I remember sitting in Old Town Hostel in Kotor, Montenegro. I’d been in the town for a day already, and had seen most of it. I did the hike up to the old fortress. I checked out the churches, and the market. I’d come to Kotor on the flimsiest recommendation. Another traveller in a hostel in Bosnia mentioned that they’d heard Kotor was “supposed to be pretty nice”. Once I got there, I didn’t have a single thought on what would be next. It was an impasse. I could never have guessed that Kotor would turn out to be one of the most significant places I’ve ever been. Not just on my trip. In my life.
Nic, Matt, Fredd, Jack, and Simone livened up the hostel as soon as they walked in. A group of five tends to do that, especially if the place is small. Nic and Matt were lifelong friends from Sydney travelling the world together. Fredd was a young guy from Sweden exploring the other parts of Europe for the first time. Jack and Simone had met each other along their own travels and were enjoying the bliss of backpacker love. They’d all met each other relatively recently, in the Balkans. I spent the next few days with them exploring Kotor. No one knew where to go next and the hostel manager, who was the best I’ve ever met, kept offering us 2-for-1 extra nights. We were introduced to the joys and pain of Rakia, discovered the world’s best triple chocolate lava cake, opened Matt and Nic’s eyes to the wonders of snow, danced to some awful Montenegran ‘Folk Pop’ music, and stuffed ourselves to bursting with delicious roasted meat at the local butcher shop. After nearly a week, the five guys took a momentous photo.
Immediately posted to Facebook, it didn’t take long for the comments to roll in.
“Did you join a band?”
“You guys look like you’re posed for an album cover.”
“What’s the name of your new band?”
We wanted an epic shot. We ended up with a lot more. The questions on Facebook deserved answers. After much discussion, it had been settled. We were ‘The Balkan Boyz‘. Yes, with a ‘z’. Feeling that Kotor had given us more than we could have hoped for, it was time to move on. The rest of the guys asked where I was going next. I didn’t know. They were considering Skopje, in Macedonia. There was an twelve hour overnight bus twice a week, and the next one was in two days. “Just come with us.” Done. I wanted to get to Italy eventually, and so did they. It all seemed to fit.
The rest of the Balkans were brief, but eventful. Skopje delivered one of the best club nights I’ve ever had, but the city wasn’t amazing to us, and Macedonia was starting to get cold. We passed through Albania in a day after encountering some questionable food supply chain practices, and before we knew it our ferry was leaving Durres, bound for Bari. Hostel life brings a regular source of companions, but it felt amazing to travel with people who I thought could become real friends.
Our time around Sorrento and Napoli was fantastic, and the Balkan Boyz theme was becoming more and more pronounced in our group identity. One particularly chatty American man noticed us taking another photo in Pompeii, and declared from a distance: “You guys look like a band!”
Matt didn’t miss a beat. “We are a band.”
The man was thrilled, and Matt was all too happy to describe our recent tour through the Balkans, and how we were taking some time away from rehearsal to see the sights. The guy asked for a photo with us, and wanted to know where he could find us on the internet. He was going to tell his young daughter all about it. I felt bad that his search would turn up nothing, so I thought out loud: “We could make a Facebook page.” With every town, hostel, photo, check-in, and page like, the Balkan Boyz legend continued to grow. Everyone who heard the story thought it was ridiculous, and everyone who heard the story loved it.
Matt and Nic had their flights booked for Southeast Asia. Jack was moving to Berlin. Fredd planned to make his way North and eventually…home. After Italy, I was going to Greece for Christmas and some time with relatives there. We had one more week as a group, in Rome. It was my Sister who commented on the Balkan Boyz’ Facebook page: “You should know that, at this point, I’m expecting some actual music.” Little did she know that we already had a group song. It was time for a sneak peek ‘backstage’ at a Balkan Boyz rehearsal…
Our time in Rome was fantastic. It was certainly one of the favourite stops of my year. There are so many great memories, and of course, great photos to go with them. Fredd was the first to leave, then Nic and Matt. It had only been four weeks, but they were dense, important weeks. The goodbyes were tough. I think we all knew it was a special group, and I think we were all sad to let it go.
Before long I was in Firenze, then on my way to Athens. It was great to spend time with family, especially around the holidays. After leaving the city I headed to Rodos, then the West coast of Turkey. It was a lonely bunch of days before I arrived in Istanbul, and even then, it wasn’t the same without the Boyz. I had a flight booked to Israel, but beyond…I wasn’t sure. I was talking to Nic and Matt a lot on Facebook. I had originally planned to visit some of Southeast Asia, so if the timing worked out, why not do it with them? What a silly thought! What timing? We could make it work out. Almost two months after parting ways in Rome, I flew from Tel Aviv, through Tashkent and Bangkok, to Vientiane, Laos. I walked into the arrivals hall to see Nic, Matt, and their good friend Alex standing together singing ‘Take Me Back’. These were indeed real friends.
I didn’t love Southeast Asia, but I loved travelling with my friends. Those might have been the most eventful three months of my trip. Temples, hikes, bus rides, waterfalls, Tuk Tuks, and many, many parties. We were packing it in. It was a meetup in Chiang Mai with a pair of Swiss Balkan Boyz fans that brought about one of the last band developments. You never know what can come up during a simple breakfast conversation.
Matt was talking about getting a tattoo in Asia to go along with his European ones. I’d never been opposed to the idea of them, but didn’t think I would ever find something meaningful enough to want to stamp it on my skin forever. Sitting there with Matt and the girls, suddenly I wished we could represent the Balkan Boyz somehow. That might be enough to get me under an artist’s gun.
“What if there was a Balkan Boyz logo?”
Matt looked at me as soon as I said it, wide eyed. We knew immediately that we were going to design one, and this tattoo was going to happen. We spent the rest of the morning at a coffee shop with the girls, brainstorming on a piece of paper. We came up with an idea, and I refined it over the next week or so. Matt and I knew that convincing Nic to join us on this wouldn’t be easy. He’s not exactly the tattoo type, and coming from me, that’s saying a lot. Still, Nic has a weakness for symbolism, and the logo was designed with heaps of it.
The double ‘b’ shape is obvious enough, and the b’s are in fact musical symbols. Two flats. We’re not great singers, after all. It’s almost the symbol for B-Flat Major, except that would have the right portion higher than the left. We kept it reversed so that it’s deliberately wrong. After all, we’re not a real band. Matt and I presented this to Nic, and behind the wall of stubbornness, I could tell he loved it. It wasn’t long before we were in a small tattoo shop in Kuala Lumpur.
Why were we even in KL, anyway? Oh yeah…’A State Of Trance 650′!
These guys weren’t just real friends, or great friends. They’d become my best friends. We went back to Thailand for five more weeks. It was amazing. We picked up an honourary sixth band member, and for a while the Balkan Boyz feat. Ry Ry were at the top of the charts on Koh Phangan.
Suddenly it was the last week of Nic and Matt’s year long trip. We spent most of it in Singapore. Even knowing that it wouldn’t be too long before I’d visit them in Sydney, it was tough to say another goodbye after three solid months together. For the guys, it was tough knowing that they were headed home to reality. I was going to Melbourne, and had a handful of friends there. Still, I knew I’d be back to solo travel very soon, and it was no longer an exciting thought. I’d done the solo thing. It was great. Being with friends was better.
After seeing central Australia and a lot of New Zealand, I was headed to Sydney for one more stint with the Boyz. I would be home in just over a month, and after being away for nearly a year, sightseeing wasn’t my priority. The guys were back to work and back to life, but we still found plenty of time to hang out. It was great to meet Matt’s family, see their friend and flatmate Alex again, and their friend Laura who was with us in Laos. I couldn’t have asked for a better three weeks.
Nothing about my trip turned out the way I expected. In most ways, it was better. The Balkan Boyz were a huge part of that. It was one year ago today that I met them in Kotor. They’re some of the best guys I’ve ever known. In just under six months, Matt and Nic became the best friends I’ve ever had. They’re family. In honour of that bond, I couldn’t let this anniversary pass unmarked. I created a little something, and mailed a copy to Nic, Matt, Jack, and Fredd. A small memento. Each of us now has a poster commemorating the Balkan Boyz 2013 European tour. Memories that, for the rest of my life, will be some of the best times I could ask for.
November 22, 2013. The day I met my Brothers.
Happy first anniversary, Boyz!