setting off

I walk along the smoothly asphalted way that leads me out the village. I am the only person on foot. I hear the cars coming from behind or ahead long before they pass me by. It must be thanks to the fresh air up here. I wonder what the drivers might be thinking and whether they actually care about why I am walking along this empty but smooth road in the mountain. Thankfully, no one stops to check it out.

I reach a bus stop and the road Lukas told me to follow is joined by the first street of the next village. I decide to wait here because I don’t know where he went. I look ahead at the sunlit hills. I see the neat little houses and the torn blue sky showing promise of the upcoming spring and suddenly I’m overwhelmed with nostalgia. God, I’m going to miss this place! I’m all alone, I don’t know if I should wait or go ahead; I’m tired after a few sleepless nights but right now I’m brimming with love and sadness at the beauty of this country. The Czech Republic. I feel it is only now that I have realized how nice it is here. Two silhouettes appear up the road and for a moment my heart is empty  from love and full of instinctive fear. Then, however, I hear the music coming from the loudspeaker of one of the boys’ phone and identify Save Me by Nickelback. The song sends me years and kilometres back; for a moment it reminds me of where I’m going in just a few days and, having lurked around for a bit, the nostalgia storms again like a tidal wave.

They go on down the road I came along myself and I go up, hoping that Lukas has gone exactly that way (I don’t have my phone with me). The road twists like an eel and I’m not sure if the cars I hear are coming from ahead or from behind. I catch myself wishing the next car was the Volvo not because I’m afraid to be here alone – the little village and the view to the mountains to my left and the forest to my right – but because I want to share this beauty with Lukas. I want to tell him how much I’m actually going to miss the Czech Republic. It might make him feel better.

*

Lukas pulls over Kamil’s Volvo, packed with our stuff, in front of a beautiful old house which looks like a castle. We no longer have a home in Usti. Everything we own is stored in two cars and in several people’s rooms. Most of our belongings are going to wait for us in the attic of this castle. Lukas unlocks the massive door (the castle belongs to a friend of his who gave us its key) and I start taking our stuff out of the car and leaving it at the stairs leading to the upper floor. How strange to see your life packed in boxes, wrapped in stretch film, left in somebody’s attic.

I’m ready so I help Lukas carry the last pieces of stuff upstairs. While I’m climbing the stairs the castle gradually reveals itself to me and my melancholia is suddenly replaced by curiosity. I wonder what’s behind all these doors. I try the handle of one  door and, to my surprise, it opens and I see a bedroom furnished in an old-fashioned style. Everything looks suddenly still. As if someone has just been there. As if this castle is haunted by ghosts. I try the other doors and all of them are unlocked. I see bedrooms in various colours. A big kitchen as if taken out of a Czech television fairytale. I peek into the rooms and feel like Alice – I’ve come upon a magic world. I feel the lack of sleep last night now makes my day look unreal. Really, what am I doing in this Czech castle full of mysterious rooms? Something indecent, if I’m to believe Lukas who says it’s not good that I enter the rooms of somebody else’s house. He’s right, of course. But I don’t enter the rooms. I only open their doors which are unlocked anyway and I peek inside. It doesn’t matter, Lukas says, don’t do that, and while he’s smoking outside I try to find out if our different attitude on closed doors symbolises some psychological incompatibility of ours. I’ve been incessantly thinking about that over the last days because both of us are tired and nervous. Both of us have been packing our up-to-now life, realizing we can’t take it all with ourselves. All I’m left to do is believe our life is much more than our belongings and much less than them – that we can take it everywhere with us.

*

On the way back it’s already dark and the Volvo is light. I see the lights of Usti scattered along the hills. At night the blocks of flats on the upper parts look even beauiful. Lukas stops the car in the middle of the road and I look at him anxiously. Then he points at the meadow to the right and after a few moments I also see the herd of young deer and does. We watch them for some time and listen to the sounds they make through the open car window. I feel both happy and sad. I have the feeling we are experiencing something beautiful together but it’s unreal. I realize part of our lives is over and I don’t know what is coming next. I feel how both he and I are just two empty bodies now and our souls are looking in other directions and thinking about other things. Before running off into the night with their silent hooves, the deer, after all, manage to fix our eyes and thoughts into a single point.

*

Everything that’s nice today is also sad. We sit in our favourite pizzeria with Lukas’s best friends and we’re the main topic of their conversation. As if something exciting is happening to us. In reality, what’s happening is something confusing and unpredictable. I try to understand how Lukas feels. How we accepts the fact he’s leaving his home country. I had no problems with that. Two years ago I just packed my belongings into an old backpack and came here by bus. It was light. Now our car is parked in the university yard and is crammed with things. We both fear something’s going to happen. That it is too heavy. Lightness/heaviness – reality repeats the topic of the book I am reading. Is that a good sign? And do I look at everything too abstractly again? Do I search for a deeper meaning again?

The pizza is delicious. The beer is good. The people are kind. I’ll miss them. There’s a white building in that same neighbourhood with one of the flats on the third floor completely empty. That’s not our home. Only, there’s a yellow lamp hanging from the ceiling in one of the rooms – a forgotten piece of the life of its past inhabitants. These are concrete facts.

We’re hosted for the night by Kamil, Martina, their two cats and Miro. Lukas sleeps in a pair of old Czech fairytale-like pyjamas. Kamil has it from his grandfather. I smile because, in spite of everything, it was a nice day. We sleep in somebody else’s clothes and under somebody else’s blankets. Because we’re only visitors of Usti now.

That’s a fact.

*

We have breakfast in the university, in the photography atelier. Freshly baked rohliky from the bakery next to the park, homemade strawberry jam and nice tea. For a moment I’m taken over by the familiar excitement of setting off somewhere. I remember that when we travel we always have good luck. Perhaps it will be the same again.

Time passes. We don’t leave. We keep on being tired and nervous. It’s cold and we want to sleep outside over the next days. We say goodbye to Lukas’s university mates numerous times. We turn into an anecdote – we were supposed to be leaving – for good – but they keep stumbling upon us in the atelier. Usti won’t let us go.

We go to the near cafeteria. I’m cold so I sit inside and Lukas is smoking outside. I wonder if everything’s all right. I sit alone, I sip coffee and I read my book. I feel as if I’m abroad. Am I not, actually… Lukas leaves first (it’s all right). I put on my coat. The bartender comes out from behind the bar and keeps the door open for me. I smile. Why does he do it? Because I’m a girl that sits alone and reads a book? Because he saw I came in with a boy but I didn’t drink my coffee with him? Never mind. I smile because I’m already on the way and when I’m on the way such things are bound to happen.

*

We have dinner at a nice restaurant by the road. I’ve been here before. It was last spring. It’s quiet and gloomy now but my memories echo with the sound of guitars and voices singing Czech songs. I’ll miss it. I have fried cheese. I always complain it’s the only vegetarian thing I can have at a Czech restaurant but today I’m thankful for it.

*

Last night in the Czech Republic at Lukas’s parents. We decide not to set off early so that we can have a good sleep. Sleep comes after a single closing of the lids.

*

I walk backwards the first street in Chocen marked in my memory. While I’m going towards the bakery in the dull morning my thoughts take me back to an early summer day when everything was so much nicer. Our hitchhiking journey from Burgas to Chocen had just been completed. Lukas was taking me across the bridge above the river and I, sleepy, was letting the sets of his childhood sink in me – I was colouring those pieces in him which were still blank. My first clear memory – the shining facades of the houses. The river. And the bakery.

(Dad was still alive.)

I order rohliky and a loaf of sweet bread and I wonder what will happen to my Czech. Will there be place for it in my new world?

*

It’s raining when we set off – from the sky and from Lukas’s parents’ eyes. As much as I don’t want to think this way, I am what’s taking him away from them.

*

Lytomisl. It’s clear we won’t set off soon. We have tea at Lukas’s sister. We talk about the way ahead of us. “We’re going to the sea,” Lukas tells his nephews and niece because it’s the mildest way to put it. Smiles shine on their faces but their eyes are full of understanding and children’s insight. Eliska gives us an invitation to her birthday which is today but the party will be on Saturday. It’s sad exactly because she knows we won’t be there.

My eyes fill with tears when his grandmother hugs us both and says she considers me a grandchild, too. When we say goodbye to her she always says, “And next time when you’re here, do drop in.” This time, though, she doesn’t. Silently I wish I would see her again.

*

Where does our journey start at all? In Usti – the city where we lived? In Chocen – Lukas’s home town? In Lytomisl – the town where his sisters and grandmother live? Or perhaps in Breclav – the last Czech city before the border where we make a brief stop to see a friend?

It’s hard to say. The Czech Republic just won’t let us go. The GPS gets us lost in the very beginning. It leads us along narrow and broken roads and we know our overloaded car can’t go over any holes. Each roughness our headlights illuminate makes our hair stand on end. We’re nervous again. We fight. I don’t know why but I say, “Just take me home and then leave.” Anxiety makes me unfair. Lukas patiently takes us out of the small roads. We apologise to each other but the problems persist. The police pull us over in Brno. They ask Lukas if we have a first aid kit. I pray they don’t ask for it because it’s under the whole one third of our life that we managed to take with us. They check our papers and let us go. I take it as a good sign.

In Breclav Lukas (yes, another one) makes us tea, tells us about his trip to India, we talk about our plans. He offers that we stay in for the night and inside I’m overjoyed but I know we have to move ahead. It’s past midnight and we’re not even out of the Czech Republic.

A bit before the “border” with Slovakia some driver makes strange signals at us. He overtakes us, stops and then goes after us again. Lukas locks the doors and I get goosebumps. Then he suddenly disappears. We relax for a moment but then headlights flash behind us again. We sigh with relief only after we see it’s another car.

Somewhere close to Bratislava, we turn off the road and pitch our tent in a forest. It’s not so cold anymore. I fall asleep to the sounds of the neighbouring motorway.

*

It’s lightly raining on the next morning. We ride without GPS so I navigate Lukas across Bratislava. At the end of the city we pull over at a small supermarket to get some Slovak cheese. Then we go on towards Hungary. We’ve only driven along small roads up to now to avoid buying motorway stamps but in Hungary we enter the motorway and we won’t get off of it for the next fifteen hours.

Kilometres. Trucks. Petrol stations. Road signs. I feel motorways never end. If you only look at the median barrier you might forget you’re actually moving. We drive almost at the car’s maximum speed and I feel the way it is shaking. The tyre right under me is not completely all right and I catch myself thinking about it over and over again. I want us to be in the right lane all the time but it’s impossible because of too many trucks. Anyway. I know my fear of driving is illogical. And I know I can trust Lukas.

*

A petrol station in Hungary. We brush our teeth with water coming from some weird tap outside because toilets are paid. We make coffee on the travel stove and have something which is neither breakfast, nor lunch. Nor will it be dinner because there won’t be such a thing at all. Next to us, two Romanian truck drivers also sit around something that looks like a travel stove that sends the smell of sausages towards us. Lukas unsuccessfully tries to draw their attention with the few Romanian phrases he knows.

Petrol stations are islands across the asphalt ocean. A piece of human life across an alien landscape in which the motorway is a living being. It’s an endless grey dragon that forces you to run faster and faster in order to catch up with its own high-speed flight. If you don’t move with the speed of the motorway, you’ll get dizzy. Or the mighty grey dragon will simply spit you out.

A petrol station is like a little museum of what’s human founded on a distant planet. It’s not a home, just an illusion of it. If it were a home, it would have a garden. And here there’s only a fence. And behind it – fields and forests out of your reach. But then again, it is a human station. While we’re eating I go back to a summer when we were also traveling to Bulgaria but without our own car. I recall the lawn behind another Hungarian petrol station (after many kilometres we’ll see it and both of us will exclaim: “Here! That’s the one!”) where we pitched our tent in the thunderstorm. I remember how we had breakfast outside on a table very much like this one (the weather was much warmer) and how, miraculously, we were picked up by Bulgarians. Straight to Kaspitchan. A single road can be traveled in so many different ways. For so many different reasons. With such various amounts of luggage.

*

Serbia.

Serbia is kilometres. Holes. More kilometres. More holes.

It’s getting dark and it’s beginning to rain. There’s no way we can have dinner outside so I put spread on slices of bread as we go. I carefully hand slices to Lukas. On a petrol station we make friends with a dog. I’m tired. Lukas – even more – but we can’t pitch our tent in the rain. We go on. I try to fill the time by writting all four-letter words I see on the way or hear in the lyrics of the songs on the radio (the task on the Wreck Your Journal page (a gift from my collagues at the school) I opened on).

km/h – with – AKAI – wine – safe – trip – YUGO – STOP

In Belgrade  we’re just in time for the travel jam. We put down the car window and turn up the Serbian music coming from the radio. For a moment we forget how tired we are and surrender to the ephemeral magic of each first encounter with the Balkans. The city is almost empty on its other end and for the next three hundred kilometres eastbound all we see are the occasional red lights in our lane, the distant yellow ones in the opposite lane and the lamps which appear from time to time near petrol stations or city outskirts. In the end it’s so dark and empty it’s like we’re traveling through a black hole. After Nis we enter a new section of the motorway. Road signs surround us from all sides. Ahead, behind, in the opposite lane – there isn’t a single car. I have the feeling we’re the last people on Earth and now we drive along this forever unfinished motorway with yellow road marking. The GPS doesn’t recognise the new road and I’m worried we’re going to be lost but, as usual, Lukas follows his flawless sense of orientation and tells me to relax. We finally see there’s another car on the road. Soon the section ends and we see the long tunnels on the way that follows the beautiful gorge in the beggining (or end) of Serbia – a sign you’re coming close (or you’ve soon left) Bulgaria.

*

Kalotina. We stop to get a vignette stamp from the first petrol station. I hurry to call my sister because it’s already late and we want to sleep at hers in Sofia. However, I don’t have coverage yet.

We drink cola and get ready to go and I feel the strong urge to do something I’ve always done on coming home to Bulgaria – call Dad.

“Don’t worry. He sees you,” Lukas says.

In moments like this I realize how much I love him.

*

 

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