we arrived in split in the middle of the night. after a couple hours of getting lost in the dark of the midnight bosnian countryside, we had found a main highway that led us across the border into croatia. dave had dozed off and i laid down on the accelerator, taking full advantage of the expansive and luxurious toll road highway cutting through the middle of croatia. periodically dave would stir awake, and i would bring the car back to a normal speed so he didn’t get nervous, but the second his eyes were closed, i had the machine back above 120 miles per hour.
despite the success of cultural exchange that had taken place in the restaurant between dave and the restaurant owner, i had been disappointed that i’d not been able to convince dave to stay longer in bosnia. bosnia & herzegovina was some sort of wild frontier for me; a place i could attempt to get off the grid again and find some truly unique experiences, and maybe even push deeper. i had begun to realize there were so many cultures in the balkans that i knew next to nothing about, and now my interest was piqued. but alas, now i was in split. and instead of being able to enjoy it, i was thinking of neighboring lands that seemed never further away than they suddenly did now, despite never having thought of them before that day. to say that i didn’t partially hold a little silent resentment toward dave at the time would have been a lie, and for a couple days there was definitely a tension between us that i had created.
we haggardly drove around the small city of split til we found our apartment, the darkness of night casting ominous shadows down each alleyway and street, graffiti peeking out on random walls in their subdued nighttime hues. our place of residence over the next couple days was a three bedroom property that we located on airb&b. in a building with no elevator i can only imagine was at least 300 years old, the top floor apartment was decorated and furnished in a modern masculine motif, with a moderate sized kitchen and a small shower that had warm water for about 5 minutes, leaving dave and i to continually fight for who would get the hot shower of the day during our stay.
after showing us around, the owner/operator enthusiastically asked us why we were in split during christmas. i had been traveling for so long, i had sort of forgotten that today was sacred for most of the world. certainly, i had noticed the crowds of tourists had begun to slowly dissipate over the course of the previous 3 weeks, but i had now been on the road for 4 months and my concept of time beyond the sun’s daily rise and fall now eluded me. i wasn’t sure if i should be proud or worried for myself.
when we informed our host that we weren’t in split for any special reason other than exploration, instead of being disappointed with our answer, she seemed almost more excited, causing her excellent english to break slightly. she and her husband had been taken off-guard when someone had booked their apartment last-minute on the day before christmas and they were now very happy to have some unexpected income for the holiday when the property would ordinarily sit empty. she left saying that she would be back the next day (christmas day) with a surprise.
the next day, dave and i arose earlier than usual and were out of the apartment by 9am. unsure of what to expect, we were both pleasantly surprised to see the city was alive and bustling in the brisk morning air. up until this point we had been lucky with the weather, but this morning the temperature outside had taken a shift to the downright cold, and everyone was layered with neck scarves and sweaters and overcoats. i was no different, with a sweatshirt and down jacket and my leather gloves. i hadn’t been this cold since iceland.
in only a matter of minutes, we were on the doorstep of diocletian’s palace, the retirement home of a roman emperor circa 300 a.d. expecting a 1700 year old museum with guards and entrance fees, i was visibly shocked to find that the enormous palace was actually just the city center, and throughout the well preserved walls of the ancient home were a myriad of quaint shops and restaurants that you could walk freely about in. i marveled at what kind of freak of luck and consequence such a relic could still be standing the test of time all these centuries later, and that instead of cordoning off everything, the people of split, croatia were living in their history. truly amazing.
i wandered around, trying to imagine myself in a tunic and sandals almost two thousand years ago, snapping photos and watching the local people interact with one another. they were a tall people, and incredibly composed, often times giving them a cold and emotionless demeanor to my interpretations. i could also sense a strong civic and cultural pride amongst the croatian people. not the type of “strong pride” that one often experiences in america when visiting somewhere like texas, where the natives strut around proclaiming their pride and allegiance with a bravado at a sometimes obnoxious volume and at every chance they find. nay, the croatian pride was one more exhibited in a cool confidence, unconcerned what outsiders might think and no need to state what seemed to already be obvious. i was finding it difficult to connect with anyone, but i didn’t feel unwelcome. invisible was probably closer to accurate.
dave and i had been wandering separately, but in the same general direction, periodically losing each other in the traffic of the old stone walls but usually reconnecting a few minutes later around another turn. but suddenly i had heard a strange harmonic wave echoing throughout the chambers and hallways of the open-air palace.
“dave! dave, come here!” i called to dave, not far away. dave looked up to see me motioning for him to rejoin. he walked over to me and we followed the sound around a corner and down a hallway to find a densely populated square room with walls twice as high as elsewhere in the palace, no ceiling, and an exit on the opposing side from where we had entered from. the sound had ceased briefly by the time we had snuck into the room and positioned ourselves against the back wall and faced in the same direction as everyone else. the crowd of tall croatians was hard for my 5’10” frame to see above, but i managed to identify a group of about 15 men grouped toward the front of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. the crowd was bustling and milling about, passersby trying to cross from one entrance to the exit, and people standing around conversing loudly. the room held sound extremely well, with the floor-to-wall stone acting as an echo chamber causing people to shout to be heard over one another.
suddenly deep tones of operatic 4-part harmony exploded from the front of the crowd and conquered every conversation in the room. i found myself startled and immediately captivated with the rest of the crowd as everyone turned to face the impromptu men’s choir. the song was unmistakably croatian, but the sound was so fierce and beautiful that i was completely arrested by the melodic soundwaves, not caring that i had no idea what was being sung. this was truly one of the most unique and beautiful experiences of my life.
i listened for 30 minutes as these men confidently projected their soaring harmonies out onto the ancient walls and into the ears of the delighted audience. when the music finally stopped, i felt as though i had just woken from a deep sleep. i felt refreshed as i exited the room with the throngs of people on their way home to their families for the christmas evening celebrations.
dave and i returned to the apartment to find a silver pot with a loaf of bread and a small card on the doorstep. our host had prepared us a traditional fish stew called “brodet.” dave and i exchanged surprised looks and then rushed to the kitchen, devouring as much of the stew as our bellies would allow. it was delicious, and i was extremely grateful of a free meal, especially a traditional one made by a local. a white fish with a broth and tomato base, the warm
liquid began to warm me up almost immediately from the inside, eventually reaching slowly back into my arms and legs and down into my fingers and toes, restoring a comfortable warmth to my body. i sat down to do some writing and record my thoughts from the preceding days.
a few hours later, dave had awoken from a nap and decided to venture out on his own for awhile. surprised, as this was the first real time he’d separated from me since we had been in the balkans, i had elected to stay inside. after 30 minutes of focused writing, my mind trailed off and began thinking of the significance of the day and my wandering journey away from everything i’d known and grown accustomed to. i hadn’t slept in the same bed for more than 5 days in 4 months. i hadn’t bought a single article of new clothing, had lived without a cell phone, hadn’t shaved, hadn’t watched tv, had no idea what was going on in the world… who was i anymore? on any given day, i might be unable to tell you what day it actually was. and here i was on christmas, perhaps the most heralded day in america, perhaps even the western world, and i had no gifts to exchange with anyone, no tree to decorate, no church service to go to, no plans to speak of. to me it was just another day that the sun had come up and gone down, and i couldn’t figure out if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
this wasn’t the first christmas i had spent alone (dave was with me, so i suppose it doesn’t really count as “alone.” but we weren’t celebrating it, we had done nothing to even acknowledge it.). in the past, by my own count, i’ve spent at least 3 christmases completely alone. the first one was right after i had graduated college, and i was mired in a swamp of minor depression. i had stumbled headlong into the “now what?” feeling that people often get after working for years toward a singular goal and, finally achieving it, realize they didn’t have anything thought out past that point. to make things worse, i had recently told a girl i had loved her and she hadn’t felt the same way, so i spiraled down into a hole of self pity and immature grief. i felt bad for myself and found any excuse to pile on the “woe is me” sentiment, locking myself in a room and playing my guitar for endless hours writing pathetic songs that no one should ever have to hear. it was an embarrassing mess.
the next couple weren’t so bad. i was living in colorado by this time and, while i had still had my sad times over the years, i had realized that the key to avoiding too much sadness was to just not let myself too much time alone to think. so on christmas, if i wasn’t traveling to see family, i was up in the rocky mountains snowboarding by myself. it was beautiful, uncrowded, and a peaceful exhilaration.
and now, here i was in croatia of all places, having an existential moment trying to figure out if i was on the verge of becoming a full-blown nihilist due to my lack of emotion on the subject. i was remarkably okay with the fact that nothing significant or symbolic was going to happen on my christmas. the day that nobody was supposed to feel like they were alone, the day where anyone should be able to find someone to welcome them to the table, i was in a strange land with stranger people and nothing to share… and i was completely okay with that. i might even consider myself happy.
and suddenly i realized that for me, at this moment in my life, this was the thing that made me most comfortable, most relaxed in my own skin. the comfort of knowing that i owed the universe nothing and it owed me nothing in return. i had no expectations of anyone, and they had none of me. i was an anonymous face in a sea of anonymity. a single unremarkable thread in a beautiful tapestry that could display just fine completely on its own without me. and yet, here i was, still trying to find out where my place was and where my thread was going. i had begun to let go of my stitched grip and appreciate what i was part of. this was not my story. this was simply the story of the world, and i was a minor character. and it was indeed beautiful. would i always be happy this way? with no expectations and no commitment? i couldn’t quite say, but something far off called to me that i had just stumbled into a great life lesson that had always seemed to elude my understanding until that exact moment. i was learning how to be present.
before i could complete my thought, dave burst back into the apartment.
“dude. put that down. you have to come with me. right now!” he gushed excitedly.
“uhhhh, why? i’m busy man.” i waved dismissively.
“no, seriously! come with me!” he insisted.
i gave him a long, annoyed look, then an exasperated sigh, closing my journal, screwed the cap on the flask of woodford reserve i had been sipping from and got up. dave and i had known each other for so long, he knew how to push past my exaggerated curmudgeonly impatience without getting offended. i put my jacket and boots on and journeyed back out into the cold.
after a few minutes of walking i pointedly warned dave
“this better be good…” i trailed off, indicating consequence. dave didn’t bite, seeing right through my empty threats. he only grinned and kept walking, lighting another of his hand-rolled cigarettes that he had queued up earlier in the day. they were getting better, but were still sloppy and uneven. good enough to smoke in public now, though. i was slightly annoyed with his dismissiveness toward my attitude, clearly i was losing my edge. but i was also comfortable and happy to be with someone who could read between the lines and find the intended humor buried in my general approach.
i followed dave for five minutes down dark alleys and dimly lit streets, back down through the tall walls of diocletian’s palace and toward the waterfront. we rounded the final turn, walking straight out onto the boardwalk and facing a crowd of thousands. white, icicle-like christmas lights strung from the building fronts out to white tents along the boardwalk waterfront. live bands and dj booths played music for packed audiences every 100 feet. the tents were vending hot, mulled wine and weird donut holes with powdered sugar and chocolate sauce on top. people were milling about, standing at tall tables, talking loudly and drunkenly, trying to be heard over the cacophony. we had found the christmas markets.
dave looked proudly over at me, eyebrows raised with a half smile curled upward in a smirk, as if it to say “see? told you so.” i looked back at him in bewilderment. how had we missed this earlier in the day? i wasted no time, walking up to the nearest booth and ordering a cup of mulled wine and a plate of the fried dough. i wasn’t sure what it was but it was good. the plate was empty in less than a minute. dave ordered a drink as well, and we started walking.
it didn’t take long to find out that just about everyone on the boardwalk was drunk. this was a party.
There were no tourists anywhere, this was definitely a local custom that wasn’t on the brochure and hence, we couldn’t understand anything anyone was saying. the only thing that was familiar to us was one of the bands playing 80s pop songs with thick croatian accents, which we found thoroughly entertaining, so we found a place to stand and stuck around for awhile. after 30 minutes of dave and i trying to make eyes at nearby women and hardly getting a response, we went to another tent-bar nearby to order a second round. before we could get to the front of the line a tall, drunk, and wiry croatian man grabbed dave around the shoulder and began muttering in slurred tongues. dave looked at me with a half-humorous, half-frightened look on his face. i laughed and then looked at the man. he looked at me, confused, then extended his arm away from dave so that his hand was only on dave’s shoulder, squinting through the dark of night and flashing stage lights for the live band, trying to get a clearer look at dave’s face. he suddenly realized we were not who he thought we were, started laughing, and then apologized in his native tongue.
“i’m sorry, we don’t speak croatian!” i said, both apologetically and appreciatively.
“oh! you are americans!?” dave and i nodded innocently.
“why are you in croatia?!?! during christmas?!” his english was probably better when he was under a more sober state of mind, but it was good enough and we were just happy to have someone to talk to.
“we’re just traveling!” dave exclaimed. just then we reached the front of the line. the man shouted something over the music and held up 6 fingers. a moment later the tent-bartender returned with 6 shots of a dark liquid with a red-wine colored tint. the man motioned for us to grab 2 each and follow him. doing as we were told, we followed around to the side of the tent, the side of the makeshift stage where the band was playing directly in front of us, giving us a clear line of sight, but with the loud speakers pointed away from us. the man introduced us to his three other friends, which we shared our extra shots with. our new friend explained to them the confusion that had just occurred and that we were americans. after a similar response, the man then shouted at us.
“okay my new friends! you are holding rakiya! this is traditional croatian alcohol, this is cherry flavor. very good! you will like!” everyone held their plastic shot glasses up high and knocked back the alcohol. i immediately felt the blood rush into my cold cheeks. the cherry flavor was noticeable, but over the thick brandy it was difficult to detect. dave and i both offered weak coughs, and the croatians laughed loudly, slapping us on our backs. another round mysteriously appeared almost instantaneously.
“welp,” dave directed at me, “here goes the rest of our night…” he chuckled, and we all downed another rakiya shot, this one not as harsh.
of the 4 new friends we had just made, one spoke english very well, 1 decently, and the other two could follow along in conversation, but they didn’t speak as much. the four of them had started the day by playing in a football (soccer) match at 11am, and then had proceeded to come directly to this market and drink for the rest of the day. it was midnight now. and it was freezing. dave and i couldn’t believe it.
“so what do you think of croatia? you like?” they asked. we explained where we had been already and that we loved it so far.
“have you met croatian girls yet?” before i could answer, another guy interrupted “don’t waste your time! croatian girls won’t even talk to you. its like they have this… what you call it? bruce willis… sixth sense!!” they burst into a raucous laughter that was completely drown out by a guitar solo onstage.
“my friend means that the croatian girls… is very difficult to talk to them for foreigners. they all think they are supermodels,” the others nodded and laughed, “you will try… and you will fail.” we all started laughing. i was beginning to understand. it also didn’t help that dave and i, both standing at around 5’10ish, were like hobbits in the land of giants. everyone around us was 6’2” and exotic looking. i hadn’t felt so physically average since amsterdam.
it didn’t matter. meeting girls wasn’t our intention, tonight we were playing with house money. stumbling upon a densely populated christmas party was completely unexpected and we were happy just to be here. dave and i didn’t pay for a drink the rest of the night; our friends wouldn’t let us. they introduced us to a few other friends in the crowd, i have no recollection of anyone’s names, but it didn’t matter. the thing i was most struck by was the stark contrast between the croatian demeanor in everyday life and the demeanor after a few drinks. they were polar opposites. walking around cities in the country, people were very proper and collected, sure of themselves and incredibly composed. you put three drinks into a croatian and the costume came right off. the life of the party revealed itself. i could say this about just about any culture, but nowhere did i sense this polarity as strongly as i did in croatia, and it was glorious. croatians really knew how to party.
3am crept up on us and the crowds had begun to thin out, but there were still plenty of people about. our friends, unbelievably, were still going at it, shooting rounds of rakiya in between beers and smoking cigarettes like balkan chimneys. i gave dave the “let’s escape” look, and we started shaking hands and giving hugs and thanking our new friends profusely. i was truly thankful for this completely unexpected experience.
“can you believe that just happened?” i looked at him knowingly and just started laughing. i had no words to express how happy i was.
obviously it’s been awhile since i’ve posted, and i apologize for that to whomever is still out there patiently waiting for my posts. i am now a full year removed from the stories that i tell on this blog, so it doesn’t make sense for me to try and match up music coming out now to stories that are from the past. instead, i’m going to start posting music that is relevant to the stories i tell, either because i was listening to it then, or because a certain song reminds me of that memory. isn’t that what music does for us anyway? it transports me back to memories and times in ways that nothing else can. so here’s a song that always seems to remind me of my time in croatia:
and if you’re still following me on spotify, don’t worry. i’m still building seasonal playlists. i’ll have a new winter playlist out for you shortly with all my current cold-weather new releases. in the meantime, i’ve created a list of old winter favorites of mine, so you can bundle up by the fire and drink coffee while you listen to sad songs and brood. happy new year!