Chapter Two: Travel Morons
I wasn’t exaggerating when I suggested that there is nothing on earth worse to eat than the food John Wright and I encountered in the pubs of Brighton in the winter of 1962-63. One pub served shriveled peas and dried-up bacon. Another offered similar bacon and shriveled baked beans. A third would combine the peas and beans, and skip the bacon. There were other variations, but not many, and they were nearly always droopy subtractions from the base ingredients I’ve listed. The constants were that everything was overcooked and then made still less appetizing by being left uncovered on a cold stove or counter, and always served with toast, made from white bread that made WonderBread ™ look and taste like health food. Sometimes the “toast” wasn’t even toasted, and the meager toppings leached the bread into a flavourless paste, stained either with the moldy green of the overcooked peas or the pale brick red of the baked beans.
I hadn’t eaten worse food anywhere before that, and I haven’t since, which is saying something, given that I was forced to spend two weeks at a Canadian Bible Camp when I was twelve; I’ve eaten my share of Canada’s roadhouse chow mein; and I’ve spent vacation time in Cuba’s Veradero resorts in the days when their embargoed kitchens were treating motor oil and olive oil as interchangeable.
Bad food from the distant past is of no import in the cosmic scale of things, but since Graham Greene’s easily-annoyed ghost might be lurking, the other thing that shouldn’t be ignored, because it is the theological platform on which most of what follows depends, is that when you’re without a concept of sin and/or redemption, you have to rely on adventure—the malleable part of contingency and the fun element in randomness—to create meaning. That was me then, although I didn’t know it, and that’s still me, now that I understand and embrace it. I feel reasonably confident that it also describes John Wright early in 1963, but you’d have to ask him to determine if that’s the theological framework he lived and still lives by.
I should clarify one more thing. I really wasn’t in that Brighton alley with John Wright voluntarily, even though books had led us there. Six weeks before, the aunt and uncle who’d put up with me for almost three months after I stumbled off a third-rate Greek liner named the SS Homeric at Southampton without common sense, money, or a plan and into their arms on their Sussex farm, had forced me to embark on what they called “Adventures on the Continent”, and yes, I’m pretty sure the nouns, in their minds, were capitalized. This was after the uncle, Ronald Surry, had decided that I was in Europe on my “Grand Tour”, (likewise capitalized), at the conclusion of which he believed I’d return to Canada, go into business with my father, and that would be the end of my life in Capital Letters.
Ronald had recognized that I had become overly attached to them and the Sussex pig farm they owned, and didn’t even wish to go to Eastbourne or to London, let alone continental Europe, where, I was beginning to understand, people had different words for everything. That’s why he and my aunt, Joan Surry, made my Continental Adventures non-optional. I think they genuinely saw my going to the continent as something that would Broaden my Horizons, but it’s possible they were simply getting me out from underfoot. Either way, they insisted that I had to See the Sights, because if I didn’t, my Grand Tour wouldn’t be sufficiently Grand. I think Ronald had some ideas about how to plan my itinerary, but my aunt had a better sense of how my contrary teenaged brain worked, and so talked him out of it: I would just go, and wherever I went and whatever I did would be my Responsibility, and my Continental Adventure.
My (decidedly lower case) adventures in continental Europe turned out to be one unplanned, barely-eluded disaster after another, fueled by pratfalls of naiveté or just plain blundering stupidity—mitigated with surprising frequency by the generosity and good will of strangers. Those adventures began when I hooked up with one of the five boys—not John Wright—with whom I’d disembarked the S.S. Homeric at Southampton, a boy I’ll name Peter. It’s another pseudonym, but of a different dispensation, since he’s now dead, and I’m pretty certain he wouldn’t give me permission to use his real name if he were still alive.
Peter was physically the largest of the six of us, and at 20, two years older, so not really a boy in my eyes. He was also the only one of us who spoke a second language: German. When the ocean liner we crossed the Atlantic on docked at Southampton, he’d gone straight to Dover to cross the channel. Once on the continent, he headed for Duisburg, West Germany, where he had relatives. I knew where to find him because he sent me a postcard to the American Express office in London, and shortly after I picked it up and replied, a long letter from him arrived at the Crouches farm complaining about life in Germany. Did I want to drive to Greece with him?
It was Peter’s size, age, and language skills that convinced me that he’d be a good choice as a travelling companion. Or maybe it was just that I had no plan of my own, and the fog inside my brain was too thick for me to devise one: Peter’s plan, good or bad, would have to do. I said my goodbyes to Ronald and Joan, able to fight back tears only because I wasn’t sure whether my presiding emotion was terror or regret, and the tears got lost in the gap. I took the train to Dover, caught a ferry to Oostende, and from there, bought another train ticket that took me to Duisburg, West Germany.
Duisburg was a city about which I knew nothing except that it was somewhere on the European continent, east of France and a short distance north of Cologne, which I’d learned from perusing National Geographic had a cathedral so beautiful the Allies hadn’t bombed it to smithereens during the War. I knew nothing else about where I was going except that the people in Cologne and in Duisburg spoke German and presumably used to be Nazis.
Our plan, as Peter explained it in person once he found me wandering around the Duisburg train station, was to drive a car he’d already bought to Greece, where we would sell it on the Black Market. The profits from this sale would pay for our travel costs, and allow us to live in Greece, he imagined, quite comfortably, for as long as we wished. My part of the plan, so far, was to hand over the cash for my half of the car’s original purchase price. It all sounded good to me; what could go wrong?
A few things, actually. For starters, we hadn’t asked ourselves or anyone else if there was a Black Market for cars in Greece, or, if there was a Black Market, how it would work, or how much profit, if any, we could really expect to make by selling an old car there.
Never mind. It was a Black Market, and, had I tried to think it through, I likely would have imagined a large black building the size of a North American car dealership within walking distance of the Acropolis, which I knew about because I’d seen the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum and had read that they’d been stolen from the Parthenon. I also knew quite a lot about the Greek gods for a North American boy, but I wasn’t expecting to run into any of them at either the Parthenon or the Athens Black Market—once we located it. Like West Germany had been before I got there, the rest of Greece was a blank, including its recently skanky politics, along with the details of its geography and climate. I had some dim notion that being in the south, Greece ought to be warmer than England or West Germany. Nothing else. It didn’t occur to me to speculate on how we would make our way back from Greece. Or where I would go back to. Germany? England? Somewhere else? Such questions involved planning and foresight.
But those obvious questions we hadn’t asked ourselves weren’t what got us into trouble. It was that we’d failed to ask ourselves another question: why was there a market for used cars in Greece? Part of the answer turned out to be that there was no reliable road from Western Europe to Greece along which to bring vehicles to market, illegally or not, and that, therefore, we had no way to get our car to Greece. In fact, if anyone at the time had queried me about exactly what a Black Market was, I would have told them that I thought it must be dark and fuzzy, like the inside of my head, and that therefore, according to Descartes, it must exist.
The reason I hadn’t asked myself these questions was that I was a travel moron. And what constitutes a travel moron? In February 1963, a travel moron was a naïve Canadian boy who’d arrived in Europe thinking he’d be able to hitch-hike or bicycle through France and Germany in the winter months; didn’t get it that foreign languages would use different words and thus pose problems communicating with others; and believed, without evidence of any kind, that custom and common sense should and would bend to suit whatever his needs-of-the-moment might be.
Why had I assumed such ridiculous things? Simple enough: the only images I’d seen of Europe were in National Geographic, where the weather, (unless the subject was Antarctica, Greenland, or the Soviet Union), was always sunny, warm, and summery green, and the only language used was the one that captioned those pictures: English.
By itself, being a travel moron would have been enough to get me into trouble. But then it turned out that the travel companion I had chosen, Peter, was an even greater travel moron than I. The two years in age he had on me, which I mistakenly assumed would make him more mature and reliable, went the other way: he was just old enough to recognize the precariousness of what we were doing. But, if I was scared nearly out of my wits by what I encountered as we traveled, he was frightened completely out of his by the time we’d gotten two hundred kilometres down the Autobahn from Duisburg toward the Austrian Alps, let alone somewhere deeper into our joint imaginary fog of where we were heading: Greece—sunny, warm, and in need of automobiles.
Even for two Canadian boys used to cold weather, heavy snowfalls and bad roads, there were bad roads and winter weather to be frightened of in Austria’s Alps that year. There was also the car we were smuggling: a 1953 Opel, one of those postwar European automobiles designed to resemble American cars of the era, except at ¾ scale. The Opel was a shrunken 1953 Chevrolet, not much of a car to begin with, and someone had driven ours hard enough that we got it for, according to Peter, $250. We had to fill its leaking radiator with mustard powder before we could leave, and after that it required regular injections of more, along with infusions of antifreeze. Then there were the Opel’s tires. We had to—I swear this is true—cut treads into the bald tires, a trick I’d never encountered before, and haven’t seen since. It had to be familiar enough in post-war West Germany, though, because the garage that sold us the car had a special electric cutter they let us borrow to accomplish the job.
We crammed an old-but-sellable Vespa motor scooter Peter had gotten from somewhere into the Opel’s trunk, secured it with rope to the rear door handles, and took off, not quite merrily and barely above the Autobahn’s minimum legal speed, but at least southward, which in our imaginative view of Europe, was where Greece and its Black Market eagerly awaited us.
Until cars began whizzing by us on the Autobahn, the possibility that something might go wrong hadn’t occurred to us. But then it did occur to Peter, and quite dramatically. Maybe it was the car. By rights, what we were driving shouldn’t have stayed in one piece much further than those first 200 kilometres, and Peter’s relatives could have been justly accused of malice for sending him away in a car so barely roadworthy. Did they want to remove him from underfoot, like my aunt and uncle did me? They’d looked distinctly apprehensive as they waved goodbye to us, and at the last minute they’d given us a generously large box of food, a pair of snow shovels and a set of chains, almost as an afterthought. But it’s also possible that they just assumed, because we were North Americans, that we knew things they didn’t.
In reality, we had nothing at all going for us beyond our driving skills and the half-cooked notion that we were immortal, which made us more oblivious to the world than confident in it. An old roadmap was our single navigational aid, and we hadn’t looked at that carefully enough to notice that the road designations became checkered south of Belgrade, or wonder what that might mean. We hadn’t checked the weather forecast before leaving, so we weren’t aware that a major winter storm was set to meet us as soon as we began our ascent into the Alps, which we planned to cross by the most direct route, one that would have us drive from Munich into Austria just east of Salzburg, cross the mountains by their most alpine route, and then enter Yugoslavia southwest of Graz. I can’t recall if I was even aware that we were about to cross a mountain range, and Peter appeared to have no particular insight on that either. Hadn’t Hannibal successfully crossed the Alps with elephants? What could possibly go wrong in a 1953 Opel?
The winter storm in the Alps we didn’t know was coming morphed into a blizzard that paralyzed most of southern Europe, the worst, we found out later, in decades. No worry. We put the chains on the Opel after we rounded a corner and slammed into a metre-high snowdrift that blocked most of the road. That was the first of several snowdrifts to impede us as the blizzard worsened. The chains got us another eighty or ninety kilometres further south and another thousand metres higher into the mountains before we buried the Opel in a two-metre-high drift that completely blocked the highway. This time we crawled out of the car, and because we were circumstantially immortal (i.e., lucky), spotted a light on a nearby hillside. We spent that night in some reluctantly-hospitable Austrian family’s warm kitchen, the first of several times that Peter’s German language skills proved useful.
Early the next morning we shoveled the Opel out, backed it a hundred metres along the highway and waited for a snowplow to clear the snowdrift. A couple of hours passed, and one did, burying the Opel in its side splash. We dug the car out again and made our way up and over the Alps, descending to the Yugoslav border just like the map said we would, about forty kilometres southwest of Graz. It was still snowing, but more lightly now, and the road surface was, if not bare, then at least detectibly a highway.
A few kilometres before we reached the border, it suddenly occurred to me that Yugoslavia was a communist country, and that we would, gulp, be passing through the Iron Curtain. I reminded Peter of this, wondering aloud what the Iron Curtain would look like. I didn’t say so, but I expected a barrier of solid steel at least six or seven metres tall. Or would it, so it could open and close, be an equally gigantic curtain of chain mail? Did the Iron Curtain get rusty?
I was driving when we arrived at the border, and Peter was sitting beside me, mute and evidently without a sense of humour or curiosity, and thus without an opinion as to the Iron Curtain’s composition. Had his sense of humour fallen out and gotten lost in the snow while we were shoveling the car out after that big snowdrift in the Alps? Possibly. Mute and humourless was about to become Peter’s psychological norm in the coming weeks, as terror froze first his faculties, then began to shut off his physical senses as well.
The Iron Curtain south of Graz wasn’t imposing. In fact, it wasn’t there at all. On each side of a thirty-metre gap sat two identical guardhouses, one free, the other, apparently, totalitarian. Both were painted the same forest green, and next to each was a flimsy motorized gate that blocked most, but not all, of the roadway—almost as if it were daring people to run the border. The Austrian guardhouse lifted its gate without either of the two men inside bothering to get to their feet: pass on. The second guardhouse also housed two men, but one of them raised his arm, rather than the gate, as we approached.
I had never, until this moment, encountered a living, breathing Communist. These two in the Yugoslav guardhouse were convincingly dressed in greenish-brown greatcoats with red hammer & sickle epaulets on each shoulder, and red stars on their Soviet conehead helmets. But they weren’t men with two heads, as I had occasionally imagined Communists might have. They were of ordinary height and build, and all the body parts I could see seemed to be unexceptional. One of communists, catching sight of the word “Canada” on the side of the Opel, leaned out the window of the guardhouse and with a gesture, asked, in what I took to be German, to see our passports. He motioned us to pass through the gate and to park the Opel off to the side of the road just beyond. The gate ratcheted up, and we passed through the Iron Curtain, easy as that.
But as you know from the switchblade anecdote from the first chapter, that wasn’t quite the end of it. The Yugoslav guards, one after the other, examined our passports without showing any inclination to stamp them, and they and Peter had a conversation in German without it sounding as if they were shouting at one another. That, by itself, was a new experience for me. I’d been in Germany and Austria for almost a week, but I hadn’t tried to understand what was being said because it didn’t sound like the German I was used to, which was the language from movies about the Second World War, which was always spoken by uniformed Nazis shrieking orders. This didn’t sound like that language either, despite its use by the uniformed Communists.
One of the guards decided that he wanted to inspect the Vespa—Peter explained later that he was only concerned that we hadn’t tied it in properly—and so accompanied us back to the Opel, which I hadn’t dared to shut down for fear that it wouldn’t start again. That’s when we discovered that we’d locked ourselves out with the key in the ignition, and I pulled out my switchblade, opened it Hollywood-style, and used it to pry open the no-draft window on the driver’s side.
The moment the knife cleared my pocket the guard behind me started to babble in Serbo-Croatian, the volume rising as he watched me pry open the no-draft. I got the window open, pulled off my coat and handed it to Peter, reaching inside to work the door handle. When I turned to reclaim my coat, the still-babbling Yugoslav guard was holding it, and Peter was staring at him, waiting, I guessed, for him to switch back to German. From the guard’s increasingly emphatic gestures and tone of voice I knew we’d done something seriously wrong, but I couldn’t imagine what that might have been.
“Ask him what he wants us to do,” I said to Peter.
Another exchange of German and Serbo-Croatian I couldn’t penetrate ensued.
“They’ve got some rule about weapons,” Peter said, after listening intently to the guard for what seemed like several minutes. “He says we’re not allowed to enter Yugoslavia from Austria—that we’ll have to enter from Italy. If they’ll let us in there.”
I consulted our map. Italy meant Trieste, and Trieste was a long way from where we were. “You’re saying we have to drive all the way to Italy just because I used my switchblade to open the no-draft? That’s crazy.”
Peter’s face brightened. “Yeah,” he said. “I think that’s what it’s about.”
I hadn’t, until that moment, thought of the switchblade as a weapon. It was just something cool, like a nice jacket, or a hat. “Explain to him that we’re harmless,” I said. “We’re Canadian, for god’s sake.”
The guard wasn’t hearing any of it. He had his rule, and it meant we were going to have to drive to Italy and try to enter Yugoslavia from there—if the Italians would allow us and my switchblade into Italy.
I tried hard to fathom what the guard was afraid of: had he seen the same movies we had, but instead of thinking that hoodlums with switchblades were cool, he’d been brainwashed by the Communist Party to think that possessing them was proof that we were Capitalist Running Dogs and Lackeys of the Bourgeoisie? I thought about trying to argue that we were only harmless boys, but I kept my trap shut. I was learning discretion. At the Yugoslav border in 1963, discretion meant what it still means today: don’t get talkative around people with guns. It turned out to be a skill I would employ more than once in the weeks ahead.
Discreetly, I backed the Opel through the invisible Iron Curtain and returned to the equally invisible Free World. But we didn’t give up. A few kilometres along the highway back to Graz, I spotted a road that appeared to go southwest, in the direction of Italy, and I turned the car into it. As intimidated as we were by Communist border guards and their weapons, we were also pragmatists, at least when it came to driving cars and crossing long distances in them. From that turnoff, we followed whatever roads seemed to parallel the Yugoslav border. They were narrow, twisting and poorly ploughed if at all, but they weren’t much worse than the main highway from Graz had been, and there was no traffic on them. We ploughed through the snow for nearly another 150 kilometres before coming upon another major road—this one with a sign that pointed north toward Klagenfurt and south toward Ljubljana, which our map told us was well inside Yugoslavia in what is now Slovenia.
We sat at the intersection for a few minutes, which was as deserted as the roads we’d been on but had been ploughed relatively recently, and decided it was worth going south here, thereby avoiding having to take the Opel all the way to Italy. If we got stopped at the border again, well, we’d deal with it, and this time I wouldn’t be flashing my switchblade. The Communist border guards south of Graz had seemed more stubborn than smart, and in our experience, the police in one town didn’t go out of their way to talk to the police in the next. Weren’t Communists conspicuously lacking in initiative?
At this next border crossing, at which The Iron Curtain was no more impressive than at the last one, I kept my switchblade in my pocket, we got our passports stamped quickly, and ourselves and the car were passed through easily. The weather was worsening, and the guards weren’t eager to examine either us or our car, not with snow blowing inside their ears and into their eyes. We drove to Ljubljana through a near-whiteout, gassed up at a big, sparse government gas station that seemed eager to accept our American Express traveler’s cheques but had nothing to sell us but gasoline, motor oil and antifreeze. We also got the balance back in Yugoslav dinars, and judging from the cashier’s smirk, were seriously cheated on the exchange rate because we hadn’t bothered to find out what a dinar was worth. The blizzard wasn’t letting up and Yugoslavs evidently didn’t believe in ploughing their roads, but we decided we might as well drive on to Zagreb: the roads would only be worse tomorrow.
We were soon alone on the country’s main highway, which might have had four lanes, but since it wasn’t ploughed and the snow was eight inches deep, it was hard to be certain of that. I didn’t ask Peter for his opinion. He’d been increasingly reluctant to drive ever since our first attempt to cross into Yugoslavia, and now he seemed reluctant even to talk, as if leaving German-speaking territory was depriving him of language itself.
If anything, I was going the other way. Driving in the blizzard required every ounce of concentration I had, and that was generating, if not quite confidence, then at least an energy-rich focus, and not just for what was in front of my nose. I began to monologue, in part to keep myself awake and alert, but also because it seemed amusing to let whatever came into my head go out my mouth.
There was also some undesigned and undeserved luck: having the Vespa sitting over the rear wheels gave the Opel extra traction and the chains proved sturdy. Sure, the snow was deepening, the night was getting colder, and we were behind the Iron Curtain surrounded by Communists.
But really, never mind the Communists, the highway snarled with snow, the crudded windshield wipers obliterating everything but barely-illuminated shapes ahead that might or might not be in the middle of the road. I was discovering that my driving skills were pretty damned good. And why wouldn’t they be? I’d learned to drive my father’s balky trucks in Northern B.C.’s winter conditions, which often weren’t any better than these. Getting this miniature Chevrolet to Greece should be a cinch.
At Zagreb, I stopped at another government gas station to top up the tank, as much to take a break from driving and to get Peter alert enough to agree that we should drive non-stop to Belgrade than because we needed the gasoline. Peter mumbled assent, and went back to staring through the windshield at the white-out.
Except for several jury-rigged and utterly ineffective snow ploughs made from triangles of 2×10 planks pulled between two farm tractors, the highway was deserted. The road conditions grew more extreme as the snow piled up, but that didn’t bother me, and really, it didn’t slow down the Opel. Whoever and whatever we encountered, whether snow ploughs or cars stopped along the road, of which there were plenty, people waved to us. I decided it had to be because they’d spotted the “Canada” sign on the side of the car, believed we were in some sort of car rally, and that, as Canadians, we were naturally the only drivers skilled enough to get through the blizzard. More likely, they were waving at us because they thought we were crazy and wanted us to pull over and stop risking our lives in the heap of capitalist junk we were driving.
We were right and they were wrong. The Opel got us to Belgrade without breaking down, sliding off the road, or killing us by other means. I pulled off the main highway somewhere near five in the morning, and parked close to what I hoped was downtown but was actually the first street that wasn’t filled with snowed-in cars.
I awakened Peter and coaxed him to climb into the slightly roomier back seat. He loaded himself into his sleeping bag without saying a word, and I got inside mine on the front seat, asleep before I heard Peter snore. Outside, the blizzard raged on, and by morning, at least twenty-five centimetres of snow blanketed the Opel.
What awakened me wasn’t the icy cold or the blizzard’s howling winds, and it wasn’t Peter’s snores. Someone, or something, was banging on the Opel’s roof just above my head. I sat up in the seat, scraped a small patch of frost from the window and gazed blearily out. It was a rifle butt making that sound, now banging against the edge of the Opel’s door, thud, thud, thud. Three Red Army soldiers were standing beside the car, each wearing Red Army great coats and winter hats straight out of an espionage movie. Each of them was carrying a rifle. None of them was smiling.
I roused Peter, mumbled something to the effect that the car was surrounded by Commies, pushed open the door and climbed out, just barely able to resist putting my hands up. Conjuring my best boyish grin, I shook hands with each one the soldiers. We had no language in common, but it wasn’t hard to see they thought we were very ill-advised or possibly crazy to have been sleeping in an old car parked on a back street during a snow storm. Either way, once they recognized they weren’t dealing with close-to-freezing Lackeys of the Bourgeoisie, they seemed to decide that we were entertaining enough to provoke first smiles and then increasingly impolite laughter. But they also insisted, in a combination of poor German, pidgin English and a lot of incomprehensible Serbo-Croatian, that we go with them. I assumed that we were under arrest, that we were going to be placed in some Communist prison, and that we might never be heard from again. Peter, who understood more of what they were saying than I did, insisted that no, don’t put your hands up, everything is fine, and that we only needed to grab our packsacks and follow them. Okay, I would comply.
The Red Army soldiers, who were actually Yugoslav boys not much older than we were, evidently had decided that we were more hapless travel morons than nefarious capitalist infiltrators. They were, I think, mainly concerned that we were moronic enough to freeze to death if left to ourselves, and so marched us to the tallest building visible and ushered us into its lobby. It was the Hotel Slavia, a modernist slab of about twenty stories that would have looked dowdy in any major city in Western Europe or North America, even in 1963. Here, the Slavia Hotel was the local skyscraper. To its west lay the diplomatic quarter, and to the south, along a trio of streets that radiated from the small, circular and snow-clogged park across from the hotel entrance, was what turned out to be downtown Belgrade. I’d guessed right, in other words.
We encountered two welcome surprises at the Slavia Hotel. First, the doorman spoke fluent English. Second, he recognized Peter, although not me, and was, it soon came out, on a first-name basis with both of our fathers. He’d spent twelve years in and around Quesnel, B.C., a town 110 kilometres from where Peter and I had grown up. He’d returned to Yugoslavia two years before with his savings from a decade of working heavy construction, and was, in Yugoslav terms, moderately wealthy. But he’d returned to a worker’s state, in which everyone had to be a worker, and his command of English made him a natural as a concierge for a hotel. For us, he was luck incarnate.
Like the young soldiers, he thought we were crazy to be in Belgrade in the middle of winter, but after those decades spent in Northern British Columbia, he was non-judgmental about crazy. More important, he was discreetly helpful, explaining to us, having figured out that we were short of money, where the Canadian embassy was, how to get them to arrange wire transfers from our parents without getting ourselves jerked out of the country and flown back to Canada, and giving us useful advice about what we could and couldn’t get away with in Yugoslavia.
“Don’t tell the people at the embassy that you’ve run out of money even if you have,” he said. “If they think you’re helpless, you’ll find yourselves on a plane home. You boys don’t look like you want to go home yet, so don’t give yourselves away. And don’t let the locals know you’re broke, either, or they’ll stop treating you so well.”
The truth was that we’d planned our finances the way we had everything else—without looking much beyond the ends of our noses, and we were closer to broke than we admitted, even to ourselves. We would have been dead broke had the Slavia Hotel not assumed, since we were from North America, that we must be rich, and so it didn’t demand payment for our lodgings beyond the first night’s deposit. Our only assets were the Opel, the Vespa tied into its trunk, and one or two low-denomination American Express Travelers cheques.
The blizzard, meanwhile, raged on for another two days, and the snow piled up still deeper. The locals didn’t seem to have the slightest idea what to do with all this white stuff, so Peter and I entertained ourselves by walking the streets of Belgrade with our snow shovels, digging out whatever and whoever needed it. Since this was the only tangible proof of the superiority of democracy we could come up with, it seemed like the decent thing to do, and those in need were plentiful.
Once the novelty of clearing sidewalks and digging cars out of the snow for people who didn’t understand a word we said to them wore off, we made our way to the Canadian embassy, where we got the staff to wire our parents with requests for money without letting on how much we needed the money. Like everyone else, the diplomats couldn’t quite decide if we were crazy or just hapless, and since it was the dead of winter in a country where Western diplomats had little to do but push paper and hope for the overthrow of communism, several of the younger embassy officials took a shine to us. One of them was a good-looking younger man with a dark complexion and a pointed moustache. His name was Galtieri.
“The fun place in this god-forsaken outpost,” he explained to us, “is the American embassy. At least for anyone who speaks English it is.”
He winked at me when he said this, and I struggled to keep a straight face. “Why’s that?” I asked.
“The Americans have a free canteen,” he said. He pulled a pad of paper from a drawer and wrote the name of an officer with whom he was friendly and, with a smile worthy of Zorro, whispered that his American friend was CIA. “I’ll give him a call and tell him to expect you.”
I’d noticed, on our second trek to the Canadian embassy, that the method of distributing dairy products in Belgrade’s diplomatic quarter might be a source of food. The delivery trucks dropped metal crates filled with half-litre bottles of milk and cream outside the doors of the buildings, from which the tenants, presumably, picked up their allotted orders after work. The crates were delivered this way both at official-looking buildings—probably embassies—and at the quite ordinary apartment buildings that surrounded them, likely inhabited by various levels of junior diplomatic personnel. I looked at Peter.
“Why shouldn’t I pick up a bottle or two, go inside the lobbies of the less official-looking buildings, drink them, and leave through a side or back door?”
Peter stared at me as if I’d lost my mind. “You’ll get arrested,” he said. “This is a communist country, for god’s sake.” I waited while he thought that through. “Besides,” he concluded, “stealing is wrong.”
I didn’t think stealing was wrong; it was a matter of who you were stealing from. A corporation? A communist country? Where’s the problem?
Peter turned his back: “Do what you want.”
The days began to pass. Belgrade, very slowly and clumsily, began to recover from the blizzard, and Peter’s initiative and curiosity continued to shrink. I began to make the daily trips to the embassy on my own, more to steal milk than because I expected anything to get done there. After a day or so, I cut the bottoms from my coat pockets so I could bring milk to Peter, who didn’t refuse to drink it despite his aversion to stealing. Another day or two passed, and I began to have trouble convincing Peter to leave the hotel room. All he seemed able to do was whine about things we didn’t control: Where were the bank drafts from our parents? What chance had we of making it to Greece with the roads impassable?
A conversation with the helpful concierge had already made it plain to me that we weren’t going to make it to Greece no matter what the weather was. Our plan to smuggle a car into that country wasn’t going to work, not just because there were no roads open right now but—this was what truly convinced me to give it up—there were no passable roads, period. And south of Belgrade and into Macedonia, according to the concierge, there wasn’t much of a distinction to be made between robbers, police, and citizens. Worse, he said, if we somehow made it all the way to Greece, its Black Market would be more unsafe than a road-trip through the back roads of Macedonia—if we were able to locate that Black Market at all, about which he was skeptical.
So, we were going to have to return the Opel to Germany. And since the blizzard had closed all the roads that led back across the Alps and Austria, we were going to have to return the long way around, via Italy and France.
The wire transfers from our parents hadn’t appeared, and since we weren’t about to admit there was any urgency, we cooled our heels while, presumably, the bureaucrats dithered and the Communist wires crossed and uncrossed. I adapted: instead of going to the Canadian embassy, I began making daily visits to the U.S. embassy and its canteen, which was filled with genuine CIA spooks, just as Galtieri said it would be. These spooks were men and women, it wasn’t very hard to see, every bit as crazy as they thought we were, but about different things. Peter sometimes accompanied me—the lure of food had become the only sure way of extracting him from the hotel.
I went to the American embassy as much for the company of the spooks as for the free meals. They were strange people, and in their teasing, overconfident way, kind and generous. I’m sure they thought of themselves as political agents trying to coax Yugoslavia into normality on American terms. The distinctly morose Yugoslav reality wasn’t normal to me either, and—as it turned out—it wouldn’t survive any better than the Soviet version.
The spooks didn’t see, with their belief in American exceptionalism and the virtues of capitalism, that all they really had to do to defeat the Communist Menace in Yugoslavia was to go on having fun, the one human behavior that Lenin’s strain of communism had never had any use for. The best way the spooks had to defeat their geopolitical enemy, in other words, was to invite the Yugoslavs to join the fun at the canteen.
Back at the Slavia Hotel, I began, in a small notebook I’d shoplifted from the CIA-subsidized American bookshop, to write the eighth Novel-I-Would-Never-Finish. I got the title most easily: “Requiem for the Rover Boys”. The “Rover Boys” part of it didn’t come from either my private locker inside the Collective Unconscious or from my rapidly spinning brain. It was a gift from the spooks, who took to calling Peter and me “the Rover Boys”. I doubt if they’d have been very impressed by the “Requiem” part of my novel’s title, but its melodrama served my purposes until I was rewriting pages seven or eight and realized the “requiem” in the title was demanding that the Rover Boys had to go.
Sitting at the window in that ninth-floor hotel room overlooking snowy Belgrade, I was lost. I wanted to invent, but all the things I might have invented to move the Rover Boys along—grand adventure, political intrigues, love, passionate or filial, courage and loyalty—were beyond my understanding. That meant that the demise of the Rover Boys would have to be soon; my fault because I had run out of things for them to do. It hadn’t dawned on me to use any of the things I’d recently experienced—the snowbanks we ran the Opel into, the two episodes at the border, or the spooks at the American embassy. I thought novels had to be made up, and so I put my Rover Boys on a sailing ship in the North Pacific, heading for Jack London territory, which I knew something about because I’d read most of Jack London’s novels. But the thought that they would have to go over the side the way Martin Eden did stopped my scribbling. I didn’t, in other words, recognize that I was already in the midst of all the things that matter, already swimming in the cross-cutting currents of all good narratives.
There’s another explanation for my brief and slightly strange encounter with writer’s block, this one more banal: The arrival of the money drafts from our parents. It got me to thinking about the several thousand real world possibilities of doom that loomed in the weeks ahead as Peter and I faced the completely non-literary job of nursing the Opel back to Duisburg. This was life, not literature.
I was also beginning to understand that I couldn’t talk to Peter about all the things that were swirling around in my head, and not just because he’d stopped talking. He wasn’t a reader and he didn’t want to be a writer, and so the things I easily shared with John Wright—that there was a thrilling world of things in front of us, and then there was a more thrilling world of things that existed in our minds, much of it taken from books—wasn’t something Peter understood, or wanted to.
I left the draft of Requiem for The Rover Boys in the desk drawer of our room at the Slavia hotel, all nine notebook pages, most of the last two or three scratched illegible by revisions as my imagination foundered. I left it behind because I couldn’t see what the future held for me—not in the near term, not this side of Mars, and least of all as a novelist.
I didn’t begin another novel for thirty years. And by then, a novel looked more like the news than what the Creative Writing Department thought it should.
Dooney’s is serializing, on a weekly basis, Brian Fawcett’s manuscript The Martian Invasion, and a companion piece, The Sussex Variations. Edited by Karl Siegler, this is one of the last books Fawcett completed before his death, from pulmonary fibrosis, on February 27, 2022. Fawcett is a founding co-editor of dooneyscafe.com since its inception in 2001.
You can find the full list of posted chapters for The Martian Invasion here.