Friday, August 25, 2006

Situation Normal All **bleep** Up

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

This is the Big One, folks. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution Bill of Rights. The numero uno freedom we enjoy as American citizens. My right to free speech comes before my right to keep and bear arms, my protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, my guarantee of a speedy and public trial and my safety against cruel and unusual punishments.

Protecting the First Amendment is paramount. But governing free speech has become a philosophical and bureaucratic nightmare.

Enter the Federal Communications Commission.

Because of the antics of scum-sucking, glory-seeking, pathetic losers like Howard Stern and Janet Jackson, the FCC has gone completely crazy. Completely crazy. To quell the uprising of public fury resulting from the actions of said scum-sucking, glory-seeking, pathetic losers, the Commission has taken on “indecency” in a big way. As a result, the pre-10:00 p.m. “safe harbor” is in affect, each infraction will cost the offending broadcast entity $325,000, and three infractions gets your broadcasting license suspended. These penalties now have the teeth that they’ve never had before.

I find it ironic that the organization originally chartered to protect freedom of speech finds themselves in the precarious position of having to squelch the first amendment, all because the balance of reason has been tipped by scum-sucking, glory-seeking, pathetic losers. And I can’t really blame the FCC. The public outcry and the conservatives in power are forcing their hand. They had to do something to respond to abuses that are beginning to mount up in big ways on commercial television. I actually give the Feds tons of credit for being as rational as they have been up to this point. You see a lot of garbage and questionable stuff on television but until now the FCC has been reticent to engage in the business of censorship.

Enter PBS.

Poor long-suffering PBS. One of my real, true loves. It’s a constant fight for survival. We never have enough money, there is always a political agenda at play somewhere and we’re losing audience to cable and satellite channels at alarming speed. And like we don’t have enough to deal with, we now have to adhere to the new smack down imposed by the FCC.

Enter KCSM in San Mateo, California.

KCSM is one of the PBS system’s smallest stations. Like every other station in the system, a few years ago (pre FCC regulation changes) KCSM aired the highly-acclaimed, nationally promoted Martin Scorsese project The Blues. This is an awesome five-part documentary chronicling the history of this truly American art form. The production quality was amazing, the storyline compelling and the music is amazing. The Blues received high ratings. As part of their recent pledge efforts (post FCC regulation changes) KCSM decided to re-air a particular episode from the series called The Godfathers.

This segment featured interviews with some of the greatest living blues musicians. For the sake of the point I will eventually make, it bears emphasizing that these guys are old BLUES MUSICIANS. They probably haven’t seen sunlight in 40 years. They live in dark, smoky bars playing wicked good music that talks about lost love, cheating hearts, hard living, getting it on and the struggles of making it in this big, bad world. With its roots in the hard fought arena of slavery the blues is really an outlet for escapism and expression of the darker side of life. It’s not happy, cheery, smiley music! It’s raw, soul-searing, heave your guts out, bump and grind music.

So… is it any surprise that some of these blues masters might be a bit rough around the edges? A little bit salty in their vernacular? Not afraid to tell it like it is? NO! That’s who they are, and who they are was the entire focus for the documentary. During the interviews of that program segment one guy said “shit” and one guy said “fuck”.

But let’s put this in context. The guy did NOT say a line like this: “So I said, shit Muddy, what the fuck are you doing?” It was not even that direct. It was something more like this. “So I said Muddy you better get of there fast and he ran out of that club like he was on fire. Sheeee…t”. And, “It was the saddest moment of my life….. (whisper to self) fuck…. I just couldn’t believe that he was dead.” Given the subject matter at hand and the context in which the words were said, they were NOT gratuitous in any way. This was the actual language of the documentary’s participants and deleting it would have deprived the program of its authenticity.

But with its new rules and regs in place, the FCC slapped little KCSM with sanctions and a $650,000 indecency fine. That is an exorbitant amount of money for almost any PBS’s meager budget to handle, but it would certainly bankrupt KCSM. The largest PBS producing stations, including the mothership WGBH, are rallying and organizing and protesting and going through all of the official channels to get this sanction reversed. This has rocked the PBS world and the whole system is up in arms because this is so unreasonable.

Public broadcasters recognize that the Commission’s obligation to enforce the prohibition against the broadcast of indecent material requires that it strike a delicate balance between that requirement and the limitations on censorship in the Communications Act and the First Amendment. Nonetheless, the Commission struck the wrong balance when it issued its notice against KCSM. That decision not only threatens to penalize KCSM (and by extension all PBS stations) for the broadcast of a serious documentary about a major and distinctively American musical form, but also has and will adversely affect public broadcasting’s ability to fulfill its mission of providing long-form, in-depth, insightful, creative and innovative programs the public expects and supports.

Enter the humor in all of this.

Poor beleaguered PBS is trying to do the right thing by cooperating with the FCC but it’s a bitter pill. On one hand they are railing against censorship and on the other hand they are painstakingly making sure stations and producers edit their material for content.

It’s been reduced to this. Here is an excerpt from a recent email from PBS Legal:

“In instances when course language in a program is to be edited (wiped or bleeped) in connection with a “compound word,” the entire word **does not** need to be edited. One example might be “motherfucker.” Where most recently we required editing of the entire word, effective immediately, only the “fucker” part of the word needs to be edited. Editing just the “uc” in “f**ker” is not acceptable.) The memo goes on to say, “In any scene where an individual utters the word “fuck” or “shit” (or any variant of either word) while facing the camera such that any ordinary viewer could ascertain from the speaker’s lips what was said, the lips of the speaker need to be pixilated. There’s more…the Commission has held that words such as “dick”, “dickhead”, “pissed off”, “up yours”, “wipe his ass,” and “fire her ass” might be acceptable based on the context in which they are used.

Pure crazy.

Since its inception public broadcasters have been committed to presenting challenging, creative and informative programming and these programs have received high praise from both critics and the public, who expect public broadcasters to present current and historical events accurately and to portray dramatic and artistic work faithfully. Public broadcasters, which have governing boards drawn from their communities and are dependent on local viewers for support, are keenly aware that to fulfill their mission effectively, they must assume that their programming is consistent with their communities’ sense of what is appropriate.

There are dozens of upcoming PBS programs at risk, but here is one example. Ken Burns is coming out with his most recent documentary and this one will be called The War. Word is this World War II retrospective is some of Ken’s best work (for the sake of full disclosure, I am a Ken Burns devotee. I think he’s amazing. What he did with the Civil War series impacted lives and changed forever the way documentarians portray history. From Jazz to Baseball to American Stories, I’ve loved everything he’s done.) There is some concern that parts of his upcoming work will have to be censored – a frontal nude shot of a man in a Nazi concentration camp, some salty language one soldier is using when he’s describing his utter fear during the death march, the reactions of some to the dropping of the bomb, etc. Again, none of this is gratuitous, but rather an integral part of the story. But will PBS stations with the most bare-bones of budgets take the chance on airing a sure fire ratings winner that might bring down the heavy hammer of the law, steep fines and sanctions again their licenses? It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

So I find that I’ve come all this way in my diatribe and don’t really know my ultimate point. Do I blame the FCC for cracking down on indecency? Absolutely not – they had to react to what was coming from the scum-sucking, glory-seeking, pathetic losers that were running rampant. I don’t want my little nieces subject to that garbage so something had to be done to try and rein them in. Do I blame PBS for enforcing stronger controls around editing content? Absolutely not – as public broadcasters we have a responsibility to adhere to the rules of the FCC. But do I think any of this is right? No. My beloved PBS is the home of the absolute best long-form, in-depth, insightful documentaries and these new rules may damage its ability to objectively tell the whole story.

This is all just an unfortunate situation brought on by an awful few. Our country’s forefathers knew that free speech and free press were integral to our success as a democracy, but I wonder if they ever imaged to what degree our citizens would push the limits? But I do believe this... if our forefathers were standing as both judge and jury, knowing all of the facts, they would without hesitation unanimously rule KCSM!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Yugoslavia: A Post Script

On October 1, 1991 Dubrovnik was brutally attacked by the Serb-Montenegrin army. The siege lasted 7 months. In May 1992 the Croation Army liberated Dubrovnik and its surroundings, but the danger of random Serb attacks lasted for 3 more years.

I have often wondered what that time was like for those local people I met in Dubrovnik - and what their lives are like now. Sandy and Grandpapa. The pharmacist. Ishmael. Victor Vladymere. The Captain of the U.S.S. Yugo. I hope they are okay. I was relieved to learn that the old walled city remains in tact but the pictures of that war’s devastation always made me so sad.

Now, as a result of that strife, when I look at a map there is no Yugoslavia. There is Croatia (where I spent my time – Zagreb, Split, Dubrovnik), Slovenia and Bosnia Hercegovina.

I will always be deeply appreciative - all travel troubles aside - that I had the unique experience of visiting that country before it was torn apart.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Salute to Tito

It was midnight, quiet and kind of chilly as Log and I walked from the docks to the train station in Split, Yugoslavia.

The big sign with the picture of the train with the red circle and slash through it – “NO TRAINS” – was still on the door. Jeff and I were exhausted and didn’t know where to go so we sat down in the dirty train station and just waited for the sun to come up.

It was a long night and our patience with the situation and with each other was wearing thin.

The next morning we were told that there was still no Yugoslavian trains or buses running anywhere in the country because of the fuel shortage. Through a series of awkward conversations we found out that an Austrian train MIGHT be coming to Split, then returning to Vienna, that night around 10:00 p.m. but no one seemed to know whether or not this was for certain. We were told be at the train station that night, just in case.

So it was 6:00 a.m. and we had 16 hours to kill! We consulted our trusty guide book to get a beat on some things we might do and headed out to wander the streets. I remember we came upon a really neat open-air market that was bustling and colorful and alive. We bought some blood oranges and a large loaf of freshly baked bread and sat on a bench and ate it all – it was the first food we had eaten in 36 hours and we were hungry.

While eating, I saw something that has really stuck with me. It was small crew of guys patching some potholes in the street. Nothing unusual about that, except they didn’t have any machines with them. They just had a large caldron with a FIRE under it – a real fire with burning logs – and they were stirring the bubbling tar with a long stick. They looked like the male versions of the three witches in MacBeth. They would scoop out that tar and put it in the hole and then spread it around and smooth it out with another stick. It just looked so medieval. Yet another example of how advanced we are in the U.S.A.

Split is another of those ancient cities with an amazing history. Established in the third century, the height of Split’s history came around 300 AD when Roman emperor Diocletian ordered a residence to be built there for his retirement. It took ten years to build this magnificent palace and Diocletian lived there until his death, after which many Roman rulers continued to use it as a retreat.

So, Diocletian’s Palace was tops on our list to see and it was absolutely beautiful. In my opinion it rivaled some of the ruins in Rome because it was so well preserved. Because Log and I had so much time to kill, we spent hours and hours there just hanging out admiring the ancient beauty.

One of my favorite observations of Split was how it had become an unabashed, unashamed, living, breathing alter to Josip Broz Tito, the “Marshall and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of Yugoslavia” (1943 – 1980). EVERY place in Split, Tito’s hometown, paid homage to this man. His picture was in every shop window, bus window, tourist attraction, home window and building. His bust, or his statue, was in every public square, park or building front. His face was painted three stories tall on the sides of buildings. You could purchase his likeness on t-shirts and post cards and we read that there were over 20 national holidays in honor of this man. It was hysterical. I regret not buying one of the myriad of Tito trinkets that were available for sale everywhere you went. Tito soap on a rope might have been my favorite.

While at Diocletian’s Palace, Log and I watched a musical play about the history of Split and, sure enough, the whole thing was really a reenactment of Tito’s life. There was some great singing and dancing, though, which helped to energize me a little bit. It was that “Russian” dancing where the guys hold their arms out in front and squat and jump up on one leg while kicking the other leg out with lots of yelling “hey!”. One guy did this about fifty times in a row and it made my thighs hurt just watching.

After our history lesson at the Palace, we walked for a few miles and meandered down to a sandy public beach where we laid down and dozed for a long time in the afternoon. We bought some more bread and cheese for dinner. Log and I had long since run out of things to talk about so we were just quiet and lost in our own thoughts.

Finally, we headed to the train station around 9:00 p.m. with anxious anticipation. We were both exhausted, and if this Austrian train didn’t appear we wouldn’t have a place to stay that night. I was on the verge of tears. But for the first time during our entire trip we lucked out and the train really did arrive and it really did turn right back around to Vienna and we really were able to buy a ticket for – get this – a FIRST CLASS train compartment. No more standing in the hot, dirty walkways for us, no urine soaked seats for me, no hard cargo ship cement this time – we got a real cushioned seat with real air conditioning! First class was all they offered to sell us, but we didn’t argue and it was wonderful. I fell asleep almost immediately, so there wasn’t much of a poetic bidding farewell to Yugoslavia as we chugged out of the station that night.

Fast forward 24 hours later and I had said my good bys to Log, who I didn’t see again for over a year, and was standing in the dark on the train platform in Chambery with my dirty clothes and my dirty backpack feeling relieved to be back. I walked the couple of miles up the hill to the Lefevre’s home, fearful that their vicious German Shepard, Lallica, would attack me when I opened the door that late at night. Given that my command of French was limited, I wasn’t sure how I was going to explain everything to my host family, but they already thought I was kind of weird so I’m sure my spending over a week and a half in Yugoslavia didn't come as a big surprise.

Am I glad I went to Yugoslavia? Mostly yes. Do I think I would have been better suited for spring break in Paris or Rome? Definitely yes. Would I go to Yugoslavia again? Probably – but only now that I can afford to travel comfortably.

And only, only, ONLY if the Croatian – English dictionary isn’t lost on day one.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

No Way Out

With no trains, buses or cars leaving Dubrovnik, Jeff and I were stranded and didn't know how we were going to get back to Switzerland and France, respectively. I was pretty stressed out, to say the least. Not so much because I was worried about missing any school, but because I was running out of money and there wasn’t an easy way to communicate with those outside of the country. Calling my host family in Chambery, or my real family in Colorado, to let them know what was happening was not an easy or inexpensive thing to do.

Then Jeff had a brilliant idea. The harbor. Not the old harbor in the walled city, but the real port harbor that we would see when we walked down the hill from Sandy and Grandpapa’s. It was worth a shot. We trudged over to the docks.

I wish I could adequately express how absolutely surreal it was as Jeff and I (and a few other European tourists) were hanging out with the Slavic longshoremen in the Port of Dubrovnik trying to hop a ride up the Adriatic. I guess I had hoped that the Love Boat would be docked there and Captain Stubing would invite us on board for some shuffle board and drinks with little umbrellas in them (again, that American hubris rearing its ugly head). Instead, this was a huge, dirty, smelly real-world harbor with big ships stacked full of big, metal boxes of cargo being loaded and unloaded with rickety, loud cranes. There were lots of scary looking men working hard and they were not overly kind to the ridiculous tourists who would nervously approach them and start to speak English.

Log’s brilliant idea was beginning to lose some of its luster.

One guy took pity on us and said something that we assumed was “wait here”. He disappeared and came back in a few minutes with another man wearing a uniform. The Captain. One of the other tourists we were with did the communicating and it turns out that this ship was going up the coast to Split and we could go that far with them. Again, it’s a million wonders any of us survived unscathed from our gullible stupidity, but our rag-tag little gypsy group walked the narrow plank onto this huge cargo ship and followed the captain as he took as up a numerous flights of really narrow stairs to the very top deck. And weirdly, he didn’t ask us for a penny. He could have asked for a king’s ransom because it was pretty clear we were stuck – but he just guided us on board, then turned around and left. We were on the top deck of a Yugoslavian cargo ship, which we dubbed the U.S.S. Yugo.

We were in open air. There were no “seats” anywhere. This was strictly a cargo ship, not built for passengers, so we just leaned against the rail or sat on the cement flooring. After waiting for what seemed like three days, late that afternoon the big ship horn finally blasted and slowly, slowly, slowly we pulled away from Port. When we were free from the port we picked up speed and the view was lovely. Seeing Dubrovnik disappear behind us, seeing the beautiful terrain on the sea side and, best of all, seeing the dolphins swim and jump along side the ship was really stunning. We finally pulled totally away from shore into deep water and we just settled in and waited to see what happened. Again, for a little while I felt that fearful place inside me that said we were fools and what if something happened to us when no one knows where we are. I learned a lot about myself during my trip to Yugoslavia – and one thing I learned is that spontaneity stresses me out. I do better with a plan.

Occasionally, members of the crew would come up and check us out. Some of these guys were pretty lewd, so we all stuck together. Safety in numbers, I guess. One nice guy brought us some tea at one point. But mostly, we just quietly sat and gazed at the water.

At one point when we passed through a narrow channel near some small port town we were moving very slowly as we went right by a gigantic Russian freighter. I was awestruck because it has the big “U.S.S.R.” on the side and it was flying the red flag with the gold hand and sickle. I was 100 yards away from Ruskies! The feared enemy! We did that thing that people often do when they are on water and they pass other people – we started waiving like crazy at the crew on the Russian ship. And some of them waived back. Oh my God, Russian commies were waiving at me! It was strange.

The sun set that night was amazing.

But then it was dark. Really dark. And that was surreal.

The entire ride took about 10 hours. We were sunburned and hungry and unsure of our next steps, but at least we had made it out of Dubrovnik. Pulling in to the harbor in Split was really interesting because it was dark outside except for two things – the lights of the harbor and the GIGANTIC silhouette head of Tito that was outlined in white lights blazing brightly on the hillside just above the docks. Imagine the “Hollywood” sign in size, but it’s someone’s head. We didn’t actually know it was Tito at the time, which made the whole scene even more bazaar.

Thankfully someone came and got us and lead us off of the boat. We never saw the captain again – I hope he knew how much we appreciated his help. So there we were at midnight, on the docks of Split, Yugoslavia with absolutely no idea of what to do next.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

If YUGO to Yugoslavia, Plan On Staying For Awhile

In total Log and I spent about five days in Dubrovnik. We did things at a leisurely pace and took our time meandering through the old town. We had an extremely limited budget but we were still able to enjoy ourselves.

We toured old buildings, museums, churches and other places of note that we found in our guide books. One particularly funny tour was the afternoon we spent in the “aquarium”. Talk about a little shop of horrors. Imagine a really dark, dank old rock building with huge dirty tanks full of murky green water holding the darkest, scariest looking sea creatures in existence. We’re not talking about fresh, clean tanks full of clown fish and coral. We’re talking about alien creatures that looked like they could be floating in formaldehyde-filled jars in the lab of the demented Dr. Evil. It got so creepy that Jeff had to leave. I gutted it out just to see how bad it could really get. It got pretty bad.

One definite downside to Dubrovnik was that everything seemed to close around 8:00 p.m. so there wasn’t much to do at night. One night we had heard that there was a movie theater in the public square so we went to check it out. We laughed until we cried watching Eddie Murphy in “48 Hours” in the Dubrovnik “theater”, which was an empty stone building with a bunch of mismatched folding chairs and a television set with a VCR playing the movie. The real beauty was they had dubbed over the English in Croatian so it was awesome hearing the Russian-Italian sounding Croatian come out of Eddie Murphy’s mouth.

Another night we found a tiny bar that was open. Bar really isn’t the right word. It was more like someone’s house and they had set up a few tables and chairs out front and were selling bottles of beer out of an ice bucket. The bar keep didn’t seem to pay us much mind, so we sat down and had a few beers while watching a rerun of the Academy Awards on the rinky dink tv set with bent rabbit ears and poor reception. I thought that was so incredibly strange that we were watching the academy awards at 10:00 at night in communist Dubrovnik.

Meals were always a lot of fun. We only ate at restaurants once a day and they were so lovely and Mediterranean. Sometimes you had to climb up hundreds of white stone steps to get to the landing where a few tables and umbrellas would be set out. You could always feel the breeze, smell the ocean air and see the beautiful blue water in the distance. We rarely had a clue what to order so we ended up with more “misses” than “hits”, but it was always fun and enjoyable nonetheless.

That’s how I met Victor Vladymere. Victor was 6’8” tall, thin and he wore an old, faded tuxedo with the pant legs just a little too short. He escorted us to our table in the narrow outdoor walkway of his restaurant and sat us down with great flourish. Pulling out my chair, placing Log’s napkin in his lap, giving me the flower from his lapel, lighting our candle. He spoke very little English, but spoke better French, so we managed to converse with him throughout the evening. We let him order for us and he brought delicious food forward. That was the first time I’d ever had calamari or ceviche, both of which I loved. Log and I hadn’t had any wine during the trip, but Victor brought out a bottle and we enjoyed it. He had the violin player play a song for us. It was a very relaxed, fun evening and Victor bid us farewell with as much exaggeration as he had said “hello”. (As an aside, that was our largest meal in Yugoslavia and with wine and tip the bill came to just over $20. Quite amazing).

The next day Log wanted to take an organized boat tour with a large group of people. After having nearly died with Ishmael earlier in the week I didn’t feel up for it so Jeff went without me. I had a wonderful afternoon wandering through the streets of old town. When I stopped for something to drink, I heard someone say “Hello American Girl”. I turned around and it was Victor Vladymere. He asked me to sit down and join him, which I did.

We had great fun laughing and TRYING to converse. He loved the fact that I was American and asked me all sorts of funny questions. As best I could understand, he was around 40, from Dubrovnik and owned his little restaurant. He was extremely proud of the fact that he had his own business, an apartment and a CAR. You would have thought he was driving the finest Porsche on the market, the way he was talking, but it was a real coup to be able to afford a car in Yugoslavia.

I agreed to go on a driving tour of the city with Victor and when we got to his car I had to stifle a laugh. He had a YUGO. An old YUGO. Up until that point I had never seen such a small car in my life. It was about the size of the small Mini Coopers that are so popular today. Victor was so tall that he had taken out the front seat – he sat in the back seat so his legs would fit and he could operate the clutch. I truly wasn’t sure we’d both fit, and it was definitely a tight squeeze, but we managed to fit in the little tuna can and off we went.

Victor drove like a crazy man and I had to gulp down a little fear that I was going to die – either in a car accident or at the hand of this strange man - and no one would know where I was. But it turned out to be a grand adventure. We drove along the Adriatic coast line and would stop here and there – at a park, at an overlook, at the beach – and walk around. The beach was very rocky, not sandy at all, so it wasn’t really easy to stroll along the water, but Victor did find one comfortable spot and we sat on a blanket, drank orange sodas and continued to communicate, as best we could. The water was absolutely beautiful. We spent hours together that afternoon and it was extremely memorable.

As the evening advanced, Victor had to get back to his restaurant for the dinner service so we said our good bys and I walked up the hill to Sandy and Grandpapa’s a little bit smitten with my tall, crazy waiter friend who drove the Yugo.

The next morning we left our kind hosts and headed towards the train station to travel back to Geneva. I was in such a good mood walking back down that hill for the last time looking at the pretty, sleepy little town. The moment passed quickly when Jeff and I looked at each other with apprehension as we arrived at the eerily quiet train station and there was a sign on the front door that consisted of a picture of a train with a big red circle and slash over it (as in “no trains”). Our conversation with the ticket agent went something like this (speak loudly and use your best Russian-Italian sounding accent):

“Two tickets to Vienna, please.”


“Excuse me?”


Blink…blink, blink….blink

“Well, when will they be running again?”


Blink….blink, blink...blink…

“So there are NO trains running AT ALL right now?”

“NO TRAINS!” – Slam ticket window down.

We got the same answer at the bus station too. No buses were running – not even private charters. To say we were worried is an understatement.

According to some other tourists who had a better command of the language, the Yugoslavian government had halted all internal transportation because of a fuel shortage. There was no airport (and we didn’t have money for a plane ticket, regardless). We tried to call the American Embassy to ask for advice but we may as well have been trying to make a direct call to Mars. We were absolutely baffled about what to do. Jeff and I were both supposed to be back at school and work in two days, we were almost out of money, everything in our meager backpacks was filthy, and we were stranded in Dubrovnik.

So we just sat there and looked at each other.

Blink….blink, blink….blink…

Friday, August 04, 2006

Lost In Translation

Dubrovnik really was a beautiful place. Not the slick-and-perfect-beautiful of a Mediterranean resort town like you might find in the Canary Islands, but more of an old-world, charming, crumbling kind of beauty. Lots of white stone, red roof tiles and the blue, blue sky and water. I remember the history of the city being absolutely fascinating, having been established in the 7th century. That blew my mind then and still does now that this has been a functioning town for so long. With its sea port and hilly terrain Dubrovnik has always been a stronghold of sorts, originally under the protection of the Byzantine Empire. It had been conquered and occupied by a number of different powers over its 1500 year history including Hungary, Turkey, Venice, the Serb Kingdom, France and who knows how many I’ve forgotten.

The old walled city was definitely the focal point where we spent most of our time. We would ride the bus down the hill from Sandy and Grandpapa’s and walk through the walls that provided protection for its earliest citizens. One of the trip highlights was walking on the tops of these walls around the entire town looking out over the roofs, up the hillsides and over the sea.

The walls provided a definite perimeter to the old town, making it feel a bit like you were in a fortress. The oldest continually operating water well in Europe is close to the huge ancient gate of the old town and it was beautiful. Apparently it was quite an engineering feat given that we were at sea level and the salt water was just inches below.

I loved visiting the old pharmacy that was near the well. By old I mean it was established in 1317 and for the almost 700 years since then it has always been a pharmacy. It was so interesting to enter through the establishment’s small, wooden front door into the dark, dank coolness of the rock building with moss growing on the walls and see old, wooden shelves sparsely stocked with a weird array of items. Being under communist control, I’m guessing their access to products was rather limited but with Dubrovnik being one of the main tourist attractions and income generators of the country they knew they had to have some aspirin, antacid and band aids on hand for the tourists. But the products were few and the boxes and bottles all looked old, a little faded and battered.

While exploring through the maze of shelves I suddenly jumped so high I hit my head on an upper shelf when the older man behind the “counter” (a medieval looking rough-hewn table in the back) yelled “CONDOMS!” at the top of his lungs. I swung my head around and the guy was calmly looking down reading his papers. Did I hear right? A second later he yelled out, “PROFALACTICS!” and right after he shouted “CONDOMS!” again. Was this some weird Teret's Syndrome thing? Jeff and I got the serious giggles but managed to pull it together as we walked back there to see what he was talking about. The guy had a little display of condoms on the table that he pointed to while he just kept reading his paper.

The condom packaging was hilarious. I guess in order to avoid the language barrier the manufacturer went with the more internationally recognized stick figures to communicate the product message. These stick figures, with their anatomically correct stick figure parts, were unmistakably in coitus and written in big, black all capital letters was only one word - EROTIC - at the top of the small box. I actually laughed out loud and Jeff couldn’t have been any more red-faced. I couldn’t resist. It was one of the few souvenirs I bought in Yugoslavia. Classy.

After my purchase I awkwardly giggled “hvala” and got out the door. The best we could figure was that when the pharmacist saw tourist couples in his store he must have assumed they might be in the mood for love and he just wanted them to know his store was where the rubber met the road. I admired his bold marketing techniques.

There was a beautiful old church in the public square. Russian Orthodox, I think. I was a little bit confused about the church since, technically, under communism churches were frowned upon. But I don’t think Yugoslavia was on quite the restrictions that some communist states experienced. Everything was built of the white limestone and it was simple and clean, yet so striking against the blue of the sky and water.

Thankfully the town was not overly touristy so the trinket and t-shirt shops were at a minimum. However, there was one “cart” that a guy would wheel through the town and he sold all sorts of awesome kitsch. I bought a t-shirt from him and a little charm of the Virgin Mary. You might have heard that in the 1950s, a group of young children reportedly saw the Virgin Mary a couple of different times while they were playing in Mejagoria, Yugoslavia. Like the water in Lourdes, France, there is a lot of “holiness” associated with anything that comes from Mejagoria, so I bought this charm in honor of that legend.

The old sea port was incredible as you can walk right down on to the stone piers all the way out into the water where big waves are lapping up making the walkway really slippery and sort of hazardous. You can close your eyes and just see those old Venetian sailing ships coming in to the harbor. While standing there, an old, old man with a full white beard and – honestly – a black patch over his eye came hobbling up to us saying something in Croatian. He was as tan and leathery as an old shoe and he wore bright white pants and a bright white shirt and a navy blue captain’s hat. We had no clue what he was saying but he kept pointing to Jeff and me, and then to a boat over in the harbor, and then to the island off of Dubrovnik and then would say “5 doe-lares”. Figuring he was offering to take us on a boat ride to that island, we kind of shrugged and said “okay”.

It’s a million wonders we survived that trip given that we couldn’t have been any bigger suckers.

We called him Ishmael. Ishmael started talking as we followed him to his boat and he did not stop talking until he dropped us off two hours later. Literally. Non-stop Croation babble. Imagine if you were the only two people on a tour and your tour guide talked like this “ snoe txiitlshl, jjogije! jois jvcejs uflubuslm itjops oul’t slkhte iiight slkehth” for two strait hours. But truthfully, we had bigger things on our mind than trying to understand Ishmael as he was pointing out the scenic “sxvjiths” off the port side and the “xiehtshl cihtlshi” off the bow. We were more concerned with holding on for dear life.

When Ishmael had proposed this little tour he had pointed to a rather large boat in the harbor. But as we neared that boat he kept on walking to the D-I-N-G-Y that was parked on the other side. It was a tiny little boat, maybe 12 feet long, with a little outboard motor on the back. One of those where he sat at the back with one hand on the motor so he could steer with me on the middle seat and Log was on the other end. I was facing Ishmael and our knees almost touched. Jeff and I sort of looked at each other and shrugged as we climbed down the harbor ladder and “jumped” into the boat. I have to pause and laugh as I remember giant Log and me jumping into that boat. It almost capsized each time and Ishmael would shout out something that sounded like “Yarrr”.

As we slowly trolled out of the harbor, I began to get genuinely scared when I realized how high the ocean waves were when we entered open water . We were going up and over very large 6-8 foot waves. Jeff and I were each clasping both sides of the dingy with such force that I’m sure our vice grips left dents in the side of the boat. Ishmael was pointing and jabbering and motioning and never once seemed too concerned that we were pale as ghosts and had wide-eyed looks of terror on our faces.

We had little bitty life jackets on. Those old fashioned orange ones that you put around your neck and tie with a little white string. And these ones seemed child sized, so they looked more like chokers on us than they did life preservers. Because Jeff and I were both facing Ishmael, and I was in front of Jeff, I couldn’t see him. I could only hear him muttering “whoa” and “oh my God”. The farther out to sea we got, and the rougher the waves became, the more frequent and vulgar Jeff’s profanities. Our curse-laden outbursts didn’t stop Ishmael from talking, either.

At one point, I beat down my choker life jacket and turned my head around to see Jeff holding on to the dingy with his left hand, trying to force down his life jacket with his right hand and leaning over the side of the boat hurling out his lunch. Seasick. Serves the bastard right for suggesting Yugoslavia in the first place!

We tooled all the way around a little island that I had read earlier was a wildlife refuge before we got back to terra firma. I was never so relieved in my life. I wasn’t very good about taking pictures in Europe and would now do it so differently if I could. But when I reflect back, if there is ONE single picture from my six months in Europe that I wish I would have captured it would have been of Log and me in our life jackets on the dingy with one-eyed Ishmael. Yarrr.

To settle our nerves and our stomachs we found a darling little shop that sold sweets. Maybe it was because we were sunburned, or maybe it was because we had narrowly escaped the jaws of death on the open sea, but nothing has ever tasted as good as that strawberry ice cream from the port of Dubrovnik.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

View From A Bus Window

Log and I made our way from the New York Hotel in Zagreb, Yugoslavia to the station that morning expecting to get on a train that would take us to Dubrovnik. Because we had already managed to lose our Croatian – English dictionary we were reduced to communicating by using wild hand gestures and speaking English very s-l-o-w-l-y in hopes that would somehow trigger an understanding. Instead it triggered thoughts in every Croat’s mind we met that morning that we were idiots.

The news at the train station was grim. Now keep in mind, because of our limited capacity to communicate, it is actually quite possible that we were told to “sit tight and the next train will arrive in 5 minutes”, but after a few laborious conversations with different ticket agents we concluded that what we were being told was that there were no trains running that day because it was a holiday. (In hindsight, I just KNOW that this holiday had something to do with Tito, but that comes later in the story).

We had hit an impasse.

Log and I had a limited number of days to travel, we’d already survived the initial train ride of horror to get to Zagreb and we just wanted to get to Dubrovnik and the blue, blue waters of the Adriatic, so hanging around in the city for another day was not an appealing option. We got the bright idea to find the bus station and see if we could catch a bus down South. As it turns out, there was one bus running that day – a private charter bus - but as our luck would have it, there was only one seat left. They said one of us could STAND in the aisle for the 8-hour ride. Since we had ridden from Geneva to Vienna in this same manner we figured we could handle it for a little while longer.

Safety never seemed to be a big concern to Yugoslavians. Seat belts were highly overrated.

Bless his heart; Log let me sit for the first stint while he hung on for dear life in the aisle. This wasn’t a subway car with hand straps hanging from the ceiling or poles to cling to – Jeff had nothing but his own legs and the back of my seat to steady himself as we proceeded to roar away. The bus was hot and stinky and those around us seemed pretty annoyed. Like the train, the bus took a rural route and we stopped at every little hamlet along the way. I remember the terrain was pretty enough – kind of like what I imaged Greece to look like – white rocky land, scrappy olive trees, hilly, bright blue sky, desolate. Log never looked as relieved as he did when I gave up the seat for my stint at standing.

We stopped at some little wide spot in the road and after a passenger shuffle there suddenly were two seats left open – side by side. Log was sleeping, so rather than wake him up to come sit by me, I just went and sat down. In something warm and wet. Very, very wet. Yellow wet. Smelly wet. I WAS SITTING IN URINE! The people who had been sitting in the seats before me had just peed in the seat! And not just a little bit, either. The seat was squishy wet meaning my pants were already soaked through to my underwear and the wetness was moving down the back of my pant leg and all the way up to my waist. I jumped up and proceeded to quietly, yet vigorously, freak out. The bus started moving and I spent the next two hours of the trip standing, so grossed out that I couldn’t move. Literally, I was a frozen statue. I couldn’t look at anyone. If I could have moved, I would have thrown my Let’s Go Europe book at Jeff to wake him up and blame everything on him. WE COULD BE IN PARIS! WE COULD BE IN ROME! But, noooooooo. I’m in a hot, stinky bus careening down a bumpy, narrow road in middle-of-no-where communist Yugoslavia standing in pee soaked jeans for another four hours!

Our plan was to stay at the youth hostel in Dubrovnik. There was a slight concern that they would be booked because they didn’t take advance reservations, but like everything else in this excursion we just played stupid and assumed it would all work out. And it turns out that it did. In the form of Sandy and Grandpapa.

As we were making our way off of the bus I was STILL chewing on Log about my pee-soaked-jeans situation and he was making it worse by keeping his distance from me and giving me that turned-up-nose look that you get when you smell sulpher or rotting eggs. When we had retrieved our back packs and went outside I was into a full blown frenzy about how I was going to wash my pants when we realized we were surrounded by people who were all shouting at us.

We had read about this in the Book. It said that it is common in Yugoslavia for people with rooms to let in their homes to stand around the train and bus stations and hawk their prices and amenities. All the yelling was disarming and we sort of pushed our way through the crowd heading towards the hostel when this older woman ran up behind us and started talking in that strange Russian-Italian sounding language. We looked at her blankly then she handed us a little piece of paper that said “Room - $8 US a night”. She looked like a Russian peasant woman – short, hunched over, ruddy complexion, wearing a plain dress and a head scarf. She kept looking at me, right in the eyes, smiling and rapidly nodding her head up and down with such a look of hope in her eyes that I found myself saying “okay”. She looked so relieved that we had agreed to stay at her place that she grabbed our backpacks and motioned for us to follow her. Here was this little, old 4’11” woman with missing teeth lugging backpacks for 6’ giant me and great big Log. It was quite a scene. Every time we’d try to catch up with her to take our pack off of her shoulders she’d say, “No, no, no, no, no” and would walk even faster. I guess she felt like as long as she had our stuff, we couldn’t get away.

We walked for what we later found out was about 3 miles from the center of town, up this hilly, winding road to a tiny little crumbling rock house, crammed in between dozens of other tiny little crumbling rock houses, and we finally stopped. An ancient old man was waiting outside who had no teeth, but he grinned broadly at us as he started talking and gesturing. Log and I just smiled and nodded our heads up and down, completely confused. Finally, the little old woman looked at us and put her hand on her chest and said a word then pointed at the old man and said a word. More smiling and nodding from Jeff and me as we told them our names.

When finally alone later that night we started laughing so hard we were crying about the situation we found ourselves in. We decided that the little lady’s name had sounded something like “Sandy” and his name sounded like “Grandpapa”.

48 hours after leaving pristine Geneva, with aching legs, no ability to communicate, and pee soaked jeans, we had finally made it to Dubrovnik, Jugoslvi and were staying with Sandy and Grandpapa. We were ready for anything.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Toto, We're Not In Kansas Anymore

You know it’s a bad sign when you lose your Croatian – English dictionary on Day One of your Yugoslavian adventure.

As Log and I were sitting bleary-eyed at the little cafe in Zagreb, tired from our sleepless overnight train ride from Geneva, waiting to check in to our hotel at noon, we did manage to memorize these Croatian words that I will never forget – “hvala” (thank you) and “pivo” (beer). Armed with two words, a backpack of mish mashed clothes, and a little bit of currency that looked just like Monopoly money, we left our dictionary on the café table and made our way to the New York Hotel for some sleep.

The New York Hotel was a 4-star hotel that was listed in my Let’s Go Europe book. There weren’t many choices – it was either a 4-star hotel or a youth hostel. We decided on the hotel for our first night knowing that we needed to sleep well and shower before heading south to Dubrovnik, our ultimate destination. It turns out that “4-star” was surprisingly cheap. Everything in Yugoslavia was surprisingly cheap. And let’s just say that 4 out of 5 stars didn’t exactly mean The Ritz – it meant a little bitty bare room with tiny twin beds, a clanking radiator and peeling wallpaper, but it did have its own bathroom, which probably earned it that extra star, or two. We crashed and didn’t wake up until dusk.

To this day I’m not sure how I let Log talk me into traveling to Yugoslavia over spring break. I was at the L’Universite de Savoie in Chambery and he was an intern for the Associated Press in Geneva (or “Geneve” as he liked to remind me in his best French accent) so we decided to hook up and go somewhere for the week. As a first-timer in Europe I was thinking Paris or Rome or London, but Log insisted that we should go to Yugoslavia. He had been there once before as part of a choir expedition with Ellie and he convinced me that it was exotic, beautiful, affordable and fun. Honestly, I’m not even sure I could have pointed to Yugoslavia on the map at that point.

Ironically, I didn’t know that barely one year later Yugoslavia would become the center of the world’s attention.

I met Log in “Geneve” and we dinked around there for the day before getting on the train in the afternoon, heading overnight to Vienna. It was then we knew that this was going to be a challenging trip as we endured that first really LONG train ride, which stopped in every single town in three countries. Because the train was overbooked and we hadn’t made reservations early enough to get reserved seats we had to STAND the entire bloody trip. Seriously.

This was a train that had the small, air conditioned compartments with the glass doors that sat about six people, so Log and I stood out in the hot, narrow passageway looking in at those sitting comfortably in their seats like they were zoo animals in their cages. Sometimes we’d sit on the floor in the walkway, which was disgustingly dirty, but mostly we would just stand. At one point, around midnight, one seat became free when a little old woman got off the train so we took turns sitting for two hours at a time. During my standing stints, when Log was in the seat in the glassed-in compartment, I had to fend off a small, yet persistent, group of really gross German men who smelled like body odor and cigarettes and insisted that I join them in their compartment….wink, wink. Literally, they would wink when they said this to me. C-H-E-E-S-Y. I would have bunked down in the train’s tiny, disgusting bathroom stall that reeked of portapotties baking in the sun at Jazz Fest before “joining them…wink, wink… in their compartment.”

It was a long, weird night but we ended up in Vienna in the wee hours of the morning where we had just enough time to exchange some money into the Yugoslavian lire and change trains to Zagreb.

It was during this portion of the trip that I finally realized I was going someplace truly different. Poorer. More communist. Scarier. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but knowing nothing about Yugoslavia I guess I wasn’t really expecting anything. My American sensibilities and hubris made me think that everything would be “about the same” as what I was used to. That seemed to be the case in the rest of Europe – things were certainly different but there was also enough of a familiar sameness that allowed me to live and move amongst the natives without too much trouble. I was beginning to realize this might not be the case in Yugoslavia.

The train to Zagreb was a rickety mess. Open seating, dirty, smelly, hot and jam packed. At one point when it was still dark outside the train stopped and armed guards with German Shepards boarded the train and started barking orders. People were hustling to open their bags and these guards were rudely rummaging through their stuff and shouting a lot. Log and I were really nervous. When they got to us they yelled something that we assumed was “passport”, which we handed them. When they saw we were Americans they quickly eased off of the shouting and gestured for us to get off of the train and follow one of the guards into the station. We were tired and stinking and dirty from sitting on the floor, and had only a backpack each, but because we were American we got ushered off into the cool of the train station where we sat with some “official” who gave us bottled water and offered us cookies while those poor Yugoslavian passengers were searched.

After some time the guard gestured that we could get back on the train and we left that station. Because the situation was so surreal and I didn’t understand a word being said, I was having sort of an out of body experience, so I deeply regret that I didn’t make as many observations as I wished I would have. What town were we in? It looked like a bleak, small village. Was this normal for guards to board the trains and search the passengers? Why the violence of guns and dogs and the angry shouting? Was this a Serbian-Croatian encounter having to do with the civil unrest that boiled over into war one year later, or was this an isolated incident where guards were looking for specific evidence of some sort? I found it interesting that whatever it was those guards were doing, they took special care in making sure we Americans weren’t a part of it in anyway. This is still a big mystery for me. The last of that train ride was really quiet.

Thanks to my travel book we already knew we were staying at the New York Hotel – the name proving that the American influence is everywhere – so after arriving in Zagreb we managed to get directions and walk to the hotel where we found out we couldn’t check in until noon. I think they let us drop off our bags, but we weren’t really in the mood for sight seeing at 6:00 in the morning, so we found a café and planted ourselves there and drank some really strong coffee. Again, I was feeling detached from my body so my memories of that morning are fuzzy. I do remember finally getting in to our room, taking a “shower” (which was really the European version of sitting in the bathtub with an extendable shower head and no shower curtain) and crashing for about 7 hours. Hvala, God.

We woke up around dusk and ventured out into Zagreb. I remember we ended up in a very large community square with really tall buildings on each side. They were so tall and ornate and seemed to resemble what I would later see in Austria. There were hundreds of people just milling about, hanging around. I remember thinking they all kind of looked like Nadia Comaneci – small, pale and dour – but this seemed to be a spot where people just chilled out.

Log and I found a café and sat outside under the umbrella. This was when we discovered we had lost the dictionary. I’m sure I scolded him about that for the rest of the night. As a result, we had no idea what was on the menu and our waiter didn’t speak English or French. His Croatian accent sounded like a mix of Russian and Italian. It had a very interesting sound. We finally ordered what we (correctly) thought was Wiener Schnitzel and ate the first of many fried meat dinners (The food in Yugoslavia? Notsogreat.) . We drank some lukewarm pivo. The waiter seemed really confused that we couldn’t communicate a single word in his language other than “beer” but we found a great deal of humor there.

Still tired, we made our way back to the hotel and cashed it in relatively early because we knew we had to catch our train to Dubrovnik the next morning. As I found myself doing almost every single night in Europe I laid in bed thinking, “I’m in Yugoslavia. I’m in Yugoslavia. What time is it in Colorado? How can I be in Yugoslavia?”