This happened when there was a country called Yugoslavia. You were still a student with only one pair of jeans; you could talk about the theater of the future until you were red in the face and all you got from older people were condescending smiles. After all, you’d never been onstage or published anything – you were suspended in midair, so to speak, in a literature department at university, with no one going gaga over your talents. But you were in no particular hurry. You didn’t know where you wanted to end up, couldn’t even imagine how far you might go, had never considered how much time you had left. Especially during summer vacation, time was a liquid with no brackets dividing it into little squares, and as you floated through it, wandering aimlessly around country after country, you never stopped to think that you might be wasting it. You went to Italy. In Rome, students from capitalist countries all over the world, each with a rucksack like yours, exchanged greetings like classmates. You’d talk for hours, perched on the edge of a fountain in some square. Sometimes you’d go out for pasta, only to find that all the restaurants were too expensive, and end up making do with bread and water you bought at a little grocery. You all seemed to be in pretty much the same situation. You firmly believed that you hated war and loved traveling, and since none of you had money, jobs or families of your own, it seemed that that must be what you had in common. Looking back, you now realize that you did, in fact, have money. Having money means being able to change your cash into foreign currency – the amount really doesn’t matter.
You went from Milan to Trieste. The light bounced off the surface of the Adriatic, warping and scattering as it traveled through a prism of air, making you feel isolated, with a tinge of dizziness. Boredom, a word you rarely thought of, came to mind. This is all too beautiful, you thought. The walls of the houses that lined the shore, already reddish to begin with, grew redder in the evening sun. He who mixes with vermilion will turn red, the proverb goes, but some things are red to begin with, you thought.
At Trieste you went to the station, intending to take the night train for Zagreb. So I’m heading for Yugoslavia, you thought. The station was already growing dark; the atmosphere had already left the Mediterranean far behind. The air was filled with Slavic warmth and Siberian smells – winter, fur coats, straw, cigarettes, garlic.
You’d decided on Yugoslavia because you wouldn’t need a visa. It was the only socialist country that didn’t require one. To enter the others you would have had to start the application process months ahead, which was too much trouble for a young traveler who wanted to look casual – reckless, even. Of course, that wasn’t the only reason you’d picked Yugoslavia, but the other reasons were vague. The word Yugoslavia produced a tangle of images in your mind, bringing with them feelings of expectation that were hard to explain.
As your eyes got used to the dim light in the waiting room, and shadowy outlines took on color, you started to see the people around you in detail. For example, you’d thought the guy in front of you was doing deep knee bends when he was actually wrapping thick, navy-blue cloth around his legs, securing it with masking tape. A closer look revealed that it wasn’t just cloth, but blue jeans. Did people here use their jeans as bandages, wrapping them around their legs instead of wearing them? One pair for his right thigh, another for the left, both stuck on with tape. With two more pairs safely around his shins, the man pulled some baggy work pants on over his legs. Now his lower body looked far too bulky to go with that thin, bony face. You remembered hearing that things you wouldn’t consider luxury items could be very expensive in socialist countries. In the USSR people would apparently trade a fur coat for a good pair of jeans. So maybe this man was trying to smuggle jeans from Italy into Yugoslavia.
Two little men in threadbare brown suits spoke to you in broken English. One had swollen, bloodshot eyes, covered with a thin film of tears. The eyes of a devil, you thought. The other one was talking now. They seemed to be asking you where you were going. You said honestly that you wanted to go to Zagreb. They replied in unison that that train was no good, that they would give you a lift in their car. The words ‘no good’ puzzled you. What sort of train was ‘no good’? One that didn’t leave the station, or that never came in the first place? You looked into their faces. Was a ‘no good’ train one that failed to reach its destination? Sensing your confusion, they explained that the train you were planning to take was too slow, with old, hard seats. You now realized that they looked as similar as a pair of avocados. One shot a glance at your wristwatch. It was a cheap one you’d bought as a souvenir at a street stall in Rome. For a split second, desire flashed in his eyes. Maybe that’s what he’s after, you thought. If you could see hooves, you’d know who you were dealing with, but both these guys were wearing shoes. Money draws money, the proverb goes, but you were a poor student drawing people who were after your money. Taking you gently by the arm, they urged you to come with them. Without meaning to, you nodded and took a step forward. As if you’d been hypnotized. A whole series of sayings you didn’t really believe came to mind: You can’t get off in the middle of a story; You can make friends even in hell; See what you’ve started through to the end; If you’re going to take poison, eat the container as well; Always stay for the last act, even when the players are criminals.
Just then, a stocky woman who looked to be in her fifties came striding toward you. Her brightly colored skirt and scarf made her look like the farmer’s wife in an illustrated book of folk tales for children, but she spoke clearly, in proper English. ‘These are bad men so you mustn’t go with them,’ she said. ‘They just want to get you into their car so they can steal your watch.’ Like naughty boys who’ve gotten a smack on the head, the pair shrank back and slinked quietly away. You thanked the woman warrior. Looking around, you saw that she was not the only one; several other women, similarly dressed, looking equally as strong, were smiling over at you. Your eyes suddenly cleared, and you saw the sign in front of you. Zagreb, it said, yes, that’s where you were planning to go.
Even so, if those two – undoubtedly twins – really wanted to trick someone, hadn’t they better give up on that duo routine? It was foolish, far too obvious. Surely they’d do better using the fact that they were twins to create alibis for each other. People too weak for the path of righteousness end up on the path of evil, where their weakness is exposed in everything they do. In Italy strange men would loiter around you, giving you dubious looks. A steady glare was all it took to make them disappear. Why would they try something even an innocent could see through? It was enough to give you an itch, somewhere in back of your front teeth. Try hiding a dagger in your belt and everyone will see it, gleaming in your eyes.
You have to start by tricking yourself. One day you might dig up some evil from a past life, give it a good polish, and become a swindler in this one. If it came to that, you would surely believe the story you made up to deceive others. You would claim to be a first-class performer who had fallen on hard times when a gang of thieves had robbed you of everything you had, but just one performance – you had it all planned out – would surely get you back on track. With this sob story you would wangle the funds for a show that would dazzle the world, bring in a pile of money and make you famous.
Surely there’d be some sucker who would believe a story about a monkey who stole the moon if you told it well enough. Once you’d gained their trust, you would work yourself to the bone, then keep on working until your bones were pulverized, perhaps into a white powder, a drug that got people high. Once you were successful, no one would remember that your career had started with a lie. Your bones would eventually turn into fertilizer with enough nutrients to make flowers bloom on a stone.
In the dim light of the waiting room, the diligent smugglers continued their preparations. This was smuggling with a warm, domestic, home-made air. Cigarettes were hidden in boxes with lots of eggs on top; slits were made for cigarettes in coat linings and then sewn back up again; fingers performed delicate tasks at dizzying speeds.
With the creaking of rails, the train pulled into the station. It was so long you couldn’t see the first or last cars. Though the waiting room had been crowded, there didn’t seem to be many people on the platform, so there would probably be plenty of room on the train. You entered an empty compartment. Back then, you couldn’t afford a berth. You would sleep on a hard wooden seat. As if following you, two men and a woman trailed into the same compartment. Although this seemed strange at first, as there were lots of empty compartments, they said, ‘Hello!’ in such a friendly way that you didn’t feel like leaving. It might be safer this way than being alone.
You were about to put your rucksack up on the luggage rack when one of the men, the one with a swollen eyelid, touched you on the arm, motioning for you to wait a minute. He asked in a whisper if you’d mind keeping his coffee in your rucksack a while because he had no room in his own bag and, taking two five-hundred-gram paper bags of coffee beans from an inner pocket, handed them over. You had plenty of room to spare. You’d saved space for souvenirs. Besides, you’d only brought a pair of jeans, a couple of T-shirts and some underwear, which wasn’t much to begin with. Without thinking, you agreed and slipped the coffee beans into the side pocket of your rucksack. Immediately, the other two produced identical bags from their pockets, which they also handed to you. Looking back, it seems odd that you never suspected anything. On what planet do people ask a perfect stranger to keep their coffee in her rucksack, just for a while, because their own suitcases are too full? Yet at the time, you were happy to do as you were told, never giving it a second thought. Perhaps you were so sick of being an utterly useless traveler, relying on others for everything, that you were happy to be able to do something for someone else.
You could tell by feeling them that it was coffee beans in the bags, not something dangerous like drugs, but maybe because they weren’t ground, the beans had no odor. With their pockets empty, all three looked much thinner. Maybe all the passengers were slender, and it was just their padded linings full of smuggled goods that made them look so stocky. Those massive legs had jeans wrapped around them. Those broad hips and barrel chests were really coffee beans bundled up against the skin.
Finally the train pulled slowly out of the station, and the three started chatting in some Slavic language. At the time, you were studying Russian and had a Serbo-Croatian phrase book in your pocket, but of course you couldn’t tell what they were saying. Now that Serbian and Croatian are separate languages, any mention of a ‘Serbo-Croatian language’ is bound to make some people angry. Yet Serbian and Croatian are undoubtedly similar. Of course, if someone were to ask you which language you heard on the train, Serbian or Croatian, you wouldn’t be able to tell them. For all you knew, one might have been speaking Serbian, the second Croatian and the third something entirely different.
Rocked by the gentle rhythm of language you didn’t understand, you began to doze. It was like returning to infancy. The adults were talking. Not understanding what they said didn’t bother you. Phrases washed up and flowed back and returned like waves, while vowels and consonants carved out their own irregular rhythm. Working against the regular beating of the heart, language brings restless images of many colors and a feeling of hunger into the darkness of sleep. While the rhythm of the rails is as regular as a heartbeat, the speed of human voices constantly changes.
Suddenly, an official voice cut the murmuring and gentle laughter short. You sat up, wide awake. Two uniformed men stood there with guns slung over their shoulders. Not the least bit flustered, your fellow passengers got to their feet, took out their ID papers and, like suspected criminals, put both hands in the air. One of the uniforms took his gun from his shoulder and trained it on them while the other began searching them. He carefully felt the inner pockets of their jackets. There were no coffee beans there. This gave you a start. Nothing was discovered on any of them. They remained utterly expressionless the whole time. ‘I am a straw doll,’ their faces seemed to say. One by one, they were asked to step out into the corridor.
You were the last. Seeing your passport, from a capitalist country, one of the uniforms asked which bag was yours. You pointed to your rucksack and he nodded, then told you to go out into the corridor. Once everyone was out of the compartment, the two uniformed men pulled up the seats to see if anything was hidden underneath. They checked the seams in the backrests. Were there smugglers who sewed things into the backrests of their seats? When they had finished checking the compartment, they turned to the luggage. Each suitcase was opened, the contents rummaged through. They unzipped small pouches and felt inside socks.
You began to lose your cool. What would happen if they discovered you were carrying three kilograms of coffee? It was illegal to bring coffee in from Italy, wasn’t it? A friend had told you that because they were grown in Third World countries with cheap labor, coffee and bananas were symbols of colonialism, while jeans and Coca-Cola symbolized a worship of American consumer culture. So here you were, wearing jeans as you brought coffee beans into an Eastern European country. They might throw you in jail for that. Who could have guessed that something so stupid could land you in prison, in a country you really knew nothing about? Starting down the path of evil is easier than going to a neighboring town. There’s no clear border, so you cross it without noticing. Before you’re aware of the symptoms, you’ve turned into an evil person. You regretted your desire to be useful. You weren’t cut out for that sort of thing. You were meant to travel through life on night trains, devouring time without searching for meaning. You must never forget that. If you stuck your nose in the air it was bound to get broken.
When the uniforms had finished with the suitcases, they came out of the compartment. They hadn’t touched your rucksack. They’d asked which one was yours right away to save themselves the trouble of searching it. You felt you’d been tricked. It made you want to laugh. So that was it – to them it seemed so natural for an imperialist from the capitalist block to have coffee beans (the symbol of colonialism!) stashed away in her rucksack that they hadn’t bothered to check. This was your take on it, anyway, and it made you laugh out loud.
For the next fifteen minutes, your three compartment-mates were still expressionless, their faces frozen, but when one got his smile back the other two relaxed as well, laughing and grinning as they took the coffee beans out of your rucksack and returned them to their own bags. Then, perhaps in thanks, they gave you two small unsweetened biscuits.
Photograph Courtesy of Thomas’s Pics