Safe Travels, Don't Die
shlimazl n. (Yiddish) A chronically unlucky person.
After a lonely train ride that seemed to last forever but was really only over an hour, I arrived in Florence with five hours to kill before my bus to Croatia. Before setting off to wander the city, I wanted to find the bus station so I could return there directly when the time came, a preparation trick I have learned puts my mind at ease. Normally, this should not have been too difficult but in my fragile emotional state, the difficulty of everything became amplified. After wandering circles around the train station and the surrounding street for near an hour, frequently stopping at corners, frantically looking down streets and muttering obscenities under my breath, I finally found it. Now knowing exactly where I needed to return to, I set off into Florence wanting to at least see a couple of the major sites in the short time I was there. My wanderings led me past various cathedrals until the streets opened and there towered the grand Bascilica di San Lorenzo, a massive and beautiful cathedral made almost entirely of ivory, teal, oyster pink, and forest green marble, almost appearing as though it were made of pearls who had simply lost their sheen. The intricacies of every face are dizzying, ivory carvings over each door and prismatic tessellations of individual marble around every window, banister, and gable. A large part of me wanted to swallow my cheap tendencies and pay the fairly minimal student fee to go inside as I had plenty of time. Yet as I curved my way around the building and found the queue curled around to the nearly the opposite side, the interior no longer seemed that tempting. I may have grown to fondly respect the art of queuing from my time in Britain but I have yet to grow to love the very act of it as they seem to.
Instead, I decided to continue admiring its exterior, settling down at a little coffeeshop nestled in the shadow of the Bascilica, where I proceeded to eat pancakes (real, fluffy, American pancakes) in the morning sun breaking around the top dome. After a rough morning, the sky looked hopeful, bright blue as if with the promise of safe flights for my mother. It was lonely eating alone for the first time in a few weeks, but as I sat there scribbling down notes on crinkled pieces of paper torn from a notebook, I couldn’t help but feel distinctly like a beatnik writer. All I was missing was the inflated male ego, cigarettes, and scotch. When my table passed from the sun and the sky grew dark with clouds, my mood once again followed suit and I had a feeling the rest of the day was going to be a continual roller coaster of emotion. Rather than let the idle time get the best of me, I did what I do best and moved on, distracting myself with all the wonderful facades of Florence. With only an hour left until my bus arrived, I eventually settled down in a square outside the Basilica di Santa Monica Novella, just across the street from the bus station. Sitting there on the cobblestone amongst the pigeons, I did a bit of reading, propping my Kindle up on my pack cradled across my lap. For as much as I had regarded my pack as my enemy up to that point, in that moment, it felt a bit like a friend. Its weight had become a comfort of familiarity that reminded me of every time I held out the strap on my mom’s pack so she could contort her arm through it. I decided to dignify my new friend with a name and eventually settled on Nellie, named after Nellie Bly, the pen name of journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, who sailed around the world in, not 80, but 72 days. She also faked insanity in order to gain admittance to a mental institution where she could study and write about it from an inside perspective. That’s true investigative journalism, folks.
I had to wonder if Nellie Bly ever felt afraid on her travels. I often like to think of myself as some great world traveller and crazy adventurer but as I finally sat on my bus bound for Eastern Europe, I couldn’t have felt any less like an adventurer. No, I felt more like someone who had just walked into the wrong gendered restroom, and trust me, I know what that feels like (see second post). To begin, everyone on the bus spoke Some Slavic language, which is a really intimidating family of languages in general. It’s a very low mulling growl, such that you can never quite tell whether they’re discussing which color ribbon to tie on their poodle Pookie or which cement shows to put on Uncle Boris. Shortly into the ride, one of the drivers came back and said something to the other passengers that spurred an absolute riot of yelling and angry fist shaking. And then there was me, sitting in a seat by myself behind a bunch of angry Bulgarians and Croatians, munching on a chocolate bar and vaguely wondering if I, too, should be getting angry. A couple of them shifted seats, while loudly verbalizing things that it didn’t take knowledge of the language to understand were rudely directed at the driver, and then the matter was settled. Really? Having to shift seats? Was that really what inspired all that fuss?
It was in that moment I realized how vastly different these cultures were going to be from anything I had ever experienced and on top of that, I had no conception of how to communicate. To that point, I had essentially wholly relied on other people seeing the giant neon “American” sign on my forehead and instantly defaulting to using English around me rather than watching me painfully struggle to spit out some pathetic excuse of a French or Italian phrase. It was clear that in Eastern Europe that was not going to be the case. Travel writer Bill Bryson wrote, “I can’t think of anything that excited a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly, you are five years old again.” Well I don’t know about Bill, but I sure don’t know a lot of five year olds that travel the world on their own and for a good reason. While a state of ignorance presents opportunities for growth and learning it can also be very dangerous. Often times, it leads us to make blind decisions with no understanding of either content or consequence. Travel breeds this kind of guesswork. Smile and nod! Am I picking out which kind of cheese I want or volunteering to spend the next twenty years selling selfie sticks in Siberia? You just never know. Personally, I hate not being able to communicate, which is one of the biggest struggles for me when doing international travel. Maybe I pride my intelligence a bit too highly but I never feel so vulnerable as when I feel stupid. As a writer, words are one of the few tools I have in my arsenal. Take them away and all I have is a sarcastic attitude and overly poetic goggles through which I view the world.
I was happily distracted from both the daunting eight hours remaining on the bus ride and my own nerves when the bus drivers switched shifts and the one who had been driving came to the back of the bus where I was seated. I must have looked like I needed some liquid courage because he pulled a bottle of strange orange flavored liquor out of his bag and offered me some. I politely declined. Getting sick on a ten hour bus ride from some unknown alcohol was the last thing I needed. He shrugged and poured some for himself. Seeing the look of my face as he tipped back a shot, he said, “I don’t drive more on this trip. I’m only passenger now.” Well then, carry on.
As we began talking, I found out he was Bulgarian but had been working as a bus driver across Eastern Europe for several years. Lucky for me, English was his favorite language to speak and he loved the opportunity to practice it. Yet again, I was reminded, as I am everywhere I turn in Europe, how failing we Americans are in our ability to speak barely more than one language. I told him about my upcoming plans and any comfort I received from having a normal English conversation completely vanished with the look of concern that crowded his face when I said I would be visiting Bosnia. As a girl traveling alone, I would need to watch my back there according to him. While that wasn’t exactly news to me, his grave tone was a bit disconcerting. “You are strange girl,” he told me, which is not something one likes to hear coming from a man who had travelled to Iraq during the beginning of the war. Yet for all the additionally insecurity he planted within me, I was glad to have company for a while and even more glad when he kept giving me peanuts and snacks. Free food is an international language spoken and appreciated by all. But eventually I filled my social meter and withdrew back into myself and my music, listening on repeat to Lisa Hanigan’s very appropriate “Safe Travels, Don’t Die” as if the words would somehow effect my own fate.
As we drew away from Italy into Slovenia, I began noticing the general tide of things changing. Even in Trieste, a far eastern coastal town of Italy shortly before it bleeds into Slovenia, the brick walls separating the street and sidewalk from private property were covered in sharp shards of glass sticking out of the cement. At once both impressed at the simple effectiveness of such a security system and horrified by the idea of it, it seemed entirely appropriate to mutter, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
Across Slovenia we gathered more and more passengers and with a now completely full bus, we sped on past mountains and towns indiscernible in the dark night. Suddenly, our bus came to a stop as we pulled up on the Slovenian/ Croatian border. Assuming the border police would simply board the bus, check our passports, and send us on our way, as I have experienced in the past, I was greatly confused when everyone on the bus stood and began making their way off the bus. I sat glued to my seat, unable to understand anything anyone was saying, with no conceivable idea what was going on. I helplessly looked at the young man sitting next to me. “English?” I squeaked out, pathetically. He nodded, smiled, and informed me since there were so many of us, we needed to go outside to get our passports checked. It suddenly seemed very intuitive to me and I flushed red in not having figured that out on my own. Huzzah for perpetuating stupid American stereotypes.
For the next fifteen minutes, all 40 or so of us filed past two security booths, one stamping our passports for leaving Slovenia, the other for entering Croatia. For the first time since flying into Madrid, I had new stamps on my passport. That’s the trouble with EU; They never stamp passports when traveling between countries and thus passport stamps become a very unreliable way of documenting your travels, as my mother found out with much disappointment. However, it becomes vastly more important when you leave the Schengen Zone. The Schengen Zone is a pact between many European counties, excluding the UK and most countries in Eastern Europe, that essentially erases the borders in terms of Visa allowance. Americans are allowed to travel anywhere within the Schengen for a maximum of 90 days within a 180 day period on a free Schengen Visa. Beyond that, you become illegal. Prior to my travels, I carefully calculated the exact number of days I would backpacking and determined that I would need to leave the Schengen Zone for a minimum of 16 days or else risk getting in serious trouble when I tried leaving. While some countries will ignore slight overstays, others won’t. I have the great fortune of finishing my journey and flying home from Switzerland, infamously the most strict of countries. Just my luck. As such, my travels to Eastern Europe were not only seeking new cultural experiences but escaping illegality. I found the ten hour bus ride was also made a bit more exciting if I thus thought of it as a Visa run.
With proof of leaving the zone in that little blue Bible of travel, we rolled into Croatia and finally its capital city, Zagreb. With the continuation of the darkness and exhaustion from both the long bus ride and my emotionally exhausting day, I was in no mood to even bother looking around me. Zagreb was literally a stop over for me to get some sleep, nothing more, nothing less, and thus I decided not to even risk getting too attached to it. After getting off the bus at 11:30pm, I also found I was in no mood (read as: scared) to walk myself all the three kilometers to my hostel. After all, I was officially a young female traveller on her own and I had never been to Eastern Europe before and thus only had fears of friends and family and misconceptions to go on. For all that, I decided to just pay for a taxi. Sometimes, I’ve found, spending a bit of extra money for some peace of mind is entirely worth it.
The cab driver drove me right to the door of the Brit Hostel where I went in, forked over my passport and credit card, and let myself be led up to my room, practically dead on my feet. Since I had arrived so late and was leaving so early the next day, he put me alone a bunk room. A couple nights ago, my mom and I would have been dancing for joy at this prospect but as I lay there in the dark bunk room by myself, I felt completely and utterly alone. The emptiness was like a black hole and I would have gladly traded it in for some snoring guy or a couple of drunk girls. I may have even gotten more sleep that way. My only relief of the hostel was finally being able to connect to wifi and finding out my mother had at least safely landed in the States. Now all I had to worry about was myself.
I tossed and turned all night, wondering what I was in for, and how exactly I was going to cope with the next few weeks if this feeling of complete isolation didn’t go away. I’ve always been a very independent person and I pride myself on my ability to walk through life without relying on the company of others. These feelings, these insecurities about being alone, were thus very new for me and that was unsettling. I hoped I just needed time to adjust, or that I was just tired, that I would wake up the next morning rearing to go, but when morning light slowly crept into the room, the only thing I cared about was being out of that hostel. I needed to get moving, distract myself with a new place, or I was going to go crazy.
Unfortunately, Zagreb was definitely not the place to put me in a more chipper mood. In fact, it only dampened it more. The best way I can describe Zagreb is concrete. It’s grey, it’s hard, it’s unforgiving, it’s definitely not something you turn to for comfort. As I rode back to the bus station on a tram through the rainy city, all I could see was grey. Grey, concrete buildings fashioned in terribly brutalist architectural styles, grey metal statues, even an inordinate amount of gray cars. The only thing that ever broke up the sea of grey was graffiti, which admittedly was pretty cool looking. And as my bus departed, all I could think was, “If this is Eastern Europe, what the hell have I gotten myself into?”