I used to watch a lot of FBI Files. So, instinctively, I went into criminal profiler mode. White male, late 20’s-early 30’s, lives within a 30-mile radius, speaks English and because I’m shallow, has all his teeth, stands at least 5’9 and is fit enough to run a 5k at the drop of a hat. I could care less about a receding hairline—so I guess I’m not that shallow. Regardless, Tinder has no rules about stereotyping so I strategically swiped until I found what I was looking for. And apparently, Damir was looking for me too.
He came directly to my hotel room. Even though it was our first time meeting in person, I gave him my room number. I knew that meeting in the lobby was a much safer idea, but I couldn’t muster up the energy to walk down the hall to the elevator. I was exhausted after having spent the day walking the cobblestone streets of Old Town Dubrovnik and then up the steep rocky path to Imperial Fortress. It was built in the early 1800s to protect this stretch of Croatia’s coastline during wartime. In fact, the Yugoslav War was the very reason I was trolling on Tinder. But I didn’t tell Damir that. Ask permission or beg for forgiveness? Hmmm…I went with the latter.
The knock at my door startled me, even though I had been expecting him. After practicing my demure smile in the hallway mirror, I opened the door. Based on the dress, it looked like he was a she. Now don’t think for a second I was disappointed. On the contrary, I was stoked. She had chocolate! Apparently my date coincided with turndown time. While I have no need for someone to fold my duvet back and dramatically fluff my pillows, I will definitely accept chocolate from a stranger in a hotel uniform.
I thanked the she, put my chocolate out of sight so I wouldn’t be tempted and sat back down at my desk. I was working on a story that was due later that week. A bottle of wine, a gift from the hotel manager, sat in a bucket of ice beside me. I began to type, something about a famous designer in the Hamptons. About two sentences later I heard another knock at the door. I got up, re-practiced my demure smile in the hallway mirror and opened the door. He was standing there in a raincoat, holding a large purple package that I could recognize from an aisle away. It was a giant bar of Milka noisette. If Hershey’s is scissors and Godiva is paper, then Milka is most definitely rock.
Handsome, but not dashing, Damir looked exactly like he presented himself in his Tinder profile. Mine was not the story of being catfished in Croatia. Unfortunately, though, Damir didn’t smell like he did in his Tinder profile. In person, a thick invisible cloud of cigarette smoke engulfed him. Remembering that many Croatian men smoked, I choked back a cough, made a mental note to breathe in through my mouth for the rest of the night and welcomed him inside.
“This is for you,” he said, shoving the chocolate at me. Unaware we’d be exchanging gifts, the only thing I offered in return was an awkwardly enthusiastic thank you. Out of all the Milka bars, noisette is my favorite. How did he know? Could he read my mind? Hell no! If he had, he probably wouldn’t have come. Instead, Damir saw a bottle of wine and my bed. Every signal he sent—both in our Tinder messages and now, sitting on the sofa in my room—subtly screamed, “Let’s hook up and have some fun.”
But I wasn’t in the mood for hooking up. Maybe if I had a gas mask and we were the only two people left on a deserted island. But I didn’t. And we weren’t.
“So tell me about the war,” I said as soon as the wine was poured. I didn’t even give us time to talk about the weather. Captain Obvious could wait; at this moment, I wasn’t in the mood for small talk. I sat on the floor, at his feet, and looked up at him like a student does to his teacher. “The war?” he asked, as if he had misheard me. I nodded. He didn’t seem offended, but definitely caught off guard. I didn’t divulge in our Tinder back-and-forth that the real reason I wanted to meet him was to learn more about the Croatian War of Independence. War is never a good conversation starter, especially when it took place within the last 25 years.
He could have gotten up right then and there while giving me a look that said “Shame on you” and left. Or he could have asked why I was asking. But he didn’t. Instead, he took a deep breath and settled back into the sofa. “I was eight when it started,” he began. His eyes glazed over. Not from the wine—we were barely a few sips in—but from an attempt to escape the present moment so he could delve back into the past.
Damir grew up in Old Town Dubrovnik, within the city walls. During the war, his father left the family and fought for the resistance forces along the Bosnian border. Even though he was only a boy, Damir’s responsibility was to help care for his mom and siblings by collecting rainwater. For seven months, a naval blockade prevented any food and supplies, including water, from entering Old Town Dubrovnik. Inside the city walls, thousands of residents and refugees fleeing from the landmines and fighting in the countryside were trapped. The only thing coming into Dubrovnik on a steady basis were bombs being dropped by the unrelenting Yugoslav People’s Army. They blasted holes in more than half of the city’s historic buildings and more than 100 bodies belonging to innocent civilians.
“You know,” he said with more than a tinge of regret, “before the war we used to watch TV and when the news would come on and we’d see stories about conflict in other countries, we’d change the channel.” Immediately I thought of those infomercials asking for help fixing cleft palates in third world countries. I didn’t necessarily change the channel, but I always looked away, unable to stomach seeing kids who could barely open their mouths much less practice their demure smiles.
“But during the war,” he continued, “We realized all those horrific things could happen to us. Had we been able to watch the news on TV—we had no electricity—it may have been like looking in a mirror. So we vowed that when the war was over, we’d never change the channel again.” At this point he paused long enough to empty his glass. As I refilled it he continued.
“But Katie, we’re all fucking human. We make promises we don’t keep. Especially during war. When it ended, we went back to watching the news on TV, and guess what? We changed the channel every time there was coverage of fighting in other countries. No one wants to see death and destruction. It’s fucking depressing.”
I didn’t disagree with him.
As the night went on and I asked more questions, I appreciated his honesty and openness. He quickly caught on that I wasn’t in the mood for anything more than some conversation, and if wine stimulated that, then I would suffer through a glass or two. In my defense, he drilled me as well.
He asked about New York City, why I wasn’t wearing heels (am I short?) and even how much money I made. I told him I made very little—which is why I ate at Old Town Dubrovnik’s incredibly popular Irish Pub The Gaffe when the local construction workers are fed and there’s a special $5 menu. That prompted him to ask the best question of the night. “Why do all you Americans come to Croatia and go to an Irish pub?”