Nearer, my god, to Serbia

A. Forrest VanTuyl 


            I smoked my last Drina leaning out the window of a train leaving Serbia after a very imposing, very frustrated ticket collector woke me up to inform me that the train was not bound for Skopje, Macedonia but for Sofia, Bulgaria. It cost five euro to have him scratch out Skopje and write Sofia on my ticket, but the alternative was spending the rest of the night in a rural Serbian train station, and when youre traveling to escape impending adulthood and burn all the money you had saved for college, reaching destinations is a low priority.

            In the back closet of a tea house in downtown Sofia, the Elephant Bookstore maintains a well-curated stock of Russian and East German printings of American classics and coverless reported lost or stolen bootlegs. I walked in to meet Kris, a lanky, unshaven guy in his mid-twenties with a knack for surrealist conversation who had responded to my couchsurfing request the day I got to Sofia. My first two weeks in Bulgaria floated on a lazy rhythm of drinking beer in the park, rolling cigarettes in the kitchen, and reading books borrowed from Elephant. Rivaling Elephants stock was the quadrilingual bookshelf of Kris roommate, Svetla, who had joyously curly hair, monumental height and spoke impeccable English - the result of diplomat parents and a childhood in New York and Israel. She worked from the apartment kitchen writing reports for a non-profit human rights organization, and rolled her cigarettes with filters, sharing tobacco with me as my money ran lower and lower.

            Phillip-Morris purchased the Drina factory from the Serbian government in 2003, an investment that strong-armed the fledgling democracy into lowering the excise tax on cigarettes, while in 2007 Bulgaria raised theirs to comply with European Union health standards. At a buck twenty a pack, a third less than anything in Bulgaria, I missed Drinas and Serbia dearly. I explained this dilemma to Kris, who offered to hitchhike to Serbia with me when the weekend came. It was early in the week, though, and plans had a short shelf life in that apartment.

            I woke up Saturday with mountains peering over the balcony wall and cigarette smoke wafting from the kitchen. Breakfast was a pot of coffee, a Kerouac novel, and part of the joint our friend Sascha arrived with. Svetla, Kris, and Sascha began conversing in Bulgarian. Kris found a map and they discussed it further. Some consensus appeared to have been reached, and they looked toward me expectantly.

Have we been speaking Bulgarian this whole time? Kris asked


Ha ha. Well. We decided we are going to bicycle to Serbia. There is a town just across the border where you can buy Drina.

When are we leaving?

Kris looked at his watch, and Svetla and Sacha. Oh, about five minutes. Well camp tonight.


            I rushed to pack. I had no idea how far Serbia was or where we would camp and no one had packed food or a tent. And there were only two bicycles. We walked across town to get another from Kris parents house and the fourth at Saschas. Sascha lived with his parents in an imposing concrete apartment complex on the edge of the city, and at twenty seven was still trying to find direction in life. A bicycle trip would be a good break from his floundering restaurant venture. We left the grit and monotony of the city outskirts on a highway cutting through oceans of sunflower fields.

            The highway narrowed and we fought long hills, road dust, and traffic. We took an exit with no signs or residences in sight, just cornfields and sunflowers stretching to layers of cloud-clad, green mountains in the west. Some of those mountains were in Serbia. We crossed the overpass and descended to a one lane, unmarked, asphalt road. We checked the map, and the road turned to small, square, gray stone in quarter-circle patterns, repeating like flower petals arranged into a ribbon of road. Sascha told me the Romans had built it. The road rolled over hills and made few corners. We stopped often to snack on ripe plums growing along the road, traditionally used for rakia, a ferocious regional brandy.

            At one stop, Sascha and Kris disappeared into a cornfield for a few minutes and came back at an awkward dash, their arms full of corn.

Theres nothing better cooked on a fire, explained Sascha.

Except coffee, countered Kris. He hid dinner under a bundle of clothes on his fender and we rode away with the threat of a vengeful farmer behind every hill.

            Time moves differently on a bicycle- the senses are just busy enough to keep your head from distracting your body, and the crescendo of hills heading towards mountain borders leave one too short of breath for conversation much, but not all, of the time. A bicycle is a superb observatory. The road drops towards the next village, old men with pitchforks wander new-mown hay fields in the afternoon sun, flagging us down to ask where we come from, and old women, their hair tied in floral scarves, their faces furrowed from resilience, carry jugs of water from monastery springs to stone houses. We pass through towns where old regimes left electricity and new roads and running water; towns named for teachers who became martyrs for revolutions that were happening when our grandparents were alive, and martyrs who became saints before the land I came from was named or known.

            We arrived at the gravel road-side village of Izvor with the sun reddening in the August haze. Izvor is six gray stone farm houses with terra cotta roofs and tomato gardens. Chickens and curious dogs stopped their wandering to note our arrival. Children at the village fountain paused their games to study four sweaty cyclists riding in at sunset speaking a foreign language. Kris explained that we would get food here before heading farther up into the hills to make camp.

         Izvor was familiar to the point of recalling half-forgotten dreams and past lives in which I was sure I had come before. It resembled my hometown, with a single store which was also a restaurant, a bar, and a post office. It was home to five generations of neighbors whose kids were watched, scolded, and cared for by whichever parent was nearest by; where no social secrets were kept. Maybe I felt the culmination of my experience in the Balkans as some reprise of the fabled old America, where we could hitchhike with no destination, smoke cigarettes from train windows, drink beer in public parks, and afford to work only part time in second-hand bookstores instead of climbing corporate ladders and paying student loans and rolling cigarettes to afford an iPhone and a 12-month lease.

            There were two tables outside the store where men drank beer with two teenage sons and a starkly beautiful daughter whom I prayed would leave this village before she was married and stuck in someone elses footsteps. The old women in the store pointed us toward the beer cooler, asked about our trip and how we had come here, and then about the Americani and where I was from and how I got here.

            She says youve been here before, Kris told me in English. I told her no but shes sure. She wont believe me, he laughed. She says yes, yes, him, the American, from Seattle. I shook my head, smiling, overwhelmed by exhaustion and surreal half-memories of a place I wanted so badly to recognize, and forgetting that to shake the head means yes in Bulgaria. She shook her head and walked back to the kitchen to cook our sausages, and we walked outside to drink our beer. It went down easy, and we took four more liters and our dinner back to the gravel road. We turned off and walked our bikes up a dirt trail to a hilltop where a lichen-covered gravestone leaned beneath two oak trees. The sun crossed the border to set on Serbia. We scavenged wood for a fire, rolled our last cigarettes, and stayed close to the smoke to keep mosquitoes off. I fell asleep full of beer, green peppers, mountain feta cheese, dark bread, fire-blackened corn and sausage, blissful in the shelter of oak trees, clear stars, and the rippling, rolling, uncomprehended syllables of my friends conversation.

            The sun was breaking a sweat before I got out of bed, and the campfire coffee came too late to help me awaken without stumbling. Mosquito bites flared up under my sweat-crusted shirt and sore legs screamed curses at the mountains. When my friends conversed or consulted the map, I lost trust in myself and words I couldnt understand. Loneliness is a sovereign nation of communication barriers, insecurity, and internal conflict. I was hungry again, too, and the hunger taunted me with jeers of ineptitude, inability, and laziness.

            The mountains laid bare the inefficiency of our cobbled-together bicycles and physical shortcomings. I isolated myself more as we dragged closer to the border, pushing uphill on manic outbursts, burning out, and coasting alone around long corners, losing hope in Serbia, and realizing my own loss of direction in this long, undeserved vacation I had taken to stave off the responsibilities of adulthood.

            We came to a large town, perhaps a small city, sprawling along wide streets and redundant houses like a 1980s American suburb. There was a lonely, bland grocery shop on the empty main street and we bought bologna and white bread and pasta sauce in a jar and ate on the sidewalk. Sacha stretched his legs and cringed. I laid down and felt my own legs seize up. Even the infallibly good natured Kris was grimacing.

            There was a train from this town back to Sofia that we could take home that evening. Serbia was 11 kilometers away, straight uphill on a major highway. We flipped a coin, and were told to stay in Bulgaria. There was a swamp on our map, just outside of town, downhill, and we decided to explore it rather than the border.

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            At the only open bar in town was a man drinking alone. He was broad shouldered and balding with black stubble between the crown of his head and stout neck, and slouched ambivalently as Kris and Svetla asked for directions. I could hear his grumbling response from across the street, later translated by Kris.

            You take a left, and a left, and another left, and then a right and a right and a right, and then youll be at the stupid fucking swamp.

            We took three lefts, passed under the highway to Serbia, and took a right at the edge of town. We sped with tired, careless, ease down a gentle hill beside a farm with holstein cattle wandering among motorhomes blasting balkan dance music. Svetlas front tire caught a crack in the road, wobbled, and jerked her to the ground. She hit with her shoulder, and then the side of her head, and then the rest of her body, and she slid along her side tangled in the bicycle frame. Kris pulled her out of the road. Her hair was damp with blood and her shirt stuck to the scrapes on her side. Sascha and I spread blankets beneath an apple tree and Kris cleaned the gravel from her cuts. I picked up her bicycle and waited with Sacha while Kris held Svetlas head in his lap. We rested on the edge of the field for an hour while she came slowly back to consciousness.

            We spent the afternoon in the empty train station of the westernmost town in Bulgaria, sharing giant bottles of beer, trying every chocolate bar at the snack stand, and counting mosquito bites. I had one hundred and seven, and paid the equivalent of four dollars for a pack of Marlboros to distract myself. A train arrived from the east as the sun was setting. It was brand new, in the sleek, plastic, western european style, with air conditioning and no open windows and no smoking allowed. It took us back to Sofia in under an hour.

            A German couchsurfer showed up at Elephant Bookstore the next day on a bicycle heavy with saddle bags. He was no more than five and a half feet tall and looked to weigh less than the bicycle. Kris asked me to show him to the apartment, and as we walked he told me about his trip, which had started in Turkey three weeks before and tomorrow would cross the mountains into Serbia and follow the Rhine river valley back to his home in Bavaria. I offered him one of my Marlboros from the train station. He chewed giant handfuls of sunflower seeds and said no thank you.


Authors note: This story is about the Serbian Drina cigarette, which is made by Philip Morris Co. is packaged with a cyrillic label (дрина), and is only available in Serbia, not to be confused with the Sarajevo Drina, which are independently produced in Sarajevo, and come in a minimalist white, black, and pink package carrying the name in latin script (unless ethnic serb extremists have blockaded the city, in which case they are packed in recycled pages of books and newspapers), and are available in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia. When purchasing Drina in Serbia, you will be asked to differentiate. A story regarding the Sarajevski Drina is forthcoming, eventually.