"Do you have Christmas in France? Christmas. Christmas!"
--Ricky's Mother, "Better Off Dead"
Well, I'm already back to reality and its discontents, and only got done blogging half the trip. Blogging seems to be moving at about half the speed of life, but I guess that's good. Real life is, after all, more important.
Still, there were some final observations and encounters I wanted to share, and I hope you will forgive the hodge-podge, truncated nature of this final travel post, which I'd like to get out before this stuff starts falling down the memory hole.
First off, no account of my adventures abroad would be complete without a nod to Rick Steves, who often felt like a third companion on the trip. Steves is the creator of a popular guidebook on Europe, in addition to the informative, but unfortunately-named PBS show "Europe Through the Back Door." The book promises to help you "experience the culture like a local." Of course, that's impossible. I lived in the UK for five months as a student, and while I can tell you for certain that I thought its theater is the best on the planet while its cuisine is the worst, or that its people will approach you with a cautious reserve until they get to know you and then become friends for life, or that calling the Prime Minister a "twit" in the House of Commons on a weekly basis is OK, but talking loudly on the Tube is considered rude, I'd be hard pressed to explain why all of these things are true. Heck, I've lived in the U.S. my entire life, and I feel I'm just beginning to understand it and all its contradictions. Also, there are so many places I've never seen. For a good part of my life, I didn't think North Dakota really existed, until I was forced to spend a week in Grand Forks.
But I digress. Understanding a people or a culture is nearly a lifelong task. But experiencing those things as a local might is a different kettle of fish, and here Steves, with vivid descriptions and lots of good humor, was invaluable. His guidebook to Eastern Europe introduced me to the magical Plitvice Lakes in Croatia (more on this later), and to the quirky studio of Joze Plecnik in Ljubljana, who designed much of his home city in addition to sites in Prague and Rome, and whose home makes interesting use of light and curved spaces, in addition to showcasing his one-of-a kind inventions. Steves goes on at length about about Plecnik and his influence, yet his studio, which admittedly keeps very odd hours, is missing from local tourist maps. Steves is full of practical advice as well, such as avoiding the "no neck thugs" who run the cab stands at the train stations in most of the large cities we visited, or the value of the "Budapest Card," which in addition to covering all of our public transportation in that city, got us huge discounts at the baths and many of the museums.
So I relied a lot on Rick Steves. Before leaving, I did research on the Internet, in addition to reading guides like Lonely Planet (vast, but superficial) or the Rough Guide (encyclopedic, but hardly user friendly), but Steves was the only guide who was essential on our journeys. It got to the point that Laura and I were referring to him by his first name, as in, "Do you have Rick?" or "It's time to put Rick away now." He saved me countless times (getting through the baths in Budapest) and only steered me wrong once (the Hotel Anna in Prague, with its frosty showers, although I am willing to accept that we were the victims of unfortunate circumstance.)
So, here's a shout out to Rick Steves. Bless your pointy head!
One of Steves’ recommendations was the city of Krakow, which he calls "the next Prague." He urges people to visit now, "just as the tourist infrastructure ramps up, but before it’s swamped with crowds." Sadly, however, of all the places in Eastern Europe that got short shrift on my blitzkrieg tour, Krakow was the most maligned.
I enjoyed the plucky, underdog spirit of the people I encountered there. I loved the Communist-era "Milk Bars," old-style cafeterias where I could get a full dinner of stuffed cabbage and pirogies for 9 zlotys (roughly $3). Because of my desire to see Auschwitz, however, I only really got to spend one day in this dreamy city, something the spunky proprietor of the Pensionjat Trecius rightfully gave me grief about.
"So, did you enjoy your one day tour of Krakow?" she asked with a playful mix of teasing and wounded pride. There wasn't much I could say other than to answer, truthfully, that I wanted to come back.
She was another person who offered perspectives on life after Communism -- although her views differed widely from those of Adam and Rudolph. As a business owner, she didn't express much in the way of nostalgia, remembering bitterly how the Soviets would print massive sums of money to jumpstart the economy, which, in addition to dampening the desire to work better or harder, made it next to impossible to know what various goods and services were worth from day to day -- a clear liability in the business world. "This was a false system," she said, although her co-proprietor said that democracy had brought with it a different set of troubles. He told me that he wants to expand his hotel and open a restaurant in the basement, but that his plans have been held up due to "red tape" and new laws restricting building in the Old Town. It's the kind of frustration many American small business owners would sympathize with.
A random observation: Many of the cities I've visited have their roots in the Middle Ages. Despite their differences, many of them have similar city plans -- a castle high on a hill or a cliff wall, offering protection, and a river dividing the town, allowing for easy commerce. The river areas were common meeting places for trade and open-air produce markets. In many cities, they have retained those functions, but have expanded into giant public spaces, typically closed off to traffic. Whether intentional or not, this set-up has the effect of saving the most serene and picturesque parts of town for aimless strolling, usually on old cobblestone streets, away from the din of buses or cars. It tends to underscore a more peaceful way of life than I'm used to...and it’s these daydreamy public spaces that I always associate with Europe. That pace of life is emphasized in other ways as well. All but the most high-class American restaurants tend to be pretty capitalist: Eat your meal and get out; the more people who can be crammed in, the better. In Eastern Europe -- moreso even than the Western European countries I'd been to -- the meal was something that was supposed to be savored and lingered over. Waiters seemed to actually get insulted if we asked for the check too soon, for example, if we were on our way to a show or a train to another city. The attitude seems to be: “What's the hurry? Stay a while.” The typical dinner in Eastern Europe is meant to last at least two hours. I could get used to that.
By the time I made it to Croatia, I was beginning to feel more comfortable with the transportation system in this part of the world. Nonetheless, this is where all of my careful planning and whirlwind logistics broke down: I was set to arrive in Zagreb at 10 p.m., and leave for Dubrovnik at 5:50 the next morning. I had planned to spend a cranky, uncomfortable night at the airport. But when my flight arrived early, and customs took 2 minutes instead of an expected two hours, I decided to splurge for a hotel. After visiting the information desk, I walked out of the airport at night, luggage in tow (by the way: whoever decided to put wheels on suitcases should receive a knighthood, the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Nobel Peace Prize), across a dark city park and arrived at a local pub, Ivac, where I had a luxurious 5 and half hours of sleep in a room above the establishment with a real bed.
The rest of the trip almost felt like a vacation from my vacation, further from the dark history of the recent past and devoted more to simple scenic beauty and just ambling about.
Dubrovnik felt like a living fairy tale: Perched on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea, the city has retained its medieval stone walls. I spent hours climbing this scenic mile, with the sea on one side and waves of red-tiled roofs on the other, with the occasional church, shrine or orange grove along the way. It felt like a combination of things I experienced on my recent trip to Italy, a cross between Venice and the Cinque Terre on the West coast, with its wonderful hike between the 5 towns.
There's also the Stradun, Dubrovnik's main promenade, with Old World shops and several interesting museums. The street here is made with a polished stone that shimmers hypnotically when it rains. There wasn't much of that, however. I just took it all in and meditated...as I sailed to one of the nearby islands and got a view of the fortress from the sea, or napped on the rocky beach at sunset, with its brilliant hues of purple, orange and gold.
In Dubrovnik, I decided to stay in a soba, or a room in a private home, a form of vacation lodging that is fairly common in Europe (especially in the East) but almost unheard of in the States. Using a handy Web site, I was able to see and price out my place long before I visited. For less than any hotel in the area, I essentially had an apartment, complete with refrigerator and stove. It was decorated with Croatian rugs and needlework, with pictures of Catholic saints on the walls. The bedroom had a skylight that offered a great view of the Old Town's walls. It was, by far, the nicest place I stayed in during the trip. And Stefjan, one of the owners, was extremely friendly, to the point of driving me to the airport at the sacrum of dawn, when finding a cab would have been rather difficult.
But even here, the recent history of war and ethnic conflict was never too far away. At the Pile Gate, the entrance to the Old Town, there is a huge map showing where each of the many bombs fell during the country's recent war with Yugoslavia. Aside from a few pockmarks and the bright, new tiles on the roofs of many of the buildings, however, there is almost no trace of what happened here just over a decade ago, when over two-thirds of Dubrovnik's buildings were damaged and 30,000 people had to flee their homes.
Incidentally, the first shots of that war were fired in the Plitvice Lakes National Park, the next stop on my itinerary. In fact, the war's first casualty was a park policeman, Josip Jovic. As in Dubrovnik, it is hard to reconcile the paradise-on-earth you see in front of you with a place that not long ago was the middle of a war zone. While it is well traveled among Europeans, Plitvice (pronounced PLEET-veet-seh) is virtually unknown to Americans. It feels like a mixture of Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. The park has 16 lakes, strung together by waterfalls and wooden plank walks. The grass is lush, the water strangely clear, and the place is filled with a thin mist and countless cascades.
In some places, the plank walks -- which look like fishing docks -- go right over a small waterfall or take you to the middle of a large one. As I walked through this virtually empty park -- tourist season had ended the month before -- I was struck by how often I noted the lack of guard-rails or warning signs. It struck me, on this trip that offered a meditation on various ideas of freedom (the lack of it, the fight for it, the uses of it) how easily my interior monologue took on the shrill voice of a tort lawyer: "This is a lawsuit waiting to happen." It is hard to separate ourselves from the cultural influences we take for granted, those things that have become so prevalent in our society that we don't even think about them. It then occurred to me that while guard rails might be nice, they'd take away from the beauty of this pristine place, keeping the visitor at more of a distance. One of the things that made this place so interesting was those plank walks that took you right over and under and through the natural beauty of the park.
It is easy to see how some European directors saw in Plitvice a feint echo of the early American West. I remember Adam, our guide in Budapest, telling us how he grew up on German "westerns" that were filmed here, like Der Schatz im Silbersee (The Treasure in Silver Lake), complete with German-speaking Native Americans.
When you travel alone, it is easy to get lost in your own daydreams. Thinking I was alone at one point during my tour of Plitvice, I climbed on top of a stack of wood to get a better view of the park's largest waterfall. Taking in the dull roar of the water into turquoise pools and a layer of mist above, I absentmindedly broke into a song I hadn't thought of since the 80's -- the Hamm's beer jingle
From the land of sky blue waters.
From the land of sky blue waters.
Hamms, the beer refreshing
Hamms, the beer refreshing
When I finished, I turned around, and was more than a little embarrassed to find a couple of Korean tourists with their cameras trained on me.
"You took pictures?" I asked.
The man shook his head no.
"Video," said the woman with him.
Well, I can only hope it doesn't end up on the Internet.
I was feeling a bit lonely on the bus ride back to Zagreb, eager to share some of my thoughts about the park. Aside from a smattering of Croatians, however, the only other people on the bus were backpackers from Germany. Unfortunately, my German is terribly spotty -- worse than that, actually. For some reason, I can remember how to say "My dog has no nose" (Mein Hund hat keine Nase), which is really not a great entrée into any kind of discussion. I also can say, "Gehe dahin ubler in deine dreckige hole." (Be gone, Evil One, go back to your filthy lair!) Again, not a conversation starter.
Aside from that, I remember random words of no real general use: Waschbar (raccoon), Kartoffel (potato) and Kopf (head).
About an hour away from the park, I had this thought: Do they have Mr. Potato Head in Germany, and is he called Herr Kartoffelkopf?
But I didn't even know how to ask this rather ridiculous question in German. It occurred to me that it was more likely that these backpackers' English would be far better than my German, but then again, what was I going to ask them: "Do they have Mr. Potato Head in Germany, and is he called Herr Kartoffelkopf?” This would have branded me irrevocably as a Gigantic American Tourist Boob, and for the sake of my personal pride and and our rapidly declining international relations, I thought the better of it.
Still, it got me thinking about another aspect of travel that we Americans take for granted: In even the most remote locations, we can typically count on someone with at least a rudimentary knowledge of our language, if not outright fluency. But this isn't true for the Croatian, Czech, Polish, even German speakers of the world. Due to the accident of being part of what once was the largest colony in an Empire on which the sun was never supposed to set, we can expect to travel safe in the knowledge that English is the international language.
So, a few days later, when I took a taxi from Ljubljana to nearby Lake Bled, I was able to enjoy a conversation in English with the affable driver. And whereas it took me about 10 minutes to pronounce "Vrsic" (Vree-shick), the name of a Slovenian mountain pass in the Julian Alps, I followed along as the driver told me excitedly about his recent foray into refereeing an international ping-pong competition for the handicapped in a town near Vrsic. ("In Vree-shick, we have the games for the tables tennis with the people in the chairs with the wheels -- and I judge!")
He told me that the Slovenian president was a journalist, a national hero who was known for exposing a blacklist of dissenters that existing during the former Communist era. He told me of his time in the Yugoslav Army and, pointing to a high peak in the Julian Alps, said, "Climbing this mountain was a big test of endurance for soldiers. We call it witch's teat."
"So you climbed the witch's teat?" I asked.
Speaking of boobs, in Bled I was reminded that they are not unique to America. Here's a story I will remember the next time someone goes on about how reactionary and ignorant we are in the States. In the middle of Lake Bled, there is a beautiful island with a church that you can get to by taking a pletna boat, a flat-bottomed craft powered by a single standing oarsman. On the pletna boat, I was joined by an attractive Italian couple, who were very nice. They asked me to take a picture of them. And they returned the favor. He told me he was an architect, but was currently serving as a political representative from a town near Venice. On the way back, the subject turned to politics. I was, of course, prepared for the fact that George Bush is hugely unpopular, as is our protracted war with Iraq. But I was not remotely prepared for his highly unusual theory of why we were at war.
"Oil?" I asked.
"Well, yes," he said. "But I also think it is because George Bush is Jewish."
I stared at him for a few seconds, hoping that a punch line was forthcoming. But none came. He told me that George Bush always defends Israel, that he was a member of the Skull and Bones Society that secretly controls everything in America, and that since the Jews also control everything, George Bush must be Jewish. I have to admit, there was a certain insane logic to it, if accepted on its own terms, but I felt the need for further questioning.
"You know, he talks to Jesus," I said. "Before going to war in Iraq, he spoke to Jesus. It's not a very Jewish thing to do."
"Well yes," he said. "But behind the scenes, away from the public, I think he is a Jew."
When I told him I was Jewish, he was quick to explain that he had nothing against Jews, but couldn't help noting that they were disproportionately represented in the upper echelons of business. I had had a conversation like this before, in Turkey a decade ago, with a young student on a bus who asked me innocently. "Is it true that you control everything?" I answered, "If that were true, would I be on a bus like this, sitting next to you?" He reflected for a while, smiled and said, "This is a beautiful thought."
But this wasn't someone who was indoctrinated in a Muslim religious school. This was an educated Italian, from just outside one of that country's most cosmopolitan cities, and a politician to boot. His comments seemed less innocent for that reason, and for the reason that so much of my trip provided evidence of what even passive ignorance of this sort can lead to.
When we left the boat, he shook my hand and said, "Tell George Bush to go home."
I replied, "When I see him, I'll tell him in Hebrew."
Some more random thoughts: I know I have had some fun with the issue of paying to use the bathrooms in Eastern Europe, but the fact is, these restrooms are always clean, something you can not always count on in the States. In fact, the infrastructure in Eastern Europe is much more suited toward the casual traveler. For example, a 3 hour bus-ride typically costs about $5. A cross country train-ride can cost just over $30, but will have comfortable seats and will at least include some interesting scenery. A ride from Washington to New York with Amtrak, by contrast, is likely to cost at least $140 and is bound to be overbooked and crowded, with the scenery pretty much consisting of New Jersey.
A final random thought: Just about any town in the world that caters to tourists will have at least one street performer in native garb playing the pan flute. One of my favorite recent books, a collection by British cartoonist Andy Riley called "Great Lies to Tell Small Kids," suggests that pan flute players throughout the world are secretly deployed from a central base in the Andes Mountains.
Ljubljana (Lyoo-byawn-yah), where I spent the final days of my tour, is a college town, and it has the laid-back, youthful energy of a place like Madison or Austin. I saw at least 6 women over 50 with dyed magenta or blue hair, the kind that American women in their 20's get weird looks for in the workplace. Once again, there is a huge public area, closed to traffic, where the Triple Bridge crosses the river, just below, once again, a castle high on a cliff. But this area felt much more sophisticated and modern than the Old Towns of the other cities I visited, filled with quirky bars and cafes and stylishly dressed students. It was relatively free of tourists and the kinds of businesses that cater exclusively to them. I spent a lot of time hanging around a local produce market, where the president of Slovenia himself is known to shop for the perfect melon.
Before I left, I finally purchased a pelt.
It is hard to wrap up my reactions to such a wonderful vacation, in which I saw so much so quickly, and was given so much to ponder and enjoy. It will now recede into my memories, some of which are encapsulated in photos, which I'll try to share with everyone soon. I don't know if I'll have the time or the energy to continue this blog, but I'd like to. We'll see. In any case, it's been great sharing with everyone, and getting your comments, public and private. Thank you. I wanted to particularly thank some people who made my trip more enjoyable: Gerri and Jack, Mom and Bob, Lois and, of course, the wonderful Laura.
Until next time,