Categories
A Memoir

eight

The train slowed. That’s what woke me. It was dark and felt very late, but I had no real idea what time it was. All I knew was that since leaving my home town of Mill Valley, California just north of San Francisco, I was exhausted.

“Yvonne” was awake. I don’t know if Belgrade was her home or if she was visiting friends or family – perhaps her kids, or her grandkids, or hell, maybe her kids, kids, kids…she could totally be a great-grandma! One thing was for sure, she was a great train partner! That was for damn sure.

When the train had initially slowed, I thought we’d be pulling into the station by now, but we were still a good 30-45 minutes away. I guess looking back the train moves slower when it enters a big city. But I’m not even sure Belgrade is a big city, is it? It sure felt like it was that night. I didn’t know it yet, but this night was going to be one of most scariest nights of my life. Only hours earlier just as the sun was setting I had thought that my arriving in Belgrade would be simple compared to everything else they day had dealt me, but as is my normal…I was SO way wrong about that.

Now that being in Belgrade for reals was no longer a thing off in the distance, but I was here, I started to get nervous. I pulled out a map to try and figure out exactly where the youth hostel was located in relationship to the train station, but I could neither find the train station nor the youth hostel on the map, which only made me more nervous, ‘shit if I can’t even find the train station I’m about to land in then how am I going to find the youth hostel? In the dark no less. Oh, right! I’m going to ask the cab driver – he’ll know,’ I thought to myself. With that I relaxed…but only for a moment. ‘What if something goes wrong and the youth hostel is full or something?’ I thought. Maybe I should see where “Yvonne” is staying – maybe I could stay with her for the night?

Out comes the Travel Book and I start trying to find words that help me, help her, invite me to stay wherever she is going to be staying tonight. I tried this word and that word and realized quickly that one of two things was happening…or maybe both. One, “Yvonne” was done trying to figure out what the hell I was trying to say. Or two, “Yvonne” knew EXACTLY what I was fishing for and there was no chance in HELL she was letting me into her house. I mean seriously, if you had lived through the days of Nazi Germany or some puppet government following the insanity of Nazi Germany – with whomever kicking in whoever door the damn well pleased – for whatever reasons they damn well liked, you probably have some reservations inviting the guy you’ve already watched your county’s soldiers pull of a fucking train. Yeah, I think it’s the second option. “Yvonne” knows what I’m shooting for and she just can’t go there. I can respect that I think to myself. But can I, is my respect for her history and how today may have been very triggering for her greater than my fear of landing in a foreign country in the middle of the night? Nope, I’m scared…I’m going to give this one more shot.

The train glides to a stop inside the station and it becomes clear we were for sure saying our goodbyes. I’m looking to find a place to take another shot at getting “Yvonne” to take me in, but I’m not seeing it – fuck, I’m going to have to shoot my shot even if it means having to force it. In a final ditch effort, as we stood outside on the train platform I did a ‘thing’…this thing I did, we’ve all done before somewhere with someone so you know what it is. It’s that ‘thing’ people do, husband/wife, two friends, two siblings…whatever the makeup is no matter – you just need at least two people. So the ‘thing’ is when two people are separated and too far apart to hear one another. So then one of you is like, oh, you want me to come over there, to you? You say it aloud and the other person can see your mouth moving, but you both know the other person can’t hear you, so as you’re saying the thing you know the other person can’t hear you’re also using arm and hand signals. One person points at themselves and then to you and then you’re like, ‘no, I’ll come to you,’ which you now say out loud knowing they can’t hear a fucking word you’r saying, so then you point at yourself and then point at them, and then they’re confused because you just repeated back to the them what they were saying to you in hand-signal speak so then they make their face all confused looking so they know that you know that they are totally fucking confused – are you going to them or are they going to you? And then you do the same thing and point to yourself (ME) then point to them (COME TO YOU), but then whoever is hand-talking takes the whole fucking thing off the rails because instead of just shutting their hands and arms the fuck up and wait for the other person to respond to you, you do the opposite hand signal and shrug your shoulders to try and let them know you’re not sure if they are coming to you or if you’re supposed to go to them, but when you do hand-say both options and now your wife, or girlfriend or partner becomes SUPER fucking confused and frustrated so she does a totally over dramatic shoulder shrug arms up, hands out and her heads cocked slightly sideways like a dog hearing low-pitch do whistle and in all in one motion she roles her eyes at you and clearly mouths “WHAT?” in the frustrated tone of voice she gets with you and the whole fucking ensemble sets you way the fuck off because it makes you feel like a totally fucking idiot and you don’t think you are, but somewhere in your formative years you’re mom or dad gave you that look enough times that it’s triggering and when your partner does that shit you bring it up to them, but you’re really shitty at doing that because you’re already triggered so whatever comes out of your mouth isn’t going to be or sound awesome because you’ve never dealt with the shit in your past so you say something like, “I’m not a fucking idiot!” and your partner is like, “woah, cowboy. I never said that.” and then now you’re really triggered because now they won’t even admit that they just called you that even though they actually didn’t so you cop a fucking bigger attitude about it and say some stupid shit like, “uh, yeah you did.” And then your partner is like, “uh, no I didn’t, but the tone she just said that in was really saying, ‘oh you wanna fucking go, okay, let’s do this shit! I don’t care if we’re in the maternity section at Nordstrom so then you being all kinds of triggered say some shit like “you just told me I’m a fucking idiot, you don’t remember that? It happened all of about 4 seconds ago.” But now you just fucked yourself because now you just talked down to her and she ain’t have’n that shit because she’s been dealing with that shit from either her mom or other men her whole fucking life and she is going to pick right fucking here, right fucking now to stand up for herself so she goes fucking OFF on you in Nordies and Nordie security rolls up on you and you’re like how the fuck did they get here so fast, but they were there the whole time and you just thought it was a couple of young dudes, not together, but both super into maternity clothes so you didn’t get the part that they’re plane clothes security and they saw this shit-show coming the moment she gave you that WTF face, shrugged her shoulders and put her hands up look that triggered you to begin with and now you’re getting escorted out of the store and your girl is inside with some other females who are trying to calm her down and then you’re outside the double-sided glass doors wondering when she is going to come out because you let her drive and you don’t have the keys so you’re waiting then you finally decide to walk back to the car, but the cars is gone and you just sit on the curb and wonder why you always pick the wrong women, but the truth is you’re actually  a lot of the problem because you haven’t dealt with your own shit yet.

So to avoid all that from happening, when she makes the confused face look at you from across the divide you just fight your way over to her and figure that shit out before you end up in jail.

So that is what is happening between “Yvonne” and I – we’ve said our goodbyes and although walking in the same direction we become separated, walking on either side of the exiting train passengers. I catch her eye and start doing the hand motion thing where I point at myself and then at her which is my attempt to say,“OMG, you want me to come with you?” But “Yvonne” looks nothing other than confused. She slows down and appears to be trying to focus on my strange antics, I know this is my last shot and I do what I do best when foreign people don’t understand me, I “talk” slower and louder, but in this case there’s no actual sound so I repeat the same motions, but it sloooower and BIGGER! Again I point to myself (slowly, but with lots of BIG arm movement back towards myself) and wouldn’t you know it…she gives me the, “what?! Are you a fucking idiot” look and I give up. I give her a big smile and a wave, knowing I was fortunate to have met her and wanting to ensure her last visual memory of me is not where I am flailing about like a fish out of water on a fucking train platform.

It’s a rush of business out front of the train station. People are in the arms of waiting friends and family and others are rushing to get into double parked cars there to pick them up. In the scrum of it all I don’t see any obvious taxi cabs. I figure a few more minutes and things will have cleared up enough that I’ll be able to spot one. It’s obviously late, but how late I’m not sure. It doesn’t take too much longer and all that is left is a few stranglers and yet I still cannot locate anything resembling a taxi. The rush of people and noise is gone, the adrenaline that comes with the arrival of any trip has worn off and my hope of jumping into a taxi to my youth hostel straight away is dashed. “Okay, no big deal, I’ll grab a seat and wait for one to come by,” I think to myself. If there is one thing I’m notorious for (and I’m not, there are many dumb ass things I’m notorious for) it is this, sitting and waiting – If sitting and waiting were an Olympic event I would be a National Icon. I would have more gold medals than that Phelps swimmer guy. Shit as a kid, I would sit and wait for someone or something to happen for hours, most certainly way longer than I ever should have and the number of times I got in some form of trouble for it would be too many to count. Before I share just one example of my keen gift and ability to ‘sit and wait,’ I will share the secret. All you need to do is to convince yourself that whatever, whomever, you’re sitting and waiting for will happen or arrive any minute now. If you are really good at lying to yourself you too can be a jackass like me – enticing I know. You’re welcome.

One of my earlier ‘sitting and waiting’ moments comes when I am in elementary school. Perhaps at the age of 10. Yes, yes, there were surely others incidences prior to age 10, but in all of previous ones, this is likely in the top 5 or 10 of the “Wow, that’s really fucking dumb” catagory.

When I was a kid, I had to walk everywhere. No, my parents had driver’s licenses and yes, our family always had at least one car, but for reasons to this day I still do not understand, if I wanted to go somewhere I had to walk. Yes, it was a simpler time. Stories of children being taken and harmed as they’d walk somewhere were not usual occurrences so telling your child to walk everywhere didn’t earn you a visit from Child Protective Services as it might in today’s world. While I did not enjoy walking as a child, my choices were limited. The worst part of walking for me was the return trip home. Our family lived on a very long (by child’s leg standards), steep (AF) hill. Walking down it – no big deal, especially because of the gravitational pull – It almost felt like you were free falling all the way to the bottom of my street. Walking up the long steep beast day after day for some 10 or 11 years took grit, determination, rope, carbeniers, sherpas from Nepal, and tanks of oxygen stashed along the route. No joke, especially as a child when your stride didn’t take you as far or as fast as it does as an adult, it was a steep hill/mountain. I walked two miles round trip to and from Tam Valley Elementary School everyday for five years. Add in the drastic change in elevation the last .2 miles and I’m telling you it was a little kid ass-kicker.

So one day for no reason whatsoever, I walk home from school and when I reach the steepest portion, the last .2 mile leg of the climb, I get a brilliant idea. I decide instead of walking the last stretch of my own personal Bataan Death March,

I decide I will sit and wait at the bottom of my street until my dad drives along on his way home from work. I thought myself to be of a brilliant mind as I would enjoy the climb up Live Oak Drive on my ass in the white Toyota Corolla. So sit and wait, I did. Each time I would hear a car approaching I just knew it was my dad. When it wasn’t, rinse and repeat. Any minute now. Oh, here is…nope. Okay he’ll be the next care…nope. No worry, I know the next car to come around the corner will be good old dad…nope.

After four plus hours of waiting for a dad that should have been home two or three hours ago I finally got the idea I should probably walk the .2 miles to my house. Just kidding – I stayed right fucking there at the bottom of the hill waiting! Why? Because I KNOW the next car is going to be my dad. I know it!

Finally, a car comes…down my hill. Holy shit if it wasn’t my dad! He sees me in his headlights and slows to a stop. He slowly leans over to roll down the passenger side window, a freshly lit Marlboro cigarette dangles burning from his lips. Excited to finally see him, “Hey, Dad! What are you doing here? I was starting to get worried you weren’t coming home tonight.” His cigarette almost falls from his lips. “Son, where have you been?” He asks in that dad tone that lets me know I might have fucked something up, but it’s too soon to tell if or what that fuckup might be just yet. “I’ve been right here waiting for you to get home!” I answer in a more hesitant tone as I’m no longer sure this is going to be the reunification I had been expecting it to be. My dad takes a long drag off his cig and stares out the windshield. He holds the smoke in his longs and then lets the smoke out which draws out with it a long heavy sigh. He looks back over at me, “right here son?” He points towards where I’m standing. “You’ve been right here?” Yeah, I’m starting to think this is going to go poorly for me. “I swear dad. I’ve been right here the WHOLE time!” I accentuate the “whole time” because I think maybe he thinks I was somewhere I shouldn’t have been. I’m actually feeling a sudden sense of confidence knowing I must have some 100+ witnesses who could vouch for my alibi. Yeah, I didn’t actually know any of these potentially witnesses, but I knew I had some. “How long have you been RIGHT here son?” And now he’s the one accentuating his words. “Uh, I don’t know, but I came home right after school dad, I swear!” He turns back to face the windshield letting the back of his head rest against the seat. He lets out another long sigh and puts his hand on his forehead and rubs it as if something is there he needs to rub away. He takes another long pull off his cigarette. Without looking at me, “so what you’re telling me is…you’ve been right here at the bottom of the hill since 3:30 today?” He doesn’t wait for me to answer, “son do you know what time it is right now?” I try to determine if there is any way I can look at my wristwatch without him noticing. I’m pretty sure my dad is expecting me to know this answer, but he’s back to looking at me again so there is no way to peak the watch. “No dad,” I’m not 100% sure just yet, but I’m thinking I’m in deep shit. My dad looks directly at me, “son it is eight-fucking-o’clock at night!” And now I’m 1,000% sure I’m in deep shit. If there was ever a signal that you were in deep shit with dad it was when he started adding curse words in between regular words. Dad continued, “Please tell me why-in-the-fuck you’ve been down here for four and a half hours.” I look down at the ground hoping there might be a really good answer down there, but even if there was it wasn’t going to matter because it would have been too dark to actually see it. “I was waiting for you to get home so I could ride up the hill with you,” I said as sorrowfully as I possibly could. “You were waiting for me?” his voice drifts off. He seemed to be pondering that answer. A long few seconds went by and in a slightly softer tone dad said, “get in the car son.” I get in the front seat, pull my backpack onto my lap. Dad makes a u-turn and starts up the that stupid hill. Afraid to actually look at him, I keep my eyes down towards the floorboards of the car. “So, I guess you got off work early today?” I say sheepishly. “Yes son,” is all he says. I wait a few more moments, “I guess I’m on restriction again aren’t I?” I say softly. Dad sighs, “Yes son.”

So all and all, when it comes to sitting and waiting, I’ve got that down. But I’d like to think of myself as a man who learns from his mistakes, albeit slowly. And in this instance, I’m a ‘man of action’ and at some point (far less than four plus hours) I moved to Plan B! What exactly was Plan B? I didn’t know yet but I thought I should start by pulling the map out. First I needed to locate the train station I was at – Found it! Or I think I found it. Then I retrieve the address for the youth hostel and spend God knows how long trying to find the street that’s on – Found it! I think. Okay, I’m here and I’m pretty sure I need to get here! Not exactly sure how far that is, but I start walking that direction anyway. If I see a cab on the way I’ll flag’em down.

It’s dark, there are street lamps casting light down like you see in old black & white detective movies. It’s not hot, but it’s not cold either, but between my anxiety from being somewhere completely foreign in the middle of the night, during war-time no less, and lugging this pack on my back and this amazing camera bag (sarcasm) I’m breaking a sweat. I walk for probably 30-45 minutes. I’ve seen some people, but not the type of people you decide to ask for directions from this late at night. Most of them are on the other side of the street when they see me I try and make myself look bigger by straightening up real tall, bowing my arms out  like I have too big of muscles to let my arms hang at my side and although I didn’t realize this for awhile, when I would bow my arms out wide I also started bowing my legs – kinda like a sumo wrestler would, but not as low to the ground…I guess more like a someone who just coming back from a really long ride on a horse, but they had never ridden a horse before so all that stuff down there hurts real bad. I think I was too busy wondering how those guys were going to kill me to realize I was walking like that, but no one was fucking with me so I just kept walking all weird when I saw people who scared me. Finally, I did see a man and a woman walking together AND on the same side of the street as me so I stopped walking like a fucking freak and as we were approaching each other I gave them one of those dainty half-waves – of the “Wave” family, it’s like the sissy boy of the family one – it’s totally non threatening. They stop and I show them my map. We walk a few steps forward to get under a street lamp and I show them the address in my youth hostel book and then I show them the map. I point to the location I found at the train station and point to it. He looks at the address, looks at the map, looks at where I said I was going, looks at the address, looks at the map, looks at where I said I was going and then points to a spot in the complete other direction…like back to the train station and keep going the other direction. “Are you fucking kidding me right now?!” I burst out – it literally just flew out of my mouth. I startled both of them and then immediately started apologizing. They could tell I was really frustrated. They pointed for me to come with them back the way I had just gone and immediately thought I was saved – these two kind and lovely people were going to take the young exhausted American into their home. They would offer me a cold glass of water, a bath perhaps and then tuck me in a bed with fresh sheets where they would let me sleep late into tomorrow afternoon. Nope…they took me to a bus stop.

Once I realized this was not ending in tall, cold, glass of water, a hot bath and bed sheets, but rather a bus stop, I pulled out my $5 dollar bill and tried to explain that I had only just arrived and had no local currency to even catch a bus. The man reached into his pocket and gave me some coins – no idea how many or how much, but I could only pray it was at the very least the exact change I was going to need. He motioned for me to take my map out and then made a hand motion signaling did I have something to write with. I set my pack down and started digging in one of the side pockets until I found a pen at which point I handed it to my late night guide. He drew a big dark circle around the location I had shown him the address for and then he seems to convey that I show that to the next bus driver that showed up. He and his lady friend waved goodbye and I sat down. I hear a car coming and I look towards it, but it’s not a car it’s a bus! Hell yes! The couple are down the street a bit, but as I stand up to make myself seen by the bus driver I notice the couple have seen the bus as well and are walking quickly back towards me.

The bus driver stops and opens the doors – the lights inside the bus come on and it’s empty inside. I pause to step into the bus because I’m sure that the couple are going to help me explain to the bus driver where I need to get off the bus to get to my destination. I’m correct, they reach me and the man steps onto the bus and begins to explain to the bus driver something in terms of my need to get to my destination. Then man spins back at me and holds his hand out. I reach into my pocket for the coins he gave me for the bus fair and he shakes his head no. He wants the map instead. I hand it to him and he and the bus driver look at what I can only assume is the circled spot where I’m trying to get to. The bus driver leans out from behind the helpful man I’ve met and gives me a strange look up and down. He leans forward to continue talking to the man helping me. The man helping me shrugs his shoulders at the bus driver, and then the bus driver leans back again and looks at me a second time. The helping man steps aside and waves me onto the bus. I step up and hold out my hand holding the coins, but the bus driver waves it away and it’s clear he’s not going to charge me for the ride. I hand the coins back to the man who gave them to me and say thank you a bunch of times, but have no idea he understands what I’m saying, but it’s clear he understands the gesture. He steps off the bus and as the doors close, he and his lady friend wave me goodbye. The lights in the bus go off as the bus driver pulls away from the curb. Shit was that more difficult than I wanted it to be, but in my mind this was the last hurdle to me getting into a soft bed and getting much needed sleep.

The bus travels a long double wide route and although he slows as other bus stops appear no one else is in need of a bus. I try to think of it as a chauffeured limo, just me and the bus driver. After about 15 minutes he pulls over to an empty bus stop. He opens the doors, the light in the bus comes back on and I squint looking at the bus driver for some type of sign that this is my stop. At this stage, it maybe obvious this is my stop, but I’m too tired to move unless I have to and I ain’t moving until this guy makes it very clear I’m here. He looks at me waiting for me to start getting up and getting out, but I don’t move, I just look at him. He finally, motions his hand out the door and now I stand up and put my pack on. I look around and don’t see anything resembling the entrance to a youth hostel. I look back at him, obviously with a confused look on my face and he points up ahead about 30 yards to a well lit street corner and then makes a motion to the right letting me know I should turn right when I get to the corner…at least that’s how I’m translating it. If I’m honest, at this point in the whole adventure I’m not loving it anymore. It has been one hell of a long day and I’m exhausted. The range of emotions I’ve experienced probably haven’t been this intense and this varied in a single day since towards the end of 8th grade when I went over to Tad Smith’s (so not his real name) house after school to eat cereal and watch cartoons and ended up in a bedroom with a girl having sex for the first time. Random flashback I know, but talk about a range of intense emotions in a relatively short period of time…it’s not too far off to the emotions of today; surprised, excited, confused, scared, euphoric, exhausted, hopeful, back to scared and excited…All I think to tell myself at this point is; “just get to the youth hostel. Just get to the youth hostel” that’s the only thing driving me to take another step forward. When I get to the youth hostel I can rest, shower, eat, rest more – The youth hostel has become my oasis in a very hot desert. “You’re almost there, keep going. Get there and you can collapse into bed for a couple days,” is the pep talk I keep telling myself, out loud at this point. While I had been hoping my private bus was a door-to-door service but I guess this is close enough and I step off the bus. The bus door closes behind me, the lights go out, and the bus driver pulls away.

The bus driver stops and opens the doors – the lights inside the bus come on and it’s empty inside. I pause to step into the bus… ©Dragana via Foursquare

At first I expected it to be deadly quiet. There is no person, car, or dog for that matter visible. However, while it’s quiet, to some degree, I can hear music – like really loud music, but not immediately around me and in the dark it’s hard to tell what direction it’s coming from exactly. I head towards the street the bus driver pointed me two just know that any minute I’m going to see a ghetto looking sigh that reads Youth Hostel with an arrow pointing me to my paradise for the night, but I see no signs reading “youth hostel” and I figure that’s not a big deal as I can barely read English let along this wacky language. As I drew nearer to the street corner it was clear I was also drawing nearer to the music. Lord please tell me this is not late night disco night at the youth hostel. When I make the turn to head down the street I pass a few buildings that I can’t tell if their actual home or places of business. I’m looking for the address at this point as I fear being in the wrong place again. I don’t see any number or numbers and letters. I continue walking assuming I’ll see the youth hostel, a sign for the youth hostel, or the address of the youth hostel – it’s late for sure so I’m not sure if it’s like a hotel in the U.S. where there’s always some strange bird working the over night shift and they’re usually in the back sleeping when you hit the small silver plated bell waking them up from a little sleep in the back room. I get to a place that is well lit – it’s a building off to my right and there is a bit of a slope coming off the street down a driveway of sorts. The driveway is both sloped and turns into a bow shape that looks to be a drop off spot to the front entrance of a fancy hotel. I stand at the top of the driveway looking down and see well dressed men with dark sunglasses on and fancy dress women walking in and out. Once again, I look for an address can find none and keep walking. Clearly this is where the music is coming from – its a club type music but not one I’ve ever heard before – it has a lot of deep base that repeats over and over again with sudden burst of other strange techno sounds fading in and out of the deep bass beat. I would later come to figure out that this was something I had never heard before that is actually referred to by the names Techno or House music. I continue walking until finally I find a building with an address – I’m confident it’s not the youth hostel because they’re nothing youth hostel about this place, but fuck it I found an address. I pull out my youth hostel guide book and compare the address I’m at to the address I’m trying to go to. Best as I can tell I’ve over shot the mark and gone past the youth hostel somehow. It doesn’t make anysene that I walked by it because I didn’t see a youth hostel or anything that looked like it could potentially be a youth hostel. Instead of going back towards the street corner I turned on which would seem to be the logical decision, I keep walking on to see what the next address is – maybe they do shit backwards here? I walk a few more blocks until I find another address it’s clear I’m headed in the wrong direction and I have to go back. Fuck me, I think. Can I lay down already. I slowly make my way back up the street looking even harder for an address I might have missed. I see no more addresses. I do walk by the clubby place this time I notice black Mercedes Benzes parker along the curb of the club that offers a red velvet looking carpet from the curb into the club the same types of people are outside of it laughing, smoking cigs and talking overly loud – aka they’re drunk. I reach the street corner and still nothing. Now I’m starting to get pissed where the fuck is this place. Once again, I turn around and head back the way I just came until I reach the club. At this point I decide I’m just going to go fucking ask someone.

While not the youth hostel/hotel I had been searching for in the late hours of 1992, it is similar in it’s size, entrance lighting and signage. As I search and searched for the actual place I visited, it is clear that much has changed in the 29 years since I was there. In fact, if you Google “youth hostels Belgrade,” the number of cool establishments pisses me off. ©Yugoslavia Hotel

As I walk down the scene in front of me becomes more and more peculiar. There are very fit men, with close shaved hair cuts, who wear black suits and white dress shirts standing out front of their very clean/waxed Mercedes. They hands are folded together in front of them and their heads are constantly on a swivel looking left, looking right, eyeballing anyone who comes out of the club. These guys look like fucking mobsters I think to myself. As I’m walking down the slopped sidewalk towards the entrance a fairly young man comes out with his shirt half-way unbuttoned like some Italian America guido and he has his arm around some very tall like young woman who is dressed to kill and looks to be the closest thing I’ve ever seen of a supermodel in real life. A black suit guy opens the back door to a black Mercedes with blackout tinted windows. He closes the door as the couple get in and then walks around the back of the car, practically looking in every direction all at once and then he steps into the drivers seat and pulls out and away. I’m not sure what this place is, but I’m in jeans, a super sweaty t-shirt, a large hiking pack, a shitty camera bag draped over me and it’s clear whatever this place is I am waaaaay underdressed.

I get some long hard stares from a few more of the black suit security, chauffeur, mobster types as I get to the entrance, but that can’t possibly think I’m a threat. An alien from space maybe, but a threat? No way. I enter into a large open lobby and see a desk with well dressed men standing behind it. They have name tags on so they look official enough to get directions from and I make my way there. As I approach an older man says something I don’t understand, but assume it’s a greeting. I say, “hello, I’m lost and really need some help.” The man realizes I don’t speak whatever language he’s speaking and asks me how can he help, but this time in English. “I’m looking for a youth hostel around here. Do you know where it is?” He looks at me strangely and the look tips me off to show him the address in my youth hostel guide book. “Yeah, you see? Here’s the address,” I say as I turn the guide book towards him and point to the address for the one single youth hostel in all of Belgrade. He leans over a bit to get a better look and when he reads it he has an even more puzzled look on his face. He look over to another gentleman who works there and calls him over. He says some shit I don’t understand to the new guy and the new guy leans over and looks at the address. The new guys says some shit to the first guy and I’m suddenly getting the feeling like their conversation is quickly turning into that old Abbot & Costello routine, “Who’s On First” (Google it – I’m sure that shits on YouTube). They both look at the address, say some more shit to each other, look at me a few times, say more shit to each other and then the first guy I spoke to says, “this is address in your book is for here.” I laugh because clearly they misunderstood me or something got lost in translation, “no, I’m looking for a youth hostel.” “yes, I understand, but the address here…” he points to the guide book, “…is this address to our hotel.” Shocked, I look around, at first I turn my head to get a better sense of where the fuck I’m at and as my head turns to the right my body keeps following and I make a complete 360 degree turn as I try to figure out how in the fuck this is a hotel. “This is a hotel?” I ask completely dumbfounded. “Yes, yes, this is a hotel,” he says. “Well where in the fuck is the youth hostel?” I’m seriously confused right now and have no more control for anything that is coming out of my mouth. “Uh, well, I guess our hotel is the youth hostel,” he says. I repeat his exact words back to him trying to understand the dynamics of this situation, this location and this conversation; “your hotel IS the fucking youth hostel?” I hang my head in complete exhaustion. “Okay well, here’s my youth hostel card, I’d like a room,” I say. “No problem, I will need your passport and a credit card,” he tells me. I give him both knowing full well that the credit card has absolutely zero money available on it. I brought it because I thought I should have a credit card, but why I think that I have no idea. He makes copies of my passport and returns it to me. What he does with the credit card I have no idea, but he gives me that back. “Given that this is my very first youth hostel experience and given it’s in a swank hotel I figure I should ask the cost for the night. “Excuse me, how much is my room for one night?” He tells me but it’s not in US dollars so I have no clue how much it is. “How much in US dollars?” I ask. “It will be $150 US dollars plus tax,” he says with a straight face. “I’m sorry sir, what the fuck did you just say?” To say I have ‘sticker shock’ would be an understatement. “Yes, it is $150 dollars, plus tax.” Again, total straight face. “Holy shit! Do I get a youth hostel discount? I mean you guys are listed in the youth hostel guide book here and youth hostels are supposed to be cheap,” I tell him. “Yes sir, that is the price with the youth hostel discount,” he answers. “Get the fuck out of here!” I’m talking to myself more than him right now. “And check out is at 9 AM,” he slips in real quick like. “Are you fucking kidding me?!” I blurt out. “I’m going to pay $150, plus tax and have to be out at 9 AM? What time is it right now,” I ask. “It’s 1 am sir,” he tells me after an exaggerated turn to look behind him at the very large round clock behind him that he clearly thinks I should have noticed by now. “Fuck, man I can’t afford that,” I say – again talking to myself as much as talking to him at this point. “I can’t fucking stay here,” I say and I turn around totally fucking defeated. Now what?

I exit the hotel, disco, mob spot, whatever the fuck this place is just wrecked. What the fuck am I going to do? There is no other youth hostel listed for Belgrade and even if there was it would probably turn out to be the fucking Ritz Carleton and cost me an arm and my first born son. This is bullshit I think. Why does a swank hotel list themselves in a European Youth Hostel guide book? Was this a fucking mistake, did the sales person who sells space in the guide book not realize he was signing up the Glam Hotel and not some gymnasium turned backpacker bunkhouse? Shit, what in the hell am I going to do? All I can think to do at this point is walk back to the bus stop – why? I have no idea – I guess because it’s my last point of reference. It’s also well lit and there was a bench seat maybe I could lay on that for the night? I mean it’s not like I’ve never slept outside before – did it all the time in high school – under cars no less. But halfway across the world, in a foreign country, a foreign country at war no less seemed way different and way scary. When I get back to the bus stop I sit down as I consider how safe I’m going to be in a well lit bus stop. Well lit is good I guess, but I’d be a lot safer if no one actually could see me. I look around and realize there is what looks like a large park across the street. I had been so focused on getting to the street corner that was supposed to lead me to my youth hostel oasis, that I hadn’t even noticed the large park that seemed to stretch forever or at least forever as much as I could see by a few lites standing over the paved path going through it. I hear some shouting from down the street and off in the distance I can see what appear to by men, young men, walking in my direction. Fuck this, I’m going to move into the park and see if I can find someplace to hide I decide. I put the pack back on my shoulders and hand carry the camera bag and I cross the street to the park in the shadowed sections the street lights aren’t fully able to light. I want to stick to the shadows and do my best to stay unseen from the group of men headed my way. In the park I cross the path and walk deeper into the park staying off the path because it is lit. I hear some more yelling, but this time it’s coming from in the park. Fuck, what the hell is going on? An hour ago there wasn’t a soul in sight and now it feels like Grand Central Station. I see a large bush just feet off the path and in front of me. It’s both wide and reasonably tall and I decide it’s big enough to conceal me and my pack. As I think I’ve shared, I’m no arborist so when it comes to flora and fauna – I’m not the guy you want trying to answer those Trivia questions. All I know is it’s close and wide. As I size it up in an attempt to figure out how best to conceal myself in it I realize given the situation it will work great as a nighttime hideout. There is a bit of a gap from the root of the bush to where it actually gets all leafy hence I can slide my pack under it and into the middle on one side and then I can slide under it and into the middle on the other side. I got both those things achieved quickly because I’m hearing more voices and while it could totally be my sleep deprivation making things up, I can for sure here loud voices belonging to men in and on the edges of the park. Once under I quietly unzip a side pocket in my pack and retrieve my Swiss Army Knife. I then undo the not so ‘big’ blade and grip it tight in my right hand. God help me if I have to stab someone to death. If I do, they are going to have to be really patient with me because it’s going to take some doing and a fair amount of time to actually kill someone with this knife with it’s very threatening 2-inch blade. Seriously, whomever tries to kill me is probably going to want to bring a cup of coffee and a good page-turner because this ain’t going down go down fast.

I hear someone! They’re close. Fuck did they see me? I can only see one direction down the path. There’s a light a short distance away and I don’t see anyone. They’re coming down the path behind me. My body tenses. Laying on my right side, my knees slightly bent to ensure I’m tucked into this bush tight. If he saw my slip in here I’m dead. The knife is in my right hand which is tucked under the weight of my body, pressed against the dirt. I’ll roll onto my back and stab upwards, it’s a terrible spot to fight from, but I can kick to try to keep him or them off me for at least a few seconds. Stab them first, if they reach down to grab me, stab them first wherever I can strike. The throat or the eye or mouth someplace their adrenaline can’t mask. Get ready. They stopped. Why’d they stop. Listen, listen harder! Where are they!?

Sprinting out of the darkness down the path ahead of me, not behind, come three men who flash through the light above the path and quickly fade into grey shadowy figures the farther from the light they get – the closer to me they become. They are running as fast as they can, but ducked down and not upright. Did I see pistols. What was in their hands. They don’t know I’m here, I can tell because they are looking off to their left towards the street and bus stop I had been at. A short burst of automatic rifle goes off. Then another. The three men reach the bush that has become my shitty hideout. Someone behind me shouts out and to my horror the three men turn towards me. Another burst of some type of machine gun goes off again and then again. WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING! I’m shaking, I can’t feel the ground anymore, I feel like my body is shutting off. I feel paralyzed, but I don’t dare move to find out. The men run past me, they are sprinting past me, they’re not ducking down anymore they are running for their lives. Another burst of gunfire. I can’t see it or them, the shooter or shooters and I jerk each time another burst is ripped off. It’s quiet, but I don’t trust it. It’s coming! Whatever monster is in this living nightmare it is coming for me. It’s here, behind me. It’s here now, I know it is. It’s going to grab me. Don’t move Thomas. Don’t move Thomas. Please don’t move Thomas. It’s going to drag you into the darkness if you move. Any second, it’s just waiting for you to breath. Don’t breathe Thomas, please don’t breath.

I can feel the warm blood on my leg. It’s soaking through my jeans…

Oh, my god! I’ve been shot.

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