Back in the dark and distant days when I bothered to frequent dating sites, I was aware that I had my niche: specifically, a congenital attraction to those under 25 and over 55, with scant little appeal to anyone in between. But lately, I’ve become aware that I have a sub-niche – an even nichier niche that’s alarmingly rarefied and specific.
Yes, I am the poster girl for East European tour boat operators.
You didn’t see that coming, right?
Now I admit that I’m not bombarded with their attentions on a daily basis – that would be too weird – but there is undeniably a … let’s say a theme… that every time I go on a boat trip in Eastern Europe, I hop off the vessel with the gentleman’s number.
This year, the little guy and I split our holidays between Kosovo and North Macedonia (the country formerly known as FYROM, the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia). We found friendly people, fabulous countryside, exceptional ice cream … and the fateful boat ride, this time to the glorious Matka Canyon, just a short hop from the Macedonian capital of Skopje.
On the day of the visit, the temperature’s set to hit 38°C, so we grab an early breakfast and arrive while the sun is still rising in the sky. Hiking is a big thing in the canyon, but high temperatures and small, six-year-old legs are not a happy combination, so we opt to take a tour by boat.
Trade is still slow at the jetty, so we take our time and choose a trip that will take us through the majestic canyon and its artificial lake, stopping at one of the caves for a quick poke around the stalagmites and stalactites. Since it’s still so early, there are only three more people on our vessel – a fifty-something guy from Argentina and a middle-aged couple from Bulgaria – so we exchange stuttered greetings in English and Macedonian, and then we’re off.
It’s fabulous: the air is warm, there’s a gentle breeze, and the canyon is breath-takingly beautiful. I just sit and soak up the vibes, while the little guy eyes the tiller enviously. At some point, the guy at the helm notices his attentions, and beckons to him with a smile. Small darts to the front and in a flash he’s happily ensconced, steering us through the lightly rippling waters.
(I try not to notice that the boat is reliant on a jerry can of fuel that’s sitting next to the tiller and the Bulgarian gentleman is smoking incessantly.)
When we reach the cave, we disembark and follow a guide down into the dank, dark depths. The caves are pleasant, but both the boy and I fail to identify the eagle or the man’s head that are ostensibly visible in the rock, and eventually we wend our way back to the increasing warmth outside.
It’s time to go back, so the little guy takes up his place at the tiller, and we putter back to the jetty. As the young man helps us off the boat, he says, “Perhaps you’d like to meet me for a coffee tonight? I can show you around. Let’s say 8.30?”
I start to make my excuses. We’re not staying in Matka. “No, no, I live in Skopje!”. It’s after the little guy’s bedtime. “Maybe I can come earlier?”. The queue for the next departure is building and the boss eyes Django – for this is his name – with an air of ill-temper.
“Hurry,” he urges, “I don’t have much time!”
Eventually I decide it’s easier to acquiesce and I let him put his number in my phone. After all, I’m not obliged to use it.
I smile weakly and we say our goodbyes. Afterwards, I remonstrate with myself: why couldn’t I just issue a firm no?
And then I remember a parallel encounter in Montenegro. (A country where, incidentally, I managed to tick off approaches from both the under 25s AND the over 55s.) Another boat trip, another phone number.
I have to wonder, what are these guys – these boys – hoping to get from our encounter anyway? A sudden declaration of love and an invitation to come and stay with me back in my own, more prosperous country?
Perhaps that’s uncharitable, but I’m not a fool. Whilst I’m not exactly a monster, I’m aware that I’m a fruit on the verge of going past its best … and thus unpossessed of a potent physical attraction for young gentlemen such as these.
I’m woken from my reverie by the little guy’s hand slipping into mine.
“Mummy, can we get an ice cream?”
Without a word, I squat down so we’re eye to eye, and I nod. He cheers, and throws his arms around my neck. I breathe in, savouring the scent of warm skin and sun cream.
How lucky I am.
Lucky to be in this fantastic place; lucky to feel the sun on my back; lucky to have the affections of this special little guy. And, suddenly, I’ve cast off all thoughts of the boatmen and their questionable advances.
I don’t need a date with Django. I’ve got everything I need right here.