Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sensory Overload & Fear and Loathing in Usce Shopping Center, Belgrade

Usce Shopping Center - Belgrade, Serbia
Struck by a bold lack of ceremony, our savage journey to the heart of Serbia leads us into the invasive opulence I’m strenuously familiar with and have learned to avoid. The marble floors reflect glistening chrome and neon signs and the stretch of a huge Christmas tree that hurts my eyes.

     “I thought you had no Christmas in Serbia,” I blurt out. I’ve never been able to properly explain myself in this kind of climate, Raoul Duke would have said.
     “We have Christmas,” says Draga, lustfully eyeing a pair of fur boots in the window of a shop that tries to lure customers in by expelling House at an enormous volume, “But it’s on January 7. On New Year’s Eve you can give me those boots. What do you prefer, Benetton or Zara?”
     “I don’t know. What do you prefer, Fuerst or Brown, Driver and Briggs?”

She grabs my ear, drags me into a noisy joint full of jeans so ragged that anyone with any sense at all would have thrown them out, not pay for them.
     “Get me out of here, you idiot!” I yell and off we run. Next door is a store that sells attire for the more aspiring gentle sirs. I take an immediately liking to the silent mannequins, whose faces seem trained on the timid Creedence trickling from the ceiling. Draga pulls three pairs of pants from the stock and hoists me into one. Then she notices something that requires her to call an attendant. I’m told to stand there and not move, and I stand there, feeling one hand on each buttock, one cupping my crotch and one on my forehead (mine).

I suffer from what experts call a proneness to sensory overload. I have concluded that it has to do with my rich inner life, but it also makes me a social cripple. Sensory overload occurs when my senses pick up more information than my brain can process, and I see everything; items that puzzle me, goods that defy definition, dazzling details, patterns, patterns of patterns, a woman on a Rolex billboard whose eyes are dreamy but whose nipples give me a piercing stare.

Sensory overload usually kicks in ten minutes after entering a mall, five minutes after entering a supermarket and six seconds after entering a disco, which I therefore never enter. When it happens, I become virtually blind and deaf, and stagger around like a drunk searching for the exit, snarling at anyone who starts explaining things or gives me good advice. Shopping for clothing, therefore, can only be achieved with a trusted page, who has to literally lead me along and take care of everything.

Draga drags me from Benetton to Marc & Spencer, Gant and Fox, until my last kernel of resistance succumbs and I start casting Dinars like breadcrumbs on a lost road, learning quickly that men’s clothes are bought not out of taste but exasperation. In brief breaths of lucidity I find myself posing in duds whose maker’s passions are lost on my inclinations, but I buy whatever Draga points at. We gallop by Samsung wide screens, Sony monitors, Woman’s Secret (“Hey, what happened to Victoria?” I pant; “None of your business,” Draga growls back), Avanguardia, Bottega Verde, Jasmin, until I scream, “Who are all these people?” and start running for Knjižare Vulcan - offering the Latest in Literature.

     “They’re on the second floor! I’m sure I saw them!” I shout, and this while the edicts of my usual composure dictate that the merits of quiet desperation can not be overstated. I don’t care anymore! I run over some children, shove their mothers out of the way and flutter like batman up the stairs, with fresh leather flopping and flannel flying, and Draga behind me hurling bloody Serbian curses to anyone who stands in our way.

Bil Brajson, the Serbian transliteration of Bill Bryson
At the Vulcan bookstore, pinching my eyes, hands on my ears, I throw myself on a nervous under-read nerd and demand to be taken to the Bill Bryson section, post haste! Seconds later I’m curled up against the back wall, semi-comatose and clutching an armful of Brajsons against my chest. Draga kneels beside me but as she tucks the tails of my new flannel shirt into my ears, I’m on the Appalachian Trail, with a mild drizzle kissing my face and not a single human soul in sight.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Branko’s Bridge in Belgrade

We trudge across the Old City of Belgrade until we reach the river Sava. The city-line breaches and buildings veer off to two sides along the river like a zipper, leaving a gulping slab of concrete thrusting ahead. On the other side is the Usce Shopping Center - Usce means confluence, celebrating the confluence of the rivers Sava and Danube where the founders first settled. To the right of the shopping center stands a high rising glass-front building; Usce Tower, formerly known as the CK building.

View accross Branko Bridge
towards the CK building
      “Are you ready to cross the bridge?” Draga asks with a pressing hint of urgency in her voice.
     “Ready to cross a bridge?” I reply. “What’s the big deal?”
She stops dead in her tracks, looks at me from under a indignant frown, palms turned upwards. “This is Branko’s Bridge!”
     “Okay,” I say slowly, “Who’s Branko?”
     “Where were you in April 1999?”
     “Panama, if I remember correctly. South America somewhere.” She starts walking again. “I was right here, together with hundreds of others, preventing NATO from bombing our main bridge.”

CK building on fire during the NATO attacks of 1999
 Milosevic didn’t want to either relinquish Serbia’s historic cradle Kosovo or stop killing Albanians, and the allies bombed his capital to persuade him. It took no great effort to mobilize citizens into forming a human shield, believing they were not an instrument of war but rather bold martyrs defending their homes and infrastructure.

     “It’s a hell of a thing to have your town bombed,” I say.
     “And it wasn’t Milosevic’ town, or NATO’s town. It’s our town. This city is us,” she says slowly. “That’s why I was on this bridge. I had a sign on my back with a bull’s eye painted on it. It said I’M THE TARGET.”

The allied forces shot 12 missiles at the CK building but the bastard wouldn’t budge. Though heavily damaged, it stood as proud that day as the Serbian citizens on Branko’s Bridge. Suddenly I’m filled with pride, as one of this city’s many white angels leads me across the Sava.

Things you need and don’t need on a vacation in Belgrade

She moves like a thought in a dream, my Draga. I carry her luggage from the elevator, grab her and carry her across the threshold. Her arms on me I feel at home like I’ve never felt before. I put her down, let her walk around the apartment. She utters muffled appreciations, stands in front of the window and names the sites. She points at Kalemegdan and promises to take me there. The house of parliament in scaffolds. The national museum.
     “This will be the vacation of your life,” she whispers.
She quickly inspects my books, wonders why I brought so many. She says what my contacts in Ljubljana said, that I don’t need that many books for a vacation in Belgrade. I tell her that half my library was forcibly left in Ljubljana. Then she halts in front of the walk-in closet and exclaims, “Arie, where are your clothes?”
     “I’m wearing my clothes…”
     “Aw my Gad,” she cries, hand slapping on her forehead. “You didn’t bring any clothes?”
     “I don’t have any clothes…”
     “Aw my Gad!”
A study of Belgrade’s cathedrals, a survey of the local cuisine, even meeting the locals will have to be put on hold. First order of business is to don me in brand new duds. And Draga knows just the place to achieve this: the brand new Usce Shopping Center, in New Belgrade, just across Branko’s Bridge.
     “We can walk there,” she says with a hint of consolation. “Welcome to Belgrade.”

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Draga: the Serbian Orthodox Church

Today it was my delightful pleasure to partake in a Serbian Orthodox worship service for the first time. I’m most familiar with protestant denominations, ranging from deep Calvinism to the jollies of North American evangelicalism, and lately I’ve found solace in the structure and foundation of the abundance of imagery of Catholicism.

Today I’ve witnessed a living tradition that goes back to the eastern Roman empire, entirely foreign to me. Most unusual I found that the entire congregation stood for the hour and a half it took the priests to go through their rituals. It was nine in the morning on a rainy Sunday, and the church was full, and everybody stood. Orthodox churches have no chairs, Draga said under her breath.

Serbian Orthodoxy was founded in 1217 by Sava, now venerated as a saint, who was also a chief legislator and did much to establish the Serbians as an autonomous people. Hence Serbian Orthodoxy also serves as element of the national identity of Serbia, not unlike the Church of England, or even the Reformation as a whole, which manifested much of the breaches of nations in Western Europe.

Like Catholicism, Serbian Orthodoxy maintains a Romanesque pantheon of saints, who are either Serbian defenders of the faith or as often defenders of the Serbian nation. As in pre-church Rome, national politics in Serbia always had a religious component to it. In 1517 a Serbian militia thought it proper to march onto the Ottoman empire. They were defeated, the Ottomans decided to strike back, and in 1540 the whole area came under Turkish rule. The Turks stayed 400 years, but their lasting influence is contained only in the Serbian addiction to what is called Turkish coffee (a thimble of violently strong coffee resting on a hardy scoop of coffee ground blubber).

In 1594 the Turks decided they needed to make a statement, dug up the bones of Saint Sava, brought them to Belgrade and burned them on a central hill called Vračar. When the Turks left Serbia, the Serbians decided they needed to make a statement too, and began to build the largest church in the Balkans; a temple devoted to saint Sava, precisely on the spot where his bones were violated. It reminds me of the temple of Solomon, which also underscored the identity of a nation, and which was built on the same mount Moria where Abraham went to sacrifice his son Isaac, from whom that nation would spring.

     “It’s not finished yet,” says Draga next to me.
     “Nothing ever is,” I say, “Take me there.”
     “I will,” she says.

I met her on the Amazon. I was on the run. She ran a souvenir and jewelry shop. When she asked me what I was doing there I told her that I was looking for a temple to worship God in. She said that there were plenty of those to choose from. But I see in most religions a celebration of what we can never comprehend, a clumsy corona of imagery around a core that will always remain untouchable.

She emerged from the cloudy glass doors of Nikola Tesla Airport, to find me standing there, lost again. “Come home to me,” she said and became my Sava, my Beatrice, my Temple of Solomon, all at once.

The Mini Maxi not-so-super market chain in Belgrade

The greatest mystery about Belgrade encountered so far is where the Belgradians obtain their victuals. I walk for an hour on what seems a respectful shopping avenue and main traffic artery, but the larger the shop the least likely it sells something essential.

There are bakeries and butchers, restaurants of all fortes, but what I discovered yesterday is that even the acquisition of the most fundamental necessities requires a great deal of discourse. I’d say about half the people I’ve tried to deal with so far were completely fluent in English, while the other half managed to utter at least some profanities in English, but when I enter a store to buy veggies and the likes, people obviously start to talk to me in Serbian, and I have to confess that I have no idea what they’re talking about, and the least show of helplessness invariably brings out the cannibal in most of us.

It goes without saying that I’m the guest here, and I should adapt, but I’m inadequate and that won’t go away in two days. Before I engage anyone, I’d like to learn some Serbian greetings, and perhaps a simple apology for not speaking Serbian and kind request for permission to speak English.

The rumor has it that there’s a grandiose supermarket somewhere within breathing range of my apartment, and I’ve circled the circumference of the building a few times, but so far I’ve failed to locate the establishment. Maybe I should radiate out a little further.

I end up in one of the ubiquitous mini-Maxi‘s, which defers the hope of there being a maxi-Maxi. Mini-Maxi’s are the size of a local gas station and offer a modest range of cookies and laundry detergent. No fresh fruit or veggies on any of the premises. I don’t mind experiencing the local leanings but I was hoping for a trolley filled with gleaming loot, not to be glared at as the 2 O’ clock customer.

PS: a few days later I locate the Maxi-Maxi, about two blocks away from my apartment in that one street that I didn't check out...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Money exchange offices in Serbia

Serbia doesn’t have the euro yet, so before venturing out in Belgrade’s bustle, euros need to be exchanged for Dinars. Any unwitted tourist would pace straight to one of the many banks, but the seasoned traveler changes money in the sticker-studded single-window street-side booth of the Menjacnica, or exchange office. They’re everywhere, and come with names such as Extreme, Euro Lion, even Pirana.

Their facilities are crummy, their overhead not existing, and that’s why their rates are far more attractive than that of the established bank. A tourist who comes in with a sweaty wad of dollars will be registered, probed and prodded, but euros are exchanged without the least bit of formality; no passport, signature or even conversation is required. Exchanging the Serbian equivalent of three monthly salaries involves no more doings than buying a loaf of bread.

A platinum blonde runs my euro bills through a counter, reaches beside her to decapitate a skyscraper of 1000 Dinar bills and hands me a stack of them the size of a brick. A sturdy three course meal costs the same here as a quarter pounder in the west, but every time I pay the bill it’ll feel as if I bought a car.

It’ll take me a long time to burn through this amount of cash, but when it runs out, there are always the banks and their ATMs eager to extort me.

Beorent’s Danube holiday apartment in Belgrade, Serbia

The Danube holiday apartment sits on the top floor of a 10 story building very close to the bustling heart of Belgrade. I rent it from a club called Beorent for a heart-warming fee of 49 euro per night.

The living area is 56 square meters but the unusual floor plan leaves the impression that the apartment is much larger. It comes with a bath tub, which is relatively rare is this corner of the world, and air conditioning, TV, DVD player, washing machine, wireless internet, and a kitchen complete with oven, stove and fridge. The ceilings are high, the floors are checkered wooden panels, the furniture is solid and functional.

The apartment has no balcony but through the large windows I can see a trace of the Danube to the north, the imposing castle at Kalemegdan to the west and down town straight south.

Watch the clip for a virtual tour of this lovely apartment.

Friday, November 26, 2010

From Ljubljana to Belgrade by train

The train station in Ljubljana is an imposing Romanesque building painted a pale banana-yogurt yellow. Unlike train stations in, say, Poland, which are invariably grey or granite, always wet and peopled by grim eyeing xenophobes, or in the Netherlands, where careful exuberance is supposed to console the traveler for not having a car, the train station in Ljubljana is clean, bright and dignified. It’s almost eight in the morning. The train will leave at 08:15 and will arrive in Belgrade at 17:20. That's a cool nine hours of Bach, Bryson and peaceful solitude. It's November so I'm not expecting too many travelers.
     “I’d like to go to Belgrade,” I whisper shamefully in English to a smiling lady beneath the word INTERNATIONAL. In any other country she would be a mere ticketeer (and behave as such); here she is a seasoned hostess with pride and passion.

The train between Ljubljana
and Belgrade

     “Belgrade we got,” she says with a slight touch of an New Jersey accent. I decide not to ask where she acquired it. “That’ll be 49 euro.”
I’m amazed. That amount wouldn’t even get you across a border from any location in the Netherlands. Here it takes you through three countries. I’m so used to last minute airplane travel, that I don’t consider riding trains anymore. Base, of course, thinks differently and has decided that the scope of my experience should be expanded with an international train ride. So be it. Iwana kisses me, wishes me luck and gentle pushes me into the direction of my platform where I’m received by a raincoat type who’s peddling Jehovah’s Witness literature. It appears that in Slovenia too the world is coming to an end.

The fair interior of the train between
Ljubljana and Belgrade
I should have said hi to the budding beauty sitting opposite of me. The train is about 30 years old but in mint condition, and travelers are cooped up in coupe’s. We’ll be knee to knee for who knows how long, wondering if the other’s noticed that we’re trying to ignore each other. She’s wearing spike heals which can only be very uncomfortable while traveling. Being a practical man myself, I conclude that women do these things to themselves to show the world that they believe that a man would be attracted to somebody who would have to be carried after half a mile of hauling luggage. It’s been long clear to me that my most intimate convictions are automatically published on my forehead, and I really need to break some ice here. That is, if the formation of ice wouldn’t be thwarted by the train’s heating system, which is still working very well, save for the thermostat, which, at some point, must have attracted the attention of itinerant vandals and is now a gnarled stump stuck on hell blaze.

After thirty minutes into the journey the sun breaks through the fog, and raises the temperature in our coupe even more. Nobody is brave enough to open a window and quickly the temperature rises to a near lethal level, although it’s not the temperature that is the enemy. Every person in the coupe, from the prim college girl in my lap to the unshaven drunk to my right, turns into steaming volcanoes of the most repulsive odors. I’m smelling a bouquet of breakfasts waft from all available orifices. The girl’s high heel shoes begin to reek like sneakers, and the mud-streaked clogs of the drunk like the devil’s ass.

The train stops and all of us jump up and try to escape, only to be shoved back in by some heavily armed border boys who want to see our passports, tickets and sweaty faces. Minutes later we are in Zagreb and everybody in my coupe leaves. For twenty blissful seconds I have the place to myself. Contently I arrange my Brysons on the seats around me, my note pad, sandwiches and a bag of apples. My map of Belgrade I spread out over the opposite seats. In one fluent motion my left hand brings my first sandwich to my mouth, my right hand lowers towards the map and as my finger lands on the Belgrade train station, the doors open and a cordon of about fifty young men burst in and spread out over the coupe’s and fill them like water fills holes. There are six seats in my coupe. Seven of these guys squeeze in and settle in where a split second before were the expanse of a map, lunch and literary leverage. It’s not that I hate people. It’s just that I prefer them to come in book form. These seven, who occupy five seats, carry luggage in duffle and gym bags. They wear training suits and gold chains. All of them have crew cuts. Every move they make comes with a series of loud editorials and brutal guttural laughter.
Wrestling Croatian ninja's on the train
What would Bill Bryson do?

One of them notices the titles of my books, concludes I’m a stray foreigner and desiring conversation. “Guess what we are?” he says looking at me grinning.
Well, son, you know those little bags of soup? You rip where it says RIP, and the soup comes out from the other end.
“We’re all Jiu-Jitsu champions!” he cheers and slaps his neighbor in the neck. The neighbor jumps up and throws himself upon his violator and a second later I’m dodging the knees and armpits of seven Croatian ninja’s. “We’re on our way to a Jiu-Jitsu tournament!” a muffled voice screams from underneath a mountain of trained flesh.
     “Where’s the tournament?” I yell back.

They embark on a series of games that in involve lots of screaming and hitting each other on the head with sausages, that were packed for that reason, it seems. I quickly learn that friendship in Croatia revolves largely around producing idiotic howls of heat and displays of fierce violence at the least provocation. “Jiu-Jitsu is great fun,” explains the one guy from under a choke hold. It’s a hybrid of judo, wrestling and lots of loud laughing.

The door slides open and two kids throw themselves on the ninja’s. I estimate them at five and seven years old. They fight like animals and the ninja’s fight back.
     “Hey, shouldn’t you be a bit careful with those kids? Who are they anyway?”
     “Never mind!” yells the guy, “They’re Gypsies.”
Then they see my camera, resting on my biggest Bill.
     “Give me that camera!” yells the oldest one.
     “Never!” I scream back.
     “Give me that camera you crazy foreign bastard!”
     “Over my dead body, you larcenous Gypsy hoodlum!”
The little one grabs my Bill and whacks me on the head with it. The bigger one snatches my camera away and takes off with it. I decide that while the train is still moving, it’s probably safer for everybody that I wait for God to take control of this situation.

First train station in Serbia

Close to the Serbian border I get the camera flung back at me. The kids have taken over a hundred photos, most of themselves posing with or without beer bottles, and some very nice ones of other people on the train. It’s all and all a series of photos that I would never have been able to produce myself and I’ll treasure them forever.

In Serbia the train stops more than it goes, and hamlet after hamlet passes by. Then we enter a city that keeps going without an end and I conclude it must be Belgrade. At 17.25 the train comes to a shrieking halt and I exit without ado. On the platform stands my Virgil; a tall blonde woman who speaks British without an accent. We shake hands, and she informs me that we have an appointment some time next week. We’ll be spraying graffiti on a wall somewhere, and this for a very noble cause.

     "Take me home, darling," I tell the woman. "I don't care where it is as long as it is peaceful enough to listen to some Bach and maybe read a line or two of Bill Bryson."

Serbian Orthodox Church in Ljubljana

Serbian Orthodox Church
in Ljubljana, Slovenia
 In an oasis of peaceful green, and located at the Prešernova cesta (Museum Area), the white edifice of the Serbian Orthodox Church of Ljubljana hides behind a collar of trees.

It’s a fairly new building, erected in 1936 and is dedicated to saints Cyril and Methodius, the brothers who invented the Slavic alphabet that is still known as Cyrillic.

The church is open for public every day except Mondays, and from 09:00 to 12:00, and 14:00 to 16:00. Sunday services are at 10:00.

To tourists who are not familiar to the typical interior of an Orthodox church, the relatively modest Orthodox church of Ljubljana is a good place to start. It has all the features of its gargantuan eastern cousins, but is obviously a renegade Benjaminesque version of them.

From the dome, Christ Pantocrator looks down on a black and white checkered floor and panel after panel of Biblical depictions.

There are the apostles, saints and countless heroes, all cast upon the signature Byzantine mould, staring stoically into a small bubble of timelessness in a town on the edge of a shaken world.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Ljubljana; a tour of the town

     "Who is that woman on the side of your building?” I ask Ivana as we trod towards the bus station. I don’t know where Base finds these people but for once I’d like a guide who is male, ugly and boring, and who guides me straight into the first local watering hole. Ivana - a striking specimen of Slovenian femininity - wags her head. “She’s either the battered patron of Slovenian women, or else I don’t know,” she says as we step onto the bus.

Ljubljana from the top it's highest building
Public transportation in Ljubljana works with a kind of credit card that the traveler may purchase at any of the many kiosks, and replenish at will. Swiping the card across a reader automatically deducts the fare. “You can travel anywhere in Ljubljana for 60 eurocent,” she explains.

I follow her into a high building and moments later we stand side by side overlooking the city. “That’s where we’re going,” she says as she points at the Old Town of Ljubljana, and steps forward. There are hidden traces of greatness in her gait. She halts at the ledge and stares ahead as one who’s learned to archive life’s great illusions.

Ljubljana Old City main street
 We speak briefly of the war. I tell her that I was born only two decades after the second world war had ended, but that I grew up very much with it. These people saw their world on fire that same time ago. The conflict in this region ended at the turn of the millennium, but it’s obvious that the fires haven’t all died down (http://www.ljubljana-life.com/ljubljana/ten-day-war).
“It doesn’t really matter whether the good guys or the bad guys are bombing your building,” she says. “What matters is that you have no more building.”

She turns to me abruptly, smiles from ear to ear. “I drew up your chart,” she says as if I’m supposed to know what that means. It appears that Ljubljaneans pass their time with either skiing, drinking and smoking, or drawing up each other’s star chart, which then reveals essential details about a person’s character and potentials.
“Well, let’s have it.”
“You have a high disposition for drama and scandals in the family. And the world will soon be ready for your talent.”

The last part is striking because the exact same thing was predicted to me by means of a fortune cookie that came after a meal at a Chinese restaurant in Seward, Alaska. I was working on a cruise ship at the time. It was then that I fell in love with Alaska, and spent many an evening staring at its mountains from a secret crew-section of the aft deck. Alaska is a magical place and I situated my first novel there. That was 1992, and now this lady is telling me that the world is still waiting. I learn that I live in a patient world.

Ljubljana, bridge over the river Ljubljanica

Back at street level, we follow a main artery onto the Old Town. I’m pleasantly surprised to see that the inner city is free of cars. Imposing buildings mark the edge of squares and wide streets, and everywhere is color and cheer. We stop for coffee at one of the many café’s and overlook the river Ljubljanica, or Little Ljubljana, that cuts through the Old Town.

The classic facades with their balconies and bow bridges below remind me of Venice, which is only two and a half hours away from here. I spent many a day there, wandering the squares and slipping into one church after the other. Like Venice, Ljubljana is largely catholic. But there’s also one Serbian Orthodox church. Since I’m headed for Serbia, I ask Ivana to take me to the Orthodox church. I’ll mark it as my gate onto a further east.

Ljubljana reminds of Venice

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ljubljana, first impression

     “Have you had anything to eat in the last five minutes?” they want to know after we’ve ran up the stairs of their five story building, daubed lollipop pink with a statue of a voluptuous lady balancing on a ledge. They’re on the top floor, in what used to be an unused attic.  Wooden beams cut through every room, against the ceiling and on the floor as well. Beyond the windows bustles a gleaming town, varnished in drizzle.
   “…no…?” I carefully reply.
     “Wonderful!” they exclaim. “We just cooked up a horse, so start at the tail end and work your way up from there.  How come your bags are so heavy?”
     “… I brought some books…?”
     “You don’t need books on a holiday in Belgrade! You need to travel light.”
     “No! Leave me my Brysons! Unhand the Peterson!”
     “Calm down and have another hunk a horse.”

Driving the Austrian Autobahn

Five minutes before the Austrian border, Base calls. They know I never prepare anything, so they wonder if I got a vignette. I don’t. I don’t even know what it is but Base informs me that not having one will lead to sanctions and getting yelled at.
At the ‘Last Chance to Buy Vignette Before Border” I learn that a vignette is a little square sticker that costs 15 euro, and which proves to roaming border boys that you paid the Austrian road tax. That’s pretty fair, I guess. It appears that half of the Austrian road network consists of tunnels through mountains, and that most cost a lot. And Austria is so small that a traveler can zip from border to border without dropping a dime.
Little do I expect that half of the tunnels require additional payment. The tunnel that brings me into Slovenia costs 9 euro to traverse. Just before I sink into its gaping mouth a road sign inquires, “Do you have your Slovenian road vignette???”

München Messe Holiday Inn Express – Review

     “We’re only an express hotel, sir,” the kind reception lady submits when I ask about the pool, the sauna, the bowling alley. “We don’t have all that.”
     “Well,” I say, trying to force a tone of fatherly consolation, “That’s good though. That brings the price of the rooms down. Sixty euro is inexpensive anywhere in Western Europe.”
I wasn’t in the mood for a swim anyway but a sauna would have been nice.
     “I’ll have some dinner then.”
     “We have no restaurant. Only breakfast.”
     “Then order me a pizza. Frutti di Mare, post haste.”
     “They have no post haste.”
     “Never mind the post haste! I’ll just work on that one computer you have in your Business Centre over there. I didn’t bring my laptop. I’m on vacation cold turkey. “
She starts to write.
     “Don’t write that down! Live a little!”
I slide sideways into the Business Centre. Then I notice a sign that informs the aspiring businessperson that the use of the computer costs 0.35 euro per minute of use.
     “Only Internet or Word also? I still have to hammer out…”
She stands there like Helen of Troy, taken, brought to a world where things just aren’t right.
     “I’ll have a beer,” I say, pointing at the glistening tap at the other end of the reception. Her reply escapes her on a high-pressure sigh of relief, “Light or dark or something else?”
     “I’ll have whatever comes out of that pipe,” I say pointing at the tap. Rooms are only 60 euro per night. I’m learning fast not to be picky. 

Driving the German Autobahn.

The Germans are great at building roads, but they're even better at tinkering with them. Of the 900 kilometers I've driven about 880 were on single lane auxiliary roads, doing 80. That’s 80 kilometers per hour, which is about normal in the States but in Europe people drive twice as fast and the roads are three times as full.
But then, getting a driver’s license in Europe involves months of intensive training and costs a fortune. Driving in Europe is like flying the space shuttle though an asteroid field.
The well-prepared traveler brings music; lots of loud music. Tom Petty is excellent traveling music, although usually after ten minutes in Germany I switch to heavy metal. That is, normally. My CD player won’t eject when it gets warm, so I get stuck with my initial choice until I pull over for gas, which is every five hours.

Just as it time to get some I get pulled over by a couple of border boys, all gunned up with nothing to shoot at. The first thing they want to know is if I have a gun.
     “No,” I say, “But I just did six hundred kilometers with Blondie’s Greatest stuck in the slot. So make no sudden moves and we all can walk away from this.”
     “Got any other weapons?”
     “Nope,” I say, hand in my coat pocket, fondling a three-inch switchblade I use in Poland to ward of bears in the Tatra Mountains.
     “Reason for traveling?”
     “Vacation. What’s Border Patrol doing in the middle of Germany?”
My German is rusty as an old Studebaker, but the officers decide to find it charming. German and Dutch are cognates, much closer relates to each other than English is to either one, and English is also a Germanic language. For some reason all Dutch speak German, but no German speaks Dutch. Many English speakers don’t even speak English, I’ve noticed.
     “The border is everywhere,” the man firmly asserts.
And all this time I thought the borders were nowhere anymore.
They bid me good day. I pull off, reach 150 kph for a minute, then drop to a 70 kph trot.
     “Danke für ihre Verstandnis,” blinks a sign.
     “Don’t mention it,” I say.
     “Bear left,” says my TomTom.
     “Where?” I yell, grappling madly for my knife.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

For someone who travels a lot I sure hate packing.

For someone who travels a lot I sure hate packing. Subsequently, I leave it to the last moment and then panic rises like mist from a swamp. And of course, my iPod, on which I’ll be leaning during the train journey from Ljubljana to Belgrade, decided to give up the ghost this afternoon around fourish. WHERE DID I PUT MY MUSIC?? On which of my twenty five back up discs are my Bachs, my Mozarts, anything that’ll keep me from going bonkers on the nine hours bonkerdiebonk journey to the New York of Eastern Europe. Why are vacations to disastrously stressful? I love holidays but I hate going on one. I’m looking forward to the cathedrals in Belgrade, the hours of  walking from one coffee place to the next. I love the squares full of people mulling about, or sitting in a park with a book in the shade. It’s been raining for forty days and forty nights here in the Netherlands but on the news tonight I saw that it’s twenty degrees centigrade where I’m going. Ah, the sun. I’ve forgotten how she looks…

WHAT am I BLABBERING about? I have to go to the bank to get Serbian money. I have to go shopping for gifts for my hosts. I have to have the car checked. BUT I CAN’T because I have to figure out how to copy 6578 tunes from a dusty hard disk to my iPod. How the GROWLL did that go again? Of course my C drive is full. Should I delete my novel? Only took ten years to write. Maybe I can move it to hard disk number twenty four. Write on a yellow stickie note where it is… I have so many yellow stickies everywhere, I should keep a log. Which ever suitcase I open, a cloud of yellow stickies – all imperative markers that keep my life together – flies up in a tired sigh, leaving me with nothing but chaos.

Tomorrow at dawn I’ll drive off. I made reservations at the Holiday Inn in Munich Messe. It took me an hour to put the location in my TomTom because officially it’s called Feldkirche over there and not Munich. It’ll be eight or nine hours from here (Noordgouwe in Zeeland, the Netherlands) to my hotel in Munich. The next day I’ll drive on to Ljubljana, where I will spend a day with a family to which my attentions incline with great favor. They’ll show me the town, and at some point we’ll buy a ticket for the train to Belgrade. I rented a lovely little apartment in the middle of the Old Town. It has a bath tub. I’m bringing candles and green tea. If I repress the idea of having to drive through four noisy countries, spending a night in the middle of nowhere and a day with strangers, a nine hour train ride without an iPod, and a dead man’s walk from the Belgrade station to my little apartment, with the bath tub, with the candles… I can almost taste the bubbles.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Restaurant Het Zwarte Schaep, Brielle, Netherlands – Review

Brielle is a quaint little village just south of Rotterdam. It’s a web of picturesque alleys and a few bustling main streets with probably as many restaurants and bars as there are shops. Brielle, a.k.a. Den Briel played a major role in the libaration war of the Netherlands (15th century) and some say that the first shot that would lead to the free world as we know it, was shot just off the coats of Briele. It’s definitely a town worth visiting during your holiday in the Netherlands.

And when you’re there, make sure you have your dinner in Restaurant Het Zwarte Schaep (The Black Sheep). You’ll never have seen anything like it; it’s like stepping into somebody’s living room. They can’t have more than six or seven tables, but in a mere few years they’ve managed to become one of the most popular restaurants in the area.
A dedicated team of culinary wizards will surely make your evening a memorable one. And the spare ribs - ah! the spare ribs! – make you think they’ve slaughtered a unicorn. Nobody knows how they do it - as their secrets are guarded passionately behind the amicable smiles of the charming proprietor – but they do it, and that’s what counts.

Het Zwarte Schaep is located on the edge of the inner town, and it overlooks part of the marina. This marina goes all the way around the town, so it’s hard to miss. After your dinner the banks of the canals make for an excellent stroll.

See you there!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

On Holiday in The Hague (Den Haag) the Netherlands

A holiday in the Netherlands wouldn’t be complete without a visit to The Haag, or Den Haag as the Dutch call it. It’s an astonishing old town with lots to see and even more to do. It’s on the coast so it has beaches and boulevards galore. Hotels range in price from ridiculous to somewhat affordable, and backpackers will find their home in the youth hostel, just a few minutes walk from down town. Trains come in from all over the place and buses and trams take you wherever you want to go.

When I’m in the Hague on a Sunday, I always stop by at Crossroads International Church. It’s a pleasant gathering of people from all over the world, students or employees of international companies, or travelers like myself and tourists and vacationers. The church is situated in the British School at Vlaskamp 19.

After the service I leave the car parked and walk over to the city center, which is pleasant walk when it doesn’t rain, which it did today. I’ve made it a habit to stop at the American Bookstore on the street called Lange Poten, to browse the latest import from the colonies. Today I was looking for something on Serbia, as I’m planning a trip there next week. And I also stocked up on Bill Brysons, because traveling without a foot of Bryson’s strapped cover to cover on the back seat, is asking for trouble.

When I’m done chatting with the kind proprietor, I saunter over to Subway, which is a few doors down from the American Bookstore, and have a foot-long sub with tuna and lettuce and tomatoes, and look through the window to watch the passers by. The Hague is a truly pleasant town and most suitable for people watching.

Every visit to The Hague must also feature a walk-about of the ancient government buildings. It’s quite amazing how the general public is allowed to walk this imposing square hemmed in by buildings such as the Ridderzaal and the private offices of ministers and the prime minister. Calvinistic prudence has kept these buildings modest, and though very few Calvinists still stroll the corridors these days. Save for, maybe the ghosts of Oldenbarnevelt and Johan de Wit.
Het Mauritshuis - an exquisite museum

Swerving to the left, we soon come face to face with Paleis Noordeinde, the work palace of the Queen of the Netherlands. And right across from it is a bookstore of some note. A few doors down in the Genever Museum, or whatever the name is. It’s a delightful place full of bottled vice and a confused lady with a plumeau. The Netherlands shows it’s charm in streets like this, where a Queen, a bookstore owner and a nervous Genever lady can work side by side without anybody wondering who owes rent to who.
Het Torentje; Prime Minister's work place

Paleis Noordeinde


Gin joint

TomTom map of Serbia (Belgrade)

I’m preparing a holiday in Belgrade, Serbia. Apparently it’s the New York of eastern Europe. I’m not sure why Europe would require a New York, but my interests are peaked  by the slightest promise of grandeur to look at and cheap lodging to enjoy. I’m such a bum!

Anyway, being stationed in the Netherlands right now, which isn’t bad, except that it’s rained for forty days and forty nights and the cows in the field outside my window are teaming up in two’s and looking hopefully up at me. They know I’m into boats and such.

But boats get tedious and every now and then I rig up the old VW and head out for grazier pastures by road. Belgrade this time, in Serbia. So I bought a TomTom, a pocket dictionary for basic greetings and all that. I went online and rented an apartment in Belgrade and as I type in the address, there’s no Belgrade in my TomTom!

Belgrade, Serbia, is a white patch of concrete according to my brand-new TomTom, which comes with all those nifty features such as map-sharing map-uploading, free newsletters and Zeus may care what else! But no Belgrade! What is wrong with those TomTom people?

I checked their website and yep, there it is: a map of Europe with dark green countries that have streets with houses and numbers; light green countries that only have highways and one pale hole in the ground with only one major artery cutting through it. That’s Serbia. It still needs to be discovered. I mean, Belgrade is the New York of eastern Europe! I can’t be the only fool who wants to drive there, can I?

I travel. I have traveled all over the world. I’ve used maps scribbled on the back of napkins in shady port-side bars by tattooed mama-sans, but I thought those days would be behind me when I bought my TomTom Live. I guess they’re not.

I’ll  just follow that one main artery until I see a sign that says Beograd That Way, and I’ll follow it. I’ll pull over at the first available watering hole, and I bet there’ll be a tattooed mama-san with a napkin in her hand, waiting just for me.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Holiday in Flushing (Vlissingen, Netherlands)

Having lived in fair Vlissingen for many years, I go back there whenever I am in the area, even when it means braving torrential rains and a raging storm that grazes the clay clods from the dikes.

In all kinds of weathers, Vlissingen is a delightful little town on the semi-island of Walcheren, in the province of Zeeland, in the Netherland’s south west, and an excellent place to spend a holiday, ranging from a day or two to a sun-baking, hot-dining, movie-going, beach-bumming month and a half. There are hotels all over the place, excellent parking all over town, and everybody speaks English, German and possibly French. And Dutch of course.

Only obscure historians know where the name Vlissingen comes from, but the English name, Flushing, means something very regular, whereas Vlissingen does not. There is no Dutch verb to vliss; there is no Dutch noun vlissing. A prominent economist called Iman Wilkens proponed at some point in the eighties, that Vlissingen comes from Odysseus, also know as Ulysses, which in Latin is Vlysses. Wilkens did that in his celebrated book Where Troy Once Stood, which was celebrated mostly by Vlissingen natives who found it a case of historical justice that their town was mentioned in Homer, and had secretly always believed such a thing. Wilkens also insisted that the entire Illiad played in north west Europe, with all the best parts on the beaches of Zeeland. And although Vlissingen still glows in an air of classical sophistication, nobody’s heard much of Wilkens lately.

Having said all that: by all means, come to Vlissingen for your awesome holiday. Vlissingen has beaches that dazzle you eyes. In the summer the whole town smells like sun-block but even in the winter the beaches are fabulous to walk on. Fearless die-hards march from Vlissingen all around the island to Veere, which is an even so picturesque, albeit slight smaller town. Folks of less heroic leanings usually veer off the beaten track and into the first beach bar, of which there are many. In the summer their wooden decks are filled with folks nipping beer in the sun, in between dips in the North Sea.

Should you choose to stay on the beach closest to town - which is obviously also the busiest; and ‘close-to-town’ should be understood on a European scale because all beaches on Walcheren are close to Vlissingen – have your lunch at the fine restaurant De Bourgondier on Boulevard Bankert, or else, hop into a charming sandwich place called Het Smoske, which is right behind the Bourgondier. Het Smoske offers sandwiches of all kinds and for very reasonable prices.

Speaking of restaurants, Vlissingen has them of all sorts. There’s local cuisine galore, scores of specialized haunts such as  Japanese Restaurant, a Chinese Restaurant and even an Egyptian kebab joint. Some overlook the water, some are in town, but all are charmingly small and often down right cute. Vlissingen is very Dutch that way: no ostensible haste but always highly efficient. No move-em-through feed barns but eateries the size of a bedroom where you will always feel welcome.

The local movie theatre in Vlissingen always offers the latest flicks to make your vacation complete. The rooms slope so your never looking at the head of the guy in front of you. The chairs alone are worth going to Cinecity (as it is called); blue velvet sinker-inners with lots of space on all sides. The screens are as wide as the room and the sound systems are exquisite. Their bar-restaurant offers anything from snacks to full meals and boasts the Biggest Burger in the whole of Zeeland!

If you’re into shopping, you’ll love the main shopping street called the Walstraat. All shops have long Plexiglas overhangs and when it rains, you’ll be grateful that they’re there. The shopping district runs from the Walstraat to the Arsenaal Teatre – which also contains an enormous game hall – and ventures off towards the Bellemy Park, the heart of the town, and the location of all the goings on. Late summer it hosts an enormous carnival, concerts and expositions. Speaking of which, Iguana the Reptile Zoo is right there on Bellemy Park and a definite can’t miss during your vacation.

 In between shopping and movie going, you might enjoy a stroll along the boulevard, which stretches along the full length of the town, from the beach on the far west end to smack in town, where a statue of a man named Michiel the Ruyter stands catching wind. In Vlissingen everybody is very proud of Michiel the Ruyter (half the town’s enterprises are named after him, including the maritime academy, which is situated on the Boulevard) but only very few actually know what he’s famous for.

Be that as it may, your vacation in Vlissingen will be a full and rewarding experience. Let us know if you actually went there!

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