July 16, 2004
Hello friends! Greetings from the Viennese Internet cafe! I just returned from paying my respects to some of the great classical composers of our time! Some people make pilgrimages to Rome or Mecca, but I pay homage to people like Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Strauss. Standing before all of them lined in a circle around me felt like a religious experience. I only wish I had the power to bring them all back to life before me. I stood in the cemetery in silence, no one around me, imagining the cemetery alive with their music ringing down from the heavens.
This 3.5-week trip with my Mom through Austria, Slovenia and bits of Croatia began in the London airport. From the air it appeared that the Brits drive recklessly and aggressively, sideswiping each other on the wrong side of the road. As we walked through the tunnels from plane to customs and back to plane, the walls were lined with pictures of countries around the world, with a picture of an object or cultural custom from each country and the corresponding name. For the USA there were several pictures. First, one of an insect, with the word PEST underneath and then another of a mousetrap. Hmmm… those clever Brits!
Yesterday we were out from 7am to 10 pm, visiting the Vienna Opera House (which was bombed by Americans in WWII who supposedly mistook it for a railway station. The original architect of this building killed himself after it was built because he couldn’t take the criticism of the new style. Poor man!), the Old Town (not entirely old, again due to some mislaid bombs), The Hofsburg Palace (the center of the Austro Hungarian empire), the fascinating Music Museum, some churches, some government buildings, and the coffee houses.
Today we visited the Museum of Fine Arts and although impressive and expansive, all we needed to see was one sizeable statue of man killing a centaur (the mythical man-animal creation), to understand the general historical theme of human nature conquering the beast in us and the beast around us. Perhaps when women enter the picture world wide, the theme might change!
In a few minutes we are off to a Viennese concert. The Strauss waltzes.
July 20, 20004
Hello All! Welcome to Salzburg!
Currently I am taking refuge from a rain shower with lovely thunder. But oh so humid in this Internet cafe!
Where to start? I suppose beginning with the Austrians, might be a good place. It’s always interesting to observe the quirks of every country. Here the Austrians, I have noted, are practical, no nonsense, straightforward people. Given the American tendency for superficialities, lighthearted chatting, lots of smiles, and the casual, loud approach to public life, I imagine the Austrian way could be trying for some of us! They seem to be people of few words and even fewer expressions. The owner of our first hotel was a “yes-no” man. Every statement, comment, or question could be answered with either of those words.
Yesterday we had lunch near a river, and our bill flew into the water, unbeknownst to us. The waiter waded into the water, picked up the bill, returned to our table, and handed it to us with no words and no expression. The straightforwardness is somewhat refreshing, but I have to wonder whether these few individuals are bored with their work, or whether this is simply the Austrian way?
Now the food. The Austrians seem to have about 5 recipes, which they make either not so well or very well, but either way they are just 5 recipes. And, dear God, how many various types of sausages, hunks of beef, and breaded veal, all with bland potatoes can one eat in a day?
We have decided that McDonalds provides more character in the food than a traditional bratwurst, so that’s where were headed next.
Salzburg is a beautiful, quintessential European city, complete with narrow alleys, cobblestone streets, church spires spiking the skyline, a fortress high above the city, and walls surrounding the town. Beautiful!
However, arriving in Salzburg wasn’t quite so beautiful. First every trip must contain a car story. This one began in Vienna when we attempted to rent an automatic car. Story made short, we got an automatic car, but the computerized way of opening the car went kaput. And we were told no more automatic cars existed in Vienna. Fortunately, my expressive traveling companion (my mom) demanded an automatic, and so they paid our way to the airport, made a deal with another company, and several hours later we were on our way. Parking in Salzburg was another story, which I’ll leave for later, since I haven’t quite recovered from that emotional saga to explain it yet.
With 3 previous trips to Europe under my belt, much reading, and a few days in Europe yet again, I conclude that the general themes of western history can be described with 4 Ps: power, patriarchy, politics and piety. Each P is inextricably intertwined with each other. Each thrives on its relationship with the rest. Art, architecture, literature, cathedrals, and archaeology all seem to point towards the general theme of men running the affairs of government in collaboration with the Church, seeking power and wealth through oppression of others. Of course with any theme is an anti theme, and the evolution of art reveals something more in our human nature. From the stylized Egyptian statues to the expressive Renaissance paintings and sculpture, the later art reveals a heightened awareness of a deeper consciousness and a sensitivity to the complexity of our interior life is revealed in the later artwork. I am reminded of the beauty and mystery of life as depicted with the famous hands Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel. Such art provides a glimpse of heightened sensitivity within us, a glimpse of an invisible interior life, tangibly felt, but not yet exacted or noticed by the scientific world. Standing above Salzburg today before the towering Alps, I was stilled by the beauty. In my naivety, I wonder why the beauty of the Austrian countryside could not provide the experience of another way of being with ourselves and others… an escape from the 4 Ps!
Enough philosophical waxing… the shower is over, the thunder subsided, and now were off to vespers!!
July 24, 2004
Greetings from Slovenia!
We have now landed in Slovenia, in the region that is known to be the sunny side of the Alps. So far it has been cloudy with rain showers in the evening. But cool weather is much appreciated!
We have now hit our traveling groove and have slowed down immensely. Which means the afternoons are spent swimming in lovely alpine lakes, hiking to tops of mountains to explore remote castles, and wandering through small little churches in out of the way places. And the mornings are spent on our balcony overlooking beautiful Lake Bled, reading, talking, and taking in the beauty.
My sightseeing strategy in any new town is to hike immediately to the top and work my way down. This way I escape the tourists, get a lay out of the land, and find delightful unanticipated happenings. Yesterday I hiked to the top of a small, well-worn Slovenian town to the castle. I happened upon a local wedding in such a natural, beautiful setting. The wedding was taking place in the castle. A group of accordionists accompanied the couple with cheery music. The groom feasted upon his new wife, and munched upon her shoulders. The setting was intimate, natural, and so homey! A true small town wedding!
I find conversing with the natives always an interesting experience. At first I try to explain that English is my native tongue but half way through the trip I give up and begin “conversing” with the natives in their language. This usually entails a few well-placed nods and smiles, and the conversation is well on its way. I have participated in long conversations this way with the locals. Heaven knows, what I am agreeing to with my smiles and nods!
I am the product of an Italian mother and Luxembourg-English father, and that has produced me, a veritable German! Most people who do not speak their native tongue to me, immediately jump into fluent German. And again with a few well-placed smiles, the conversation is off and running!
It is incredible being in a country that just gained its independence in 1991 after a thousand years of confused identity. At some points Italy owned chunks of Slovenia and other times, France, and most recently (relatively) the Austrian Hungarian empire ruled the region that is even more recently known as former Yugoslavia. And even more incredible is entering a region that historically depicts current global affairs, a region where east meets west. Further south from Slovenia, lie the Balkan states, where for centuries the Ottoman Turks fought the West, Constantinople fought Rome, Orthodox Christians fought Catholics.
In the 90s after Tito’s communist reign in Yugoslavia ended, the same dividing sentiments arose between ethnicities and religions. The war for independence was a result of pride, prejudice, discrimination, deceit, corruption, lies, and a great desire for freedom! The leaders of the Yugoslavian states used their peoples as pawns in a war proclaiming the dignity of that leader’s ethnicity. The Croatian president, proclaiming nationalistic tendencies outlawed the ancient Serbian Cyrillic script, when most Serbs in the country didn’t even know how to write in that script anymore. Likewise, Milosevic, the president of the Serbian state, staged Serbian nationalist rallies by employing the unemployed to participate in them, thereby falsely creating nationalistic sentiment. Soon the Croats and the Serbs were pitted against each other. In towns where Croats and Serbs had always gotten along, the friends turned to enemies.
No wonder it was moving then to watch on CNN a few nights ago the ceremony in Bosnia, celebrating the rebuilding of the Mostar Bridge in a small, ancient town. The bridge symbolized the rebuilding of peace between the Muslims, the Croats, and the Serbs. During the ceremony, Carmina Burana was sung vigorously, the swimmers dove from the bridge with great resolve , and it appeared the people were as determined to mandate peace as previously they were once passionate about war.
Slovenia is beautiful. The towns reflect an old Europe that previously existed 50 years ago in other parts of Western Europe. The towns feel well-worn, non-touristy, very natural, and real. The traditional Slovenian fare is delicious (when found). Gardens abound. Families sit around outside, eating their dinner, chattering away. Goats wander through, and so do the little kittens.
And on a different note… for those of you who are fashion conscious. I always enjoy watching the trends in Europe come to the US a bit later. Four years ago, it was the leather jacket in Europe, Two years ago it was the jean jacket, and now it is anything orange and black. So buy up, and start the trends before they reach our land.
July 28, 2004
Greetings from Piran, a Mediterranean looking town on the northern edge of the Adriatic. We are just 2 short hours by boat from Venice, and I believe with the squint of the eyes that I can see the Romantic City! Again, being fluid in many languages (which I am not, but I pretend to be) here is a great advantage. I do my shopping for lunch using my 10 weeks of Italian education at SCU, and sometimes I switch to Spanish and other times to English, but never to Croat or Slovene, as I am completely lost in the southern languages! Its so much fun though, as now we are mistaken for Italians. Much looks and feels like little Italy here. I have yet to meet an American in Slovenia or Croatia, and I have only seen approx. 4 American on this entire trip! Too bad Americans haven’t yet discovered the Adriatic along the Croatian coast, because this is the epitome of what so many Americans flock to elsewhere… beautiful coast lines, Mediterranean style towns with the small alleys, stone walls and red tile and people plastered along the hard rocks, taking in the sun all day as if their lives depended on it. Perhaps their lives do depend on the sun if they come from the North!
I just finished my daily ration of ice cream. Here people eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and at least twice more as well. While Americans are infatuated with water, here Europeans are infatuated with ice cream. So imagine for all the times we carry our water bottles, an ice cream cone in hand instead, and wouldn’t life be jolly?
We are staying in the town square of Piran, the southern most town along the Adriatic in Slovenia. Every evening, when the hordes of people from cruise ships leave, the town quiets, and out come the artists. Each evening in the town square sits a beautiful nude lady, surrounded by amateur artists attempting to capture the grace of the human body.
I always reflect on why I love travel so much when I am abroad. I think the human eye is drawn to differences… subtle differences and not so subtle differences that enliven our imaginations and stimulate the mind. While this can be an uncomfortable experience for some, for me I thrive on it. And the very differences that I am drawn to, are the events, sights, and experiences that connect me to the country and to myself. Back home, we tend to live solitary existences… there is very little public community. Through technology it is so easy to separate ourselves from life, whether through hours spent in front of the television and computer, or time spent in the car traveling from one point to the next, or the time spent shopping in a sanitized store for green tomatoes.
Here all generations are found in the town square, walking, observing the tourists and talking. And we do the same. Life is slower. Where can you find a 13-year-old boy in Silicon Valley tending the plants of his garden? We found him while eating lunch at a little cafe, and when we commented on his beautiful flowers, he returned 10 minutes later, with a sweet smile, and offered us a napkin with the flower seeds inside. He offered them to us with pride shining in his eyes, and told us they were souvenirs from Slovenia. We graciously accepted.
Yesterday we drove into Croatia. With pictures of the recent war imprinted in my mind, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I found hordes of Europeans flocking to picturesque Adriatic towns, natives selling cheap tourist trinkets, loud music, drinking, and again lots of bodies plastered up and down the beaches. I suppose anywhere in Europe these days, tourism tends to blot out the picture of native life. But I was determined to find the native experience and so I fought through the crowds, and made a be-line to old town.
Old town was beautiful! After some time spent sitting on doorsteps, “talking” to children, watching old ladies hanging their clothes on outdoor clothes lines, observing children playing on the steps of the Church, I began to get a feel distinctly different than other western European towns. First, the doors and windows to all of the homes were open. Knowing that electricity is expensive here, I suspect the darkness inside reflected their desire to consume as little as possible of the artificial light. And second, I have never seen old men (who normally should be retired) and very young children, sitting on the streets selling their cheap wares. Poverty, unlike elsewhere, is apparent. My heart was drawn to these beautiful children, and the least I could do was give them a few Euros. I was also aching to speak to these people. I wanted to know their experiences of war.
Just 10 years earlier, this country (although not as much in the north as the south) was broken up by brutal fighting. Historians are still struggling to understand the viciousness by which these people fought. Women and children were not spared. Facial deformation of the enemy was commonly found. Historians of this particular area, believe the years of rule by conquering powers and different religions, led to the practice of completely exterminating the enemy, the heretic. But now can people return to a normal peaceful life so quickly? Can Croats and Serbs really live together after such fighting? I wish I could speak their language!
We are now off to Croatia again this afternoon. Ciao amici!
August 1, 2004
Greetings from the heart of Slovenia!
Luck is on our side on this trip so far! We have accrued amazing offbeat experiences in this rural, off the tourist track place in Slovenia. It seems that our quest to find old Europe has been realized in southern Slovenia, where the rolling green hills are dotted with small villages, lots of farms, and hillside churches. Our appearance in small towns seems to amaze the locals, and we are always asked how and why we ended up here? But “here” is truly amazing! We are in the middle of hidden valleys. The surrounding hills and mountains keep modern life at bay.
Several days ago, we wandered back roads to the “folk heart” of Slovenia, where traditional music is most likely to be heard. As luck would have it, we opened our car doors to be surrounded in the distance by accordion music. Through strategic planning and forethought (ha, ha) we landed in Adelesici on the 1st Sunday of August, during the annual firemen’s festival. Firemen are known in Slovenia because of their ability to put on a fantastic party. Their ability to put out a fire is a bit more questioned. A local family took us under their wings, treated us to beer, and explained the festivities. First we watched the firemen parade in, looking quite distinguished in their uniforms. Unfortunately, the parade broke up midstream, as a torrential downpour caught all of us off guard. All scooted under the makeshift canvas roof protecting the audience. The stage fell apart, wood beams started flying, and the canvas roof started sagging from the weight of the rain. The firemen attempted to tip the edges to pour the water out. For a few moments, during the mayhem, we had visions of being just two tourists an especially long way from home, caught in a mass burial when the canvas roof and its wood beams fell on the entire town. We were prepared to hightail it out of the chaos at any moment.
Fortunately the rain stopped, the parade resumed, women went to work like bees drying off the tables, awards were passed out, lengthy speeches ignored by the distracted audience, and then the music, drinking, and dancing began. No doubt the town will remember this years festivities by the torrential rains and by the 2 Californians who somehow stumbled upon their town. Hopefully in all their superstitions they do not connect the rain with the foreigners who flew in and then left as quickly and as mysteriously.
And our luck continued… our first night in Novo Mesto landed us in a small church with singing that rivaled the Chanticleer choir back home. Visiting Russian Orthodox choir was traveling through.
Last night on our way back from Ljubljana, we decided to take the back roads. We are getting more daring by the minute. Back roads here though mean dirt roads and single lane roads. It was getting dark. We got enormously lost. We were far from civilization as we knew it. We stopped farmers, kids, and roosters, but all we heard was the local language in many forms. Many hand gestures and pointing were to no avail, no matter how hard the locals tried to route us back home. We were prepared to spend the night with some locals in some far away place. But lo, we found one toothless young woman who spoke English! Ahh… a godsend. A left here, a right there, and another left at the chicken pen, led us home. Phew!
Tomorrow we are off to Zagreb, Hravatska (Hrvatska is the native way of saying Croatia) for a day. The main route between two capitals of former Yugoslavia (Ljubljana and Zagreb) is a small highway! Amazing. While the capital of Croatia, Zagreb did not experience the intense fighting of southern Croatia during the war for independence. But as the seat of the government it was a strategic part of the war, and it was where President Tudman made some key mistakes. He confused the sophisticated Serbs of Zagreb with the Serbs from the rural peasantry in the south. His goal to make Croatian nationalism the prime political agenda affected the rural Serbs a bit differently than the sophisticated socialites in Zagreb. And the rural Serbs were not going to have any of his nonsense. Their passionate, single minded, hot-blooded ways were not recognized until too late by President Tudman. Tito on the other hand was a bit wiser in not making any particular ethnicity part of a nationalist agenda. And so upon his demise, all things fell apart.
August 7, 2004
Greetings from the lake country in Southern Austria! In a few minutes we will be departing for Vienna, the end to a wonderful trip!
We have become quite adept at border crossings! Austria alone is surrounded by about 6 countries, but our numerous planned and unplanned crossings into Croatia were the most fun. Having been warned by an elderly and concerned neighbor back home about the “Communists” in Eastern Europe, we prepared a few stories for the border patrol to have a bit of fun when they asked “Why Croatia?”. Depending on the expression of the border patrol at the time, we would give one of two stories. First, we were emissaries of Bush checking out the oil supply in Croatia. If we didn’t feel comfortable with the first line, we had another option. We thought it might be plausible to say that my great-great grandfather had a Croat mistress in Zagreb and we were seeking out her grave to pay our belated respects. Unfortunately, neither stories were used, because the border patrol were so interested in our California roots that the conversation went elsewhere. One time, we accidentally crossed into Croatia without passports, and the border patrol had lots of laughs as we let them think we had no idea what country we were crossing into. We were simply some lost tourists from far away. Another time, when asked Why Croatia, we told them in jest that we came for the passport stamp. But they weren’t amused.
Traveling is always so much fun because every day is filled with the unexpected! For instance, our trip to Zagreb was quite an event. We had no map of the city, no guidebook for the area. We had nothing with us but a car and an adventurous spirit. Of course reading Croat is hard enough, so we spent considerable time traveling in circles around the old town. On top of it we were traveling in a torrential downpour. At one point, I was driving, with the country map on my lap, trying to figure out north and south, while avoiding reckless drivers.
If you were to ask my mom she would say that we escaped a war zone when we finally left Zagreb, but I might say that Zagreb just takes a bit more work to appreciate. The outskirts around old town, are ugly, dirty, and dull. The old town, looks like it had some severe bombing or earthquakes. A few old buildings are surrounded by modern high rises. But through my wayward strolls, I found an “coldness” that I haven’t seen in other European cities. Granted all of Europe puts America to shame with its preserved history, but in Zagreb I saw an old lifestyle. Villagers in old-fashioned dress, with scarves on their heads, and just a few teeth in their mouths, come to the capital to sell their vegetables. The lack of sophistication in comparison to Salzburg vegetable markets was obvious. At one point in my strolls I stumbled upon what looked to be a scene out of a medieval storybook. Tucked under an arch above a little side alley, was an altar with names of the dead lined upon the walls. Under this arch there were church pews and lighted candles, and people paying their respects. I took shelter from the rain in this dark little place, and I knew I was observing a very old way of life.
While traveling it is foolish to idealize the lifestyle of the natives, but there are certainly aspects of European life, which I enjoy so much. And through my travels I have come to realize that there is no perfect place to live, and usually what I yearn for in far off places, is something that I can create for myself in my own backyard. What I treasure in European villages is the unhurried appreciation of life. At home so many experiences are cut short through efficiency. Here, however, meals are savored with family and conversation, people stroll without any seeming purpose other than the simple appreciation of the stroll, homes take many months to build, a corner market sells homemade ‘apfelstrudel,’ and children play with each other and with their imaginations on the steps of the town church. At home, however, meals are thrown down in a rush to get to the next engagement, people without opportunities for strolls are driven to the gym in a religious zeal, homes are produced in mass with little quality, a corner market sells only processed foods, and children are sent to camp to play in a structured “living/learning environment.” And being a product of my own culture, I have partaken in it all. But what I have learned from travel is that what I yearn for most, is simply a way of being with myself that allows the richness of experiences to unfold, so that I do not miss life through the efficiency and numerous distractions that surround us in our culture.
Goodbye to Europe, and goodbye to the beautiful thunderstorms, and hello to you all!
Until next time!