Going south

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You Are Here:Going south

29th of November.
Day of the Republic of SFRY.

It’s a cool, but bright autumn morning.
The kind of morning that greets you with the clear skies and the sun is shining and you can almost imagine the butterflies and the bees and yourself wearing short sleeves, while looking out through the half-rolled blinds…
And then you open the window and your all your dreams instantly freeze to death.

I blink at the clock – 06:30.
I don’t remember when was the last time I got up this early.
In winter time in Serbia this equals getting up in the middle of the night.

It’s freezing cold, all three of my dogs are still sound asleep wrapped in blankets, the heating is not on, and I have just enough time for a cold coffee to kick myself out of my own house.

The only good side of getting up and leaving the house this early is the fact that I’ll avoid all traffic jams and chaos that happens every day, starting from 8am onwards, when there’s 0 chance of anyone getting anywhere in time, and being able to put some fuel into my Beetle and reach the city centre in time to pick up my travel companion and partner in crime, who foresaw every possible and impossible scenario of what could go wrong today.

And there were many things that could have gone wrong, on the Belgrade-Niš-Belgrade route, because, on our way back, instead of one car, we could be returning with two …

But let’s get back to the beginning.
Or at least what I remember as a beginning …
For no apparent reason, I am in love with Fićas.
Fića (pronounced “Fitja”) is my dream.
I never had one, I never drove one, I was never driven in one.

My late grandpa Pera sold his last Fića long before I was even born.
He had a beautiful baby blue one with suicide doors – who carried all the material for building a house that I still live in, on his tiny roof.
He was a bus driver, he loved his Fićas and he was in love with all the four-wheeled babies.
He is the one my family “blames” for these driver genes that I have, apparently.

I did not know how a Zastava 750 works, where the engine is, how to drive it.
I used to watch and rewatch bits of the “National class” , Fića documentaries and dig up old pictures of Fića races, Fića football game
And dreamt about having one for years.

I’ve collected more than a thousand photographs of Belgrade trough out history and used to daydream about walking those streets, meeting people and looking at cars and I used to think how nice it would be to have a chance to steal a piece of the old times, keep it for myself and make sure that it doesn’t get forgotten.

And then, somewhere along the way, I met him – Mladen’s red Fića.
Little round eyes sleeping in the corner in front of the building, under the street lamp, followed me every time when I’d wait for the bus or a taxi to go home from the Pub, from a movie theatre, a concert…
And every time I’d stop by to say hi.

He smelled of gasoline, he had a shamrock glued to the board next to the light switch and a small bunch of half-dead flowers (more “dead” than “half”) that hung from the tiny ashtray.
Every time that I had the chance to be driven in the red Fića, I was terrified by the fact that every part of my body was telling me that we’re moving 180km/h, while actually we were rolling 60 downhill.
And also by the feeling that we’re gonna die any moment.

– How does this thing work, at all?!
– It sounds like a go-cart!
– I have to try this…

For the barbecue days, he carried as many things as you’d think could never, ever fit. But they did fit.

For the first time, I drove him around the parking lot.
Somehow, slowly… First, second… Then hit the brakes in a slight panic attack.
I turn the steering wheel to make a U turn, and when I let it go, it won’t go back to where it was!
Everything is so manual it hurts in the beginning. If you drive this kind of car, you can cancel your monthly gym subscription – you won’t need it at all.
Oh, did I mention that he doesn’t have any mirrors…?

For more than 3 years, I’ve had night rendezvous with the red Fića.
Until now…

– Hey, great timing! You’re here…
– Yes, I got stuck in traffic halfway to here, I didn’t get the chance to fuel up, I have a bit more than half of the tank.
– Let’s just make sure we’re back in Belgrade by 5pm, because of my appointments…
– We’ll be here in time 100%, don’t worry – if I drive 180km/h, we’ll be back in 2 hours.
– You know that your Fića can’t really go faster than 80, right…?

”Мy Fića”.
I looked at Mladen, then at my steering wheel, then at the clock.
Then again at Mladen, then at my mirror, some kid about 15 years old in his “Audi” was flashing his lights at me to move out of the way.
We were on our way to buy a “Fića”.

“My Fića”.

Mladen is the owner of a four-wheeled trouble, a moving bulletin board for leaving the love messages in the snow on the hood or on a dusty windshield, or if everything else fails, then the red lipstick comes to action.
A barbecue-crepe-apple pie master and my tango partner who understands why I always stand like a sailor (to avoid saying “as a man”) – because he also knows very well what it’s like to live on a ship.
He’s the best company for drinking beer straight from the bottle and a model in front of my camera.
But, currently his most important role is his passenger role on this expedition to the south, my support for the blind-date with a Fića, a contributor for picking the right Spotify playlist and an endless story telling expert.

I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day to hit the road.
It was like a spring day, just a bit colder.
There was a standard traffic jam trough Belgrade and a Rammstein concert in a Beetle.

– I have no idea what that Fića is like, who knows what could be hidden underneath the surface, it all needs to be checked thoroughly, I don’t know how I’ll drive it back…
– Come on, it’s okay, we’re going to look at it, don’t worry.
– NO, BUT YOU DON’T GET IT! Do you know how many parts there are that I don’t know how to fix if they break somewhere along the way, and parts that I can’t see at all, you’re gonna pay for a tow truck back to Belgrade, and they charge by the kilometer, just so you know!
– It’ll be okay, take it easy, we’ll e…
– I don’t know if it has brakes at all!
– If it’s no good, we’ll just go back, screw it, we drove to Niš to check the condition of the roads and the economic situation on the south…
– What if it overheats, goes nuts, the clutch plate breaks?
– …
– Who knows what condition the belts are in…

People in Serbia drive terribly most of the time.
Beyond terribly, that is.
On the highway – straight in the middle, guided by the principle>: I have no idea where I’m going or what I’m doing, I drive an expensive car so I don’t need to use an indicator.
Our whole journey can be summarized into a few words:
Whoa, whoa, hit the brake, slow down, look at this moron, he’s gonna kill us…

Out of nowhere, a snow storm.
Snow was nowhere to be seen this year yet…
From the spring day in Belgrade, we’ve entered a zone of dark clouds, grey skies, fog, ice…

– Oh no, no, no, this won’t work, we can’t drive Fića back in this weather…
– Take it easy maybe the weather will change a few more times by the time we need to go back.
– I suggest that you leave that car down there where it is now!
– If I buy it, I ain’t leaving it.

My tank is almost empty, the little red light is warning me that the things aren’t going so well.
We haven’t passed a single gas station for the past half an hour.
I remembered those signs on the roads in Australia that say “No gas stations for the next 500km…”
Although it might be nicer in Australia than here in the middle of nowhere, I thought.

– So, what do we do now? If we run out of fuel the middle of nowhere…!
– We won’t, she can go a few kilometers more, we just need to find that turn that this guy mentioned over the phone, he says we need to look for the “Niš istok” exit…
– We’ve passed the exit for Niš, as well as Niš West exit – hey watch out, the highway here is under construction!
– It has to be there, just a bit further…
– Oh look, the sign for Bulgaria!
– Okay, wait, let’s get off this highway and try to find a gas station…
– I can guarantee that we’ve missed the turn!

I lost the front left wheel of my Beetle somewhere on that demolished piece of the highway that’s “under construction”, or at least it felt like that, my left kidney and a piece of my heart with it.

– Here, exit here, there’s a sign for some village, maybe they have a gas station…
– The GPS says there’s a gas station right here, look… right here… wait… there’s nothing here.
– Great, just keep driving, maybe there’s some sign of civilization close by.

I can’t remember when was I so happy, as I was when I’ve spotted the smallest gas station ever, named as some average Serbian peasant lady such as Ljubinka or Milanka, I can’t remember the name, I just prayed to God that they had some diesel.

A person of the unknown gender welcomed me (I could only see the eyes because it was wearing approximately three jackets, five sweaters, a few scarfs, hats and a hoodie), it said they have diesel.
Great, I didn’t even ask for the price or what they’d put into it, just fill up the tank…
It was -100C outside.
– Exxxcccuse me, cccan you tell me wwwhere cccan we find Nnnniš Istok exit fffrom here?
– Okay, so you go back to where you came from, just keep going straight, straight, straight and you will find the highway.
Then you go straight some more, you pass the part that’s under construction and you turn on the Niš exit and then you’ll have the Niš Istok.
– Thanks, ggggoodbye…

“Just straight, straight, straight” did not take us anywhere near the highway.
A mine field, a small muddy road, a mine fieald, another mine field, and another.
Out of the blue, a sign: Welcome to Niš!
– Heeeey, we’ve entered Niš!
– I’ll call this guy now, tell him we’re close by… Let me just see where this road takes me now…
Fifteen minutes into driving between factories, storages and fields, another sign: “Welcome to Niš”
– Wow, we’ve entered Niš again!
– I don’t get it… we didn’t even find the highway.
– Just keep driving straight, maybe we’ll officially enter Niš a few more times.
And there you have it, 10 minutes later, a sign: Welcome to Niš.
– Jesus Christ this is like a horror movie, there’s no exit, we just keep on entering Niš over and over again!
After the fourth sign, we were indeed in the center of Niš.

I was never so happy to see a McDonald’s in my entire life.

On the supermarket parking, under a thin layer of snow, a small ray of sunshine was hiding.
With black rubber protectors on the butt and a piece of paper on the left windoe that said “Fića for sale”…

First things I saw after I popped my head inside were beautiful seats with the red pepito design that were hidden under grey, old, stained covers; rubber mats under the seats, and a plastic Ferrero Rocher box full of spare parts, screws and rubber parts.

The smell of gasoline.
The smallest mirror ever…

After a thorough examination (by 2 people who had absolutely no idea what they were looking at, especially myself), crawling under the car, a test drive around the parking lot, looking at old photos from Fića’s life and a surprisingly well made NES coffee in a local supermarket bar, Chips has been adopted.

Well, let’s not make it all as fairytale-ish – after three hours of waiting in lines, signing the documents, driving in the blizzard from one to the second to the third office, agency, bank, exchange office, Chips has been adopted.

After convincing his driver that Chips is indeed in a good condition – better than we’ve been hoping for, in fact – we were en route to Belgrade.
Beetle in the front, Fića behind, 80 – 90 km/h.
I’ve relaxed a bit too much at one moment, and the next thing I saw – the little yellow devil had passed me and was now in the front, showing of his black rubber “pants”.
I could see that him and his driver were now buddies, since Mladen was playing air drums on the steering wheel with his earphones in – some heavy rock n’ roll was in the playlist.

It didn’t take long to reach Belgrade.
It became dark in the meantime, three seasons changed, our president fulfilled all his promises.

I’m looking at the little yellow thing in front of me, with a broken left light and wheels that look like they’ve been taken off a bicycle, not believing that he’s mine.

Today still sometimes I remember that I own a Fića and I’m shocked.

This is our story, or just the beginning.
Welcome and come in, you can’t adjust the seat because it’s stuck, so – it is what it is!
There’s a blanked on the seat behind, so feel like at home.

About the author:

Čipsov fotograf, bloger, perač, finansijer i mama.

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