So far, the Balkans have been a blast. I have emerged from my coma of intestinal death and I am feeling bulletproof. We played a in Zagreb, Croatia at a place called Club Spunk. It was small pub in a strip mall just below the new colossal and ultra-modern national library. The club ordered us spaghetti for dinner which I ate at a table in the middle of the bar. The takeout place did not provide us forks, so we had to use plastic spoons. The results were disastrous. I made several unsuccessful attempts to twirl the spaghetti around the spoon and the people at the surrounding tables erupted with laughter. I apparently already had an audience. This was the pre-show. Micah played first and his set was again drowned out by the din of the bar. To counteract the racket, the soundman turned his guitar channel up to the max. The result sounded something like Merzbow and Mississippi John Hurt. He finished with a cover of “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World”. A ballsy move, knowing the history. I was determined to rise above the din tonight. I talked loud and I played loud. I cracked a few jokes. I played a very short set. The handheld cassette recorder tunes seemed to really floor them. It worked. I had a great time.
I joined a young Tom Waits fanatic named Vanja after the set and we riffed about music and books for close to an hour. He wanted us to go out clubbing with him and his lady friends, but we had to get to the hostel we were staying at by 1 am or we would be locked out. I had no interest in being locked out of the hostel. I remember being in Marseille in 96’ with my ex-wife and we had gotten drunk and missed the curfew at our hotel. We ended up having to sleep in the doorway. We got harassed by drunken Algerians and broke coke addicts all night long. It sucked. Never again.
We found the hostel and slept. In the morning, there was no coffee at the hostel so I went to a bar down the street. There was a slatternly barmaid and four old men, all piss-drunk at 10 in the morning. Croatian gangsta-rap blared from the speakers. No one seemed to notice or care about the music or the dirty half-awake American who had invaded their ranks. Over the course of my four wake-up espressos, the music moved from rap to bombastic nationalistic pop to heavy metal. I was curious to see where it would go next, but it was time to go.
We got to the Zagreb train station and found a ticket line that would have given Stalin a hard-on. The line was packed to the gills with scowling, irritable commuters. I parked by an ashtray in the hallway while Micah braved the enormous serpentine queue. I sat and smoked while discreetly slathering deodorant under the cover of my pea-coat. (even I have standards). A bearded, longhaired homeless man in an odd red vest buzzed me a few times, carefully scoping our bags and equipment. My paranoia kicked into gear and I was certain that he was planning to rob us. I imagined that if he made a move I would have to react. He’d be moving pretty slow if he got my suitcase, but the other stuff was light enough to run with. I went over it several times in my mind and tried to think of the best strategy. I figured a hard elbow to the nose or throat would do the trick, but if he got too far away, the other bags would be left undefended. He probably had an accomplice who would collect the real prize, while he absconded with the decoy. I threw a limb over each bag and stared hard behind my cheap aviators and tried to look menacing. He ignored me and walked past fishing a dirty half eaten croissant out of the garbage. I started to think that I might have overestimated him.
Micah emerged from the ticket room looking spent and confused. He informed me that the only available seats left on our train to Knin were in first class. We though about taking a bus, but first class wasn’t that much more expensive, so we decided to ride in style. Micah went back into the mammoth line and I waited and watched the man in the red vest. Micah eventually returned with the tickets and we went to a restaurant in the station to order some lunch. It was a dingy smoke filled cavern and nothing on the menu looked particularly appetizing. I was about to order some eggs, but Micah got an intestinal intuition and strongly suggested that we eat elsewhere. I didn’t feel like moving, but I had to respect his instinct. I did not feel like spending another 36 hours throwing up, especially without a cushy apartment in which to recuperate. We walked for several blocks and found nothing but bars. We stopped at a newsstand to ask if there was a good restaurant around, but we were waved away by the irritated shopkeeper. I gave up and went back to the station leaving Micah to continue foraging. I tried to find food on the way back, but the hot dog stand with the bored teenage girl inside looked terrifyingly filthy. I ended up buying a prosciutto sandwich from the bakery inside the station and walked back to our designated meeting area: the benches by the ticket office. I took a seat next to a toothless old woman in a sea of dirty bags who was openly scrutinizing a particularly disgusting porno mag with great interest.
I took one bite of the slimy and borderline rancid sandwich and realized that I had made a huge mistake. I thought about throwing the sandwich in the garbage, but I paused to consider the old woman who might be hungry. Now she was studying a page full of disembodied cocks and gaping vaginas all shot with all the love and finesse of a DMV photographer. She had her face buried in it like she was reading a map. She was into the hard stuff and didn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thought. I felt an odd combination of admiration and nausea as I made the decision to not break her trance. A few minutes later the man in the red vest returned and they began chatting in Croatian. She was the accomplice. I offered him the sandwich to make up for the violent thoughts I had had about him a half hour earlier. He grumbled something in Croatian that could have been “Thank you!” or “Blow it out your ass!” based on his tone, and snatched the sandwich from my hands.
Within a few minutes, The Accomplice and Red Vest were loudly arguing over the contents of a garbage bag and he stormed off cursing at the ceiling, leaving me as her only companion. The parade of stylish and attractive young girls walking by sneered at both of us with equal disgust. Me splayed out with my filthy hair and clothes and she wiping the rancid coffee from a bag she had just dug out of the garbage. I am clearly moving to the wrong end of the social ladder. I need to choose my friends wisely.
The first class seats were a swindle. We had no more legroom than anyone else and we had paid three times as much. Thankfully, there was a smoking car on this train. I read a good chunk of Colin Wilson’s “The Occult” on the ride and was inspired to try my hand at the powers of suggestion. I failed. The attractive blonde-haired girl with high cheekbones on the next car did not come over and talk to me. My concentration was a bit off, I guess. Next time, I’ll remember to burn the sage.
The train to Knin rolled deep into the former battlefields of the Domovinski Rat (Croatian War of Independence) of the early 90’s. Stone farmhouses blown to rubble by Serbian tanks still litter the barren landscape. It would be a terrible place to be under fire. It’s flat and empty: nowhere to hide. This whole region is steeped in War culture. People have been left deranged from it. Skinny androgynous avant-folk musicians from the West are a bit out of place here. The men are men. They are like pit bulls: shorn and muscular, friendly but with the potential to turn on you. More on that later…