My first trip to the Balkans was when I was an undergrad, for archaeology field school in, let’s say, the People’s Republic of Rovakia. The excavation was located in a dreamy rural hamlet, nestled between supple fields and fairy-tale forests. It would have been pastoral paradise, save for the Bubonic-tasting water, mangy dogs, and perpetual smell of shit and sound of shit-covered-flies in your ear.
Before heading to the village, us fresh-faced, dipshit Americans met up in Vlok, a relatively bustling university city and the urban center of northwest Rovakia. We were led around site-seeing like ducklings by the excavation directors, Mario and Dumitru.
In his late 30s, Mario was an Italian man. His skin was dark and leathered. Bountiful chest hair sprung forth from his shiny purple shirt and he wore man carpis held by a wee belt. Mario was so Italian, except for the fact that he was from Columbus, Ohio. He had just spent the past 10 years in Italy, as a professor in Rome. He looked every bit a sleazy Italian, but had a heart of gold.
Dumitru looked every bit a sleazy Rovakian, but had the heart of someone with high cholesterol. He had a prominent gut and cheeks that alluded to years of bon vivant indulgence. He also had a vertical scar bisecting the length of his torso from a triple bypass. The gut and scar were often on display, because Dumitru usually dressed in an open button-down—billowing in the wind—and tiny “trowsies,” or swim trunks. The trowsies cinched in the shadowy abyss below his stomach. He often stood lunging, with one foot on a knee-high surface (you know the stance—your creepy 7th grade history teacher stood that way), and people saw his penis. They would have to maintain the conversation as if it was not visible, but there it was, scorching into memory.
However, in general Dumitru carried himself with grace and distinction; he was regally corpulent. Dumitru was prominent in Rovakian archaeology and had connections everywhere. In social settings he was infectiously hospitable, but in the field he was a bellowing dictator. His outbursts were directed at the Rovakian workers and other directors—never us dear American friends—but we witnessed and recognized his authoritative side. Dumitru could have thrived as a mob boss or a hotel concierge, but followed his passion in Rovakian archaeology.
That first evening in Vlok: “My dear American friends,” Dumitru said with a diplomatic outstretched arm. “We will eat the mici and drink the beer in the park. Yes, it is the good Rovakian way. Follow me in such a way.”Mici were three-meat sausages (not sure which three) that resembled 3-inch turds. They were delicious. Our dinner that night consisted of mici, mustard, and beer.
“It is the good Rovakian way.”
We clustered around tables in the park. There was an outdoor bar/mici grill and a band on stage that collectively reminded you of David Bowie. The lead singer wore a single white glove and they mostly played Cold Play covers. It was an excellent scene.
Another American girl and I probed Dumitru about our itinerary for the next day. What time would we leave? How were we getting to our field site? What would we do when we get there? What was it like in the village?
Dumitru shook his head and hands, wiping away our inquiries. “My dear American girls. Listen to me. Do not be curious; the curious girls remain ugly.”…
…Dumitru wanted us to relax and enjoy the pleasures of Rovakia—its food, its alcohol, and its people. He was determined to facilitate as many Rovakian-American love affairs as possible. Every morning in the field two individuals, of opposite sex and nationality, were sent to fetch water from the natural spring. It was unabashed match making and “fetching water” was the first the step to dating. It seems like a chore conducive to exotic rural romance: You strolled through a meadow of rustling grass and wildflowers. You passed a plum tree and your companion lowered the branch so you can pick a sweet, ripe one. You entered a shadowy thicket and nimbly crossed a stream rock-by-rock. Fairies fluttered and field mice sang Disney tunes (in Rovakian). This is what fetching water was like, until you turned the last corner and reached the spring. It was a cement basin fed by a rusty industrial pipe, surrounded by a 6 ft barbed wire fence (which kept out the cows, but not their odor). Green murk floated in the basin and frogs tangled in a jumble of living and decaying plant matter. It was as romantic as a septic tank.
You had to sit with your companion and fill gallon jugs with spring water, dispensing at the rate of a leaky faucet. It took about 20 minutes, ample time to get to know each other. Or at least it would have been ample time if you spoke the same language. Instead you pointed to something—like say the frog that just jumped onto your leg—and said “frog.” The Rovakian pointed to it and said, “broască.” It was an endearing way to learn a language, except the Rovakians were mostly 16-year-old boys and you could not be sure whether they really taught you the Rovakian for “frog” or “suck my d—.”
My first water-fetching assignment was with Andrej. We gathered the empty jugs—two gallon ones and a discolored half gallon one—and headed down the hillside in privacy. The vista was magnificent: verdant hills under a loud blue sky. We were silent on the way down. At the spring I tried to breach the language barrier.
I pointed to him and said, “how old?”
I pointed to myself, held my fingers up to signal 19 (ten fingers, nine fingers, in succession) and said “zece nouă,” or “ten nine,” in Rovakian.
He shrugged. We spent the rest of our time at the spring in silence.
Andrej feigned brawn and strained to carry both gallon jugs while I trotted along with the dainty, discolored half gallon one. A bit up the hill, he paused for a break. He heaved a sigh, wiped his brow, and then turned to address me.
“You are beau ti ful,” Andrej proclaimed with jerky halts between syllables.
Andrej did not speak English. He had just learned some sentences that he wanted to share with me on our water fetch. He didn’t know where one word began and the next ended, just the order of sounds.
“Thank you. That is very nice,” I said and smiled. Though he could not understand my words, he nodded with the stoic pride of a soldier hearing, “job well done” from a superior.
He re-gripped the jugs and we continued walking. He stopped.
“I like… your legs.”
“Thank you. That is very nice.” He nodded.
We continued walking. He stopped.
“I like your eyes and hair.”
“Thank you,” I smiled.
The hillside was leveling out, as was Andrej’s stock of English phrases. He stopped, frantically put both jugs in one hand, and reached for my hand with the other. We awkwardly walked a few meters hand-in-hand until he paused and smiled. On his teeth—glistening in the sun—were braces. Braces signify early teens, even in Rovakia. I panicked, reclaimed the independence of my hand, and scurried back to the excavation.
A few moments later Dumitru started bellowing at Andrej in Rovakian. Apparently the small, discolored jug we (I) brought on the water mission usually contained gasoline. Opps, almost poisoned everyone!
And upon inquiry of his English-speaking friends, I learned that Andrej was indeed 16. Much too young for hand holding!
Acknowledgments: Thank you Ryan Black for suggesting that I make up a generic Eastern European country.