The magazines that came into our house had titles like how to deal with your man during his mid-life crisis. The understanding I got from those articles was that a traditional mid-life crisis happened to males who thought their life was half over.
A mid-life crisis was evidenced by a radical departure from daily routine. In the most extreme example a man might run off with a strange woman. The articles were jovial and chummy. I liked where I was. To abandon my family for something else to my way of thinking was badness to the core. Still, I had to admit there was an allure in doing something by myself that was entirely different. I was almost forty-years old and by some calculations my life was probably half over. Even if I wasn’t in the right income bracket I was captivated by the idea. The notion of striking out on my own was there.
In those days I read the newspaper each day. The same week that I was having many thoughts about having a mid-life crisis there was a big story in the paper about Yugoslavia. It was written in 1986 prior to the ethnic fighting that erupted there. It was when post World War II Yugoslavia was still functional even though the political leader from that time was gone. The government he set up forty-five years earlier was beginning to end, but it was still together and the countryside and the cities were peaceful.
I was there most of the month of May. I took the sleek bicycle I won in the photography contest, and spent almost every day peddling around that country. That trip was the “mid-life crisis” I was supposed to have. I was determined to do something vastly different, and I did.
Yugoslavia appealed to me because a person from the United States could travel there with a small amount of money. I was prepared to sleep in the woods, but at the end of every day there was always a town with lodging, and hot food. Between towns there were numerous places to stop, rest, drink bottled water, or eat lunch. Even with the cost of transportation to Yugoslavia I probably would have spent more money jumping on my bicycle at home and pedaling around the United States for a month.
The interior of Yugoslavia was less traveled. One old building where I stayed had whitewashed walls inside and out. At that place when I stood outside in front and looked up I saw a white curtain from a window on the second floor blowing in the breeze. All five sleeping rooms were on the second floor, and there was one Turkish toilet among them. Many places away from the coast were like that, but on the Adriatic Coast it was like the time I woke up in a huge glass and steel building. That place was a modern hotel. Breakfast in the dining room was full of noisy people from Germany on a group tour. They were having fun. I stopped the person who moments earlier inquired if I wanted the package deal for breakfast, and asked him with the usual linguistic difficulty if the others were on a forced march or what? I understood him to say they were groups of Dutch and German citizens gibber jabbering back and forth in their respective languages. Then I remembered the day before seeing the great big stainless steel buses on the coastal highway.
That morning at the check out desk a hotel employee told the man ahead of me how much he owed in Deutsche Marks (German Currency). Eventually he moved over to sift through some papers, and it got to be my turn. The clerk said I owed so many Deutsche Marks. I conjured up just enough rudimentary French to say, “Que C’est Deutsche Mark?” (What is a Deutsche Mark?). He looked at me in a puzzled way and then looked down making no more visible or audible utterances. I repeated myself, “Que C’est Deutsche Mark?” I thought maybe if I talked a foreign language he would understand me, and if he thought I was one of the fun bunch maybe I would get a package deal. The man who had moved over to shuffle papers looked at me. Just as he was about to get involved in the conversation the clerk looked up, and said what I owed in the local currency. Being on the coast was like being in another country.
I got there on a Yugoslavian airliner. At the airport in New York City I spoke with a man who was going on the same airplane. He said he was born in a small town outside Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and for most of his adult life he lived in the South Western part of the United States where he worked in the control room of a nuclear power electrical generating facility. He was going back home to spend some time with his family.
He had gone back and forth many times. He told me, in the first few years he was nervous, that the Yugoslavian government wouldn’t let him return to the United States. He said he was more relaxed now, but he still worried. To him the fact he was first a Yugoslavian citizen meant he would always be one.
He said he sent some faucets to a friend in his hometown who was building a house. He said the faucets here were better than the ones made anywhere else. He said the way they turned on and off without washers made them better. We were waiting for the airplane. He said the tourist bureau was strong over there, and that if I was being treated unfairly just mentioning that arm of the government by name would instantly set matters straight. Then he told me about a newspaper story that appeared everywhere in that country shortly after the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. He knew about it because his parents sent the article to him. It was about a well-known American movie actor who was entertaining a group of friends in a restaurant there. The next day the celebrity called the Tourist Bureau, and said the bill at the restaurant was much higher than it should have been. The Tourist Bureau investigated the matter and as a result permanently closed the restaurant. The man sitting beside me in the airport said the celebrity was a U.S. citizen, but a Yugoslavian by birth like him.
Twice I invoked the name “tourist bureau.” Once at a restaurant in the mountains a short distance above Kraljevica, and once in Virovitica where I told the waiter the bill was too high and if he didn’t agree to call the police or the tourist bureau and let them settle the matter.
The time in Virovitica was early in my travels, but I had eaten enough meals to know how many diners (local currency) one should cost. That one was typical, but it cost three times the usual amount. The manager made a telephone call, but I don’t think it was to the police. I could hear him talking in Croatian back and forth with someone he knew. He didn’t know any English. When I ordered I pointed to words on a note pad, Sta Mi Preporucjete? (What do you recommend?). That is what I did most places. I could not communicate any other way. After his rather long telephone conversation he returned to the table and said I could pay the amount I said. After diner I pedaled back to the hotel where they said there was no room. It was the end of the day, and I didn’t know where I was going to sleep.
Virovitica was the largest town I was in not counting Ljubljana and Zagreb. It was where two major roads crossed near the Danube River and the Hungarian border. When I got there it was at the end of the day. I went straight to the hotel and asked for a room. It was a big hotel with an elevator. The room had no hot water while the price was quite high. I went back down the elevator with my bicycle and all my things. My habit was never to let the bicycle out of my sight. I was tired and hungry. I must have been the ugly American when I complained. The man gave me back my passport and indicated they had no rooms. I thought he was going to give me another room.
I turned around at the front desk to think what to do next. Close to the front desk there were four people on two dark red vinyl couches. A young man and woman sat on each one facing each other. The two men had button down shirts, open collars, and military haircuts. They spoke a Slavic language to each other. It was not clear to me if the two girls understood everything they said.
They were looking at me trying not to be rude. I thought that was decent of them to make the effort. I must have been a sight standing there holding that two wheeled machine, wearing black and blue synthetic fiber bicycle clothes. The girl on the couch closest to where I was knew some English, and probably told them about my noisy dialogue with the hotel clerk.
I wasn’t starring at them either, but I was aware of their presence. The girl was wearing a small, short, black dress. She turned her head and looked at me. Then she turned back around and leaned over to the man sitting next to her in such a way that I saw her long legs, her shinny brown hair, her thin waist, and her voluptuous lower end. Then she straightened. I felt tired and hungry at that point, and I thought that was going to be the first night I was going to sleep under the stars on a haystack.
I turned back around and asked the clerk where there was a restaurant. He made no effort to understand me. I got my pad of paper out and pointed to the Croatian word Gastonia (restaurant), he looked, and then he went on about his business without looking at me or saying anything.
When I realized there wasn’t any help coming from him I again turned around and stood there. The four people were talking among themselves. I walked to where the girl with all the softness was sitting. The four of them looked my way, and I nodded hello. I said to her, “excuse me, could you tell me where there is a restaurant.” She said something to the others. Then she stood up, and told me where one was in broken English. When she was waving her hands in the air, telling me the rights and lefts she no longer thought of me as a prospect. For those moments I could see who she was.
The restaurant where the bill was going to be so high was on the top of a slight hill South West of the hotel. On the way there I noticed some soccer fields to the left. I thought, if there was no place else I would sleep there. That hotel was the only lodging place in Virovitica.
During that trip the idea of being with another person the same way I was with Jenny was not going to happen. Distance plus being alone more than ever made me aware I was one of five people in a family. Being loyal was easy, although I didn’t consciously have that thought.
Jenny and I talked a long time about a baby sitter I took several hours to take home one night. It was me who brought it up. She brought it up again and again over the years. She always said how she blamed the girl for what happened when actually it was more me.
In front of the hotel there was a concrete terrace with round tables where people were sitting. The Government made it as nice as it could. I got a table to myself, ordered a beer, and sat back. When my glass was almost empty I thought again how I didn’t have any place to stay. Some people were chatting busily at the table next to mine. I leaned over and in Croatian asked them if they spoke English. If they did, I was going to ask them if there was any other place to stay. One of them indicated they didn’t. At the same time a man in a white suit turned in his chair and spoke in English. He was sitting at a table by himself with his back to mine. I had not noticed him. I told him how grateful I was that he was sitting there. He was a young person, and reminded me of the man who comes in at the end of the opera “Madam Butterfly”. I turned my chair half around and explained to him my conversation with the hotel clerk and my overall situation. He was from Dubrovnik visiting his parents who lived in Virovitica. He said he would ask them if I could stay there. We walked down a residential street away from the hotel. He talked about the many tourists in Dubrovnik, and said his parents lived near the hotel. We went past doors, windows, and solid wood gates in a continuous row of houses. There was an occasional streetlight suspended by two wires that came from each side of the street. They were off. There was daylight. The streetlights were open underneath, and I could see bare light bulbs in them. We went through one of the gates. Inside, it was a beautiful enclosed area with trees, grass and other plants. A house was in one corner and in another there was a corncrib.
I knew about corncribs even though they were part of history in the United States where now giant machines on wheels picked and shelled the corn. At home kernels of corn were stored in silos or in smaller round corrugated steel structures. Powerful electric fans pushed heated air from the bottom of the structure to the top. In that way moisture was removed.
Before then, a corncrib did the same thing. A corncrib was a small building with a floor several feet off the ground. It had a roof, and vertical boards on the sides spaced several inches apart. Wind as much as anything removed moisture from whole ears of animal corn stored there.
When I saw the corn crib in the corner of the yard I pointed to it and said, “Oh, you have animals.” He didn’t speak. His parents used that corn for food. The corncrib held the corn they would use that year.
Inside the gate he told me to wait while he went to talk with his father. His mother came outside to greet him and before he left he introduced me to her. She and I stood there on the grass fifty feet from the house. She was an older woman in dark clothes. I was holding my bicycle dressed in synthetic fiber. It was obvious we were not from the same place. I became painfully aware we could not communicate by words. Whenever I talked there was a blank look on her face. She didn’t understand a word I said. She looked toward the house to see if her son was on his way back. Then I reached in one of the canvas bags on my bicycle and took out a photograph of my three children. The picture showed all three of them looking at the camera, smiling. It was taken in our back yard in Ohio. They were sitting close together holding three manila ropes connected to a tire swing. The three ropes went into three evenly spaced holes around the side of the tire. It was a thick, fourteen and a half-inch house trailer tire. Overhead, out of sight of the camera, the three ropes were tied to a long rope that was fastened to a tree branch. It was a swing, but in the photograph it was just hanging there, still.
I held the picture half way between us and pointed to those three happy faces and then to me. When I looked at her I knew we were communicating. She knew they were my children in the United States. She took the picture out of my hand to look at it more closely. She said the same word over and over, and repeatedly pointed to Gretchen. Gretchen had rosy cheeks and was wearing a new dress and a perfectly round straw hat with a ribbon. I wondered what the woman was saying and if she had a girl.
Neither of us saw her son in the white suit coming. He walked up to us and said to me, “He doesn’t want you to stay here.” Then he spoke to her. She was still holding the photograph. She handed it back to me and said something to her son. She went toward the house. I noticed her husband busily doing something near the house. He never looked in my direction. When the woman left I turned and stood talking to the son. He abruptly left when his father called, and again he told me to wait there. It was starting to get dark. I could still see the lushness of green things growing everywhere inside those walls. After a short while the son came back, and he said if I went to the hotel they would have a room for me. I asked him how that could be and without looking at me, he quietly said his father worked for the government. They must have had a telephone.
When I got back to the hotel the same clerk was there. I asked for a room like it was the first time I was ever there, and like it was the first time I was ever there the clerk gave me one. It had hot water.
Waiting in the airport in New York City the man from the southwestern part of the United States had not talked for a long time. He was diligently going through a newspaper. When he folded it up and put it down he said it showed the most recent winning lottery numbers. Even though he lived and worked several thousand miles away, he regularly participated in the New York State lottery. He didn’t win that time, but by the way he talked, soon he would. There was a meticulous way he played the game.
We talked about someone who won the New York State lottery back in the days when that lottery was practically the only one. This someone won an enormous amount of cash and was on the news everywhere. Before that his job was changing light bulbs in a New York City sky scrapper. Three years after he won he was asked how it was going. One of the first things he said was, “At least I knew who my friends were.”
People who flew the airplane arrived, and soon after that the rest of us were told it was time to leave. Someone who worked for the airline stood by the door and looked at each person’s ticket. Before that another airline employee inspected the ticket and wrote down where to sit. An adorable girl was assigned to the seat next to mine.
The airplane was big. It was an American made, wide-bodied jet owned by a Yugoslavian airline. I had never been inside one that big. There were many empty seats. Few people were going to Ljubljana from New York that night. The plane was almost empty.
I thought the empty plane might have something to do with what went on a short while before. American fighter-bombers flying from British air bases bombed a building in North Africa where the political leader of Libya was thought to be sleeping. The American government said he was using “terrorist” means to achieve political goals. In the latest terrorist effort attributed to him a bomb went off in an American passenger airplane. It managed to land, but not before a tiny baby was sucked out the blast hole. When the Americans bombed his house they didn’t get him. He was reportedly sleeping in a nearby tent. Probably, he stood there in pajamas holding back the tent flap with one hand and with the other rubbing his eyes in utter disbelief as he watched bombs bursting in air and rockets red glare. I doubt he went back to sleep that night. His vulnerability must have become apparent to him. He and the Libyan government faded from the news.
The United States didn’t consider Yugoslavia a terrorist country. But it wasn’t in the same political camp. The two governments were friendly toward one another, but in that part of the world I didn’t think it would be prudent to wear a U.S. Army uniform to lunch. A political zealot might open fire on me with a Thompson submachine gun.
Also at that time there was a big industrial accident in the Ukraine region of the Soviet Union. That might have been another reason the airplane was nearly empty. Radioactive particles went high into the atmosphere. Some people died instantly. Many people died slowly. It was termed a disaster. Numerous reports said radioactive particles were invisible and if one entered a human body or the body of any living thing sooner or later it would die.
Yugoslavia wasn’t exactly far away from the Ukraine. I asked a person who worked around radioactive medical supplies every day if there was a hazard. She said I should drink only water bottled before the accident, and not to eat any salads.
The girl in the seat next to mine on the airplane was on her way home to Venice. That summer she worked for a man and woman in America taking care of their small children. She was flying to Ljubljana and going on the train through Trieste to Venice. She told me she met an Italian family at the airport. She said they were returning to Venice from a vacation in the Caribbean and were on the same airplane.
I never saw them except from a distance going through a baggage inspection station at the other airport. On the plane she got up and when she came back she said the father in that family had said she could sit with them and that she didn’t have to sit where she was. I think he was being protective of her. I understand why. The two of us were put in two seats together on a practically empty airplane. I was sitting by the window overlooking the wing on the left side. She was in the seat next to mine. When I walked back to my seat I noticed the whole airplane was dark. The only bright light came from two little reading lights above our seats. There were no people sitting near. I could see a few people sitting in the middle of the aircraft and along the other side. The Italian man probably thought the airline employee who assigned us those two seats should be court-martialed and shot.
I thought the lights should be on because we occupied the seats under them. I didn’t think they should be off with the two of us there. People with lights off sleep better. I was half asleep when she said she was going to another seat. She had turned back and forth the last time. In the morning she came back and we talked about where we were going.
I was beginning to be apprehensive about being alone in a strange land. I told her she could stay with me, and I would take her to the train the next day. She said she had to check with the Italian family because in New York the father had said he would take her to the train station in their car. She went back to where they were sitting, and in a few minutes she returned. She said he was going to take her all the way to Venice, which meant she didn’t have to take a train at all. I could tell she didn’t think it was a very good idea to stay with me in Ljubljana.
At the airport the girl and I said good-bye in an off-handed way. A few moments later when I was waiting for a bus I saw them all zoom off in a little foreign car that didn’t look so foreign over there.
All the money I had was in the form of international certificates guaranteed against loss. When I needed money during the trip I cashed them for the local currency. The first place I did that was at the airport. From behind a half open Dutch door a big friendly man who spoke some English made the transaction. I asked him how to get to the hotel, and he told me. He said the name of the hotel meant elephant. I waited for the bus to arrive. When it let me off downtown I had to walk a long way to the hotel. My bicycle and a few things were inside a cardboard box I carried.
I reserved a room the day I got in the country, and the day I left. The 18 days between I had no plans to be a particular place at a particular time. The room I got was in the front of the hotel. Two people were working on the roof of a building across the street carefully repairing some terracotta tiles. There was a bicycle race that afternoon. I watched the race from one of the open windows in my room. Many people were lining the street, and cheering each time the racers whizzed past. I went out there. I had never seen speed and endurance like those contestants had. I didn’t understand a hotel clerk when several hours earlier he looked at the box and asked if I was going to be in the race. In that race there should have been a clown riding an old fashioned three-speed bicycle equipped with a chromium plated horn and a wide motorcycle seat.
Late that afternoon I walked along the street. There was a small restaurant on a corner near the hotel. People in line were holding the door open. The people who really knew what they were doing ate there. The line went past a menu taped to the other side of a glass panel. When I was looking at it I understood nothing. I was able to convey this to a person in line behind me and he pointed to one item on the menu. Suddenly three other people got involved in my selection. However, none of them spoke English and I didn’t speak a word of Croatian. The line was moving quickly. When it was my turn a person in white restaurant clothes spoke. I assume he was asking me what I wanted. I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say. The person behind me said something. I paid some money, got change, and moved to the side like everyone else. I couldn’t recognize what was on my plate when it was handed to me by one of the people fixing food behind a glass case, but it was very good. It could have been unborn octopus for all I knew. There were small tables nearby and I ate there.
In the confusion I forgot to get something to drink. I did not know the words for beer or bottled water. I got up and went back to ask someone for something to drink. On top of the glass case there was a large picture of amber colored liquid. It looked just like beer to me. I pointed to it and asked one of the people busily preparing food on the other side of the glass case for a beer in English. He pointed back to it and I got the impression he was telling me to help myself. Finally from seemingly endless talk by the people who worked there I learned that place had no beer, and that the clear glass picture on top of the case was full of vinegar for anyone who wanted it. I wasn’t used to seeing vinegar in such a large picture. I didn’t try to communicate any more, and went back to my seat with nothing to drink. I felt like a completely helpless fool, even though the people in that place wanted to be helpful. Being tired didn’t help my chagrin. I went back to the hotel, took a bath, and went to sleep. The bathtub was on four legs in the middle of a large luxurious bathroom with a dark polished floor. I didn’t request anything special. That is what I got. During most of the night loud marching music was coming from loud speakers in the street. It must have been a holiday. When I stayed there on my way back there was no music blaring in the street.
The next morning breakfast was in a second floor area of the hotel. Other people who were not staying there came to have coffee and read the morning paper. Outside, in front, there were parallel parking places, and in the morning all of them were taken. A few of those cars were luxurious cars with chrome horseshoes attached to the grill. It signified the car got too close behind a horse and got kicked. Away from the cities I frequently saw horse drawn traffic.
People mixed their own morning coffee from two small ceramic vessels. One had super strong, almost concentrated, hot coffee, and the other had warm thick cream. It was exceptionally good. There were several rolls that tasted like they were baked that night. They had hard crust. A person could order other things, but that is all most people got.
After breakfast I put the bicycle together. I had bicycle tools with me. Plus, I had a spare folding tire, two spare tubes, a tube patch kit, and some spare spokes inside the frame.
The inadequate feeling I had about language went away when I got on my bicycle and started moving. I went to the tourist bureau office and a man there gave me a map of Slovenia that showed every road in detail. I planned to leave the next day on the road to Ig. The remainder of that morning I rode up and down streets. At one point I was on a hill overlooking a residential part of the city. I saw many irregular tile roofs in the morning sun.
It got to be the middle of the day. On a narrow side street people were sitting at round tables under large parasols. I didn’t need a clock to know it was lunchtime, but I went past that place. The street opened into a park. A man with a large stainless steel cart on wheels just like the ones in New York City was selling food there. When I rode my bicycle up to where he was I thought maybe he would have roasted chestnuts, but no, he was selling American hot dogs with bright yellow mustard and red ketchup. I had no trouble getting a hot dog. I was standing there straddling my bicycle eating the first one when three people came up to me. One stood in front of the bicycle and the other two, a young man and woman, were on each side of the front wheel. The one in front was a young American from Boston. He had long, loose, dirty, blond hair, and looked sweaty and content.
He said they were sitting at a table on the side street I passed. He said, “You’re American aren’t you?” I said yes, and asked how he knew. He said the valve stems on my bicycle were the kind only Americans have. We got into conversation. Meanwhile the other male said something in Italian to his lady friend. Apparently he considered I was properly distracted and directed her to go ahead. She commenced trying to open the handlebar bag. She was doing it in a coy sort of way. I looked down at her hand on the zipper. It never was easy to open. She couldn’t get it opened. The American said he was by himself bicycling to Northern Europe. He didn’t have a bicycle with him. I never asked him what he was doing with the two Italians. I suspect they were fugitives from Italy unsuccessfully trying to amend their wicked ways. The American said he started pedaling in Turkey. I asked him if he knew the language in each country he went through. He said he didn’t. I told him about the vinegar. I asked him how he managed to communicate. He said I wouldn’t get in a deep philosophical conversation with a Yugoslavian about the meaning of life, but that I could get whatever I needed by pantomiming. After that I didn’t worry about communication any more.
Just before I went to bed that night I made a telephone call home. I could make it from my room. One other time I telephoned home while in Yugoslavia. It was from a post office. That was the only place I could make that kind of call. It was unusual that I could do it from the room. It was nine o’clock at night in Ljubljana and in Cincinnati it was early in the morning. I was sure everybody would be out of bed in our house. The school bus was about to come. When the telephone rang it must have been a little bit early because I could tell it woke up Jenny. She wasn’t a person who jumped out of bed and hit the floor running. When she picked up the receiver I heard a raspy voice say, hello. After I identified myself I said what a great time I was having and she said in the same sleepy voice, “I’m glad you’re having a nice time.” She put emphasis on the word your. That and her tone of voice clearly said she wasn’t having any fun. She said the children were behaving badly and the night before she took them to her father’s house to “talk it out.” I quickly understood it wasn’t a good time to call. She didn’t ask me about any of the goings on at my end. As soon as I could I terminated the call. After I did I lay there in bed and thought what she said about the children’s conduct. I thought it was all a bunch of toro feces.
That morning I moved down the road with all the things I needed. Two canvas bags hung from each side of the back wheel. In front there was a handlebar bag where maps, a camera, money, necessary papers, and other things were. In the bags on each side of the back wheel there were dry socks, a rain suit, an insulated vest, one change of bicycle clothes, one set of civilian clothes, a hairbrush, Chap Stick, and other personal effects. My bicycle tools and parts were in a small pouch attached to the back of the seat. Moving, self-contained, from one place to another was a fantasy I enjoyed. I would need a moving van to transport all the stuff the five of us accumulated at home. I was aware of the difference. I have seen pictures of the past. A long time ago people on horse back traveled long distances across vast plains dragging all their possessions behind them on litters, some with papooses.
Late in the morning a front wheel spoke broke. It was the same spoke that got bent during the airplane ride. It broke close to the rim right above the threads. I had the tools and parts to make the repair. There was a nice rock to sit on in the shade beside the road.
I drank a bottle of water and rested. During that time not one car went past. It was a quiet road. In the distance there was a wooded hillside where a chain saw “rattled and snarled”. It stopped, and then for the first time I heard a real cuckoo bird. It sounded exactly like the clock. I didn’t think a creature like that existed. The bird was far away on the wooded hillside. It was loud like an owl. Over and over again it made the cuckoo sound. I heard that sound for the next fifty miles until I left that region.
At the end of each day there was a town, and each town had a hotel, some with as few as three rooms. I would eat; go upstairs with the bicycle under my arm and sleep. Most times I was the only one having supper. I found out why there were so many tables where I ate. A few hours after I went upstairs and fell fast asleep the place filled up with Yugoslavians. The town folk met there after the sun set and talked with friends over a beer.
The first time I knew of this was when, instead of going to bed, I went out to see the sights on my bicycle. When I returned I stayed downstairs to have a beer, and review maps. I was sitting at a large round table with empty chairs. Soon the place was full of people. When one of them spoke to me I said the word “English” in their language thinking it would explain everything. It was unknown to me that I was saying “British.”
A little town I came to had a hotel operated by several people who were like a family. There was an old spinster who took care of the rooms. There was a cook who ran the place, a waiter/bartender, a musician, and possibly a quasi-prostitute. The people there didn’t see many foreigners. The musician spoke some English. He came from Zagreb each day. He filled out the necessary papers on his knee. Then he put his leg down and looked a long time at my passport. On there it was written, “The United States of America”. He said, “OK I put ‘Born in the U.S.A.'”? About that time there was a popular American rock and roll song with that title. The musician knew it well and all the other American rock music. When he was finished I asked him about the town. He told me the person who put Yugoslavia together after World War II, and governed it for the rest of his life was born there. Other than that he said it was just like any other place.
Before I went up stairs to see the room I met the spinster. She was a small, older lady with a piece of cloth wound tightly around her head. She came around a corner while the musician was writing. She talked to him in Croatian. Her manner was forceful and it didn’t change when she turned to me. It wasn’t her concern that I didn’t understand anything she said. She spoke to me at length, and while this direct woman went on and on I asked the musician what she was saying. She stopped, and looked at him. He said she was saying the room had two beds and not to mess up the other one. In English I assured the woman I wouldn’t touch the other bed, and bowed to her graciously. She seemed satisfied with that response and busily went back around the corner from whence she came. The room was longer than it was wide with a high ceiling. The two beds were narrow with the side of each one against opposite walls of the room. Near the door there was a small, white enamel basin with a drain, one faucet, and a mirror. I shaved there, and washed the bicycle clothes I wore that day. They were fast drying. The socks were not. The next morning when I left I pinned them to the outside of a canvas bag on the bicycle. I wore loose fitting clothes to supper that night.
There were round wood tables in the dining room. The finish was varnish, but it was worn off from use and repeated cleaning. Someone came out of an adjoining room tying an apron behind his back. I was the only one there. He walked to the table and said something. I said the word for beer and then pointed to the words on a card I carried, “what do you recommend?” That method of ordering food worked well for me in most places, but not there. The door to the kitchen was propped open. The cook, the musician, and the waiter were conversing in Croatian. The cook sounded exasperated. His voice was loudest by far. The musician must have told him Americans like to eat fried food, because that is what I got. When my beer was almost gone the waiter came out with a plate of food. I asked him to please bring me another beer saying everything in English except the word beer. The plate of food was predominately fried mutton. When I was waiting for it and after the conversation in the kitchen died down I heard the thud of a mallet striking something soft ten or fifteen times in quick succession. After I saw the food I knew what it was. The cook was tenderizing the meat. I ate everything on the plate.
In the wee hours of the morning I had the worst diarrhea imaginable. The toilet down the hall was a Turkish toilet. I squatted over a hole in the floor. I never contacted any surface. I had to make several desperate trips there and each time my “rumpet was a trumpet”. The only other time I heard a noise of that kind with that magnitude was from a horse named Casey Jones when he was jumping high fences in the show ring. The first time I squatted over the toilet I heard a door opening down stairs, rapid footsteps, and the cooks voice. I was safely in position over the toilet, and had time to wonder what anyone was doing awake at that hour. Otherwise, the place was silent. The noisy Yugoslavians had gone home, and as far as I knew there was no one else upstairs. The first time I made a mad dash for the toilet the cook must have been startled awake by the American upstairs. Once he learned from subsequent sounds I was suffering from nothing more than “irregularity” he went back to bed. I felt fine that morning when I had coffee and bread for breakfast. I heard the cook again, this time in the front room. In his usual loud voice with great laughter he was telling some others about the previous night. I knew that because every so often he would force air through tight lips to make the gastric distress noise.
The night before when I finished eating the waiter removed the plate and everything but the glass of beer. The food wouldn’t take its effect for six or seven more hours. The musician came in the room and went to a platform where there were some electric guitars. After that he sat down at the table where I was and got a beer. Soon, someone else sat down with us. That person was friendly, but unlike the musician, he spoke no English. At first they talked sporadically back and forth in Croatian. Then the musician got his friend a beer, and said to me they were going to perform that night. He said there were others in the band that might show up. The sound of conversation and laughter was beginning to fill the room. The musician asked me where I lived in the United States, and said some day he would go to that country. He didn’t know where Ohio was. The best I could do was describe it as being in the middle. He didn’t say it, but I think he wanted to go where the music was like it was in a special place.
He knew the basic parts of the English language. I spoke deliberately and slowly so he would understand. In that way I said, “When you go to the United States come to Cincinnati, Ohio and you have a good time, number one American girl.” As it turned out I never saw the musician again after that night, but when I said those words a big smile came across his face. A moment later he talked in a serious tone to the friend. There were long pauses in the conversation. They were thinking. After another exchange the friend got up and left. A few minutes later he came back, and talked to the musician like something had been accomplished.
We were sitting amid loud conversation. The musician was to my right and his friend was across from me. Someone sitting in the empty chair would be facing the platform across the room.
When I turned my head in the direction of the platform I did not see or hear the girl who sat in the empty chair. She didn’t converse with the other two and they didn’t converse with her. She just sat there looking cute. The musician never said who she was. She never smiled or emoted freely. When I said something to her she made no audible or visible response except to look at the musician who said nothing. She was not one of the performers. They were in regular clothes. Her clothes would be regular in another part of the world. She didn’t put a glossy aqua colored purse on the table, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if she had. When I thought she was the musician’s idea of a counterpart for the number one American girl, the thought embarrassed me. There was a big misunderstanding.
When I was in college it was awesome to hear a stadium full of people shout over and over in unison, “number one.” Even a small boy in Vietnam knew the meaning of those words. It was a widely known American expression. To an American if something was “number one” it was not surpassed. The first day in Ljublana the sweaty American from Boston said language would be no obstacle for getting food, water, and lodging. He said any other discussion would have less certain results. I wanted to ask him more, but like the mad hatter he had to get where he was going on time. The longer I was in Yugoslavia the more I became aware I could not sit down and talk with anyone. When I said “number one American girl” I meant a date so he would have a good time when he visited. It was a casual remark, and I suppose in a general way he understood what I meant. At the time it didn’t seem significant that he knew the details, but I should have spelled out details. We would find some music, and he would have a better time if a female were with him. I wouldn’t be able to describe her specifically. How do you say in Croatian if he wanted to paint a tractor over and over again, a different color each time, she would never say what the color should be?
The musician and his friend got up to sing and make music. Two others joined them. The girl and me were alone. Once more I tried to talk to her and got the same blank expression. I looked at the tables behind me. There were beer mugs. Old and young people leaned forward in deep conversation. Everywhere in that room it seemed so wholesome except where I was. I didn’t know what she was doing there or who she was. It never occurred to me to buy her a beer. I didn’t, and she never got herself one. I don’t suppose it was very nice to leave her there, but that is what I did. I finished my beer and went to bed. Next, I ran to the toilet at 3 A.M.
In the little town of Lipik there was a place to stay that was connected to the house of a very wealthy Duke or Count who lived in another time. There were wide tile walkways with arches and arbors. It seemed many people, when they got there went no further. Behind glass doors children silently jumped in a large swimming pool and adults with white rubber caps on their head moved through the water without disturbing the surface.
Not long after the sun went down a musical group played in a great big room. Once it must have been the grand ballroom. The entire ornate ceiling was illuminated, but the musical group and the people listing to them were all at one end of the room. When the count was alive, whirling people probably filled the place. I sat by myself at a small table drinking a wondrous beer made in Zagreb.
No matter what kind of music the band played the people dancing held each other. I drank three beers in rapid succession to take away the agony of not being able to talk with anyone.
There was a large group of eight or more people at one table having a fine time among themselves. Occasionally, some of them got up to dance. There was a young woman at that table who never danced even though she seemed to be having a good time. When people beside her got up I could see there was nothing ornamental about her. Her dark clothes didn’t exaggerate any part of her. I don’t know if they were silk or rayon, but it could not be denied she was a lovely sliver of a girl. I walked up to the table and had no trouble convincing everyone there I was a dumb tourist from America. A young man sitting where I was standing popped up. He probably had three beers also. He slapped my back affectionately. He was feeling about as good as me. He said twice, “boom- boom Kadafy”. He was referring to the North African country the Americans bombed several weeks earlier. Apparently, he was speaking for the others. All faces, but the girl’s, seemed in agreement. She could have had an automatic rifle hidden somewhere outside, but not on her person. I could not tell if she was shy or just unfriendly. Since the person standing beside me was instantly my buddy I pointed to the girl, to myself, and then to the dance floor while saying in English, would she like to dance. He spoke to her and conveyed what I said. At first she didn’t move. He said something again and she got up. She was shy. We walked to the dance floor, and when I said something it was clear she understood nothing. When we danced I was overwhelmed. The custom was that I could hold her body close to mine. My one arm could go around her waist, and the other held her hand out to the side. Her other hand was on my shoulder. The sides of our heads were close, but they did not touch. I spoke to her, and when I did we looked at each other. Her eyes were dark as coal. I forgot we could not talk. Her head went to the side. I held her as close as I dared and we moved to the slow and easy rhythm of the music. When the music was over we were near the band. People crowded the dance floor. Before we parted I kissed the side of her head in a way no one on earth could see. That was not the custom. She did not look at me. We returned to our respective tables in a methodical way. We did not speak. We did not dance anymore.
In Zagreb I met a spy, or a counter spy, or a thief, or a plain-clothes policeman, or someone related to the order of things. The Tourist Bureau in Ljublana gave me a superb map of Slovenia that showed every road no matter how small. In Zagreb, which was in a different political region I tried to get a similar map. A lady behind a desk in that city said no such map existed. She looked at my bicycle several times when she was talking as if to size up what sort of tourist I was. She repeated herself to be certain I got the message, and then I said twice, “Someday when I come back you have map like this.” I was shaking the folded Slovenija map in my hand. Soon after that I became aware someone was following me. That person was watching when I ate lunch. I don’t know who sent him or if in fact he was sent, but when after several hours he was still behind me I didn’t think he was a common thief looking for an opportunity. On my way out of the city I went down a long, straight hill. There were some trolley cars, but overall it was much less crowded than any place I had been that day. The road forked. I stopped, turned around, and looked up the hill. Here comes the spy. He looks off to the side like I am no concern. At that point it is obvious we are both aware of each other. I wave hello as if he is simply another cyclist. He then stops beside me and we converse. He speaks fluent English. I don’t ask questions. I say I am on my way out of the city going no place in particular. Shortly after that he turns his bicycle around and pedals slowly up the hill. I watch until he disappears. He never once looks back to see which way I am going. I suppose he wasn’t being paid enough to follow me any longer, or maybe from our conversation he understood I had no political design.
There was a tendency in me to get to the next town without paying much attention to the countryside in-between, but along the Rijeck River there were places where I looked a long time. It might be a quiet main road high over an equally quiet river, or a shaded place beside the ruins of a building where huge stone blocks were half sunk in the ground.
It was drizzling, and it started to rain harder the day I went into a place that had a sign hanging outside. It wasn’t mealtime. There was no disguising I was a foreigner riding a bicycle. When I went inside and didn’t buy anything I might be a vagabond too. I bought a bottle of water. Sometimes being a foreigner was no fun.
In another place I stopped to rest on a bench located against the outside of a building. On the other side of the front door there was another bench. On it four young men were conversing. To the side, beyond them far off in the distance I could see a bright sphere above the trees. I got their attention, and pointing to it, asked them what it was. My manner more than anything else helped them understand what I was saying. They all tried to answer at once. I understood none of them. After what seemed like a long time of my being unable to comprehend, I heard the word “Sputnik”. That was the name of an object reported to be the first one propelled beyond the earth’s atmosphere, returned, and retrieved in one piece. Their side did it, and the shinny sphere out there was a memorial of that event. When it happened I heard much rhetoric about which side was the most technologically advanced. Years later a bunch of Yugoslavians and me were looking at it over the tops of the trees.
Everywhere I went it was a common sight to see a line of twenty or thirty people cultivating a large field by hand. Each of them always used the same tool. I bought one in the town of Kocevje the last day I was on the road. There was only one version made so I had no trouble finding it in a store. It was a combination garden hoe and pointed shovel. I also bought a wooden handle to make it complete. On a bench nearby I whittled and sanded to make the two pieces go together. At home when the tip got bent from some sort of misuse I hammered it straight. It was made of very high quality ductile cast iron. When I realized how well made it was, and that it could not be replaced, the Yugoslavia tool, as it became known, was retired.
On my way home in Ljubljana the Yugoslavia tool was strapped to a canvas bag on my bicycle. In the big hotel where I started it seemed out of place in the lobby even if it was a familiar sight to anyone living in that country. The manager of the hotel saw it and started talking in Croatian. He pointed to it several times. He never spoke to me, but to the other employees. They momentarily looked up, and quickly went back to what they were doing.
Along the sides of country roads I saw old people mowing the grass with scythes. Their bodies turned slowly back and forth as the long blade cut effortlessly through the long grass. A sweeping sound was the only sound. None of them were in a rush. They had done this many times before and would do it many times again. It was always the same. There might be ten of them altogether. Some would be standing where the grass was cut, holding their scythe upside-down, moving a sharpening stone across the blade in just the right way.
A man was sawing a log into boards in front of his house. I stopped on the road to watch. The log moved automatically back and forth, and each time another board was cut. A noisy gasoline engine powered the saw. After a long while he signaled for me to have a beer with him. He did that by waving his arm, and then tipping his head back, holding an imaginary bottle of beer bottom up. I replied by making a pedaling motion with my hands and pointing down the road. He acknowledged that he understood, and continued busily tending the saw. I was fascinated by how such a small saw, crude as it seemed, could do so much. Maybe he figured I stopped to see it work, and that was why he offered me a beer. Space age reflective cloth was attached to the bicycle bags. I was wearing synthetic fiber space age clothes. It was a pity I couldn’t go see his sawmill up close. He didn’t seem like a nut case, but under the circumstances I didn’t go in there.
Along the coast between Novigrad and Rijeka there was a line of mountains that went behind the villages and the highway. Out in the water there were three islands that extended practically that whole distance. They were named Pag, Rab, and Kirk. For several days I went from one island to the mainland then to the next island.
While the ferry was unloading and loading on the mainland I was on the upper deck looking at the sky, the land, and the water. One piece of human fecal matter was floating beside the ferry. The water was flat calm. On the deck below a crewman came out a door. I looked at him and he at me. He went to the side looking at what I saw in the water. Then he went away grinning at me and to himself.
Going from the island of Pag toward Karlobag on the mainland I could see it was green where the ground was flat, but where the mountains began there was no evidence of there being a single speck of soil up there. On the upper deck of the ferry I asked someone standing beside me why that was? The barren appearance of those mountains was common around there, but I had never seen such a sight. I hoped to understand just enough of his words to get the answer. I was surprised when he responded in perfect English, “Phoenicians came here and took the wood.” I leaned on the rail, and looked at the mountains. I remembered learning that long ago Phoenician sailing ships dominated the Adriatic Sea. When I turned around to ask him when that was, he was going down metal stairs to the deck below where all the cars were.
On the mainland a group of people from France did a play in French. The audience of a hundred people sat on folding chairs. I was one of them. The other people understood what the actors said and laughed often. I suppose it was a good play. Afterward, outside, on a rock wall I sat talking with a Frenchman who came with the others. He knew a small amount of English. Neither of us really knew who the other person was, and for some unknown reason we talked about international spies. When the conversation ground to a halt we each got up. I went to get another beer, and I saw him no more.
Unlike the interior of the country, on the islands there were many people who spoke English, and they weren’t necessarily from English speaking countries. There were “car camps” where people on vacation lived in trailers or vans equipped with beds and running water. They went to sandy beaches during the day. I met a group of young Germans who said they were all going to a dance club that night. They invited me to go with them. It was like the places at home with loud amplified music. The lights were turned down low. It got crowded. I was having a fine time hopping down the bunny trail. In the late hours of the night I went to get another beer. Four huge Yugoslavian males stood shoulder to shoulder in front of me. I would guess they had been there several decades. It was rather obvious I wanted to get through. When I came up to where they were they turned around in unison like the Rockets and deliberately blocked my path. An altercation with local people wasn’t my idea of a good time. I stood there looking at the backs of those four monsters, amazed at their size. I did an end run around all of them without exchanging words or stating a purpose. Afterward, I didn’t want to admit to myself there was some hostility in the room directed toward me. Somehow it was not the same from then on, and soon I left. Double doors were opened, and outside there was an empty terrace. The only light on the terrace came from the room where everyone was. A low wall bordered the terrace. I went to the far side and sat on the wall. A manager type walked a few feet beyond the doors and looked back and forth like he was checking on something. He saw me, but didn’t look at me. He went back inside. Those four people and the night put me in a defensive mode where all the little men inside me were running to their battle stations. After a few more moments when no one else came outside I spun over the wall and slipped into the night.
When I got off the ferryboat on one island I saw a lone sheep standing on a rock the size of a table. By all standards it was a very odd sight. All the cars had gone ahead of me. The land was semi-arid. There were rocks like that one everywhere like it was a crop. From the ferry landing the road went straight between two low hills, and then it curved around the next hill. I was almost to the turn when I saw this animal standing motionless facing in my direction. It was a stones throw away from the road. I stopped to make sure it was real. Why hadn’t anyone seen it? Maybe they did and the thought of touching it or getting involved with it would be too much disruption for them. It didn’t show any sign of distress. I looked back in the direction of the ferry thinking help would come from there. It was far away and if I went back, even if I was able to explain help was needed, even then, they would not leave what they were doing to help a dumb animal. I pedaled away perplexed as to how that sheep got there. It couldn’t have got up on that rock by itself. Did a misguided shepherd put it there? It would slowly die in the hot sun. Was the animal diseased? Why wouldn’t the shepherd kill it quickly? Why put it up on that rock? The whole thing was strange.
Five minutes later the road got flat, and I was moving along at a good pace. Up ahead, close to the road a woman was standing amid a small number of sheep. I stopped to tell her about the one sheep. She didn’t speak English. After putting my arms in the shape of a boat bow, and braying like a sheep I think she understood the basic what, where, and when of what I was trying to say. She said the word “Ka-put?” I understood that to mean “dead” in German. I shook my head no and said the word,”no”. I then proceeded down the road. Did she understand me correctly? It probably wasn’t her sheep. She had no transportation that I could see. The whole thing about that sheep was strange.
Going away from the coast toward Ljubljana I pedaled uphill for more than half a day. Before that a strong wind blew without letup. The rushing noise was the only sound I could hear. I asked someone how long it would last thinking they listened to the most recent weather report. He answered, a few more weeks. He said two mighty gods caused the wind. The story was legendary. It had been the explanation for centuries. The truth of the matter was not a concern to him.
The sprockets on the crank, and the cluster of sprockets on the rear wheel did not come with the bicycle. Before I left Cincinnati I installed new ones that provided lower gears. Lower gears meant easier pedaling. A small third sprocket up front was the most noticeable change. It was developed for the off road “mountain bike”. It was so low a gear that when pedaling fast, the bicycle would move slower than a person could walk. I named it the “wimp gear”. I was in that gear the whole time I went up that mountain. The road went back and forth, but it was still steep. It was like none other I traveled.
A few cars went past. One of them stopped a short distance ahead of me. It was a tiny European car with an equally small utility trailer. I remembered seeing that rig at the bottom of the mountain when I got water. This time the driver came around a curve in the road, passed me, and jammed on the breaks. I didn’t like the idea of getting a ride from a stranger on a lonely mountain road, but I could use the ride. When I got near to where the little car was it left. The whole time he was stopped he was looking back over the seat. All that time I kept pedaling the same speed without making any acknowledgment of his presence. I should have made some salutation of some kind.
On a busy road away from the coast trucks were rolling back and forth. In the middle of the afternoon I stopped at a restaurant beside the busy road and ordered a bottle of water from the waiter. Direct sunlight came through high glass windows and covered the table where I was. In the main area there were no windows. In there six truck drivers in one booth were the only ones in the room. Their trucks were parked outside. I could not see them, but they could see my table. On it was a large greenish colored glass bottle of water and a drinking glass. There was no mistaking bottled water for something else. It was the same everywhere. They weren’t near where I was, but because we were the only ones there, when one of them spoke loudly the words “Engliski” and “pevo”. I figured they were saying something to or about the only other person there, me. They were like American cowboys in a television drama about cowboys. I’d get off a stagecoach from the East Coast wearing an English suit. I walk into the Dodge House Saloon holding my round felt hat, sashay up to the bar, and order a sarsaparilla. All the men laugh but not Miss Kitty.
When I got up to leave I went inside where they were. There was a question on a few faces. They didn’t expect I would come back to where they were. I pushed my stomach out and patted it with both hands. I said, “molto pevo, molto pevo, m-o-l-t-o pevo.” Pevo was the word for beer in Croatian. Molto meant “many” in Italian. Then I made the pedaling motion with my hands, and pointed straight ahead. That was an explicit way to say I was on a bicycle. Again, I said the word “pevo” while putting my two palms together, and holding them against my cheek like I was sleeping. They seemed to understand. I was one of the boys. Without further words I left. About ten minutes later down the road one of the trucks passed me. The driver honked his horn twice and looked out the back window. He waved at me as he passed.
I had a room in the big hotel the day before the plane left Lubinana. The people there saved the bicycle box I brought with me. Late that afternoon I packed the bicycle and other things.
Earlier that day I rode around streets in Ljubljana. An art gallery with field stone stairs had a piece of driftwood for sale. An ice cream parlor where people were standing beside high, small, round tables had an announcement on the wall that seemed to name the time and place of some artful event. A young woman with short dark hair, wearing black silk pajamas, who probably didn’t speak a word of English, leaned on one of the tables. One of her arms was lying flat on the table, and the other was holding up a melting ice cream cone. The elbow of that arm was on the table. She turned her head sideways to lick the drips around the edge.
There were no big stores, only little shops, and the one I went into accepted the American credit card I had. I bought one thing for each child and a few things for Jenny.
That night I walked to a movie house and saw an American movie with Croatian words on the screen. The movie was in English. Not to need to read the words and understand what was happening was an odd feeling. The movie was about an America who left his home in America. The last words are he is going home to America. In the movie a coal miner says to him after being pushed from the path of a runaway coal car, “Who you trying to save?” And in another place the American says, “It is easy to be a holy man on a mountain top.” And in still another, “I got another chance at life. I don’t want to waste it on a big house, and a new car every year, and a bunch of friends who want a big house and a new car every year.”
In New York the taxi driver was looking for the terminal of the airline that would take me back to Cincinnati. He zoomed around the circle and at one point rolled down the front passenger window and yelled to someone, who was working a short distance away, “Where is TWA domestic?” The person responded with some direction and, again away we zoomed. If the taxi driver asked for directions like that in Yugoslavia he would probably be ignored. Every encounter began with some sort of expression indicating personal regard. To speak so directly would be thought of as rude.
The first day at home I tugged on Jenny’s bathrobe in a direction that led into a room where I had lit more than the usual number of candles. We both sat down close to each other on a small sofa. I was half facing her on the edge of the seat. Within reach on a low oval table were two wineglasses and a bottle of wine. I took a gulp, and she did too. She was sitting back on the sofa. I leaned toward her and kissed her lips. Our lips were the only parts that touched. One of my hands was on the arm of the sofa and the other hand was on the other side. I carefully pushed the table further away and got down on my knees between her knees. Again, I kissed her the same way. Both of us tried to get more out of that kiss than any other one. I told her to slide down further in the couch and put her arms over her head. I untied her robe and opened it to each side. I pulled her down further by her bent knees. Her legs held up that part of her that was off the sofa. I held her head between my hands, and kissed her many times. I began moving my mouth and tongue over her breasts, and at the center of them. She was warm, but the warmest place of all was between her legs. I sat cross-legged on the rug, put both my hands on her rump, one on each side, and lifted her up. I moved my tongue where it caused the most excitement. We stopped, sat up, and took more gulps of that wine. She asked me if I was going to take my clothes off. I stood up and kicked off my shoes. I popped a few buttons on my shirt. It took me a few seconds to get naked. When I sat back down her robe was on the floor. I said my favorite point of view was to see her beautiful heart shaped bottom in the air. To accomplish that I told her to turn around, put her knees on the sofa eight to twelve inches apart, fold her arms on the back of the sofa, rest her head sideways on them, and arch her back. I leaned over and kissed her everywhere including the hot place. A short while later we both got on the floor. Her back was on the rug and I was on top of her. We moved with such vigor, it seemed the whole house shook. Finally I got up on my knees. We sat back, and drank the rest of that wine.