02 August 2006

Back Home

I've been back in the State now for over two weeks. The journey back was long and arduous, but much better than it could have been (I guess one can almost always say that). As I was leaving things were really heating up in the war between Israel and Lebanon. A lot of people were trying to leave there, so I was very conscious of how much more difficult my travel could have been.

I left Rijeka on Sunday morning, 16 July. Getting my two heavy suitcases and my heavy knapsack (with computer inside) from my apartment down several flights of stairs to the street was the first challenge. I took it bit by bit and bag by bag. Once on the street I realized that I was only 50 meters from the bus stop, so rather than wait for the taxi that might not come (in a half hour), I dragged everything down to the bus stop. This was easy since the bags both roll. Getting everything onto the bus was more of a challenge, and then getting it all off the bus was another challenge, but I did it. I took the big Greyhound type bus (Autotrans as it's known in Croatia) to Zagreb. It's about a two and a half to three hour ride and costs about $22. Once in Zagreb I took a taxi to my hotel, the only hotel near the airport. I received the embassy rate there, but it was still $130, the most I paid for a night's stay anywhere in Croatia. Since my flight was early Monday morning, it made sense to get there the day before and be in Zagreb to ensure getting to the airport on time. The hotel was fairly generic and in an industrial area with no restaurants or anything around it. I was supposed to go into the city to meet a friend that evening. But I was so tired and feeling out of sorts (I guess because of leaving), that I couldn't drag myself into town. I ended up sleeping for several hours and then just eating food I had with me instead of a proper dinner.

The next morning I was up at 5:00 am and left the hotel at 5:45 to get to the airport (by taxi). I had been warned that the Zagreb airport can have really long lines in the summer tourist months. And during previous days I had been seeing reports on Croatian television of long, long lines of cars backed up on the highways in Croatia because of the influx of tourists. They also showed long lines of tourists at the airport. But I must have gotten there just early enough, so in fact I got through the check-in process quite quickly and smoothly. My flight (Croatian Air) to Paris was delayed for some reason, but not for too long. So we got into Paris a half hour late. Luckily I had a three and a half hour layover. Charles de Gaulle airport was undergoing construction or remodeling or something, so I had to take two busses and walk quite a distance to get to my gate. It took almost two hours just to do the transit from my arriving flight to the departing one. But I made it on time and even had an hour before boarding the second leg of my flight. On the flight into Paris I had good views of the town and picked out the Eiffel Tower.

On the long flight between Paris and Detroit, I had a very good exit row (first row) seat, near the galley between business class and coach. It makes all the difference to have such a nice seat on such a long flight. Also, this Northwest flight happily had personal viewing screens at every seat, so you could watch whatever you wanted to continuously. I saw three full films, which made the time seem to go by faster. Once in Detroit (where I went for a few days before heading back home to Georgia because the flight was cheaper that way), I got my luggage and made it through customs pretty quickly. But unfortunately my mom misunderstood (or didn't listen) about where to pick me up. So after two days of tough travel (lugging around heavy bags, etc. from bus to taxi to to bus to taxi etc.), an eight hour transcontinental flight (producing jet lag), and a six hour time zone change, I was left waiting for someone to pick me up for two hours. It was not pleasant. My flight arrived around 11 pm Central European Time, 5 pm Eastern Standard Time. And I got picked up finally at 7 pm EST (which was now 1 am in the time zone I'd been living in). It was a truly miserable couple of hours, not only because I was so exhausted, but also because I was standing outside in 95 degree heat and in car exhaust (since so many cars pull up and idle in that arrivals area). Anyway, I was very happy once my mom and brother finally pulled up. Once I got to my sister's house (where my mom also lives), the whole family was there, and it was a nice reunion. I was still exhausted but I managed to find a second wind and stayed up to visit until about 9:30 pm (3:30 am in Europe).

In general I find it much easier to travel long distances going in a westerly direction, as time is gained rather than lost. I hate flights from America to Europe where you essentially completely lose a night. But on the other hand, I have such a strong internal rhythm that I tend to wake up around the same time no matter what. So as always when coming back from Europe I can't get myself to sleep in past about 4 am (10 am in Europe). Even that requires me to force myself to stay asleep. So the next morning in Detroit I was awake very early, by about 4:30 am. I forced myself to stay in my room and try to relax as long as possible because I did not want to wake up everyone else. My brother and his family were visiting from Arkansas, so there were people sleeping all over, in every room downstairs as well as all the bedrooms. But finally I went down to the basement, where my sister has a computer, and did some work on email. After about an hour of that, at around 6 am (Detroit time -- noon by my body's time), I was feeling the low blood sugar quivers. So I went up and rummaged as quietly as I could in the kitchen (which was open to two rooms where my brother and his wife were sleeping). I finally found some crackers and some guacamole and had a nice "lunch/breakfast" in the dark. And guacamole tasked pretty good--not the most common food in Croatia. It's light by 5 am in Croatia, but it was still mostly dark at 6 am in Detroit. Here in Georgia, it doesn't get light until almost 6:30, which I hate. I am an early riser and like the sun to be up as early as I am.

Gradually I have readjusted to this time zone. I spent three and a half days in Michigan and enjoyed being able to visit with family there. My aunt, uncle, cousin, niece, and sister-in-law were especially interested in seeing photos and listening to stories from Croatia. I arrived there Monday night and returned here to Georgia on Friday morning. My friend Doug picked me up at the airport in Atlanta (the same Doug who visited me in Croatia). We stopped at Costco on the way home -- there is no closer Costco to Milledgeville (and Doug loves shopping there). Trips to Atlanta almost always come with some kind of shopping stop for those of us in the backwater, small town of Milledgeville. Hotlanta is quite exciting for us. And although there were some big supermarkets in Croatia that I shopped at, there really is nothing quite like Costco. Is there anywhere in the world? Huge quantities of food and everything in bulk. You can't buy 3 bananas, but must buy bundles of 10 or more. You can't buy six bagels, but must buy a double bagged combo of 12 bagels. You can't buy a half pound of cheese, but must buy a 2 pound block that a family of 5 would have trouble getting through in a week or longer. You get the idea, big quantities only! And the stores themselves are huge -- gigantic shelves reaching up to very tall ceilings, piled with large quantities of everything from automotive supplies, to dog food, to shampoo (large sizes only!) to flashlights, to pretty good wines and sometimes good books and cd's and so on.

Overall I'm happy to be back -- not for Costco -- but just in general. Of course I feel a bit bittersweet as I miss Croatia and my friends and life there. But I have a pretty good life here too. It's nice to be back in my house, surrounded by a green, flowering neighborhood where I go for walks everyday. It's a joy to be back with my cats, who I imagine are happy to have me back too. And it's good to reconnect with all my friends here, though quite a few are actually out of town. It's our last gasp of summer, seeing as the semester here starts quite early. Classes begins August 16, and meetings start a week before that. I have been coming to the office everyday and working on writing projects and syllabi. I have also been doing work on my house and garden everyday. Happily I persuaded my housesitter to plant some tomatoes for me, but they are not doing so well. So this morning I weeded, hoed, fertilized, and replanted a few of them. I have also been trimming bushes, repotting decorative plants, and doing a lot of inside cleaning. But there is always more to do.

Now that my actual "Travels in Croatia" (as this blog is titled) are over, I'm not sure how much more I will write here. But I will probably keep posting entries from time to time. Perhaps I will have to re-title the blog as time goes on. Thanks for reading.

15 July 2006

Photo at Mrzla Vodica

Ancestral Village -- Mrzla Vodica

My final days here have been rewarding in terms of seeking out family ties. On Thursday my landlord called the church in Lokve for me (at my request) to ask if, since I would be there the next day, I could look through the registries of births, etc. to look for our family records. The priest told him that in fact all the records are held in the archives in Rijeka! So here they have been, practically across the street from where I work, all this time. If I had figured this out earlier I could have looked through many more records. As is, I only had time to look through the birth records up to 1902 before the office closed Thursday (at 1 pm). And since the plan was to visit Mrzla Vodica on Friday, which was my last day here when the archives are open, those three hours I spent in the archives on Thursday are the only ones I will have. I did not really know what I was doing, though my cousin Cathy, who works in genealogy, did help me somewhat through email advice. I found many of our ancestors’ births recorded, through the Milosevic and Kosmac lines. The people who work at the archives were very helpful and nice. The director gave me a collection of Croatian short stories in English and told me that one of the writers therein married a woman from Lokve with whom he had a daughter (Dora) who became Pablo Picasso’s lover.

Then yesterday, Friday, I finally made it to Mrzla Vodica, the ancestral village of my paternal grandmother’s parents. My neighbor Jadranka drove me there at my request (I paid her what it would have cost for a rental car). We both enjoyed the outing to the mountains on another very hot day. Mrzla Vodica, which means, little frozen (or very cold) water, is situated in the mountains. The houses all line up along a few very windy, mountain roads. And near the “center” is a lovely lake. Well, it seemed like two lakes actually, though they are connected. It is an extremely pretty place, a very green, resort type town. But it doesn’t have the infrastructure of resort towns, no store, restaurant, post-office, etc. There was a café right at the lake. And this seems to be something of a “center” in the village.

I asked Jadranka (the neighbor who drove me) to ask some men we saw outside the café about whether there were any Kosmac or Milosevic people living here, and they (the men we asked) were really nice. The first man wondered out loud about the names, so another man standing nearby came and offered his input. It was all in Croatian so I did not really understand. But they immediately indicated where the Milosevic household was. But they were puzzled by Kosmac. Finally I kind of spelled it for them, and the one man said “Oh, Kosmac!” (with a different pronunciation of the “o” sound). Then he remembered where that family lived too. So we were told to go first find the Milosevic household, though they said that the last Milosevic, Anna, died 20 years ago. Nonetheless we found the house (everyone we met on the road and asked knew where it was). It was toward one end of the village. We talked to the neighbors, who said the children of Anna live in Rijeka. She gave me their numbers. We then went to see the church in town (on top of a steep hill), but it was closed. Then we met one of the men from the café, who offered to take us around to the Kosmac woman and the cemetery. We found graves of Milosevic and Kosmac, but only recent graves. There were no graves older than about 50 years old in that cemetery, which I later learned is typical. If a grave is ignored for 20 years, it is simply removed and re-used (I’m not sure exactly how but that is how Jadranka translated what a woman near one cemetery told us).

We then went to find the Kosmac relative, but at first the man helping us spoke to her and told us we had to go ask another woman if she had really been a Kosmac. He said she couldn’t remember for sure what her maiden name had been!! I think maybe she was just wary of talking to strangers. Anyway, another neighbor reputed to have a good memory told us that yes, she was definitely a Kosmac. So we went back and this time she spoke to us. Eventually she invited us in for a drink, so we spoke to her for maybe a half hour. But unfortunately she spoke no English, and I was getting very little translation of what they talked about. Also I did not have a chance (or a way) to ask many questions. Later Jadranka told another neighbor, who’s English is better, some of the things she said, and he told me. I had told Jadranka to tell her the story that I’d heard from my grandmother that the Milosevic family were rich and the Kosmach family were poor. So when my great-grandmother wanted to marry a Kosmach, her family disowned her. In fact, I thought that was why they moved to the States. Nada, this apparently distant cousin, confirmed these facts. She said originally the Kosmaches were very poor and had only a little piece of land (which is on the opposite side of town from the Milosevic family, and in fact in a separate village called “Zelin Mrzla Vodica” or Green Little Frozen Water). Nada told us that little by little the Kosmac family bought more adjoining land and prospered a little better. It seems that both the family names have more or less died out because most of the children (in my grandmother’s family too) were women, so their names changed when they married. It was nice to meet Nada and see these places. I can’t say she seemed overly interested in me, but maybe she found it all a bit odd, and she was friendly. At one point she told me I could buy land there if I wanted to, but I did not express much interest (the translation was a little hard to follow), so that's as far as that went. We exchanged phone numbers, and I also gave her my email address. So we’ll see if I ever hear from her or her family again.

We also went to the church in Lokve (the bigger town nearby where everyone goes for any business). We drove around a little and located the church, but it was locked (as Croatian churches often are). We asked a man about finding the cemetery, and he told us to find the priest, which we did in a marked house nearby. He gave us the keys to go inside the church, so I got to see and take pictures of that. We also checked the Lokve cemetery for graves, but as in Mrzla Vodica, they are all fairly recent, and I did not find any of our family names.

Anyway, it was overall a very fun day to see this place where ancestors lived and some relatives still do. I think life is pretty hard there in the village. Nada and the man who was helping us look around both talked about how hard life always was there, and that many people had emigrated to the States as a result. They said most people don't live there year round anymore. In fact a student of mine from Lokve said there are only about ten people who live there (Mrzla Vodica) year round. The rest who own houses there just come now for weekends or vacations in the summer. It is cool up there in the mountains, and it's quite close to a national park (Risnjak). I felt chilly when we got there about 8:30 am. We left here at 8 am, so that tells you how close it is to Rijeka. But as soon as we got near Rijeka it was back to blazing heat.

Now I am packing and discarding all the stuff I have accumulated or brought here, but don’t want to bring back. I dread dragging all my luggage to Zagreb tomorrow and then the airport Monday morning. I have to take public transportation for all this. So I’ll get a taxi to the bus station here, a bus to Zagreb, another taxi to my hotel, then another taxi the next morning to the airport. This is the less pleasant face of travel. But I do look forward to being back.

12 July 2006

Names, Language, and Leaving

Things here are still very hot, making it hard to go out and tour and do what I need to (to prepare to leave). But I'm slogging on. Yesterday I mailed a box (mostly books) back to the States. It was about 25 pounds. I lugged it to the bus stop nearest my house, took the bus into town to the stop nearest the only post office you can send heavy packages from (over two kilos). Then I carried it from the bus stop there to the post office, leaving me sore and sweating, and this was before 9 am. It cost $100 to send this package via the "slow" route. And they made me repack everything in a box I bought from them and that I'm doubtful will make it intact. I hope I see those books again!

From there I went to pay the electric bill, always a challenge here. You write down your own number from the meter in your house, go to the electric company, stand in a long line, give your information to one woman who puts it into a computer and prints out a bill for you. Then you go to another line to pay another woman. From there (on the other side of town), I walked to the center to pay the last phone bill (also a long wait). When I finished and walked into work it was after 11 am and I was completely sweaty, drained, dehydrated, and dirty.

This is just to give you an idea of life here this last week in the country. There are lots of people I’d like to see and things I’d like to do. But each outing takes a lot out of me because of the heat. I think I’m actually allergic to the sun, as I broke out in hives almost two weeks ago. After benadryl, cortisone cream, and dosing up on calcium (recommended by the pharmacist here), I am feeling better. I also take more care to always use sunblock. But what a drag to be allergic to sun in this sunny weather. No more trips to beaches.

One of the things I’ve been meaning to write about for a while are names here. I’m not claiming any expertise in the language, but I have enjoyed learning what little I have and hearing it spoken. Croatian is a Slavic language, which makes it similar to Russian and other Eastern European languages (the way Spanish and Italian and French are similar). It strikes me as a fairly melodic, appealing language, with lots of sh, ch, zh, z, nj, lj, and short vowel sounds. The letter “r” is rolled and the only sort of guttural sound is very lightly made for the letter “h” (as in thank you, “hvala”). Some of the phrases you hear most often are “Dobar dan!” (good day) “Bog!” (for hello & goodbye – based on the word for god), “mozhe”( maybe not spelled that way but my computer doesn’t have Croatian letters – a z with a mark over it to make the z a “zh” sound – means something like “you can,” or “it’ll work”), “molim” (please, also used for hello on the phone), “da” (yes), and “ne” (no). Overall Croatian has a soft and rolling sound. A linguist I work with just told me that this is probably because it contains a lot of palatal sounds, which are indicated with marks when written in Croatian. I'm not including marks here because I don't think they'd show up well.

People here are very polite in their speech too, from what I can tell. So you rarely hear people shouting. And people always greet each other coming and going (“Dobar dan” . . . “Doviđenja” – the phonetic spelling would be dovidjenya -- for goodbye). People greet each other politely even if they are relative strangers. For instance, when I’ve been eating lunch in a room with strangers, say three of us sitting at different tables, when one finishes and leaves, she’ll say a quiet “dovijenya” to the other two of us, and we say it back. Also, people are often assuring each other that things are okay – “Mozhe! Mozhe!” And if you say “pardon” or “oprostite” (sorry) if you bump someone, they are likely to respond, “Ne, nishta!” (No, it’s nothing). Also my favorite phrase is "Nema problema," which means as you might expect, "No problem."

Anyway, names are also quite different from English and interesting and appealing. In general it seems many female names end in “a,” so you have Marija (the version of my name, Mary, as “y” is never used in Croatian – instead it’s “j” – so this is pronounced Maria). There’s also Irena, Dasha, Masha, Natasha, Sasha (though none of those are spelled that way – the “sh” is replaced by an “s” with a line over it), Branka, Slavenka, Maja, Monica, Dora, Ivana, Danica (pronounced Danizza, with an ending like pizza), Sintija (like Cynthia), Jelena, Olga, Mojca, Susana, Anita, Laura, Melanija, and probably a hundred more women’s names that end in “a.” There are also some women’s names ending in other ways, like Neli.

Men’s names in contrast seem to often end in “o.” So I’ve met people named Darko, Dubravko, Vinko, Matko, Zlatko, and so on. But there are also names ending in consonants, like Goran, Kristian, Boris, Marin, Josip, Tomislav, Davor, Antun, Zvonimir, Petar, Vid, and Silvestar. And I’ve also met a few men whose names end in “a,” like Sinisha, Borna, Drashka, and Nikola.

These have all been first names. Last names are more of a challenge, since Croatian letters are unfamiliar (to me), and often seem to make names harder to pronounce. So there are many “c,” “s” and “z” letters with accents on them, making them different from how they look at first glance to an American. Croatian names that are written in English tend to be written differently (anglicized), so Jankovic is written Yankovich in English. Or we pronounce Croatian names wrong. So Monica Seles’ last name actually should be pronounced “Selesh.”

10 July 2006

Trieste, Italy

I met two Italian friends for the weekend in Trieste. Barbara and Simone and I met a few years ago in Sweden, when I spent a summer teaching there. I lived in a “university guest house” where Simone also lived, and his girlfriend Barbara visited while we were there. It was a great place to live as a visiting faculty member because a variety of visiting scholars from all over the world shared this beautiful mansion. We all had our own rooms and bathrooms and shared common areas (kitchens, living room, garden, etc.). Barbara and Simone became good friends then, so it was great to see them again and to combine it with a visit to Trieste (which Simone also never saw before).

Trieste is in Italy but over the centuries it has belonged to and been influenced by various other cultures, like the Slavs and Austro-Hungarians. But it felt more Italian than Slavic to me, though maybe that’s because I’ve been living in a Slavic country and haven’t been to Italy in 18 years. It’s a large (250,000) industrial port city, somewhat like Rijeka. But it’s much bigger. It also has seafront areas that are not just industrial (unlike Rijeka). We started out our tour at the top, on the originally settled hill where you now get a good overview. There is a beautiful church (cathedral I think) up there and ruins of an old basilica. The church was built on the site of an old Roman temple and has parts dating back to the 3rd century, though most of the current edifice is 1000 to 700 years old I think. There are beautiful mosaics and decorative details in the arches of the nave.

There’s also a castle nearby, but it was closed for renovation. We then wandered down the hill toward the center. Along the way we saw a few more churches and an old Roman amphitheater that was apparently just discovered recently (20 years ago) during construction in that part of town. It’s also being renovated. Eventually we made it to the big town square or piazza, which is huge and surrounded on three sides by impressive 19th century buildings, town hall, cafes, palaces, and businesses, all with decorative facades. There is also a big fountain toward one end of the square. The fourth side of the square is open to the sea. We read that it’s the largest seaside square in Europe.

James Joyce lived in this part of the world for much of his life, first in Pula (in Istria, Croatia), then in Trieste. So we went into one of the cafés on the square, which is quite famous for artists and writers who frequented it, but the waiter told us it was not one of Joyce’s haunts (though he mentioned other writers who patronized them including Hemingway). We later sat down at a café on the canal and saw a plaque proclaiming that Joyce used to frequent it. We then read in our guide books that this café was one of his regular spots, though not the main one. It was fun to be sitting at a “Joyce café,” drinking the local "apperitif" (a mixture of wine, seltzer, and some bitter orange liquor). We had nice views of the canal and heard a concert from some group that set up on square in front of a church nearby. There’s also a statue of Joyce nearby walking along the bridge over the canal (he’s holding a book). We walked all along the canal and visited an orthodox church there. It's the biggest orthodox church I've seen, very decorated and impressive. We had delicious pizza for dinner that night in a nearby restaurant. We stayed in a pensione near the train and bus stations.

On Sunday we visited Miramar, the estate the Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Josef built for himself just outside Trieste on the sea. We took the bus there before 9 am on a Sunday morning and were surprised to find the bus very crowded. Barbara and I remarked about how odd it seemed for a bus to be so crowded early on a Sunday morning. I said maybe they’re all going to church, and she agreed. She noticed that most of the people on the bus were elderly. I do remember thinking they did not look dressed for church. Anyway, eventually the bus goes along the sea for a few miles and the route ends at Miramar. As we got near the sea, Barbara told me all those people were going to the beach (she’d heard them talking). And sure enough each seaside stop for a mile or more saw numbers of people getting off the bus with their bags of towels and so on for a day on the seashore. From the bus we saw hordes of people already packing the “beaches.” Mostly people were lying out in parks and on concrete walkways along the sea. I’m not sure there is a “beach” per se. I think, rather, that the coast is all rocky like in Croatia. But huge numbers of apparently mostly older people enjoyed spending their Sunday lying out on this “beach.” Barbara and I both found it amusing that we assumed all the old people were going to church when in fact they were going to the beach.

Miramar itself is a lovely estate, like a palace on the sea with huge gardens and wilderness areas. In fact the world wildlife fund has owned the place for over 20 years. The house has been restored so that most rooms have original furnishings and décor. It’s not a huge, huge mansion, like, say, Biltmore in North Carolina (which I think is the biggest house in the U.S. and was built around the same time), but it is quite impressive. The best part, I thought, are all the views of the sea. From there, we made our way back to town and said goodbye before too long, as I had an early bus back to Rijeka (they took the train a few hours later). We left early to get back home in time to see the world cup finals. Of course you know that Italy won. So I was in Italy on the day (though not the hour) when they won the world cup. In fact I was in Italy the last time they won the world cup in 1982. I had just finished a year abroad in France and was traveling through Italy with my mom. It was a lot of fun to be there then because the whole country seemed to pour out into the streets to dance, laugh, run around with flags, and celebrate.

06 July 2006

Photos (Plitivice Falls & Istria)

29 June 2006


It's been extremely hot and humid here lately. Some places nearby (Bosnia) have hit 40 degrees celcius, though here it's "only" in the 30's (80's to 90's farenheit). Those temps feel different here from say Georgia, which gets even hotter, because air-conditioning is rarely used. So you never get a break from it. It reminds me of Africa (I lived in Senegal for a few years as a Peace Corp Volunteer). I do have air-conditioning in one room at home, and though I thought I wouldn't, I have been turning it on a little -- even slept in that room the last few nights. But at work now I'm sweating like crazy even with the windows open and a fan blowing. The relentless heat, and having to walk a lot in it (and traveling in it), is leaving me kind of perpetually just a little nauseous -- also like in Africa -- though it was much worse there (and for a whole two years). Plus I had to deal with being sick from parasites and malaria and other illness in Senegal, which is not at all the case here. So really it's not so much like Africa, just slightly reminiscent because of the heat.

I was traveling a lot in this heat because for much of the last week some friends (Doug and Gunda) were visiting. They had a car, so we were able to drive to some places I would otherwise not have been able to see. In addition to Istria, which I have described in a previous post, we saw Senj and Rab Island, and the last day Doug and I went to Plitivice National Park, which has a series of beautiful lakes and waterfalls. It was great, though also hot there. There is a series of paths and wooden walkways built so that you can walk quite close to and over the water, even right over some of the falls. So spray sometimes hits you refreshingly while you enjoy the sights and hike the trails. The water in the lakes is a strikingly bright and clear turqouise blue. There are tons of little fish that hang out right near the paths, probably because tourists feed them. Doug bent down near the water once and they all swam up to him and then even after he stood up and started walking again they kept following him and looking at him for food. You can't swim in the lakes. But we bought some pastries from a woman at a stand near the park entrance (spinach and cheese strudel), and she told us a place nearby to swim. So we went there. It was very cold, very clear water (the same as in the lakes) at this site, which was really just a slightly damned up part of the river, with a very deep pool surrounded by more shallow places, and even some waterfalls there (and an old mill). Apart from us, it was all Croatians taking advantage of the place, enjoying the coolness of the water on that hot, hot day.

It's too bad more people haven't come to visit me here. Doug and I were commenting one day about how little people in the U.S. expect of Croatia and how shocked they often are to learn how beautiful and interesting it is. Germans do know how great Croatia is, so Doug's friend Gunda was very excited to see and swim in the Adriatic and so on. In fact many Europeans come here for vacation. Well, Americans do too now. It's supposedly the hottest destination in Europe for Americans this year (according to Lonely Planet). Yet most people I told I was going to Croatia had a response more like, "Why would anyone want to go there?"

Before I came I thought I would definitely travel to Italy and Slovenia (neighboring countries), but in fact I feel like I've been traveling almost non-stop (or so it feels) and haven't even seen everything in Croatia, though I have seen a lot. There simply has not been time or really much reason to leave Croatia. There is so much to see here. The only thing left I'm really hoping to see is my great-grand-parents' ancestral village, for which I'll have to rent a car one day. Happily it's in a mountainous area that will likely be more cool. I probably won't make it to other countries, though some Italian friends have offered to meet me in Venice for a day trip. I think I can get there in three hours or so and back home in the same day. So I may do that next weekend. It's so hot right now though, that spending maybe six to eight hours traveling plus trying to sightsee in between is not that appealing. Maybe it will cool off.

I still have one set of papers to grade. Grades are due next week (for my class anyway). One of the things I did here was hook up all the students in my folklore class with American penpals from GCSU (and my nieces & nephew since there weren't enough American volunteers). That seems to have been popular, though not without problems (addresses that don't work, some who don't respond -- on both sides). Anyway, only now are most of them really starting to get their converstations going.

The World Cup is kind of fun to watch here (soccer), especially when Croatia was playing. Half the people you'd see on the street would be dressed up in the colors of the flag and in full party mode on the days when Croatia played. But Croatia did not make it through the first round. Nor did the U.S., nor did anyone unexpected -- other than major powers -- at least now for the quarter finals. But all the games are played on Croatian TV (on which there are only four national channels).

26 June 2006

Beautiful Istria

I have had the good fortune to be able to spend a few days in Istria, the peninsula to our West that I've heard so much about as a beautiful area, full of seaside Italian villages and hilltop, walled, medieval towns. It is a green and inviting place. A nice woman I met through the ethnology society in Zagreb invited me to visit her there. First I took the bus to meet her in Pazin. She works at the museum there, which is in an old castle overlooking a chasm or “pit.” This pit inspired Jules Verne to write one of his books, though he himself never visited there. The mayor only sent him pictures, but there is nonetheless a Jules Verne society in Pazin today. On the other side of the museum/castle from the pit are lovely views of rolling green countryside. There is also an impressive church. I had a good visit at the museum, guided by Olga (my host), who especially works in textile arts, which are among my favorites. So she explained well the process of preparing the thread, the loom, and then weaving. I met the director of the museum as well and had a good talk with her. Then Olga drove me around the region. On the drive we took it became obvious that the Istrian interior is more green and the hills and valleys are more distinct than what I’ve seen elsewhere in Croatia.
We went to Buzin from Pazin, where there is a little chapel with 15th century frescoes still quite well preserved. We got a woman who is the keeper of the keys to open it for us and she explained the images. From Buzin we drove to Motovun, site of an annual film festival much like Sundance. It’s perched on a high hill commanding a spectacular view of the surrounding hills and fields. We walked all around the walls, visited the church and soaked in the atmosphere of the lovely, old (14th century) cobblestone streets. From there we drove to Groznjan, another hilltop, walled, medieval village. In both Motovun and Groznjan most of the residents had left by the mid 20th century. So the government offered properties in both places to artists, who set up studios and eventually have brought the two towns back to life. In general, every town we saw in interior Istria seemed to have many artists, so you often see interesting sculptures and other modern art mixed in with the more ancient stuff. Truly post-modern.
Olga’s friend directs an international program for young musicians that is centered in Groznjan, so we met her there and all had a drink. We then met some other Americans there, one a teacher in the group (Jeunesses Musicales International), and another professor (from California) and his wife, who is Croatian originally. We all had dinner on an outdoor terrace overlooking beautiful views. Late that night Olga and I drove back to Rovinj, the town on the coast where she lives.
Rovinj is often described as the loveliest or most appealing town in Croatia, very like an Italian fishing village. So I was happy to be able to spend the next day wandering around there while Olga went to work in Pazin. One part of Rovinj rises steeply from the seaside path to a peak where you’ll find the big Cathedral of Saint Euphemia. From there a cobblestone street (one of many such) descends to the central square, right on the harbor full of sail boats. Along this street many artists have things for sale, most of it touristy junk like ashtrays made of seashells or mediocre paintings. There were a few good artists, including one well known “naïve” artist. But her work was quite expensive.
It was very pleasant to just wander the streets in Rovinj. Many little alleys, streets, and seaside points offer rewarding views. But it was also very full of tourists. In fact of all the places I went in Istria, this was by far the most crowded with tourists (in spite of contrary information from the guide books that this would be true of Porec). But when I was in Porec it was virtually empty compared to Rovinj. Perhaps as a result, the merchants in Rovinj were quite aggressive, more so than anywhere else I have been in Croatia. So I had people calling to me and then getting mad at me if I just walked by without stopping to look more closely at their wares. I also tried to bargain for a few things, but mostly the merchants were unwilling to lower their price by even a few kunas, unlike most other places in Croatia. Late that afternoon I met Olga and her boss from the museum (whom I’d met the day before) for coffee and then dinner. We ate in a nice little place on an atmospheric side street overlooking the sea. I had gnocchi with truffles, both specialties of the region of Istria.
The next day was a holiday in Istria, so Olga did not have to work and offered to take me to Porec, which is meant to have the most beautiful church around. On the way there we stopped at the ruins of yet another walled city on top of a hill. This one satisfied my appetite for ruins, which I think I explained in a previous post as having to do with an appealing mixture of architecture and nature. In Porec itself the main attraction is the Euphrasian Basilica, a beautiful 6th century church with glittering, golden mosaics reminiscent (to me) of San Marco’s in Rome (though only over the altar here as opposed to the whole church). The guide books say it’s more reminiscent of Ravenna in Italy, though I haven’t been there. There is a whole complex here (not just a church), with baptistery and a courtyard in between, a bishop’s palace (with a garden), and a museum. In various places you can also see mosaics dating back to the fourth century. The whole places is appealing, with many other nice architectural details besides just the mosaics.
We also wandered the streets of Porec, which as I noted, were surprisingly free of tourists (apparently there are quite a few huge tourist hotels nearby Porec). It may have been less crowded that day because (according to one merchant) there had been a shooting in town that morning. In fact we could not get to the ethnography museum because that area was taped off and police were still investigating the scene. We even saw a taped outline of a body on the street there. But what we were able to see of Porec was quite nice, typically blending lovely cobblestone, narrow, winding streets with views of the sea and old architecture. We had a good lunch in Porec, gnocchi again for me, before heading on back to Rovinj for me to catch a bus home.
On the way back from Porec to Rovinj, Olga stopped along the road (full of roadside stands selling wine, truffles, and honey to tourists), to show me a great view of a river valley known as “fjords” because of geographical resemblances. The bus ride from Rovinj to Rijeka seemed long, at three and a half hours, but with many great views, especially as we came to the eastern coast of Istria which melded into that Kvarner bay. Amazingly I met up with another Fulbrighter (Bess from Zagreb) at the bus station in Rovinj--amazing in terms of being a coincidence. She had come to Istria for a few days too with her friend Vera and was taking a bus to Pula (the same bus that then goes on to Rijeka--where I was going). So we rode together for the first few hours.
The next day a friend from home (Doug who has posted many comments here) arrived with his German friend Gunda (with a car). They are here for a week. Since they also were interested in seeing Istria, we went back, this time to Pula, which is especially notable for the giant first century Roman amphitheatre there. To me the most interesting fact about this is it’s a huge amphitheatre that seats 20,000 people, but the town was never bigger than 5,000 people. So it’s a mystery why such a large arena was needed. Today there are classical and pop music concerts held there at nights in the summer. I looked into getting tickets and going to one of these, but it seems like it is not to be.
In Pula there are also Roman walls, arches, mosaics, a temple, and various interesting churches, many of which we visited. This town too is on the sea. We were meant then to visit this woman I’d met in Groznjan since her work coordinates well with Doug’s. But we got lost, so we ended up on the road to Rijeka and never made it to Groznjan that day, unfortunately. But we noticed that a slight detour would take us to a couple of interesting sounding places, so we visited Roc, another hilltop town with walls and apparently an amazing musical tradition (playing accordion like instruments). During their festival apparently all (20-30) residents join in and play. There the tourist agency woman opened a few churches for us and showed up some Glagolitic script in one little church and old frescoes in another. She also recommended this “Glagolitic Road” that winds from Roc to Hum, which we thus drove along. Glagolitic script is a form of Croatian writing from the middle ages that people are very proud of today (though it is no longer used). I think there is an academy in Roc that teaches it and there are many examples of it that exist in the region. So this lovely country road is a monument to that script. Along its seven kilometers a sculptor in the 20th century erected a series of stone monuments all commemorating the script (often these sculptures were stone blocks somehow in the shape of the letter or with some of the letters engraved on them). I found it quite appealing.
At the end of the trail one is rewarded with Hum, which bills itself as the smallest village in the world (8 to 30 inhabitants). It’s another gem of a town on top of a hill. I feel like I’m just using the same superlatives and descriptive words over and over, because all of these places are so nice and interesting. They are also similar to each other and yet quite distinct. Hum is small, and hilly with cobblestone streets, many interesting architectural details (like little stone arches between buildings and over a road), and an interesting old church, and also striking and alluring modern details added by sculptors, like some impressive, new, sculpted brass doors on one very old barn like structure, and a newer wall in the fashion of the older walls overlooking an especially appealing view. This new wall had little niches built into it for flowers and other plants to grow right in the wall. And there were openings as though there were holes in it through which one could see the countryside. There were also many lovely flowers and plants, like a huge and fragrant rose tree in one courtyard. And lovely views of the hilly, green countryside abound.
In addition to all this beauty in terms of nature and architecture, Istria is known for its wine, its pasta, its truffles (though this is not truffle season), and of course its seafood. It’s no wonder that so many tourists flock there.

Some views of Istria (top = basilica at Porec; bottom = view of Rovinj from the sea, actually taken years after this blog, during a 2015 return trip

20 June 2006

Travel Advertisements

On BBC World (a news channel like CNN) and other international channels (like CNN International and Eurosport), there are not many commercials, and those they have seem to be limited to things that are travel oriented. So you don’t find commercials for products like clothes, household goods, cars or other such things. Instead the commercials are about places of the world they entice you to visit, or possibly about ways of getting to those places (e.g. advertisements for airlines). I find these advertisements interesting for a couple of reasons. First they each seem to look for a hook including a slogan to get people interested in the country or airline. Secondly, there are only a handful of places that advertise over and over. They are perhaps less developed countries, maybe those that depend on tourism. So there are ads for Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Croatia, and Montenegro, but also UAE and New Zealand. I have seen no ads for Western Europe, Northern Europe, Asia or the Americas. It may just be that in this part of the world they play ads geared to the Mediterranean (with a few other places like New Zealand thrown in). But I have not seen any ads for Italy, France, or Spain, which one might think would fit the Mediterranean theme, nor for other places in North Africa (besides Egypt). Maybe elsewhere they play very different travel ads. Or maybe only countries largely dependent on tourism pay for these advertisements.

Anyway, I thought I’d share some of the highlights of some of the more memorable of the slogans and a few other details of these ads. What they indicate about the nature of tourism and travel I will leave for us all to consider.

New Zealand: “100% pure escape,” and “100% New Zealand” flashes in writing on the screen at various points, to a song with the repeating lyric, “You’ve been waiting, you’ve been waiting for so long” all while they show endlessly beautiful scenes of mountains, forests, oceans, and lakes, and young, beautiful people looking like they’re having a great time there (one scene shows them being welcomed by Maoris on the beach – who are happily offering them fresh seafood).

Egypt: “Egypt’s Red Sea Riviera, where the sun always shines, every day of every year.” This comes after they show many scenes of scuba diving, swimming (with dolphins), many beautiful women in bathing suits sitting by pools or walking on beach. One very tanned woman in a striking white suit and very high heals saunters along the beach – you see only her body, no head.

Greece: “Live your myth!” is flashed on the screen at the end after many scenes of various people (some Greek, some tourists, some combinations) dancing happily to lively, traditional music in various interesting settings – on boats, in villages, in restaurants with flaming food being served, etc.

Croatia: “The Mediterranean as it once was” is announced after many scenes of various lovely coastal towns (Dubrovnik, Split, Zadar) and islands, along with scenes of people swimming in the aqua blue waters, scuba diving (and finding interesting undersea artifacts), sailing, etc. I rather like this ad, though I’ve heard a few Croatian people say how sick they are of it.

Others of which I remember fewer details include: Cyprus (showing beaches and towns), Emirates (showing high rise luxury hotels on beaches), Montenegro (showing mountains and dramatic coastlines), Maldives (with the slogan “the sunny side of life”).

Airlines advertisements I remember include the following examples.

Turkish Air has one that states, “The skies are changing” as they kind of morph a floral pattern common in pottery there into an airplane. A man with a very deep voice and a slight accent makes the slow pronouncement about change.

Air France has a trendy couple lounging beside a cool pool with soft but insistent, kind of synthetic background music. The woman dives in just as the beeping noise of an airplane announcement signals and says to “prepare your seat for landing.” She sleekly climbs out of the pool as the water therein tilts to one side (as though it’s in an airplane which is turning), back into her lounging chair, which is meant to represent her airline seat. She and her cool male companion glance at each other in self satisfaction in their seats.

Also many Asian airlines have ads that typically show beautiful, smiling, serene looking Asian women standing by watching and ready to cater to the every whim of (typically) a middle aged white man lounging in a luxurious airline seat. Usually they show only one passenger on the airplane, this man who seems to have a virtual bedroom to himself, with the Asian woman there to attend to his needs.

Delta shows a bear and wolf sanctuary and then people sleeping in comfortable seats while beautiful women prepare wine for them and close their shades. It flashes “bear sanctuary” and “wolf sanctuary” on the screen (with nice pictures of bear and wolves in their snowy habitats) before you even know what the ad is for. Then you see people looking very relaxed in their airplane seats while beautiful women attend to their needs.

The idea of airplanes as sanctuaries, swimming pools, or bedrooms, places that are quiet, serene, and tended over by beautiful women is the common theme, it seems.

Emirates Airlines also has a series of ads right now focusing on football (meaning soccer in American terms), showing white and Arab or African people interacting by playing football together. The slogan is “We all speak one language” (meaning football). You don't know the ad is for an airline until the very end.

Photos from Mljet, Dubrovnik, Kotor (2) and Dubrovnik (museum)

16 June 2006

More on Dubrovnik and Region

Now I am back in Rijeka as of a few hours ago -- the Marko Polo ferry, named after the historical figure who is by the way from the lovely Croatian island of Korćula, which I saw from the ferry twice on this trip, pulled into Rijeka with its load of weary tourists at 7 am. I had a cabin again this time on the 21 hour ferry ride. A Slovenian man I met on this leg of the trip, Sylvester, told me that these ferries (the Marko Polo and the Liburnija, which I took in April to Split) are the same ferries that have been in use since the old Yugoslavia, 40-70 years old. And they do show their age. For instance in the cabin I had last night there was an awful lot of rattling all night long, and I heard other passengers saying the same thing as we waited to pull into dock this morning.

My remaining time in Dubrovnik and region was enjoyable and inspiring. I went to Mljet on Monday, an island near Dubrovnik that is a national park. Like national parks everywhere I guess, it was full of lovely views of nature, including two little salt water "lakes" (really inlets connecting through a narrow channel to the sea), lots of trees and other vegetation (many flowers this time of year), and the mountains that are a ubiquitous part of the Croatian coast and islands. There are also some interesting little towns, like Polače, where our catamaran docked, that has ruins of a Roman settlement right in the middle of the town (the main road goes through the arch created by them).

And the jewel of Mljet, in my opinion is the islet of St. Mary of the Hill in the "big lake." Here is a Benedictine Monastery (including it's limestone church with colorfully decorated -- painted -- altars), the ruins of an older church, a couple of little chapels, and foot paths through it all. You can walk all around this islet and get spectacular views of the turquoise to deep green waters, the mountains and trees, various interesting vegetation (huge alo vera plants, wild and cultivated flowers, pine and palm trees, lavender, sage, etc.) and stylistic architecture. Paths circle near the little tiny chapels (just large enough for a little altar and shrine and maybe four people maximum to squeeze in), up to the ruins (being excavated) and down to the seaside. There are a few cafes on the island too, where the boats dock. The boats are part of the park. You get a free ride to and from the islet with your park entrance ticket (which costs about $17). The one less-than-ideal scene on the island that day, though, was a donkey tied up near the top whose leg was all mangled (bloody and bandaged). When I saw him he was lying there looking pitiful and I remain haunted by that image of his suffering. But other people on the catamaran going back to Dubrovnik said they saw him standing and eating and looking not too bad (though we all noticed his leg -- you couldn't help it).

After my time on the islet soaking up mostly beauty, I rented a bike and biked around much of the "big lake" for a few hours. Tourists were biking away (and hiking and canoeing) everywhere, some with their own bikes, some with rented bikes (or rented canoes). It's been a while since I biked so far and over bumpy (gravelly) roads, so I was sore and had a headache by the end. But it did give me some good perspectives on the park. I also sat by the "little lake" for a while where some people were swimming. Actually people were swimming all over the island's beaches, but it was too cold for me (and I did not bring a suit).

By the way, Mljet is thought to be the island where Odysseus holed up for a while with Calypso. And it's also thought to be "Mileta," the island where St. Paul was shipwrecked and bitten by a serpant before continuing on to Rome. According to my guide book, the island was once plagued by snakes until they imported the mongoose from India. Supposedly you can still see the creatures (mongoose), though I did not see any while I was there.

Later that afternoon I hiked along the road back to the spot where the bus took me back to the town where the boat was docked. All in all, through walking, hiking, and biking, I had an active day filled with lovely scenery. While waiting for the ferry I had an early dinner on the balcony of a restaurant that had a TV set up there to play a soccer game (Australia vs Japan) from the world cup. World cup fever has hit all of Europe and probably much of the world. The day Croatia played (Tuesday), half the Croatian people I saw that day were dressed up in country colors (shirts, hats, etc.) that look like part of the Croatian flag (like a red and white checkerboard). And they were joyous in their revelry, blowing horns, waving flags in front of tourists faces, etc. Sadly, they had to play Brazil in their first game and lost. On the catamaran back to Dubrovnik from Mljet, we watched the game on the boat playing then (U.S. vs. the Czech Republic), so I saw the U.S. lose their first game rather ingloriously.

Tuesday I spent exploring Dubrovnik more, particularly a number of churches and museums, like the ethnography museum. One especially interesting thing there (to me) was some art made out of palm fronds (like the kind you get on palm Sunday) -- the fronds are woven and twisted into beautifully patterned designs. My Croatian grandmother (born in the U.S., but parents from Croatia) used to do that and teach us how to every year at Easter time. I never knew it was a folk custom that came from Croatia until I saw this display of similar art in this ethnography museum.

That afternoon I took a bus to Cavtat, a nearby coastal town that has a lovely sea front, but it is overrun with tourists. Well, most places in that region are overrun by tourists, but maybe since Cavtat is smaller, it seemed even fuller of tourists and tourist oriented businesses. I did walk up many steps to a cemetery where Ivan Mestrovič (famous sculptor) designed a famous mausoleum. I saw no other tourists in that part of town, though it was well worth the effort of the climb to see it.

Then Wednesday I took an organized (Atlas) tour to Montenegro. Many people had told me how lovely Kotor is, and that is what I most wanted to see. But the whole trip was good, from the bay of Kotor with its church filled islets and towns, to the mountain tops of scrubby little villages known for good wine and cheese (our lunch), and where the king of Montenegro lived -- we saw his palace. But I think the place I most enjoyed was Budva, a walled coastal town similar to Dubrovnik. The unfortunate thing about a package tour is that you don't get enough time to see everything in the way and time frame you want to. So our stay in Budva was short, only an hour. But still, I'm glad I got this overview of Montenegro, a small but lovely country. The churches in Kotor and Budva (some Orthodox, some Catholic) were among the best (most architecturally interesting and well designed and decorated) that I've seen in this part of the world.

Overall I felt I could have used several more days to really appreciate Dubrovnik and region, but at least I got that almost-week there.

11 June 2006

Finally in Dubrovnik

I got to Dubrovnik yesterday after a 20 hour ferry ride from Rijeka. The Marko Polo ferry is nice enough, though it doesn't compare to the MV Explorer (the ship I was on for Semester at Sea). I had a cabin that was fine but a bit dingy. But still, twenty hours packed in with nothing but tourists (from Germany, France, England, the U.S. and elsewhere) was a bit much, and tiring. Along the way there was plenty of pretty scenery, of the rocky, mountainous coast and the endless string of 1,000 islands. Being outside, though, was windy and sometimes too sunny. I saw an awfully large number of tourists toward the end of the voyage who were burnt to a crisp.

I picked out a place on the internet to stay in here in Dubrovnik and it turns out to be ideally located (right in the best part of old town), very friendly, and comfortable, plus it is pretty cheap for here (about $36 a night). In terms of my overall impression of Dubrovnik, I couldn't use enough superlatives. It's beautiful and interesting, though also packed with tourists. Still, although I feel like the streets and various sites are choked with tourists now, it is apparently MUCH more crowded in July and August (the main tourist season and also when the lauded Dubrovnik festival occurs). The weather is also great in spite of predicted rain. It's in the 60's and sunny. I walked the whole circuit of the city walls this morning. These walls, built in the 13th through 16th centuries (later re-built at various times), are limestone (white), as is most of the town, and circle all of old town, offering endless spectacular views of the red clay tiled roofs of the old town, the sea, various fortresses, and the many little streets inside oldtown and outer areas of Dubrovnik. I spent a good 2 and 1/2 hours on the walls (it usually takes 1 hour I guess) and got lots of photos along with soaking up lots of atmosphere.

Then I had a pizza lunch (typical for Croatia) and have been wandering streets all afternoon (as I did yesterday afternoon and evening). It seems that every corner you turn and every little square and tiny street you stumble upon offers something of interest, weather lovely statues carved into the architecture, a grape arbor over a terrace, roses or other flowers growing, cats sleeping in the sunshine on a wall, or even someone's laundry hanging out over what looks to me like wild sage growing. I've also visited a number of churches and museums, including two monasteries with beautiful cloisters and museums. The cloisters (one Franciscan, one Dominican) have each had orange trees growing in the cloisters with big oranges hanging on the brances. They also have in their reliquaries or museums little body part reliquaries. These are ornately filagreed and decorated silver, enjeweled cases, often here in Croatia in the shape of body parts (like an arm, a foot, a leg, a finger, even a head). That reliquary holds parts (or maybe THE part that it's in the shape of) of whatever saint it honors. Although it may sound gruesome these reliquaries are actually quite beautifully worked and well worth seeing. Yesterday I saw a head reliquary of Saint Ursula. I wanted to get a picture for my friend Ursula, but they did not allow photos and sold no postcards of it.

I've also seen a number of very fine icons, including some in the inside of an orthodox church today. Another churchly phenomenon that I've often noticed here is that statues, chapels and other religious iconic art is often highly decorated, with flowers, candles, sometimes other art, especially statues or paintings of Mary. I've seen more examples of this here, including one church that had a whole sort of grotto devoted to a statue of Mary. There were many little niches therein full of flowers and plants, and then a bunch of candles out front. And in the Orthodox church there was a middle aisle of the floor that was stone with a sort of little altar to Mary set up in the middle of this aisle. Then there were wooden floors on either side of this where normally you'd expect to see chairs or pews. But these wooden floors were empty except for some dried flowers sprinkled all over them. Maybe there had been a wedding or something. One thing different about Orthodox churches (if you haven't seen one) is that usually there is a "screen" between the main part of the church and the altar. The screen is often heavily decorated with paintings (like icons), crosses, and other religious art.

Tomorrow I may go to an island which is also a national park -- Mjlet. Then Tuesday I'll continue touring around here. Wednesday I will likely go to Montenegro (Kotor area) on a bus tour (which appears to be about the only way to get there for a day trip).

05 June 2006

Back in Zagreb

My party the other day went well, though fewer people came than I thought might. So I have quite a lot of food and drink leftover. Everyone brought presents, which I wasn't expecting. So I have a few little mementos now, even more bottles of wine, and some beautiful flowers. Yesterday, Sunday, I took the bus to Zagreb again, to give a lecture today (in about an hour) at the Museum of Ethnology.

I had dinner last night with some friends here at a good Italian restaurant. I had gnocchi with a creamy truffle/spinach sauce, and a delicious tomato, cheese salad. Zagreb is a nice city with more shops and restaurants and everything than Rijeka. But I think overall I'm happier being on the coast. Still, today I visited Algoritam, a big bookstore downtown. It was quite large and all the books are in English. I got a book by a Croatian writer (Slavenka Drakulic), another (called Another Food in the Balkans) by a Brit who has traveled around here, and two works of fiction by Americans writers. So I think I'll have enough reading now to get me through the rest of my time here. I have less than 6 weeks left in Croatia.

Before I left I had thought that for sure I would take trips to Trieste and Venice (in Italy), Slovenia, maybe even Austria or further afield. But so far I have only traveled in Croatia. And for those of you who keep urging me to see Dubrovnik, don't worry, I have a five day trip planned there, leaving Friday. In fact I feel like I have been traveling quite a lot. And though I have seen most of the country, I still have a fair amount left that I haven't seen. So just fitting in the things I want to see in Croatia should fill my time, let alone going to other countries. I guess this is alright, since ultimately Croatia was what I came to see and was most interested in for this trip. But it will feel odd to be so close to Itlay and not to visit there. Maybe I'll at least get to Trieste one day. I hear it's got a very Austro-Hungarian feel.

The Croatian writer I mentioned, by the way, Slavenka Drakulic, is one I recommend. I have only thus far read her non fiction, a collection of essays called Cafe Europa. She gives interesting insight into the culture here from before, during and after the recent war, and the changes wrought (or not) during the switch from communism to capitalism. One of the things she discusses is something I've mentioned here before too, the concern people have over whether outsiders like the country. I had thought it was out of pride. And maybe it is in part, but it's also partly out of insecurity. After all Italians and French and so on are not constantly asking foreigners what they think of their countries. They are convinced of their own excellence and don't need outside approval, or at least that's one way of thinking of it (I've had discussions with people here about this too). But this country is relatively new and in some ways fragile, so that I guess it's understandable that people wonder what outsiders think about it.

03 June 2006

Working Days

Mundane matters like working (teaching and writing) have been keeping me busy lately. The weather turned cold for several days. Maybe if you’ve been watching the French Open (tennis tournament) you’ve seen people shivering and bundled up there. It’s not quite as cold here, but it is uncharacteristically cold for this time of year. Today it’s very clear, early this morning at least. So from my apartment I have a clear view of the sea and land across it, including Krk Island. The sky is colorful as well, with a kind of glow of light and a bit of color from a sunrise over the land across the water. The sun glows through between the bluish looking land and clouds.

Although I still have almost 6 weeks left here, it feels like things are winding down and I’m turning my thoughts toward leaving in little ways (like getting rid of books). I’m having a party today for everyone in my department (and the neighbors and others I know here). I’m making a big pot of chili, cornbread, rice and desserts. So I’m thinking of giving people party favors of some of the gifts and books I brought along from the States. I’ve spent much of the week cleaning.

Recently I seem to have lost most of my television channels. I think they were supposed to be blocked (on satellite) all along, but for some reason I was getting them. But now they are truly blocked as they were supposed to be. Most of the French channels are gone, and some of the very few English channels that I ever got. So the only channel I really get now (that’s useful and understandable) is BBC World, a fine channel, but not really enough. Luckily Croatian TV, which I also get (6 channels)—not on Satellite—often plays shows in English. But I miss all my French channels and BBC Prime. I was getting pretty good at French. In Zadar I went and saw The Da Vinci Code (movie). One frustrating thing about watching that here was that they have characters speaking in other languages throughout the film, which are translated in subtitles. But of course here the subtitles are in Croatian, so that did me no good. But one of most spoken foreign languages in the film was French. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was taking in the French almost as easily as the English in the film. Sometimes I even had moments where I was kind of startled to realize that they weren’t speaking English.

Classes are winding down and then “exams,” which are a huge deal here, take place. Recently my students told me that they have as many as 17 or 20 classes a semester. And then at the end of the year (now) they are supposed to take exams for all of them. These are comprehensive written AND oral exams that can be quite difficult to pass. They said that most people only take a few exams during the year when they took the class. Then they have all the following year to take the previous years exams. And they get to take each exam three times (it’s a right). So sometimes they are so backed up with exams from the previous year that they can hardly get through their classes for the current year. It seems like a crazy system. How can anyone do well at 17 classes at once at this level? Partly they have so many classes because they have two majors. English is only one major, then they all have a second major, either education or psychology or philosophy or Croatian, or whatever. Anyway, it was clear as I spoke to one group of students the other night how frustrated they all are by the system. They were asking me how it works in the States. I think the “Bologna Process,” which all of Europe is switching too, is partly an attempt to alleviate these kinds of overloads and over-emphases on exams. In the new system (just in its first year here), students have fewer classes and are supposed to have continual assessment. But of course switching to a new system after so long takes a while. And many professors who have only known the old system may not really change much in their classes or teaching styles. So whether the new system will really be implemented and how successfully remains to be seen.

27 May 2006

Pictures from Nin

Pictures from Zadar

25 May 2006

Visit to Zadar

I just spent five days in a lovely city on the coast south of here, Zadar. I went to give a series of lectures, partially as part of a seminar they had on American Studies. Zadar has an old walled part of the city that gives it an ancient feel, yet it is also quite modern and lively, with many groups of tourists walking around, as well as lots of locals shopping at the market, going to cafes and churches, and catering to the tourists. There are probably more tourists in Zadar than any other city I've visited except Split. My hotel was a very large one that catered to big busloads of tourists, mostly from France and Germany. I had a half-board deal (through the university), so I ate my suppers there amidst these big crowds. The room itself was small but had a nice balcony with views of the sea and the hotel's big round pool. I finally swam there the last day and was only surprised by the fact that the pool water was salty. It was quite startling. But I think people here often believe that the sea water is healing, so maybe that's why it was in the pool.

One of the more interesting aspects of Zadar is one big square in the old town where there are several interesting churches, a few museums, and remains (ruins) of the old Roman forum. There are ancient capitals just lying on the ground with images of Jupiter carved into them. There is also a church called St. Donat's that was constructed at least partly with remains from the old forum. It's a striking church in that it is round, one of the few round churches in this part of the world. The building is now only used for summer concerts, though there was no such concert while I was there. One bit of music I did hear though was the "sea organ" they have, literally an organ constructed so that the water rushes through pipes and creates music. It was lulling. I sat on the steps right on the shore (in part of the old town) for over an hour listening. I got sunburnt. Later that evening I watched the new Da Vinci Code movie in town, which was alright.

When I visited the archeology museum I noticed that many artifacts from the medieval period were in fact from a city nearby called Nin. I had a free day in which to travel and thought about going to an island or a park nearby. But instead I went to Nin, the ancient city of kings of Croatia. It was a picturesque town, the old town of which is actually on a little island. I wandered around there for hours and saw four or five lovely old churches, remains of a Roman temple, the old city wall, a cemetary, and another archeology museum. There were also interesting houses and some businesses. People in Croatia, like all over Europe, are really into landscaping, and right at this time those flowers most in bloom are roses. I saw huge, blooming, fragrant rose bushes all over the city, and for that matter, all over this part of Croatia (on the road). There are also many bright red poppies growing wild all over. For instance, amidst the ruins of the Roman temple were masses of poppies. Just outside of town there is also a hill, which is apparently an ancient burial mound with a little chapel built on top of it. A picture I'd seen of this the day before was partly what drew me to visit here. In fact this hill and chapel--St. Nicholas--were quite small, very appealing, but small, almost (some descriptions said) like a big chess piece on the hill. I'll try to post a photo later if any came out. I only saw St. Nicholas from the bus as it was moving since it was a way outside of town.

On the bus to Nin I met a Canadian traveler who was heading to Nin for the beaches. He asked me why I was going and I told him to see the museum and the churches and ruins. He said at the beginning of his trip, a few weeks ago, he was really in to churches and castles and museums, but then he got burned out at that and just needed the reality of the beach. He had read that the best beaches in Croatia are in Nin. It's funny how different travelers can have such different experiences of a country. To me most beaches are more or less the same. I love walking along the sea, or sitting and meditating or reading near it. But to sit/lie all day in the sun and swim ocassionally doesn't appeal to me. But to skip some of the most interesting churches (for instance "the smallest cathedral in the world") and stunning artifacts in the region completely in favor of sitting in the sun all day baffles me. But I suppose my style of living and traveling would baffle many others.

Today is my birthday, and also that of Tito, or so it used to be celebrated as (I heard that it wasn't really his birthday but he claimed it as such because it was a good time for a holiday). It's no longer a national holiday. Nor will it be much of a celebration for me. But I'm glad to be back home and to have a chance to rest, to gear up for my next round of travel starting in about 10 days. I may go look for a new book to read and have a meal out. But I think I'll also try to make it to the market and cook for myself tonight, something I've missed while on the road.

16 May 2006

Visit to Osijek

I took the train for an eight and a half hour journey last week to Osijek (leaving Rijeka at 5:43 am). In Osijek I taught a few classes for their University English department (in the faculty of philosophy). Osijek is the capital of Slavonia, in the eastern half of the country. It was one of the places most hurt by the recent war. People I met there told me about what they remembered of the times the city was under air raids and shelling attacks. They said they would be working and suddenly when the sirens started everyone who wasn’t already home would race home. They said you cold drive 90 miles an hour right down city streets and through red lights to try to make it home. Unlike nearby Vukovar, many buildings that had been destroyed or scarred by the bombs and shooting were repaired in Osijek. But there were still a number of facades in which one can see pock marks and other signs of where shrapnel or bullets hit. Before the war Osijek was known as being one of the most multicultural and cosmopolitan cities in the country. But now most Serbs and other non-Croatian nationalities have apparently left. Just inside the door into the faculty are bas relief portraits of four students from the faculty who were killed during the war. One teacher remembered how she and other teachers had been carrying out a thesis defense in a room right there, and all during the defense they heard these loud bomb-like noises. But they carried on. Later they found out that the big, public market (just on the other side of that building) was being bombed. They said that even while they were living through it all, it seemed surreal and unbelievable.

The city of Opatija sits on the Drava River, a wide, rolling river that was quite high when I was there (it had flooded recently). Nearby, the Drava meets up with the Danube, which has meant this area has been geographically important for millennia. There is a long, park-lined walk along the Drava in town that extends from the newer, modern city to the older section of town, the Trvda. When I walked along it, there were joggers, bikers, people in shells and other boats (on the river) and a lot of people just enjoyed the scenery (sitting on benches or strolling along). Nearby Osijek there is a national park (Kopacki Rit) that is one of the largest wetlands in Europe. All this water apparently makes the area ideal for mosquitoes. I had been warned by the embassy while I was there in Zagreb last month about how bad the mosquitoes can be in Osijek. Sure enough, within a few minutes of getting off the train, on the tram on the way to my hotel, I killed a mosquito on my arm. At points we were literally swarmed by mosquitoes, though mostly it was just a matter of keeping yourself alert and not being shy about waving your arms about. In fact several people told me a joke that in Osijek if you see someone waving their arms about in the street you know that it’s either normal behavior because of the mosquitoes or they’re crazy (but usually it’s the former).

My hosts in Osijek were very nice, welcoming, and appreciative. They have several people there who do American Studies, including a woman who studies and teaches Native American literature. She spent a year in Arizona on a Fulbright. So I had some compatible colleagues with whom it was enjoyable to share notes and experiences. My lectures seemed to go over well, but probably most interesting of the whole visit there was the amazing coincidence that the very day I was giving my lectures there was a visitor from the U.S. that the embassy brought to town to speak, and he was none other than the director of the National Museum of the American Indian (part of the Smithsonian, which I visited last summer), Richard West. I was able to hear his lecture, which was very well received by the large audience. Then afterward I was invited to attend the lunch with him and several Croatian colleagues. It was a good day.

Mostly I spent my time in Osijek with my colleagues there. One night we met at the national theater to watch Shakespeare (Twelfth Night, in Croatian). One of the professors I’d met that day teaches and writes about theater, so she got us all in for free. I was going just to see the theater. But in the end I stayed for the first two acts. Even though I couldn’t understand, it was interesting to watch. There were interesting silver sets, nice costumes, and musicians playing piano, guitar and drums in between and during some scenes.

Osijek is a town of broad avenues, lovely old mansions, many green and flowery parks, active public squares, and a fair amount of modern architecture (no doubt much of it recently repaired buildings or facades that were damaged in the war). It’s also one of the only places in Croatian where some of the traditional cuisine includes spicy food. I had a delicious pepper salad one day at lunch (though it honestly wasn’t very hot), though the pepper/cheese spread (not dissimilar from Pimento Cheese) that day was quite satisfyingly spicy. There are also a couple of Sezchuan restaurants in town, and I ate a spicy meal there one night.

The train was an interesting, though long, eight hour ride. I saw a lot of Croatia, from rocky coast near here, to the mountains of Gorsky Kotor (just east of here), to gradually declining hills until the flat, fertile land of Slavonia. Before the war it was the “breadbasket” of Croatia, and also enjoyed a prosperous economy based on a number of factories and businesses. But it has yet to really bounce back to that pre-war state of prosperity. Nonetheless the people I met there were some of the friendliest, most welcoming, and interesting that I have met anywhere in the country.

07 May 2006

A Few Images from Rab Island

Visit to Rab Island

I spent a rewarding day yesterday on Rab Island, one of the southernmost inhabited islands of the Kvarner region. I took the bus from Rijeka, which included a ride on the ferry, and wound up in Rab Town, the "old town" of which goes back at least 1000 years (or parts of it do). Rab Town is known for its four distinctive remaining towers (there were more once), some beautiful churches, charming streets that wind through the old town, and a dramatically beautiful seafront with large deciduous forests. It's also known for its "naturist" beaches (i.e. nude beaches). King Edward XIII vacationed here, though it's debated whether he bared all. He was wooing Wallis Simpson all along the Adriatic. Rab has been a tourist destination for quite some time, though luckily there were only a few busloads of Germans there yesterday, and various other wandering tourists from all over, including Croatia. I met a woman on the bus who said she lives near Zagreb and has never been here before. She said she found the island unbelievably beautiful. I agree.

Not much was open in terms of churches and museums since it was not yet tourist season (which is July-September). In preparation for the masses to come there was a lot of construction going on. But much of the town was quiet and enjoyable. Most of the important churches had their doors open, but not the grill gatework that is just inside the door. So you could peer through the grillwork at the interior. There is also one old church in ruins now (St. Justine I think). But sometimes ruins are more interesting or appealing to me than intact churches, I guess because I enjoy the sense of mystery, imagining what it might have been like in its heyday. Also it sort of becomes part of the natural environment in a way, making it half naturally, half architecturally interesting. Anyway, at this site of ruins the tower still stands, along with the apse, and they have reconstructed (putting up pillars) part of the nave and other areas. There were supposed to be beautiful mosaics here originally, only traces of which are left, but I searched and searched and could find no traces of mosaics. So I'm assuming they've been moved to a museum. There was also a lovely cathedral called "St. Mary the Great" (a great name), made striking by the use of contrasting colored stone (pink and white) in construction of the outer, front wall (see photo above).

This old town is on a hill, and the steepest part of the hill is the street with all the churches and towers and borders the sea. So from here you can walk down to the seaside or get dramatic views. There is also a very large (100's of acres) park next to the old town area which also has areas with steps leading down to the seafront. After lunch I walked along this seafront for a while (a mile or more). One walks along a well used path including many little built-in seats of stone and cement. Every so often there are also cafes or swimming areas. I saw a few people swimming. I did stick my feet in once and found the water to be pretty cold, but not unbearable. There were a few place with actual sand beaches, though mostly they were mostly rocky, maybe mixed with a little sand, and there were plenty of concrete areas too (though not as much as in some places).

Most of the cafes were closed (except for one larger one that I think was part of a hotel). There were also some very beautiful and large rocks on the shore at various places. I think they were fossils since they have very interesting markings, groves, notches, pocks, and so on (there's picture of some of these above). The water as usual in Croatia varies from deep green to turqouise blue. I don't know what causes the water to have that striking turqouise blue pattern in patches. There is lot of limestone in the landscape here, so I was thinking maybe it happens where the bottom is limestone without any vegetation or dirt. And that might reflect the sky differently. But I don't know if this idea has any merit.

It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm, but with a cool breeze that kept me from ever feeling hot. I had lunch in a restaurant called Paradiso in a courtyard that had an interesting mix of features -- old stone and woodwork in the walls and balconies, flower boxes full of gernaiums, and over the old, covered well, a modern glass sculpture that I think was meant to resemble a kind of water fountain. There was also music blaring from the louspeakers, a contemporary Italian singer, it sounded like. The food was pizza and pasta. The pizza I had was okay, not the best I have had here, though the most expensive (at $9). Corn on pizza just doesn't appeal to me, and this one had it, along with mushrooms, zuchinni, and peppers. I had asked just for mushroom pizza, but in trying to stress or verify that I wanted no meat on the pizza I used the word "vegetarian." So the waiter got the idea that I wanted a mixed vegetable pizza and they put on all this other stuff. This place was also notable for charging 25 kuna ($4) for a carafe of tap water (at least that's what I ordered; maybe it was bottled water poured into a carafe).

The bus/ferry ride back and forth was long but quite enjoyable because the coastal scenery all along the way was so lovely. We stopped off at a number of seaside villages to pick up or let off passengers. One of the more striking things I remember about this ride, apart from the generally beautiful scenery of sea, mountains, and dramatic landscapes, were the wildflowers blooming all along the way. Many of these were fairly generic seeming, but one that especially struck me was the deep purple iris. I had heard from the folklore institute that the iris played a big role in traditional mythology here (like in Greece there was a goddess named for the flower). But now I can start to see why. The iris seems to grow wild all along this route we traveled and is evident in great abundance. Everywhere you see interspersed amidst the greenery, yellow and softer colored flowers these bursts of deep purple. It took me a little while to realize they are irises. And since they are all along the road and hillsides, even far from settlements, they cannot all have been planted. What joy it added to the day to see all these wild irises everywhere.

04 May 2006

Concrete Thoughts

This has been a week of teaching here at my home institution in Rijeka, which has been enjoyable. The students are good as always, and last night a few stayed to talk to me after class about Croatia and what I should see here. Everywhere I go here people are always asking me how I like Croatia, how I like Rijeka, how I like each place I see. I think this interest in foreigners' responses comes from a deep pride in the country. And my response is always an enthusiastic and genuine, "I love it." Everywhere I've been has been appealing and interesting at the very least and sometimes quite breathtaking, from the little stone villages on islands to the capital of Zagreb. My students gave me enthusiastic recommendations of other places to visit places in Istria and the islands. I think I will go to a few places in Istria this weekend if the weather holds (sunny and warmer the last few days).

The building my department/faculty is housed in also houses an elementary school, and maybe even classes through middle school. So very often when I'm coming or going there will be children on recess in the courtyard in front of the building. Right now there are some kids skateboarding on the sidewalk just below my window. The noise is a distraction since I have the window open on this sunny, warm day. I rather suspect these particular kids (since there are only a few) are not on recess but playing hooky. Usually the kids in front of the school play ball games (like soccer) or sometimes just stand and talk to each other. The area in front of the building actually intrigues me, because it is just a big open space covered over in concrete, but also with rectangular blocks of concrete sticking up, which are painted green, a kind of chartreuse I'd say. There is a parking garage underneath, so perhaps the concrete blocks are part of the support for that. But the fact that the are painted green suggests that they are meant to be decorative.

This is a rather large open space in the middle of a very public section of town, with banks, businesses, apartment buildings, the police station next door, the city tower off one end of this square, and so on, busy all around. So it seems like it should be used in some way, perhaps as a park or square if nothing else, because of its prime location. It might be kind of public art display, given that these rectangular blocks sticking up are painted. And there is also a longer, lower diagonal block that cuts through at an angle that is painted red. Or perhaps it is designated as the square or playground for the children's recess from this school. But it strikes me as an odd playground, with no equipment, no grass or trees or plants, or a public art display that is primarily plain, ugly concrete. If it's meant for children it's poor planning because the blocks sticking up just hinder their ball games, or make them more challending.

Just today, during my folklore class, in which I was giving an exam, there was a kind of assembly of the grade school students. They were set up in this square, near the steps to the building (which served as a stage), in a little semi-circle, singing songs (with mics and amplifiers) and doing other little performances. It was sort of sweet and interesting, except that it was pretty disruptive for my poor students sitting for an exam. Well, I think it was a pretty easy exam, and the music and voices weren't too loud.

In regards to this concrete public space -- as I think about it, a lot of the public spaces here seem to involve significant amounts of concrete. The river that gives the town it's name (Rijeka means river in Croatian and the Italian name for the town, Fiume, also means river) flows between concrete banks, which must have been so changed within the last century. The whole waterfront is concretized, even in places designated as "beaches." And many public parks have as much or more concrete than grass. I wonder why this is -- perhaps concrete makes it seem more sanitized or easy to care for or something. Even in the tourist resort of Opatija, the main "beach" is a big area that is covered in a massive concrete slab, and this is where the tourists and locals sunbathe, lying on their towels on the concrete.

03 May 2006

A Few Photos from Zagreb