I was thinking about needing to take time and give things a chance because I was experiencing my first evening in Split. I felt grunged up from traveling from Plitvica. At the national park, I had gotten caught in a drenching thunderstorm. I had had a cheap umbrella from Zagreb but it didn’t do much for my pants. As they got wet from the knees down they seemed to get longer and I had to I roll up the cuffs. The cuffs filled with forest debris. My t-shirt had gotten wet not from rain, but from sweat. It had gotten fairly humid and I walked both the upper and lower lakes. I don’t know how far it was, but distance doesn’t account for the climb to the top of the great falls.
At any rate, I knew the ride to Split would be a long one, so I just wore the same clothes and figured I would clean up once I arrived at my destination. Just to get to the bus stop in the park I would have to sling on my pack and haul it a kilometer through the forest.
When I got to the stop, I waited an hour for a bus that didn’t come. Luckily a group of backpacking kids arrived just as a kombe or passenger van was going by. The driver stopped and asked where everyone was going. They were on their way to Split and the driver offered to get us there in half the time as a bus for $21 a piece. It sounded good since the bus ride would take six hours and cost around $32. This all actually worked out. The backpackers were American and maybe Australian and didn’t speak Croatian. I asked if I could help out with my Macedonian and I ended up riding up front with the driver making conversation about this and that. At one point I asked him if life was better now with an independent Croatia or if it had been better as Yugoslavia. Officially Croatia seems proud of itself. Reading the signs at historic markers and in museums, it seems Yugoslavia never happened and Croatia had always been just Croatia.
His response was that the only difference was that the crooks in charge used to be in Belgrade, now the crooks govern from Zagreb.
When we arrived in Split, I had no idea where we were. I’d learn later through lots and lots of walking in circles, triangles, and shapes that geometry has not yet identified, that he had simply dropped us of at the bus station. That would explain the numbers of old ladies holding signs for sobe, zimmer, and whatever the word for room is in Italian. Of course again I didn’t stick to my plan and I just went with the first pensionerka (retired woman) in black (a widow). She said her rooms were just a simple kilometer away. From all the walking I’d been doing, a kilometer didn’t seem so bad. It is so bad when you don’t have an accurate map. Why is it, I ask, that Lonely Planet always says the same thing for every city, “there are not a lot of rooms to let in the old town,” but only provides maps for the old town? I guess they are called Lonely Planet because that’s how you’ll feel, all alone on a huge planet, lost.
She started walking me form the bus station to what I assumed was her flat. She walked terribly slow, complaining of the pain of recent hip surgery. If we were going to walk a kilometer like this, my back was going to break under the weight on my pack. It turns out she was taking me to a city bus stop. The bus ride seemed like a lot farther than one kilometer. She said that’s just the bus route. Walking is more direct.
When arriving at the old lady’s place, I felt sad. Not so much for myself, but for her. It was a lot like my Peace Corps home stay in Macedonia: a big soviet style block building in the suburbs. The suburbs is not where you want to be. Rusty tears run down the sides of buildings from metal window frames. The lady obviously lived alone, as she had the same markings of things gone as every other old lady I’d stayed with: black and white photos of a younger man in a suit--presumably her dead husband, and faded, half torn children’s stickers covering the guest room furniture--presumably the childhood furniture of children grown and gone. Crumbs littered the kitchen table’s plastic tablecloth. Telephone wires taped to the wall and more crumbs of stuff on the carpet runner in the guest bedroom. The bathroom, I care not to describe. I didn’t want to see anyone living like this, alone and sad.
I decided I would spend the rest of the day looking for another place closer and cleaner. I’d stay the night as I agreed and paid for, but in the morning I would simply brush my teeth and get the heck out.
And then I got lost going into town. She said I should take the same bus #9 into town that we had used to get to her neighborhood, but she had said it was a direct walk and I wanted to get my bearings. Of course “direct” takes you straight to a dead end. I took a chance and turned left. The city center was on a harbor, so following the downward grade of the streets seemed logical. I am so stupid when it comes to logic. I wandered for an hour and later realized I had taken one wrong turn and walked away from the old town to the industrial zone. The city’s not really on a grid plan and I almost ended up all the way back where I started. One left and two rights shouldn’t do that, but...
Once I found the old town I found a great deal for a starving man: soup, salad, and your choice of fish or chicken for twelve Euros. I don’t know Euros very well, so I assumed that was about fifteen dollars. White table cloths and everything. I felt underdressed in shorts, t-shirt, and ball cap, but I was the only customer a that time of day. The food was great and service very helpful--even though I kept speaking Macedonian to the waiter, trying to be culturally pliable and unobtrusive to my host, he always spoke to me in English. I ordered the fish and was able to eat the whole thing without ingesting a single bone. The grilled vegetables were probably the best part of the meal though. Gently braised and slathered in olive oil and sesame seeds, nothing tasted better. I tried not to feel guilty imagining that my widowed host would never splurge and eat at a place like this. Fifteen dollars was, I imagine, too dear.
Out in the old town though, life was different than in the quiet restaurant. Split’s old town, basically a town created in the foundations and ruins of Diocletian’s palace, was a maze of narrow stone streets--which I normally love--but clogged with tourists. Yes, I was a tourist too, but I have nothing against self hate. The worst was when I took a breather from what was becoming obsessive picture taking--not apartment hunting like I’d planned, but I hadn’t stumbled upon the bus station at that point yet--and sat for a beer at a cafe. It was filled with young college kids from English speaking places gathered to watch World Cup soccer. Being the snob that I am I loathed myself for sitting next to a group of American college kids with all their luggage spread about them, the boys talking soccer and alcohol, the girls talking alcohol and tattoos.
“You know what?” I told myself, “To hell with Split. It’s too big and too crowded. I need some island time. I am going to follow my plan and find that beach called the golden horn, that spit of a beach that reaches out into the Adriatic and changes shape with the currents. I want to see Diocletian’s palace, but I need peace and quiet.”
I went home to the suburban block, brushed my teeth, told my host I’d only be staying one night, made sure my things were ready for tomorrow, sat down on the mattress to take off my shoes and promptly fell through the bed to the floor.
So here I am. It is currently evening in the city of Bol on the island of Brach. I am sitting at a table on the terrace outside my room. The terrace overlooks the sea and is made with stone quarried form the island. From what I have read the white stone from Brach has been used in structures such as Diocletian’s palace in Split and the White House in Washington, DC. Between me and the sea are red tile roofs and boughs of red and purple flowered vines. Swallows are flitting here and there, and when I first came out to the terrace, one was making passes right under the umbrella over my table. I hope all that has brought Croatia to this point in history--through the parts it celebrates and the parts it forgets--I hope takes care of its pensioners.