Tonight I’ve been asked to speak on the topic You Can’t Go Home Again: Stories about Starting Over. Now I’ll be honest. I’ll never turn down an opportunity to waffle about myself in public. But when I sat down to prepare these remarks, I realised something. I’ve never started over at anything in my life.
I’m Irish. I resent things. That’s how we roll. So instead I’m going to talk about a time when I couldn’t go home again. It wasn’t because of distance or a lack of funds. It wasn’t because of pride or a determination to prove my doubters wrong. No, no, my dilemma was much more profound than that.
I couldn’t remember where I lived.
On the morning of July 2nd 2006, I woke up lying in the grass margin of a motorway about 20 miles outside of Sarajevo, with no earthly clue how I had gotten there. This wasn’t a Jason Bourne type-scenario. I wasn’t suddenly able to do karate or anything.
I mean, I remembered why I was in the Balkans. My friends and I were on our way to the Exit Music Festival in Novi Sad. I remembered arriving in Sarajevo the day before, dumping my bags at the hotel and rushing out to watch some World Cup matches on a big screen in the town square. I remembered Portugal beating England and Zidane and Henry combining to sink the Brazilians.
I remembered lots of drinking, smiling faces and lots and lots of merry making. I didn’t remember losing my friends. But I must have done, because it was 6am, the sun was up and I was lying alone in wet grass, with a taste in my mouth like a dog had taken shat in there.
There wasn’t much point, then or now, in trying to figure out how I ended up there. Sufficed to say, I doubt sobriety, cunning or guile had much to do with it.
But fuck it. I’m Irish. That’s how we roll.
I crossed the road. Wherever I was, it seemed logical to assume I might return to where I should be by hitching a lift in the opposite direction. I flagged down a taxi. The driver had no English and my Bosnian wouldn’t be great. But I asked for Sarajevo and that seemed to ring a bell. As the city came into view, he inquired about a street address. But I couldn’t help him there. The lads had booked the hotel. I hadn’t been paying attention.
We drove around the city awhile, the bombed out architecture a neat metaphor for my fragile state of mind. Every now and then some minor detail would come back to me. The hotel was near a bridge. The road down to the bridge had been very steep. There were some UN soldiers around. We prowled the river looking for a location that matched. Slowly, I thought, we were closing in on our prey.
But the taxi driver was in no mood to be patient. Eventually, he pulled the car over and began shouting at me. As I said, my Bosnian isn’t great. But I could fill in the blanks. “Get your fucking act together man,” he was saying. “We’ve been driving around for two hours and it smells like you slept in a ditch. Do you know where you want me to take you or not?”
Just then, I remembered another detail. The previous evening, an open-air opera recital had been taking place outside my hotel. A couple of hundred people were sipping glasses of white wine as we went past. “Opera?” I ventured. “Italian opera?” He shrugged his shoulders. He don’t speak English, dumbass. But I continued. “It was an open air opera recital… I don’t know, maybe it was mentioned in a freesheet or something?”
This just seemed to annoy him more. I tried another tack. There was a 1970s cop show-style car radio on the dashboard. From what I’d heard, it sounded like there were about ten and fifteen people on the other end. Surely one of them spoke English. ““Can I speak into that?” I asked. He nodded impatiently. I spoke as clearly as I could.
“Hell-oo,” I began. “By any chance, does any-one out there speak En-g-lish?”
Ten to fifteen grunts on the other end. No, no one spoke English.
I gave it another go. “I am looking for a place where there was an op-en air op-er-a recit-al last night… You know…? Opera…? Italian opera…? Opera Italiano…?”
Another ten to fifteen grunts on the other end.
This was it. My final roll of the dice. I picked up the handset for a final time. I cleared my throat. Then I belted out a rousing pidgin version of Verdi’s La Traviata. (“Laaa-la-la-la-la-la-la-laaaaaaaaaaaaaa….) I replaced the handset. A cold bead of sweat trickled down my forehead.
On the other end of the car radio, I heard a voice. I couldn’t tell what this person was saying, but it sounded a bit more encouraging than anything I’d heard before. This person had an idea and, by the sounds of it, several others on the out there seemed to agree. By now even my own taxi driver was nodding his head in agreement.
He reach across in front me, grabbed the handle of the passenger side door and opened it. Then he spoke to me in English for the very first time.
I spent four more hours looking for that hotel. On foot.