A Travellerspoint blog


There and Back Again

Fait accompli. We have made our journey around the world, and now we begin our journey to create the life we want to live from this point forward. In a lot of ways, it felt like the trip did not end simply because we were in the United States. Some of this was real--once we returned to Chicago, we immediately set out on a family vacation to S.C., something we have wanted to do, but could not for lack of vacation time. But in a more emotional sense, we were still completely unsettled for the month of June. No jobs, no home, and no knowledge of what was in store. A lot of choices needed to be made, unsure if they were really going to get us to where we wanted to be. It was much like the uncertainty of travel, but felt like a much larger test of our faith. We had finally reached the moment of truth: had we changed our lives in the way that we had hoped for?

As I had hoped, a new job in the veterinary field was not hard to come by. Interviews that I had begun in France came to fruition, and in the end I had multiple job offers to choose from. I now work exclusively with feline patients, my favorite pet of all. We found an apartment in the city, on the 23rd floor overlooking Navy Pier. Jenni is pursuing yoga as a full time career, rather than as an add-on to the wine business. It is everything we dared to hope for before we razed life as we knew it--and that every piece fell exactly into place is nearly surreal. We have had the loving support of friends and family throughout the entire experience. It was a joy to know that so many people not only supported our endevour, but were as sad as we were to see it come to a close. We owe huge debts of gratitude to both our parents for their support in pet-sitting and allowing aged children to move back in until we could jump off again into independent living.

We turned crazy into courageous simply by having it all work out.

Did I say fait accompli? Ludicrous. The journey continues. I am now in the great City of Chicago, a life-long suburbanite living in a completely urban setting. I don't know how to use the public transportation, need to learn the street names, and still don't know the best places to have a cup of coffee or a fine dinner. Everything is new, exciting, and engaging. My batteries are at full capacity, and I can't wait to begin using that energy in creating my new life (for example, joining Alliance Francaise to keep my French from sliding away again). All through the trip I would tell people I was from Chicago (after all, who has ever heard of Lisle?), but in truth I am a stranger here myself.

"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time" (T. S. Eliot). I can't think of a greater truism for this journey. Time to get back to exploring--the only difference is I will be earning less air miles.

Posted by Stravaigin 08:52 Comments (0)

Mon Sejour En France

Wine, Crepes, and Language; Oh My!

France. We arrived here four weeks ago; it was the last major country on the itinerary, and purportedly my Piece de Resistance. We arrived in Nice, haggard from our travels across eastern Europe at a pace that would have done General Patton's Third Army proud. And we had yet to reach our true objective: Sancerre. As I have mentioned before, we were tired, ill-prepared, and a little lack-luster in our tourism skills in Nice. We plodded along to the next city, Aix-en-Provence. While there, Jenni finally exclaimed that I seemed to be no more engaged with exploring France than with any other country. What was going on? She thought I loved France. Where was Jim the Francophile? She had cried to have her feet on Terra Italia--where my tears of joy? The only sniffle I'd produced was because of the poor weather; I was still consuming cappucino and gelato like an Italian.

I had to admit, she was right. It was simply tourism in a place where I had a better grip on the language. I felt a need to defend myself. Sure, I had studied the language, but that was 20 years ago. I had only been to France one time before, for two weeks, and pretty much as a tourist who had come to Paris and Normandy to see the big sites. She had been to Italy multiple times, had been shown the culture by locals, and had even enjoyed Italian culture imported to U.S. in the form of wine and the people who make it. Many of her friends are into Italy, as well. She knew when to have a cappucino and when not to. In France, I hadn't a clue about customs and traditions. In the U.S., I had lived in a French vacuum. My French language skills were as dull as a Dollar Store knife. We moved on to Lyon, and I still remained blase. People told me my French was pretty good, but when they switched to English, I figured it was because they couldn't stand to hear me mangle thier native tongue. (As it turns out, they think it is a great opportunity to practice thier second language.)

Finally, we arrived in Sancerre. My classes started, and I began to recall my French by the bucket-load. I relearned the rules of gammar, enabling me to remember why a certain phrase was correct and build from there. I recovered and learned French idioms that defy translation. I was able to have my questions answered by people who were there to help me get it right. And I was able to ask questions not just about the language, but about the French. My interest in France had been a seed, dormant for 20 years. I had finally returned to French soil, planted it, and watered it with scores of gaffs, blunders, misunderstandings, compliments, cafe and wine. My Francophilia flowered.

I haved learned not only the language, but social etiquette as well. There is no such thing as breakfast; the French wait until lunch and then take two hours to eat. In the French language, breakfast is the petit dejeuner--little lunch--and that is exacly how they treat it: a morning snack so you can make it until lunch. There is no place to eat a sit-down brekkie, and there are no stores open between noon and 2 pm; the French are at lunch, and you should be, too. Dinner is at 19:30 (that's 7:30 pm to you and me); don't bother arriving before then because they will not be ready for you. Cafe au lait is for drinking at home; if you are out you should order a creme cafe, or better yet, an espresso. Red wine is for cheese; sweet wine doesn't work. (OK, so nobody's perfect.) You can order a coffee with dessert, but the coffee will never arrive until after you have finished your dessert, because that is the way it is done. And if there is a holiday, most everything is truly closed, so plan accordingly.

Now that it is time to go, I wish I could stay. Three weeks in Sancerre have allowed us both to take a well needed rest, and yet remain immersed in French culture. I spoke the language daily, both with the help of my teachers, and will many friendly, impromptu corrections from the villagers of Sancerre. Coeur de France has been an excellent experience, and one I intend to repeat. Without a car, there was little chance to seek the Loire Valley in its entirety. But for the two weekends we had here, we were able to visit Bourges and Chavignol, see a gypsy jazz guitar concert with my professer in Saint-Satur, teach two yoga classes "en francais," and get a taste of Brittany via a local fair (Celtic France--a new "must go" destination for me). And speaking of tastes, let's not forget the wine and the cheese!

In the end, what is most important to me is to not lose all of the ground I have gained. I want to speak French at home, and to that end I intend to join Alliance Francaise in Chicago. I have made friends with people all over the world while at school here, and with any luck, not only can I keep in touch, I can do it in French. Coeur de France will also be offering classes via Skype soon, so I have a chance to learn more as well as keep in touch with the fabulous teachers I have had the pleasure of meeting here (special thanks to Marianne and Gwendoline, plus Laurie and Anne-Cecile!). Plus, there are so many reasons to come back to France: Brittany, Langdoc, Champagne, and further explorations of both Provence and the Loire Valley. I might not cry the next time I am in France, but I will certainly not lack for enthusiam.

As General MacArthur would say, "Je reviendrai!"

Posted by Stravaigin 08:49 Archived in France Comments (0)

You Can't Rewrite History

But you can make a Director's Cut Special Edition

As we settle into Sancerre, a sense that the trip is completed has already begun to pervade the feel of the days here. We have an apartment, we are cooking our own food, and we need to begin thinking about subjects like resumes, interviews, and a return to Chicago to begin our new life.

The fact that the trip is over is not exactly bad. Instead of bemoaning a resumption of quotidian life, it feels more like a "fait accompli." Now, with fully recharged batteries we can return to a more organized way of living. It was the life break we wanted and needed. And at some point, I'm sure we will do this again, in some form.

Which led Jenni and me into an abstract conversation of "if we knew then what we know now, what would we change?" The whole trip has been an adventure, with some parts more rugged than others. If we could smooth out some wrinkles, what would we do different? Well. . .

First of all, I would not forget there is an international date line! We lost an entire day that we planned to have in Fiji because January 18 did not exist for us. In the long run, it turned out fine; we felt like we had enough time in Fiji, and were reluctant to spend more money on day cruises and getting out on the ocean--which is exactly what you should be doing in Fiji. Oh, I would also buy a hat immediately!!

Australia was just about perfect. The only thing I could have asked for was more time. More time to spend with friends, old and new, more time to visit Brisbane and Melborne, and more time to prowl the gorgeous countryside of Western Australia. I would make being in Western Australia a larger part of the trip and would probably stay in Freemantle instead of Perth. My main regret in Perth was not knowing about the Fringe Festival that was taking place. First of all, it would have been nice to plan on attending some events, and secondly, I would find sleeping arrangements that were not smack in the middle of an all-night-party (I'm getting too old for this shtuff).

There are also no regrets about Bali except time. I loved settling into Ubud and experiencing "full-immersion yoga" with Jenni. It was a peaceful, restful moment in the trip (once I resigned myself to the climactic experience I was having). I enjoyed returning to a daily agenda of physical excercise. I liked the cuisine, but missed good wine and beer. I would have loved more time to explore the whole island, and to stay in different Balinese towns. Lastly, I will never again bring a full suitcase to Bali. All I need is clean underwear--then I will buy a complete wardrobe of Batik shirts and lightweight pants!

Which brings us to India, the most complicated equation of the trip. If I had never been to India, I would still want to go, but having gone I never really want to go back. We had envisioned it as an economical leg of the trip, but the veritable necessity of traveling on a tour was a financial complication we had not envisioned. It was an incredibly powerful moment of the trip for us, but not like we expected. The best analogy I can give is this: It is like seeing a gold coin in the bowl of an unflushed toilet--having the coin is precious, but you would prefer to forget the whole method of acquisition. Personally, I'm really glad to have that coin, but it was one hell of a dip!

In Turkey, time again became the major opponent. Istanbul was lovely, but we did not have the time to leave the city and explore more of Turkey. Someday soon we will return to smoke a hookah, visit mosques, buy many more souvenirs, and see all of the things we wanted to but didn't. Turkey has become a top priority for a return visit.

Our race across the Balkans was both fun and fatiguing. We enjoyed the spontaneity of the time, and the discovery of numerous places that "were not on the radar." It gave us a wonderful taste of Macedonia and Bulgaria, and makes me want to explore those countries fuller, as well as add Slovenia, Montenegro, and the rest of the Balkans to my "places to see" list. For this trip, however, the journey was very rushed, and it might have been better to simply fly from Istanbul to our ultimate desination:

Croatia! Croatia was everything I wanted it to be. Dubrovnik was beautiful, Split was lovely, and the coastline was gorgeous. I was able to track down something of my family's past (small as it was) and be recognized as "from here," even if only vaguely. When we go back to Croatia, I would make two small adjustments. The first is to rent a car (cost prohibitive for us on this trip) and visit all of the smaller but equally gorgeous villages along the Dalmation coast. The second is to be in Croatia in September, when most of the tourists have gone back home but the ocean is still warm enough for swimming. Cruising the coast in a chartered ship wouldn't be a bad idea either!

Italy, sadly, hardly deserves a mention as part of our world tour, since we were there so little. I enjoyed seeing one of the few cities (Trieste) left in Italy that Jenni hasn't seen already, and sharing the novelty of the place with her. I also enjoyed picking up one of the last Major Tourism visits in Italy that I have not seen: Cinque Terre. My return reminds me that Italy is a strong contender for the Most Civilized Culture in the World: awesome coffee, superior wine, and delicious cuisine. Jenni, overwhelmed to be in her ersatz terre natale, spent our pathetically brief four days in country on the verge of tears of joy to be in her Heart Land.

France has been wonderful as well. Unfortunately, its position at the end of the itinerary has made it more of a challenge than I would have wished. Road-weary and mentally exhausted, Using the Language now felt like an additional Travel Task rather than a pleasure. We also began to slide in our savvy travel skills. For the first time in the trip, we did not have a guidebook for the place we were visiting. (OK, we didn't have one in Italy either, but with Jenni around that did not matter.) It made for a sloppy and more expensive visit in Nice than was necessary. We missed a couple of things we would have liked to have seen, and had to curb some of our indulgences (champaigne, anyone?) as we began to worry about our finances. (It is hard to travel in a place that caters to the Rich and Famous when you are neither.) Nevertheless, the south of France was beautiful, and will be worth a return visit when I am a fresh and excited voyager. But as Don Henley might say, "I'll bring more money, cuz everything's more expensive in France."

Whether any of these lessons will be applicable to our next long trip is anyone's guess. It was a very ambitious undertaking, and a vigorous workout of our travel skills. Worth it? Hell, yeah! Something we'll repeat? Time will tell. I think our next long-term voyage will have different priorities: cultural immersion, creating a sense of homelife where we are, and leaving with a feeling of having stayed, not just having been, somewhere else.

None of the above is intended to imply that I wish we had done this trip differently. Everything, from the mistakes to the successes, have been part of the learning curve. When all is said and done, I am proud to have done this trip. It won't bring me fame, and it certainly hasn't done anthing positive to my fortunes, but it is an achievement that reminds me that life is for living, and that is what I am going to do.

Posted by Stravaigin 06:02 Comments (0)

The Third Day is the Charm

Or, how travel is a little bit like sex

Most of the miles are behind us, and most of our itinery is completed. We are, in fact, a little road weary and are looking forward to settling down in Sancerre for three weeks of French classes. The idea of not having to pack our bags again for awhile is welcome. But with most of the trip behind us, we have begun to reflect on the overall adventure, and have made a few discoveries about how we like to travel.

First and foremost, let me say that we are still married. It has been 114 days of 24-hour, no-decision-made-alone, usually-it's-wrong, nothing-is-familiar living. Usually I say "the things a couple does apart are as important as the things they do together," but here that has just not happened. We talked about days of independence, but in truth, they just never materialized. In general, I do prefer to travel with someone, but also realize that traveling together can be more rough than living together--even when the trip is short: just 1 or 2 weeks. That we have been doing this for months speaks well for the tolerance of my Amore.

When we set out, we thought this was going to be a languid trip of exploration. Rarely has this been the case. Time has flown by leaving us with less time to relax than we had thought. India and the Balkans we notably rushed, moving frequently. Every day is Day One. Day One is very exciting, but very frustrating. Everything is new, with nothing to compare too. Where is your hotel? Where is a good restaurant? Does anybody have a map?? It is intense, in your face travel that is both exilerating and exhausting. Day Two is often not much different, but at least you know where your hotel is! These parts of the trip left us drained, although in the moment we were very excited to have seen so much.

Even more pleasurable have been the times when we stayed put. Sydney, Bali, Dubrovnik, and hopefully Sancerre, were completely different experiences. We stayed for five or more days, in the same hotel, in the same neighborhood, and were able to explore every nook and cranny of our new little world. This is counter to my previous travel M.O., which is to see as much as possible in the time allowed. We found places we liked, and became "regulars," if only for a few days. The shop owners began to recognize us and greet us. We could spend a few hours just loitering and not feel like we should be using the time to perform tourism. We learned the public transportation system, discovered how to tip, and learned a few extra words of the language. We could have the same dish in more than one place to see how they compared. By Day Three things begin to feel like home, without a surprise lurking around every corner.

As I began to ponder these experiences, I began to feel like each new city was a new sexual partner. The first time is wild and crazy, but a little awkward. It leaves an indellible impression, but the whole encounter is a little stressful. The second time is a little better, but mostly like the first. By the third time, you begin to get in the groove. You have discovered a few things that work, and a few things that didn't. You can try the successes out again, and see if they are as good as you first thought. You have learned how things work, and can get from A to B so much easier. In the end, the familiarity leads to a much better experience, and while it might be less intense, it is much more fulfilling.

In France, many of our stays have been in the 3 to 4 day range. I began to joke that, around Day Three, we had figured the city out so it must be time to move on. It is a comment born out of slight frustation; if we didn't need to get to Sancerre for my classes, I would have prefered to stay in many of these places much longer. Jenni has a term for it: she says that long term travel really is not about moving from place to place, but rather about the Sojourn--taking the time in one place to soak up the feel and vibe of where you have gone. It is knowing the best restaurants, having a few acquaitances, knowing the bus schedule, and even having a multi-use pass for the public transportation. It is being in place so long that it could be home, at least for a little while.

As Jenni points out, my Sojourn is just beginning. We will return to the United States, but not to home. Right now, there is no home: just a dream of living in the heart of Chicago. I'll need a place to stay, and probably even a map. There will be bus schedules, CTA passes, and the quest for the best coffee shop. And Day One will be more like Month One.

It gives Sex in the City a whole new meaning.

Posted by Stravaigin 09:29 Comments (1)

Rooting Around in Croatia

Letters and Pronunciation Marks

While it is always cool to travel to new countries, it is especially cool to go to a country that your family has emigrated from. For me, I have a number of choices, since my background is a mix of Croatian, Bohemian, Belgian, German, and Welsh. The first three are the main heritages, and there is probably only enough Welsh in me to fill my big toe. I have been to Wales and Bohemia (now known as the Czech Republic), but Croatia would be the ridgy-didge, as my last name is Croat in origin.

Sadly, geneological record-keeping is not a familial strong point, so I rarely have anything to pursue when I head off to Europe. Even on this trip, knowing I would be definitely heading to Croatia, I had no plans but to say I'd been there.

Dubrovnic was beautiful, and since I had no evidence to the contrary, I wanted to claim it as "home." As we headed up the Dalmation coast we stopped in Split, and planned to stay in Zadar to visit the northern end of the region. At dinner I opened an email from my dad, with an old letter from my great uncle attached. The address was from Rijeka, and dad wondered if we were close. Close?! We were going to pass right through Rijeka! We changed our plans to pass through Zadar and stay in Rijeka instead, then drank two bottles of rose to celebrate. (OK, we would have drank two bottles of rose anyway--it was damn good.)

After a hangover and a bus ride, we arrived in Rijeka. Dad forwarded a few more letters to help. We found a place to stay, wrote down the address, and I dreamed of at least seeing the house where my great uncle had posted these letters. I had no context at all; my dad had found them in a box, and had no idea who they were to or what they said (being written in Croatian). But the postmark was from 1953, the country was still called Yugoslavia, and it was the closest I have ever come to performing some geneological archeology in the home country. We even tried to get our waiter to read them, but the hand writing was too poor.

In the morning, we walked to the bus station and found a cabbie. As we traveled to the mystical place of Radetici 112, Jenni and I joked that all we would probably find was an empty lot, a massive apartment complex, or a new Gas-and-Sip. Instead, there was still a little neighborhood, 12 km outside of central Rijeka, with wonderful view of the Adriatic Sea. Our cab driver pulled into the neighborhood, but could not find the street. He asked for directions, and asked again. Finally, we found the street. We turned down it, and began counting up from 1. When we hit 21, the road ended, severed clean by a new highway. We circled around, hunting for 45 minutes all told, until we finally conceded defeat. We returned to more regular touristic pursuits, and ended the morning with a cappucino at the local castle.

In the moment, the whole thing was rather anticlimactic. Still, it is the closet I have ever been to my roots, and while walking around central Rijeka I couldn't help but think that if my ancestors had not moved to America, this place might be home. Furthermore, it was fun to be in a place where my last name was recognized as "one of ours." When people ask me if I'm Italian, I can explain it's just the Croatian cuisine that makes it seem that way. I now doubt that my last name might have been spelled or misspelled -icih, and I now know how to put the pronuncination marks over the c's.

It's pronounced Anto-nee-chich, by the way.

Posted by Stravaigin 00:34 Comments (0)

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