It’s a little over four years since R.A. Dalkey stayed in with me to chat all about Never Drive A Hatchback To Austria (And Other Valuable Life Lessons) in a post you can read here. Now Richard is off on another adventure and at a time when actual travel is denied so many of us, what could be better than to read an extract from his new book, Monte Carlo for Vagabonds?
Monte Carlo for Vagabonds is available for purchase through the links here.
Monte Carlo for Vagabonds
The world wants R.A. Dalkey to pay for hotel rooms and tickets, not travel around with a hammock and sneak free rides!
But R.A. Dalkey says ‘boo’ to that.
He’ll roll out his sleeping bag in Madrid’s red light district, nap on the streets of Monaco and furtively string up his hammock on Swiss farms. He’ll spontaneously teach English in Laos in exchange for rice. He’ll thumb rides anywhere from Timor to the Orange Free State. He’ll try smiling a lot, and see where it takes him. Most of the time it’s somewhere good.
As this collection of true travel stories will reveal, it doesn’t always go smoothly. Indonesian bush-fires chase him from his campsite. His shoes freeze solid in Siberia. He gets head-butted by an Albanian villager. He’s shaken by earthquakes and terrified by witching-hour excavations in Andorran valleys. And, incompetent as ever with ropes, his hammock has a habit of falling down in the middle of the night – with him in it.
Yet he wouldn’t have it any other way: travelling Dalkey-style delivers the richest of experiences. And as he shares the adventures few of us would brave, you’ll pick up gems about this crazy planet. Do you know which head of state was an Olympic bobsleigh competitor? Or how long your unattended bag will go untouched in Japan? Who’s eating all the ice cream in Pyongyang? And how do cats jump in Swedish?
Like that uncle with the rose-tinted specs and a grumpy anarchist student rolled into one, Dalkey turns up his nose at travel insurance and shows there’s more than one way to see a world that always steers us to play it safe…
An Extract from Monte Carlo For Vagabonds
The Kindness Of Strangers
Shkodra, Albania, September 2019
You know that feeling that somebody is watching you? I had it now. I tried to ignore it, but there was an insistence about it. Something in my peripheral vision was nagging at me.
I turned my head away from the sun dropping seductively over the distant hills of Montenegro, and looked out of the driver’s side window. And wasn’t completely surprised to discover an entire family looking at me in enquiring fashion.
At the front of the formation was a young-faced, attractive woman with pale skin and manicured eyebrows. She wore a lustrous green headscarf, along with the abaya that one still occasionally saw in Northern Albania. Hanging slightly behind her, a tall man with short brown hair, a moustache and carefully groomed whiskers following his jawline. Somewhere around their legs hovered an indeterminate number of children. It had to be the crew I’d just driven past on the road towards this village, only a couple of minutes before I turned into this farm track and parked up with a golden view over Lake Shkodra. They looked as though they might fancy a chat.
I rolled down the window.
“Hello,” smiled the woman, in the friendly, non-official sort of way I much prefer when it comes to unsolicited enquiries. “Where are you from?”
“South Africa!” I replied gaily. Then I waited for the usual puzzled reaction. Most places you go, people haven’t ever met a South African before. Either that or they want to know why you’re not black. Apart from that one moment in a Beijing hostel, my nationality has almost never failed as an ice-breaker.
But this lady seemed to take it all in her stride. “Well, I am Drita! This is Arber, my husband! Nice to meet you! So what are you doing here?”
That was a good question. At that precise moment I was watching the sunset, but details of what I would be doing thereafter were hazy. I’d just spent the day hiking up in the unforgettable scenery of the Accursed Mountains (that’s their name, genuine!) towards Kosovo, and the only plan I had was to find somewhere to park my hire car and nap for the night. I’d been toying with the idea of bunking down around here – perhaps even right here. A village amongst the fields outside the city of Shkodra would certainly offer a sounder, more peaceful site than anywhere closer to town would.
So I said: “Oh, I was just watching the sunset!”
“Well, do you have time for a coffee?” asked Drita. “We’re just going to see my parents. Their house is just over there.”
Just like that.
Did I have time to visit an authentic Albanian home as the guest of a highly hospitable, curious Albanian family? I think you know the answer by now. Moments like this were the Holy Grail of travel! The rarest of experiences – those money couldn’t buy and no tour guide had faked. Ever since things had worked out just fine with Mr Hans in Oslo all those years ago, I’d long had a policy of seizing invitations like this in much the same way a cowboy wrestles a calf to the ground. They didn’t come around all that often.
On those occasions when invitations like this had presented themselves, nothing but good had come of it. Saying ‘yes’ to exceedingly fresh acquaintances had led to classic Aussie barbecues in Adelaide, home-cooked Cantonese dinners in Guangzhou, giving English lessons in Laos, street cricket in Sri Lanka, spontaneous sake with drunken Japanese businessmen, dancing in Pyongyang parks, and – just two days earlier as I’d waited for the ferry to Durrës – getting served in a Bari restaurant that was extremely reluctant to consider waking up the chef as early as seven-thirty in the evening. The latter encounter with an Italian speaker had me more convinced than ever that the only reason not to engage people, accept invitations and be willing to hang with them was if you sensed a bad vibe. And on top of that were quite sure you weren’t imagining it.
So I grinned and said: “Why, yes I do! I’ve got all the time in the world, in fact.”
I proceeded to follow the family a few metres further along the rutted track, which curled downhill through the field. I cruised up to the back fence of what had to be Drita’s parents’ home. Then they waved me into the driveway in the gathering darkness.
Hospitality must have sat deep in the blood in this part of the world. Drita’s father had been given precisely zero warning that his daughter was going to bring a random stranger to visit. Yet he beamed with joy and greeted me like a long-lost son. It was as though my appearance was the cherry on top of his evening. (I briefly had my doubts about that when he tried to head-butt me along with his firm handshake, but I understood just in time that this must have been how men of his generation greeted each other around here.)
He ushered us through a typically spacious, orchard-like Balkan garden like a man on a mission. I was instantly reminded of Piotr, our man from the train to Pervouralsk. Dad didn’t speak anything but Albanian – and I’d gotten no further in the last 48 hours than finally mastering the five-syllable word for ‘thank you’ – but that sure wasn’t going to stop us having a chinwag. Not if he had anything to do with it.
Drita’s stocky father, whose eyes were still sharp and to whom a lifetime of country air had evidently been good, showed us into the house. As you’d expect of a parental abode in the country, it leaned towards the old school. Just what I wanted! We took off our shoes and were all invited into a large, minimalist lounge on the left. The armchairs, sofa and low coffee table took up only one corner of the room. Apart from a wall unit with a few photos and the like, there wasn’t a lot else to look at. But it didn’t matter, because this place palpably had the spirit of a happy home.
The old boy sank into his favourite armchair. (Have you ever met an old man without one?) Drita’s mother appeared – she also looked young and healthy for a grandparent, with her brown hair, switched-on face and ready smile. We all sat down, apart from the kids, whose number I could now firmly put at three and who were all younger than ten. They would proceed to spend most of the evening running in and out of the room. Between Drita’s basic English and Arber’s rudimentary German, we communicated after a fashion.
“My father says you’re a good boy!” translated Drita after the first grinning outburst from Dad.
“Well, he wouldn’t say that if he really knew me, but tell him I say thanks for having me. No, wait, I can say it myself! Fah…leh…min…DEH…rit!”
Everyone was very impressed at that, despite my hopeless, halting delivery. It’s the thought that counts, isn’t it?
“Bukur!!” bellowed Dad in delight, slapping me on the knee.
I gathered that bukur meant something positive and good.
“Schön,” confirmed Arber.
I nodded, and made a note to use the new term as soon as I got the chance. And as ‘coffee’ somehow turned to boiled sweets, soft drinks, raki and then a multi-plate buffet dinner, there were plenty of moments to press it into action. And each time, the old boy roared with glee. It’s amazing how one word can keep people who don’t speak the same tongue entertained for a whole evening.
But every now and then – like when Pops went to chase the kids around the house, or when Arber laid out a towel on the ground and performed evening prayers before dinner – I was left with an opportunity to reflect. I pondered the chances of this having happened if I’d been travelling the way normal people did. If I hadn’t been pottering about random fields in a car, with no place to go and half an eye on a good parking spot in which I could sleep, these people would never have chanced on me. No, I’d have been chewing listlessly on my dinner in some dire hotel canteen back in Shkodra. I was again reminded, too, of the value of travelling solo. Slim are the chances of sleeping in front seats when you’re on the road with the missus, at least in my experience. And a pair never looks as though it might be short of someone to talk to, either, and so a couple is far less likely to be approached by innocent, friendly strangers up for a chat.
It was only when the women withdrew to prepare dinner, brought all the food to our table and then proceeded to eat in some unseen separate room that I grasped quite how traditional an experience this evening really was. Northern Albania was nominally Muslim, though I’d seen (and heard) zero action around the mosques and minarets. I’d gotten the distinct impression that people in Albania weren’t at all religious in practice, but it seemed this family embraced the lifestyle to a greater degree than some. Yes, there was raki in the house, but this was purely for unsuspecting visitors. And though Mom didn’t wear a headscarf, Drita was one of very few women I’d seen wearing an abaya.
Being waited on to such a degree at dinner and then not be joined by the cooks was a little awkward for me at first, but I quickly distracted myself with the spread on the coffee table. Lamb on the bone, cheese, bread, potato and carrots kept me busy and enthusiastic enough that nobody noticed I was giving a wide berth to my culinary bête noire, the foul and disgusting tomato. Some consider me a fussy eater – rubbish, I say, the only thing I don’t eat is salad and all its ingredients! – but on nights like this one I did have my fears. I had no control over the menu! What if they brought great piles of tomatoes, olives, avocados and peppers – a realistic possibility in this part of the world – and I had to try and eat them? My stomach turned at the mere thought of having to gnaw my way through the sickly, salty horrors of an olive. But luckily the cooks guessed well.
They were certainly way more prepared to throw a banquet than I would have been if a traveller rocked up on my doorstep without warning. (Given the typically perilous state of my fresh supplies, they’d be lucky to get baked beans and crackers.) Domestic preparedness like this always impresses me. I wished I could have spoken to my hosts properly, but the language barrier is just such a thorny one after a while.
And Albanian was nothing if not impenetrable. It was famous for not being remotely related to any other language – you weren’t going to be able to pick up the odd word here and there, as you might with Dutch or Italian. It didn’t even sound like anything else, as I’d already gathered listening to the car radio. The only thing it reminded me of was, in fact, Irish Gaelic, and then only because of the way they said mirë, which meant ‘good’ and seemed to come up a lot. It’s not pronounced the way it looks. It’s pronounced in a way that rhymes with a Wicklow fishwife screeching at her kids to ‘c’mere’. I’d grown so familiar with mirë that I even slipped it in as an alternative to bukur now and then.
But despite my extensive vocabulary, conversation did start to run out at a certain point. At which Arber had the genius idea of video-calling his brother. Said sibling lived in Bristol and spoke terrific English. Seeing me enjoying North Albanian hospitality seemed almost to bring a tear to his eye. He spoke with great wistfulness about the old country and how well people were going to take care of me. He was lovely. Sometimes technology really is a marvel.
By the time the evening was ready to wrap up, my lowly plans for the night had become knowledge amongst the company. Thus it had been agreed that I could sleep over at Arber and Drita’s place in Shkodra itself. Well, I wasn’t going to complain at the chance to lie down on something soft! It’s very difficult, I have noticed over the years, for people not to make such offers after you tell them you’re planning to sleep in the car.
We said our goodnights and faleminderits to our hosts out in the garden. Just like before, Drita’s mother offered only a handshake. As for Dad, I was ready for the light butting of foreheads this time around. I decided it was a fun custom once you were used to it. You could pretend to be a goat for a moment, and I’m all for that.
We still had to get back to town, mind you. As far as I could gather, the plan was that we’d all pile into my hire car. No problem for me, of course, except I had a raki in my guts and Arber told me this was very bad. “Polizei!” he kept saying, suggesting that the limit here was zero and that he should take the wheel. Again, no problem for me, but was it a problem for the car rental people? I’d signed a bunch of stuff in Albanian and had no idea what it amounted to, but I knew for sure that car hire companies were forever being difficult about extra drivers. (A desperately irritating money-making thing almost certainly traceable to our friends in the insurance industry. Why can’t any person with a licence drive a given car? That’s why we have licences.)
It was a dilemma: did I drive ‘drunk’ or hand the keys to a guy who might prove to be an issue in the event of an inspection of the papers in the glove box? One thing I did know was that the chances of getting pulled over were truly outstanding. Never in my life had I driven in a country with so much roadside police presence. It was as though Enver Hoxha and his paranoid regime were still running the place. Most drivers seemed far more cautious than I had come to expect following previous trips to the Balkans, so I’d gotten the impression the locals took these patrols seriously too. I hadn’t yet had a spot-check, which gave me a nervous feeling that I was due. Especially on a Saturday night, every traffic officer’s favourite of the week.
Since I couldn’t explain my concerns about the extra driver thing in a way Arber would grasp, and thought perhaps an Albanian speaker would have more chance of explaining away such a ‘misdemeanour’ than my failing a breathalyser test, I decided to let him be our chauffeur. At least he knew the way. We’d probably get the journey over quicker.
In the event, he drove a little too slowly and carefully. We only had about ten kilometres to cover, but my how they dragged. I held my breath every time we saw lurking blue lights, which was often. I knew from bitter experience that crawling vehicles could attract as much attention as racing ones. And the longer we were on the road, the more exposure we had to the boys in blue. But I held my tongue and let him drive his way. It was with enormous relief that we pulled up outside his house unscathed after what felt like about an hour.
Then my heart sank – Arber discovered he’d left the house keys back at the in-laws’ place. You had to be kidding me! I’d only just dodged a free stay in an Albanian jail, and now we were going to have to make a return journey?
I love this extract. It really makes me want to pack my bags, put Monte Carlo for Vagabonds in my hand luggage and head off!
About R.A. Dalkey
R.A. Dalkey (nom de plume) was born in Cape Town, holds British citizenship and now lives halfway up a steep, wooded incline on the edge of Vienna. Between growing up amidst the euphoria and disappointments of post-Apartheid South Africa and settling (Brexit-permitting…) in Austria at 35, he’s lived in the USA, Australia and the UK.
An incorrigible dreamer, he’s driven outback trucks in Australia, spent two years trying to be a professional golfer and slept rough everywhere from Monte Carlo to Siberia, visiting over 70 countries along the way. Including Ireland, where he cracked up every time he rode the DART train past a town called Dalkey, and an author name was born.
As for the occasional bout of work, he’s known to do his fair share of editing magazines and writing. Under his own name, his words have been published by GQ, Reader’s Digest, The Sunday Times, Australian International Traveller, Die Presse, Autosport, Sports Illustrated and Reuters, to name just a handful.