I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Montenegro: Let the Experience Breathe

 

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Driving south from Dubrovnik, we hit a border in less than an hour. In the next week, my punch-drunk passport will be stamped and stamped and stamped. While the unification of Europe has made most border crossings feel archaic, the break-up of Yugoslavia has kept them in vogue here. Montenegro declared independence from Serbia just a year ago. Presto! Another border. The poorer the country, it seems, the more ornate the border formalities.

By European standards, Montenegro is about as poor as it gets. They don’t even have their own coins. With just 620,000 people, they decided, heck, let’s just use euros. (And since it’s such a tiny place, the official Eurozone countries are willing to look the other way.)

Montenegro is pretty light on sights. But along its humble Adriatic coastline is the Bay of Kotor, with its delightful main town of Kotor. People love to call it “fjord-like.” (Too many people who say “fjord-like” have never really seen a fjord. If you’ve been to Norway, you know it’s rare that something routinely described as “fjord-like” is actually fjord-like. The Bay of Kotor, however, is worthy of the description.)

At the humble town of Perast, young Montenegrin swim-trunk-clad hunks riding little dinghies jockey to motor tourists out to the island in the middle of the bay. According to legend, fishermen saw Mary in the reef and began a ritual of dropping a stone on the spot every time they sailed by. Eventually the island we see today was created, and upon that island was built a fine little church.

Cameron and I hired a hunk, cruised out, and were met by an English-speaking young woman. (The language barrier is minimal here, as English is taught from first grade in school.) She gave us a fascinating tour.

In the sacristy hung a piece of embroidery — a 25-year-long labor of love made by a local parishioner. It was as exquisite as possible, lovingly made with silk and the woman’s own hair. We could trace her laborious progress through the cherubs that ornamented the border. As the years went by, both the hair of the angels and the hair of the devout artist turned from dark brown to white. Humble and anonymous as she was, she had faith that her work was worthwhile and would be appreciated — as it was today, two centuries later, by travelers from around the world.

I’ve been at my work for 25 years — hair’s doing fine so far. I also have a faith that it (my work, if not my hair) will be appreciated. That’s perhaps less humble than the woman, but, in that way…she reminded me of me.

I didn’t take a photograph of the embroidery. For some reason, I didn’t even take notes. At the moment, I didn’t recognize I was experiencing the highlight of my day. The impression of the woman’s loving embroidery needed — like a good red wine — to breathe. That was a lesson for me. I was already, mentally onto the next thing. When the power of the impression opened up, it was rich and full-bodied…but I was long gone. Hmmm.

Back in the town, I had a bijela kava (“white coffee,” as a latte is called here) and watched kids coming home from school. Two girls walked by happily spinning the same batons my sisters spun when I was a tyke. And then a sweet girl walked by all alone — lost in thought, carrying a tattered violin case.

Even in a country without its own currency, in a land where humble is everything’s middle name, parents can find an old violin and manage to give their little girls grace and culture. Letting that impression breathe, it made me happier than I imagined it would.

Hold the Mortar and Say Dubrovnik

 

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Pero Carević (a Dubrovnik B&B owner) and Cameron Hewitt (co-author of my Croatia and Slovenia guidebook — just out in its first edition) met me at the Dubrovnik airport. Coming in from France, I suffered a little culture shock. Life here had the same energetic metabolism…but cheaper jeans, smaller cars, more broken concrete, and almost no fat people. Pale meat, pale pickles, and pale “juice drink” — all part of a tentative stability and affluence following their devastating civil war.

Within a few minutes’ drive, we were parked at the towering base of Dubrovnik’s mammoth and floodlit walls. Pero walked me to his boutique guest house on a steep, tourist-free lane in Europe’s finest fortified port city.

Offering me some orakojvica (the local grappa-like firewater), Pero explained that he was wounded in the war but was bored and didn’t want to live on the tiny government pension — so he rebuilt his Old Town home as a guest house. Hoping to write tonight with a clear head, I tried to refuse the drink. But this is a Slavic land. Remembering times when I was force-fed vodka in Russia by new friends, I knew it was hopeless. Pero made it himself…with green walnuts. Giving me the glass, he said, “Walnut grappa — it recovers your energy.”

Pero described — holding the mangled tail of a mortar shell he pulled out from under the counter — how the gorgeous stone and knotty-wood building we were in suffered a direct hit in the 1991 siege of Dubrovnik. I didn’t enjoy touching it. The bedroom Pero grew up in was destroyed. His injury will be with him for the rest of his days. In spite of how those towering and mammoth walls were impotent against an aerial bombardment, life here was, once again, very good.

I took Pero’s photograph. He held the mortar…and smiled. I didn’t want him to hold the mortar and smile…but that’s what he did.

Algerian Blues

I was in a taxi heading to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. My driver, Ahmed, was Algerian. Last year he went home for a visit. I asked, “Did it make you happy or sad?” He said, “Sad.”

I asked, “What keeps the Algerian people down: the religion or the military?” He said, “In Algeria, it’s the military. When people are hungry, they get out of bed and think about feeding their family…not politics. We have no energy to find democracy. As long as the military keeps us poor, they will stay in power.”

Ahmed explained why he thinks the French are dealing with more post-colonial anger than the English. He said that the English really believed in “The Commonwealth” while the French just flat-out milked their colonies. The French ruled Algeria from 1830 until 1962. “When they left, we had terrible terrorism. A hundred thousand murdered. No one noticed. No one cared. It was considered a ‘domestic problem.’ Algerian terrorists were allowed to live in Germany, France, and Britain.”

I asked if he felt angry that the world stopped when 3,000 Americans were killed on 9/11 but no one noticed the hundred thousand Algerians killed in the generation before. (The issue of this disproportionate response to terrorism is one that many outside the USA consider, but almost no one speaks of in polite company.) Ahmed said, “9/11 happened on one day, the victims were rich, and you have cameras everywhere. In Algeria, we are poor and no cameras are allowed when there is killing. A hundred thousand can die and it is invisible.”

Ahmed explained how something good resulted from 9/11. Since then, Algeria’s terrorism (which includes al-Qaeda) is considered an international issue. “After 9/11, other nations stopped our terrorists from crossing borders freely and helped Algeria wage the high-tech battle at home. Since 9/11, things are much better. More peaceful.”

I asked, “Can a tourist like me go to Algeria safely now?” He said, “No.”

I asked Ahmed what the term “Islamist” meant. He said he never heard the term before 9/11. He said an “Islamist” is an aggressive and judgmental Muslim who believes, “I am right and you are wrong.” Ahmed said he was a modern Muslim—he could have a glass of wine and go to a disco when he liked. He could be my friend with no thought about my religion.

Ahmed asked if I thought Bush’s brother would be president and what I thought about Eel-hahar-eeiay (he couldn’t pronounce Hillary). I told him my political hopes.

As we pulled into the airport, Ahmed said, “I hope for a day when we discover life in space. Then we would see we are all humans together. My problem would be your problem. And your problem would be my problem. Then we might live peacefully together.”

A Perfect Storm of Travel Thrills — on the Dordogne

 

Steve Smith and Monsieur Lascaux 1999…2007

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On one Dordogne day, I enjoyed a perfect storm of travel thrills. A ritual for me and Steve Smith (co-author of my France guidebook) is to canoe down the Dordogne River. Last year, we actually charted a little river map for our guidebook — this year, we got to use it. (What we dubbed “Heron Gulch” still had its herons.)

Pulling our canoe up in Beynac, we hiked up to what stood over the village and river like the mother of all castles. And the lady of Beynac castle actually opened it up for our TV cameras (to the surprise of the local tourist board). It was lit by little oil lamps — puddles of light giving the spiral staircase a visual rhythm — just as in medieval times.

The attendant let me lower a huge plank door that opened up a treacherous little balcony high above the castle grounds. From that ledge, I got to reenact a goofy little speech (to our camera), which I imagine happened many times during the Hundred Years War. (This was the messy front, as England and France battled from roughly 1450 to 1550.) The local noble lord would gather his subjects together (after some dicey negotiations with military types much stronger then him) and declare, “Now you are French” or “Now you are English…deal with it.”

As we left the castle, its aristocratic owner (who so elegantly greeted us earlier) was sitting in a little glass room just inside the drawbridge, selling tourists tickets…making her living five euros at a time. On the way out, I saw her family name on a list of owners that went back a thousand years and included Richard the Lionhearted. Perhaps such is the lot of France’s 21st castle-owning nobility. (Perhaps, also, visions of selling tickets to commoners touring their grandfather’s palace is why the old wealth in American society is so afraid of an inheritance tax that seems logical to Europeans.)

Driving home, Steve and I stumbled onto the classic old farm we dropped in on 10 years ago. We pulled in, not knowing if the dear old man — whose wonderfully ruddy face made it (with Steve’s wonderfully cute face) onto our French phrasebook a few years back — was even alive. He was doing great, remembered us (thankfully, we sent him a copy of the phrasebook) and invited us back into his barn’s attic where we filmed ECU (Extremely Close Up in TV-production jargon) shots of the magnificent stone lauzes roofs characteristic of this region. The man’s name: Monsieur Lascaux. The famous copy cave, 10 miles down the road, is called Lascaux II. We now call our man with the stone roof Lascaux I.

Excuse Me While I Clean My Notebook…

Spain has fun with names. For instance, they call dried apricots orejones — now every time I look at one I’ll think, “Eeeww, big ears.”

One of my pet peeves is that Americans are the noisiest people in mellow and potentially romantic restaurants throughout Europe. The other day, back in Orvieto, I was jabbering away with some happy travelers I met with my guidebook when a local woman leaned far across from her table and gave us a classic “shhhhhhh.” Oops.

Spain has a class of educated professional workers whose wages can’t keep up with prices. They call them “Mileuristas” – meaning, the educated poor, earning 1,000 euros ($1,300) a month.

In Barcelona, we stumbled upon a small demonstration. The police were out in force — it seemed like there were more cops than demonstrators. I commented to my friend that this was not much of a disturbance. He agreed, saying, “Yes, but we like to demonstrate. When the Iraq war started, everyone was out. Barcelona was literally filled with people. The parade couldn’t happen. The streets were only people and nobody moved.”

Use what you design. Three times, I’ve stood up from my hotel toilet and knocked the phone hanging on the wall into the toilet. Anyone running a hotel should sleep in each room before renting it.

I had a nightmare. It was an Edvard Munch painting of 40 people walking their dogs.

For the rest of your lives, you’ll be reminded, “Don’t inflate your life vest until you’re out of the aircraft.” I don’t believe these life vests (or your floatable seat cushions) have ever been used in the history of aviation by a commercial jet “in the event of a water landing.” (Can anyone set me straight here?)

A Spanish friend of mine explained the “rule of seven nos.” When dealing with authority in Spain, you must ask sheepishly and meekly seven times – and get seven nos – before getting the go-ahead. In my TV production, this has worked many times.

Some Spaniards were lamenting the kind of leadership they felt was coming from Washington D.C. these days. We got talking about Clinton. Federico said, “Our king, Juan Carlos, is a whore addict…but nobody cares. He’s a very good king.”

Carrying around my European cell phone is like raising a child whose language I cannot speak. It makes all sorts of noises. I don’t know what to do. I just ignore them.

It occurred to me that if we all work together, we can change the pronunciation of gorgonZOla (pronounced like the lady your supermarket would) to gorGONzola. (Say it like Dracula. Say it like Juan Carlos.)

Pet peeve: a refrigerator motor disturbing an otherwise silent room. I get up in a midnight frenzy and find a way to unplug it. Last night I laid awake at 3:30 and realized I’m listening to a motor cool air.

The French are committed to the best holidays possible. To ease beach congestion, they split their country into three zones and stagger school holidays. In Spanish resorts they know which region of France is on holiday by who fills their beaches.

Traveling and seeing young families, you see how much in common parents have. I believe this is a huge step to peace and understanding between nations.

When I return home and give talks on Europe today, I think one theme will be, “Affluence channeled into good living.”

The Rolling Stones are coming to about the poorest country in Europe — Montenegro. Tens of thousands of kids are paying $50 each for tickets. The concert is sold out. I’m coming to Montenegro too…in just a few days…and nobody knows.