Half of the attraction is the chase – at least, from the man’s point of view.
The uncertainty of whether a woman will melt into his embrace is an adrenalin-pumping rollercoaster. Isn’t this a little unfair, though? A woman simply needs to turn up naked with a beer…and the deal is sealed. Well, that’s oversimplifying, of course – I prefer wine, myself. Seriously, though, Ivana’s appeal is growing as she coquettishly reminds me that the Croatia of today was born as recently as 1991.
‘It’s the same bullshit about joining the EU,’ she says, removing another troublesome pebble from beneath her bum. ‘Slovenia is blackmailing us, wanting some coastline back. In return, they’ll stop blocking us from joining. But there is not a single map showing Slovenia ever had more coast than it has now.’ Between furious scribbles in my moleskin notebook, I look fondly at the way her hair curls round her ear.
Her eyes are bright pools as she passionately concludes her monologue on the region’s recent turmoil. ‘There was no war in Serbia; it was only on Croatian/Bosnian soil. The Serbs are the invaders.’
If not forgiving, Ivana at least seems tolerant of the Serbs. Not so with the older generation. While she happily came to the AC/DC show in Belgrade earlier this year – coincidently a tour I was working on – her dad remains staunchly adamant. ‘My father would rather shoot himself than go to Serbia,’ she says poignantly.
I hope we’ve established that Ivana is not one of my blonde bimbos? That’s right, she’s a brunette…and she’s now slipped into that ravishing red dress mentioned in Part One. Over a late-night beer, calculating how easily that dress would slip off, I ask whether I should update my Couchsurfing profile.
There is a section in which the member is invited to tell other users something interesting, and another section where the member would like to know something in return. One needn’t necessarily grapple with a great, unsolved enigma of the universe…but I did. ‘Why do men wake up with an erection?’ is what I wrote.
Wondering if this might be unsuitable as an opener to people who don’t know me, I seek Ivana’s opinion. As a European woman – and therefore infinitely more erudite in these matters – perhaps she will tactfully suggest: ‘why can’t we tickle ourselves?’, or something. She takes a long swig of beer while pondering this weighty dilemma, all the while maintaining eye contact. ‘Keep the erection thing,’ she coos. Matters, at least beneath the table, are looking up.
‘Let’s stop for a beer,’ she suggests, as we reach a vantage point over the Cathedral. For a slim young troutling, Ivana drinks an extraordinary amount of beer. Perhaps she’ll blossom when she reaches thirty in a year or two, but for now she sups carefree from the neck of a Staro Cesko bottle.
‘There are less cars up here – it is a beautiful view,’ she coos from her wicker chair. She is close to me now. A waxing moon broadly illuminates the amalgamation of two settlements – Kaptol and Gradec – that became known as Zagreb from 1094. Illuminated, too, is a visceral magnetism between man and woman.
‘You mean fewer cars, not less,’ I tease. ‘Car is a countable noun.’ She nudges me in the ribs playfully, but she is nonetheless grateful. Ivana speaks half a dozen languages, all to an elevated level of competence. Sadly, any aspirations I had towards linguistics proved quixotic years ago. I’m ashamed of it, since you ask. After travelling almost incessantly for fifteen years, I’m rather a damp squib when it comes to foreign languages.
My schoolboy French – and an occasional Castilian lisp when ordering a beer in Spain – pales woefully in comparison to Ivana’s dexterity. But if you’re going to do one thing only, then do it well. As serendipity would have it, my English is still a little better than hers.
We chat for hours and she tells me authoritatively of the famous Zagreb mummy here, inside the Archaeological Museum. ‘It is a body that was found in Ptolemaic Egypt wrapped in a book! This wrapping paper,’ she says, ‘is the world’s longest Etruscan text.’ And did I know that Zagreb is home to the world’s shortest funicular railway, with just 66 metres of track? I order another beer.
‘I’ll never get bored of your British accent,’ Ivana purrs, provocatively. She plays with her hair, crossing her legs demurely. This is unmistakeable flirting. We ask a Japanese tourist to take a photograph, forcing our proximity further. Her cheek touches mine as she pouts at the camera, and my hand lightly brushes her hips. The picture is blurred, the red dress and her smile distorted. But the memory is still clear.
We walk hand in hand down ancient steps at one o’clock in the morning, without trace of awkwardness. And it sets me wondering whether we behave differently when travelling overseas. At home, there are social consequences; we tend to make shy overtures, not daring to unveil our attraction too readily. But on a sultry August evening in the Balkans, anything could happen..
(Top & bottom pictures are courtesy of http://www.dreamstime.com)