For those who travel, and truly embrace the meaning of it and turn it into an act of peregrination, there is an art to it. Wherever it is that the Traveler chooses to go, it is endeavored in earnest and with interest. Perhaps the Traveler ends up in a location by chance, but often it is by choice; and these journeys can take us to places we often didn’t fathom we’d ever go.
Such is the case of my trip to Croatia. We’d been invited in the past, in fact, we’d been invited to travel there many times, but situation and circumstance had made it that we’d been unable to go previous to this year. The fact is, we’d been anticipating a trip to Italy with family, but that trip had fallen through, and because of that, we agreed to go to Croatia.
We were lucky; family of friends have a summer home in a coastal town in the Istrian Region, and with that came added benefits. We were with people who knew the language(s). They knew the roads. They knew the customs. We were a few steps up the ladder than those who are ignorant of the area. We also went in with the attitude of embracing the culture(s) we would be immersed into, and for that reason I should give a bit more background.
I grew up in a house where National Geographic was subscribed to; my paternal grandfather also had a subscribed, and we had shelves of hardcover National Geographics from the early days in the house. I had my nose between the pages of these
tomes from a young age. I marveled at the pictures of far-off locales and the people who lived there. Images of natives clad in nothing but a beaded belt intrigued me and of course, clashed with the Catholic upbringing I had. This is probably the start of my
pondering why it was “bad” for a person to be naked if all these people in National Geographic where naked; but that is a topic for another day.
I was fascinated with maps, from the state road map to the large pull-down world maps in school, to globes. I loved to read the maps, read about the places and imagine what it would be like to travel to these places. I fell in love with the idea of seeing the world, but there was more to it; I wanted to fall in love with TRAVEL. I wanted to plunge myself into the world of the people who live at these places, and so I have strived to do just that with
each trip I take. There is an art to it.
The first of the obstacles, whether imagined or not, is that of being the “Ignorant American” or “Ugly American”; I had always hoped it was a myth, but more and more, it appears that many Americans are perceived this way, and unfortunately, many prove it true. The battle to overcome this label begins with listening first, not being boastful, and being very aware that I am a guest in someone else’s home/city/country. The rest is easy if you can do that much.
One of the things I love most about traveling is talking to the “natives” and eating the cuisine of the area. I didn’t see or realize the importance of doing that when I was younger, but in the last 12 years, finding the local foods and trying them have been one of the things that I make sure that I do. Croatia was a treasure trove of culinary delights. The Istrian region is well-known for fresh fish and seafood. The squid I ate here was top-of-the-line, best-I-ever-had, melt-in-my-mouth delicious. I overindulged. I also overindulged in mussels. The Ćevapčići (pronounced “cheh-vahp-chi-chi”) is fantastic (though I enjoyed our host’s bacon-wrapped version the best). Fresh figs, grapes, tomatoes and a variety of other fruits are commonplace to find at the table, and many meals, even breakfasts are accompanied by Rakija.
The people of the area that we came into contact with were very friendly. We were exposed to many residents of the former Yugoslavia, and these are some of the happiest, most hospitable people I have met. People we just met invited us into their home, to sit at their table and eat a meal with them and have a drink; they even gave us going away gifts before we departed the country and extended invitations to visit them on the next trip to the area. How often do you run into that in the US?
My eyes were opened to the lives many of these people lead, including unimaginable hardships and tragedy at the hands of political maneuvering. Many of those we met were directly affected by the Serbo-Croatian War (1991-1995), and we saw scarring that remained from the fighting in the interior regions of the country. The phrase, “these are a proud People”, while cliché, fits those that we have met during all of our travels, but like Guatemala, the fighting and warring that occurred was still recent and many of the conversations we had about the subject carried a somber tone. We learned a lot about the people we met.
Our hosts, our friend M’s parents, hale from Macedonia and Slovenia, but moved to Sweden in the 1960’s when Sweden needed a workforce. M’s mother pointedly asked DH
and I about our ancestry, our views on current events and historical events, all in her effort to “get to know us better and who we were as people”; in turn, I asked questions as well. How can you get to know people without asking questions?
The most important lesson I have learned from traveling is to “Eat, Drink and be Merry”. When you plunge yourself into a new culture, embrace it, talk to the people, and eat and drink with them, you suddenly find that you’re very much at home where you are. If you stay holed up in your room, and stay away from the rest of the world, I believe that you won’t nearly be as satisfied with your trip.
The best part of perfecting the Art of Travel? Practicing it!