Water and Wine

DSC03089

I went through days and days of fruitless rendering on the computer, on a pad, and in my head. Pages and pages of written words, prose or otherwise fill my sketchpads and computer files though none had the promise to speak aloud, they all just ended up drifting off into omitted corners of my mind and into generic file names like Firsttry, Secondtry, Fail#1, Fail#2.

I couldn’t get the words out that I wanted when writing about my time in the beloved city of Sarajevo. A city of nearly 370,000 people, tucked into the Balkans, regarded to some as the “Jerusalem of Europe,” so called for the cultural and spiritual diversity that line its cobbled streets. Shaded by the summer heat, ornate Mosques sprawl across the city squares with verses from the Qur’an emitting in the morning stillness. While down the street rise towering spires of Orthodox Christian Churches and further still exist Temples emblazoned with the Star of David.

DSC03070 DSC03072DSC03071DSC03075

I wrote and wrote about its beauty and its great avenues filled with metalwork and the smells and sights but my inspiration ended there. I became disillusioned with my own prose, it had become empty and hollow, and I couldn’t rise above it until I realized my folly.

The only time that I am alone in my travels, is in urban settings, a city crawling with folks and yet I am all alone. Sarajevo would have just been another European city, but what made it special was the family that I had, and will still have there.

I was writing about a city like I was reading out of tour book, a city made of bricks and stone, shaded pavilions and wooden benches, the smells and the colors, and the beauty all around but what I was missing was the most important part, family.

So, here I sit in a cafe in Ljubljana, finally understanding after all this time, the secret to my happiness. That warmth and safety, trust and an ability to let your guard down for a little while was just enough to be able to enjoy Sarajevo.

Sarajevo. Just say it out loud. Sarajevo.

Its poetic, ancient, an incredible sound. I love it. I cannot say how many times I have told people that I was in Sarajevo, and it was my favorite European destination. The sound of “Sarajevo” in any conversation is always met with the same interested look, the sharpness of the ear, and then always the response, “Sarajevo, wow.” It is not vanity that has me reiterating the name, but genuine love for the place, and I earnestly do my best to steer everyone in the direction of the Balkan city.

In order to better grasp why I was there, perhaps an explanation into how I met this guy:

Alexandre Sasa Draganic, a real friend.

DSC03091

Several weeks previous, Tiffany and I parted ways for approximately a week, she to Italy and I, to nowhere in particular. Sitting in a cafe in Rijeka, with no direction and my inspiration to explore quickly drying up along with the contents of my beer mug on the bar next to me.

The waitress meanwhile asked me where I was from, and somewhere during this brief interlude it came up that my family was originally from Croatia and she asked where – I said somewhere inland. Boom. I had a week to kill in Croatia before Tiff returned, an inland adventure would be perfect. Settled. I bought a ticket the next day and headed out to Zagreb, capital of Croatia.

My time there was good, and it passed quickly. My last day there started like any other in an empty hostel, though there was one individual across from me reading a book. I hadn’t actually seen anyone read a book in a long while, I mean who has time for that when you have to check your tweets, email, and Facebook updates?

It started with a conversation about books, then evolved into travel, farming entered somewhere between breakfast and washing up, then on to wine, talk of Sarajevo and then a farewell. Sasa, as he introduced himself, struck me first as a good man and good friend, and we only knew each other for that single morning.

~~~~~~

Three weeks later Tiffany and I were trudging through crowded streets, dirty peddlers, side-shop crap being sold at prices that make the eyes bulge out their sockets, with sweat in the air, on the skin, and everywhere that no one wants it. It was the end of our stay in beautiful Hrvatska, and we were ready to go anywhere to escape the hordes of camera-snappers and pavement pounders.

This was, if you remember one of my previous entries, after our two night beachside accommodations on blow-up mattresses and thunderstorms off the Adriatic in Makarska. Fed up with skipping from town to town, we were both ready to just sit somewhere and rest our weary heads and so on a whim, we went East into the Balkans and with the onset of another storm, we arrived in Sarajevo.

Sasa was waiting for us, we took a ride in a sleek Volkswagen Golf, the first automatic I saw in Europe, and arrived to a nondescript apartment complex. After several flights of endless stairs, we walked through the door and into another world.

Light poured in from recessed shelves, walls painted in a subtle hues, beautiful woodwork, clean and well-kept. It was warm and inviting and I could not wait to just sit on the couch with slippers on – Tiff and I couldn’t keep the smiles off our faces. After what we were used to, this was a palace. First night was damp and dark on the balcony, but with some pasta and a few glasses of Herzegovinian vintage, we quickly livened up the mood and with it our friendship began.

After a very good nights sleep, we woke up to a wonderful breakfast of fresh baked Kifles, they look more like croissants than the ones I’m used to back home but warm and with some butter they are delicious! Sasa’s mother Jasna makes an awesome eggplant spread, I think that’s what it was – named Avjar (correct me if I’m wrong, Sasa), along with jam and other dairy products this breakfast was the long-awaited/needed feast. Tiff and I dug in with ill-concealed constraint. Yum.

DSC03065

The Draganic family owns the first-opened wine shop in Sarajevo, named Vino i Delicije, right near the center of town and the river, down the street from the famous Sacred Heart Cathedral. It is a pleasant little place, much like their home, well done.

DSC03113 DSC03121

I thought I knew about wine before I arrived in Sarajevo, but Sasa and his family made sure to give me a first-class education. It was well received and we made many nights full of twirling, smelling, sipping and studying the intricacies of each different vintage, mostly Bosnian-Herzegovinian wine that Sasa and his father, Stanimir recommended. My favorite was a new type that had a orange tint and smelled strongly of ripe cantaloupe – it was phenomenal.

DSC03156 DSC03165

Sitting down in the living room, lounging after breakfast and before bed, was some of my favorite moments during my time in the Balkan capital. Sasa and his parents made Tiffany and myself feel just like family and it meant the world to us.

On those dreamy days, we walked everywhere. Into the hills, huffing and puffing with exertion, along the river past burnt out barracks and bullet-ridden apartments from the siege decades ago while new infrastructure sprung up in its place. Artwork, culture and lovely people lined the passageways in between little shops and through subtle corridors. We visited a shaded courtyard, with a tree in the center and vermilion pillows against old benches where a water pipe was placed on a table and we whiled away the day with the flavor of watermelon tobacco and magic tea on our lips, and the words of travel and adventure on our tongues.

DSC03099DSC03101

Memory of this city is good, though memory of my friend and his warm family is better. I drank the sweet water from the fountain in the city center, a serious legend surrounds the mysterious draught, one which claims that visitors who drink the water will someday return to do it again. I have no doubt I will come back, though next time for a little longer and maybe, for a little more wine.

Sincerely,

BF.

Advertisements

Budapest Blues

Placed safely in a refuge of Andersen’s Pub, the lights dimmed like that of a primeval cave and a fiery glow of sixty watt bulbs located sparsely along the irregular walls, I sit at a table that hums with the bass of a subwoofer on a wall ten paces from my left heel. Out of the corner of my eye stands the barkeep, himself in an obnoxiously tight plain white shirt, a tacky barbed wire tattoo vaingloriously strapped to each bicep. Behind him the creative names of cocktails omnipresent in the cavernous pubs that line the streets.

Equal parts engaging and confusing, these quirky concoctions are tagged Pink Musketeer, Woo-Woo Mission, Bitter Harem Bandit, and Stolen Suitcase. I reckon after two of these, the names either make perfect sense or just don’t matter, though I doubt I will ever have equal parts stupidity and desperation to try. If you ask me, keep it professional, whisky neat and if not, pour me a beer – though why ask the guy in the glasses sitting at the bar with his laptop open, his air askew and his lips slightly murmuring the words of his present thoughts – one of the mysteries of the universe, I’ll tell ya.

Aided by the seven sips of a glorious Hungarian draught, I am prepared to write a prose of the world which I have now found myself in. Lost for weeks in a state of complete contemplation yet little action, I have finally broke free of the proverbial chains and with a few figure eights around this huge town, a forgotten map and few sore toes, I am finally back.

I can barely see the keys as I type, though the wide rim of the half-liter that sits chilled on my right glistens with the reflections of dark wood, chalk boards and fellow pints on the wall. Outside this darkened cavern, the sun is shining brightly on the cobblestone streets, along the crumbling facades with balconies stuffed with ferns, blooming vegetable planters, and colorful annuals. The tree lined streets hiding the raunchy sex shops but accentuating the colorful cafes with their small tables, stools, and hand-drawn signs offering espressos, long coffees, and their own versions of the drinks emblazoned on the wall to my immediate right.

~~~~~~

Days later, I reside in a cafe on the other side of the Danube, a floating beast strapped with ornate bridges of iron and concrete. I listen to pleasant jazz among recently dusted bookshelves laden with colorful books. The titles mean nothing to me, though by the look of faded color and worn spines, these novels have seen better days – this does not weaken the message within, only strengthens it.

People pass in and out, beaming smiles and crooked frowns past an old lacquered piano pushed into the corner and covered again with more books, papers, hats, and coats – this surface collects dust.
My feet are sore, despite the massage I received two days hence at the old Ottoman bath house that I explored for three hours or more. Packed with a pair of shorts, a towel and some sandals I disappeared into the pampered bowels of the spa, with its Ottoman dome and warm pools of soothing delight. Modesty is rarely used in these houses, as I went first to the shower and my cheeks turning a rosy glow I was reminded almost immediately of gym class in the sixth grade after wrestling. Strip down and go shower. With everyone else, who has stripped down as well.

Goddammn, well here we go.

Nothing like walking around socializing with everything out and about, kidding – no socializing – stick to your corner and do what you need to do. Put those modest shorts back on and head to the massage table and get a deep tissue rub-down, worked with careful and experienced hands, the knotted muscle melts down to a tender string, after months of walking and strenuous activity.

Sit up and go down to the cool baths, the one where you walk down a slowly descending ramp into the water, the legs of your shorts billowing with air and then finally make the long awaited glide into the water, the sensors on your skin crying out in a delightful sensation of fright and calm. Let the wave flow over you, cooling your body down and letting the blood in your carefully manipulated tendons do its work and repair the damage done.

The air outside the door is cold, as the glass enclosure opens to reveal storm clouds above and I, dripping wet from the pool skip lightly across the stones to the refuge of cedar rooms and hot stones. I sit down on the wood, after being greeted both by the cloud of steam from the sauna and by the gruff baritone of a pot-bellied local with an ostentatious yellow speedo and tattooed sleeves of marine animals baring their teeth running along his arms. My body feels enveloped completely by the warmth, my nostrils struggling to remain clogged, their stubbornness soon to be overrun.

The man who greeted me raises a small water bottle filled with clear liquid, says something unintelligible, and then offers me the vessel. I shake my head, clearly surprised that this fish-loving maniac expects me to take a swig of hard alcohol while sweating out all my toxins. I take it, in some realms it is pointless to argue, just accept and deal. I take off the lid, and give a sniff – my once blocked nostrils surrender soundly, a crushing defeat before the onslaught of peppermint shnapps. The man beckons me to the hot stones, and makes a dumping motion.

Oh.

Less than thirty seconds later, I am getting high on peppermint infused steam rising wickedly from the corner. I close my eyes and let it sink in. Everywhere. Sweat pours off my body, origins unknown, I feel as if I just took a dip in the Danube but here I sit in a cedar barrel of steaming air, reaching a ethereal destination of peace and wholeness.

I greet the air outside with a sigh of relief, quite like jumping into the pool after a good soaking in the hot tub and its only to the showers that I go next. There is a large urn of ice in the center of an aquamarine-tiled room, with a pictorial sign that suggests the steaming man stick his entire head into the mountain of frozen water.

When in Budapest.

Laughing, I thrust my face in and like a true Norseman, rise up and bellow with ecstasy.

Rrrraaaaawwwgh!

I rush into the showers to wash away the hazardous sweat before it dries on my skin and I come out refreshed, a new man.

Into the baths, a vast enclosure of red stone and worn columns from an age long past and the dome above letting the remaining day’s light through subtle holes barely noticeable from the rising steam. The great pool, a perfect circle with marble steps descending into the watery depths, greets my wandering toes.

I adore the sensation of self-control, knowing the warmth awaits but fending off the temptation to give in. I allow the urge to crawl, start to walk, and then into a full run, all through my body until I am near a point of breaking, with a smile I dip my foot in. Then the next stair and down into the warm water. I close my eyes and feel that incredible fire run through my corporeal being and then like the water surrounding me, wash away. I am left on the stairs, kicking my legs slowly in the water, relaxing with no sense of urgency. Loving the moment.

~~~~~~~

Tall walls and sweeping ceilings, a cavernous space with mats on the floor and a coffee maker in the middle. A natural meeting place, where words are passed around and ideas are grown. A bright young boy runs around the apartment in a constant state of metamorphosis, first a plane, then a honeybee, next he is scurrying like a wolverine and then rolling like a serpent across the lacquered floorboards and I sit observing with a smile growing at each new configuration.

Generosity and kindness has brought me into this beautiful place, by the whim of my hosts, one man and his son, who have shown me the beauty of this city does not solely reside in the grand stones on the main square but also in the small places behind doors and around corners. Bursting at the seams with wisdom both past and present, the father is a chiseled version of an unknown sage who allows himself the freedom to blossom with his son, and allows his own inner child to still roam free – walking more than 40 steps on his hands whilst listening intently to opera. I’ve only known him for two days, but each time I leave the place I still have a residual smile spreading across my face. A good sign, methinks.

There is a lesson in each experience. Here and there, I accrue these thoughts, ideas, and formulas to improve my life. I have learnt more hard truths about myself in the last four months, done more crazy things, made more mistakes and solved more problems than I ever had in that span of time. Traveling solo has opened me up to possibilities previously unknown, unexpected, and soon understood.

~~~~~

Two gentlemen sit idly across from me, an American on the left by the sound of his accent, though often enough folks nowadays are taught english with an American accent making their own lilts indistinguishable – its so close to the real thing that I am taken aback that they are not native. Regardless, his grasp of the language is good and he seems to have a gentle demeanor, silent and listening, with that lean look that often comes with a hard traveled life. The individual next to him seems younger, his clothes more ruffled, a shadow of a beard scratches his chin and his eyes are searching, seemingly wanting to speak, speak, speak. The quiet American looks on, waiting, marking short notes in his journal chuckling to his mate’s jokes but has that faraway look of someone thinking about two things at once, not fully engaged.

I am currently sitting in another coffee shop, this one with books around it as well but the tables don’t match, the chairs are different heights and it looks, to my delight, that the bench that I am now resting on is a pew from an old church. Considering the alternative, its in a better place – one of inspiration, smiles, dusty volumes picked up by curious hands, perused by interested eyes.

Last days are always the most emotional, saying goodbye, making sure you did enough in that particular place to make your stay worth it. Budapest was a beautiful place to spend this week, an entire week I was here and another will be spent at a farm west of here near the Austrian border where I will be living in a round house with a wood fire and have two dutch volunteers for company. They have quite the work to do before winter and with the cold approaching, they are hard-pressed to complete it all.

As for now, I think I am going to purchase some peanut butter and jelly for the week ahead, maybe even a little chocolate to get me through the hard work. One can never have too much chocolate after all.

My next and long-awaited entry will be in regards to Sarajevo, the favorite Balkan city with hidden mysteries, and a conglomerate of culture, love and beauty unrivaled in Eastern Europe. It took me only the beauty of Budapest to realize the great beauty that was Sarajevo, and my inspiration to write about my memories there. So after zig-zagging across Europe, I am leaving this side of the world after months of travel and into the West I will go. Wish me luck.

BF.

Zig Zag

I spent the whole of yesterday on the roadside trying my luck at extremely low-cost transportation by sticking out my thumb to passing motorists. With me, holding hand made signs and jumping up and down excitedly were a group of hippies from the Rainbow Festival on there way South, a pair of caffeine addicted Venetians obnoxiously waving a Hungarian flag and praying on their knees in supplication to passing cars, and the most surprising of all another American, from Rochester. From Rochester! No names were addressed, no use for that as each person gets lucky and the next drives away.

I waited at the exit of McDonalds on the M1/M7 split. I was told by Hitchwiki.org (a fabulous website designed as a cyber encyclopedia for Hitchers all throughout the world on what are the best spots, how to be safe, and how to have a good time), that this was a good place, and for all the rest it was. It was my first time ever hitch hiking and I learned quite a bit about the process, the first of which is – if it moves, take it. Second is, you have to be flexible and the third and the most important is hope, motivation to continue standing and waving, smiling, jumping, soliciting, talking, and thumbing. Patience is what drove me there.

I stood for six hours, by the time the sun set and all the rest had gone, I shouldered my pack and returned to the city. I would be lying if I didn’t feel defeated, my signs rolled into the pack and my thoughts drifting toward the negative. I walked back through the city, under glowing lamps and cracked sidewalk, until I stopped.

I physically could not walk another step.

Not for lack of energy, I was just tired of the negativity that seemed to flow through me so well and the positive so absent. I vowed right there in the bus lane not to take another step until my thoughts and my actions were positive. I have to admit I was standing there for a while, luckily this particular road was closed for construction and there was no passing cars.

I look down at my feet, a white line stretches into the distance, not straight but a zig zag. Back and forth, side to side, backwards and forwards again – there is progress. Like my failures, there are successes and eventually I will reach my goal.

I can buy a ticket on a train, I can rent a hostel, eat at a restaurant – but what the heck is the fun in that? Why not couch surf for free, volunteer with HelpX.org or WWOOF.org, cook your own food and stick out your thumb on the motorway. I am in search of a good story to bring back home – a mission that I have learned has more potential than the romantic dream to farm across Europe. Injecting myself into the lives of people in a car, in an apartment, on a farm has allowed me move out of my delicate cocoon of comfort and into a world of danger, fun, love, romance, safety, interest… keep this going.

With this in mind, I am now going to be helping out with Autumnal duties on a farm in Hungary, a small town named Szentgotthard, right near the Austrian border. Two Belgians are building an organic goat farm, with over 300 horned creatures, milking, gardening, splitting wood (my favorite). I am not headed to Prague after all, and that is okay for me – perhaps I meet up with some friends in France after seeing Slovenia and a speck of Italy. Stay flexible, be patient, and keep trying to find a good story – and you’ll be fine.