Saturday, 17 May 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Dara

I met Dara on a coach in Paris in the spring of 1979. I was 21. It was one of those Magic Bus-type coaches that used to ferry young people in search of adventure up and down Europe in those days. They had done so since the hippy era of the late 60's and early 70's, when some buses used to go all the way into Asia. I think the original Magic Bus company had gone out of business by the late 70's. The coach was fairly basic and had two swarthy foreign drivers who spoke almost no English, French or German. Our drivers were the usual Greek, Turkish or East European drivers, since most of the routes now ended in Athens, Budapest or Istanbul. Like the rest of us, they already looked dog tired and were utterly unhelpful if asked to stop other than at the limited highway stops decided by them.

We left London in the early hours before making our way down the M20 to Dover. It was a rough crossing and we docked late in Calais. When we arrived in Paris we were allowed to get off for half an hour. The driver held up a paper napkin with 30mins written on it in spidery biro. We all needed to stretch our legs so we had a wander about, filled water bottles and bought french bread, fruit and cheese before returning to the dreaded bus. Climbing into my seat I found a small dark haired girl sitting by the window. She had moved some of my stuff off the seat in order to sit there. I sighed in annoyance. Thus far I had at least been able to stretch out uncomfortably across the two seats.

"Allo. Er, pardon," she said, and pointed to the luggage rack where she had placed my jacket and book.
"No, it's no problem," I replied in a typically English apologetic manner.

What was I apologising for, I wondered? I sat down, realising she must have just joined the bus in Paris. She hadn't been on the bus before – I would have noticed. She had the most enchanting face, with bright, happy eyes and a sort of cheeky, good natured manner about her.
"My name's Mark," I said, "from England."
"Dara," she smiled, putting out her little hand to shake mine. She was about my age and didn't seem to speak much English.
"You are from France?" I asked.
"Er...Paris?" she replied with uncertainty. "Yugoslavia." She gesticulated roughly in the direction of Yugoslavia with a kind of chopping movement of her hand. She seemed rather forthright, I thought to myself.
"You are from Yugoslavia?" I asked (Yugoslavia was a unified country back then and Marshal Tito was still alive).
"Da, Yugoslavia," she said, touching her chest. "Montenegro."
Actually I remember feeling she had touched her heart, which told me far more. She had probably been studying in Paris, I told myself, or perhaps working as an au-pair and was now returning home with longing in her heart. Her eyes flickered irresistibly, wondering what I had understood, perhaps sensing it. She obviously so wished she could tell me more, ask me more, but her language already seemed to have reached its limits.
"Vous parles Français?" I asked, cautiously.
If she had said yes I would not have fared much better. I had already begun regretting not paying attention in French at school. She shook her head.
"Allemagne?" I asked.
She smiled and shook her head once more, blushing. I think this was the kind of encounter I used to dream about at that age. I smiled back and laughed quietly, overly concerned now not to come over as mocking. The bus had started to make its way through the back streets of Paris, heading out towards the Porte d'Italy. We both sat looking out of the window, making ooh and ah sounds and pointing things out, still both wishing we could say more. She giggled a lot and periodically looked up into my eyes, the way a child does when they are checking an adult's reaction to something – or perhaps that was wishful thinking. I suppose at the time I rather hoped she perceived me as older and wiser than her.

Soon we were on the autoroute and there was less to see. We sat for a while saying nothing, both smiling now and then. I'd guess we were probably both amused by the situation and were wondering what the other was thinking. I closed my eyes for a few minutes, hoping it might take any sense of pressure off her. After a while she began to rustle things in her bag. She tapped my arm cautiously and I opened my eyes. I was being offered a croissant with roughly cut pieces of camembert inside. We went through the usual politenesses of me graciously refusing, her insisting and me accepting, then me getting an apple out of my backpack, cleaning it on my shirt and cutting it with my penknife onto my small tin plate.
"Hvala," she said.
"No, thank you," I replied.
We laughed together. I saw the couple opposite smiling to each other, knowingly. We must have seemed childish to them I suppose. Or maybe they were remarking that we were getting on well together.

Time passed. At various points we could see other passengers going up to ask the drivers if we could stop for a toilet break. They were curtly told to go away. After an hour or so the number of sufferers had increased and people had become angry in their desperation. In response, the drivers had become more determined not to stop. Finally a vociferous young American woman crouched down in the stairwell by the door and began adjusting her clothing to take a leak right there. Incensed, the driver veered onto the grass verge at the side of the highway and skidded to a stop to let her out. Despite their trying to block the aisle, there was a mass exodus.

The two drivers waved fists at the American woman and remonstrated aggressively in Turkish as we all climbed back on. She in return let forth a tirade of her own threats regarding what they could go do with themselves. One of the drivers consulted a pocket notebook before standing in the aisle, pounding his chest and repeatedly shouting "I am driver!!"
The rest of us clapped. People began shouting "I am Spartacus!" which I don't think the drivers understood. But it further enraged them. Their authority had been challenged, their pride hurt. It did not bode well for future stops or the general quality of driving – although that could hardly have got much worse.

More language learning ensued after our entertaining interlude. Dara and I learned each other's words for quite a few general things before finally I dropped off to sleep. Now limited to one cramped seat I was far from comfortable, but I didn't mind. It was dark when I next awoke and found Dara curled up like a cat with her head resting in my lap. She was fast asleep. Somehow I found her look of secure contentment overwhelmingly flattering. I had known her but a few hours yet there was an undeniable closeness between us – a level of trust – as if we had been friends since childhood.
The language of love has no words.

Viator in Montenegro

And then it was morning. The sun was shining and Montenegro was unexpectedly beautiful. Everything was beautiful to me that morning. It seemed inexplicable that my heart should ache so much to leave her behind. But she was returning to her family and it did not seem right to intrude. She had offered. Somehow with minimal language she had suggested I come with her and meet her family, but it had seemed wrong to me. I think I worried it might seem too eager perhaps, yet as soon as the bus crossed into Greece I knew I should have gone with her. I couldn't get her angelic face out of my head – those sparkling eyes looking up at me as she waved and blew a kiss while the bus roared off. I heard the couple opposite sigh in disappointment. I still wonder about it now, how that decision might have changed my life.

In the late 60's / early 70's some buses went all the way to Afghanistan 

I often wonder where some of those buses are now (image courtesy of

I mourn the death of the Magic Bus era. 

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this and his collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.

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