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Along the Bohemian Coast

What to make of a travel agent that begins his sales pitch with a vivid and highly informative description of the coffins available to you if for some reason your trip should go astray?  I opted for rosewood.  When asked, would the agency cover the cost of shipping my body home if it came to that?  He responded by saying that as long as getting me home didn’t cost more than 30 million Czech crowns I would be sent wherever I wanted to go.  One way or the other I was destined to have quite an excursion.

I was nearing the end of year’s work in Eastern Europe.  My battery was run down by bouncing from one stop to another in buses, on trains and in the ever lovin’ Ladas.  I had, in my time over there, seen more oncoming trucks bearing down on me than would ever be considered safe.  As a result Greyhound buses are something I would now consider to be the height of luxury. With the approach of summer it was clear to me that I was in need of a vacation. What better place than a not so nearby, recent, semi, war zone, Croatia.

I had had my fill of historic places, been fed a lifetime dose of revolutionary tales and certainly met a hefty sum of fascinating people.  Now, all I wanted to do was sit on a beach, soak up some sun, swim, eat good food and sleep.   Ivana, my cohort in Prague had suggested the destination.  Most of the former hostages of the Soviet Empire had stopped going to the Yugoslav coast when the wall fell in 1989.  But now the economy was turning south, again, and villas in Italy were a little pricey for all parties concerned.  So I signed up to be the token American in a group of about forty Czechs on a tour to the island of Cres just off the northern Croatian coast.  When I told my the family the reaction was, “Why must you vacation in a war zone?!” They took no comfort when I suggested that the war was in the midst of an outbreak of peace. They did not see this with same sense of assurance that I had intended.  I left out the whole discussion about coffin insurance. My feeling is that they would applaud a travel agency that throws in that kind of coverage for a trip that only costs $200.00?

The agent operated two buses that make the weekly run to Croatia from Prague.  In my various ventures cross-country I had become somewhat the connoisseur of buses.  This one could be lauded for being less broken down than most.  There have been those stressful moments in my life that I have occasionally had to say to myself,  “Just try not to think about it.”  During a four-month stint in Romania I was using that phrase on an almost hourly basis.  It came into play once more on this occasion when the agent broke the news to us that the trip normally takes 16 hours. It is funny how different cultures react to the news that they will be trapped on an old bus, sans toilet, for sixteen hours.  My Czech comrade and her daughter, Johana packed pillows and blankets, bread and beer.  They seemed to have visions of sleeping on this voyage.  I baked chocolate chip cookies.  Despite what you might think, chocolate chip cookies are not universal.  Yet in my mind it is the thing that defines our culture, doughy, rich, too much sugar and just barely enough chocolate inside.

As the lone American on board I was the unexpected oddity. In my rather extensive travels in what was once enemy territory I have come to realize that now, more than ten years on from the fall of the wall, there is still a wonder about us.  A wonder at how we have gotten so far so fast.  But I have not seen one collective moment of desire to recreate what we have or return to what once was. What I have come to see is that both sides suffer from the absence of an enemy.  As we need air and food and understanding we also seemingly need something to hate.  Dentists and Castro just don’t seem to fill the bill.  When our bus stopped in Brno, near the border with Austria, to pick up a Moravian family, this bus, my new family of man, had their new enemy. Our fresh passengers, a collection of five relatives, lumbered on board immediately complaining of the open windows (no a/c on this bus) and the music one of the other passengers was playing.  Suddenly, with a mere 14 hours left, the easy atmosphere that had been present, evaporated and became a focused dislike of these Czech hillbillies.  I turned to Ivana and said that they defined what I had described to her once as “doofuses.”  From that moment on, this father, his sister, his daughter and her grandchildren, became known as the Doofus family.  By the end of the trip everyone knew they were the Doofus family fully aware that this was not a term of endearment.  One of the ongoing delights of the trip for me was to hear these Czechs chatting and pointing at this family in sly terms and their Slavic rhythm suddenly being broken by the oh so Anglo speed of “doofus.” I felt I had somehow made my contribution to the culture. 

After Moravia, our first border stop was near the town of Mikhalov.  I had been there before but was once more struck by its bitter history and conversely it’s stunning beauty.  It is a little town up on a hill overlooking not only the Czech countryside but to the south, Austria.  During the Cold War, when travel was so heavily restricted, Czechs would come to this town, climb up to the chapel on the hill just to look out at the west knowing that for some this would as far “west” as they could travel.  Prior to the Second World War this town was a thriving community where a good portion of the population was Jewish.  At one time it was home to four synagogues and the Jewish cemetery dated back six centuries.  However today it is home to just three Jewish families and their only house of worship left has been turned into a museum.  At the end of the war, literally days before the end, the Nazis in Czechoslovakia marched 500 Hungarian Jews into the cemetery and gunned them down.  Having seen the town, pretty though it is, you can’t help but think of all that ugly history.  Where I was headed next, Croatia, had it’s own ugly side. A war crimes tribunal at The Hague was still seeking their president, until his death.   He is known regionally as the luckiest war criminal. 

I dozed through the night and awoke at dawn to see the rocky coastline of Croatia.  It is what you hope to see when you travel to the little known and exotic.  You want that feeling of having something all to your own.  Fog hugged the shoreline and the water lapped lazily up against the ferry our bus had boarded to cross over to the island.  There seemed to be no end to the cliffs climbing into the clouds. In the early morning light the flat, gray of the rocks seemed to melt into the clear blue of the water so that there was little definition between the two. I was taking in the view as we began our journey, once more on board our bus, over to the far side of the island when my now keenly developed sense of driving hazards came fully awake.  Our bus churned and choked up the cliff sides.  It seemed to me in an almost perpendicular fashion.

I consider myself well traveled but there is a sizable chunk of the world I have yet to see. My prior exposure to beaches includes in descending order, the north coast of Cuba, both coasts of the US, the English and French coasts and of course my home coast, such as it is, Texas.  None had properly prepared me for this.  The east coast of the Adriatic Sea is stunning, overwhelming and inviting all at once.  The water itself is a deep and a vivid blue, still and clear. It is also downright cold. Despite the warm temperatures outside, the water never seemed to rise above 68 degrees. Cres is the ideal for a quaint fishing village, complete with crusty old fishermen.  The shops and restaurants, sparse in number, are a mix of the town’s daily needs and the demands of tourists.  On one store shelf you find soups and household goods, on the next you find rubber floats and suntan lotion.  The pace of the day is in harmony with the sea, quiet and peaceful.  Everything seems to open early and then close from noon until five.   

The habits of our days were formed quickly. We’d have breakfast on the patio with our entire group.  Then the daily excursion to the market introduced us to the townsfolk. There would be dickering with the old women over the price and varying quality of cherries.   After sorting out just who could give us the best price, a dollar or at most a dollar and a half for a kilo, we would head for the beach and the real work of the day, sunning and swimming. 

Croatia is still waiting for the return of tourism from Europe and hoping for it from the west but it has yet to fully unfold. Cruising out in the open waters of the Adriatic in a tourist boat is a highlight.  The Captain was one of those roguish characters who you imagine as having seen most everything- war, smuggling and so forth- and described his command of English as “criminal.”  After dinner at the pension each evening, we usually set out for town about a mile away.  On the road there we passed these huge villas that were run down or abandoned.  One of them seemed to have a group of vagabonds living there. We later found out that this is where the town leaders keep the hired help for the summer. Anywhere else in the world it would have been an overpriced, redone resort hotel sitting as it does, right on the water. Here it was a bunkhouse for the hired help. We would wander along the main dock and drift down the narrow streets barely wide enough for two people to pass each other. The whole place can’t have more than a few hundred residents.  The solid old buildings bleached by the sun remain shuttered during all but the coolest parts of the day. All of it starkly contrasted by the satellite dishes hanging from every other window.  Flashy new motor yachts docked alongside fifty year-old fishing skiffs. 

One evening I was struck by an encounter with graffiti.  As we rounded one corner there was a freshly painted homage to the long dead and sorely missed dictator, Tito. Yugoslavia was always a strange outlet in the Soviet system, despite remarkable changes it remains still the odd man out. Without fail, our nocturnal jaunts would take us to what became our favorite ice cream shop.  The owner came to know us so well that by the end of our stay he knew our favorites by heart.  Part of the entertainment for me in going to this one particular shop was that language barrier.  The fellow is from Macedonia.  The language is similar to Croat and therefore with a Slavic base to it.  But it was I who ended up closing the linguistic gaps.  However close Ivana and this man were in mother tongues I got closer.  Ironically, the only word I can say well in Czech after spending months there is zmirzlina, Czech for ice cream.

Our hikes would also lead us down many of the same paths as many of our fellow Czech travelers. There was one family with whom we frequently spent these evenings.  The leader of this little group is a bass player in a heavy metal band.  I would guess he is about 45.  His son is a sales person at a sporting goods store in Prague. Sort of a testimony to their revolutionary past I suppose.  His daughter, a dead ringer for a juvenile delinquent, had mastered the art of looking bored and disinterested. She found that remaining pale at a beach resort did nothing for her outlook. The rest of the group consisted of a sister-in-law, her husband and their son.  A Bohemian version of a 14-year-old stud that had the hormones of every teen age girl racing, including Johana.  His parents come from a small town outside of Prague and it seems I am the first American they had ever met.  There had been a Communist party boss in the family and as it was explained to me I would have been, in the old evil empire days, a “class enemy.”  As it was they took a picture with me, as I was their first “full blooded American.”  

Our adventure in paradise did finally come to an end. The den mother rounded us all up for a meeting.  I sat there looking surprisingly interested considering I spoke not a word of the language.  Then to the bemusement of all concerned the head of the Doofus clan came up to me and made some sort of inquiry.  Well, before I could part my lips to reply the entire group shouted at him that of all the people there was he the only one who didn’t know that I was an American and didn’t know the language! At that moment I felt truly adopted.

My seatmate for the journey home was a little five-year-old girl named Eva.  I was quite proud of myself for getting all of this information out of her on my own.  I was further impressed by how well behaved she was.  No loud noise, no banging on the seat in front of her, no yelling for Mom every five seconds. No loud video games.  She just sat there quietly coloring in a book. Of course once asleep she became much livelier and I awoke to find her sprawled all over me.  I was just one big pillow to this lass.  The last hitch, if you will, in the voyage was when we came to the Croat/Slovenia border.  It was about 12:30 at night and the border patrol came on board t check our passports.  At first it was just a casual affair and then I heard him say, “Everyone on board is Czech, yes?”  Our travel agent, looking very uncomfortable, said, “No, there is an American.”  Once pointed out to him, the guard marched back to the middle of the bus where I was sitting, looked down at me, took my passport glanced at it, handed it back and strolled off the bus waving us through. The travel agent came over and looked apologetic. My seatmate, Eva had a great look of disappointment on her face. She gave me a look that clearly said, “what makes you so special?”   Ivana shouted from the back of the bus, “Way to go Jean, always causing trouble.” 

In all such experiences in one’s lifetime there are shades of light and dark, bright colors next to faded memories. Then there are those searingly bright moments that merely thinking about them bring a smile to your face and you swear that someday you’ll have to go back, doubting that you ever will. Croatia is just such a place.   

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