August 6, 2008


A vacation from a vacation must be, by definition, work, right?

Well here’s a work story. One day after the end of school, we packed our bags and headed east, joining family for our summer vacation in Croatia, Bosnia, Vienna and Hungary. The vacation was a mix of beaches and museums, old towns and new food. Lavender couches, cherry soup, foreign liquors and hot sun. As always, it was fabulous to be away and it’s great to be home!

The smooth stones of time and the pocked stones of conflict.
We are a land-based family. As probably so are you, but we seem to have a near aversion to water. We like our water in bottles and pipes. We are city poeple and are a wee bit out of our element when we change into our maillot de bains. It took us a few hours of watching the locals to figure out just how and where to swim, but once whetted…. we were happy as fish in a small pond. Our standard operating procedure, in an over-touristed town, is to wiggle through the masses and attempt to find the true experiences. Inevitably we discover we are not alone, sometimes surrounded by Lets-Go toting brethren, and hopefully by a few un-jaded locals.

Dubrovnik, at the southern tip of Croatia, is like an island, securely on the mainland but facing the clear Adriatic. Surrounded by medieval walls that once protected it from the sea which now frame it for the sea. Unfortunately it is a bit too much of a destination these days. The cruise ships have found it and populate it every day from sun-up to sun-set. The limestone streets first worn by Venetian traders, then by Karadzic’s bombs are now polished daily by thousands of cruise enthusiasts following bouncing umbrella’s from one Kodak moment to the next.

Dubrovnic as seen from the terrace of our apartment.

We tried to get through the must see moments of the town early in the morning, and then escape to the outskirts where we found small restaurants and “private” beaches to pass the hottest parts of the day with the locals. I like being "a local"; I try to impersonate the locals when I am a tourist and I have tried to be one in as many places as possible…. serial dwelling. There is so much to be said for being of a place. I remember when I had lived in California for 7 years, someone declared me a “local” as I had lived there longer than the average person. I had great pride in being a Californian, as I did in being a local of the French quarter in New Orleans, and now in Martel. The more touristed a town the quicker one can claim the title. The title for those in Dubrovnik comes with more stripes than most. The Serbian-Croatian war in the very recent 90’s reigned fear down upon the very heads of the locals, they were trapped within their own walls, stubbornly holding onto their lives and their heritage. We met a taxi driver that ran food up the hill to the defending soldiers when he was Oscar’s age. I don’t think I had ever met anyone who had been shot at!

Now the locals are in servitude to the tourists. It is almost all that remains of their economy, and the ages old relationship is on the surface there. They need us for 75% of their jobs, and we need them for everything we do there, except swimming. We found a café pinched between the sea and the town, it was clinging to the rocks, outside of the medieval walls. There was a place for drinks, and a place to swim in the surf, and in between the two there were spots carved out of the rocky beach with chairs and umbrellas and “privat” signs defending the spot. We were told by the café owner that “we could sit there but that it was an area for the locals”…and well???.... we sat. This would be akin to roping off a section of a public beach and saying that it is only for the people that live on the beach. No one owns the beach, right? This should be public and well, being able to spell “privat” does not entitle you to something which belongs to everyone. We were a massive group of 10 (don't try this at home), and while half of us were in the sea at any given time, we were still a massive group. One local fisherman came and happily shared the space with us for an hour, making small talk about the species of fish and such, but as the day grew late and the locals all started to appear, we were challenged by several children, who seemed to know only one word in English: “private”. Our new friend, the fisherman, chastised them for their rudeness, and encouraged us to hold our ground. The 12 year old sized kids promptly leapt from the stone cliffs next to our hideout. We thought this precipice was so high as to only provide a view, but they seemed quite used to flying the 40 or so feet into the clear blue sea. We had stood our ground, planted our flag, (sent the locals off a cliff) and so we could now leave pretending it was our choice to do so.

The event made me start thinking about being a local. Especially in an environment overwhelmed by tourists. The locals surrender so much, their lives are ruined/improved by the influx of others, and what can they hold onto? A café the tourists don’t (yet) know about? A shortcut through the crowds? The quietude of mornings? A private beach? I begrudge them these things, I search for them to create my own experience, these secrets that create a place. Search and Destroy: Tourism in the World. Fortunately, the world is large and many of these places are endowed with an incredible built or natural environment that will continue to bear the immense weight of us non-locals. The limestone streets will get even smoother, the surrounding mountain tops even more rugged and the coastlines will continue to meander, flashing their beautiful eyes at people like me.

When I am a foreign tourist, being the antithesis of local, I am finely tuned into the traveling brethren. I listen for English spoken here and am ready to make relationships where they don’t belong. Sitting at a cafe in Budapest, I am drawn to the next table of American or French voices, kindred spirits? long lost relatives? new best friends? Strangely, as stated above, I am in this new place to feel it, to be lost in it, to be as a local, but then my reflex is to make connections with others like me, other tourists! We share restaurant stories, museum ideas, transit passes, and the occasonal email address. Somehow making familiar connections in far away places grounds me. It’s not what I am looking for, but it’s often what I find. We cross oceans to find new experiences, then we cross the street to re-touch the familiar.

Surfing the world like an old man in the waves.
I sat on the edge of the storm-tossed Adriatic on our last day, watching a man in his 80’s (a local) being tossed against the rocks by the 3 meter waves. Amazingly he just floated there, rolling into the rocks and away, lightly pushing off of them with his feet when he drifted too close. He was so in his element, so unfazed by the danger and the power that moved him, I was fascinated. I imagine this old man probably grew up swimming in this cove, making waves in his youth and surfing them effortlessly now, floating through the tortured history of his city, the wars, the communist era, the tourists, and whatever is next. The waves pulled him back, up and forward again and again. I watched with the fascination of an accident or a miracle about to happen. As time passed, the old man left unscathed and before quitting the cove, I took his place in the waves to again experience something local. It was far more miracle than the hazard I thought I had been watching, the immense surf, and the unique form of the rocky coast held me gently. With the exception of the breaking waves from behind and the recoiling spray in front, it was like floating in a watery rocking chair that had been there for a thousand years! I can still close my eyes and go back there.

Bosnia and tortured civilizations

We left the hot beach weather to the swimmers and drove inland 3 hours to another world entirely, Bosnia. While Croatia had been christian for most of it's history, Bosnia was at the crossroads of the Byzantine, Ottoman and Austria-Hungarian empires and has an overlapping religious culture to show for it. Christian, Muslim and Orthodox continue to share the city, sometimes peacefully, and sometimes, as in the 1990's, not so peacefully, and even today they seem ready to forcibly protect their beliefs. It was an interesting sight to see an immense Christian cross dominating the hill above Mostar, a town that held at least a dozen mosques and minarets that we could see. We toured one of the mosques, built in the 16th century and we climbed it's minaret, from there we could see this ancient city and the rugged mountains around it. We were in the very center of Mostar and all around us we were looking at the desruction from a war 13 years ago like it could have been yesterday! Parts have been rebuilt but much remains awaiting attention. It was strange being a tourist in an area that had so recently been a war zone. The pain and suffering the people of this town had witnessed was hard to imagine even when seeing some of the damage, and now we were here sightseeing as if their lives were on display. We climbed, contemplated and crossed the famous bridge built in the 1500's that connected the two sides of the city and was then symbolically and strategically destroyed in the war. Now a Unesco World Heritage Site, it was rebuilt after the war from stones recuperated from the floor of the river 100 feet below. It was a moving experience and another reminder of how fortunate we are to have been born in the time and place that we were...

Human Soup
After Mostar, we returned to the Croatia coast and spent another fabulous few days in the sun. Then, we returned to civilization. As I have said before, we are city mice and we had been away too long. We had several wonderful days in Vienna, full of museums, restaurants and window shopping. We toured buildings and even went to an outdoor music event, Peter and the Wolf, on a giant outdoor screen in front of the Rathause, Vienna’s Gothic city hall. Thousands of young Austrians eating dinner, drinking wine and watching a Russian version of the fable, followed by the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas performing the Rites of Spring. It was a sublime moment, food framed by music framed by fable, framed by an incomparable setting, in a superlative city! An exclamation mark to our stay in Vienna, we left for Budapest the next day.

Budapest was a smorgasbord. It is a grand city, which suffered greatly under the attention and neglect of the Nazi regime and then the Soviets. Years and years of a crumbling society, punished by political winds and weak leaders in the face of crippling occupations. The architecture is grand and wonderful, varied and coherent. The buildings are mostly huge brick monsters with deep layers of plaster creating one interesting composition after another. Almost every building seems to occupy the entire block and possess at its core a grand courtyard with balconies all around creating exterior corridors.

Every surface is decorated with arches, or iron work, or murals, mostly falling apart, but still feeling alive and poised for resurrection. Every building seems a celebration, nothing seems to be background, all in competition for greatness. All together the city is tired and awaiting a rebirth, which somehow seems imminent.

Budapest has a thermal source, water bubbling forth at something short of boiling, which is shared by the cities many bath houses. There are two grand ones that remain, both palaces to the art of bathing. Hundreds of Budapesters share the flow with the tourists in a multitude of pools ranging from freezing to boiling and from quiet to raucous, aerobics classes, swimming classes, massages, and a 100 year old wave pool that is more like falling into a racing river full of warm bodies and fast moving water. Everyone is colliding and bouncing off of each other like so many fish in a simmering bouillabaisse! Incredible.

There is something very different about Eastern Europe, it is the origin of so much of America, and yet remains so exotic and pure. We are used to the diversity of America, our melting pot, while so many places in the world are so homogeneous that they are fascinating to us. We watch the people, we recognize ourselves in them, we soak in their environment and with luck, we return home different.

Love to all of you, Daniel Pat and Oscar


Anonymous said...

Dan-man, Have a Happy Birthday this week end! Your writing only improves through your vivd experiences. Seriously consider submitting these adventure introspections to travel magazines. Others would love to read these dialogs and marvel at the insights. WE DO!
Love to you all

Anonymous said...

Another brilliant post from our Martel correspondent!

(adopt me)


LisaLemony said...

Oh to be with you on these travels! So lovely. thanks for the history and the beautiful pics!