Walden World

The wacky and wonderful tales of Beth's and Catherine's global adventures. And all things Walden too.

Monday, October 23, 2006

My Cousin Vinko

"Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me..."

We arrived in Dubrovnik the 'Pearl of the Adriatic' excited as here, finally we had booked accommodation in advance, and this from a trusted source: our many years travel agent at an agency in Toronto who had booked us flights for years. Her husband is Croatian and they had stayed at the apartment of his childhood friend. She insisted that she set us up: it would be great! Private huge apartment in the heart of the old town, private bathroom, own kitchen laundry and a great view to boot!

I had visions of a gorgeous loft out of an IKEA ad! So excited were we that we almost left Mostar and our great pension one day early to relish in our lush surroundings.

Having no reply from the apartment proprietor we stayed the extra day in Mostar and came to Dubrovnik yesterday. Upon arrival I again tried to call their friend, Mr. Jurassic. He answered and apologized; he hadn't read his email and would pick us up right away at the bus station.

He arrived some minutes later, carrying our luggage to the car and told us of the two apartments he rented out to tourists. We arrived at our location and followed him down winding pathways to our apartment.

We climbed the stairs and he unlocked the door. I must say, both C and I were a little disppointed! While not as bad as our grandma's house in Zagreb ie: it didn't smell of sewer gas or cabbage or mould, it was a little run down and filled with weird old stuff. However our own apartment and what a view. He brought us into a medium size room he unlocked with a bed and side bed and small couch. He opened the window and we looked down into old Dubrovnik. We then retired to the kitchen and he pulled out some dirty glasses and offered us homemade Sangria from a old Dr. Pepper bottle. I looked around at the usual Papal photos and the alarming pictures of the owner in full battle fatigues posing with a really, really, big machine gun in a Rambo pose, complete with "headband thing". I then noticed his fatigues hanging from a hook in the hall.

"Do you live here?" we asked. "Ah no...I live here in the winter, but when tourist come no, I have my own place downstairs with a gymnasium" He had a "tan" and was kind of built up..."ok I thought"...we sipped the Sangria from our dirty cups.

He then asked us for our money for the three nights of the apartment, in advance. I didn't have it on me having come from the bus station "It's ok, I come tonight and you give me the money or to my cousin who lives next door"...

We sat in silence. He turned on the large satellite TV that was stuck in the corner of the kitchen: "I like to watch sports and to gamble" His eyes were fixed on the TV I turned to look and saw a picture on the screen of three men in very sexual poses with their pants down masturbating in fatigues.

Awkward conversation about a kind of pod and what you call it in English ensued. Suddenly the door opened. A young man walked in. "This is my cousin!" We were introduced and in the cousin walked into the bedroom next to ours.

"Ah your cousin lives here....?" I said smiling. "Well yes... he just has a room and is not here, always at school". "And you don't live here?" "No I come here sometimes to clean"

C and I dutifully finished our Sangria and went to our "room". "I am sure the cousin has his own room and uses that other bathroom down the hall, we'll just deal".

Now don't think I can't hack sharing bathrooms, in fact I have hostelled it many times, however C was ruined from sharing facilties after Amsterdam when two German guys we shared a bathroom with got blotto on beer and hash and then puked all over the toilet and later caused us to evacuate at 3am after they set off the smoke alarm trying to light up a joint. "No more shared bathrooms!" was C's only insistence thereafter on our travels.

Out we went, coming back about 10:30 pm. The proprietor opened the door. He was there in the kitchen with the cousin, and what appeared to be a very old streetwalker. They were all drinking in the kitchen and watching the satellite TV.

"Hello this is my friend" he exclaimed pointing to the heavily made up, chubby woman, in what appeared to be strange red lingerie wear who kept change in her dirty bra. I paid up and we went to our room. They stayed up, in the kitchen, drinking and watching TV.

The next morning one could here people coming and going. I finally ventured out to use the toilet we thought was our private abode. I opened the door, some blonde woman was standing there putting on make up. I closed my door. C lay in bed. "What's going on" "There is some woman in the bathroom"... she lay on the bed, silent for a time.

"Is it the same woman from last night...the prostitute?" "No it is some blonde I've never seen before". She sighed, resigned to our lot.

I assumed maybe the cousin had a girlfriend. I again opened the door, the blond was startled..."It is ok.." She then ran back down the hall and disappeared into a another closed room, talking to yet some other woman who was concealed in there.

By the time we had crept out to take showers I counted six different shampoo bottles in the "private bathroom".

Again last night we returned. Mr. Jurrasic was again sitting in the kitchen watching TV. "Oh I just come now to clean" he said. We went to our room and he continued to watch TV into the night.

This morning again, the sounds of people coming and going. I awoke and went to the bathroom. Catherine followed and insisted on scurrying in behind me as the cousin, or some other guy stood in the hall. "They'll think we do everything together" I cautioned C.

We returned to bed and when we got up to leave, Mr. Jurassic was again there. This time with a beach bag in hand ready to go swimming. "I just come to see and go swimming" He said smiling. "When is he going to end this fiction that he doesn't live here?" I asked C.

We look forward to tonight to see who next will be visiting enjoying our little kitchen party. Mr. Jurassic no doubt will have just arrived, as we enter, just to do a little more cleaning.

Note: Mr. Jurassic is entertaining prostitute again this night...seems not concerned that we think he lives here. Prostitute is dressed up in a coat.

Post Script:

Mr. Jurassic finally jettisoned all semblence of fiction the next morning, the day we were leaving, by wandering about the apartment, shamelessly, in his underpants. This was followed by an obvious long hot shower in our "private bathroom", while we crept to and from the toilet. We then noticed that the door of his bedroom was now wide open allowing him to pace freely between his room to the TV in the kitchen, all the while, clad only in simple, Balkan underwear.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Nestled in a valley is the city of Sarajevo. It is surrounded by small hills and mountains. In the basin of this bowl are bridges, old buildings and a little river that runs through the mid-point of the old town. At the corner of one crossing is the 'Latin Bridge'. There, is a plaque which reminds all passers-by that it was here that Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, thereby ushering in the First World War. I laugh, because it brings to mind a headline from an "Onion in History" front page dated some months before the assasination: "Franz Ferdinand boasts 'Nothing Can Stop Me!'"

The hell, that was the trenches of that Great War finds echo in all of Sarajevo. Their war, however, was only this 10 years past.

In Sarajevo every building is covered with the scars of artillery and reminders of the seige; pellet to golf ball sized holes, marks made by sniper bullets gouge every wall. The larger holes were left by countless shells and grenades which rained down on Sarajevo and its over 300,000 people.

Cement repatching is mid-way through in many places. They are starting to erase the marks and to repair the reminders of the war. On buildings where the pasting has just been started it looks like some skin healing on a body rife with pock-marks.

Every person we meet here is a survivor of the seige. They are mostly Muslims.

Here now, some nine years later, they try to put what they lived through behind them and look to the future which is their hope.

In 1992, after everyone else in Yugoslavia declared independence, Bosnia and Hercegovinia followed suit. Unlike the more Croatian or majority Serbian parts of the former state, Bosnia was really quite a mixed bag. It was a large part Serb. Serbs are Slavs and are Eastern Orthodox Christians. It was also a large part Croat. The Croats are Slavs and are Catholic. It was also a larger part 'Bosnian'. The Bosnians are are Slavs who were Christian but, many centuries ago converted to Islam after the Turks came and conquered these vast lands in the late 1400s.

And this is where it all appears to start. Like Count Dracula who bemoans his journey to find his beloved 'Mina',this story "crosses oceans of time". The Serbs held bitterly to a vision of a land which long ago, in their dreams they rule;'before the Turks ever came'.

When the country fell apart the Serbs began to "ethnically cleanse" areas of Bosnia they felt should be Serbian only. They also began to committ genocide of the many Bosnians east of Sarajevo, made infamous by massacres such as Visegrad or Sbrenica.

As the Serbs controlled the vast arms of the former Yugoslavian army they were able to used this this asset to gain an advantage;'unofficial' militias and armed forces supported by the Serbian state next door quickly surrounded Sarajevo and demanded its capitulation.

I looked today, the last week of Ramadan at fair haired young men and women kneel down in the many mosques of Sarajevo and pray. Head scarves are a rarety in Sarajevo and in fact, in most of Bosnia. Everyone's last name, in the Slavic fashion, ends in "vic". Yet out of this population, wherein parties had everything in common, came genocide and something akin to the madness of a medeival seige but using modern tanks and bombs. It ended ultimately with the deaths of over 11,000 people in a city which is set in the midst of Europe.

In Sarajevo, I speak to our 'pansion' owner. She lived through the seige but can't comprehend or explain how she came through it alive. Neera speaks with a broad 'Aussie' accent as a consequence of the years she spent living 'Down Under'. Like all other Bosnians she is a Muslim, yet she wears no head scarf nor any other trappings of what the 'west' has come to consider "Islam".

I ask Neera about the war. She and her two sons and husband 'bunked down' the entire seige in the large cellar of the building where she lives today. During that time her family and, every other family on the street, lived in the basement of the building where I now stay. Everyone lived downstairs because the large and deep old basement quarters were far safer than any above ground flat.

"How did you survive?" I ask. She says she doesn't know. "You just did it, you took it day by day; You think 'ok now it will just be another day and then they (the international community) will come...they won't let it continue. They won't let this continue. They will put a stop to it."

It, however, continued for four years.

During the seige Neera weighed 88 pounds because she was starving. What food they had, she mostly gave to her sons. For example, her two boys aged 10 and 12, got to share one egg sometimes as their ration for the day.

Much of the food people could get either came from scarce UN rations or was smuggled in by way of the claustrophic 800 metre tunnel dug secretly by the Bosnians under the airport.

One night Neera said she woke up in the basement where all the neighbourhood lived. The toilets stank of feces and sewage because there was no water. In the basement it was pitch black because there was no power at all during those four years. It was also very cold because there hadn't been heat or oil since the beginning of the seige.

She told me she woke up crying because she had dreamed of an apple but found that there wasn't one. "What is an apple??" she says now, "I can't believe it, that I cried over an apple, but that is how hungry I was..an apple...?!"

The Serbian forces who surrounded the city posted snipers, artillery and tanks in the hills above. Anyone who came out was shot, machine gunned or shelled.

Many UN people and special guests came to visit: Boutros Boutros Gali, the President of Pakistan, Andre Previn flew in to direct a special concert. Even Susan Sontag came and directed "Waiting for Godot". Still Neera and her husband and sons waited. Beckett couldn't have dreamed of better irony.

Four years after the city was surrounded, the United States bombed Serb positions continuously for two weeks following gross violations by Serb forces of "safe zones" intended to keep Bosnians protected from genocide as well as in response to attacks by Serb forces on United Nations humanitarian troops.

The seige was finally lifted.

When I was in Mostar in Bosnia, an ancient and enchanting city, I went to a restaurant in an old mill which was set in between small streams running off the emerald green waters that flowed from the River Buna. On the walls were two photos of a man diving off the famous Mostar bridge.

The Mostar bridge was some 500 years old and a work of unimaginable beauty and grace. It had been the centre of the city for centuries. Yet it had been built by the Turks many years ago. This city, divided between Bosnians and Croats equally, held old, strange grudges. The Croatians during the war, buoyed by Serbian territorial grabs rallied their army and in turn attacked the Bosnian side of Mostar. They destroyed the bridge to show that there was no turning back.

Before the war, over the centuries, the young men of Mostar had a custom. They would leap or dive from the bridge into the swirling and bright green Buna River below in an effort to catch the eye, perhaps, of a young lady they might fancy.

After the war, the EU helped rebuild the bridge and again young men have started leaping from it, though I never saw any dive. This time they jump for the few tourists who are starting to drift back and not for the fancy of pretty women.

I asked the waiter, jokingly, if the photos of the man, diving so beautifully from the bridge were of him. Such perfection of form caught in those photos, mid-motion. "No" he told me gently, but proudly. They were of his father who was one of the most famous divers of all, of the bridge divers of Mostar. He then began to cry. His father died in the war. He was shot "just over there" he motioned behind him "by a sniper". A soldier had looked through a small scope and aimed and killed his father.

Telescopes were invented by the Muslims. Gailileo and others, learning from the crafts and knowledge of 'infidels' gathered first during contacts in the Crusades, constructed their own small and beautiful tools out of polished glass. They used these scopes to look forth into the sky, and into the heavens. There they sought and found answers to questions about the world.

From Sarajevo and Mostar, I find my own questions. But I look through my own scratched lenses and see Bosnia; it is like the deep and great green of the Buna River: untold beauty, strength and for now, some calm.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Toilet Nazi of Zagreb

Zagreb really is a wonderful city filled with excellent museums, Austro-Hungarian architecture and beautiful parks. An interesting feature of Zagreb and Croatia in general is the toilet situation. Now in many countries we have been in, the toilets are less than respectable, however the Croatians are clearly up there with the Dutch in terms of enjoying a good clean john.

Perhaps the most notable example of toilet obsession is the character whom we have come to dub as "The Toilet Nazi of Zagreb"...

She is a little old woman who runs the bathrooms in a really great Italian restaurant "Boban" and she runs it as if it is her own personal fiefdom. She also looks exactly like Cousin Ezmeralda from "Bewitched" which is odd in itself.

In exchange for a 1 Kuna fee, she keeps both the ladies and mens' rooms clean and stocked, but don't cross her. If she feels you are not using the materials properly she will actually come up and grab your arm and redirect you to the facilities, she thinks you should be using ie: a particular soap box, towelette rack etc...Last night she chided me for looking too closely at a hair gel dispenser and concerned that I might mistake it for the soap, forced me away and to another sink.

She also waits like a cat for you to leave your stall so she can rush in after and inspect and if she feels you abused the stall, will start mopping out the place while making loud comments in Croatian about your hygiene or worse.

Young Croatian women are stunners, looking a bit like Julie Christie during her sixties hey day. I could only pity the young, beautiful blonde, who tonight, left her stall only to find the toilet Nazi lying in wait outside. She marched in as soon as the young lady departed, and stood staring directly down the hole only to flush and flush the can while clicking her tongue. The stunner had to stand, meanwhile in full view of all washing her hands as if nothing had happened.

I got off easy as I knew the drill. All she could do (after standing staring directly down the hole) was to take towels and immediately wipe down the door handles. For good measure she threw the towels in the bowl and flushed and flushed as some warning shot off my bow: "You flush good this time...but next time, watch out!"

Best is quitting time. Around 10 pm she gets her coat and prepares to leave her bathroom kingdom. However the idea that you might, just as soon as she leaves, muss up the place or use the wrong hair dryer is too much for her. She must imagine that each patron will go ape shit when she departs and spew toilet tissue around the place. Thus she hovers about, purse in hand, watching you like a hawk and following each patron out to make sure nothing is amiss...not at least on her watch. Now if only she could come and supervise the bathroom at my workplace...

Friday, October 13, 2006

Over the Hills and Through the Woods to Grandmother's House We Go...

Arrived in Zagreb yesterday around 5 pm sans any accommodation in a town notorious for having absolutely no accommodation. We therefore hung our hats on an "agency" whose job it is to find travellers private homes or apartments to stay in.

The Zagreb bus station can only be characterized as disappointment on a major scale: horrid, depressing communist era cement block housing surrounded by dishevelled tram lines and traffic jams with no apparent end. On a happy note all the block housing is painted a strange pepto bismo pink: no doubt to liven things up.

I was already beginning to hate Zagreb.

After calling the "agency" we attempted to negotiate our way to their office by way of the trams. After getting lost for an hour we decided to get a cab. Strangely, though it is not a big city by any means, our cab driver, like all passers by, cannot recognize any streets on the basic city map. They would stare incomprehensibly as if we were showing them a map of Mars...

A "scenic route" taxi cab drive about Zagreb later, we arrive at the "agency", I in a complete fume at already having ripped off.

We are offered a "lovely private apartment(with TV!)" some way out of the main centre at a rate twice the amount we have spent, on anywhere, anyplace, so far. I am reticent. We really can't afford it. C however takes the bull by the horns and books us for two nights, cash up front.

Off on the tram again, and on to our private apartment. Now the last private place we booked was wonderful: parquet floors, the best matress ever, a balcony overlooking the sea...

We wind our way down the streets finally finding our apartment in the creeping darkness. I unlock the door and in we go:

C and I look at each other. The walls are crumbling, plaster and paint peeling down; there are no windows and those that there are, our covered with old, dark curtains; the place has dirty, stained decorative plates on the wall with the requisite faded photos of Pope John Paul II pinned up in between ubiquitous crucifixes which hang above each doorway; the stench of cigarette smoke, sewer gas and old cooked cabbage hangs in the acrid heavy air: we appear to have arrived at someone's "less than fortunate" grandmother's flat.

On the walls are huge communist era pipes running beside large 'Metropolis' like ceramic fuses. Underneath the 'china cabinet' are two pairs of completely worn cheap, slip on shoe sandals, complete with some kind of electrical tape used as a form of insole. The toothbrushes left mid-brush on the sink, etc...gave the appearance, (if I didn't know any better or the photos hadn't been so resolutely Catholic) that the inhabitants might have been "ethnically shoved" out of their flat leaving it available to be rented to foreigners...

C and I look at each other. She attempts the usual platitude she pulls out each time I get persnickedy or pissed at something when we go abroad: "Well we're lucky that we even get to go anywhere, most people can't travel any...." I cut her off.

"We're lucky to pay alot of money to live like someone does, who is not very well off, in a former communist country????!!!" I reply incredulous. She has to agree. It is not very nice.

Faced with the gloomiest place I have ever, I think, been in, I realize why, just maybe, alot of people here go out to cafes and start chain smoking and drinking very large bottles of beer at oh, say, 9:30 am...I immediately tell C I am going out to buy some wine.

I return some time later, worried that, as in the Roman Polanksi film "The Apartment" C will have become possessed by the spirit of our miserable flat and I will return to find her sitting at the stained, doiley laden table, chain smoking Marboroughs, quaffing straight vodka and complaining bitterly about the Serbs and the economy.

The TV though does work, although it only gets two channels. In the middle of the night I am awoken from my slumber by the stench of cigarette smoke imbued in the pillow and all the bedding. I change the bedding. It still stinks of smoke. This reaction coming from someone who used to smoke at least a pack a day. I finally scare up the bottle of Lavender oil I bought in Hvar. I put it all over myself thinking that I may suggest in the "Reader's Exchange" (see very first blog posting) the following: "Do you ever rent out apartments when you travel that reek of cigarette smoke and old cabbage? Just carry essential oils with you at all time..."

Next morning C wakes up with a large bruise on her knee from what I can only call the "Stalin Springs" which are a feature of our bed. I actually considered just sleeping on the floor as it would be more comfortable but the cold from leaving all the windows open made this even more unpleasant than the "bed"...

By the way, the end of the story is this: we hate the apartment, but love Zagreb: a beautiful, wonderful and brilliant city that inspires artists here to great painting, theatre and music...and maybe, I hope, some good blogging too.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Hey Dude, Where's a Museum?

Being jet lagged has a number of disadvantages, chief among them, the desire to sleep all the time, during hours which are at odds with that of the normal waking populous. Thus to Splt, a gorgeous city built entirely within the walls of the former palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletion. Imagine my joy at finding our apartment was actually built into the walls of the ancient palace. Imagine my trepidation when I came to realize that we were also adjacent to the giant Catholic Cathedral replete with many, many bells. The Catherdral was placed in the centre fo what had been the mausoleum of Diocletion. This is kind of ironic, given that Diocletion and Nero were two of the most outstanding emporers in terms of persecuting Christians etc...Guess Jesus got the last laugh there on that one.

We decided therefore, on the first full day in Split, which was a Sunday, that we would not waste our vacation by sleeping too much but get up bright and early and "carpe diem" so as to see the museums. This was made more difficult by the fact that Croatians feel museums should only be open for a brief morning window of say 9am to 11:30am after which they all shut down tight leaving one nothing to do but sit in cafes and drink.

The idea of rising so early, when one is jet lagged weighed heavily upon us, especially so since our normal hours of sleep resemble nothing so much as that of a sullen teenage boy.

My concern over our proximity to the church was borne out as massive bells started peeling at about 5:30 am, by a bed shaking din. They persisted in ringing thereafter for a joyous 5 minute spell each time the priest exclaimed thanks to heaven. Catherine began to wonder why they kept ringing the bells so much, for so long and so frequnetly. I assumed it was to get you, by force of sheer annoyance, out of bed and into mass.

Imagine our horror, when after forcing ourselves out of bed, sans even a coffee, we went charging through the streets of Split, running to hit the museums during the brief window of opportunity, only to discover that entirely everything in the country, except cafes where they only serve wine and beer, were closed for the national holiday...

As for the church bells, perhaps the enthusiasm with which the Splitsons pursue worship might explain what also appears to be a local and rising enthusiasm for Satanism from what one can see in the graffiti about town.

Even I was shocked, when, coming out of the Cathedral, I saw someone had carved "Death to the Church" in the wooden doors. My uneasiness was finally eased when I realized that it must have been written by the last person who had our room and had tried to sleep in on a Sunday...

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Sleepless and Splitless

Arrived in Gatwick airport at approximately 4:30 am Canadian time completely exhausted and jet lagged. Unfortunately our flight to Split did not leave for, say, 6 hours. What to do for six hours at Gatwick? Unfortunately the arrivals side of Gatwick can only be characterized as a dump: somewhere between a Canadian bus station and a run down mall.

After attempting to sit and wile away the hours over tea I realized I must sleep. Littered about the many seats were, what appeared to be, weary travellers, sleeping between flights. I therefore selected what I thought to be a quiet spot, stretched out on some seats, crossed my arms and attempted to sleep despite the din of airport conversation and smoking.

Just as soon as I began to drift off a booming voice woke me: "Ello there!" I looked up to see a huge, security policeman looming over me. "Ello?!! You alright then!?" Clearly he was concerned that I was some party girl who had been slipped rohypnol or had gotten blotto on cider and was now sleeping it off at Gatwick. "I m fine" I replied, "Just exhausted"

He looked at me suspiciously: "Where's yer luggage then?!" It became clear he thought I was a homeless person, no doubt having been chased out of central London, only to flee to Gatwick Airport, where I could be able to blend in with exhausted travellers, without fear of being escorted to a shelter.

"My friend has my luggage", I reply still horizontal on my bench "Travelling wid'someone eh' Where are they then?!?!"

Exhausted I motion toward the restaurant next door where Catherine sits with a cart full of luggage drinking Cafe au Lait. "She's in there" Finally satisfied, he leaves. I try and return to sleep however I remember that there are countless bobbies roaming the airport, peeking in every rubbish bin and inspecting everyone's bags. He was just one. The chances of again being woken are too great to risk. I get up off my bench to find Catherine and advise her that I have been mistaken for a ner'do well.

Some hours later Catherine is browsing La Senza to kill time. I stand there, bored as I usually am in a shop that sells bras, however I am also without any sleep and feel that I am going to pass out. I advise Catherine that I am exhausted and need to sit down. I walk over the bench right by La Senza. It is somewhat out of the way. Nearby another traveller is sprawled over a bench sans shoes, snoring...sleep I must have sleep...I remove my boots, lay lengthwise and fall immediately into a deep, deep slumber.

The next thing I know I can feel someone looking at me. What's more I feel breathe on my face. Someone is sniffing me. "Huh Catherine? Wha'?" I force my eyes open and focus, only to find that Catetherine has a long black muzzle, a cold black wet nose and floppy ears. There, looming over me is a huge security policeman with a large, black Lab security dog tethered to his arm. The dog is presently attemtping to determine whether a) I am dead b) am actually a bomb or c) blotto from rohypnol and too much cider and am sleeping it off at Gatwick. "Oh Hu?! What?" "Sorry, that's alight love" and off he goes.

I finally raise myself too terrified to return to sleep, lest next time I be awokened to find myself being probed by a remote control police bomb disposal robot.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Visit to the Balkan Homeworld: Will we Meet T'Pau?

Just a post to advise that we leave tomorrow for Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Hercegovina and Slovenia (and let's not forget Montenegro). Thus I will be blogging as we go along the trail.

BTW: want an interesting website? Go to the Bosnian Tourist Board and look under "Frequently Asked Questions".

I expected things like "What currency do you use?"; "Do I need a Visa?" etc...

See what you get!