Sunday, August 1, 2021

Dubrovnik into the Water

I woke up early, looking back on the first day.

It's only three of us this time. 

The teenagers on her way home, getting ready to go West, looking back at the blur. 

Three of us on our way East to Dubrovnik, traveling into history. 

A train to a plane to a car, first international travel since leaving Tokyo two years ago. 

Everything is always changing.

On the train in Princeton to Newark, its four of us for a second. We look about.  I find myself thinking of going with Dodi to North Carolina eight years prior, leaving from here. 

So many trips, openings, closings.

Eighteen years of trips, to California and back, Italy a lot, Germany and Sweden, Costa Rica,

Switzerland, Mexico, the Camino summers from 2014 to 2019, blurring between.

And then it all changed.

Perhaps its time to think of the synthesis, as JK says. 

Wearing a hat with the words Animal, Murry aka Scarlett passes me a passage from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando:

“Was nature beautiful or cruel?

She went to the nature of reality which led her to truth, which in turn led her to Love, Friendship, Poetry…. The truth…”

None of us really know.  Dad was always looking to understand that  space between the sublime and poetry. 

So is Virginia. 

So is Dodi is on her journey, making choices, looking, always searching.

We are all on the journey through time -  together, apart, together.

We arrived at the airport ridiculously early. Security, no problems. Five books in my bag, three about Croatia, Balkan Ghosts, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and Don’t Mourn, Balkanize, 

and another Joy Division memoir- for safe keeping. 

One travel guide, to make the most of things.

The captain welcomes us onto the plane, telling us it's a nine hour flight over the Atlantic Ocean, across Europe, past the Adriatic Sea, to Croatia.

My friend Chuck used to have a place here.

I always said I’d come.

Now that I've made it, he’s gone. 

I think of what's ahead.

Arriving with Jetlag, I often walk all day instead of sleeping. 

In Florence, in 2016, the teenager walked with with me. 

This time, I walk through the old town of Dubrovnik on my own, meeting up with Wylie, an intrepid lawyer I know from NYC. He’s spent the last month travelling throughout the Dalmatian region in Croatia along the Adriatic Sea.

“When they bombed Dubrovnik, the war was over.  The whole world wanted it to end,” said Wylie. 

For our generation, this was our  Spanish Civil war, a call to act, to learn, to know it's never over, to get a hold of history, ever eternal, twisting beyond communism  and capitalism, East vs West, into something else. We were not sure then. We are not more certain now.

“How could the US take a side?” asks our bartender.

“Its always the wrong side.  In this area, there are many truths, the Croation side, the Serbs, three religions, six countries.”

As Andrej Grubacic puts it:

“If we are are try to identify some of the most important aspects of the Balkans, we cannot put point out the persistent vision of a surprisingly consistent utopia, of a decentralized communal society, in  perpetual struggle against concentration, colonization, and cultural norms imposed by its civilized Western “Other.”

Instead of Europe or neoliberalism, he yearns for a “Balkanization from below.”

Up we walk through the old city, past stray cats, through winding streets, people mulling about, hanging their laundry, looking for secret watering holes, out of city walls, a sign, a door, beach at Bard Mala Bruza, on the sea side. 


A view of the water, a bar, ancient rocks, people in bathing suits, suntanning. 

We jump in, swimming eternal, through the crisp, salty waters.

“Life is to be lived. If you have not dived from ancient rocks into blue adriatic waters, what are you doing?” says Caroline. 

Wine and great food inside us, the sundown goes down over the cathedral.  We walk back, to sleep, to dream. I think of everyone I travel with through time. The old band has kindov broken up. The three of us remain. 

With yellow hair, the little one reads Virginia Wolf.

No one know what to make of them.

Only the teenager knows.

We’re all trying to make sense of this place, that emerged from the Kingdom of Croatia in 925.

For a while there, they had to pay off the Ottoman rulers to maintain a little of their beloved libertas. Autonomy is elusive. The Venetians tried to invade some 84 times. 

By 1808, Napoleon succeeded and the Hapsburg Empire engulfed the region, and then war and then Yugoslavia, and then another push for independence, and the 1991 war that we all saw, as the cold war turned hot.  By 2000, the region was quiet again.  Twenty years of peace, and Croatia joined the European Economic Community in 2013. Now they are blocking Serbia’s entry.   Struggles for sustainability followed, as the tourists arrived. 

And then a pandemic. 

And now, they are not sure what to do with us. 

It was all on our minds looking at the water, napping in a quiet nook just off Banje Beach, walking the Dubrovnik City Walls, looking at the old homes that were bombed in October 1991. We see snapshots of lives, patios, boats, a cat sanctuary, pubs, the water, a flotilla of kayakers, people jumping off cliffs, the sun setting on Lakrum island, 600 meters away.

It's with us in the heat, back at  Bard Mala Bruza, for a refreshing dip in the sea, before an Aperol Spritz. 

Its with us toasting twenty years of marriage, adventures, thoughts about other times, celebrating in Brooklyn at the River Cafe or with other Pilgrims in Spain on the Camino, or enjoying a pizza and a beer right here as Croatia and Japan  volley and we make our way through the city night, past the Cathedral and the streets back to our little hovel. 

By day three, we were taking it all in, wandering through the old town here. Started the day reading, then swimming at our favorite watering hole. If you walk with your hand on the left you will find your way to the oldest places on the island, said a bartender we'd met, inviting us for an iraquie, an after dinner drink.

 Off to lunch, where the waiter told us its 60% down from peak tourism two years ago. Enjoy it. Off we go kayaking around the  Lokrum Island where Richard the Lionhearted survived his crusade. And Napoleon later had his last win before falling pray to the island's curse.  The Croats could beat off the Venetians and the Ottomans.  But Napoleon was too much.  The kayaking took us on a wondrous tour, through wonderful, blue waters, and our guide reminded of the war that left this town on the front lines three decades prior, it's old fortifications still holding. We are only just beginning…

Sometimes swimming like this feels like a return to a paradise lost, a feeling I never quite thought I’d have again, swimming with history, in crisp cold water, through caves, into islands, back out into the ocean to finish the day. 

Day Four, Five, and Six

Took the Ferry to Efliti, an island archipelago, Northwest of Dubrovnik.

 A90 minute ferry later, we got off at Lopud, the second largest of the Islands, docking near an old monastery, along a promenade of loopy galleries and restaurants. 

It could have been a fishing village off Hong Kong or Mexico, kids jumping in the green water, waiters standing about eateries and markets, people sitting at cafes drinking tea and cheap wine.

A woman in a market points us toward Sunj, the sunny beach. 

Havala, i say badly pronouncing the word for thank you. 

Monim, she replies. 

Off we walk through the beach town, taking a left along a strange path, past a crumbling hotel, long closed to our right.  It's a bit like the Camino, says Caroline. 

It's true. The trail seems to go forever, becoming increasingly grassy, eventually completely woods, images of what it might look like once it all ends, along the mile and half walk to the beach.

Looking at the trees, I wonder what they think. 

A hike through nowhere with my thoughts, steps through this life, with my family, who are now making their way forward in their own directions, in their own lives. 

On we walk.  The trail opens up, into a cove closed off by wooded cliffs, a tiki bar, and a french hotel playing mellow disco music. 

Take off your mask my friend, says one of the guys renting beach chairs. 

Free your life. 

I’d forgotten Id still had it on. 

Out we all swam together, playing in the blue water, doing headstands, swimming to and fro. 

Reading in our beach chairs, going for a beer in the tiki bar, and then back to the water.

Soon enough we are back on the trail, and back on the ferry.

On shore, we stop at the Red History Museum, to unpack the communist years here that dissolved into a full blown implosion, trying to explain “why it ended in the flames of the Homeland war”  in 1991.

Like the DDR museum in Berlin, this little museum offers a picture of everyday life, the communist rise, great leaps forward, atrocities, cultural turns, and struggles. 

Tito found a way of opposing Stalin, but not all of Stalinism.

According to the museum:

“Because of the problems within Stalin’s way of governing, it was necessary to find a way of ideological struggle among former friends…”

Like Stalin’s Soviet Union, Tito’s Yugoslavia employed a work camp at Goli otok, a barrand island from 1949 to 1989. 

It's not entirely clear how many “class enemies” or “enemies of the people” ended up working and perishing in the quarry  there. 

“Politics in Yugoslavia perfectly mirrors the process of history,” writes Robert Robert Kaplan, tracing the subcurrents of this history, from the murder of King Alexander in 1934 to the struggles of Archbishop Stepinac under Tito.  Complicit with the Nazi leaning Ushtashe government, he rebuffed Tito’s calls for a national church, and was imprisoned. Hero or a villain, his life is a subject of debate to this day. 

Stepinac’s story is prominently featured in the Red History museum. 

By the time of Tito’s death in 1980, world leaders mourned. He helped reduce poverty. 

But the cost was significant. 

Within a decade it would all fall apart. 

But it's not entirely clear. 

Something is missing.

Pieces of the story feel  absent. Sure there were accounts of the Goli otok. 

But a Alexander Solschenizyn like story about the gulag does not seem to be.

I could be missing something here. 

This feeling continues in the old Synagogue, with its 13th century Torah’s and Holocaust materials. 

“Full of ghosts” says Caroline, walking out.

Yet who were they?

What was their story. 

What happened when they were told to remain in the Jewish Quarter?

I guess we already know what happened to 20 or the 24 thousand Jews there during the war.

Out to the old port, that was bombed thirty years ago. 

God Help Us says the graffiti by the watering hole where we swim. Old seamen and beer,  passed out, disconnected stories and maritime history dating back to Byzantium, meandering through the millennia.  You feel weighs on us... certainly on him.

The heat of the day bearing down, I walk through streets, looking at the cats and courtyards.

Ready for a siesta, Caroline is ready for a hike to Mount Srd,  Napoleon's fort, above the old town, where the city defended itself in 1991.

Through the heat of the day, the  hike gets us to the old fort for a beer and a view a trip through the overlapping histories of attacks. Now a museum of the 1991 siege, newsreels and photos of the bombings of the old town, fill the fort. 

A cable car whirls us back, off to dinner. 

Our waiter’s parents fought during the war.  He’s from Bosnia. 

“I hope no one has to feel that again” he says. 

No one. 

He brings us free after dinner drinks. 

Back to Mala Bruza, we walk  for a swim in the night, sun descending into the moonlight.

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