Chris and I had only been engaged for a few months when we took our first trip abroad together to his “mother country” of Slovenia. It was my first time in what is considered Slavic territory and had it not been for my new fiance, sadly I probably wouldn’t have ever considered visiting this stunning region of the world. I’m so thankful I didn’t miss out!
This being Chris’ third visit to this gorgeous country, the first and second trips centered around his enrollment in a language immersion program, he was more than familiar with how to get around and navigate the terrain as well as the language and cultural landscape. Another quality I was super grateful for. When Chris attended the first language program, he reached out to a local man who shared his last name and discovered that they were indeed direct relatives. Davorin was a first cousin to Chris’ father. A friendship based on kinship was developed and it was on this trip, that Davorin, met us at the Ljubljana airport and took us to get our rental car the next day. From there we would set out for our first leg of the trip in Croatia before returning to Slovenia for the last half.
Davorin stepped in for our Dads who were back home and checked our rental car to make sure our tire repair kit was in good condition, that we understood where the gas tank was and that we were clear on our directions to Dubrovnik- a 6 hour drive through the Balkans. His last casual words of advice before we hopped in our bright green Kia Picanto were “Careful of gypsies!”. I didn’t think anything of the comment at the time. We hugged Davorin goodbye and set out for the Venetian coastal town of Dubrovnik. We anticipated a late afternoon arrival. First rule of road tripping anywhere: Don’t anticipate an arrival time.
The thing is, when you rent a foreign car in a foreign land, you have nooooooo idea what the gas mileage is like. As we zipped along on the autocesta, taking in new topography and landscapes, we paid no mind to the gas gauge needle except once to foreboding note “Wow! This car gets great mileage!”.
And just like that, the day quick took a turn. As we noticed that the fuel needle began to droop, autocesta exits with gas stations seemed to disappear as well. We were more than midway through our journey, and in a dry and craggy area of the passage way when we began to get nervous about running out of gas. As we passed through a tollbooth, Chris leaned out and asked for directions to the nearest gas station. The toll taker smirked and motioned that 10km beyond the toll was a small town and we could get gas there. At this point the needle was drooping below the empty line so we were quite nervous.
The road narrowed to one lane as we approached the town, Vrgorac. And. The traffic came to a dead halt. Beads of sweat formed on both our brows as we sat idling, wasting precious petrol and stared at the loooong line of cars stuck behind a giant crane blocking the one way road. The only way to get to gas and the only passageway to our destination.
After watching several cars flip around and make their way to a dirt path along the base of some nearby hills, we attempted to follow suit. Sadly, our tiny Picanto couldn’t handle dirt roads and we found ourselves back in the one horse town. We stopped at a small cafe and immediately felt out of place when we entered to see a Croatian waitress serving two locals. Chris asked in Slovene about gas. The language barrier was a bit of a struggle but the waitress was sharp and very kind. She pointed towards the crane and managed to communicate to Chris that people up the street could help us. So, we walked up the road, per her directions and found ourselves standing at the entrance of what appeared to be an encampment. Men, all men, living in metal shipping containers. The dry dust was swirling around the grounds. The men were gruff, dirty and tired looking. Davorin’s farewell words of warning echoed in my brain. Gypsys.
I followed close behind as Chris was greeted by a sweaty young man from one of the container/portables. I was the only woman on the premises and man, did I feel it. Somehow my conservative khaki capries and button up oxford shirt felt too revealing. After another struggle between Slovene and Croatian linguistics, Chris managed to communicate that we needed gas. The man said he would take us to get gas and motioned to his car. His car had only 2 seats. This meant that one of us would go with him to get gas and the other would be left alone. My heart sank. Seriously. It was only day three of our romantic adventure and Chris was about to disappear in a car with a gypsy and leave me alone with scores of men.
Chris gave me a wad of Kunha and Euros and told me to wait for him back at the cafe. I kissed him goodbye and held back tears of anxiety and made my way back to where I knew at least one other woman was present. Just as I commandeered a table near the window and pulled out my laptop, I saw Chris and the gypsy speed away towards the hillside road. With that I opened a Word document and began logging the experience fairly concerned I would never see Chris again and that I would be stranded in this Balkan village for the remainder of my days.
Meanwhile, in the car, Chris nervously struck up conversation with his new friend. The man, weary and tired looking asked Chris where he was from. “USA, California.” he replied. The man squinted, “George Bush…not good.” Chris was quick to offer up his support for Obama to which the man responded with a thumbs-up. As they rounded a corner, the man slowed the car behind another parked car on the side of the road. Another man waited. Chris’ mind raced. This is it. This is where they beat me to death and steal my wallet. Chris begins to form words to ask questions when the other man reaches into his trunk and pulls out… a gas can. Ah! Yes. That is a necessary component for this trip. As the the other man exchanges the gas can and a wave, Chris and his driver continue onwards. As their journey progresses, they begin to talk more openly.
Meanwhile, back at the cafe, I’m typing out my last will and testament should anyone find my laptop and wonder what became of us. I hear a loud blaring sound and then 5 minutes later, all the men from the camp make their way towards the cafe. “This is how it happens. I will die at the hands of a hundred gypsies.” I think.
In the car, Chris asks his new friend about the camp. And then, it becomes clear and embarrassingly obvious. These men, they were construction workers. After the fall of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and subsequent independence of Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, new infrastructure had yet to be funded, let alone built. These men weren’t gypsies, they were government workers, sent to build the connecting highways between these newly formed nations. To do so, they had to live in camps. It would be another awkward hour, alone with scores of men, before I would know this comforting fact. I know I looked like a cowering idiot to all these hardworking men.
I swear to god, I’ve never been so happy to see Chris. At this point, Chris and the good samaratain were fast friends. As they rigged a fuel funnel by sawing a coke bottle in half to refuel our car, Chris offered our kind soul money. The man refused. A beer? No. A coke. He let us buy him a Coca Cola. No joke. And that, that is the story of when I was certain I’d lost my husband to balkan gypsies. The End.