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?”


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