Monday, June 14, 2004

"Mojitos In Praha"
Prague, Czech Republic
Monday, June 14th, 2004

In the past when we've asked about impressions of Prague, people's eyes light up as if in love, "Ahh, Prague, it is a magical place." They sigh longingly and look lost in blissful memories too private to be vocalized. A wise Croatian Man told us many weeks ago, " is so ALIVE! There is everything there...whatever you like it is there!" He leaned over to my mother and winked, "but you must be careful with you daughter. There are many men there, many very hungry men."

And so we find ourselves at the end of our journey in a city of extremes. One of the most magnificently preserved cities in all of Europe....a labyrinth of cobblestone streets, sidewalk cafes sending the fragrances of Middle Eastern, Italian, French, Mexican, and Czech cuisine into the dusky atmosphere, tiny alleyways which lead into courtyards where you might lose yourself for days, giant clocks, bridges which span ancient rivers and all around men, women, and drunken monsters from every corner of the Western World, gothic cathedrals thrusting spires up into the sapphire sky as if waiting for the arrival of Dracula himself, giant plazas the size of Olympic Stadiums that stretch on for an eternity....and music you've never even known existed.

For this is a city of extremes. Years ago, Prague was on the verge of discovery. Virgin territory just liberated from an oppressive Soviet Occupation, a place where poets and painters came to lose themselves and to be forgotten by the rest of the world. Today, Prague is no virgin city. She's a promiscuous Goddess of European excess and she's not only embracing tourism, she's fornicating with it publicly. On any given night in the central plaza, we see punk rockers taking drags from each other's cigarettes as they drive horse-drawn carriages through the streets, a Hare Krisna parade with men and women chanting and banging on drums, hoardes of tourists taking photos of the giant clocktower, go-go dancers shakin' their asses to "Shaggy" in a barfront window, an old man in a forgotten alleyway singing Elvis Presley songs in Czech, and countless drunken 'stag' parties (bachelor party) bellowing their way through the plaza with bottles of beer in hand and dragging mates of theirs clinging to consciousness.

Prague is a city that never sleeps. A city that one wants to suck dry. Like the last dregs of a tasty mojito, when the ice melts and mixes with the mint and sugar after you think the drink is really gone but the best part has yet to begin. Prague is like this. One never tires of watching it transform into darkness and a new midnight light...through the red hot heat and past the mercurial thunderstorms which begin faster than one can open an umbrella. It's light here at 5 in the morning and remains a cobalt blue well past 10 p.m. We're as far North as Canada. This city is like a cross between Las Vegas and Edinborough, Scotland on a Saturday night and all set in this magnificent landscape of the wildest European imagination. It defies explanation and expectation. It is an urban zoo of human behavior and a fulcrum of artistic inspiration.

One never knows what one will see next. A beautiful symphony or a debaucherous act.

Yesterday afternoon, we were startled by the sound of metal exploding against rock. We turned to see a group of drunken Scotsmen ripping a 40 pound street sign from it's base and parading through the plaza cheering, "We saw the sign! We saw the sign! And now we have the sign!" From the center came the star of the party. A tall, lanky dark-haired lad with a chain connecting his wrist to his ankle like an animal and the back of his pants where his cheeks are were missing, leaving a perfect view of his skinny ass hanging out in tight black speedos. The pant-less man hopped sideways among frightened groups of tourist hooting like a monkey while his mates waved the street sign back and forth. "We have the sign! We saw a sign!"

Mom and I just stood and stared with our mouths open for a few minutes before we even spoke:

"They really have bad hangovers, huh?" Mom said under her breath.

"Mom, they're drunk."

"They are? How do you know?" she looked shocked. She was born in Indiana to a family and a religion that forbids alcohol. She's been spared both the pleasure and pitfalls of alcohol for her entire life.

"Mom, any straight guy who's wearing a chain connecting his wrist to his ankle and missing the ass of his pants walking through a public square with his mates....well, he's gotta be drunk."

"Ohhh, I thought it was a hangover," she said, processing these new behaviors of debauchery.

"No, that's not how people with hangovers behave."

We decide to do something sophisticated so we buy tickets for Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," a favorite of both of ours. By some stroke of luck and a bit of charm, we're led to the front row by a super cute Czech girl (even though we bought the cheapest tickets possible) who takes a liking to us. Mom and I are rather sweaty from the day's sightseeing and dressed in sandals and hiking shoes lugging backpacks and water bottles. Elegant French Women wearing pearls, fancy Italian shoes, silky lipstick and smelling of jasmine sit around us. Sophisticated types that make us slink a little lower in our seats.

The orchestra is two feet in front of us and when they begin playing it is magnificent and thunderous and passionate and ecstatic and the most sexual classic music I have ever heard. I looked down and my arms were covered in goosebumps. Even the usually reticent violinists and cellists were overcome by Vivaldi's vision closing their eyes at times and smiling like fat cats in the sun. It's music that overtakes you, grabs your heart and hurls it out into the ethosphere and then draws you in again like a kite catching the wind.

And then in walked the cello soloist.

He was a tall man, a rather large man, with dark greasy hair pulled behind in a pony-tail typical of poets and wearing a coal-black jacket with coattails. He took a grand bow and waved his bow before ceremoniously taking his seat. When he played his whole body became possessed. It was overtly sexual and much too intimate.

I had to look away.

His face beaded with perspiration, strands of his hair fell forward from where they were chastely tucked behind his ear, his eyes closed half way as if in the throes of ecstasy...he vibrated with the cello and his face turned crimson as if he were holding his breath. Strange noises came from within him through his half-open mouth, a mouth which seemed to have just finished kissing a woman and had forgotten she was no longer kissing back.

This was much too intimate a thing to see. I tried to focus on the string section but my eyes kept going back to him.

As he continued to play we noticed that the other musicians were exchanging looks with one another, looks of amusement, confusion, and then of annoyance. He seemed to be playing a cello that was out of key. A cello with not enough depth to fill the concert hall. We became more amused by the cellist's strange erotic behavior and the drama among the musicians embarrassed by him than we did with Vivaldi's masterpiece.

It was a symphony of cacophony.

The cellist refused to finish. Whenever he would take a bow after our applause he would pretend to leave and then come running back and start a new song. In all, he played 4 complete Encores. Encores not chosen by the audience. He would take magnificent bows and posture his broad frame like a peacock ruffling its feathers. He beamed, he radiated, he inhabited his own universe of self-love. He and his sad under-performing cello.

After the 5th! performance, the orchestra shuffled out with more speed than is fitting of a string section before the cellist could return for another performance. We clapped with absolute relief.

On our way home we decided to stop for hot chocolate a hot rum drink. Mom thought she might try giving alcohol a chance. (After all, if it could get you to wear a chain connecting your wrist to your ankle, imagine what a small nightcap might do to a Hoosier who hasn't had alcohol her whole life.)

She winced and nearly spit out the rum.

In some blur of miscommunication and confused accents, we were absorbed by the next table of past-drunk Welsh Woman waiting for their husbands to return from watching a Rugby Match. When the men came upstairs they surrounded us and in their thick accents introduced themselves. Mom encouraged me to sing a Salt n'Pepa rap for them that was less than successful. They looked as blank as a herd of sheep before a chalkboard of math equations. I might have well been singing in Swahili.

"Wanna hear me Tom Jones Version?!" the largest husband asked excitedly.

"Oh yes, Yes! You must do that," the wives clapped and cheered him on.

By half past midnight, the eight of them were singing a medley of the Beatles, Tom Jones, and some vaguely familiar Welsh Anthem in both Welsh and in English for our benefit.

"Won't you have a beer with us?" they'd chide my mother every 30 seconds.

"No, I don't drink alcohol," she'd defer.

"Then a rum! She'll have a rum! Waiter bring us a rum"

"No, really, I'm okay."

"Well how about a beer then?"

"No, really, thankyou."

"Well, anything with alcohol for bloody hell! How could you go through life like this?!" one of the wives lamented. As if my mother's salvation rested in a good lager.

My mother offered "Glennys" some of her chocolate cake.

"God no!" She wrinkled her nose as if she were looking at a bowl of eyeball soup instead of a succulent slice of dark chocolate cake, "Isn't there any alcohol in it?"

Mom shook her head apologetically.

Glennys went back to her drink feeling a failure for not having converted my mother to the "Welsh Religion" of alcohol.

This morning we see grafitti in a women's restroom stall. A desperate girl writes, "PRAGUE IS AN EVIL CITY. DON'T LOSE YOURSELF IN IT."

The Welsh are pretty good at it.

And so we bid adieu to a city of extremes and of midnight skies that linger. We say goodbye to the sweltering islands of Southern Dalmatia and the shimmering lakes of Slovenjia. It has been a magnificent trip and my mother, 'Mojamama' in Slavic, has been the ideal travel partner. We hope that you're each having adventures of your own and that you milk this summer dry! (Like a big fat can of YooHoo.)

much love, Rachel and her beloved "Mojamama" Karen

Monday, June 07, 2004

"Smitten With Slovenia"
western Slovenia
Monday, June 7th, 2004

Okay, before this next update I MUST thank a couple of you for making this all possible...thankyou to Peter Kozodoy for suggesting a trip to Croatia over dinner with mom, thankyou to my sweetheart, Doug Crane, for supporting me and understanding me everytime I need to go off and have adventures (at least once a year!), and a big thankyou to Andrea and Sylvia for demanding that we go to Slovenia and for introducing us to their cousin Andrej!
For starters, I think we'll be coming back to Slovenia again for sure. About a week ago we headed North from the bottom of Croatia and took a 24 hour ferry along the length of the Adriatic Sea up towards Slovenia. Mom and I decided through travelers' boredom that we'd go ahead and drink our bottles of Croatian Lemon Liquor to pass the time. We started to swig it straight from the bottle by the time we were on the train into Slovenia. We were packed into a little train car with two Aussies and a well-traveled Kiwi Firefighter who had just been trekking in Kyzirgistan and taken the Trans-Siberian Railway across the length of Russia with a girlfriend, a good book, and not enough alcohol.

We opened our hearts and our lives up to each other within a matter of hours as travelers do and in a flash at one of the train stops they were gone in a blur of backpacks and whistles of the train.

When we arrived in Lujblijana (dam, I always misspell it) we called up Andrea's cousin Andrej for suggestions and he's been taking care of us ever since. We're staying on the Western Edge of Slovenia along Lake Bled and he lives in Lujblana (there it is again!). He's a bit like Peter Kozodoy only really tall and with a Slovenian accent. He's an engineer, incredibly patient, generous, and he never says 'no' to mom and I which we really like! We're smitten with him. Mom keeps asking him, "Andrej, do you have a much older brother or a single uncle you could introduce me to?" He keeps blowing us away with gifts of chocolate, music, park entrance fees.

Slovenia is stunning and charming. Like a miniature Switzerland. This tiny country is lush and verdant and resplendent with tiny villages and homes with flowers spilling from the gardens and windows. Half of it is virgin forest of pine, sycamore, beech, maple. The Northwestern corner shares the Julian Alps with Italy. We're rented this fairy tale little chalet with kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room that looks out over a garden, a meadow of wild lupine, daisies, and queen anne's lace and the snow-capped mountains. On sunny days the air smells like fresh cut grass, flowers, and has the coolness of a breeze blowing off the local lake.

We were stunned when we walked down the hill toward Lake Bled to behold a tiny forested island with a tall Cathedral poking out from a canopy of trees. On the edge of the lake silhouetted against the mountains is a several thousand foot jagged cliff with a castle perched on its edge like a scene out of Van Helsing or Dracula. Little rowboats carry visitors across the lake to the island where they can ring a sacred bell and profess their lifelong love to each other. Ancient Slavs once worshipped the Goddess of Love and Fertility on this island. No matter how many photos one sees of this place, nothing compares to the reality of looking upon it for the first time. The castle and the lake's moods change with the setting sun and storms passing overhead like a living painting. It's truly a romantic landscape in every sense of the word. (Happy 3 Year Anniversary Sweetheart!)

So what have we been doing here, anyway?
On the first night we had an exquisite dinner with Andrej (no, he hasn't ever heard of the movie) with fine crystal and china and cloth napkins. I didn't know how to behave with all the fine cutlery! fresh slices of carrots and celery with a horseradish cream sauce, peppery Veal and noodles, rolls of baked chicken stuffed with bacon and onions set in a creamy leak sauce, penne pasta with fresh basil, tomatoes, mozzarella and smoked eggplant, roasted cream of asparagus soup, fresh crusty bread, and for dessert...buttery chocolate crepes, chocolate souffle with fresh strawberries, creme de caramel flan, and chocolate mousse with a dollop of mint sauce. Okay, so that's a couple of meals. We're definitely NOT going to lose weight on this trip. With every good meal we have, we take another step further away from the dream of returning to the developing world. We're turning soft, man! Cloth napkins?!! For god's sake! I don't eat this well this often in Santa Barbara. (Although I do miss Mexican food all you PPSB gang...I'm dreaming of enchiladas and chilaquiles and beans)

This past weekend we've visited one of the largest limestone caves in Europe (as opposed to all those granite caves!) and saw tiny Ë_human fish,Ë_ blind albino cave salamanders which live 50! years and can go up to 5 years without eating by lying really, really still.

I don't think I can go 5 hours without eating. They must be really, really slow little buggers.

Also visited one of the world's most famous Stud Farms for the Lipizaner Horses that are famed to be from Southern Slovenia. Our tour guide spoke proudly of their heritage coming from a mix with 'Italian Stallions,' An English woman and I couldn't help snorting in the back of the group. We'd seen quite a few Balkan Stallions of our own here on our travels. I think the joke was missed on our guide though.

The greatest highlight so far however has been catching an outdoor summer music festival concert with Eliades Ochoa from the Buena Vista Social Club here in Lujblllannannan, how ever the hell you write it. For only 17 bucks, we saw an Italian A Capella Men's Choir, Eliades Ochoa and his full band complete with percussionists, stand-up bass, back-up vocals and guitarists, and horn section....and! a very famous Serbian Brass Band (10 of them) with a guest artist, one of the most famous Gypsy Singers from Eastern Europe and her accordion player. I know it sounds all rather eclectic and it was and it was wonderful.

How surreal to hear all the languages spoken yet we understood each other...

The Italian Group addressed the packed and jubilant audience in Italian, French, and broken Slovenian. Eliades Ochoa addressed us in Spanish which we translated to Andrej into English, and the Serbian Brass Band spoke and played in Serbian, Croatian, and a Gypsy Language which Andrej translated for us from Serbian into Slovenian and then into English.

The Cuban music was rich and full and absolutely moving...I started plotting a trip in my mind to the island, it was like seeing the Buena Vista Social Club in its entirety only surrounded by a bunch of Slovenians who couldn't understand any of the lyrics. But the highlight was the brass band and all of its riotous energy. The lead trumpet player had us all kicking and screaming and singing 'lalallallalalalal' out of key and then cheering as the older Gypsy singer took the microphone. She was no taller than 5 feet and a little bit rounder in width. Dressed in a long dress and head scarf in red and gold, she grinned and laughed and wailed and shimmied her little Balkan Buddha Belly back and forth across the stage. One of the horn players kneeled on the stage out of respect as he played to her and it was obvious that her presence and performance there was an absolute honor to several thousand Slovenians. I looked all around us at the mix of Slovenians, Croatians, Serbs, Italians, Germans, and French and thought of how magical the power is of music and how, despite all the languages spoken there, it was the energy of the music that we all understood and that united us. Thousands of us were kicking and screaming and jumping and laughing and grinning wildly. If only we could remember this Iraq, in Former Yugoslavia, in America and around the world.

Andrej drove us home around 2:30 in the morning. I don't think mom has been out that late in years. She and I stayed up a while more gorging ourselves on the only chocolate bar we had left and revelling in the magic of the night.

We'll be heading to Prague soon but for now, we're lingering in the magic of Slovenia. That night before the concert, I was walking through the wet streets of the city and looked up to see a vivid rainbow set against the steel grey sky and arcing over the Lubjliana Castle.

'This is a good omen,' I smiled to myself.

I hope you all have similar rainbows in your skies over the next week. I know that magic happens everywhere around us. It's sometimes easier to be open to it on vacation but it is there all the time if we'd only open up to it.

much love, Rachel and Mamacita

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

"From The Inner Walls Of Dubrovnik"
Dubrovnik, Croatia (Dalmatian Region)
Wednesday, June 2nd, 2004

We're retreating from the rain inside a Croatian Bar listening to an odd mix of Bruce Springsteen and Muddy Waters in the old city of Dubrovnik. There seems to be no genre distinction on radio stations here in Hrvatska.

Not to be cliche, but Dubrovnik is probably one of the most gorgeous cities in the world and reminds me of walking through the inside plaza of "The Venetian" in Las Vegas. (It's disgusting that the only cultural and architectural comparison I can make to it in the United States is in downtown Las Vegas). The entire city, situated on the edge of the Adriatic, is surrounded by the world's third largest wall (The Great Wall of China being the first) and yields its secrets only after entering the giant gates where a drawbridge once stood. The car-less streets are all made of marble and the buildings and alleyways are solid carved stone, lanterns swinging above each corner. The sky on most days is painted blue and cloudless, sparrows screeching in circles overhead like bats at sunset and hundreds of people from around the world passing below the clocktower and circling the fountains, sipping coffee and eating pastries along the sidewalk cafes. children chasing pigeons and shouting in Croatian, French, German, amazing that they can understand each other. Even the cats seem to "Meow" with exotic accents.

We walked the length of the fortress walls earlier this week and let me tell you, it's a long ass wall. It felt like we were walking the Great Wall of China only it was super hot and everybody was speaking Croatian and German.

Yesterday we took a boat to a local island named Mljet (named "Honey" by the Greeks for all the delicious sweet stuff gleaned from its shores) and honored by National Geographic as one of "The Top Ten Most Beautiful Islands in the World." The writer must have traveled there on a sunny day.

We spent much of the day sheltering ourselves from the rain under tiny umbrellas and sipping cups of hot chocolate with a sassy Australian named Kat. Bad weather often yields the funniest and most unforgettable moments. Though we saw very little of the lush island, the lunch we had there will forever stand out in my memory...

Deprived of t.v. and radios, slow days and bad weather leaves my mother and I to our only tool of entertainment: my video camera. We sat at a small cafe on the edge of the sea playing with a catsup bottle, a giant rainbow-colored beetle, and a rather greasy french fry. I began doing impressions of the "Crocodile Hunter" in a rather shoddy Australian Accent: "Behold how the ravenous pomme fritte-eating poison Croatian Beetle stalks its' food and descends upon its prey with its' fearsome mandibles, Behold how its' prey (we shake the french fry) quivers at the siight of its terrifying predator." To our surprise, the beetle stepped up to its role as a deadly french fry-eating insect and began devouring the french fry and fighting me for it in an unfairly weighted battle. Two uptight French Sailors at a table next to us sipped on their soup and tried to ignore us.

Moments later, a rather boisterous French and Croatian-speaking Family stepped off their sailboat and walked into the restaurant.

What followed in conversation will go down as the greatest linguistic social faux pas in the history of the civilized world. Thanks to my mother.

Now first, a little lesson in the language in Croatian or Hrvatski. My mother and I have prided ourselves on learning a couple of phrases in the language regarding food, daily greetings, and directions. We pride ourselves on it. "Doberdan" means 'good-day.' "Dobertek" means 'Good Eating' or enjoy your meal. And we've found that there's a rather crusty local pastry here called a "Super Dick Man." Yes, you heard it right. A big chocolate covered creamy marshmallow in the shape of a peacock turd called a "Super Dick Man." Back to the story. It's very important not to mince your words.

The father of the family that entered the restaurant began to greet us in Croatian. He threw his arms out as if to embrace the sky and to bless our meal, he continued to talk in fluent and exuberant Croatian as if we were the first people they had seen in many days.
Mom, feeling it her duty to represent our small group and receive their greeting, stepped forward and proudly said, "Dober Dick!"
Cat and I choked on our drinks.
The father looked at mom blankly, completely silenced. His children looking rather frightened by this promiscuous American Woman.
"Dober Dick!" she again said proudly. She still hadn't realized what she had said.
Instead of 'good day' she had said, "Good Dick!"

Mother looked quite dazed and confused when she sat down at our table. The Croatian family had retreated to their table and was avoiding our glances. Cat and I were laughing so hard we were wiping tears from her eyes. "What?" she asked me. "What did I do wrong?"

"Mom, what did you just tell that guy?"

"I told him "Dober Dick!" her face slackened and she slid down in her chair. "Oh my god, oh my god."

"Don't worry mom, it doesn't mean 'Dick!," I laughed.

Since yesterday, she hasn't been able to say "Dober Dan" or "good day" to a single person she's so traumatized by the incident.

She'll never attempt another Slavic language again she tells me.

Tomorrow, we head out on a boat which will travel for twenty-four hours along the length of the Adriatic to Northern Croatian where we'll travel by bus or train to the Alps of Slovenia.

We're ready for a change of scenery and look forward to hiking through the mountains and traveling by sea once again. We'll check out a photography exhibition on the Yugoslavia War this afternoon before heading out for afternoon tea with an American Friend up the Coast.

And yes, we've done many other cultural things besides drinking hot chocolate and laughing at each other at cafes. We've attended a film festival, eaten dinner with a Croatian Family, lingered with a Dalmatian Jewelry Maker, hiked national parks, and avoided large bands of ice-cream laden, gremlin-like children practicing pole dancing on the upper decks of our ferry. But these things are not nearly as much fun as the other stuff.

It's curious what we remember about our travels...

Hope you're all seizing the day and the love of one another and laughing as much as possible!

Thursday, May 27, 2004

"Basking Along The Adriatic Sea"
Hvar, Croatia (Dalmatian Region)
Thursday, May 27th, 2004

“Sea rovers here take joy.”


Island life here is leisurely and occasionally punctuated by moments of impulsive physical activity. Like walking, shopping, or eating. This is truly a magical island; our veranda opens out onto the scent of orange blossoms and a garden of roses and blooming geraniums and a stunning view of the sea. Poets have surely been inspired by these waters for millenia.

That which doesn't glitter or sparkle in the Adriatic shimmers in tones of sapphire, cobalt blue, and turquoise until it melts into a translucent jade where the sea meets the rocky shores. The water's surface ripples like a wet peacock's feathers ruffling itself in the wind and sun.

We rented a boat and hired a local Croatian named Matko whose parents have a lavender farm on the other side of the island. He and his girlfriend from Singapore sell sachets, soaps, and oils made of lavender during the summers, Christmas postcards in December (fittingly so, for what good would they do in July?) and bags of freshly popped popcorn in January.

As travel between the islands in his small fishing boat, he lulls the motor for a moment and finally turns it off. The sun is striking the surface of the water around us and illuminating the sea bottom below us. It is said that the water is so clear here that one could read fine newspaper print from the bottom of the sea. I have no doubt you could.

“Listen,” he tells us, “there are two important things in this life,” he counts on his fingers, “the first is peace and the second is your health. I travel many years and work in Northern Europe and I finally come back. I say 'no more!' I tear up my passport into sixteen different pieces. This is where I am happy. I live in paradise!” he laughs and gestures around us to the sky and sun. I have a boat, my dog, my girlfriend. I go fishing when I want to eat. I do not work, selling the lavender is pleasure for me. If I do not take pleasure from it, if it is work, then I do not do it.”

Mom and I smiled serenely, for how easy is it to relax in someone else's land and how difficult to feel peace inside ourselves when we work? There is much wisdom to be gleaned from island life.

We had lunch on a small island where the trees and prickly pear cacti and agave opened up before us onto a small vineyard. In the middle of nowhere came a group of people from Ireland, England, and Croatia. It's so surreal sometimes.

We drank fresh lemonade and sweet locally made white wine. I dined on a hot dish of fresh artichokes baked with fava beans, garlic, and olive oil while Mom and Matko shared a heaping bowl of octopus salad with fresh bits of apple, tomato, garlic, and olive oil. And of course, fresh crusty bread dipped in all the juicy sauces.

We arrived at 'home' last night feeling quite tired and grabbed food at the store to dine in bed. We snacked on slices of fresh pear, gouda cheese, salami, crusty bread, and Croatian cookies filled with ground walnuts and honey and read our books until midnight when a crescent moon rose over the dark surface of the Adriatic.

This afternoon we're taking a ferry, a bus, and a taxi boat to a small village on the island of Korcula. We'll be staying on a farm and vineyard for a couple of days. Perhaps we'll finally get some exercise schlepping our bags around public transport.

Hope you are all feeling some level of peace in your lives, it's always a daily challenge!

much love and dovidena!

Rachel and Karen

Monday, May 24, 2004

"Tall Tales From Croatia"
Hvar, Croatia (Dalmatian Region)
Monday, May 24th, 2004

We've landed safely and traveled by boat, ferry, tram, and airplane to and within Croatia.

Where to start...We're working on our Croatian vocabulary and haven't made it much further than _Where is my mother,_ _I'm hungry,_and the always imminent _where's the bathroom, please?_ The North of the country is hilly and verdant, resplete with stone houses, steep tiled roofs, and turquoise rivers shooting through narrow canyons. We visited Plitvice National Park which is one of Croatis's crowning glories. Wandering along lakes and waterfalls spilling out from lush vegetation...the water so clear you can see hundreds of orange-throated trout swimming between the reeds. We ate lunches of apple strudel and fresh goat cheese (okay, so the combination is a little strange) at the edge of a lake the color of cobalt blue rimmed in sea glass green.

We stayed with a Serbian Family who have recently returned since fleeing Croatia during the War (1991-95). It was a bloody mess. Croatians killing Serbs, Serbs killing Croatians, Croatians and Serbs killing Muslims, and so on. It's still difficult to get a handle on the complexities and underlying issues which fueled it but Milosevic definitely orchestrated this ugly time and played all of the people against one another. Boba, the woman who rented us a room, cooked a giant stew of fresh ham and beans with beautiful slices of fresh local cow and goat cheeses. She kept pouring us their homemade plum brandy which tasted quite like sweet hairspray that's been mixed with fruit. Over dinner she shared stories about the war, they were chased out of their home by the Croatian Army towards the end of the war. Homes all along the countryside where both Serbs and Croatians have lived were burnt to the ground, they still stand today as a reminder.

Boba's father was stabbed to death one night by his neighbor. Another elderly couple across the street was remaining in the area so they could see their daughter regularly who lived onlz 40 km away. One night towards the end of the war, two young boys in their early twenties (their mother and father were Croat and Serb) broke into the house, stabbed the couple to death, and then burnt the home down. The daughter didn't find out about it until she tried to visit them and their house was gone and they were dead. No one in the village had told her.

But enough about sad stories. There is healing throughout Croatia. Buildings are being restored, people are moving back, and to their fortune, not as much of their country was consumed by the war as was Bosnia. The countryside is largely unspoiled by industry and the public transportation is incredibly efficient. We have also felt very safe here. It's strange to imagine a place so peaceful being the site of such violence. I think it took everyone by complete surprise.

From the North we traveled South to the Adriatic Sea and landed in Split home to a Roman Palace dated back to the 4th century A.D. Actually quite young for this part of the world. We had a bit of a drama finding a room when we tried following an older grandmother to her place for a room. A drunken, possibly schizophrenic man in his 70's who looked like he'd been living in his sailor suit for a fortnight began harassing the grandmother we were following. He kept shouting in German and Croatian, _All is not good in the world! She is not good! Do you hear me?_She asked for help from a policeman who ignored her, us, and the drunk man walking straight past us along his merry way. When we arrived at her place, her key didn't work so we were stuck in the alley with a non-English speaking sweet old woman and a schizophrenic, drunk, sailor intent on making her day a living hell. He began shaking on her apartment doors yelling, _idiota policia, idiota policia, alles ist nicht gut!_ Perhaps she and he were lovers we wondered. How could anyone be so hostile? He grabbed her by the arm and made a motion to hit her in the face. I moved towards the door speaking to him in German and Croatian (incredibly inarticulate) trying to distract him. We had no idea what either one of them were saying. He became distracted and began pacing back and forth again.

A few moments after she called someone on her cell phone, a 6 foot ten rather fast Croatian man in gold chains and a white tank top came flying around the corner and in one swift movement had grabbed the old man by his shoulders and thrown him into the door. I'll leave the rest out due to the violent content but needless to say, mom and I were a bit shaken.

Moments later, we pleaded with the young man to leave the old man alone. _I am so sorry, I am really sorry, she is my grandmother, I just get a phone call and didn't know what was going on...I thought my grandmother was dead. If anyone hurt my family, I kill them._

He was indeed her grandson and he ended up being a college basketball player studying in the U.S. He'll be playing with Chicago State and may be with the NBA one day.

I have seen so much violence in my life on the movies and on t.v. but seeing it in person towards another human being is another thing. I can't imagine that violence can ever lead to anything good, though I do understand the need to protect one's family. The grandmother was traumatized by the old man, the old man was traumatized by the young man, the young man was traumatized by his own anger and fear, and we were traumatized by the whole thing.

We're now in a much more peaceful place. We took a ferry to an island in the Adriatic Sea named Hvar. It has passed through no less than the Illyrians, Greeks, Austrians, Romans, Venetians, Austrians, and the French in the past 1400 years. I can say with all honesty that I have probably never been in a more gorgeous town in my life. The landscape and architecture evokes Venice, the colors and light evoke the mediterranean. We walk along small streets carved from limestone, shuttered windows the color of rose and turquoise, flowering geraniums spilling out from the windows. Our room has double doors which open out onto a garden of grapes, lettuce, roses, and lemon trees. The lemon tree blossoms scent the air in the afternoon when the air warms up. We can look across the town across the shimmering azure sea and watch sailboats traveling between the islands. A wide promenade carves around the town where sailboats bob up and down with the water and people roams along the plaza a dusk. The buildings are all bleached from the sun and of the same limestone, worn slick and smooth from centuries of merchants and travelers.

It's absolutely stunning.

Tomorrow we will rent a moped and travel up through the lavender fields. Tonight we'll buy a cheap bottle of Croatian wine, goat cheese, fresh bread, and chocolate.

It's rough but somebody's got to do it.

Much love to you all, so many of you have been in my heart. You are all here with us!

much love, Rachel and Karen