I am standing legs akimbo, head upthrust, and arms outstretched in a half-shell of black plastic wrap with paper on my feet while a Hungarian businesswoman waves a gun at me. It’s a weighty, ovoid rustball but she holds it like a Longbeach, and I ask her if I should close my eyes.
The gun whirs and she aims it. ‘It should be fine, I think.’ But something makes her set it down and step onto the sheet. She plucks my left hand from the sky and webs the fingers to inspect them. With her thumb, she wipes the crevasse between my index and middle fingers, and it comes away nacreous and slick.
‘You look disappointed,’ I offer.
‘No. You made no mistake, it’s natural.’ She directs me to the sink, where I wash off the Vaseline.
Outside the application room, my friend Marion thumbs a compact Hungarian-language fashion magazine. Before my arrival she posted a photo on my Facebook of a generic hottie cradling a woman as they lie on a dirty length of sand. They are both grinning violently, and both have umber tans. ‘I am convinced this is a good idea,’ she wrote.Marion may have booked us in for spray-tans as a gag thing, but inside the plastic half-shell the laws of humour don’t apply. Instead, there’s a solemnity to totally the wrong things: you must spread tan-repellent Vaseline along your palms, for instance, but not between your fingers or it’ll look unnatural as hell. I grip the only thing I’m wearing—my worst underwear—and bunch it up to better expose the thighs.
‘Turn around,’ invites the woman, and I face the plastic wrapping. Then the gun emits a floral smell and starts to dust my back.
The businesswoman leads me through a slow series of dance moves: arm out, palm down; arm out, palm tilted; arm out, elbow twisted like a broken bone. I face the woman, and we dance again.
When I appear in my ruined shorts in the woman’s office, Marion drops the magazine and her mouth forms a ‘whoa’.
‘And now you must not shower for eight hours,’ says the woman, ‘and in the morning, of course you will be dark.’
I recommend the drive from Budapest to Krk be undertaken in a five-man formation, arranged like so. In the front, Stephen and Theo, even though they are a couple and sometimes drive with no hands, which are occupied with the creative styling of each other’s hair. If this is problematic in the ordinary instance, right now all that matters is that their hairstyles look superb. You are driving to Croatia. It’s not possible to crash.
In the back-left you want Marion figuring out the Navman—why it thinks your point of departure is deep in Kosovo, and how to make non-Kosovar cartography show up. The solution turns out to be thumbing—hard—a dark void in the touch screen, a large nebulous freeway through the odd, foreign device. Once this is thumbed, the roads from Hungary to Croatia open. The universe seems to provide a path.
And to your right is Hillary, whose job it is to skip past the Top 40 in your playlist and dial the iPod back to the shared music of your youth: ‘Closing Time’ by Semisonic is more than acceptable, as is all of Jagged Little Pill. We only know Stephen and Theo from a recent Gmail thread: ‘Hello, new friends!’ wrote Stephen. ‘We’re nice people and excited to vacation with you!’ So while our bonding is largely achieved through a communal sun-drunkenness, the song choice also plays a substantial role.
We spend a long time gazing at the layout of the borderlands: pitted plains interrupted by fields of cypress pine. Hillary observes that it is dinosaur country, and the idea works its way into a twenty questions match. ‘Are you best known for having roamed the earth?’ Hillary asks me. But I am only a streetlight. We kick off the list of Google queries for when we get back to Hungary with ‘dinosaurs of the Croatian wild’. It is a thoughtful journey.
But it is also an exuberant one. Theo and Stephen have just quit their jobs; they’re soon to be New Yorkers, escapees from the socio-moral concavity of Budapest. Hillary has come to Europe on a doctoral boondoggle, pocketing hotel food to snack on through the talks. Marion has just received a transfer to the London office after two years grinding in the Hungarian human rights world, which is typically indifferent to her work. As for me, the spray-tan was the final thing I purchased with the last pay of my doctoral scholarship. My thesis made ‘an argument for the primacy of space’, which feels increasingly unexplainable on this victory lap. But I can explain the reason I have come to Eastern Europe: after all these years of studentship I want to be reborn. Or at least brutally revised along the lines of neurophysiology: something like a chiropractic of the psyche.
‘Spring break’ is an existing term for this reset procedure. It originated in Florida between the two world wars. While the destinations have diversified, a 1995 study found spring break’s key components largely unchanged: ‘a group holiday with friends travelling and rooming together, a perpetual party atmosphere, high alcohol consumption, sexually suggestive contexts and displays, and the perception that casual sex is common’.
Our own catchphrase is the adapted ‘grown-up spring break’. In Marion’s words, ‘No-one gave us permission to go!’ It also means we aren’t planning to sexually explore each other, but the preceding criteria have been addressed in depth.
Using Airbnb.com, we’ve rented an apartment twenty metres from the Adriatic coast. The landowner’s snaps weren’t fabulous. They made the terrace look washy, and the last photo in the set was clearly a stock photograph of a rocky beach, labelled simply ‘Beach with rocks’. There was something about booking it, though, that felt charged and perilous—an extra chance to perform well against an adult metric. They were just inelegant photos, and to grown-ups, what were those? Maybe just beyond the corners there was hidden rental gold.
We pull into the beach house—Navman working—around dusk, and the world turns out to have rewarded our mature choice. It was advertised as sleeping five, but even in a grown-up context, it could probably suit a dozen or more. The kitchen is well utensilled and the terrace wide and bright, and all about the place are little glass-topped wicker tables decorated inoffensively with nautical knick-knacks.
Since the beach house is so homey, my mind wanders vaguely homeward while we go about the business of dividing up the rooms. I have never lived my life without this implicit charter: ‘Why don’t you go learn something today!’ At some very near point, though, inarguably closing in, I’ll board a flight home to Melbourne and I’ll find the rules have changed.
The beach house discourages such concerns. The sky has been unbalanced by a creamy, sombre moon, and Theo’s mobilising us into opposing armies, stewarding a few warm Coronas into our hands. While he claims inexperience with fraternity conventions, he is suspiciously adept at drinking games.
The beach house is located on the rim of Omišalj, a town on the island of Krk most famous for some view-ruining petrol tanks, a castle, and an impressive mountain zone. According to a website, the old town’s ‘labyrinth logic’ is a pleasure in which to lose yourself.
Our daylight hours, however, are devoted to hangtime, and hangtime happens along a twenty-metre walk. There is nothing labyrinthine about it. Stage one is breakfast. Our landlord has supplied the beach house with a blunted meat slicer, and we meet the implied challenge with a local bacon steak, hog hair still attached along one side. First we shave the bacon then, concurrent with eating it, the second stage of hangtime—preparation—cranks up. In July the UV index can rise above 8, and Hillary is pushing a full bottle of tanning oil on us. I’m not convinced this is protective, but we have no Google here. Sunburn, like bankruptcy and crashing the hire car, thus becomes an impossible outcome.
So, around lunch, we carry some chairs down from the beach house, passing a back yard–dwelling turtle we call Ralph. Here, stage three commences, which is the Great Lying Around. Stephen and Theo spend many of these hours slouching on their beach towels and dreaming in the general direction of the sun. It’s completely possible they are bored.
While Stephen and Theo backed out of the event we call ‘the browning’, both Hillary and Marion went through the same process as me. The three of us are endlessly interested in our spray-tans, and they are the only things we ever want to discuss. We address the effect of Hillary’s undertan, which is nugatory, and the effect of the tanning oil, which is probably not. Marion, during her own tan, didn’t Vaseline her toenails, and it looks like she’s been using them to chain smoke. Why is Hillary’s left calf more golden than mine this morning? Is it lastingly darker, or just excessively oiled up? But my shoulders are ‘exactly perfect’, ‘objectively the best’. There aren’t many other people on our little beach with rocks here, but I’m still glad the salty sea is actively hostile to the safe storage of recording equipment.
Stage four, which is the final stage, takes place in the water, where the spray-tans are less visible and the discourse notches up. We formulate quick memes together: the best is ‘taglines for a movie about sex bots that have turned against the human race’. Stephen wins, for ‘First they turned us on. Then they turned on us.’ It is perfect, objectively the best. For Marion, twelve consecutive submerged somersaults are achievable; for the rest of us mortals, maybe not. What we can share, though, is watermelon that has been chilled in the beach house, and is brought forth to the water whenever someone lumbers up. It is one of those sweet extras that could not be done by teenagers, so this aqueous feeding time has a jubilant character.
If you are not a sand fan, the only downside to a beach with rocks is leaving the water. The rocks are slippery and require us to engage in lateral thought. It’s Hillary who arrives at the successful methodology: you swim towards the shoreline and essentially don’t stop, so when the rocks begin to glide against your chest hairs, the swim evolves into a kind of crawl.
I misname the primordial exit strategy ‘mitochondrial’—no Google—but it’s the same gorgeously graceless result. Neither permission nor volition plays a part in becoming an adult. But you can always choose to emerge in this way from the water, a version of evolution where you’re always rising up.
We are in Croatia for what feels like a very long time, and there are variations on the stages listed above. Four Kings is a drinking game that ends like any other: the manic abolition of the already-thin pretence that the winners are the sober ones while the losers are drunk. We never find much seafood, but like on any island, we find a lot of pizza pies to soak the liquor up. We also find a boat that is moored way out in the water, and all boozy and naked late one night we swim aboard. I wake up with a stiff, engorged head wound, but no-one recalls me getting it, and I seem not to have drowned. Thereafter, though, it seems wisest to regenerate often: ‘Guys, I’ll get the beers this time. I want to primordially emerge.’ With every birth, my tan consolidates. It deepens, thickens up.
Eventually, it breaks, of course—it somehow mottles off, leaving me, dermatologically, both human and not. I notice this one morning when we’re hungover in Hungary and we’re emptying the tanning bottle of the last small drops. It is a simple transformation, but it’s the ease of it that shocks me: I rub the oil on my shoulders, and I find the flesh rubs off.
It’s probably no coincidence we’ve found ourselves a water park on an island in the river that divides Budapest in two. Many aspects of postdoctoral life may remain a mystery, but cut off from the mainland there are skills I can deploy. The hoodlums lining up for the park’s one and only speed slide have copper skin, sienna skin, pasty skin and russet. So I’m at least prepared to describe strangers’ pigmentations, which is a much sought after quality in the modern business world.
I also know my insular literacy is nothing to write home about. Few reputable researchers have drawn a correlation between the abilities to chill watermelon and someday to raise a child; my qualifications are meaningful for a limited time. But burnished with the oil, with the spray-tan sloughing off, it isn’t clear that I’ll ever do anything more serious than stand in the sunshine waiting for my turn to ride.