You are going to have to bear with me for the next few blogs. I usually write my most vivid impressions down as we’re going along, and polish them up for consumption later, but from November to February I was too unwell to type anything insightful at all. I’m having to put these recollections together from scribbles in my diary.
I am going to leave them, patchy and uneven as they are, because that is the only way to do justice to my memories of places that are hazy, blurred by brain fog.
* * *
We crossed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 15 minutes. Or at least, the sliver of it that lies between two tranches of Croatia, with the tiny town of Neum its one foot on the coast. As now it seems almost everyone is “famous for 15 minutes” as Warhol predicted, I’m going to be the first to assert that, in the future, everyone will spend 15 minutes in each country.
It’s a complete sham of course: I can’t say I’ve “been to Bosnia”. These pics are the equivalent of barging in for a selfie with a celeb and then telling everyone you’re BFFs. You need a week minimum to get even a taste of a place and a month is preferable to soak in its atmosphere. Passport stamping in-and-out stuff is pointless. Reminds me of those twerps who used their interailing ticket to try and ‘tick off’ all European countries within a month. It’s no coincidence that the places we’ve loved most deeply during our travels are the ones we spent the longest time in: Liberia and Senegal.
* * *
Back in Croatia, we pulled over in a convenient bay for an early night, where a coachload of tourists from USA were already paddling and swimming. We could tell they were American because we couldn’t help hearing their accents – two of the women were talking so loudly, we could hear every word despite being 100m away. Why do so many Americans think it’s OK to dominate public space? I was tempted to ‘have a word’ but was just too tired. I sat on a low wall and watched them shout platitudes at each other across the water.
I’d been trying to talk to my husband about my declining health, but he was resisting. The worse I get, the more his back hurts him, like his body is performing the equivalent of “la la la I can’t hear you”. He has always relied on me to be the strong, resilient one, and I know my increasing frailty frightens him. I understand that. But sometimes it feels like he subconsciously punishes me for daring to share, implying I shouldn’t mention my vulnerability as it’s a threat to his fragile mental health. I can’t bear the ‘listing of symptoms’ becoming a competitive sport, so I shut up.
But loneliness compounds suffering.
It wasn’t just the Americans. We were woken at 2am by a drunken old French couple in the camper next door showing off their fold-up bikes to another drunken old French couple. They were just enjoying life, wine and being jolly bon-viveurs and I felt bad interrupting with an “Excusez-moi, on essaye dormir…” They weren’t to know they had bombed my rest and condemned me to a day of pain.
I didn’t get back to sleep till 6am when I dreamed I somehow reached my hand through the wooden headboard to hold Sampson’s hand. When he woke up, the first thing he did was to stretch his hand over the top to find mine. Only the chronically sick will understand how something so small can be so comforting.
Martin Kapfhammer, a German cyclist who’d asked us for water two nights previously, saw us exercising and stopped off specially to have a chat, bless him. It was lovely to have a conversation with such a thoughtful young person. He’s not overkeen on Angela Merkel, too at the whim of voters in his opinion, with no firm policy on refugees “or indeed anything”.
I replied wistfully that the lack of backbone in a leader was such a European problem, on a different level from ours – hanging on to our civil liberties and state integrity by our fingernails in the face of the Zupta onslaught. Martin got my point, “but we should all be better!” His righteous indignation really cheered me up and he sheepishly overcame any German reserve when I gave him a big African hug goodbye !
I sunnily greeted the hungover Frenchies too; they seemed relieved. But it was tough climbing back up into the truck.
As we drove into the historic town of Dubrovnik, Sampson became nervous. I leant out to ask a couple of police what the height restrictions on the bridges were, but they didn’t know! We just had to chance it…
Apparently the popularity of Dubrovnik as a destination has boomed in recent years thanks to its appearance as ‘Kings Landing’ in Game of Thrones and ‘Canto Bight’ in The Last Jedi. We decided against battling the throng to see inside, but drove up out of town and were rewarded with a spectacular view from above. It was the only way for me to see the city without exhaustion.
* * *
First impressions of Montenegro were not good.
We hit the border at 4pm on Sunday, perfect timing when aiming for the least chance of getting hassled about leaving the EU. But no one was bothered about customs clearance for our tyres: instead we got hustled for extra vehicle insurance. We weren’t anticipating any trouble as we’d paid for 3 months’ ferociously expensive Green Card Euro-wide cover (mostly squandered while stranded stationary in a French garage) and then extended it for Sept and Oct.
But the border official rejected the proof emailed by our Dutch insurer parrotting “nothing online, originals only” and referred me to “the Chief”. I stood waiting for ages in the cold outside an empty booth, until a Basil Fawlty-esque bloke arrived, all uniformed and uptight. He blatantly ignored me and went and sat inside. I recognised the type, sighed internally and waited another 5 minutes before knocking.
I became irreproachably polite. I even crouched down so I was lower than where he sat, half to perform deference, half because I was just too damn tired to carry on standing. I didn’t dispute his premise of never accepting online copies, just pointed out that we live in a truck and thus have no address to which to mail originals, so how were we to proceed?
I then made the mistake of mentioning that our online evidence had been accepted everywhere else across Europe. Mr Arsey bristled.
“We are not Europe!”
He nearly spat the words. I don’t know if I was reading into it, but his statement seemed both defiant and resentful at the same time. Montenegro has been negotiating the manifold hurdles to its formal entrance to the EU since 2012. So officially #This Is Not Europe? Brexiteers take note: it sucks being sidelined.
I think this was the first time on our journey that I met a border official who was absolutely immovable. His whole demeanor radiated brick wall. I was completely prepared to fight this blatant injustice on principle, ring Holland the next morning and get Maria to DHL the Green Card to Dubrovnik or speak to Mr Arsey personally – until I found out from the prematurely weary young man in the insurance office opposite that local insurance cover for a car was €15 for 15 days. He didn’t deny the listing of Montenegro on our Green Card was valid or that the copy was “Fine by me, but policeman…” He let his sentence’s tail-off do the talking.
So basically this insurance policy is a state-sanctioned swindle (like the Mauritanian border). The con was beautifully judged – not so expensive anyone could be bothered to complain, but not so cheap it wasn’t adding up a tidy amount for every European car queuing to cross the border that day. I paid for €18-worth of flimsy tissue paper to cover the truck and returned to find a young Italian woman having the exact same argument with Mr Arsey, waving a cell phone photo of her Green Card in vain. The way he was behaving with her made me more angry than the way he spoke to me: he was obviously getting such a kick out of wielding his little bitter bit of power. There was just no need to shout so much or refuse to listen to a word she said in such a disdainful manner.
I got back to the truck about 5pm to find Sampson chatting merrily to a Mossel Bay couple in the queue who greeted him when they saw the CA numberplates!
We pulled over in a superb place at the opening of a massive quiet bay just beyond a busy ferry crossing. I was so glad I’d cooked our veggie supper at lunch time, in anticipation of border crossing day. I wasn’t up to standing up over a stove after all that.
Lying on the bed while the food was warming up, I scrolled through the news on Twitter – on top of everything else, it was the week of #MeToo. It was like watching the same frustrated rage I felt as Women’s Rep at my college on behalf of the raped-and-silenced ripple and magnify a million times. Have we advanced so little in 30 years?
That night, I dreamt a Mr Gradgrind-browed school caretaker in a dark uniform had been prodding my breasts under the guise of repositioning a necklace of words lying across my chest. I was laid out on a table with a crowd of girls watching as he leant over me, and I woke myself up shouting forcefully “If. You. Touch. A. Woman. Without. Her. Consent. That. Is. Sexual. Harassment!!!” Hmmm. Metaphor for yesterday revealing my deep-seated anger at toxic masculine authorities’ ongoing abuse of power at all?
Montenegro seemed to be trying hard to sell itself but coming across a bit ‘trashy cougar’ compared to the delightfully understated Croatia – lots of flashy casinos. The road was also much bumpier here. It was hard going in the back.
I was busy filling in parental consent affidavits to support Ruby’s Egyptian visa application. We paid for wifi in cafés en route by buying a hot chocolate, and as we passed through Croatia, Montenegro and Albania they got steadily thicker and stodgier as the weather got colder! It was now getting dark by 5pm. I was loving listening to Sampson and Zola chat over their stretching and unicycling before turning in for the night.
My ME-induced insomnia had settled into a ruthless pattern: no matter what I tried, I would wake at 3am and only be able to drop off again at 6, if I was lucky. Those two hours after dawn have always been my favourite time, when I walked beaches all along the West Coast of Africa. But now they were the difference between being mobile that day or not, being in bearable or debilitating pain. I had to sleep. I had to teach. But there was no energy left for anything beyond that.
* * *
My husband doesn’t like walking. In all these years he’s rarely come with us for a walk on the beach unless there was a surf at the end of it. So why on earth Sampson chose this day to walk up a hill to take a look at the dump at the top of it we’ll never know. He heard a tiny yelp and this little feller crawled out:
He looked like he’d been there a week without food or water and couldn’t stand. Sampson came back crying at the state of him, bathed and dried him like a baby, fed him bread and milk and mopped up his frothy diarrhoea.
This is why I love him folks.
What Europeans throw away: a diesel tank, an old patchwork quilt, a pedigree puppy. #ThisIsEurope!
That afternoon, when I sent pics to Ruby on WhatsApp, she immediately burst into tears and sent us a sobbing voice note expressing her profound joy! What a pair of oversensitive wazzocks I’ve got 🙂
I messaged my best friend, “Obviously, we can’t keep him, but hopefully he’ll live and we can give him away to someone kind in Greece before we put the truck on the ferry…”