02 July 1989

Yugoslavia (Part 2)

I had left home in Salzburg at eight o'clock in the morning in the hope that because it was a Sunday there would be fewer travellers. But I had been wrong. In fact, all the way through Austria, Italy, and Yugoslavia traffic came to a standstill several times, not because of accidents but because it was construction season.

At least I found the Marine Biological Research Station quickly and without help. And when I pulled into the parking lot there was only one other car, a grey Yugo, which naturally didn't have Austrian license plates. I was the first to arrive after all.

I got out of the car and stretched. My T-shirt was clinging to my back and my jeans to my thighs, and I hopped onto one of the large boulders and spread my arms. It felt good to stand in the breeze for a while. For a citizen of a landlocked country there is nothing like the smell of the sea.

The seawall was a strip of large boulders and rocks that protected the shoreline from the winter storms. I climbed down to the waterline and inspected one of the larger tide pools where two prawns were quickly retreating underneath the rocks.

I climbed back up, pulled my duffel bag from the trunk, and went looking for the caretaker. We had been told he would be welcoming us and show us our quarters, and I naturally assumed that the Yugo was his.

I must dispense with any romantic notions here. The Piran Marine Biological Research Station was nothing like Ed Ricketts's Cannery Row lab that I had foolishly envisioned. Instead I stood in front of a four-storey cement block that had all the exterior charm of a communist tractor factory. To make it worse the building stood right against a twelve-storey wall that had been dynamited out of a natural cliff. If John Steinbeck had lived here instead of Monterey, he probably would have gone the way of Ernest Hemingway.

There were three sections to the building, the north section which was a warehouse of sorts and would later be referred to as "the depository", a narrow centre part with mirror windows, and the south part which looked like a warehouse but turned out to hold a classroom and several laboratories. The centre part, which appeared to hold staff offices, had the obvious entrance door. It was locked.

Shielding my eyes I peeked inside, a cold unwelcoming reception area. I rattled the door a few times. Nothing.

"University of Vienna?" The question came from above me.

"Yes, University of Vienna," I said looking up but seeing nothing except the receding facade of the building and the blue sky above.

"Please wait," came the command.

The caretaker introduced himself with a firm and friendly handshake, and I noticed that one of his upper front teeth was missing. He led me up two steep flights of steel stairs that were mounted on the south side of the building and led directly to the fourth floor. Once at the top we entered through a steel door and walked down a dark and narrow corridor.

"Bathroom on the right," the caretaker said, perfunctorily switching on the light, which was a single frosted bulb with a wire guard around it.

I peeked into a depressing room whose floor and walls were covered in brownish tiles and that contained two toilet stalls, a couple of sinks, and a shower cubicle with a flimsy curtain. We would be twenty students. This was bad. But I nodded as if delighted by the luxury.

He turned off the light, and we continued on around a zigzag chicane in the corridor which opened up to a poorly lit hallway that had five or six doors lined up on the left, all closed. A room at the end of the hallway had its door propped open and appeared to be sunlit.

"Guestrooms to the left, kitchen straight ahead," the caretaker said. "You have first choice of guestroom."

Since the kitchen would be the obvious place for social gatherings, I opened the door furthest away from it. It opened not to the inside but out into the hallway as rooms in boarding schools often do.

It was completely dark inside, and I switched on the same frosted bulb with a wire guard around it. To the left and to the right of the entrance stood bunkbeds that reminded me of my boarding school days, and in the small space before the balcony door stood a table with four chairs neatly pushed in.

I pushed my duffel bag on the top bunk and made my way across the room where I pulled the strap that lifted the heavy roller shutters. With the windows facing west merciless brightness began to fill the room, and I stopped the shutters halfway up. Outside I could see a generous terrace that ran along the warehouse portion of the building.

"I show you kitchen." the caretaker said and waved to follow him.

The kitchen was large and clean. It too opened up to the terrace, and the caretaker had taken a couple of tables outside. He sat down and offered me a cigarette.

"Thanks," I said. "May I use the bathroom first?"

But before he could answer there was honking in the parking lot below, and he leaned over the bannister.

"Your friends," he said pointing down.

"Hardly," I answered.

When I came out of the bathroom, just before I turned off the light, I noticed on the opposite side of the corridor two doors the caretaker had not mentioned. I tried the first one which was locked. Then I tried the one to the right.

The room was smaller than the other guestroom but also contained two bunkbeds. It had only a small window, which was not connected to the terrace. Looking down onto the parking lot I saw small groups of students walking towards the building. Then I heard them nosily clunking up the steel stairs. I knew I had to be quick.

"Bathroom on the right," the caretaker said, and I could hear the click the light switch made.

And when the caravan moved on I was standing on the other side of the closed door, still holding my breath.

Then I sat down and opened my duffel bag.

Nobody found my room that day. And nobody found out about it even on Monday or Tuesday. Secrecy is a habit of the introvert. And it was only because I didn't pay proper attention that on Wednesday morning I ran into Herr Ott.

By that time I had already developed a routine. I would get up at six o'clock, brush my teeth, do my morning callisthenics. Then I would quickly dress, slip down the steel stairs as quietly as I could, and walk over to the Grand Hotel.

The Grand Hotel not grand. It was a twelve-storey cement block also built against the cliff, weird angles and terraces posing as modern architecture. It was about a foot-minute south of the Research Station. It wasn't a bad hotel, especially not by Eastern Bloc standards.

I don't remember in details of what the hotel looked like on the inside, just that the floors had ornamented tiles, and that there were large sofas and armchairs, dark-brown and arranged in islands, where sunburnt guests could rest and talk. As most hotels built into a cliff the Grand Hotel had its reception desk at the top, which meant that I could sneak in at sea-level. There was no personnel in the hallways at this time of the day, and just in case I walked confidently so that I would be taken for a guest returning from an early morning stroll.

Consequently, I made my way to the toilet facilities unhindered. They were modern and clean and most importantly gave me the privacy which the stalls at the Research Station lacked. (Yes, I do have a toilet problem.)

When I came back that Wednesday morning, I was just about to disappear into my room when I heard somebody behind me.