Archive for October, 2009

Madrid and San Sebastian (Continued)

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Madrid and San Sebastian (Continued)

Now that you know my Spanish heritage, you can appreciate my experiences here a little more. You just got cultured. Me cultured.

Madrid is a enormous city that lends to no one. If you don’t know someone here, you are probably going to be lost a bit. It isn’t really designed for tourists like Paris. I made my way to San Sebastian a few days later. San Sebastian is a beautiful city on the northern beach of Spain, just about at the French boarder. But don’t let that fool you, you are in Basque country.

To makes things delightfully political, there are a large number of people in San Sebastian who want to succeed from Spain and France. They claim to be located in the Basque Country, “the oldest country in Europe”, which I find ironic because it still isn’t exactly recognized by the international community.

But before we laugh at these freedom fighters, let look a little more closely into the meat and potatoes. One thing I learned a long time ago, but only recently was able to truly accept, is that there is the way that the world is “represented” and the way that it on a practical level “behaves”. What I meant by all that punctuation is that China could claim to be communist, but it really behaves to be Hyper Capitalist. A priest can claim to be a man of the cloth, but could be a Hyper Capitalist. This is NOT to say that EVERYTHING is not as it seems, or that the world is a great big conspiracy. It is to say that SOMETIMES things are not as they are defined.

The Basque country, for this matter, is showing some true international promise. For instance, when you walk around San Sebastian, you will see two languages, Spanish and Basque (No English). More impressively, the Basque people have their own train lines and train company. This would be the same as taking a separate freeway in California. They are pretty serious. And most interestingly, they have their own police force. In San Sebastian, that makes three: The Spanish Police, The Basque Police, and the Spanish Counter Terrorism Units (who are to remain completely masked and covered at all times in order to not become a target to the radicals withing the Basque Separatists movement). The counter terrorists look just like G.I. Joe, complete with enormous automatic weapon, rocket launcher attachment, heavy body armor, and Rambo Knife :)

But don’t let my description get you concerned about safety, San Sebastian can ironically be summed up in this statement “the city that just knows how to have fun.” This is where the beautiful old charm or Europe spills into the sea. A combination that has made San Sebastian a top vacation destination for even the Spanish for the past 100 or so years.

San Sebastian has the relaxed environment of tapas on tap. Instead of making the tapas upon request (in Barcelona) they will tend to make everything they have on the menu and just have them sitting on the bar, waiting for you to take. The system is that of honor when you ask for the bill at the end. The entire place is ultra relaxed. And I can understand why there are people fighting over the land, because it is that of the most lush, fertile, and beautiful in all of Spain. Believe it or not, a large portion of the interior of Spain looks like you are essentially on Mars.

I am off to Barcelona once again and then off to Valencia then Granada and finally Morrocco!!
(then South America Begins)

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Madrid and San Sebastian

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

I’m back in Spain now, the land of Spanish speakers. And before you can say to yourself “duhhhhh!” just realize that I am refering to the vast majority of the people here who ONLY speak Spanish. This is a much denser population of single language speaking people than even France. The last time I checked though, Spain hasn’t been considered an empire for hundreds of years. But I can easily forgive the Spanish for their stubbornness, because we are back in tapas country, where one can get a delightful snack of something truly spectacular for only $2 a pop. And besides, I actually know enough Spanish to get around. This is my 5th opportunity at learning Spanish, the first three of which were squandered. Well, the first 4 times were rammed down my throat when I was too young, immature, and culture-less to appreciate.

On the 4th try this quote emerged “Finally, Now I’ll never have to speak this filthy language ever again!” as I was in the taxi on the way to the airport after 6 weeks studying abroad in Guadalajara Mexico during my Junior year of college. Possibly the most fun 6 weeks of my life, yet virtually Spanish free considering that there were 200 other English speaking classmates to immerse myself in. I remember my roommate being in Spanish one for that summer and coming back being able to speak more Spanish than I could (just having finished Spanish 3).

On the 3rd try I was in community college having barely survived my final exam that made me eligible for 4 year university. I stood by the scantron machine after class and helped my teacher run the slips through the machine. For every wrong answer, the machine jolted with a loud click. It ran through 50 bubbled in responses within 3 seconds if there were none wrong. The incorrect answers slowed the progress of the machine, taking as long as 5 extra seconds on particularly bad test results. There jolts happened too fast to accurately count, but I was a math guy in school. I knew exactly how many I could get wrong on my final in order to pass the class. I was preemptively kissing my professors ass for the whole semester for this moment of truth. If I didn’t pass this class, it would be an extra half year until I could go to real college. The ironic part was that I had received only 3 B’s in my 2 years of community college. The rest were A’s. And I was fearing a D or even an F in this class. I personally ran my scantron through the machine. The first side went though “Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt” About twenty wrong as far as I could ballpark. I took the sheet out and flipped it over to grade the last 50 answers. I had about another 20 to give in order to pass the class. “Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt, Jolt” Was it too many? I was prepared to suck my 65 year old female professor’s dick of it was the difference between me going to 4 year college and me getting stuck for another 6 boring months in the commuter school twiddling my thumbs. I look down at my results and found that I had made it with only one answer to spare. “Shew.” I thought. “Never will I have to medal with this disgusting hole in my intellectual repetuar again.” Little did I know that the school I would eventually be accepted into required 3 years of a foreign language and that the weakness would be back to rear its ugly head like herpes on your wedding night. (I’m not married)

The second attempt at Spanish was a 3 week immersion course in Guatemala. My beloved Mother made me (alliteration!) join here in this course as a plea bargain for droping Spanish one during my Sophomore year of high school. I look back on the decision now and think it was a brilliant move in parenting history, but boy did I hate it when I was 14 at the time. I wanted to get AWAY from the language, not immerse myself in it. I was bad in it. It was the only time EVER that my grade in ANYTHING dropped into the D or F region. The Guatemala experience was designed to last for three weeks, but I was able to beg my way down to 2 after my Mother got sick of the program herself. Thank MOM that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

And my first attempt at Spanish was my Sophomore year of high school, with Mr. Contreras, a terrible teacher who ended up loosing his job at my school after being convicted of his second DUI. The guy was such a bad teacher. He couldn’t relate to the students who just didn’t understand the language. He was a burnt out alcoholic who didn’t have the energy or patients for dealing with the newbies. But that is the fallacy. In language, you must have the BEST teachers in with the newest students, because the better speakers don’t need as much guidance. The Scuba Diving community understands this concept whole heartedly as they always pair up the best dive instructors with the worst divers (because the good divers can essentially take care of themselves.)

It’s been about ten years since my first introduction to Spanish and I am proud to say that I am now speaking it without much fear. I only understand about 20-40% of the elaborate responses that I receive when asking very basic questions, but I am still confident enough to get around. I am also shocked and amazed at the vocabulary that pops out of my mouth, directly from the deeper recesses of my long term memory, on the fly. Such an astounding feeling when you pull a word, essentially out of your ass, that you haven’t used for 5 years.

Now that you know my painful history with Spanish, you can appreciate my ambition to return to America speaking it fluently. I want to speak only Spanish during a lot, if not all of my time in South and Central America. I figure it is the perfect time to do it. I feel like a freaking man here! I am facing my greatest weakness (other than chocolate) and commiting to not only vanquish it, but jam it (essentially up the ass) with genuine interest. And here is how it happened.

I went to so many countries while on this trip that I didn’t know ANY of the language, that I felt like Spanish was like a long lost best friend, when I finally got to Spain. Too many times, did I want to spit out Spanish when I was stumped in Asia and Europe. I finally realized that I knew quite a bit of Spanish after all, compared to all the other languages which I could only muster up “Hello” and “thank you” for. Would I have ever felt this enthusiastic about Spanish has I never been on this trip? Probably not.

In your face Mr. Contreras, you alcoholic dick. In your face 3 week immersion class, I’ll take those two weeks back now and multiply them by 10 on my own terms. In your face 6 week study abroad program, like we ever spoke Spanish there in the first place. And a big fat in your fucking face scantron machine! Go “jolt” someone your own size (600 pounds of steal and plastic one wheels).

Onto Madrid and San Sebastian. Though Madrid is a beautiful city, it is enormous. It’s really hard to befriend a city of this size unless you know someone who lives here. For this reason, I fumbled a little when walking around. But I was able to do a pretty good job in discovering a local delicacy. A hot chocolate here is essentially a hot cup of thick liquid chocolate pudding. It is much too thick to drink, but is beautifully complimented with a churro (kind of like a Spanish doughnut without much sugar in it.) You dip the Churro into the hot chocolate and enjoy the contrasts. It reminds me of the movie “lady and the tramp.” where the human dips his doughnut in his coffee and takes a bite. This, I can assure you, tastes much better than a doughnut being dipped into coffee.
I went to another restaurant that I ordered a Pallella at and they brought out an orderve plate without me asking for it (just like in Portugal). I was disappointed in this tactic, but it was muscles, green olives, and mini onion medallions all tossed in a brilliant vinegar/brine sauce. I didn’t like that they had brought this plate out without me asking for it, but I wasn’t going to even think twice about passing up this wonderful creation. It was amazing; completely worth it, but the best part was, when the bill cam out, it was free. I will forever be unsatisfied with the standard bread that is brought out at all American establishments. “Why can’t they just through a little shell fish, olives, and onions onto a plate? Is that so hard?” is what all of my poor friends are going to have to sit through when I get home.

Part two of this riveting post soon to come……..

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Portugal

Monday, October 19th, 2009

I want to say that my experience in Lisbon was unique. But this is because it was so odd. I want to talk to other people and hear “Wow, that wasn’t anything like I experienced it!” Lisbon was the first city that I was really on edge while visiting since Shanghai. It just felt like an old shipping town. Like it was once a thriving metropolis, but now the only line you will see is for the unemployment office. Yikes! What a disappointment.

The side walks of Lisbon are made of Mosaic crème and white stones. This reflects the winter sun directly into your eyes with a more intense glare than snow. The place was part torn up for renovation (Europe’s second scourge behind graffiti) and part run down. Not the charming type of run down, but just depressing. The water was dark as San Fransisco and oddly enough there is a bridge that vaguely resembles the golden gate.

When eating at a restaurant, the waiter promptly gives you a special menu that has higher prices carelessly taped on top of the originals. Do they take us for fools? In every city I go to there are usually one of two attitudes that I run into: friendly, and indifferent. I really don’t get rude much, but I got it more than a few times in Lisbon. And where as patrons sitting next to you in Serbia will but into a conversation to find out your life story and proceed to have a meaningful conversation for the next hour, the Portuguese in Lisbon just stare, or make rude noises. They’ve got the attitude like “why the hell are you in my town? Why don’t you speak Portuguese?” Such an exclusive club of Portuguese speakers when you think of it. Portugal………….. Brazil ………… any others?

There is a street were all the restaurants are on and the waiters try and stick menus in your face. After this happening three times I just said “No thanks.” and didn’t even break stride. The waiter flipped out and said “No Gracias is SPANISH! I’M NOT SPANISH. YOU AREN’T IN SPAIN.” A sore subject I’m sure, but not my problem. I laughed and said “Ya, thats why I said NO THANKS, now how do you say COCK SUCKER in Portuguese because I am about to culture your ass!”

Well maybe not that last part. Weren’t the French supposed to be the Jerks? They definitely were not.

Moments later, I was walking across the main square and a big guy made a v line for me. Almost trotting at me, I thought “Oh great, this guy is going to knock me out. Look at the size of him. Should I run now? He’ll probably just run me down and make it more humiliating for me.” Is this what waiters do in Lisbon? Well, here we go…..

Turns our he only wanted to sell me drugs. I had a thought for him “Don’t you know the correct way to sling rocks? Just stand on the corner and whisper the offer as I walk bye. Don’t run at someone unless you want a face full of pepper spray buster! “ Turns out, I left that at home :)

I met a few people a while ago who said that Bosnia is full of nice people, but they will try and get every last penny out of you. I didn’t feel this way at all about the Bosnians, but I did feel this was a perfect fit for the Portuguese.

I was so shocked. Portugal was supposed to be such a cool place. I thought that going the extra mile would pay off, and it did.

I packed up and moved onto Porto; the birth place of Port Wine. This was a suggestion of my Ex-room mate from San Diego, Patrick (who I met up with in Sydney and Cairns if you remember). He went there years ago and suggested it to me then. I hadn’t forgotten about it since. Pat was the reason I was in Portugal in the first place. “Dude! Go to Porto. We stayed in this “hostel” that was amazing and turned out to have a freaking bell hop! I went to a restaurant and wanted to celebrate so I thought, screw it, and had a steak dinner and a bottle of wine and paid for my girlfriend as well. The bill….. was 9 euros !”

When I went out to dinner alone in Porto, there was a sign on one of the restaurants that said “we speak English!” I thought “Sold!” I came in and there were meat and fish dinners from 5 euros to 9 euros depending on if it was a half order of whole. I ordered salmon and the guy said “half order of salmon” as if he had decided that that was the correct portion. I thought “oh great. He is going to bring out a tiny piece and then I get a bill for the full portion.” But I was served two large salmon steaks with potatoes, salad, and a smile. I thought “Well, I’ll pay for the full portion if it is that big” But when the bill came out, it was for a half portion! He sold me a water that I didn’t really want but the price was 80 euro cents (while I was expecting something like 3 euros). Porto people are good people.

In Lisbon a waiter will often just bring things out that you didn’t order and then charge you for them. They must be taking lessons from the Romanians!

Porto is the saving grace of Portugal.
Porto is:
That charming city that you always think of when you think of Europe.
Filled with beautiful Churches that look like people actually use (instead of being a tourist attraction).
Full of nice people.
3 times cheaper than Lisbon.
Full of steep and narrow alley ways.
Worth having to sit through Lisbon to get to.

One cool thing about Lisbon was the breakfast culture. There are tons of bars who serve pastries and coffee but instead of sitting at a table to eat them, you typically stand at the bar. I thought this was significant, but don’t know the deeper meaning just yet.

A few fun facts about alexrothaus.com:
I have hit some round numbers and I thought I might share them with you. As of a few days ago, 1000 different people have read my blog. Not 1000 visits, 1000 lives have be touched. Even more impressive still, those thousand people come from exactly 50 different countries !

Freakin sweet !!

Now I leave you with a BUNCH of Pics that I have been meaning to share with you guys !

Thanks for reading !

Scandinavia

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2105682&id=24501923&l=02f541b356

Netherlands and Belgum

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2106290&id=24501923&l=055554c0da

Paris

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2106291&id=24501923&l=afd9012886

Switzerland

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2108131&id=24501923&l=d4511be9fe

Koblenz

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2108141&id=24501923&l=988471729c

Italy

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2108146&id=24501923&l=88f2e57d3d

Slovenia

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2108148&id=24501923&l=e34867a0d8

Bosnia

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2109275&id=24501923&l=aba14902ae

Serbia

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2109277&id=24501923&l=edfe577a9a

Spain

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2109278&id=24501923&l=9dee72d686

Portugal

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2109280&id=24501923&l=45d061dbb4

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Barcelona

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

Before we go into Spain, we have to get there. And getting there, by train, from Budapest, is a 3 day marathon. But before that, a small cap on Belgrade. Erin, an Aussie from Melbourne who I had been traveling with through the Balkans, was turning 23 the last night we were in Belgrade. Coincidently, it was the last night that a barge (that had been converted into a night club) was featuring a local legend of a DJ for the year.

Of all places that I thought I would be partying into the wee hours of the morning, Serbia was probably the last on my list. Just a few weeks ago, I would have thought I would be locking myself in my hostel as the sun set (If I were ever to even visit Serbia.) Things have changed :) We made our way to the barge with two Portuguese guys and a Brazilian. The barge was probably the top 3 coolest places I have ever partied. It was literally a cargo ship that had been converted into a sunken stage, open air, party boat. While there, we met several nice Serbian kids and they were all friendly except for one girl. She asked me where I was from and I said “California!” And she replied with “I don’t like America.” So I replied with “But I’m not from American, I am from California.” (which usually works in throwing people off the scent. People then think of sunny beaches and their favorite movies. California brings happy thoughts to people, Even if they don’t like America.) She replied with “It’s the same thing.” and walked away. As she pivoted he stance to walk back onto the dance floor, her posture revealed a large scar on the left side of her face from above here eye brow to blow her cheek. I did the math and realized that it was likely the scar was from shrapnel during NATO’s bombing campaign. She must have been only 6 at the time.

With good reason, she maintains her grudge against America. Only in Serbia could you meet people who have lived through a war and still have it in the front of their brains, yet be safe to walk home alone at 3 am from a barge party. Well almost safe. On the way to the barge, one the the Portuguese guys was drunk and started making fun of Serbs. “They smell like oranges…. what? They can’t understand me, they are Serbs…… they don’t understand English.” he said as he threw his arm around my shoulder. I threw his arm off of me as a local looked back at him with disdain. I am reminded of the recent local news of a few cases were a foreigner tourist was being disrespectful in a bar and ended up beaten to death in the streets. The Serbs are really cool people, but I think the LAST you would want to fuck with in the whole of Europe. I walked faster with Erin to gain a much needed distance from our rowdy co-travelers. As I was on the dance floor, the thought of being beaten to death in the streets was in the front of my mind. I wanted for nothing less than to bump the wrong person on the dance floor. But everyone in the crowd was really relaxed. It seemed like the type of place that I would frequent at home. Dare I say the Serbian version of San Diego’s legendary “Sand Bar?”

After just 1.5 hours of sleep, we were off to Budapest to go to the baths for some much needed revitalisation. After a few days at the baths, I split ways to head over to Barcelona. It only took me three days strait of train rides to make it here. Making overnight pit stops in Munich and Lyon, I was able to see quick peeks of each city. The most remarkable part I remember of all of my train travels was how utterly incompetent the French were when it came to the actual train travel. The trains were just run really unprofessionally. The term 35 hour work week kept ringing in my mind, but the people who booked the tickets were helpful. It was a flip from Italy, where the people who operated the actual trains seemed to have it together, but those who sold the tickets were living with their heads securely up their asses.
From Lyon to Barcelona, the views of the Mediterranean were stunning. I actually saw a small strip of beach that had waves and I was instantly reminded of that little nagging love who I had been neglecting since I had left. My love of waves has been quietly suppressed like a secret first born son for longer than I would like to admit. In that moment, I wanted to pull the emergency break on the train and just run to water, but this lust was going to have to wait for another time.

Arriving in Spain, I was excited to use my limited knowledge of the local language. I was happy to finally know virtually 1000 times more of the local language than any other non English speaking country I had been to. I thought of how much I could say and understand in Spanish and realized that I was a whole lot better off than I ever thought I was in the language.

It was a good thing to be able to speak Spanish, because even the ticket sales agent didn’t speak a word of English. I was shocked. It was like I was in China. But at least in China, there was always a ticket agent who spoke English. So I popped into my rusty Spanish and was able to get the mandatory reservations for my onward journey. “How accomplished?” I though as I walked away victorious.

As I got to my room I met a guy from Delaware who now lives in Monetary. At the age of 28 Sean was a wine consultant and a foodie. This was a perfect city to join forces with a guy who is really excited about food. In addition, since he was a little older, he had a bit of money to spend on fine foods. Since I had not treated myself in longer than I could remember, I decided to go big (because I was certainly not going home any time soon.)

He had already scouted out 3 of the most famous tapas bars in the city as found in the New York Times. But first we stoped in a random tapas bar the night before. Please excuse me for my ignorance, but I thought tapas was going to be like a tortilla covered in beans and cheese. For some reason, I didn’t realize Barcelona was going to be such a Sea Food Capital. I always hear the boy cry wolf about the seafood of a certain city, but the city rarely delivers unless you are willing to make it a black tie event.

But Barcelona is different. Here the common man can get their hands on good seafood for decent prices. We were eating cuddle fish tapas for $2 each. It was so surprising how fine the creations were. But this was only the start. The next day we had set out to fine the top three places in town. The first place was on its 4th generation of family ownership and had been around since 1914. It was a small and unassuming hole in the wall. The walls were covered in fine wines, bourbons, and canned sea food. I know what you are thinking, canned sea food? Is that safe? Not only is it safe, it was some of the best seafood I have ever had. “Wait, so you are telling me that we are going to pay you to open a can and scoop some of that onto a plate? How is this a restaurant? How have you been around since 1914? And why is that can of sea food over there priced at 90 euros?”

This was the type of place that you just say “Can I have a plate of the shell fish?” and they take care of the rest (constructing a creation that you will never forget of over 10 different items, all doused in expensive vinegar.) There were no menus, no price tags. If you had to ask, you probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place. It was heaven on earth, from a can…… weird :) “Do you want a cheese plate now?” “Sure, why not.”

The the woman bought over a plate of 8 fine cheeses, some rare jam, and even a Champaign gelatine. Strange as it was, the only part that I didn’t enjoy was the gelatine (though I am assuming that all drinkers would have loved it.) We asked for the check and ended up $20 each for the experience. Well worth it, but rather daunting, considering that my room for the night was only $15 and I still had 2 more tapas bars to visit that day. The next place we went was right off of Los Rombles (the main drag). It was a bustling restaurant that looked like it was going to be a huge dent in the wallet. We ordered everything from baby octopus, to fua gua (duck liver patty). We veal sirloin and anchovies in white vinegar. Calamari and cuddle fish. Nothing was spared. Our bill, $20 bucks a piece. Not bad considering the high profile location of the place. But we still had one more place to go that night.

The last bar we missed by only a few minutes of closing. We ended up going to a dinner down the street and having Garbanzo bean soup, Pallella, Flan, and a small plate of leg of ham. Each was the best I had ever had. This meal ran us a cool $30 per person. Not bad for a Dinner. I wasn’t going to try the leg of ham for fear of the price, but my eating partner insisted. I finally realized what all the fuss was about. A good leg of ham is right up there with a fine wine, or a rare wheel of cheese. You can taste the price.

That was a $70 meal day (what I spend in a week in many countries.)

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The Balkans

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

Slovenia (‘s Got Soul)

Croatia (Land of beautiful coasts)

Bosnia (Culture at its finest)

Serbia (Demands a second look)

Since I have entered the Balkans, I haven’t been able to finish a single entry. Originally, I was going to make an individual post for each country, but the deeper I got into this region, the more I realized that it needed to be written about all together,(though I didn’t get a chance to see ALL of the Balkans this time) after I had experienced it all. Each country is a distinctively different culture and each is beautiful. Each also have bad blood with each other that stretches beyond the average Soccer rivalry. Each while separated are more civilized than Italy by far :)

Slovenia (the New Prague)

Slovenia had an eerie glow to it as the sun set. I was talking to a gal in the train who pointed me in the direction of an obvious hostel. When I arrived, I found that it was a converted prison. Tick that one off the list. Libiana was such a cool city that, the entire time, I felt like I was already missing it. I town has soul. It was just what I needed to see after staying in Italy, the biggest tourist trap in Europe.

Slovenia is THE MOST underrated if not completely Unrated country in Europe. People rave about Bosnia, Turkey, Czech Republic all the time, but no one EVER talks about Slovenia. Here I go. It is artful, refined, laid back, soulful, resilient, quiet and beautiful. The people all speak wonderful English and the town is clean, yet beautifully littered with meaningful graffiti.

Slovenia is the land of 4000 caves and I was able to visit one of them which was so elaborate, it looked like it belonged in an Indiana Jones movie. Hundreds of feel high and over a mile long, this cave was something to be experienced first hand.

Croatia (Quiet in the Off Season)

Croatia is actually a rival to Slovenia. To my limited knowledge, the dispute is over the limited coastline that Slovenia has. As my Slovenian friend says “Why do they want our tiny cost anyway? They have hundreds of miles of coast that is much nicer.” I am assuming that the Slovenian coast line was at one point in history in possession by Croatia.

Croatia has beautiful coasts with arid mountains that push up to the turquoise sea. The people here are friendly, but the country is very definitely already discovered by tourists. Slovenia, for me, felt like my personal place.

Things are a lot cheaper in Croatia than I expected.

Bosnia

To start, Bosnia is a beautiful country of both arid and lush mountains. This is the first Eastern European Country that has men as hansom as the women are beautiful. Our bus driver to get here looked like a cross between the main character in the TV show “Mad Men” and George Cloonie.

I think since the war, people (including myself) cary a stigma about this country being unsafe or uncivilised. You want to talk about uncivilised, talk about Germany charging 1 Euro to use a bathroom. Bosnia, is free (and the toilets are spotless). The many of the people here look like they are your neighbor (in white America). There is no “ethnic” look here :) So if you are visually racist and still want to travel, go to Bosnia !

Our hostel owner was a young man who lived through the war when he was 6 years old. He was charming, laid back, and accommodating. He offered us some grapes that were picked off of the vine in his back yard as we went to check in. He runs daily tours of the city, chalked full of history, through his very own eyes. Not some removed tour guide who read about the events, a young man, who grew up in the history.

Sarajevo is situated in the mountains. It is a cryptic place with bullet holes in one building and state of the art architecture in the next. There are some buildings that are riddled with holes the size of oranges and even grapefruits. This is the single freshest war zone I have ever been to. It is captivating. I wanted to give Slovenia my must see gold metal, but Bosnia takes the cake on intrigue. If you are not afraid of a little adventure, go to Bosnia. You’ll be pleasantly surprised with how civilized this place is. But if you are looking for a no risk, undiscovered gem of a country in Europe, go to Slovenia.

Anywhere who has been through a war so recently has a resilience that you can taste. The people spring up to help you, or are quick to find someone else to help you on the street. This is helpful when the bus drops you off 2 miles outside of the city center when the sun is setting.

The other travelers you find here are top caliber. I am sharing a hostel with a Spanish 24 year old guy who is hitch hiking from Barcelona to Istanbul. He has hitched over 100 cars already and has some incredible stories to tell. He is a classic adventure packer in it’s purest. As I try and explain how his form of travel is superior to beer packing he predictably says “But if that is what makes someone happy, then they should do it. Who should say that what I am doing is any better. I just do what my heart tells me.” Always humble :)

I feel safe here. I can feel the beating hearts of this country. They aren’t happy about how the country is after the war. “It used to be safer. Our lives used to be better before the war.” Now there are semi-frequent demonstrations in the street. I had to walk from the bus stop to the city center because there was a demonstration in the street that purposefully blocked the tram. We hitched a walking ride with and American from Alabama who had been doing construction for the last 8 months here in Sarajevo. He is an electrician on a contract to help build the new American Embassy here. As he walked us into town we passed by the demonstration. It was about 200 college students standing in front of the main tram intersection. Not even raising their voices, the place was silent and stagnant.

It was a truly peaceful protest against some sort of current economic issue. These people made other protesters look like barbarians. No need for bull horns, marching, or chanting. The silence was loud enough to get the local news camera’s attention. They got their point across. The police were present and relaxed as if cut from the same cloth. They all survived the same crisis together just a few years ago. They were brothers who didn’t take that gift for granted. This made my heart soar to see. This is culture at it’s finest.

They were a nation who had learned from a terrible thing. The last thing they wanted was to relive the violence. But the violence lives among them all throughout the city. The walls are riddled with thousands of bullet holes; the streets still have some potholes from the mortar shells. But the people here are beautifully optimistic. They have emasculated the scars of war by filling them in with red pavement and calling them Roses. They have transformed icons of hatred into icons of love. They have even planted soil and seeds inside of some of the bullet holes to give birth to living flowers. They have brought to life the profound defiance of violence by making a flower come out of a gun.

These are a people that everyone must experience. This is why they are culture at its finest. Though the city is littered with cemeteries, it is still thriving today. This is a city with such significance. Today I casually walked by the spot where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, which started World War One, which subsequently set the wheels into motion for World War Two and then the Cold War. In the same half hour I walked down the section of town know as “Sniper Alley.” Where the buildings still look like swiss cheese to this day.

You can feel this cities heart beat. You can feel the people together here.

Serbia:

Coming from Bosnia, I wanted to slap Serbia in the face when I arrived. I wanted to rub their noses in the bullet holes and say “How dare you terrorize those lovely people!” I also carried the biggest fear of traveling to Serbia. I have heard plenty of recent stories of first hand accounts of robbery in Serbia. “Don’t go on the night trains there, the conductors are in on it. They will fill the cabin with ether and take you for everything you’ve got. Its called being gassed.” I actually met 3 different parties who this has happened to in the last few months.

Upon first arrival, Belgrade is distinctively tacky. There are dozens of individual air-conditioner units hanging out of the windows of the government buildings. There are satellite dishes and TV antennas on the roofs of some of the court houses. It’s dirty and crowded. The women are beautiful and the men are back to Eastern European lows. There are a ton of people moving around at all times. I felt a little sketched out.

We couldn’t find a hostel after walking through neighborhoods that had been bombed and not repaired in over a decade. The sun had set. And then we met Alex, an early thirties Serbian man who approached us and asked us if we needed any help. He agreed to walk us into the center of the popular part of town where there were many hostels. He grew up during the war and the embargo against Serbia. He talked about how the Serbs had to adjust to have a normal quality of life. “The black market thrived. We figured out a way to get everything from movies to computer software, all pirated. We had no choice.”

I didn’t want to get into politics with Alex (I was afraid to pry), but luckily he brought it up. “You know that war was the stupidest war I have ever seen. It was all over money. The media tried to play it off as something over religion, but it was all about money. The stupidest thing about it is that there is no such thing as a Bosnian. They are not a nationality. Everyone living in “BOSNIA” is either Serbian or Croatian. It makes no sense at all.”

For those of you who are a little rusty on the history, here is a real simple run down: As the Yugoslavian empire fell (essentially the Balkan states of today) Bosnia took the opportunity to try and declare itself its own autonomous country. Serbia had the same idea that our friend Alex has and decided to take Bosnia back. It was the longest siege in modern history. The Serbians killed over 10,000 Bosnians, pelting Sarajevo with mortars, machine gun fire, and sniper assaults. They perched up in the hills and picked off civilians with snipers for years. NATO stepped in and stired things up a bit and now Bosnia is an autonomous country recognized by the international community.

That is a really simplified (probably to the level of semi-inaccurate) version.

I came into Serbia with this knowledge and prejudged them as a bunch of bullies. But in my experience, they are lovely people. They will go way, way out of their way to make sure you are enjoying yourself. I can understand why they were interested in Sarajevo considering it and the rest of Bosnia is beautiful mountain country and Serbia is as flat and boring as Kansas.

Serbia, and the rest of the Balkans, are a complicated region to understand. This region is a perfect personification of life’s gray areas (which is pretty much all of it.) It is the Martin Luther King Jr that had a mistress. It is the George Washington that had slaves. It is cruel painful bite of a fallen hero when you realize that they just as imperfect as the you. This region is a thousand times more authentic and relevant than the Western European countries, but if you never went to those tourist traps, you would never be able to draw that conclusion.

I already find myself making plans to stay in this region for months next time instead of days. Next time I will be much better caught up on the history (as it goes in books). I hope to speak to many more people and get a better understanding of this intricately intriguing land.

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The Rest of Italy

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

If the group of 10 Spanish guys staying at my hostel in Rome were anything close to an accurate representation of their nation, I will find Spain the best nation in all of Europe. Though they were fervently loud, they emitted a contagious energy of merriment. Always inclusive regardless of nationality, yet wildly prideful of their own; these ten were so entertaining, I didn’t need any more. In Rome I was staying in a party hostel that I am convinced was created just for the male staff to pick up on girls. For as overtly skirt chasing as the staff was, they also would have won any limbo contest for how accommodating they were.

The leader of the party every night was a 40 year old, 5 foot tall, 90 pound Italian who claimed “I don’t speak English” any time a guy asked for anything, but didn’t cease to hit on the female backpackers in broken English for hours on end. One night he decided to do a huge spaghetti and sangria party. He was in charge of the cooking and this is were I learned the difference between American Italian food and Italian food. Were the American Italians tend to cater to an American appetite of excess, the Italians keep it simple. The sauce may be watery and devoid of anything you can chew, but the flavor is going to leave you writing about it for years to come.

Not all food in Rome is good. Far from it. There are many roach coach type places to eat on the street that look less appealing than the famous child brand “lunchables”. It takes some real searching to find decent food for a decent price. This isn’t Thailand (or the rest of South East Asia to be fair.)

I spent the better part of my 4 days in Rome alone. Put away the tears; this is far from a sad occasion. I actually found a new favorite thing to do in a church (don’t even ask what it used to be.) Nowadays, I like to pop my ipod on and listen to Phil Collins in a church (or other major sight.) Going through the Sistine chapel listening to “easy lover” is something that I suggest to everyone. It’s a lot better than listening to the chatter of tourists and, much more obnoxious, the constant shrill “SHHHHHH” from the security guards trying to maintain authenticity in the “religious?” icon. How come I paid 14 euros if it was religious?

I did a bunch of walking in Rome (when alone, I tend to walk, eat, and sleep faster). I was able to cover all of the major sights in only a few days. This gave me a few days to revisit my favourites (the Colosseum, Pantheon, and Vatican City). The Colosseum is something that everyone should see before they die. It is one of those structures that actually lives up to all of the hype. But buyer beware, Unless listening to Phil Collins, you might want to pop your ears like zits if you have to hear the low rumble of the billion tourists. The Pantheon, in true international fashion, has a McDonald’s facing directly at it. Who said America wasn’t a super power? It turns my stomach to realize that the reason much of the world believes we only eat McDonald’s is because they are repeatedly pelted with the Golden Arches withing throwing distance of EVERY major land mark in MOST of the world. And they love it. The Aussies are obsessed (and obese). The English the same.

Now, when I hear someone claim that we don’t have a culture, I sadly realize that they just don’t count that which they stuff their faces with (while abroad). I’m sorry, but if you are going to be in Italy for a week (or a month), eat Italian food for that whole time. Save your urge for American culture for when you get back home. And it’s not just McDonald’s. KFC, Pizza Hut, and Burger King are frequently mentioned as defensive badges of culture, when I claim that knowing McDonald’s isn’t understanding American Culture.

There have been a bunch of Aussies in Italy who I have met who have ACTAULLY BEEN to America (for more than the obligatory 2 days in Hollywood, Venice Beach, and Santa Monica before boarding a plane to another country.) It is fairly common for Aussies to work in Summer Camps in America to get a little spending cash to see the rest of the nation with. Of those Aussies who I’ve met who have participated in this program, 100% of them have shed their ignorant hatred of America for statements like “I loved America.” “There’s just such a diversity there.” “Each state is like a different country.” “The people were Amazing.”

Wow, I’ve slipped into one of my gold medal rants.

I’ve got a solution to this issue. Take ALL Aussies ( 20 million) and relocate them to America for 5 months. Let them try and articulate an ignorant statement of unwarranted hatred then. Don’t they know that we love them? Well, “we” are those who haven’t been there. Our ignorance errors on the side of positiveness.

On a related note. As my understanding of Aussie’s blind hatred sharpens, I am able press their buttons more painfully when the opportunity presents itself. When sharing a room with 5, 18-19 year old Aussies (who were very kind and inclusive) for a few days in Florence, I was able to get a huge rise out of them. Keep in mind that they went ape shit when they learned that I was from The OC. When another German girl pegged me as English, I laughed and said “I guess I am developing an accent.” She replied with “Well then, give me a hint of where you are from.” I chuckled and said “WELLLLLL” elongated enough to obtain the attention of all the Aussies in the room and said “We are the BEST country in the world!” an Instant eruption. “I Knew it! I knew you were all the same!” “Here I had met a few of you that I though were alright, but deep down, I knew it!!!”

Ya, I baited them :) Now, Let me be the first to say that this was the first time I have met anyone from Melbourne who indulged in this Jealous Hatred (I continue to Bait :) I still love my Aussies who I met in Japan, Poland, and other less traveled areas. As a drunken Northern Irish guy put in in Poland, “Every countries the same, you’ve got Cunts and Gems.”

Back to Italy. I’ve consoled other travelers on the following opinion and we can all agree “When exiting the train in Rome, you see an abnormal amount of people who are suspiciously standing around. They look like spotters in some kind of organized crime racket. But it doesn’t stop there. All of Rome tends to have these spotters standing on random corners for what seems like the entire day.” Not bad for a country with an estimated 60% undocumented work force. The taxes are so high here, that employers largely can not afford to legally employ more than a few people. But do you feel unsafe? No, not for a second. You just want to hide around the corner and get to watch a real life episode of the Sopranos.

In fact, the people of Rome handle tourists impressively well. One night, when the Spanish had rallied the troops to invade the cities’ clubs, there were about 30 of us loudly loitering in the alley in front of our hostel. We did this because we couldn’t figure out which way to head out to find a club. Our hostel was in a residential area so an old man came storming out. Instead of screaming at us to leave (which someone would have done in America), he brought out a map and started directing us on where the best clubs were to be found. I was so impressed. He knew that if we didn’t successfully find the club, then we were bound to be back outside of his apartment, louder than ever. How beautifully pragmatic?

Well, tourists being tourists. We didn’t find those clubs. But the behaviour remained consistent, each shop owner attempted to give us directions instead of insults.

If only the train system could be this effective in Italy. I was warned far ahead by travelers of the short comings and corruption that riddled the Italian Rail Ways, but when I had to wait in the same, one hour line, 3 times to make my mandatory reservation from Florence to Venice, even I was impressed. The story changed from “We don’t make reservations without your rail pass being Present, to there is no reservation required (second time in line), to 10 Euro mandatory reservation (on the third time where the employee proceeded to sell me the reservation without the presence of the Rail Pass.) On a design level, the Italian trains are equipped with overhead compartments that are two narrow to fit 90% of baggage that people take with them. Because of this, you will see the overhead storage isles empty while you are climbing over all the baggage in the “people” isle. I know it seems more sleek like the Lamborghini, but it doesn’t work. I was determined to make it work though.

I shoved and shoved. My bag was going to fit. It wasn’t about to sit on my lap for the next 3 hours. Slowly but surely, as the crowd of Italians watched with marked interest, I fit my round peg of a backpack into the square hole of a compartment. A short inner roar to the victor. I felt the need to dust off my hands and project “Any Questions?!!”

Lets talk about Florence a little while. Many other travelers warned me that Florence was their favorite place in all of Italy. I wouldn’t go this far, but it is a vast improvement on the quaint scale to Rome. The only problem with Florence is that it is more like a traditional grid of a city. Sure there are many things to see, but at least Rome was mostly wide open spaces. I ended up getting a great Hostel to stay in for only 18 euro per night. This was, oddly enough, significantly more expensive than many of the other options in Florence. I think I read “Pool and Sauna” in one of the reviews online and just booked it without thinking twice.

The hostel ended up having the nicest facilities of any hostel I have stayed at in the past 8 months. This didn’t make it my favorite, but it just had every bell and whistle you could imagine. From the flat screen TV mounted on the wall of my 8 person dorm room, to the 5th story roof top terrace that possessed a view of every major landmark that the city had to offer, this place was plush. They had a fully equiped restaurant downstairs right across form the night club. But the best food I found in the city was a decent walk into the middle of nowhere.

I found a random street side stand that was serving something that looked like the servers took great pride in. The people working in the stand served up sandwiches which were filled with stewed chicken and potatoes. This mouth watering meal was all for only 2.5 euro (good luck ever finding that again :) and when the old man handed over the meal, he smiled and welled up with the look of “wait till you eat that! It will turn your whole day around.” And it did :)

Just across the street was a local bakery were I was determined to find something that I had never seen before. Inside, was a huge square sheet of what looked like blueberry pie. It had many squares already missing from it so I opted in to try it. With the help of a local woman, I ordered a piece that was the size of a paperback book.

I bit into this unidentified pastry with reckless hopefulness. As it turns out, it was the second best piece of pie I had ever had (second to the artisan fruit pie I had in Guatemala, which is an entirely different story altogether.) Not only was it sweet and descriptive, it contained seeds in it. Each crunch seemed like an edible pit and as it turns out, they were miniature cherries I was eating. It just looked like blueberries.

The next day I met up with the 4 Aussies from Melbourne and went to the “fake statue of David” which seemed like a much better idea at the time considering that the real one was 7 Euros more expensive and you could not take a picture of it.

The following day I went to Venice. Let me be clear about Venice. This is as authentic of a city as it gets. I know what you are thinking (for everyone who has been here). You are thinking “Venice is the biggest tourist trap in all of Europe.” I understand and respect your opinion. Here is were I disagree. Venice is so authentically entrenched in waterways, that you simply couldn’t put enough shops, tour groups, and street performers into the city to negate it’s amusing disposition of “city in the water.” As my favorite black president said “You can put lipstick on a Pig……. But It’s still a pig.”

This is the story of Venice. Dress it up, sell it out, but it still is obsessively impressive. Have you noticed that this is the first city in a long while that I am talking about the actual land (or water) more than I am talking about the people?

A man stands poised in a 45 degree angle forward pulling his oar backwards as he cracks his wrist in a masterful movement. This is the stance of a gondola captain. You can’t fake this. You can’t make this any easier. It’s hard work and it is the way of life here.

Not a place you would want to listen to Phil Collins. Walking through the alleys and waterways, you will hear neighbors singing to each other as they deliver goods. This is far away from the tourist track, or so it seems.

Truth be told, the first day I walked around in Venice, I actually failed in finding the ultra crowded tourist area. I mistakenly ended up only being in the local areas. It was wonderful. Walking through ultra narrow alley ways, the buildings sinking into each other, and the tranquil green water. Every and any corner was a picture perfect scene.

Even the freaking train station feeds directly into the water ways. Just take a few steps outside of the station and you will be withing jumping distance of the first of many canals.

Today is a special day. It marks 8 months of travel. What has changed in 8 months? Well in perspective about the world, many things. But physically, I have wear marks on the hips of all of my t shirts. This is from the friction produced while wearing my backpack. For a while I had gone down two belt loop sizes (though I’ve earned one of those back recently.) I am no longer shattered from sitting in a train or bus for 8 hours. I have grown accustomed to sleeping through 15 other people being present in a room (and often drunk). I can now actually fall asleep in just about anything (boat, buss, plane, train). I also view going to a country, just to get the stamp a bit foolish (though I admittedly didn’t when I first got to Europe.) I have, for the time being chosen to skip Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, and San Marino (all tiny countries that would make someone’s grand total country count easily swell.)

The most interesting thing that has changed is my accent. Now, I have been told by many that I don’t have an easily identifiable Californian accent. This, of course, I am not aware of, because it is something that changes ever so slightly every day. What will I sound like when I come home? This brings up a great point that I discussed with an Aussie from Perth that I met in Rome (Yes, Italy is 99% Aussie travelers.) He said that he had been traveling and working for 2.5 years now and that he is reaching the point that he is beginning to fear loosing his identity as someone from Perth. “You begin to loose something. Almost the scent, you know? The innate ability to mix and relate with your own. I’m not home sick, but I have finally begun to hear the calling. And there is a big difference.”

Being away for only 8 months, I only partially understand what he truly means. Tomorrow I’m off to Slovenia! And yes, I had to wait in 4 lines to get the train sorted out to do so. That part, I will not miss about Italy.

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