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.


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