at the time.
I finally reached the capital, which was one of the dirtiest, noisiest and unpleasant places I ever hope to spend a mercifully short time in. One of the main roads leading into town soon narrowed into something like an open street market, where I had to crawl slowly through crowds of people, carts and animals plus traffic from all directions. NOT a very good impression to say the least. The really sad thing was that it didn't get much better. Skopje is an utter hell-hole for driving in. It is heavily polluted, people drive like Greeks on speed, and there are almost as many beggars and front-sceen cleaners as in Romania, the only difference being that here most of them looked to be Albanians, not Gypsies.
I toyed with the idea of finding a hotel and staying for the night, because I really wanted to give the city a chance. I've had a soft spot for Macedonia ever since the political turmoil of the early 90s and came there with a positive attitude and an open mind. But there was no escaping reality: Skopje sucked. I engaged in my usual rite of Zen driving - follow the cars that look like they know where they're going. I saw a couple of signs for hotels, but I was never able to navigate the insane street grids and the even more insane local drivers sufficiently to find one.
At one point I entered a parking lot that looked like it belonged to a hotel, but apparently didn't. And it was here I decided to get the hell out of Macedonia as soon as humanly possible. The utter stupidity shown by every single driver in that parking lot made me sick to the stomach. Absolutely everybody seemed to insist that they had the right of way, while no one was the least bit inclined to be flexible in order to actually make traffic flow. The whole place was a mad tangle of cars trying to enter, exit, back up, park, whatever, and it took me ten minutes just to get out of there. With this kind of mindset, it's no wonder they're dirt poor and struggling - and what's more; if what I saw in that parking lot was representative of Macedonian behavior, they richly deserve it.
I soon drove into Serbia again, and found to my surprise and consternation that although there were several currency exchange places, not a single one of them accepted credit cards. Even in a shitty place like this, their backwardness came as a shock. I continued north, desperately looking for gas statons with a VISA sign. I finally found one, but it turned out that the phone connection with Belgrade was broken, so I could not use my card there either. I spent my last Euro bills on a few measly drops of gas and pushed on towards Nis with a sinking feeling.
Not far south of Nis I encountered the first of many toll stations in the next 24 hours. My heart was heavy as I approached it, seeing as how I was almost penniless. I had around one Euro in small change, and had already started to wonder what the going price for a kidney was in the area. Through utterly humiliating begging and pleading I was however allowed to pass through, but I had to give up my last coins. Sweating and cursing I continued towards Nis.
After a while I saw some signs for Nis airport, and foolishly thought I was saved. Surely, even in Serbia, the airport serving the country's second largest city HAD to have an ATM??? Well... yes... and no... The airport area was absolutely packed with cars, so I had to park quite a long way from the terminal, and by now the heat was almost unbearable. Once inside the building I desperately tried to make my way through the crowd - Serbs walk no safer than they drive. Finally I located a huge machine with a VISA sign on. As you may have guessed, it was out of order. Had it not been for the armed guards in the lobby I would probably have gone out to the car, fetched my toolbox and started to smash the machine but instead I just stood there - sweaty, hungry and thirsty and whimpering softly.
I went back to my car, which by now had turned into a baking oven. Feeling increasingly sorry for myself I resumed my zen-driving towards the center of Nis. I'll spare you the details of the many wrong turns, false hopes and illegal maneuvres I had to go through before I finally found a place to withdraw money. I celebrated by downing a bottle of Sprite in one go, belched loudly and cheerfully, and went on my way again.
Money in one's pocket tends to be the best cure for depression, and I was in a positively sunny disposition as I drove out of Nis. Just outside the center of town I spotted three young people standing beside a decrepit looking car with their thumbs out. Spotting a chance for some decent conversation after driving so long alone (I had been mumbling to myself for days, but then again that's what I usually do anyway) and wishing to gauge the general mood of the natives, I pulled over.
They turned out to be from a small place north of town, and only one of them spoke what could, in generous terms, be described as "English". The conversation mostly consisted of me asking questions and then suggesting possible answers, while he would variously grunt approval or disapproval. I gathered that as with the Bulgarians, young people in Serbia were mighty fed up with the state of affairs, and about the older generations' attitudes. They wanted jobs abroad, wanted to open up their country to foreign investment and were sick and tired of the endless conflicts internally and with their neighbors. Like most other Serbs I met, they were unfailingly polite and nice.
A few minutes after I had let them off, the highway was suddenly blocked - for what purpose I have no idea. For the next two hours I was sent on the mother of all detours through the Serbian countryside, alongside hundreds of decrepit Yugo cars and the occasional German Mercedes. We were all thundering along narrow country roads, through quiet little villages where the locals stood gawping, staring at us with everything from awe to pure hatred. Possibly they'd never seen more than two cars at once in their lives, and now the motorway was suddenly running through their backyards, so I can't say I blame them.
There were extremely few signposts or other means of identification as to where we were, so I soon lost completely track of our route. At one point it struck me that we were all going pretty much bumper to bumper, slavishly following the car in front, and that if the car heading the convoy wasn't sufficiently familiar with the area, we might all lose our way entirely. I was chuckling at the thought of the facial expressions of the border guards at some dusty Albanian border station upon seeing hundreds of cars roaring towards them, led by a clueless German with poor eyesight and an upside-down road map.
A few miles later, this almost happened. The line of cars had eventually become a bit more outstretched, thanks to the slow speed of a car not very far ahead of me. At a crossroads, he went straight ahead, and half a dozen cars, yours truly included, followed mindlessly. Fortunately a German car stopped after a few hundred meters and asked an ancient-looking shepherd for directions. The old man pointed back in the other direction, and a dozen cars sheepisly turned in unison and headed back.
Day 5: Yes, we have no rooms for you
After a while we finally found the highway again and I pushed on towards Belgrade without much interruption apart from an indecently meaty dinner at a roadside inn. I was planning on finding a motel somewhere beyond Belgrade, reasoning that rooms would be cheaper outside the big cities. This reasoning was probably correct, but failed to account for one thing: I was driving through a region of Europe that is still on so many levels a part of the underdeveloped world. I stopped at a huge motel just before the Croatian border, but they wouldn't take any credit cards, and I didn't have enough dinars left for a room. Incredulous I crossed over, thinking things would be better in what I saw as a much more westernized country.
No such luck.
I pulled in at a motel along the highway, but they were in the process of closing for the night, and were not at all interested in providing any lodgings. I then drove in at a place where a bright neon sign with the words "motel" lit up most of the countryside, only to find that the place was, in fact, a restaurant. The third place I came to had rooms, and were more than willing to accept my VISA card, but for the fact that their credit card machine was broken. Finally, at the fourth place did I find someone both willing and able to provide me with a room. However, this was small and dirty and extremely hot and with no bathroom, so I just had to drive on, even if it was now well past midnight. Cursing Croatia and swearing never to travel outside Norway and the US again, I sped on through the darkness.
After a while I finally passed into Slovenia. Just beyond the border was a huge gas station where I could stock up on food & drink. Not only did they accept credit cards, the staff also spoke English. For the first time in days I felt I was finally in a civilized country. Sadly, one of the things that is often to be found in such countries is road work, and for several miles I was forced to drive at slow speed in narrow lanes. In addition a thick fog was setting in, doing nothing to improve on my murderous temperament. I don't think I can convey in words the hatred I felt against the world as such and the Balkans in particular that night.
Finally, I saw a sign for a hotel and pulled off the road. The establishment was a swanky looking one and I feared for my wallet. Fortunately they had some small bungalows that were slightly less expensive, and by now it was past 3AM and I was in no shape to argue, nor to drive on.
Day 6: The natives
The next morning I settled my bill (miraculously escaping without having to give up any vital internal organs) and drove off towards Maribor. In daylight, the Slovenian countryside is very pleasant. It's not as mountainous and wild as Austria or Switzerland, but still topographically varied enough to be both interesting and aesthetically pleasing. Small white farms and houses dotted the landscape, there were animals in the fields, the sun was shining - the whole trip was just one long tourist ad, and I was sold on it.
At a toll station (I was getting fairly tired of these by now), I picked up a Slovenian hitchhiker who was also going to Maribor. She was an experienced traveler who'd among many other things bicycled alone around Morocco. Yet, even she found my insane driving project too extreme... When I told her about the previous night's futile hunt for lodgings, she laughed and explained that the only reason most tourists think of Croatia as more westernized than Serbia is because we only visit the tourist resorts. The Croatian countryside was poor, uneducated and backwards according to her. Apart from holding more than a kernel of truth, her statement is typical of the Slovenian attitude to their former Yugoslavian countrymen. To most Slovenians, the rest of the old country is largely a backwater of unwashed peasants and brutes. Croatians are tolerated, Serbs are respected but hated, and the rest are at best pitied.
Just before the border with Austria, I stopped to get gas, figuring Slovenia had to be cheaper. As I prepared to commence tanking, I suddenly wondered if I was in the midst of some candid camera plot. A young blonde, dressed in a tight top and tight shorts, with a look the likes of Claudia Schiffer or Pamela Anderson would have killed for, started washing my car. I looked around to spot the camera, but all I saw was another blonde a few aisles over, washing another car. It dawned on me that this was probably some publicity stunt for the gas station, and a summer job for the girls. However, I was still utterly out of any currency and I proceeded to inform the girl about this. She made a pout and shrugged, but kept on washing. I turned back to trying to make the pump work, but there must have been a trick to it, because no gas came. Seeing my utter helplessness, she put the washing gear down and helped me start the tanking. As she bent down and grabbed the handle firmly, I can't be sure that I didn't make a slight whimper.
Anyway, taken in by this unexpected show of work ethics and helpfulness in the face of no apparent financial reward on her part, I asked if she wanted anything from the store. She brightened up a little and requested a Diet Coke, which I got her, along with the most expensive chocolate I could find in the station. When I got back we chatted a little, and she turned out to be an English student at the University in Maribor. Washing cars in a skimpy outfit was indeed her summer job, and I suspect she was raking in cash from both the locals and the numerous German and Austrian tourists passing through.
Day 6: Still not quite civilized
I drove on through the lovely scenery on the extortion-priced toll roads of Austria. It's a mighty purdy country, but I found it strangely backwards in some ways. For example, at a gas station I wasn't allowed to use my VISA card unless I bought stuff for more than some ridiculously high sum, which has escaped my mind at this time of writing. Both here and later that day in Germany, I found that ATMs were as likely as not to be out of order, and even in these supposedly western countries, decent English speakers were in surprisingly scarce supply.
Something else that was scarce in supply was open motels in Germany. I've bitched about this before - there are relatively few along the motorways. When I tried to find one for the evening, the first one was closed, the second was a hugely expensive hotel, and the third had no receptionist (only a bunch of rowdy Turks throwing a party in the lobby). I then stopped at a gas station, where I was given directions to a small town where they supposedly had lodgings. This being a Saturday evening after 10PM, everything turned out to be closed. I finally found a somewhat decently priced hotel not far from Berlin and spent the remainder of my waking hours laughing at a stupid Steven Segal movie (he is even worse when dubbed into German).
Day 7: The long trek home
I started out fairly early the next morning and drove pretty much all day. There's not really all that much to tell. I picked up a German guy north of Berlin, and he provided some entertainment until we reached Schwerin, where he was getting off. After that, the rest of the day was just one blur of traffic lines, ferries and the long boring journey up along the west coast of Sweden. The only real pleasure of the day was when I came to an all-night McDonalds along the highway... and they accepted credit cards. It's not often you'll hear me say this, but right then I was almost ecstatic at being in Sweden, which for all its faults is a fairly well organized and technologically savvy nation.
I crossed the border sometime around 2AM and was home in the wee hours of the morning. I had clocked almost 7,000 km (4,375 miles) in about 165 hours, which comes to a speed of more than 40km or 25 miles per hour, including the time I spent eating or sleeping or waiting for my car to be fixed. Insane, yes, but at least I could say "been there, done that".
For whatever that's worth.
Sunday, December 18, 2005
Wednesday, December 7, 2005
Apparently, some of my best stunts happen when I don't even intend to be mean. I was in a meeting with fellow English teachers today, and in making a point to a female colleague I used the old metaphor that "you can't be a little pregnant". Another teacher misheard, and - beaming sincerely - asked my colleague if she was pregnant.
The rest of the participants - cruel bastards, the lot of them - immediately started in with congratulations and jokes, while the poor woman was protesting wildly. I expect this to become a running joke over the next couple of days, maybe even an exaggerated rumor if I'm lucky *rubbing hands gleefully*
The rest of the participants - cruel bastards, the lot of them - immediately started in with congratulations and jokes, while the poor woman was protesting wildly. I expect this to become a running joke over the next couple of days, maybe even an exaggerated rumor if I'm lucky *rubbing hands gleefully*