Sunday, May 14, 2006

from Zagreb: thoughts about train travel

I had only once traveled to Yugoslavia when it was, well, Yugoslavia. On my way from Poland to Italy, I stopped at Ljubljana, counting the minutes until I could set foot in my beloved Italy.

Then, when I married some thirty years ago, I took on a last name that is Croat to the core. I’ve kept it and liked it. Especially when it isn’t misspelled as “comic,” though even that forces a smile out of me.

These are good enough reasons to do a family vacation in Dubrovnik, the southern-most city of Croatia.

I had been warned about the train trip from Italy into Slovenia and Croatia: be careful. Do not travel at night. Hold on tight to your belongings. [Perhaps I should have been warned as well about train travel through Switzerland where indeed I did somehow let go of my passport.]

My first leg of the journey is in fact to Ljubljana and the train to it is spiffy. One of the few I've been on with electrical outlets for computer use.

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train to Ljubljana

I had spent the entire morning shopping in Venice for food. I mean, it was for the pleasure of marketing and people watching as much as for the sustenance. I took one pause and one pause only, to eat, of course. I needed a rest after the strain of all that food viewing.

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purple, green and white

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arugula, porcini, parmesan

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a last nod to the children of Venice

I have with me now a chunk of bread (corona al olive – with green olives throughout) from a bread store, a bunch of small tomatoes, a radicchio head and strawberries from the open-air market, a big wedge of cheese (Caciotta Travisana – typical of the Veneto), a tub of green olives, biscottini con pistachio e aranccia, a small bottle of a white Cuvee di Pinot wine and a bottle of water. The problem is with the cheese. It is starting to smell. Right now, there are only three others in the train car. How soon before the smell wafts over to where they are sitting?

Soon. At the very first stop, the seat next to me is occupied by someone. Why? The car is 99% empty! I could get up, I suppose, but I am settled in. I do not want to be rude. Besides, I am fascinated. Typically, I am the one mocked for excessive fussiness. I handwash stuff when I travel. I clean shoes in watering holes. But my seatmate really truly did take out a white linen hankie to spread on the seat before sitting down. Her cream-toned pants are safe from whatever hidden microelements are on the leather seat.

Oh, now she is wiping down the table in front of us (state of table prior to wipe-down: immaculate – see photo above) with a tissue, which she then folds and places into a clean tissue so that she does not have to contaminate her hands with the used one. I feel better about myself already. I am a slob next to her.

And so now we are conversing. My seat mate is Croatian and I am getting the usual train warnings. Watch out for the ride from Ljubljana to Zagreb. That train has Albanians and Bulgarians. Dirty drunks! If they smoke, you tell them to go outside the compartment. And the train station in Ljubljana (where we have a two hour layover… where will she sit there, I wonder…): full of drunks. Oh dear. Suddenly I am thinking that my small bottle of Pinot, to accompany the foods described above will not go over well. I have no cup. Does drinking straight up put me closer to being one of them?

Later, in Ljubljana:

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the station

Perhaps my seatmate was right. Many bars, many in them looking rather down and out. Still, I do find a quiet one to sit in for a while. Oh, I need money. Fine. Is there a bankomat nearby (Europe-talk for ATM)? There is. I put card in and ask for some minimal amount. I get a thumbs up from the machine but no money. Try again. Same thing. I envision my account being drained of funds that I will never see.

Back at the station, another Bankomat. This one asks about the amount. My, those numbers look huge! 5000 is the smallest. Is that like a thousand dollars? I press it anyway. I need local cash. Wait, I don’t need local cash! This is NOT Croatia yet, it’s Slovenia. Damn! Why did I just get Slovenian money? I understand that Yugoslavia split into many smaller nations, but did they have to make up different currencies too? Here I am, holding on to $30 worth of Slovenian money. How much wine can one drink during a two hour layover anyway?

I sit and take out my computer. I need a friend.

Later, on the train:

The lady in white did not get on the Zagreb train. Was she lying about her destination? Was she a spy? A thief? Why did she sit next to me anyway? I’ve lived too long in America. I have learned to think this way about my own home regions (Poland, Croatia, we were all in this together once).

So many passport checks! Just for crossing the border from Slovenia to Croatia! Is this a good thing? Weren't they one country not too long ago? After the last check, I fall asleep. It is close to midnight and so I should be forgiven. But it is the train traveler’s nightmare to oversleep a station. And here I am, doing just that. I wake up to silence and stillness. The train is not moving.

All those warnings about not taking an overnight train because of robberies during sleeping hours and here I am, alone in the car, asleep.

Thankfully it is the final destination. I get off in Zagreb and tug my suitcase to the hotel, a place of great beauty and calm. And Internet access.