Well that’s how my brother and I felt about our European tour. It had only taken us a few days to get from northern France down to the Alps then across northern Italy and into Slovenia, but those few days had seemed monumentally long – in that time I had been busted by the Gendarme in France and my brother had been run over in Italy. We had spent a night in Marseille train station and a night in a muddy field in Italy. I was feeling like the poet Rimbaud, although my thoughts rarely dwelled on the notion of infernal flowers.
In contrast, Slovenian time took on a more accommodating pace and events occurred over a more reasonable time scale. For the first time we had the opportunity to stop and take in the magnificence of late spring in the Alps. Without incident we hitched to a small resort town in the mountains and paid pennies to camp by a still lake of melt water. We had time to loll around the tent and get stoned and not feel the anxiety of having to be moving on before getting hassled by an irate land owner.
The leisurely march of time was interrupted when we attempted to climb a Slovenian mountain. It all started well when we found the start of the track but we foolishly over-reached ourselves. I blame the fact that we had a proper map of the terrain. Instead of plodding slowly up the path we decided to take a short cut to the summit. This short cut involved taking a steeper, more direct route through the alpine forest. Within minutes we were picking our way up a dried out river bed over huge boulders. The way soon became narrow and steep. We were both hauling packs and feeling the dangers of gravity. Normally I’m quite adept at 45 degree ascents but when the degrees started approaching 90 and our climbing left scary heights below us, we got rattled. The crunch came when neither of us could go up nor down. Below was precipitous with rocks falling down into a narrow ravine, above the top seemed unassailable. Time froze and my bottle was rapidly disappearing. My brother was made of sterner stuff and talked me out of my dizzying stasis. We inched sideways and performed a daring scramble to reach the relative safety of a woody slope. To extinguish the flame of adrenaline burning us up we had a joint and scrutinized the map and compass, which wasn’t an awful amount of help. Instead we took the only sound decision and that was to abandon the short cut and go back down the hill until we found the path again. It took a long and nervy forty minutes to regain the trail. By the side of the track was a memorial stone and on it was carved some incomprehensible writing, but the flowers before the monument spoke plainly of death in the mountains.
My relief at re-gaining the path was palpable: my legs became shaky and I had a strong urge to drop to my knees and kiss the ground. The couple of hours the detour took us had the existential flavor of a week, the odour of seven days of journeying. It was no wonder then that we decided to abandon our bid for the peek. Instead we slowly wound our way back down the mountainside.
The following morning we tried again, stuck to the path and made it to the top comfortably. It was an anti-climax because all the excitement had occurred the previous day. So to avoid lethargy setting in we hitched off the next day.
It took us no time at all to reach the capital Ljubljana. It was a scorching day and we were sweating lakes as we walked past the national football stadium and out onto the main motorway junction. Now that we were virtually map less (we had a couple of magazine spreads of the roads of Europe) we found our way with no small amount of accuracy.
At the motorway junction I drank a beer in a matter of seconds. The liquid disappeared into me like the first rains in the desert. Before us stood a line of seven or eight hitchers; we felt a bit disheartened by the competition, particularly the pair of young women at the end of the line. What the hell we thought, we had no pressing engagements so we took ourselves down the lead-on ramp to the end of the line.
Sure enough the two women got a lift in no time flat. However, what did surprise us was how regularly cars were stopping. Our turn to receive the generosity of a stranger soon arrived. We jumped in gratefully and were on our way.
The travelling went like a dream during that time. We made good time and stopped for the night in a small coppice down a country road. A Slovenian policeman did question us, but unlike his French counterpart he didn’t shine a light up my arse looking for drugs; instead, he told us to stay at the campsite a few clicks down the road. We thanked him for his advice and when we had walked out of his sight we abandoned the road and walked into the aforementioned coppice and made camp.
The next day we managed to hitch through Croatia, a country that unlike Slovenia was still at war. The pressure of the Balkan melting pot had exploded into ethnic rivalries now that the mighty hand of Soviet power had been removed from the lid. Sadly it was a war that resulted in acts of genocide and still lingers to this day in Kosovo. It was surreal getting lift after lift through the beautiful countryside and little towns, knowing that only a couple of hundred of kilometers away a war was being fought. We saw children playing and people going about their business but it really didn’t seem like a place to linger. Our final lift in Croatia was with a non-uniformed soldier. He was friendly but quiet. We noticed he had a finger missing. I think he felt it was his duty to make sure we got out of his country safely.
Once in Hungary we soon got a ride to the nearest train station and spent a few dollars each buying tickets to Budapest. Lake Balaton stretched on for miles. We had the late afternoon carriage nearly to ourselves; there were just a couple of blokes like us having fags with their heads pressed to the narrow space where the upper part of the windows opened. Nothing has changed, we were surrounded by no smoking signs but in that time and place the signs didn’t have the might of UN edicts.
We disembarked at Budapest’s central train station and somehow figured out what bus to hop on to get to the district where there was a camp site. We arrived at a hill. At the bottom was an unlatched funicular train carriage that had been converted into a reception. We gratefully paid our few dollars and got a terraced plot on the hillside behind. It had been a solid day’s travelling. We had travelled the length of an entire country and gone from a war zone to the comparative calm of Hungary, and in particular, to this trippy converted funicular train station. To celebrate we exceeded our ganja ration for the day and smoked it up and fell into a timeless slumber.
The next day we crossed between the ancient districts of Buda and Pest and found a local open market where we haggled and purchased a half bottle of rum. Knowing a bargain when we saw it we headed through the throng of historical buildings and found the opera house. We bought tickets for some Wagner drivel. To kill the time before curtain up we spent a chilly hour in the national art gallery. We tried to appreciate the paintings but the dour nature of Magyar history and art (the greys and browns and suffering subject matter) combined with the extreme air-conditioning left us subdued and deflated.
At such moments it is necessary to pamper the body to appease the soul, so we bought bread and cheese and sat in the park. We quickly caught on to the fact that bottled beers carried a deposit. Most of the folk who were buying beer from the kiosk we were flopped out near didn’t return the bottles and claim their deposit money. After spending an hour looking at pessimistic Hungarian art it made perfect sense that these respectable folk should miss the opportunity to redeem the empty bottles for cash. They were used to a poor deal. My brother and I had finished our rum and sang praises to the gods for providing us with a wealth of empty bottles to trade in for full bottles of not bad Hungarian brew.
We stumbled into the opulent opera house seven eighths toasted with a couple of bottles of beer nestled in our deep pockets. Most of our fellow opera goers had made the effort and lounged languidly in the red velvet upholstered chairs in elegant attire. The opulence of our surroundings penetrated even our alcohol drenched brains and we quickly decided that it would be prudent to consume our remaining liquor surreptitiously. So we left our upper auditorium seats and ushered ourselves to the grand bogs where we guzzled our beers in a quick smart fashion so as not to miss curtain up. At that point in my life I had never been to an opera. So far my three dollar ticket had seemed good value considering the extravagance of my surroundings; however, the incomprehensible spectacle of overweight warblers posturing on the stage left me profoundly unaffected. Even before the second act I was sound asleep. My brother kindly nudged me in the ribs when my snoring became conspicuous.
During the final act my brother and I shook off our lethargy and exited the opera house. Hitler and Nietzsche may have been impressed with Wagner but we thought it far more important to be in time for the last bus back to the campsite.
We caught the right bus but didn’t get off at the right stop. It was only sheer drunken good luck that eventually led us to the piece of terraced hillside that we had rented. As soon as we made our tent we crawled into our sleeping bags and promptly passed out.
The next morning we packed up our tent and checked out. Even though our money and ganja were holding out we had become accustomed to a life on the move and thought it time to strike out in search of new adventures.