May 5, 2019
As I exited the terminal in Charles De Gaulle airport, I stepped onto an escalator that rose into one the familiar hamster tube-like structures, criss-crossing through an open space; the same hamster tube-like structures that I noted nearly seven years ago when I landed in Paris the day after I created this blog.
I thought back to that day. I thought about the words I had written about that experience. Who I was. And who I was to become. What I thought was important enough to note, pay attention to, and write about. And how much I’ve grown.
An hour or so passed, and as I strolled around the corner of a large display screen, a familiar face came into view. The feeling you get when you first see someone you know so well, or even seeing someone you don’t know that well but have a shared sense of reality or community with, on the other side of the world is a fascinating one. Perhaps there should be a word for that feeling or situation? Perhaps there already is a word for it? Nostalgia. Comfort. Home.
Whatever the word, I’m sure the rental car guy laughed at Tara and me, as we circled around the Zagreb airport parking lot, attempting to find the exit—we certainly laughed at ourselves. The next morning at breakfast, we received two different colored napkins, so in spite of the blatant gender roles being demonstrated in that moment, I swapped the place settings and put the bright pink napkin on my lap, and gave Tara the blue one.
“Wilson,” I heard the restaurant manager say from over in the corner, where he was sharing a cigarette with a few other Croatian men, “you have the wrong napkin, the blue one is for you, the pink one is for the lady.”
He looked rather perplexed, as I ate my breakfast with the hot pink napkin silently protesting across my lap.
After a few hours on the road, we arrived in Plitvice National Park. It was nearly dusk, so we strolled down the road to a few viewpoints, each more epic than the last. As I peered out across the stone valley, my eyes tracing the white water cascading over steep rocky cliffs, into a tranquil cerulean pool below, I thought about how I ended up here.
When I came home from my Bonderman Fellowship nearly four years ago (which still feels like yesterday), I told myself that I was going to do something similar again. I’ve since learned that I don’t need to another 10-month solo adventure to discover who I am, how I want to grow, and what I want my life to look like. Yet, there is something, dare I say magical, about putting my backpack back on and showing up in an unfamiliar place. It’s energizing.
Despite a little jet lag, we awoke early the next morning to beat the crowds and walked around the entire park for the rest of the day. As we crossed one particular wooden walkway over a rushing river and onto a deep, calm pool in the river, the park looked and felt like how society (and Hollywood) depict a utopia. Bold, light stone cliffs, towering over a meandering river and lush green forest. Almond colored wood walkways winding their way through the valley. By the end of the day, we were exhausted.
The next day we drove down to Split and caught a ferry out to Hvar, an old port town on a small island. Just above the stone marina, cream colored buildings (each with an identical red orange roof) crawl up the hillside to an old fortress. As we waited for our host, Irena, to pick us up, I noticed a sign depicting stick figures commiting crimes (such as, sleeping outside, eating a picnic in the main square, not dressing modestly enough, etc.) and the corresponding fine for each offense. Despite being known as a party town, Hvar is immaculately clean (which makes sense when you fine people €400 for picnicking in the main square).
As Irena drove us to our apartment, she pointed out important landmarks and gave us some ideas of things to do in town. She was lovely and her demeanor was warmer than most of what we’d experienced thus far, given that many of the people we had met felt a bit distant and not very emotive (more on this later).
We rented bikes the next day and begin riding up a pretty large hill out of the town. A few kilometers into the ride, we came around a corner and immediately discovered where all of the trash, missing from the streets, ends up. It was evident this was the island’s landfill, even though I couldn’t read the sign posted next to the entrance. I did, however, understand the large “No Photography” icon on the sign.
I actually think it would be beneficial for people to see photos of where their waste goes and what it does to the environment. I understand that such imagery doesn’t help boost tourism, but humans create waste everywhere we go. We know this to be true. But when it is conveniently taken away from us in a relatively quick, sanitary, painless way, it’s easy to ignore. I catch myself ignoring it sometimes. Perhaps if society saw how much waste we are creating, we might be encouraged to produce less? Maybe, maybe not. But ignoring something, or pretending it doesn’t exist, doesn’t solve the problem. It makes it worse.
We continued on into the foothills, eventually riding into a tiny town called Brusje, where we stopped to have coffee at a cute outdoor cafe. We rode down the other side to another small marina town called Starigrad. As we arrived, we realized we didn’t have much time to return the bikes, so we rode as fast as we could back to Hvar. In total we rode 38km (~24 miles), which I think was the longest bike ride I’ve ever done, so we treated ourselves to dinner at Fig Cafe & Bar, a delicious Mediterranean-Mexican restaurant. We also got some of the best gelato we’ve ever had in Hvar. Oh how I’ve missed European gelato.
We spent our last day in Hvar strolling around the waterfront, stopping at different points or beaches along the way to chill, journal, or grab a bite to eat. We ended the day with a walk up to the old fortress and another dinner at Fig.
This may disappoint many of you, but I’ve never seen Game of Thrones. I fell asleep trying to watch the first episode a few years ago, and just never got into it. I want to watch it eventually, but I move through TV shows pretty slowly (for context, I started The Sopranos on a bus ride in Ecuador in 2015 and I’m still on Season 3). But when we passed through the stone gates into the old city of Dubrovnik, I understand why they film a good portion of the show here.
The old city is a small, dense maze of twisting cobblestone alleyways, encompassed by a tall stone wall, guarding the city from the sea, invasion, and dragons (I haven’t seen GOT, but I know there are dragons in it).
The term “when it rains, it pours” can be taken quite literally in Dubrovnik, as the cobblestone streets turned into stream beds for most of the time we were in town. That didn’t stop us from exploring the famous city walls, which offered incredible views of the red orange rooftops, rocky coastline, and two dope basketball courts.
On our last morning, we had a little time to spare before we flew out, so we popped into War Photo Limited, an intense, raw collection of photographs from various photographers from several recent conflicts (current exhibitions include: Iran-Iraq War, Nam Contact, and The End of Yugoslavia).
As we walked around in somber silence, my eyes studied each image, saddened and appalled by the horrors of war. I won’t go into detail of each section of the museum, but if you find yourself in Dubrovnik, I would recommend checking it out. I do want to talk a little bit about the War of Croatian Independence section.
I wish I could have walked through that gallery at the very beginning of the trip because it put everything we had done into context and transformed my perspective on each place we had been. For example, the first shot fired in the war was at Plitvice Lakes National Park when Croatian police and the Croatian Serb-established SAO Krajina clashed. We had breakfast earlier this morning outside on the Stradun (main street in the old city of Dubrovnik), and now we were staring at photographs of violence, explosions, and fire on that very street. The war lasted from 1991-1995. Upwards of 20,000 people died as a result of the conflict. A conflict that happened in my lifetime. A conflict whose violence forced a dear friend of mine to flee when he was a little kid. A conflict that affected everyone here in Croatia.
When most people think of Croatia, they think of Yacht Week, beautiful beaches, and wild parties. They’re not necessarily wrong, especially as tourism has transformed much of the local economy (which is probably why Hvar didn’t want people taking pictures of its garbage). But I think it’s so important to support museums like this one, which states that it has no political agenda. The goal of these photographs is not to point blame, but rather honor, mourn, educate, and spread the truth.
I think we all could agree that we could use a little more truth these days.
[note: I just wrote this on the bus from Munich to Vienna. I had originally planned to go to Budapest from Croatia, but getting to Munich was cheaper and more efficient so I changed my plans. That is the beauty of traveling by yourself. Looking forward to a few days in Vienna and then onward to Budapest. I am loving every minute so far and stoked for this adventure.]