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.Continue reading a croatian christmas party, in split→
the following night, dave and i touched down in croatia and were wandering around an empty, unlit terminal searching for a rental car company in the dark. when we finally found the right bungalow, it was apparent that the guy running the office had been waiting for us for awhile, his final customers of the day. his demeanor was very gruff, cold almost, but not rude. there was a measured indifference in his voice, and i could tell that he was ready to go home for the day. i surmised that there was a good chance that i would experience this ‘measured indifference’ again during my time in croatia.
the dubrovnik airport is located about 20 minutes south of the city, so i had a little time to get comfortable with our volkswagen golf on the darkened highway, pressing the accelerator to the ground a couple times and hugging a few turns, making dave nervous in the process. getting a reaction to my driving from him was becoming one of my favorite things about traveling with dave.
we pulled into the outskirts of dubrovnik and began searching for the apartment we had rented from airbnb, making a few wrong turns and getting slightly lost. the apartment seemed to be located somewhere between the two roads that had forked off of the main highway we had been traveling, one going high up along the mountainside, and the other down below, closer to the walled city and coastline, and we couldn’t locate any actual roads that could get us anywhere between the two. in this area of seemingly un-navigable land lay rows of old houses and high-reaching walls that all gradually made their way further up the mountain. we needed to get in there somehow. i found a narrow alley, barely wide enough to fit a car, and pulled the tiny vw into the tight squeeze. i drove slowly for a minute while dave checked the map on his phone, and the alley widened ever so slightly. there was an SUV parked tightly up against the wall on the right and i inched the car alongside and past the SUV, leaving a mere inch on either side of the car.
“how did you do that?!” dave exclaimed. i laughed, proud of my navigational skills. i pulled the car ahead of the parked obstacle and began creeping forward again as the alley began to narrow again, searching desperately for an address or a street sign in the dark that might give us a hint of where we were going or where we were.
suddenly two bright headlights came rushing down the alley from around the corner and stopped in front of us, the two cars staring face to face, nowhere to go. dave and i froze, staring blankly ahead, unsure of what to do and hoping that the other car would back up into some magic parking lot behind them around the corner that obviously did not exist. the men in the other car began waving their hands directing me to get the hell out of their way. okay, i thought, i’m the person who doesn’t live here, i need to go back.
“shit. okay here we go man.” i said to dave and shifted into reverse.
“okay, but, wait! watch out for…!” dave panicked as i quickly backed the car back into the extremely tight space between the wall and the parked SUV. i was going backward faster than i had gone through forward before. i frantically swiveled my head back and forth, checking my mirrors repeatedly as i eased the car backwards past the SUV and back out into the alley, down the narrow, winding alley, and back out into the main street entrance, the exiting vehicle impatiently following me the whole way, then making a quick pass once they had a chance, escaping out into the night. i shifted into park and slumped back into my seat, letting out a big sigh of relief. i looked over at dave. he was staring at me with eyebrows raised and his mouth agape.
“i’ve seen you do some crazy things, but i think that was the most impressive. how did you not wreck the car into that wall?!?! you were going WAY too fast!” he started laughing nervously.
“what just happened? i blacked out.” i joked. honestly i had no clue how i had escaped the situation unscathed either.
we eventually were able to locate the apartment, and after being welcomed by the owner, andres, we ran quickly down into the walls of the old city, about a 15 minute walk. the city streets were empty but very well lit, and the white polished stones in the walkway projected the lights overhead back upward, giving an ethereal mirroring effect that made you feel like you were walking on an ancient mirrorball. after wandering around for a few minutes, we located a small restaurant that we had read about in online, known for great local croatian cuisine and wine. tucked away in a little nook of the city and built into the great outer wall of the city, the place looked empty and closed. undeterred, i poked my head inside anyway and found three people sitting on barstools at a small counter in the front, and a waiter on the other side who looked up to see us with a surprised and welcoming smile.
“hi, are you still open?” i inquired.
“yes, please come in my friend! welcome to my restaurant, the bota sare!” he ushered us to the corner, bringing us waters and menus. the place had a very elegant but simple feel to it, white stone from floor to ceiling. the menu was full of local ingredients and seafood, made into sushi arrangements. also oysters. lots of oysters.
“i’ll have a dozen oysters and a bottle of a local white wine. whatever you recommend that is reasonably priced,” i instructed politely. dave placed a large order of sushi and we elected to share. the rest of the establishment was empty, so it was only a short time before our food arrived. as we feasted, we couldn’t help but listen in and appreciate the 3 locals at the bar who were extremely drunk. i couldn’t help myself as i listened to their clumsy conversation, bouncing back and forth between croatian and english, slobbering and stumbling every step of the way. there were two men and one woman, all three of them were tall. they kept ripping through bottle after bottle of wine, and the restaurant owner tried to dissuade them from ordering more, but they persisted. at one point, one of the men fell off of his stool and flat onto the stone floor, where he lay unconscious. it wasn’t a violent fall, more of a slow slump, so when his friends began laughing at him raucously, i couldn’t help myself and began laughing as well. the owner looked at them disapprovingly, embarrassed that they were causing such a scene, but when he looked over to see david and me laughing appreciatively, he smiled in relief. the woman stumbled over to us while the man woke his friend up and encouraged him to drink more.
“where y’ from?” she managed to blurt out.
“the US,” i replied with a smile. she turned around and motioned to the owner.
“shots! rakija! for our american friends!” she demanded, not out of rudeness, but more out of the brain’s necessity to focus solely on essential words after speaking becomes a labor and politeness and prepositions become an afterthought. the owner brought around some shotglasses and poured 4 shots of a clear liquid.
“what is this?” i asked curiously.
“rakija. a croatian brandy made from fruit” the owner informed me. okay, here we go, i thought to myself, trying to prepare for what might turn into an all-out binge.
“Živjeli!” said the locals, and we knocked the shot back. for about .5 seconds, everything was fine. suddenly a wave of disorienting aromatic sweet and sour tingling came rushing up my esophagus and down the inside of my nose. the sides of my tongue began throbbing with a strong cherry tart flavor. the croatians all began laughing as dave and i attempted to recover and salvage some dignity. i actually liked the rakija, but i prayed to god they weren’t going to offer me anymore. i didn’t want to binge drink tonight, i wanted to a restful sleep. luckily the drunk woman slapped dave on the back and laughed heartily, then returned to her drunk friends and eventually left.
the owner explained to us that they had all been friends since primary school, and that typically in the tourist off-season (december, january) the city is completely empty, so the locals will often times to go the places they don’t normally go when they are crowded with tourists. we informed him we weren’t bothered at all by drunkenness, if anything it made the otherwise quiet night more enjoyable. i then began asking the owner about his life in dubrovnik. there were no other customers in the restaurant, so the owner pulled up a chair and poured himself a glass of wine. he began to tell us about how beautiful the summers were and how wonderful croatian people were. we began to drift backward in time, i started asking questions about the war in the 90s, unsure if he would be willing to talk about it with us. after a little hesitance, he started sharing openly, telling us that he had been in this very building as a child when the first bombs had hit the walls of the city, fired by serbia. dave and i listened with wide eyes as he recounted the horrors of the war, and we smiled with him when he
spoke proudly of how the thick and sturdy walls withstood every shell and missile fired, never collapsing or failing. he admitted that shells had obviously hit inside the city,
and he informed us that if we walked enough within the right areas of the city, we would still see the craters and demolished buildings. we asked him how things had changed over the years, and we asked him about current relations with serbians. he admitted that he had a difficult time accepting serbians because of the atrocities that he had witnessed and the friends and family that he had lost at their hands in the war. as he shared with us, i found myself minorly shocked about how different his childhood was from mine. we were roughly the same age, i had been through my own tragedies and warzones (i grew up in gangland southern california during the early 90s race riots. those were fun), but nothing like what this man had seen. his city had been bombed by another neighboring country, and had undergone a horribly pointless war for 3 years, simply because his countrymen had wanted independence from the mess of socialist yugoslavia. i felt fortunate that i had never had to experience something so conflicting and awful. but i also was appreciative of this man’s willingness to share with us openly about his experiences. at the end of the night we thanked him and went on our way.
the next morning we arose early and elected to pay a few euros to walk up onto the city walls and walk the perimeter of the whole city. it was a beautiful, blue sky day, without a cloud in the sky, and the sun shone brightly over the sea on the other side of the castle walls.
old dubrovnik was quite a sight indeed. the walls alone were incredibly impressive, standing 80 feet at its tallest and 20 feet at its thickest, i tried my best to imagine just how difficult it would be to build fortified walls like that. how many layers of stone blocks is that?!? the modern walls that you see now were initially built starting in the 12th century, and is considered to be the greatest defensive fortification of the middle ages, as the walls have never
been breached in open combat. i gawked at every new angle i could find from atop the walls, looking down the outside from the top edge, appreciating the way the walls sloped down and out, wider at the base to protect from any lean or tipping. the city had also done a great job of staying updated with the times, as the defensive purposes had not been necessary in almost 20 years, so the cosmetic work that had gone into preserving and beautifying the city and it’s famous walls had been extensive, and the work had been effective. dubrovnik was perhaps one of the most uniquely beautiful places i’d ever been in my entire life.
as we completed our lap around the city, i found a tower in the northern corner of the walled city, what looked to be the most strategic defensive position of the city with the best view of the entire city. i climbed to the top and looked out the tiny window, surveying the man-made wonder around me, paired with the natural beauty of the mediterranean sea just beyond the city walls. directly below of the tower i was in was an elevated basketball court with high fences and a great view that a group of young boys were playing in. after watching them for a few minutes i decided that they were playing basketball on the best court in the entire world. no nba court in the US could compare with the beautiful simplicity and unique backdrop that these young croatians had.
“hey man, we should get a move on if we want to make it to make it into montenegro before dark.” dave had caught up to me. i descended the tower and we exited the great walls of the city. i would definitely be back some day.
this week’s musical selection is actually not a new song, but it’s new to me and i can’t stop nodding my head to it, so i’m sharing it with you. hailing from tacoma, washington, motopony’s song “seer” sports a dirty little acoustic guitar riff as the spine, and a solid rock n’ roll backing that builds an anthem with muddy pianos and guitars, a soaring organ, and quirky vocals that give just enough bite to keep you wanting more. enjoy…
our arrival into vienna was a dreary affair with rainclouds, which actually wasn’t all too unwelcome of a sight considering the luck i had been having on the trip so far. everywhere i had been so far had produced sunny, cloudless weather with the extremely occasional afternoon shower. so when a little rain settled overhead, i wasn’t too bothered by it, especially when it only lasted for a day.
again avoiding the hostel circuit, robert and i had opted for an airbnb apartment in a nice part of the city near all the
key areas downtown and in a safe location. it was actually my first time to use airbnb and i must say, it is truly a brilliant concept. it really takes the middle man out of hospitality, allowing property owners to rent out their properties to tourists for cheap, and providing a plethora of options to the traveler. i really like this idea, and if i am traveling with others in the future, i will definitely be using airbnb again.
vienna would prove to be a tricky destination for me. not because i didn’t like it, and not because i had any bad experiences there, but for reasons much simpler. i just really didn’t connect with it. vienna is a stunningly beautiful country, rich with tradition and culture and art and architecture to match even the finest destinations in the world. but i think that may have been part of the problem for me, is that maybe it was just a little too rich for me.
i realize it sounds like i’m being a little diva-ish and unreasonable but stay with me here, the point i make here is not
one of criticism of the amazing city of vienna, but merely one of personal preference. when i travel, i like to get a little dirt under my fingernails. not too much dirt, mind you (lest you see me tromping around the streets of iraq), but enough to where i feel like i didn’t simply see all the museums and statues in the city and then move on. i like to venture down backstreets and find old buildings that look like they’ve seen better days. i like to find old and new faces standing around, that make you unsure if you can trust them, i like to find graffiti that isn’t “commissioned” but is still creative nonetheless.
these things weren’t always easy to find in vienna. instead, vienna was incredibly well maintained, a beautiful marvel of perfect architecture, art, and living all fused together. the streets were remarkably clean at all times, the citizens always well dressed and put together, as if they were all ready should a last minute business meeting be called. the streets were impeccably manicured, cobblestones carefully placed, graffiti usually painted over or removed, vienna is just a perfectly high class city, and unfortunately for me, i am just not in a high-class state of mind in my current place in life.
and to illustrate the difference with which someone can find within a destination, one could look at how both robert
and i thought of vienna after we left. after 4 days, i was slightly bored and ready to leave, yet robert was in love with the city and wouldn’t have minded staying longer (in fact he would return later after we went separate ways later in the trip). robert explored more of the city than i, and each day when we would meet back at the apartment, he would always have recommendations of great places i needed to check out that he had discovered. sometimes i would check them out, and sometimes i wouldn’t. it just wasn’t a place that had truly excited me at the time. i’m sure someday i will return here and be completely blown away by everything my eyes were closed to at the time.
regardless, it was still a beautiful place to visit. one of the recommendations i had gotten from robert was a royal palace a little outside the main area of town called schonbrunn palace. i hopped on a train and entered the property. not really wanting to spend any money, i found that the gardens were not only free, but quite expansive. i spent the afternoon just wandering around and snapping photos. i suppose it would be a wonderfully romantic place to have a picnic with a significant other, but i enjoyed myself thoroughly as i walked the gardens and up the hill overlooking the estate and the rest of the city. it really is a magnificent place.
one night, i had been very keen on finding some sort of connection with the high classed fanciness of the city, so i had searched for some expensive cocktail lounges. i settled on a place called “ebert’s” on gumpendorfer st. i got as dressed up as i could (i only had 1 collared shirt packed on this trip, so i wasn’t exactly prepared for a city like vienna, nor was i really “dressed to impress”) and then trekked across town and located the establishment.
on a relatively uninteresting block with no other places open at that time of night, ebert’s stood out with large windows and curtains drawn back halfway, allowing you to glimpse inside and see the poshly decorated interior. knowing i was still a little underdressed for the place with my nikes, jeans, and untucked black collared shirt, i straightened my collar, took a breath, and then entered confidently.
i looked around and noted first that the place looked even nicer once you were inside, and then noted that there was nobody there, save for a bartender and a barback. i took another look around the room and decided that rather than sit in the corner by myself and make them wait on me, i would sit front and center at the bar and have a little conversation with them if they were willing.
i was greeted cordially by mo, a well dressed man with darker skin and thick-rimmed glasses and bulging muscles from his toned physique. i joked to myself about how the place must save money on employing bouncers because mo can easily double as one while also tending the bar. mo had a thick french accent but spoke very good english as well as german (a couple other austrian patrons trickled in and out for a drink during the time i was there and i overheard the interactions) and was a very good bar conversationalist. at first, the idle talk was simply surface level, but as it became apparent to mo that i wasn’t going anywhere for awhile and i wasn’t meeting anyone there, he decided to drop whatever other prepwork he was doing behind the bar and focus on me.
knowing that this was a proper cocktail bar when I had selected it, and upon seeing their expansive liquor and whiskey & bourbon collection, I had quietly tested mo with my normal litmus test with the whiskey old fashioned. i’ve been using this test for about 6 years now to determine if a bartender is worthy of my time, cash, and trust. the reason for this is because drinks with bitters in them are fairly easy to screw up, and if a bartender can serve you a drink with bitters and not take away too much of the bourbon taste, you probably have someone on your hands who understands the balance of taste in a cocktail. so all that to say that mo passed with flying colors. once i appreciatively thanked him for the wonderful drink, we started talking whiskeys and bourbons and after a few minutes mo took a step back, looked at me wryly out of the side of his glasses and said in his thick french accent “you know, i love when americans come in here because they understand whiskey properly.” it’s probably the best compliment a barkeep has ever given me.
we continued to chat about whiskey topics both old and new (like the new “whisky stick” that you can buy and put in a bottle of cheap whiskey and within 48 hours it will make your whiskey taste like a finely aged spirit. I’m not linking to it, because it’s an appalling idea and it’s totally a hoax, but idiots out there are still buying it), but eventually the conversation wandered to other topics like mo’s background. mo was born in africa but moved with his family to paris where he grew up. he then moved to hamburg, germany when he became an adult and studied and eventually became a bartender. he had only moved to vienna 6 months earlier at the request of an old colleague of his who was managing this bar and needed help with a proper “A+ level” barman who could help raise the bar, so to speak (heh. heheh. i love obvious jokes).
after a couple hours of good conversation and tastebud tantalizing temptations made by mo, i encouraged him to dream up his own concept bar and open it somewhere outside of vienna. a guy like him belongs in a different style of city with a little bit of a rougher edge around it and he deserves to have his own place. he lit up when i said that, and then started to share with me some of his ideas. we excitedly went back and forth, and i could tell that it was something he needed to hear. he struck me as the kind of guy who had really only moved to do a favor for a friend, and while things were going well at the bar, it might not have been as fulfilling as what he had hoped for. perhaps he was struggling with building a network or support group of people around him that helped push him forward or provided positive reinforcement. i think it may be possible that hearing someone like me intuitively pick up on that and then communicate it to him without a hint or a prompt may have been meaningful to him. i hope it was.
at a certain point in the night after mo and i had covered a lot of conversational ground, a couple had slipped in and quietly made their way to the rear corner of the room. they had kept to themselves for awhile, but at a certain point they had joined the conversation. mo and i were glad to have a few good souls along to help give the night a little life, and james and slavka were more than happy to make some friends. before long, i think mo knew he had more than just a few casual drunks in the establishment that night, because the conversation was so rich and in-depth, and everyone was really enjoying each others’ company. every person in the room was my kind of people. they were “in tune.”
mo, feeling the atmosphere and positive vibe, started making up drinks off the menu. he was getting creative, and his drinks were getting better. eventually mo’s wife actually came in and hung out for a bit. it was closing time before we knew it, but mo told us that he was going to make one more drink for each of us and lock the door, allowing us to take our time and finish our drinks while he cleaned up and closed down before we all left.
james and slavka were completing a storybook romance honeymoon in Vienna, and 5 days later they were to return to england as husband and wife. they had met 6 years earlier in london on a bus when james had sat down next to slavka and struck up a conversation. james was actually living in cambridge, about 60 miles away so after the initial sparks had flown, they settled into the long distance thing for a couple years. when they finally tied the knot, they chose to have the special day in kosice, slovakia, slavka’s hometown. james’ family and friends all flew down for a traditional slovakian wedding celebration that lasted 4 days. after the celebration, james and slavka made their escape to vienna, where i met them, before returning home and starting their new life together.
as james retold the story to me, i found myself getting simultaneously sentimental and hopeful. i listened intently, allowing myself to get caught up in the magic and let the story come alive. it was nice to be the listener instead of the storyteller for a change, especially when the content was so enthralling. too often in my former life, the person i had grown to be was a very cynical person who would not allow myself to be too impressed or surprised by anything, so when i might hear a great story like james and slavka’s, i would still actively and politely listen, but i might reserve emotion or expression in order to preserve the image or character that i was portraying forward. or worse, the greater cynic in me might mentally dismiss it as another “story” and not even allow myself to entertain such fantasies of love and magic and emotion.
as i’ve gotten further along in this journey of mine, i’ve tried to identify when the bad habits i’ve picked up along the way in my life have crept back up. particularly with my own romantic connections which have been marked by a string of failed relationships and unrequited love, i had become increasingly jaded and this skepticism had taken a strong root in my life, like weeds choking out a rose garden. and so i’ve tried to find the things about my personality which stop me from experiencing emotion and joy and i’ve tried to deactivate them. these mechanisms of cynicism and sarcasm which normally serve as a wall of protection from being taken advantage of or being the “sucker” do serve their purposes but there is always a consequence, and for me that consequence is that some of the more elemental and basic joys of being a human get blocked. they become forgotten about, and my world had become grayer because of it.
so when i was enthusiastically talking with this wonderful pair, i caught my instinct to “play it cool” and i quickly shut it down. i listened, i got excited, i expressed my enthusiasm, i asked for elaboration. it was fun, and they were a fun couple. james’ witty british humor made the retelling of the story easy to want to join in on the ride, and slavka’s periodic additions or corrections helped provide balance and accuracy to the story, as shared stories between brits and americans are wont to stretch a bit when there is whiskey involved. it was fun to watch them interact with each other, and i could tell that they were a great pair, one that would definitely last. they appreciated each other, and more importantly, it was obviously that they truly did enjoy hanging out. there was chemistry there, but there was also that “partner in crime” element that i don’t always see in couples. especially after traveling together with no other normal distractions to occupy them. often times in those couples i see something different: exhaustion.
at around 3:30am, mo had finished all his closing duties and made the fateful announcement that it was time to head home. james, slavka, and i all profusely thanked mo for the perfect night. we all exchanged information, finished our drinks, and ducked out into the night, going our separate ways and vowing to stay in touch. i smiled to myself as i walked home under the evening streetlamps, thankful for having met james and slavka. couples like that always give me so much hope and optimism, that i might one day be able to find that perfect balance of attraction, friendship, partnership, and fun. i promised myself that, despite the whiskey drinks and the hazy head, i would remember that evening i spent with james and slavka in the hopes that i might one day more easily recognize that “thing” that they had if i were to one day find it with someone else.
today’s jam is one reflective of my thoughts about james and slavka’s story. it’s a song full of hope, energy, romance, and as the title reflects, “magic.” featuring disco guitar legend nile rodgers, whom had re-emerged onto the pop music scene after being featured on last year’s daft punk rise from the dead (notably on the mega hit “get lucky”), and brandy, another pop artist who has been absent from the scene for years, this new track by luis dubuc’s electronic pop act “mystery skulls” is one that just gets into your veins and starts pumping blood without the need of a heart. but when you listen to the lyrics, your heart can’t help but join in.
“magic” is good clean fun, but if you can stomach a few bad words, i highly recommend you check out the full album from mystery skulls, which just came out about a month ago. it is just good fun from start to finish, with incendiary synth tracks and catchy melodies. enjoy…
and of course, if you’re following along on spotify, here’s my “we philistines selections” playlist, with all the songs i’ve featured on this blog.