Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia – More Than Worth Writing Home About

I’m a fan of postcards. There’s something to be said for hand-written notes. Unfortunately I’ve learned from experience that only about half of them make it to their intended destination. In case my grandparents – who everyone in my family calls Nana and Lucky – didn’t get the postcard I sent from Croatia, this is their digital copy, minus the awe-inspiring, postcard-quality photo plastered on the front. Hopefully they’ve learned to access that new-fangled Interwebz technology by now.

Hello Nana and Lucky,

I’m writing this from Croatia. You would like it here, Lucky. There are plenty of fish waiting to be caught in the shallow, turquoise waters. Well, technically fishing is illegal here, but I’m sure you would find a way around that. Lots of pretty waterfalls, too.

One week left in Europe – I’m getting ready to return to the U.S. and find one of those ummm… job things? Apparently they’re pretty hard to come by these days. I think it’s where you perform services in exchange for monetary compensation. I’m not sure – I only know how to sightsee.

Miss you guys and hope you had a good summer,


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Digging Through Krakow’s Layers of History

In Krakow’s town square, leaning out the highest tower in St. Mary’s church, a rotating group of trumpeters play the Hejnat Mariacki, a Polish tune, every 15 minutes. In the past, the short song served as a cue to open and close the city’s gates. According to an American author’s book that was published in 1928, the tradition commemorates a trumpeter who spotted approaching Mongolian invaders in 1241. Warning the city, he sounded off with his trumpet atop the tower. Krakow closed its gates right before the Mongolians could penetrate into the walls. The trumpeter, however, was cut off mid-tune when one of the Mongolian’s arrows hit his throat. It’s a nice story that’s commonly fed to tourists. One problem: The American author’s account is totally false.

Some suggest the writer was a victim of a hoax. Others think he took what was generally accepted as a legend and tried to repackage it as fact. Either way, his version prevails today. Funny, my previous post was dedicated to how I was once convinced pictures are only a weapon of distortion. In the wrong hands, apparently words and explanations of the past can be just as unreliable – probably worse since tales can take on a life of their own and are more likely to be passed down to future generations.

Krakow is built on a lot history. Literally. Today the town square is more than 15 feet higher than it used to be because villagers built on top of older layers when they wanted to improve or rebuild the area. In one of the coolest museums I’ve been to in Europe, visitors can see a preserved section of the original, now underground square. In addition to witnessing the various foundations, there was a cemetery dating back to the 12th century and various exhibits illuminating Poland’s past. Seeing the layers and layers of history accumulating on each other around me, I thought about what I had learned about Poland and other cities in Europe. What parts would hold up to scrutiny? Like the trumpeter’s tale, would much of history, if sorted through and properly excavated, be revealed as a sham?

Of course, not everything is up for debate. There are certainly some undeniable facts about Poland. To give a brief history, the country was a huge empire in the 16th centuries, which is why much of European royal ancestry can be traced to its kings’ and queens’ bloodline. Once the country declined and lost several wars, it was split up between Prussia, Russia and Austria beginning in the late 18th century. That’s the plain truth, but zooming in and examining the smaller events that made up the rise and decline of the empire, there’s definitely ambiguity and competing versions of history.

The same can be said of Poland during WW2, something I was reminded of when I happened upon the Jewish quarter and Schlinder’s factory (the origins of Schlinder’s List). To some, even though he had bad vices like gambling and womanizing, Schlinder had pure intentions, some critics offer a less humbling view: Schindler was an opportunist who only wanted to make money.

At the end of the day, I guess what’s important is that Schlinder was a hero to many. As a tour guide said, many survivors that he helped hold the view that his intentions were ultimately irrelevant – that particular part of history wasn’t important to them. To them, the bottom line is that because of his actions, they were able to survive – nothing more, nothing less.

Lots to think about in Krakow – layers and layers of history accumulating – none of it neat and tidy.

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Poland – The Proof is in the Pictures

Say what you will about writers, but I’m skeptical of the average photographer.

For sharing memories of vacations, pictures are obviously great. But as far as an accurate account of traveling, I don’t put much stock in photography. Pictures from trips are used to whitewash over what actually happened. A lackluster night at a pub is turned into a piece of revisionist history when the flash of a camera captures people faking smiles and hugs. No pictures are taken of the overpriced beer or unfriendly crowd. Even I’m slightly guilty of this. I arrived in Warsaw fresh from a night sleeping on McDonald’s bench in Milan’s airport. Instead of snapping photos of my bloodshot eyes and crooked back (Italy really did me in), I slipped on sunglasses, put on a superficial grin and asked a stranger to take a picture of me in front of a monument.

That’s not to say I want to focus on bad times in my journeys. Frankly, those have been few and far between because backpacking around Europe has been such an incredible experience. Not to mention, happy subjects are more photogenic. Yet when trips become only a series of highs – only documenting what’s pretty and shiny – no wonder people think home is so bland. Maybe traveling isn’t the only time we do this. With the camera lens as a weapon of distortion, anything that’s negative is replaced by a more convenient version of reality, only compounding a manic nostalgia that leads to being stuck in a past that never actually existed. For me, the truth – or at least the closest I can get to it – only comes out when I’m typing (well, with the exception of a few humor articles I took liberties with for The Daily Aztec a few years back, but that’s another story). Photography isn’t a reliable means of remembering a trip, or so I thought.

Enter Jenn of Amsterdam fame. We met up in Warsaw. Just like in Amsterdam, we primarily spent time in parks (I swear she has an internal divining rod that locates large clusters of trees). Seeing the city through the eyes of a someone who’s passionate about photography, picture taking was redeemed in my mind. Jenn photographed everything – both beautiful and ugly. The parts of Warsaw that go unnoticed by most showed up on her camera roll. Bright, rickety fences, patches of graffiti on dilapidated walls, the reflection of clouds on a glass building – nothing got by her snapping finger. Like a good writer, she left nothing out and made the mundane interesting by dressing it up with interesting angles and attention to detail. I’m coming around to the idea that photographs can tell a credible story.

With the exception of the pictures of her holding an umbrella (I took those), Jenn took the above shots while we were wandering around. I wanted to include more, but I’m having a difficult time uploading them.

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Holy Beer in Bruges

A small town in Belgium where tourists often outnumber locals, Bruges doesn’t appear to have a lot going on at first glance. For this reason, I only planned on stopping through for a day – two days tops. I ended up staying for three nights. For primarily one reason: the beer.

That sounds bad. Unlike some who only visit Europe to party and consume a lot of alcohol (I’m looking at you Australia), I always make a point to explore a city’s various cultural offerings. Fortunately for me and the Aussies, Bruges best cultural offering is its suds. Not only is the white beer delicious, it’s also certifiably holy because trappist monks brew it. Legends surround many of the beers like Orval. To add to the mystique, many of the trappist beers can only be found in Bruges.

For this reason, anticipation along with the smell of cheese was heavy in the air when I walked into one of Bruges’ most famous bars, Bacchus Cornelius, with a few Aussies and a Canadian.

I can’t remember the name of the first beer we drank. But I won’t forget my first taste. I tipped the glass back and a small stream of liquid gently cascaded onto my tongue. It was then that a chorus of angels playing harps appeared from above, descending down from the most blessed of places just to let me know everything is OK and that life would work out one way or another.

As my new Canadian friend later put it, quoting the movie Beerfest, “I wish the beer were winter, so we could freeze it into ice blocks and skate on it and melt it in the spring time and drink it.”

After drinking two glasses, I considered selling all my possessions and joining the monks’ ranks. Seeing as how I’ve lost three articles of clothing and a few other material things along my journey, it’s possible my subconscious is steering me in that direction.

I just happened to be in Bruges for the once a year Procession of the Holy Blood, a religious festival devoted to a piece of cloth that’s said to have been stained with the blood of Christ. The first part of the festival involved an incredibly intricate parade featuring participants acting out scenes from the Old and New testament. I couldn’t imagine the sheer amount of planning that went into it. Among other things, sheep, camels and people dressed up in colorful costumes marched around the narrow cobblestone streets for more than three hours. Between the beer and festival, it wasn’t hard to find holiness in Bruges.

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Sagrada Família (Gaudi’s Church)

In Amsterdam, there’s a church right beside the world famous red-light district. Some wonder how it coexists with a place infamous for debauchery. Built in 1452, the church once sold advance repentances (basically a piece of paper saying you’re forgiven) to sailors right before they knocked on prostitutes’ windows. I guess the question isn’t how the two function alongside each other – how could they not? Not so much today, but definitely shades of codependency in that relationship at one point in time.

Through the Montemarte district in Paris, ascending the winding streets – past where famous artists like Picasso bartered for food with paintings – Sacre Couer is not only an incredible church, but the view from the steps is one of the best in the city.

I’ve seen a lot of churches in Europe. Often they’re one of the highlights of a city. Relics of another time representing the pinnacle of various styles like Roman and Gothic, architecturally speaking there’s a lot to admire. There’s also the stories behind the churches and how they came to influence the city around them. Some are rooted in fact – take the Amsterdam example I gave above. Others are the stuff of legend. In Munich, an architect apparently tricked the devil into financing the construction of the town’s church. Not too happy about being deceived, the devil left his footprint at the entrance of the church. The mark is one of the few things that survived World War II.

The images and explanations behind some of the lesser known churches have faded from my mind – an unfortunate side effect of seeing so many places in so little time. But nothing that Goudi touched in Barcelona – and his handprints are all over the city’s architecture – will leave my brain any time soon. Of all of his achievements, his church, Sagrada Familia, stands out as one of the best things I’ve seen in Europe. And it’s not even finished.

Construction on the church started in 1882.When Gaudi passed away in 1962, only a quarter of the church was finished.

The majority of his vision has materialized, thankfully (the estimated completion time is 2026). The architecture is so unique, so beyond anything I’ve seen. Rib-cage like ceilings.  Spires jutting off in several directions like tree branches. Mini suns imprinted on columns. The architecture style seems so surreal and otherworldly. But I was surprised to learn that most of Gaudi’s ideas can be traced back to something that can’t get more organic or traditional: nature.

Much of the church is modeled on minerals crystallizing or the layers in sea shells. The best of nature channeled into architecture made for great viewing. I sat inside for three hours – taking in each individual detail and letting everything else roll off of me.

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Burning Down the House in Budapest

When I was six years old I was named a honoree firefighter when my first grade class visited the local firehouse. 18 years later, I earned that award.

Yep, I may have stopped a small fire from breaking out in my hostel last night.

At 3 a.m. I awoke to the smell of something burning. I tasted smoke before it stung my eyes. Still, I half consciously tossed and turned. With heavy eyes, I saw the the outlet next to the bunk behind me was flickering red and yellow.

Seeing small flames, I came to the conclusion that going back to sleep probably shouldn’t be very high on my agenda.

I told the receptionist. He ran into the room and woke up five of the seven other people in the room. The two unresponsive stragglers were both passed out drunk in their respective bunk beds. They were right next to the outlet.

The receptionist and I tried to jar them awake. But no amount of poking or prodding did the trick. We repeatedly warned them they were in danger of catching on fire. The guy on the bottom guy bunk finally opened one red eye and slurred in a British accent “Hey, I paid my full night. I’m not moving.”

More hostel staff showed up. I left the room to let them deal with it. Once the small fire was contained, the staff informed us of the culprit: One of the guys had puked onto the outlet. A small part of the surrounding wall and floorboards were burnt. Who knows if it would have spread.

Ahh, the joys of hostels. An Englishman who couldn’t hold his liquor once again proves what I said in a previous post: There’s bound to be at least one person in every hostel who’s completely inebriated and causing problems.

Still, drunken people who put others in danger of being engulfed by flames and all, I really do love the hostel experience. And I feel like I’m not giving a very good picture of Budapest. There’s great nightlife and cool architecture. Not to mention, Turkish baths are all over the city – which if nothing else, are great for rinsing away memories of puke and any other physical or mental harm dished out by drunken travelers wreaking havoc in dorms.

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5755 Reunion in Bolzano and Lake Como

Without a doubt, traveling solo is the best way to go. It’s total freedom. Go where you want to go. Do what you want to do.

Feeling lonely? Meeting people is easier when you’re stag. Fellow backpackers going it alone are more approachable. Intrigued by the lone traveler, groups want to take you in like a stray puppy.

That being said, this one-man wolfpack needs to see familiar faces once in a while too, so I was excited to meet up with two of my former roommates for a 5755 reunion. Oh, to the uninitiated, 5755 is our old house number. I think the site has been designated as a cultural landmark since we moved out. Feel free to drive by sometime.

My former Aussie roommate Ben and his brother Sam just happened to be passing through Italy at the same time as me. Our former Italian roommate Armin had just finished his semester in Salzburg. We all met up in his hometown Bolzano, which is in Northern Italy. With such good timing, someone or something was on our side.

Then again, a true miracle would involve all seven of 5755’s former members – which includes a Saudi, German and several Americans – crossing paths. Might require a small fortune in airline fees, but I’m still holding out hope for the future.

The last time I saw Ben and Armin together more than one year ago, the police had just visited 5755. In a rush to clean our house before we officially left and said our goodbyes, we dumped the blackened remnants from a previous night’s backyard bonfire into a neighbor’s yard. They called the cops. I apologized to our neighbors. It was that kind of house.

13 months later, no brushes with the law this time. In fact, I would like to think we were all a little more mature – discussing literature and wearing monocles. Not exactly, but for all I knew the Aussies were referencing books. Understanding them individually is easy, but Ben and his brother together guaranteed a slew of indistinguishable words – for example, take the word “ending.” I thought I was fluent in Aussie, but apparently not. Their language evolves by the month.

My language problems were nothing compared to Ben’s hard time with German (even though Bolzano is in Italy, they primarily speak German because the area was once a part of Germany). When he saw a trash bin with the word “danke” across it, he asked Armin if “danke” meant bin. Since then, I can’t help but laugh every time I throw my trash in the “danke.”

Unlike in San Diego – where all he had to do is open his mouth and girls would excitedly say “OMG UR AUSTRALIAN!!!!?” – Ben had a more difficult time in Bolzano. Nice to see him come back down to earth. For the few that could understand him, he claims still got a few points for the accent, though.

For his part, Armin seemed pretty unchanged, which is a good thing. Same cool, easy-going guy who pretends to be both Italian and German. Italian when he’s talking about food – German when it comes to cars. He likes to sneak into places, especially in the U.S. – I often demand reparations for my country from him. If I had to construct a pie chart of how he spent his time in San Diego, nearly 50 percent would be shaded “aimlessly walking around at the gym and being late for things.” Being such an interesting person, I’m going to pen his biography. Joking aside, I can’t thank Armin and his family enough for being such great hosts.

Bolzano is a series of green hills at the foot of the towering Alps. Peaceful lakes, a small town square where everyone appeared to be in no hurry (now I know where Armin got his aimless walk from), vineyards flowing from the outskirts into the city like arteries – it was a welcome place to rest my head for a few days. But rest is hard to come by when you’re with members of 5755.

The combination of tweaking my back playing basketball, a few long nights out and more than 40 days on the road already meant picaresque Bolzano was starting to look like 5755 days of past – great times that took a toll on my body and mind.  Days when I constantly walked around like a sleep-deprived zombie.

The drink of choice for sleep-deprived zombies? Cuba Libre. It’s Armin’s trademark drink and our nights wouldn’t have been complete without it.

A 30-minute tram away, Armin’s family invited us to their second home further up in the mountains one afternoon. His parents prepared a delicious meal. We all took siestas in the shade. Given how tranquil it was, I had a strong urge to leave society behind, grow a Grizzly Adams beard and live in the mountains with my snowboard as my sole companion. I told Armin he shouldn’t be alarmed if he finds me squatting in his house this winter.

Another day, we watched Armin play Fistball. I kept laughing because the Aussies openly talked about fistball players they thought were cute – even right in front of their parents. Talking in Aussie speak, no one had any idea what the hell they were talking about.

Several days later, the successful 5755 reunion came to end. We dropped the Aussies off in Milan so they could catch a flight to Greece. Armin and I went to Lake Como for a night. Not much to write about, which isn’t necessarily bad. During the day, we drifted from gelato stand to gelato stand and enjoyed the lake. At night, I talked to a girl from France who’s majoring in publishing. We agreed to team up and publish my biography about Armin. Maybe this blog entry will be the first chapter?

The next night, Armin dropped me off at the airport as well. Not knowing when the next 5755 reunion will be, we said our goodbyes – sans cops this time. With seven hours until my flight, I cuddled up with my bag on a McDonald’s bench inside the airport and mentally prepared for Warsaw.

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