Eyes closed, you rub your palms on the face, trying to restart circulation. You stop and catch your reflex in the brown bottle of Sarajevska – the fifth, or sixth? – of the day. It looks exactly as tired as it was one minute ago, before that impromptu massage. But the day ain’t over yet; actually, the best is yet to come.
You have marched to the Autobusni kolodvor in the night, through that bit of town made of large boulevards and shiny buildings, their predecessors too shelled out to be restored. An armed policeman, standing guard alone outside the seemingly endless compound of the American embassy, has guided you to your destination and here you are, drinking beer by the bottle as the elderly janitor grudgingly mops again the old lavatories.
There’s something irrational and irresistible, for me, in the concept of picking up my stuff and going. Ever since I was 9 and read J.R.R. Tolkien’s words “It’s a dangerous business, walking out one’s front door” that I have itched for the actual motion of going, that feeling of exhilaration and apprehension that comes with it.
You strode through the deserted entrance, unsure of your next step. After all this is a first for you, rocking up at a Balkan bus station with nothing but an email printout of a ticket bought on the Internet six months prior, on a website that, you could’ve sworn, had been designed by somebody’s friend using a basic HTML template.
Inside, the ticket hall doubles as a waiting room. Your eyes gather fleeting glimpses of old wooden panels, yellowing announcements, Eurolines adverts and those Plexiglas booths where you have to shout to be heard by the clerk. Feeling an acute pang of nostalgia – this is how the post office used to look like when you were a toddler – you go to the ticket office, printout in hand.
You needn’t have worried. The clerk reads the printout, exhales your names as if they were the ones of long-awaited friends and hands you a paper ticket that must’ve been waiting there for quite a while. Sarajevo – Zagreb, 50 convertible marks for a seat on the night bus together with a handful of students, an elderly lady and a few women who board in silence after placing their belongings, bundled into supermarket nylon bags, into the coach’s boot.
The bus is quiet as you roll out of Sarajevo, the parades of LEDs leaving space to the faint lights of old lamppost in villages in the hinterland. The driver puts on some music at low volume: first is Söndörgő, then something you don’t recognise, a soft woman’s voice over a droning Balkan melody. You drift to sleep.
One stop follows another as you bubble in and out of consciousness, up until the border post at Slavonski Brod, a place that your subconscious associates immediately to Bronski Beat. Well, weren’t they singing about someone leaving?
Your passport is taken by a Bosnian cop, stamped out and then you queue up to show it to his Croatian colleague. It’s foggy, it’s cold, you can’t wait to return on board, yet you wait for the elderly lady once you’re done, together with the drivers and a few others. She arrives and you all board; no one remains behind.
The arrival comes all too soon, a welcome made of fog and the autobusni kolodvor’s nude concrete. It’s 5:30 AM and the group scatters, the fleeting bond built on the overnight bus from Sarajevo dispelling like mist. You head upstairs, past the closed ticket counter. Somewhere there must be someone selling coffee.