I’m in Hvar. It’s another silly place – it looks like an Italian sunglasses ad but instead of muscular gentlemen with skin like polished horse hair there’s a parade of lavishly muffined old men, backpackers with inappropriate footwear and sunburnt Englishmen. I feel very weird, being a sneaker clad backpacker myself, sitting on the beach with my socks behind me while on the horizon 50ft yatchs sail past leaving a kind of metaphorical waft of cash behind them.
Those yacht owners own this place. Sure, there are some hostels and relatively cheap pizza stands but the rest of the island runs on $10,000 dollar bottles of champagne, caviar and whatever Bill Gates and Roman Abromovich want.
As you can imagine this lavish Mediterranean dream pulls in a lot of interesting characters.
Tall, good talker, wears white and likes football, video games and sci-fi. He used to be an executive for an oil company in Norway. I think he made a lot money there before suffering an early onset mid life crisis. Now he writes fiction for young adults from a straight-edged apartment with views of the ocean. In winter he leaves for a small beach town in Nicaragua. He’s dismissive of the mid life crisis label – maybe because he’s in his 30s or maybe because he never actually ran away from anything. Either way he’s got a laughably perfect life and he’s justifiably smug.
We stayed with him on our first night. The next morning he prepared salami omelettes and a tour of the island. My favourite part of which was this guy:
Reese and Kurt:
I don’t really know how to describe them because they were such an anomaly. They looked like typical American partypackers – muscles, sunglasses, confidence, smiles, shorts and all that but they weren’t – there was a major twist – they were professional poker players. Probably not what you’re imagining – no suits, martinis, Russian supermodels (as far as I know) or even tables. These guys spend 10-12 hours a day sitting in front of a laptop robbing wads from naive rich dudes, addicts and guys who want to be like them but aren’t good enough.
“Theres only about 300 guys making more money than us.”
“So how much do you have to play just to make a basic living.”
“I dunno. About 15 to 20 minutes.”
I still don’t know how much that is but here’s what I do know. Once they bet someone $100,000 to stay in a Vegas hotel toilet for a month, one of them is friends with some Croatian parliamentarians/mafia bosses and they plan to retire when they’re 30 . . . in 4 years. Apparently there’s a pile of tax rules and regulations back in the US that are preventing them from smelling cash every second so they’ve spent the last few years looking for tax havens and good parties.
To be honest if I was reading this I would probably assume these guys are massive cunts but they’re not – they’re really nice, genuine guys who just happen to be maths guns comfortable with gambling for living.
Anyway on Sunday night there was an exciting music festival in a castle. Kurt, Reese and a bunch of other pro-poker players were going. We didn’t want to pay $62 euros to be battered by house music but the poker guys buttered us up enough to convince us to try to sneak in. Well easy enough for Selena and Annika. All they had to do was hold hands with the guys with wrist bands. They slithered in while I got caught out like a fluoro rabbit in a hawk farm.
“Hey where’s your wristband.”
“I . . . ehhh . . . I forgot it.”
Well I’m an idiot.
I wasn’t to miss out thought. I scooted around the side of the festival looking for a good jump spot. I skirted half the festival ground and found mostly sandstone walls and barbed wire until, to my great drunken amazement, I found a metal fence broadly spaced enough for my sneakers to fit in. Why’s there no security here I thought? I quickly found the answer to that questions when I leapt over the fence into a field of cacti. I pulled my sliced legs and torn shirt out of the spikes only to find another obstacle – I wasn’t even in the festival. I was behind a brick wall – the only way down was a horizontal pole above some stairs. I would have to jump off the wall, swing on the pole and land on a staircase at a lucky moment no one was walking past.
Ten minutes later I was in the festival. I felt like quite a badass, which was rather nice as that’s something I’m quite unfamiliar with.
I couldn’t find Annika, Selena or the Poker dudes in the festival so I figured the best thing to do was to find a well lit place near the stage and dance extravagantly so to be noticed if they walk past.
“Nick. What the hell. You got in?” It’s Kurt. He looks surprised.
“Yeah I jumped the fence. Where are the girls?”
“They left to look for you.”
I didn’t really know what to do at this stage. I thought there was a reasonable chance the girl’s would get back in so I stayed put with team poker. I spent the next two hours talking to Reese about education and dancing to trip hop with two snake armed Norwegians from Svalbard. Unfortunately Selena and Annika never made it. They spent the two hours scouring sports bars thinking I’d be watching football somewhere. Pretty good guess. I felt guilty*.
It had been a pretty weird and enjoyable evening. I left thinking two things. Maybe they weren’t poker players at all and we had all been done over by a convincing but ridiculous joke – and what kind of swimmers they wear and what they look like in them.
Usually I never come to these kinds of tourism Meccas. I’ve been too often betrayed by grumpy locals, expensive food and feeling like an economic opportunity. But here I feel pretty comfortable because everyone is so nice.
Toby could only host us for one night so the following day he took us to a hostel. There we met Marin, a semi-competitive video gamer/chef with a sly smile and a washed up DJ career. I’m not really sure what his job was at this hostel other than being our friend. He gave us orange juice, took me out for coffee and told us all the best places to go on the island.
His best suggestion was a deli at the market – the only place to buy food which doesn’t hawk chips and fish to fraud-ignorant tourists. This deli was the fucking bomb – almost everything inside was made by this burly farm guy and his obelisk like dad. We only went in to buy some wine but as soon as we started chatting the farmer son started dolling out delicious treats like a malfunctioning factory belt. He started by letting us sample his favourite cured meats – wild boar and bear salami. Then he gave us a shot of his homemade moonshine.
“Is this illegal?”
“Yes but it’s very famous. It’s very good. It’s sweet, even girls can drink it.”
“Wow. Fuck this is good.”
“The prime minister comes here to drink this.”
Next we had his backyard red wine and after we got into the cheese selection – oaken ash goats cheese, sheep’s cheese that’s been ageing in a vat of wine for seven months and a few tasty experiments he simply calls ‘mistake cheese’.
“Do you cure your own anchovies?” I’d seen a tasty looking jar.
“Yes but we don’t sell them. Only some locals taste them. When I was young I always remember going to the markets with my father and buying anchovies for one kuna so I want to keep the tradition you know? Do you want some?”
Stupid question. He opens up a thick yellow bucket. A pungent salt smell whacks the front of my brain. The bucket inside looks like a pile of dirty salt. He dives his hands in and yanks out a fish.
“You can’t eat it like this. Too salty.” He takes it under the tap, rubs the salt off and then in one smooth, dexterous tug the spine falls out.
*I went home after that but the girls followed team Poker to this really swanky club called Pink Flamingo. Selena came home at 5:30, Annika sometime after that.