The night was dark, very dark, if only because in the countryside, may it be communist, there are no lights leading to bumfuck nowhere. So I was driving on a country road, lost somewhat in goddamned Yugoslavia.
It had been dark for quite a while. Snow was shining in the car’s lights. Trees and dark forests, frozen fields, not a soul nor even a headlight in sight. Just a clarinet on the radio trying to tell me this was fun.
It was late and, at best, I hoped to chance upon one of those apparatchiks’ hotels you find in communist countries. There was always good humor there, because there was vodka and women and a band and apparatchiks full of themselves. I remember, later, in Xi’an, China, the same apparatchiks being there getting drunk, with the same girls, looking at everybody like they could hurt you.
In those kind of places, no matter how odd was the situation of me showing up there, my French accent would do marvel. “Ho, where are you from?” “Ho, the gay Paris!”
Sure enough, some moron would always call the law. Usually the law that mattered was already there at the apparatchiks’ hotels so nobody really ever fucked with me. Indeed, every one was so eager to show me the way and I could drink with the best of them. There was food, drinks, blondes, cigarettes and conversation. So I didn’t mind apparatchiks’ hotels.
But that night, there was none in sight. I was driving on a bumfuck road very goddamned late, and it was very dark, and there was no moon, and there was no salvation.
Then, a bit ahead, I saw a light coming off the side of the road. As I drove and came close, there was a hamlet sitting still in the heart of Tito’s winter. I could see it only because there were dim lights taking a piss through the dirty windows of a sturdy and sad building hanging low by the road.
A bar, I knew. Instinct.
So I pulled off the road.
It was a shotgun shack, parallel to the road. So when I came in, I saw a long sorry bar on the right – no mirror – and wooden tables in front of the windows underlooking the road.
The bartender and the few seated customers hardly looked at me. So I sat at the first wooden table by the door by a window where I could see my car. I ordered a beer. The bartender understood that and soon brought me a half-liter bottle of beer. He opened it in front of me and dropped it on my table. No glass.
Nobody was saying anything. No juke-box, no tv, no radio. Just a few Serbians fucks drinking silently in bumfuck nowhere. Silence inside was the same as outside. It was almost just as dark really.
So I said nothing and enjoyed my beer. Well, at least, I was somewhere where I could think.
Before I knew it, the bartender showed up to my table with another half-liter bottle of local beer, snapped the lid, and slammed it on my table. Nobody looked at me, the bartender was gone before I could say shit. So I took this as a welcoming gesture and felt all the merrier. Beer for free, chicks…
OK, before I had even gotten started on the second bottle, Mister mute Serbian bartender showed up again and slammed another half-liter bottle on me. He popped up the cap and slammed it. I remember thinking “once it’s open, I guess I have to drink it.”
So I kept on drinking the beer.
Since the moment I had parked there, I’d seen no other car passing on that road. Not a truck, not a tank, not a donkey. Out there, there was just fucking silence and snow and darkness and winter in Yugoslavia. What the hell!
Before I knew it, the mother bartender was back, again popping the cap – not as if I could keep those beers for later. It was opened and, from the look of him, I better had to drink that one too. He’d never take away the empty bottles. So there was soon a bunch of beer bottles on my wooden table by the widow on the road to nowhere, and more of them full to go than empty ones to be proud of.
As the sonofabitch never stopped bringing the brew, I eventually got fucked up enough I didn’t care anymore that I hadn’t eaten all day.
There were still two or three full bottles in front of me when an old guy, who had been sitting there, got up and walked up to me. He sat at my table, without asking.
“You’re French?” he asked, in perfect French.
“Well, oui,” I said. I wondered how he knew. All I had said since I got in there was ‘hello’ and ‘a beer please’.
“Drink the beer,” he said.
“Well,” I said, “give me a chance.”
“Drink the beer,” he said again.
The bartender, the other old farts, were now all looking at me. Ok then, I’m drinking. The overall silence was overbearing, it helped with the drinking.
So much so that the bartender and all the cronies eventually gave it up. Then the old man at my table started to talk again. “Listen,” he said. From then on, his French was perfect, no accent.
“I was a young man. I was married. I had a child. I was stuck in post WWII real politiks, on the wrong side of the wall. I told my wife ‘honey, I’m going to go across to the West. If I succeed, you and the child will have a better life’. ‘Go my dear, I trust you,’ she said. So I went.”
As it goes, the guy eventually crossed the border to France from Italy one morning. He was dirty, tired, lonely. He was also starving. So, as he arrived in Nice, France, that very morning the elation of his successful escape was none compared to his young body’s cravings as he came upon a ‘Boulangerie’. Through the window, he saw the bread, the ‘baguettes’, the ‘croissants’, the ‘pains au chocolat’. Hungry as he was, he couldn’t help but go in.
“I was in rags and I couldn’t speak the language but the girl that was working there understood, and she smiled and she gave me a ‘baguette’ and I understood it was for free, that she was giving it to me,” he explained to me. That was good bread I guess.
Later, as the story goes, the guy made a new life in France. Married again, had another girl. Never said anything to the wife and girl at home, other than sending money every month.
Eventually, after decades, this guy left France, and his French wife and girl, and went back home, to the original wife and girl, who had done well with his monthly checks in this goddamned hamlet.
So I figured this man had remorse and needed to spell it out.
I understood that the beer I was drinking had to do with a good girl’s generosity in a bakery in Nice that smelled of freshly baked French bread, which certainly sounded a lot better than where I was, having to listen to this. Anyhow, I’m no preacher and his troubles with women were none of my business. So I shut up and kept on drinking.
When the old man was done talking, he got up and I knew then the bar was about to close. I didn’t have to pay for anything. Quite drunk, I took with me as many opened bottles as I could carry and stumbled back outside, back to winter.
I started the car, having no idea where to go from there. So I turned on the heat and then the radio. There was a clarinet. Of course.