We took the train across Italy from Florence to the port city of Ancona. The train was full that Monday-after-Easter and with our EuroRail passes and unreserved seats, Cameraman and I were relegated to sitting on our packs in the narrow walkway. There was maybe 18 inches between us and the compartments, but the guys pushing the vending carts still pushed right on through every half hour or so and we would have to stand and flatten ourselves against the windows and hold our packs over our heads and let them by.
It was a sunny day in spring in central Italy and it was okay to just sit uncomfortably and watch the countryside rush past.
When the train stopped in Ancona, we disembarked and stretched on the platform. Then we looked around. It hadn’t seemed like much of an assumption to plan on the docks being close to the train station, but we couldn’t even see the Adriatic from the platform. The station quickly emptied out of people and we wandered around looking for some indication of how to get to the ferry. There was no indication, or, if there was, it was in Italian, a language neither of us knew.
In the few weeks we’d already spent traveling from Madrid to here, via stops in Spain, Switzerland and Italy, Cameraman and I had found ourselves in more difficult situations than this. It was hours before the boat was scheduled to leave and the sea really couldn’t be that far away. So, we weren’t exasperated, but we didn’t exactly have a plan.
Then, a guy about our age asked us in broken English if we were trying to get to the ferry to Croatia. Yes! We were. I don’t know how he knew, but he did. He quickly led us to a small window in the station where we assumed we were buying tickets for a bus — not that he or the vendor really explained — and then led us through the station to where a bus waited. We got on. He spoke little English so we just rode and kept a close eye on him. The bus went into the city, a cluster of low buildings and warehouses. Not Tuscany by any means.
At a five-way intersection, still with no water in sight, he disembarked and we followed him like the lost puppies we were. He went around a couple corners and then there were several large cruise ships and ferries looming in front of us. At this point, our destination was pretty obvious, but our friendly guide didn’t abandon us with a point of his finger. He led us to the ticketing area where he battled a few old women on our behalf to convince them that we, as students and holders of the EuroRail passes, were entitled to a lower fare than they were telling us. Soon, we had a couple tickets and a couple hours before 9 p.m., when the boat was scheduled to leave for Croatia.
This was new. Cameraman and I hadn’t ridden a lot of ferries in our day, much less overnight ferries from one European country to another. Much less overnight ferries on which we had secured no bunk nor cabin, but just a ticket to roam the boat during the nocturnal hours. And we were also leaving the relative security of western Europe for the unknown shores of Croatia, a country best summarized by a question mark that contained war and Communism and much more.
This called for gin.
Cameraman and I went across the street, keeping within sight of the big boat, to a small convenience store. We bought a bottle of Seagram’s and a few cans of tonic water. Oh yeah, and some food, too.
When we got on the boat, a multi-decked vessel maybe a few hundred feet long, we navigated up through the car deck to the lounge area, which at 9 p.m. was already lit by dim red lights. We found a corner with a padded bench along one wall and a table with some chairs. We set up camp. It seemed like forever before the boat left the dock and when it did, we could hardly tell it was moving.
I set the gin and the tonic water on the table. We had no glasses, no ice. There was a bar in the corner. Not knowing the boat’s policy on us bringing our own booze on board, and not speaking Italian or Croatian, going up and asking the bartender for a couple of glasses of ice might not be terribly easy. Somehow, I ended up nominated for the task.
Attempt #1 resulted in me coming back to the table with two large glasses of white wine. Luckily, the Croatian prices for white wine turned out to be quite cheap. We drank them quickly.
Attempt #2 resulted in me coming back with two glasses of ice water. We slurped the water down fast and used the melting ice for a few drinks. On the third trip to the bar, I finally was able to finagle just ice, and from there on out, it was all good.
We had some journalling to catch up on so we drank and wrote. Soon, we both had closed our notebooks, unable to focus on the marks our pens made across the page. We drank some more. When I went to the bathroom, I had to concentrate on every foot as I battled both my internal imbalance and the rocking of the boat in the waves. We strolled up on deck once, but the idea of drunkenly stumbling over the deck and into the cold, dark sea was amplified by our inebriation, as was the idea of someone messing with our precious backpacks, so we quickly retreated inside to the dim red confines of the lounge.
There were other people in the lounge, but not too many. The guy who had helped us get from the train to the boat had told us of the summer months when the entire floor would be carpeted in sleeping families.
It wasn’t too late when my eyelids began to droop. The boat would land in Split at 7:00 a.m. and I wanted to be somewhat awake for the ordeal of entering another country and finding lodging. We slept end-to-end on the bench under our small blankets.
I woke as soon as it was gray out. The boat was very quiet. Cameraman was sleeping. My mouth was dry and gross and I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth. Then I sat and looked out the window and watched the coast of Croatia appear out of the morning mist. My head felt as clear as the skies.
When we docked we were led through an area surrounded by chain-link fence and for the first time on the trip, someone actually checked our passports and stamped them. Then, we were set loose on the old city of Split. Everything we had read and heard had said that there weren’t the usual hostels in Split, but that a bunch of old women would meet the boats and offer rooms to rent. We were counting on such, but when an old women approached us on the dock with a piece of paper it took me a minute to realize why she was approaching us. She spoke almost no English (and, maybe you’re noticing a trend here, we spoke no Croatian), but she had a piece of paper someone had kindly written out for her in English that said her name was Maria and she had rooms and they were such-and-such price. We haggled down the price, though very poorly, as I’m not good at negotations anyway, much less at 7 a.m. on the other side of the world with a hangover. She got a good price out of us, and then led us up into the hills of Split.
When we arrived at her apartment house she somehow conveyed to us that the current occupants of our room weren’t quite out yet, so we should sit with her in her kitchen on the ground floor. She would make coffee and there would be cookies. She put the water on to boil and then added the Nescafe to it and gave us small cups of the brown, chalky liquid. She put a plate of dry cookies on the table in front of us and then, fatefully, I thought she asked me if I wanted a glass of water. Oh, did I. I nodded and Cameraman, thinking the same thing I thought, asked for one too.
Maria reached under the sink, which I thought was odd, and pulled out an almost-empty two liter water jug, stripped of its label, a couple inches of clear liquid in the bottom. Maybe her tap water’s no good, I thought. She poured the liquid into two glasses not much bigger than a double shot glass, and put them on the table in front of us. I sniffed mine. It was vodka. I saw Cameraman sniff his too and then set it down. I picked mine up again and took a sip which, when she saw me do it, she exclaimed, hands flailing, no no no, at once, all at once, drink!
I drank. One big gulp and down my pipes. I’m not a big vodka drinker, much less a morning vodka drinker, much less a morning homemade vodka drinker, but such is the country of Croatia. Cameraman nursed his coffee, partially hidden by me where I sat. The couple that we were waiting for to leave their abode came down, a nice British couple full of energy who forcefully but jovially refused Maria’s offer of a drink. They said “hello” to us and thanked and hugged Maria, and they left. Maria went upstairs to straighten up the room and Cameraman emptied his vodka into his coffee and drank it all down.
When we finally got to that room with its two beds and a view across the clothesline-choked rooftops of the neighborhood in the morning light, it felt very good. We didn’t argue long about who got the big bed. I laid my head down on the pillow, my belly warm and my body relaxed, and slept.
This is not fiction except to the degree that my memory has blurred in the past couple years, but it’s a story and it’s Friday…