Our Man in Golubac
As sweat ran down my temples the man at the other end of the telephone line told me that he spoke Bulgarian, which came as a massive relief to me. Only a few seconds into our conversation it became quite clear that he didn’t speak a single word of English. As we were in Serbia it was not surprising that Serbian was his first language and he also spoke a little Russian. It turned out that for many years he had played a tambura (a long-necked stringed instrument native to the Balkans) in a folk band that had toured Bulgaria regularly and extensively, so as a consequence he had picked up quite a bit of the language. Bulgarian being a Slavic language (scholars and Bulgarians would say it’s the root of all Slavic languages) it has many similarities to his native Serbian.
On a daily basis I find that I rely heavily on my limited, but gradually improving knowledge of Bulgarian, often punctuating it with sign language and exaggerated facial expressions. When talking on the phone I forget that gesturing with my hands and contorting my face add nothing to the quality of the conversation but I do it anyway out of habit, getting frustrated that the other party doesn’t understand me but pleased to be providing a source of amusement to onlookers. I like to think that a deaf person might mistake me for an overweight, hairy, suntanned Marcel Marceau.
I was talking to Tsapi, pronounced more like Zappy, which Priyatelkata and I transformed to Zippy because, even though a little disrespectful, it was easier to remember. Anyway, Tsapi was the owner of a small guest house in the village of Golubac (pronounced Golubats) on the Serbian shore of the stretch of the River Danube known for centuries as the ‘Iron Gates’. Serbia is the place you come to when you drive across the top of the dam at the hydro-electric power station near the town of Orșova in Romania where we had spent the previous two nights, so we had found it without any difficulty at all. Cruising along the road that twisted and turned with the Danube all the way up to Golubac had not just been easy but beautiful and an absolute joy. On arrival in the village we asked for, and gratefully received, a little help from the in-car electronic navigation device to find the street in which the guest house was located but the only house number that it recognised was number fifty-four. Tsapi lived at forty-three but it simply wasn’t on the radar. The only problem encountered in our 130 kilometre journey that day was encountered on Tsapi’s doorstep, or on Tsapi’s neighbour’s doorstep to be more precise.
The electronic navigation device spoke with a posh BBC accent. Really I should change the settings on it as I often feel as though I am being guided around central and eastern Europe by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s butler. So it wasn’t surprising that it wasn’t familiar with the residents or layout of Ulitsa Vuka Karadžića (which translates simply to Vuk Karadžić Street in English). The temperature outside the car was edging up dangerously close to forty degrees and there was no one around to ask for directions or a bucket of water to dip our heads in. Our man Tsapi was our only hope, and we had really hoped that he would be able to speak English in this fairly remote area where very few people spoke English. I abandoned the electronic navigation device on the dashboard of the car and turned to the electronic communications device in my pocket, wondering how in the name of Novak Djokovic did people manage to go on holiday in the twentieth century, let alone reach the moon or Australia, without all this technology at their fingertips.
Fortunately, I knew the Bulgarian words for ‘We are in a grey Toyota outside a house with a big green and white fence, halfway up your street, sweating like pigs, gasping for a drink and wishing we had gone to Bridlington for our holidays.’
His reply, also in Bulgarian, went along the lines of ‘Wait where you are. I will walk up Ulitsa Vuka Karadžića to find you and show you the way to my house. And why Bridlington? Scarborough is much better.’
Incidentally, Vuk Karadžić, after whom the street was named, had been a Serbian philologist, anthropologist and linguist so it would have been handy if we had had him with us on our journey but unfortunately he died in Vienna in 1864. He also had the same birthday as me so, if astrology is anything to go by, we would have shared a few personality traits and on that hot and sticky Danubian afternoon, despite our supposed fearlessness, boldness, passion, creativity and fierce loyalty, it wouldn’t have been a good idea to have both of us in the car together.
Eventually a man appeared from a garden gate about 300 metres away. A skinny man with a bit of a belly. Also balding, he looked like he was in need of a haircut in the places that he couldn’t see. He wore a baggy off-white vest, baggy off-white shorts and baggy off-white sports shoes. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he had said that he had represented Yugoslavia in a track and field event in the 1968 Olympic games. I would have asked him but I didn’t know the Bulgarian word for Mexico.
As he got nearer I got out of the car to meet him. He smiled from ear to ear, shook my hand and said ‘Bulgaria! Hah!’ as if to suggest that Priyatelkata and I were simple country bumpkins from a backward region of the Balkans and it was no wonder that we had got lost. I don’t think that at any point it dawned on him that we were Irish and French.
He sat on the back seat of our car to guide me through a three-point turn in the road and a couple of narrow residential streets with tight corners, but beautiful trees, to the parking space at the back of his house where he strategically placed an old car tyre and a couple of bricks to eliminate any risk of a dodgy brakes / car-in-the-living-room situation, which I suspected he may have experienced in the past. But the brakes on our car were fine and, to add to this, the engine wasn’t leaking oil; he must have thought us such snobs. From the car he led us down half a dozen concrete steps and past the scabbiest old dog I had seen in almost a week (sadly, no east European country will ever win a prize for having the most loving pet lovers) to the door of Apartment No 1. There didn’t seem to be an Apartment No 2, 3 or 4 so we didn’t need to worry about someone else taking the parking space, tyre or bricks if we went out in the car to get lost and / or hot again.
Sitting inside the shady apartment amongst the myriad of plastic religious artefacts and strangely tasteful Communist era framed charcoal etchings of mythological scenes, we were offered beer but we asked for water to drink as we sat through an introduction that would put a 1980s Thomas Cook Costa Brava sangria-wielding holiday representative called Tracey to shame. At the very top of Tsapi’s list of important things to tell us was how to turn on the one hundred and fifty inch television, which predictably comprised of the usual arrangement of two sets of remote controls which always seem to operate each other, no matter what country you are in, but you never know which one to start fiddling with first. We’re not television people so we didn’t know what to expect but we soon discovered that Serbian Saturday afternoon viewing included such delights as episodes of Dallas overdubbed with the local lingo, some very sweaty men lifting very heavy weights to raucous applause from an equally sweaty crowd of spectators, Preston North End versus Sunderland from England’s football Championship (in mid July?), the Simpsons in Serbian and the men’s 800 metres final from the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico which was won by a man who looked a bit like Tsapi but with a slightly cleaner vest. He boasted that his television package covered seventy-two channels but we said that the five he had shown us were quite enough as it was already two o’clock in the afternoon and we wanted to go out before it got dark.
Other gadgets of less importance then the goggle-box monster on the wall but all of which required detailed operating instructions were the washing machine, the shower, the air conditioning, the fridge, the bottle of rakia, the door to the apartment which had a bit of a knack to it as far as locking and unlocking were concerned, the mouse trap and then back to a couple of things about the television that he’d forgotten to tell us earlier.
Local attractions came next. He had leaflets for them all and money-off vouchers for restaurants that we would find near to the attractions, all of which seemed to belong to family or friends so if we mentioned his name in any of them we’d get a bigger slice of Danube catfish or find that our chips were extra crispy. We were there specifically to see the incredibly impressive site of the ruined Golubac Fortress, built by Serbs in the fourteenth century as a defensive post at the upstream end of the Iron Gates gorge. Prior to that, during Roman and Early Byzantine times, it had been a stronghold called Cuppae which we assumed to mean cuppa in the Latin plural form, so it would have been quite appropriate to have a cuppa during our visit. But what was the Latin or Serbian for ‘packet of custard creams’? In Tsapi’s presentation there was no suggestion at all of there being a restaurant or even a café in the grounds of the fortress so we didn’t tell him we were going. He would have probably sent his sister with a packed lunch if he’d known. But we did make a note of all the local monasteries, fishing villages, Danubian beaches, leisure resorts, alternative fortresses, police stations and hospitals where we were sure to be dining during our two-night stay.
Polishing off our lovely cool glasses of Danube water, taking a deep breath and paying our host the money that we owed him for the rental of Apartment No 1, we thought that we were close to having the place to ourselves so that we could freshen up a bit before going out to face the beautiful village with its beautiful environs and its beautiful searing heat but then, still smiling, he told us that he hoped we would enjoy our holiday and proceeded to show us photographs from his own holidays. Some of them were quite old but it was clear that they were pictures of him because the big smile and the baggy off-white vest that he wore while being baptised in the Sea of Galilee, stroking a camel in front of the Great Pyramid and eating cut price catfish in a restaurant near a monastery by the Danube were exactly the same as those he was wearing that day.
Eventually he went, smiling as he did so. I had never known a friendlier or more thorough guesthouse host. He had certainly earned his money during the hour or more that we had been in his company and I had probably learned more words of Bulgarian than I had from seven years of lessons with my language teacher at home.
Left alone, we had a good look around our lodgings. Everything was perfect in a Balkan village sort of way. Tsapi seemed to take great delight in getting everything just right. He had even put small Serbian chocolate bars on our pillows. I have stayed in countless hotels and guesthouses in my time but never before had there been a chocolate on my pillow. Except on that one occasion when I stayed in a grubby little hotel close to Gare du Nord in Brussels. Well, I think it was chocolate but it may have been something else.
Every image I use is from a photograph I have taken myself.
On this occasion – The Serbian chocolate left on the Serbian pillow in Tsapi’s Serbian guest house in the Serbian village of Golubac. It contained banana flavoured marzipan and it was disgusting, but please don’t tell Serbian Tsapi that I said that because he would be devastated.