Kidnapped By Aliens In Slovakia! – The Perils of Being a Brit Abroad by Jackie Lambert
“Mark, they’re, you know…” I said to my husband.
I wasn’t sure how much English the Slovakian couple could understand and I didn’t want to cause offence. They pointed towards The Beast, the bull-nosed army lorry we’d bought on a whim and converted into our home-on-wheels. In stilted English, they said,
“Your car? We like!” and “Ten kilometres.”
In unison, the pair produced their mobile phones and waved them around like light sabres. With a chorus of, “Google Translate!” they embarked upon a finger tapping duel to clarify their meaning.
My experiments with Français, Italiano and Deutsch had already revealed our only common language was virtually zero English.
Even so, I had long since worked out they were inviting us to their home.
I like to be open to ‘experience’. After all, that’s what makes our adventures unique. But I had already overridden an important piece of my own, personal travel advice, which is: never skip a toilet opportunity.
I spent many years plying Britain’s highways as a field sales representative. My time on the road taught me the hard way. Thoughts like, Ah, I can hang on ‘til the next stop, inevitably meant at least three hours stranded in a bladder-busting traffic queue, followed by an ‘Out Of Order’ sign Sellotaped to the door of the next Ladies’ loo.
When Mark and I rocked up at Slovakia’s Bzovík fortress with The Fab Four, our four Cavapoos (Cavalier/Poodle cross), I had needed a pee for over an hour. I turned my nose up – literally – at the Portaloo outside the castle walls, although that wasn’t my only pressing need. I’m British, and was many hours past needing a cup of tea. But, Stiff Upper Lip and all that, I said to Mark,
“That Portaloo’s worse than the ‘facilities’ at Glastonbury Festival – and their grossness is legendary. It should only take half an hour to look around. Let’s do that, then open up the truck and have a cuppa. I can wait until then.”
Opening up the truck was a fandangle, and at that point, my bladder felt like a fractionally under-inflated football. Post castle tour, and mid- conversation with the Slovakian couple, it was as large and turgid as a fit ball. I yearned for the twin relief of a cup of tea and a pee.
That wasn’t my only concern, though. The couple’s struggle to even vocalise an invitation rang alarm bells. With no shared language, the travel ‘experience’ I saw unfolding fell squarely into the category of ‘Afternoon of Agonising Social Awkwardness’.
When the phone-waving couple chimed, “No internet!”, my first thought was, Aha, a few more minutes to play dumb and get out of this… But Mark’s commitment to unravelling our linguistic conundrum was unwavering.
He looked around and said, “Where’s that lady? She spoke English.”
I tried hissing at him – the vocal equivalent of a kick under the table. Mark’s Français, Italiano and Deutsch are as non-existent as the couple’s, so speaking in tongues would not be saviour. In my quest to avoid causing offence, should the couple understand bits of what I said, I disguised my meaning with shrouded references.
“Mark, the lady said they have six big dogs and they like little dogs. Maybe she meant they like to eat little dogs.”
Unfortunately, this was far too cryptic for Mark. He had latched on to his mission as tenaciously as a big dog’s jaws might latch on to a Cavapoo.
“Six dogs? That’s great!” he said absentmindedly as he beckoned over a member of the castle’s staff.
“Do you speak English?”
The guy explained, “They want to invite you to their house for tea. It’s ten kilometres from here. You can follow them in their car.”
Game. Set. And Match.
Mark and I looked at each other. For fear of causing offence, we couldn’t really discuss the proposition in front of our wannabe hosts, so I heard myself utter,
“Thanks. We’d love to.”
Within seconds, the couple were in the car with their engine running, blockading the car park. There was no chance of explaining my predicament, and no time to undo all the padlocks, get down the truck’s steps, and use the loo.
“How do we get ourselves in these situations?” I lamented as the roar of our ten-litre engine followed a metallic brown Dacia Duster down winding country lanes. “We don’t even know their names!”
“It doesn’t really matter that we don’t know their names,” Mark replied. “We can’t communicate with each other, anyway.”
During our travels, chance encounters have resulted in many wonderful experiences. Once, a Romanian gypsy invited us into his garden to chat and drink homemade elderflower cordial. Tariq, who managed a campsite in Bosnia and Herzegovina, treated us to a private tour of the secret wonders of his home town, Stolac. He took us to a hidden Illyrian city in the mountains, which some academics believe to be the remains of Troy. Then, he showed Bosnia’s answer to the Stone of Scone – a stone seat where they crowned their kings. He topped off the trip at a jade-green lake fed by a multitude of thin white waterfalls, where we caught our own fresh trout for dinner.
Admittedly, our record in the ‘open to adventure’ department isn’t one hundred per cent perfect. Even after express warnings, we fell foul of tricksters in St. Lucia’s former capital, Soufrière. We’d barely got off the boat before ‘Bird Man’ introduced himself. He quickly relieved us of ten U.S. dollars for two slivers of coconut husk. We watched him fashion one into a ‘bird’ using a table knife. To complete his masterpiece, he connected this objet d’art to the second similarly shaped coconut husk ‘stand’, using matchsticks for legs.
Then, we allowed ourselves to be led down a menacing maze of back streets on a trip to a ‘bakery’. Uncomfortable in the extreme, we called a halt before we were properly mugged, although we were still mugged by proxy. When we refused to proceed further into what was clearly a scam, our ‘guide’ demanded a ‘donation’ for his local football team. When we produced our decoy wallet and emptied all its loose change into his hands, he advised us,
“The usual donation is $20!”
“That’s all we’ve got,” we told him, and strode back to safety and ‘civilisation’, trying to exude a confidence we didn’t feel. Chickens scratched and pecked in the dusty streets, while dark voices jeered and scoffed from creaking wooden porches.
“Did you enjoy the bakery?!”
“How was the bakery?!”
As we snaked through small Slovakian villages and a lot of rolling green countryside, we reminisced about the St. Lucia incident. We had kept our St. Lucian ‘bird’ as a tribute to our stupidity.
“I know we have our moments, but our judgement is usually good. They seemed like a nice couple,” I rationalised. “He probably just wants a photo of the truck outside his house, or to show us off to his neighbours. The pups can sit in the cab, safe from the big dogs, and we needn’t stay long. We can just have a cold drink and leave. I will have to use their loo, though.”
As our unlikely convoy turned on to an unpaved road, our narrative started to change. Much as it had the further we disappeared down our rabbit hole in St. Lucia.
Neither of us had wanted to visit a bakery. Plus, we were suspicious from the start. We’re seasoned travellers with six continents under our belts. But we’re also British, so we went along with it because we were too polite to offend a local offering us hospitality, however dubious it seemed. Common sense and self-preservation kicked in eventually, though. When our ‘guide’ started listing the sweet and sticky delights that awaited us, and muttering phrases like,
“Ooooh, you’re going to have such a lovely time in this bakery…” in the honeyed tones of Shylock, salivating as he anticipated his pound of flesh.
Back in Slovakia, we bumped and bounced over rocks and potholes. My bladder now felt like a weather balloon, expanding gradually as altitude caused atmospheric pressure to loosen its grip.
“I suppose I better take a picture of the car and its numberplate for security reasons,” I said.
We’d already programmed our next destination into the satnav. As we strayed way off track, her robot voice demanded, “Turn around when possible.”
“Chance would be a fine thing,” Mark replied. Dense stands of trees bordered both edges of the narrow track, and there were no side roads. Deep ruts grabbed our wheels and hung on. No vehicle could have performed a volte face, let alone one ten metres long, which exults in having an orbit, rather than a turning circle.
Our minds began to play tricks. The inescapable tree-lined track mutated into a cunning ambush, and the cold drink into a cocktail laced with strychnine or Rohypnol. The white slave trade started to seep into our imagined scenario, followed by visions of decades imprisoned in a windowless basement, or worse. Entombed beneath its concrete floor.
Mark and I are permanent nomads. Our travel plans are very fluid, and I hadn’t updated my social media for days. The only person on the planet who knew we’d been to Bzovík – or that we’d left in pursuit of a Dacia Duster – was the man at the castle who translated the request.
He wouldn’t miss us.
I envisioned headlines in the British tabloid press when we vanished without trace. British Couple In Huge Truck Kidnapped By Aliens In Slovakia!
Fortunately for us, the Duster knew the road and didn’t appreciate the limitations of a thirty-year-old lorry when it came to hills. About five miles down the track, the car had disappeared from sight. When I pointed out a menacing black Alsatian slavering behind some tall iron gates that led into an isolated small holding, Mark said,
“That’s it. I’m bailing out.”
“How are you going to turn around?”
“On this bit of grass here.”
As he attempted a hasty U-turn on a thin ribbon of verge, Mark pleaded with The Beast.
“Come on. Come on…”
Our old lady registered her objection to having her synchromesh slammed by refusing to go into reverse.
“I don’t want them to turn round and come and find us!” Mark added.
Once The Beast obliged, Mark broke the world record for the most rapid three-point turn ever performed in a vintage six-wheel truck. Then, he retraced our route like the getaway driver from the Brinks-MAT gold bullion robbery with the hounds of Hell on his tail.
“Do you think our tyres will be okay?” I asked Mark as The Beast’s wheels launched off boulders and slammed into the rims of deep potholes.
“They’ll be fine,” he replied as our high-speed chase in a sixteen-tonne truck literally threw me out of my seat. Every time a part of my anatomy smashed against the dashboard or some sharp piece of exposed metal (our utilitarian Beast has lots of those – and no seatbelts), Mark apologised.
“I’m sorry – I just want to put a bit of distance between us in case they come looking for us.”
Notwithstanding a bladder approaching the bloated dimensions of Bertrand Piccard’s high-altitude balloon as it entered zero gravity, it was not a fun ride.
By now, the couple had morphed into machete-wielding maniacs, lusting for blood, and had raised a posse. A zombie army of the undead was surely already combing the Slovakian countryside for their prey. Two Brits and four dogs, not quite incognito as they raced along in a not-very-unobtrusive Volvo N10 campervan. Clouds of dust streamed out behind us, like the billowing plumes of steam in the wake of the Flying Scotsman on her record-breaking run from London to Edinburgh.
Mark maintained his sense of urgency back past Bzovík fortress and onwards to the safety of our next park up.
“Did you tell them where we were going?” I quizzed him.
“Yes, but it’s called Banská Štiavnica, so I’m bound to have pronounced it wrong. I don’t think they understood.”
We thundered through Slovakian towns at our top speed of 45 mph. It was like making an escape in the world’s most cumbersome milk float. I kept checking for a tail. Metallic brown cars are popular in Slovakia, but I confirmed without doubt that the car behind was a reassuring shade of aquamarine.
Mark enquired after my bladder situation. The conventional ‘busting for a pee’ gauge usually progresses straight from ‘fit to burst’ to ‘I actually feel physically sick’, but perhaps fear induces an override.
“The urgency has gone off a bit. Let’s just get where we’re going.”
As we put miles of asphalt between us and our psycho killer hosts, we reflected on the ridiculousness of the day’s happenings.
“Mark, we’re such Truckin’ Idiots. We’re sixty years old! But, to avoid offending strangers, we’ve embarked on a car chase in a sixteen-tonne truck.”
Once, we made our Australian friend Stefano laugh uncontrollably. It was when we explained the elaborate charade we’d enacted to ensure two friends never found out that we went on holiday without them.
As he tried to suppress a grin, Stefano asked, “Why didn’t you just tell them you were going on holiday?”
Australians are so pragmatic.
“We wanted to go on our own as a couple, and didn’t want to upset them.”
“So, why didn’t you just say that?”
“Because the second we tried to explain they weren’t invited, it would have been a booking for four.”
Being British is excruciating!
“Well, what would you have done?” we demanded, a little put out.
Beside himself with mirth, Stefano said,
How about ‘We’re going on holiday. Romantic break for two. No hard feelings. What about a beer?’”
But now I’ve let you into my little secret, please don’t tell anyone what we did.
Sir Walter Scott nailed it when he penned his epic poem, Marmion:
‘What a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive.’
Over the years, this single subterfuge has required a multitude of kicks under the table, both verbal and literal.
Stefano hooted when I told him the further ramifications of our deception.
“I had to censor myself from all social media. I couldn’t post any photos of our trip, and we couldn’t tell any of our other friends we were going away, in case they spilled the beans.”
“And that was easier than just telling your friends they weren’t invited?”
I sense Stefano has dined out many times on the discomfort of two idiot Poms.
But that wasn’t even the end!
Mark is hopeless at fibbing, even to spare people’s feelings. Plus, he has a terrible memory. When we were out with our friends, he’d frequently drop things into conversation like,
“Do you remember that time we…” <kick under the table>
“…ate a dingo’s kidney!” I’d finish for him, with a big smile.
He’d shoot me a look with, “What are you talking about, woman?” written all over it, at which point, I’d keep up the smile, deliver another kick, and ad lib some lame joke.
“Don’t you remember? Dingo’s kidney was offal-y good. HA HA HA HA HA!”
Remarkably, for one fifteenth of a century, we’ve spared our friends the pain of holiday rejection. But now, in our third decade, I decided enough was enough and we needed to toughen up.
“Mark, I don’t want to go through this again. We need a plan for the next time we can’t say no.”
As I ricocheted around The Beast’s cab, with only a dangerously distended bladder as a shock absorber, we ran through our options.
“How about inventing our own private language?” I ventured. “That way, we could communicate and no one else would understand.”
Hand signals, code words, and dropping our keys – we explored the lot.
Key dropping was a clandestine tactic I employed to instruct a former colleague to shut up immediately in meetings. It was a necessary precaution, because Rik was a genius who supplied technical support, and I was Director of Sales. When I’d agreed a deal with a customer on fair terms, Rik saw no merit in simply collecting a completed order form. He would continue babbling and reduce the price by an additional one-hundred-and-ten per cent. Then, he would offer to throw in the shirt off his back, the kitchen sink, and a controlling shareholding in his company.
It was not a sustainable business model and I’m sad to say, when I left, his enterprise folded.
In the end, Mark and I came up with a solution.
Three perfectly polite and easy-to-understand words:
“Thanks, but no thanks.”
Just as inoffensive as, “Thanks, we’d love to,” and equally effective in every situation.
Even for a pair of Truckin’ Idiots.
I’m sure the couple were perfectly nice people, and I feel guilty for abandoning them so abruptly and rudely.
It’s not every day an enormous lorry vanishes from a single-track road with no junctions and nowhere to turn around. I wondered if they were sufficiently concerned to have contacted the authorities and if so, how they might explain our sudden disappearance.
Perhaps the Eastern European tabloid typesetters were already on the case: British Couple In Huge Truck Kidnapped By Aliens In Slovakia!
A pair of truckin' idiots who are too polite to say no! Photo courtesy of @Liveration
Slovakia Bzovic Fortress The Beast our Volvo N10 campervan (1)
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Slovakia Bzovic Fortress The Beast our Volvo N10 campervan (2)
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