A Conservationist Abroad #9


by Emily Sloan, ‘05
Stepping onto the night train to Vienna, I finally felt like a European traveler. I dozed off and awoke to find myself explaining intricacies of English grammar to a Sardinian college student. Searching for the bathroom at 3 am, I ended up interpreting for a young Canadian woman, in Europe for the first time, who was immensely concerned about an elderly lady from the former Yugoslavia who was standing in the hallway and muttering unintelligibly to herself. Did the lady need a sleeping berth, the kind Canadian wanted to know, because there was an extra one in her compartment. No, the older woman explained to me in heavily accented French, in fact she had a berth of her own, she simply couldn’t sleep. The excitement of travel, the pulse of movement. I felt it, too.

My Christmas break took me first to Vienna, Austria, where I stayed with my mother’s first cousin, Margaret. She lives in the 23rd District, the outskirts of the city, in a recently-constructed “green” house, with radiant heating, a rooftop garden and an exterior wall entirely made of glass. My friend Elizabeth, whom I met at the University of Montana and who now teaches in Prague, joined us for Christmas dinner. She shared my horror at the throngs of ritzy tourists in the city center, the uber-pricey cafes and the melodramatic plot of the Strauss opera that we sneaked out of after the first act (feeling that, in any case, we’d gotten enough for our two euro standing-room tickets).

Elizabeth and I then took off for Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, by early-morning train. Although I’d heard that the southern Dalmatian coast was the place to go, we unfortunately didn’t have enough time to make the day-long bus trip worthwhile. But Elizabeth was determined to see the sea, after an autumn in grey and gloomy Prague, and so we set off to the Istrian Peninsula in western Croatia. If it wasn’t the ideal tourist season, so much the better, we thought. Less kitsch, more authenticity.

We spent a tame day and night in the scenic but touristy town of Rijeka, ogling the strange fruit trees and admiring the sunny Adriatic. “Who goes to Croatia in December?” we chirped from our bus seats. “We do!” We were en route to Rovinj, a smaller town on the west coast of the peninsula that one of Elizabeth’s ESL co-workers had described as “paradise on earth.” There was talk of accommodations agencies, tourist offices, old women with “pension” signs awaiting incoming buses,”zimmer frei” notices dotting the alleyways, plus the names of a contact person and a hostel scrawled in my new moleskin notebook.

The bus deposited us in Rovinj at 7 pm. Thus far, most of the Croatians we’d met seemed to speak excellent English, once we shelved our pride and actually asked for help. But when faced with the hostel name and address in my notebook, the lady at the bus depot info counter could only say “Walk that way…to center,” and point to my right.

And so we walked, but the streets surrounding the “center” did not include the one we were looking for. Elizabeth inquired first of a cafe waitress and then of a passing young gun, who said, “Come,” and then proceeded down a dark, narrow cobblestone street at breakneck speed before pointing vaguely to the left and huffing off. Our sought-for street emerged at last, but when we found the right number, there was no sign of a hostel of even of “zimmers” being “frei.” After mustering up the courage, I knocked on the unmarked door and was answered by a matronly Croatian voice. I understood only the trace of menace and mild annoyance that it bore. “Hello!” I called through the still-unopened door. “Is this the Hostel ——?” “Nichts,” she said curtly, then “Ciao.” “OK,” I shouted, “Ciao.”

Well, that was one option mysteriously but most definitely out. I suggested we walk around and look for signs, but this idea seemed to vex Elizabeth, who had been given the name of a friend of a friend who lived in Rovinj, which we decided to use as a last resort for possible housing. We sent a text message, briefly explaining who we were and rather ungracefully asking for a room for the night. With no sign of response and the batteries on Elizabeth’s cell phone prone to frequent failure, we set off in a new direction.

Aside from some occasional deafening booms (firecrackers?) and the bustle inside a large white tent where people were sharing some congenial dinner, the town was quiet. And contrary to my assumption, signs announcing rooms didn’t seem to exist at all. We soon found wandered into a large, open square. At the far end, two women were chatting at an illuminated bread kiosk While Elizabeth fumbled with her cell phone, I ventured, “D’you think we should ask about rooms at the bakery cart?” “Yeah!” she replied, and we bravely crossed the square.

“Dobra-den,” I said somewhat sheepishly in Croatian, then let Elizabeth take over. Her language skills were quite strong, in Slovakian, that is, which is about as similar to Croatian as Bolivian Spanish is to Portuguese, say, vaguely familiar but largely incomprehensible. And so the women quickly asked if we knew Italian or German, common second languages in Croatia, as they’re spoken by the majority of tourists there. “Un poco,” I responded, but soon realized that I’d retained almost nothing from the brief beginner’s courses I’d taken in the distant past.

So I mostly stood there, wearing my over-sized blue backpack and laughing, as Elizabeth did her best to explain our predicament to these women, one of whom worked inside the kiosk, the other a customer. No pensions were open this season, they claimed. The hotel was open but cost 500 kunas per night (about 83 U.S. dollars and way too much for our measly budget). The customer, a stylish woman of about fifty in a long spotted fur coat, used her cell phone to explain our situation to Elizabeth’s undoubtedly confused contact person. Then she waited 15 minutes at the kiosk for the contact to call back with his report. No, he couldn’t find anything. If we’d only given him a few days’ notice…

“No preoccupado,” the customer assured us, and then the bakery lady offered us a room in her house. “I have two sons,” she beamed at us. “Perfetto!” I quipped.

Shortly thereafter, munching some complimentary cheese sticks from the kiosk, we followed bakery lady’s Son Number One around the corner, down yet another cobblestone street, through a dark wooden door and up three flights of stairs to a smoky room with a huge TV, small kitchen (complete with a dirty frying pan in the sink) and unmade double bed. Quite clearly this was Son Number One’s bedroom, and we were temporarily appropriating it. For the moment, however, he didn’t seem to mind; after spreading a sheet over the bare mattress and putting on some Croatian music, he led us down the cobblestones to a restaurant, gliding on his motorbike as we scurried alongside, and then revved the motor and zoomed away with a gruff wave of his hand.