Friday, April 1, 2011

A Pick-Up In Translation On My Big Night To Shine

"Life Begins at 40"
Yesterday morning I woke up later than usual in a sleep-deprived, half-hungover, pasty-mouth fog, and all I wanted was to smack the person who ever said that Life Begins at 40.  That inspirational-sounding little declaration got me thinking maybe I could burn my candle at both ends and party all night down at the club, no problem.  

That's not what happened, but this is what did.

A few nights back, I spotted a young guy and his two friends walking down the street with a big roll of tape, plastering up flyers on signboards around town.  The next morning I looked up close and saw they had hung a gig flyer for a band called “Shine,” scheduled to play down at the Cuba Libre nightclub on Wednesday night.  The show, it said, would start at “23:30,” which—for the Americans and non-military-types reading—translates to 11:30 p.m. 

God, that’s late, I thought.  But the fact is, in many parts of the world, 11:30 is actually on the early side.  I remember one time, in my hostel in Buenos Aires, I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of a hair dryer.  I peeked an eye open and saw my pretty little roommates throwing on lipstick and spraying perfume, preparing, I learned, for a night on the famous BA club scene down in Recoleta.  They left the room close to 1:00 a.m. and we didn’t cross paths again until they rolled back in well after sun-up.  I was on my way to some museum, and they were crawling in their beds to crash.

For years now I’ve regretted never having hit the Buenos-Aires club scene.  Who knows what I missed?  But I was 36 then, and still years away from the so-called beginning of my life.  Now that I’m 40, I’m told, things are going to be different.

The room in my hillside hostel here in Lake Ohrid is on the third floor, and its picture window gives me an expansive view of the town and parts of the lake below.  At night I can see the neon sign of the Cuba Libre burning in the short distance; inviting me, it seems, to throw on some lipstick, spray some perfume, and come on over.

I was now giving this club thing some serious thought, so when Wednesday morning rolled around, I asked my hostel manager—a young guy named G.—whether he knew anything about this band called Shine.  The last thing I wanted was to stay up late for a crap band.  G. told me, unequivocally, that Shine is hands down the best band in the region and, he added, they play American rock music.  That’s all I needed to hear.  I was ready to do this thing.

When I entered the club just past midnight—having planned to be fashionably late—it was largely empty and Shine was still setting up.  The bartender informed me that—despite what the poster said—things wouldn’t actually be starting until 1:00 a.m.  Damn, I thought; but what could I do?  I was already there, wearing both lipstick and the last little spray of my sample-sized Benefit perfume.  I’d just have to wait, so I started on some wine—served in a small, screw-top bottle along with a glass—and sat listening to the canned music streaming through the powerful sound system.

It was closer to 1:30 when I heard a live guitar strum its first chord, and it didn’t take long for me to hear that G. was right; without question, this band:  Rocked. The. House.  And with good songs too:  Everything But The Girl, Missing; Prince, Kiss; Elvis, Blue Suede Shoes; Michael Jackson, Billie Jean; Ike & Tina, Proud Mary; Chuck Berry; Johnny B. Goode.  There were just two guys—one on guitar; the other on drums and everything else—and their creative, techno-rock covers were nothing short of damn impressive.  They had the whole place dancing, swaying, and singing back up too.  Rollin’!  Rollin’!  Rollin’ on a river!, I remember yelling, in unison with the crowd, well into my third little bottle of wine.  It felt good.  For a time.

By 3:30, I started squelching yawns—and between the wine, the smoke haze and, yes, my age—I knew at this point it would take a Clockwork Orange-type contraption just to keep my eyelids open.  I noticed, as well, that this new life hadn’t increased my low tolerance for alcohol.  By drink number four—over close to a four-hour period—I was pretty-much plastered, and seriously worried I’d forget the secret code to my hostel’s front door.  The band was still rocking full blast, but I couldn’t take it anymore.  I was beat.  And I saw no sense in further denying a now-obvious fact:  this 40-year-old spring chicken needs her sleep, and lots of it; right now.  It was time to go.

I walked to the back to collect my jacket from off a hook on the wall, and that’s when I got a wave-over from two younger-looking guys standing next to the bar.  I had noticed them staring at me earlier, but thought nothing of it.  My status as a foreign woman traveling alone in a small Macedonian town gets me a lot of stares, and tonight in this bar was no exception.

I approached the two, not wanting to be rude, and this—I kid you not—is what the guy on the left said to me:  “My friend would like to welcome you to join him.  He does not speak English.  I will be translator.” 

The friend had apparently been watching what I was drinking too, because, before I could get a word out, he ordered my usual and handed it to me.  I knew I couldn’t drink another bottle of wine, seeing I was already on my way to falling down drunk, but now I felt a bit beholden.  I thought I should at least stand there and chat for a moment.

We stood in a triangle while the friend fired his salvo of questions through his translator:  what’s your name?  where are you from?  what are you doing in Macedonia?  are you alone?  where are you staying?  I had to scream my answers—some honest, some not—over the blaring music into my translator’s ear.  The translator, in turn, would shout my responses into the friend’s ear.  Each go-around, the friend would nod and smile at me.

At one point, the entire scene struck me as completely absurd.  I mean, supposing the friend’s endgame was to get me to go home with him.  Would the translator come with?  I imagined that would make for some awkward moments.

And don’t get me wrong:  I was flattered by both the interest and the bought-drink.  But missing from the mix was the kind of animal attraction that otherwise might be able to keep my dog-tired-self awake past 4:00 a.m., which is what we were closing in on now.  At this point I was past exhausted, and now getting hoarse from all the shouting.  I decided it was time for me to put the kibosh on this weird little game of foreign-translation-telephone, and extricate myself, pronto.

I twisted the cap off the bottle of wine, poured part of it into my glass, and excused myself to the ladies’ room.  Once in, I poured the wine down the bathroom sink, save for a couple sips, to make it look like perhaps I had drunk it.  I felt bad for wasting the guy’s money, but if there’s one thing 40 years had taught me, it’s that I have to put me first.

I exited the bathroom to the opening chords of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water and circled the bar once last time.  I retrieved my jacket, put the bottle and glass down on the bar, and rejoined the translator and the friend.  It was time for me to head out, I told the translator, with an apologetic smile.  I extended a hand for him to shake, which he did, warmly, and when I went to do the same with the friend, I was preempted by a lean-in kiss on the cheek.  I didn't mind.  It was sweet.

The walk home seemed to take ten times as long as it did in the daytime.  I pressed on thinking that if someone jumped me along the way, it's probably what I deserved for breaking my very own Travel-Guru Rule Number One:  never stumble out of a bar at 4:00 a.m., three sheets to the wind-alone, in a foreign country where you don’t even know how to scream for help.  I quickly took stock of what I was carrying in case I did get jacked.  I’d hate to lose my camera, I thought, with my pictures of my night with Shine; or my California-issued identification, which tells me that my life has only just begun.

But I needn’t have worried—the streets were indeed safe at that time of night—just like G. said they would be.  I made my way home, remembered the code, dragged up the stairs, glanced fondly over toward the Cuba Libre, climbed into bed and, finally, passed out cold.

 * * * * * 

Post Notes:

1)   I looked up Shine on the internet (Google: Shine band Macedonia) and learned that they’re kind of a big deal over here.  The guys’ names are Damjan Pejčinoski and Jordan Manov, if you’re interested in checking them out on YouTube and elsewhere.

Jordan and Damjan on stage.
2)   I did some research as to who came up with the idea that “Life Begins at 40.”  I’ve yet to find a definitive answer, but I’m working on it.

3)   I was the only guest in my hostel when I went out to the bar alone; otherwise I would have asked someone to go with.  G. couldn’t leave because he’s the only staff member right now, but he knew where I was and left the light on for me.  He was still up playing internet poker when I returned to let him know I was safe.