It was one of Majda’s don’t-know-how-many attempts to land a job. After an entire week of visiting cafés and all the other glassed-in spaces, and hoping that two young foreigners who didn’t possess the language or any special skills wouldn’t fall into prostitution, but into decent manual labor instead, the girls decided to split up. They grabbed the addresses from the yellow pages stolen from a phone booth at the railroad station. Heads meant east, tails meant west, and so Majda took the bus number three-three-seven all the way to Stockholm’s suburbs. The name of the restaurant was Galjonen.
That means galley, the Finnish guy said. In the old part of town, beginning of July, one bright Scandinavian night, they were drinking non-alcoholic beer. They’d just given the Finnish guy the first installment of the rent for the apartment they moved into after they’d spent the first few nights in hostels. The whole idea belonged to Nataša. To go to Sweden to make the money for the trip to India. They told their folks that they knew who would meet them and that jobs awaited. They made up the name and address of the people who’d allegedly host them. They said nothing about India.
Majda’s backpack was orange. She bought it the previous spring at the Hrelić market, but not before she lost all her money in a shell game to some con artists who, after she begged, gave a little bit of it back. Majda packed only one book in her orange backpack. A copy of the Nicomachean Ethics, to prep for her Greek philosophy exam. She slid it in a stiff, orange book jacket cover and never once opened it. The Nicomachean Ethics was not very useful in her job search, but it was important as a reminder that she needed to pass her exam as soon as possible upon her return, by the end of the first semester at the latest.
They found the Finnish guy on the street, in Gamlastan. He was peddling handwriting analysis and favorite-color fortunetelling to the tourists. He claimed he was just applying what he’d learned as a psychology student in Helsinki the previous year. He was tall and gangly, skinny as a board, and he wore glasses. He had ashy blonde hair and long, slim fingers. He wanted to go to Greece for his summer vacation. He spent his apartment-sublet money on a trip to Santorini.
Gamlastan is the old town. Just like gamla- is something else, something else old. That’s the tourist part of town, at least in summer, in August, when there’s sunlight up until midnight. In their country at the time, inflation was getting more serious, shortages more frequent. No more, for example, chocolate in the stores. Only dark brown sugar bars. So Majda and Nataša were buying chocolate every day here. Mini candy bars, a few crowns each, one Mars bar before work, another on the way back. That was the time when, in their country, drivers with even number plates drove on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and the ones with odd number plates on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday each week.
In their rented apartment, Majda and Nataša spent their Sundays singing songs from school trips and talking about what they’d be when they grew up. They were only nineteen, and so much still seemed possible.
“Do you need a girl for a job?” she asked a smallish man who wore an apron. He had just moved away from the table occupied by two heavy-set blondes who looked in her direction when they heard her voice. The aproned man looked at her with incomprehension. She repeated, “do you need a girl for a job?”
He turned toward the heavy-set blondes and addressed them with a short sentence full of guttural sounds. One of the heavy-set blondes turned toward Majda:
“What do you want to do?”
The man spoke his guttural sounds again.
“Where are you from?” the heavier blonde asked.
“Yugoslavia,” Majda said.
The dark-haired man looked at her:
That was Bane. From Novi Sad. The owner of the restaurant simply nodded and extended his hand: “Sakib,” he said. “From Banja Luka.” The cook was Tošo, from Novi Sad. She got the job.
Galjonen lived on the patronage of workers from the nearby construction site, and the majority of traffic took place during morning hours. At night, the self-serve restaurant would turn into a restaurant à la carte. She and Tošo would be the only ones in the kitchen, as Bane would go in and out, and Sakib would stop by occasionally. Bane would put trays with dirty plates on the shelf by the door, and she’d dump the scraps in the garbage and rinse the plates before placing them in the drawer of the large dishwasher. The plates would come out clean and hot. Tošo would leave bowls filled with water on the floor, and she’d pick them up and rinse them in the large sink. Sometimes there’d be a lot of plates. Other times, she’d have nothing to do.
That summer, Bane had just left his seventeenth lover, his third Swedish one. As he shook Majda’s hand upon finding out they were compatriots, the ex, a girl in a light blue spaghetti-strapped top, sat on the steps off the restaurant terrace and wept. Bane remarked, as if it was no big deal, that he had just broken up with the girl and couldn’t get rid of her. Majda couldn’t understand what it was that women, be they Swedish or not, saw in Bane. He was about five-foot-two, his hair to his shoulders, haphazardly trimmed, dirty more often than clean. Galjonen wasn’t a luxury restaurant, and Bane was a decent waiter for such a place, with his dirty apron and his high-heeled shoes. Majda wasn’t interested in Bane. Nor did Bane try anything. As far as she was concerned, he behaved more like an older brother; he’d just mention in passing that he had a new lover.
Majda wasn’t blonde. And Bane was no hero. That summer, as she was stacking the plates in the large dishwasher, and later taking them out hot and sparkling, her only hero was the professor who had talked about freedom and rocked back and forth half-drunkenly behind his lectern. E-leu-the-ria, the Philosophy Professor would say, and the auditorium would grow silent. Wednesday evenings, room three on the first floor of the Faculty of Philosophy would be filled to the brim. Mostly with freshmen. They’d devotedly record each word that was spoken. There’d always be several loyal disciples there, aging philosophy students who’d tape the Professor’s speeches-lectures, who’d later approach their teacher to double-check whether you pronounce eleutheria with an emphasis on the first, second, or fourth syllable.
Majda would run a fever each time she attended those lectures as a freshman. She’d go out into the hallway, her eyes red, her slight vertigo a sure sign that she’d witnessed an unveiling of truth and a revelation. She’d spend the evening poring over her notes, trying to reconstruct the meaning that was completely self-evident during the lecture. By the end of the week, that meaning would slowly fade away, become unfathomable, like that significant sentence one hears in a dream that haunts the following day, but vanishes whenever one tries to say it. Consumption of hard liquor would help in the reconstruction of the meaning somewhat. But for the insight into truth to return, for the full presence of the meaning to come back into existence, that required a pilgrimage to the Wednesday evening lecture.
That summer, in the kitchen of the Galjonen restaurant, it wasn’t necessary to reconstruct the meaning. It was enough to occupy oneself stacking plates. Majda would wander around the city after work, hoping for a life-changing, chance love encounter. She had already learned that chance meetings were in short supply, and life-changing ones scarcer still. But still she hoped. She imagined that she’d see him on the other side of the street, he’d smile cordially and approach her, and a pleasant love story would unfold and last only as long as it needed to. Until the days grew shorter and, right at the end of August, she’d go home. She had to go back. She had to pass another exam.
Sakib said, “It’s dumb of you to leave, you could own your own restaurant in a few years.”
Tošo said, “Apparently there are restaurants in India too.”
“You always bring yourself with you,” Bane said, “no matter where you are.”
The Finnish guy sent a postcard from Greece depicting small white houses by the cerulean sea, against the azure sky.
Translated from Croatian by Snežana Žabić