When I entered the train cabin the elderly woman continued to smile and I continued to smile. Her smile was big, warm, and friendly and mine was well, big and goofy, but sincere. I stood there, just inside the door of the train cabin, my eyes locked on to the eyes of a little old Yugoslavian woman who at the time looked like she might have lived through both World Wars and a few Russian Czars in her time. Her smile was so comforting, like the smile of a dotting grandma – endless in its love for you. Endless in its understanding and acceptance of you. Endless in its thankfulness to be with you. Endless in the safety caring it fills you with. These were the rush of thoughts and feelings that rolled over me with each passing moment I stood there smiling back. I didn’t want to take my eyes off of hers as to do so risked losing the strange feelings flooding me. And then a thought came crashing into my mind…”are we having a fucking Smile war right, now?” Now, I can’t say how many Smile wars I had had up to this point. But I was no punk, I’d been in what military veterans call “The Shit” when it came to Smile wars. No doubt, you have been in a few too. You never see the Smile war coming, it just fucking happens and this shit can go down anywhere and Smile War Veterans know this. You could be at a stop light and glance over and BAM! A fucking Smile War is on with the driver of the car next to you. The lights turn green, cars start honking, everyone else in front has already accelerated away from the intersection, but not you and neither has ‘the other side.’ Someone has to lose. Someone will break contact, break the smile, break the connection and drive off or walk away, or glance down or up or to the side. The defeated will try to play it off as though they had no choice to break off their smiling. But we all have choices, you’re no victim, it’s your fucking smile you can use it or lose – that’s your decision. Don’t blame it on life circumstances or the actions of others around you or the 17 pissed off drivers behind you. A Smile war can pop-off at the park, in places of worship, in the waiting room before your yearly colonoscopy. Anywhere! You think I knew I was going to be in a Smile war in some European train with, of all people, an old frail looking woman who by all signs looks to have been born about the time of Jesus? No man, I never saw this coming and just like that I looked away…Damn you old Yugoslav woman!
I tossed my pack up on the metal rack above my bench and then locked my bag to one of the rack’s bars just in case the Smile Assassin made any attempts to run off with my things while I slept. The bag was only a touch shorter than her and surly was two times her body weight, but I refused to underestimate this woman any longer.
With my back to her, I gathered my composure so she could not have the satisfaction of seeing the crushing disappointment that comes with defeat and I turned around and sat down letting out a rather large sigh of relief. The bench was softly padded and between the apartment room floor I woke up on, then being thrown around in the backseat of a Hungarian taxi, only to be followed up by crashing out on the dusty concrete of an obnoxiously loud international train station, my seat in this train felt like I was resting on soft white puffy clouds. Looking out the window there wasn’t much to see as the train remained parked in the station for sometime. I took a mental inventory of my body given how only a few hours ago I was experiencing what would be the first of many European hangovers. I’ve had some doozies before, but they were American hangovers and those seemed to pale in comparison from the many I would have in countries like Rwanda, The Congo, Haiti, Northern Greece and Albania to name just a few. I’m not sure what these countries do with their booze that we Americans don’t, but you’d be wise to be careful. In that moment however, I felt like a million bucks when compared to how I was feeling earlier. I pulled out a map of Yugoslavia and a long outdated “Travel to Yugoslavia” tour book and began to read up on things. I didn’t have any idea what I should be looking for with the map or the book, but I thought looking like I was educating myself was a good look to have at that moment. I remember trying to figure out the distance between Belgrade, the Serbian capital and Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. It is measured in kilometers and I hadn’t a clue how to convert them into miles. The travel guide maps had a scale and I was able to figure it out to an approximation, but resented the fact that Europeans used a metric system rather than the easier American measurement system.
After what seemed like forever the train jerked slightly forward and the steel wheels began to slowly churn on the long metal rails that would carry me on my way to war. I had waited to stretch out on my bench seat concerned that like me, others would get on the train and find no place to sit or stand for that matter. I could only assume that someone else, faced with the problem I had been faced with when I boarded, would walk train car to train car until they found this same empty train car I had finally found, but no one did. What short-cited fools I thought. If they could have had the brilliant idea I had had they could have found a soft place to sit for what would end up being a 12-14 hour ride to Belgrade. Once again I felt pride in having found a solution to the issue of overcrowding. I thought I must either be brilliant or lucky and steeped in my youthful, ignorant pride, I settled on how brilliant I was. For the first 30-60 minutes the view outside our train window was of city dwellings tall buildings that looked like either business offices or apartment buildings. The buildings grew shorter and shorter until they became single family dwellings the farther we got from the more center of the city. Soon enough we would be in the countryside and there it would feel like I had traveled back to a time that felt more like the beginning of the century rather than the tailend of the one. Tall fields of soft yellow grass swayed in the breeze as we reached what appeared to be full speed. With no facts by which to decide, I determined that the fields of tall yellow must be wheat. A train passing through acre after acre of wheat seemed to be a nice portrait to paint in my mind then and now, so they were wheat fields as far as I’m concerned.
My elderly companion sat in silence reading a book. She had a large purse that was big enough to hold a small child and she would reach into it from time to time looking for one thing or another. Despite the warmth of a mid-afternoon June day the incoming breeze and the shade from the hot sun that the train car provided was enough to bring a bit of a chill if not properly dressed. The old woman removed a checkered hand-sewn blanket from her carry bag and laid it across her lap and pulled a thin wool button up sweater she had been already wearing a little tighter around her chest. I waved my hand ever so slightly to catch her attention and used hand signals and some abbreviated sentences to ask her if she would like me to close the windows. She shook her head no, waving her own hand slightly to convey that she was okay. Thinking she was lying just to be polite I stood up, pressed the window locks ever so slight and drew the window up until it locked into place. It was still open, enough to allow the air in the car to circulate, but not as much as it had been. I sat back down, looking at her to see if she approved. She smiled and her eyes conveyed to me her thankfulness. This act seemed to open the door to get to know each other.
“I am Thoooomas,” I said slowly and loudly pointing towards myself.
She pointed to herself and gave what I believed was her name which I have no idea what it was then or what it is now. I opened my Yugoslavia travel book and thumbed to the back of the book where there were several pages of English to Serbo-Croatian translations. You know, things like, ‘hello, where is the bathroom’ or ‘hello, I would like a drink of ________,’ or ‘how much is _____________.’ I tried to find words and phrases that were relevant to the moment, but no matter how hard I tried to pronounce the phrase or word I was trying to convey I absolutely butchered her language. At first she tried to understand what I was attempting to say. She would lean forward towards me as if I had not spoken loud enough – something I’m rarely accused of. When leaning forward didn’t help her she would stare directly at my mouth in an attempt to read my lips. Her eyes communicated her serious attempts to understand me. I would in turn review the phrase or word in the book and try to say it again even louder and slower.
“Hello, I am fi-ne, How. Are. You. Tooo-day?” I would say. This would be followed by a clear expression of confusion from her.
“HEL-LO. I AM FI-NE, HOOOOW. ARRRRE. YOUUUU. TOOOO-DAY?” I would try again. She was still confused.
God bless her for trying so hard and for so long. After five or six attempts at different words or phrases, the little old woman was beginning to lose her ability to keep a straight face. Whether it was the ever growing sound of my voice or the ever dramatic hand motions I had begun to implement in my attempts to communicate my point or idea, or it was the contortions my mouth lips and face were surly making as I tried to make my tongue formulate letters and words I had zero understanding of. She finally burst out laughing, embarrassed by her inability to contain her laughter she jerked back into her seat, breaking eye contact with me and throwing her gaze out the window of the train into nowhere. Her aged hand and knotted fingers flew to her mouth in a futile attempt to hold back the next outburst of laughter fighting to burst out as a shade of rouge swept across her pale skin tone. I sat up a bit trying to regain my composure as I emotionally moved from a place of strained, focused, effort to bewilderment, shock, and above all embarrassment. Being caught by surprise by this little old lady’s sudden burst of laughter I was unable to take my eyes off the woman. My mind was racing to determine what I had said that was so fucking funny. Did I mistakenly say ‘how are your hairy armpits today?’ What in the hell did I say that would warrant this embarrassment? The old woman broke her forced stare into nothingness glancing sideways at me to assess my reaction. Whatever look I had on my face, which surely was eyes wide, jaw dropped, caused her to burst out in laughter a second time through her clenched jaw and pursed lips and began with sputtering as her lips tried ever so fiercely to keep her childish laugh from escaping. The sound of her sputtering was enough to make her laugh even more hysterical as she surrendered to any idea of trying to hold back the tidal wave of lovable noise coming from deep within her. She threw both hands over her face, folded in half burying her face in her lap. Shock and embarrassment slipped away as I watched this little old lady totally lose control of herself and the warmth of happiness came over me. I began to smile slightly. My smile quickly turned to a large grin, the kind where your teeth show despite the deep insecurity you feel when you know you’re flashing a toothy grin. And then a chuckle came out of me. Then a childish chuckle as the whole scenes started to take hold in my mind. Then I laughed at the thought of what I must look and sound like sitting here trying to say something in a language I had no comprehension of. Then a deep laugh as this entire journey I was on came into view in my mind’s eye, “what in the world am I doing and whoever thought I would be here in this moment?” Then I burst out in laughter, which stood on the verge of hysterical laughing as tears began falling down my cheeks. She lifted her face up from her lap and looking at each other we both burst out in another round of ‘can barely-breath’ howling. For a moment I was no longer seeing a frail little old woman, but instead I was seeing back to when she was a young lady who knew it was not polite to laugh at strangers, but was incapable of stopping herself from doing so. She had once been a beautiful young woman and time and the hardship of life had taken its toll on her, but in this moment a side of her was revealed that she could not withhold. It was powerful and moving and special and I knew in that moment for however long this train ride was going to be, I had met someone special and we had become friends.
Sometime went, how much I’m unsure – I had lost track of time between attempts to try and speak a word or phrase or falling lost in daydreams as towns and fields sped past.
There was a knock at the train cabin door followed by it immediately swinging open. There stood a tall burly looking ticket taker. Standing at what had to be just under six feet tall and a solid 220 or more pounds the ticket-taker nearly had to turn sideways to come in. I was in awe for I had never seen a woman this big in real life. She wore a train uniform including a sharp uniform cap. With a leather strap across her chest the ended at a firm thick leather case. She gave me a suspicious once over before turning and speaking to my companion. The old woman reached into her large bag and drew her train ticket presenting to this Hungarian hulk of a woman who punched holes in it with something that simply looked like, well…a hole puncher. I began rummaging through my pockets in a bit of a panic as I couldn’t remember if I had stuffed my train ticket back down my pants in my albeit secretive as well as awkwardly accessible money belt. After the taxi incident the last thing I needed was a similar ‘train incident’ where by unzipping my pants gets me thrown through the relatively small window of a moving train.
By the grace of God my train ticket was in my back pocket. Unfolding it and handing it to the giant woman (think male Russian Olympic Deadlift Champion then when you have that image in your head me he a she and that’s who’s standing in front my arms crossed to taping). She looked at my ticket and immediately made the demand “Out!” pointing to the train car behind the one I was in – the one which I had to damn near bodysurf over to reach the nice empty comfy one I was now in. Assuming the ticket-taker must not be aware of the absolutely packed cattle car she was now demanding I go to, I thought I should try and fill her in; “Many, many people’o are packed too much in there’o,” adding hand signs to ensure she could understand this intel I was providing her. “You OUT!” she barked again. I really need to learn a language, people don’t understand the important shit I tell them, I thought to myself. “Unsafe’o back there’o – so many people’o,” I tried again. Her eyes nearly bulging out of her head, “you not pay! Out!” This time her demands were followed by a step towards me and for as big as she was and for as small as that train car was that single step put her directly over top of me. “Oh, okay,” I reached into my pocket and pulled out a $5 dollar bill, it was the last of my cash. I slowly lifted it up towards her as one does when giving a treat to a large dog showing lots of teeth. “NO! OUT!” She once again barked. I looked up at her with the biggest big brown puppy eyes I could muster and she pointed her arm sharply towards the train-car behind us. I began to stand up, shoulders sucken downward and the look of defeat smeared across my face. The Hungarian Hammer had to step back just so that when I stood up the top of my head didn’t hit the underside of her jaw. I turned to unlock my bag from the rack having the flash of an idea to pretend I had forgotten the combination, but I abandoned the idea just as quickly as I knew she would just chew the metal lock off and then I’d be without a lock. At this moment the old woman sitting in the car with me spoke. I turned to look over my shoulder and noticed the surprised look on the Hungarian Husky’s face. The old woman spoke a second time and while I didn’t know the language it sounded as if she had repeated herself. I turned fully around and my little frail friend motioned me to sit down which I did gladly. The frail woman once again reached into her large almost magic like bag given all different things she seemed to pull out of it and out came a long faded black leather wallet or I guess satchel or whatever the hell you call the thing that carries women’s money. She thumbed through notes of different denominations and handed a well selected choice of bills to the Hungarian Haymaker who in turn counted the bills, reached into her leather satchel to make change and then made a bunch of marks, stamps, and hole-punches on my ticket before all but throwing it back at me. The Hungarian Home Wrecker spun around sharply, turned a bit sideways to fit herself through the cabin door and then slammed it shut. My elderly friend and I sat quietly looking at each other and then I puffed my cheeks out and bulged my arms out to my sides and dipped my shoulders side to side to mimic the enormous woman storming off. Then we burst out in laughter. Rather than try to say it, I turned to the Serbo-Croatian section of my travel guide and circled the word “grateful” and then handed it to the elderly woman. She smiled, gave me a wink, and handed the book back to me.
It couldn’t have been too much longer after the unwelcome visitor had come and gone that I began to feel my eyelids becoming heavy. The warmth of the day, the cool breeze gently blowing in through the opening in the window and the immense range of emotions I had felt overtook my busy brain and I fell off to sleep.
How long I was out I do not know. While I couldn’t see the sun I could tell by the burning orange color out the window that it was low and it couldn’t be too much longer before it would be getting dark. I wasn’t entirely sure what woke me from the deep sleep I had been cozied up to, but I could tell the train was slowing down. Assuming we must be stopping in another small village I lowered the window and stuck my head out to get a better view. To my slight surprise there was no village. All I could see as the train grew slower and slower was a small building. Thinking nothing of it I sat back down and shrugged my shoulders to the woman across from me. She stood up and looked and then sat back down and reached into her large bag to withdraw her passport. She showed it to me letting me know that whatever this was I was going to need my passport, which I retrieved from inside my pants.
The train had long since come to a complete stop and we sat there doing nothing for what felt like an eternity. I had already gone to the bathroom twice, I had looked up the information on the youth hostel I would be staying at in Belgrade later that night. I had pulled out my trusty ‘press badge’ hoping I would need to flash it to someone for some reason. I had also rummaged through my pack to locate the hard brown envelope that carried my officially faked ‘letter of introduction’ written by “my managing editor” wink, wink. My hunch was this must be the border between Hungary and Serbia and that someone(s) was checking passports. Based on the number of vagrants I had waded through in the train cars behind me I figured we’d all be dead of old age or starvation by the time everyone’s passport was reviewed.
A while longer and then I could hear footsteps in the walkway of our train car and soon our door opened and there stood two men. One was heavy set and the other skinny as a rail – my first thought was the border checkpoint was being run by Laurel and Hardy (Google it). They took the elderly woman’s passport first. They looked at the picture inside of her passport and then at her, then back at the picture then back at her. They flipped through several of the pages looking for what I wasn’t sure and then simply handed it back to her. I handed them my passport and once again got the once over from head to toe. They took my blue bound book and seeing that it read “United States of America” on the front they both shot a look at one another. They opened it up and looked at the picture and at me, back to the photo then at me. I noticed then that they seemed to have stiffened up a bit. The suddenly stood straight up with less sloach in the appearance. They had walked in seemingly unfriendly, but now they were scowling as they compared the passport photo to the real version sitting before them. They flipped through the different pages just as they had done for the elderly lady. Then they spoke; “What is your reason for travel?” Their English wasn’t bad, I mean it wasn’t great, but it was far better than my Serbo-Croatian. “I’m a journalist,” I responded excitedly because FINALLY I got to say it to someone in some official capacity. I had been dying to start saying it – to start playing the part. “You’re a journalist?” the heavier set man asked. “Yes, I’m a journalist from America,” I said with a level of confidence that even caught me by surprise. “Why are you here?” He asked. “To tell people in America about your war,” I answered. With that the Serbian border guard tucked my passport into his shirt breast pocket and said, “You’re coming with me!” I shot a glance to my elderly friend half expecting her to say something, pull something out of her giant bag like a fucking cake and make this all go away, but she looked at me nervously. Seeing my confusion, she spoke up. I’m not sure what she said of course, but the skinnier border guard shot her a fierce glare and while nowhere near fluent in any language, what he did say sounded harsh, intimating and by her reaction was something like, ‘you shut the fuck up old woman!’ She sat back in her seat and looked down at the floor. I stood up ready to go with them. “Your bags?” one of them asked, pointing to my pack and my super not awesome camera bag. “Yes,” I said. “Bring them now!” said the heavier one. Well that order got me thinking, why in the world is this guy keeping my passport, pulling me off the fucking train and ordering me to bring my bags? I unlock my bag, sling it over one shoulder, then the other. I grab my camera bag and sling it over my head and across my chest and I follow the two men out into the train car walkway. With one in front of me and the other behind me they march to the steps leading off of the train. ‘This all seems a bit dramatic,’ I think to myself. ‘They probably do this to a bunch of people on the trains each time they come through to act cool or make a point to anyone who travels this route back and forth. You know they’re wanting to look tough or something. I bet there’s a ton of people outside the train getting the ‘business’ by a couple of border guards who when they enlisted had envisioned the Serbian version of Navy SEALs, but they were flunkies and got stuck with a shit border assignment for the duration of their enlistment and they’re trying to add some action to what is otherwise a really shitty job. Yeah, there are going to be 10 or 20 other passengers standing out here with their shit’…I stepped off the train swiveling my head left then right to see all the other poor bastards getting hauled out here. Nope…Just me.
As I follow behind one of the border guards, I feel something strange. I feel the sense that someone is watching me. I turn back towards the train and see the elderly woman half hanging out the window of our train car and she looks…well shit, she looks really fucking scared for some reason. The heavy set guard behind me pushes me forward, not expecting it I’m off balance and I stumble forward able to get my feet back under me so I don’t actually fall to the ground. As we are about to enter what I thought had been a small building when I had seen it while we were slowing to stop is now clearer to me and it is far more ‘military bunker’ than it is a ‘building.’ I glance back at the train one last time before stepping through the doorway and see not just the elderly woman, but lots of heads are now sticking out the train windows watching me being marched off. Once again, el Hefe shoves me from behind and I stumble forward, again I catch myself.
The bunker/building is dark. The outside was a darker shade of green, but inside it’s hard for my eyes to adjust but it looks like everything is simply grey concrete. There is a bit of a long hallway with what appear to be four rooms, two on each side each directly across from the other. I’m steered into the first room on the right. There is a light bulb hanging from the ceiling in the center of the room and a couple of chairs. No desk or table, just a couple old wooden chairs. They order me to drop my pack and my camera bag, which they are surly drooling over such a magnificent bag. They take both bags out of the room and I wonder why they would take them away. A range of summary thoughts run through my head. Everything from, ‘these guys clearly don’t realize I’m kinda a big deal’ to ‘how dare they, I’m an American, damn it!’ to Maybe they’ve never met a real life American and they want to ask me important life questions like why does Michael Jackson look so white now and why the fuck did Michael leave Belgrade off his World Tour starting later that month. Or perhaps they wanted to know how American could say “all men are created equal” and then not convict four white cops for beating the shit out of Rodney King? Or maybe they were curious to know my opinion about the UN embargo the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had just been slapped with and if President George Bush was going to return the nearly $200 million in assets he just seized from them.’ or ‘Maybe they’re going to beat my ass for a few hours before they force me to walk behind this shit hole of building and put a bullet in my brain.’ Needless to say my mind was racing from one scenario to another.
Laurel and Hardy had left the room and a younger looking soldier or border guard or whatever the fuck they were stood just inside the room holding a rifle and blocking the doorway. One of the two guards came back into the room and asked to see papers proving I was indeed a journalist. Ah, hah motherfuckers, I got you now! Yes! I was suddenly filled with a burst of adrenaline and the powerful feeling of confidence it can ignite in you. “Well, I’m glad you asked,” I said boldly. I stood up and withdrew my press credential and one of the letters of introductions Jim Reilly had created for me. “Got you now,” I thought. He took both from me and looked them over. First the press badge which he pulled into close to his face likely because of the dim lighting in the room. Then he stretched it out at arms length as if he had poor eyesight despite the fact that he didn’t wear glasses. Then he tried to pronounce the publication name on the press badge, “Tama…Tama-pee-is publications,” he stuttered then looking at me to clarify. “It’s Tamalpais Publications,” I repeat back to him. He shakes his head like he is a bit dizzy from trying to get that name out of his mouth. Side Note: Listen, if I had to do it all over again I would have gone with something easier to pronounce. The name Tamalpais doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue or command the level of respect that a more easily pronounced name might. Maybe Jim and I should have gone with the Marin County Herald or the San Francisco Times or just something way fucking easier than the local Miwok Indian Tribe’s name meaning “West Hill.” The number of times I had to repeat the name of my fake newspaper or the number of times it got misspelled on real press credentials is too numerous to count, but the fucking name was the fucking name and that’s all there was to it. “It’s pronounced Tam-al-pias,” I say again. He flips the press badge over to look at the back and then he tucks that into the same shirt pocket my passport is still sticking out of. Then he opens up my Letter of Introduction and I’m thinking BAM! That’s right, it’s a one-two punch of false credentials! Put that in your pipe and smoke it! I bet you didn’t see that coming Border Boy!” He doesn’t even attempt to read it. He folds it back up spins on his heels and walks out.
Sitting there for who knows how long – adrenaline has a funny way of messing up my ability to gauge lengths of time. I’m no neurosurgeon, as if you didn’t already put that together…so I don’t know if adrenaline messes up everyone’s ability to gauge lengths of time, but I know for me it fucks it up. So I’m sitting there long enough for the adrenaline to start wearing off and as it does so does my confidence and my brain jumps on a jet rocket headed to crazyville…“Can they arrest me? Who would even know? I guess a really nice old lady would, but what could she do? It’s not like she knows me or how to get in touch with my parents or my ‘editor’? How much longer are they really going to hold this train up? Shit, why not just let the train go and bury me in some shallow grave then just tell anyone who comes asking about it that I stayed the night, got on the next train the following day and they never saw me again. That’s what I’d do. How in the world am I going to get out of here. Even if I tricked the guy with the gun blocking the door it wasn’t like I’m fucking Chuck Norris – I can’t kill people just be hard-staring them. I’m not Rambo, I don’t have a giant fucking knife up my ass that I can just pull out and start jabbing and slashing with. I’ve got $5 dollars and a bunch of $50 dollar traveler checks which I’m guessing I could sign them over and buy my way out, but they probably don’t want to go wait in line at a bank to cash in a fist full of those. They probably hate waiting in bank lines as much as I do. I don’t have too many options other than winning them over with my winning personality. Personality game is strong with old women in train cars, but border guard soldier types, I’m sorry, but that shit is untested as of now. Okay, sit up tall, look them in the eyes when they come back, don’t act like a total scared pussy. Talk confidently. You’re an international journalist, tell them you’re expected to check in with your newspaper when you arrive in Belgrade. That if I don’t check in within an hour of my arrival my editor is to contact the US Consulate in Belgrade and a team of Special Forces badasses that I’m best friends with is going to come find me because I have a homing beacon implanted in my inner left thigh. Then pull my pants down and show them the scar I have from when I was a little kid and I pulled the hot clothes iron off the ironing table and it swung down and burnt the living shit out of me…ok, maybe the Special Forces, homing beacon in my thigh, is taking it a little too far – plus I don’t want to have to pull my pants down and give anyone of these lonely guards any exciting ideas.” Fuck I was starting to get scared.
Not long after I decided it would be best that whatever story I ended up telling didn’t have to include me pulling my pants down, a new face walked into the room. He told the gun guy to leave and he pulled a chair up across from me. In his hand he held my passport which I could see had the press badge and letter tucked into it. “Hello, Mr. Thomas” he said in an almost too friendly of a voice. “Please forgive us for asking you to come into the office,” he continued. I didn’t say shit, but in my head I was like, “okay, first off we clearly have two very different definitions of the word ‘asking’ because where I come from we call that shit kidnapping, not “asking.” Secondly, this ain’t no fucking office. If you haven’t noticed this is one step off the curb from being a fucking torture chamber, but please continue,” again, I’m thinking this because I’m not a total fucking idiot to actually say it. He continues speaking, “it looks like you are a journalist and you’ve come to document the conflict happening in our country, is this correct?” I nod, unsure what to say when. “Well, we hope you will tell this story in a fair way.” Again, I nod. “It is a dangerous thing you are planning to go do, no?” Still nodding. “Well, we hope you will find our people and country beautiful despite the circumstances that have been forced upon us.” Finally I eek a couple words out, “of course” is all I got and inside I’m giving myself a ton of shit for getting two fucking words out. “Well, it is nice to meet you. I see no other reason to delay you from your work. Have a nice day,” he says, handing me my passport and documents as he stands up. He extends his hand which I take, being sure to follow my Freshman football coach, Fred Mack’s advice/command to never shake another man’s hand like a wet noodle. I stand just after he does, look the gentleman in the eyes, shake his hand firmly, and take in a big breath through my nose so as not to look like I’m relieved in any way. He turns towards the doorway out of the room and I quickly shoot a glance downward to my crotch because I’m not sure if it’s sweat or pee running down my thigh…It’s sweat, shit I knew that. As I follow him out of the room, my pack and my camera bag are there. The pack looks like a bear mauled it and while the camera bag looks fine, a slight shock of disappointment shoots through me because they gave it back. Fuck I wish I had gotten a cooler looking camera bag.
I stuff the clothes that are dangling out of my pack back in and clip the top to ensure nothing falls out. I once again sling it over my shoulder, first the right and then the left. I again sling the camera bag over my head letting it dangle just about waist high. I unzip it to quickly inspect that everything including the 12 rolls of film I have are still there. And then I make my way out of the whatever we’re calling it – bunker, office, scary fucking building – and I make my way back to the train. As my eyes try to adjust to the brightness of the last of the sunlight I can make out lots and lots of heads sticking out the train car windows looking at me. As everything begins to adjust and come into focus I see people smiling and pulling their heads back into the train. I see my old friend who is smiling as well. She looks relieved which feels nice that someone you just met would care enough to feel concern for you. I get back into the train car, throw my bag onto the rack, skipping the locking it down part, and I fall back into my seat once again. I give my old lady friend a big smile and she does the same, and as our eyes catch I can see that hers are red and a bit puffy. Ever so slightly there are tears welling up for her. “Oh my gosh, we’re you that worried,” I say in a clearly surprised tone. “Listen, there is nothing to worry about, they just wanted to meet a real live American,” I tell her. She reaches into the we should obviously name, The Bag That Holds Everything, and pulls out a small white hanky to dab her eyes with. Still feeling embarrassed that anyone, let alone a sweet little old lady, would become emotional regarding my well being. I mean really what could she be all worked about. I mean we’re in Europe for God sakes what could possibly happen or go wrong being taken off a train in Europe. And then it hit me; Europe, Yugoslavia, trains, people being forced onto them. People being forced off of them. And a woman old enough to have experienced something in some way during the Holocaust which began around 1941 and continued until 1945. There was something about what had just happened to me that had clearly triggered something deep and scary in her. The train began its slow methodical slog to get back up to speed. I was now officially in Yugoslavia, headed to Serbia, and while we weren’t expected to arrive until late at night the first thing I would do after a good long sleep in the youth hostile was get myself to the US Consulate and let them know what I’m doing. At least they would know what to do if I went missing.
The sun had dropped just below the horizon and the sky was filled with beautiful colors. The little old lady once again reached into her bag of everything and out came two sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper – she offered me one and I quickly obliged. It could have been shit on a shingle as my dad liked to say and I would have gobbled it down. I was starving. The sandwich was amazing; it had thinly sliced salty meat that to my knowledge I had never tried. It included capers and sliced cucumbers on a small baguette that was perfectly baked – crispy, not hard, on the outside, and soft almost doughy on the inside. With a full belly and even fuller day behind me I dozed off to sleep again. The next hurdle was just a few hours away, but how hard could that be – get a taxi to an address, check-in, go to my room, lock-up my shit and fall asleep. Shit after a day that started with me waking up in some old lady’s apartment while she smacks me in the face with a broom, a jacked up taxi ride to the train station, dealing with the train ticket-taker aka; The Hungarian Growth Hormone, and then landing in the hands of a bunch of border bitches, what in the world could be easier than getting a room at a youth hostel? Honestly, the real question is how does getting a room in a youth hostel in Belgrade turn into me having to hide myself in a large bush as people run by firing automatic rifles and I stay at the ready to stab anyone who finds me? Yeah, thats the real question. That, and what in the FUCK am I doing here?