15 June 2008

This is Illyria, lady.

Given the cost of Internet in Euroland, my posts may start becoming more perfunctory, unless I am writing from a host's computer, which today I am not.

So. I think I said I would say something about Albania. It's probably not as bad as you think... how about that? It looks pretty much like everywhere else. The women are exceptionally beautiful, something I appreciated when I crossed into Montenegro, where, decidedly, they are not. I had a great time hanging out with Teni. He told me all about Albanian history and had some interesting opinions about things. Albanians believe themselves to be the descendants of the ancient Illyrians, who occupied what is now the former Yugoslavia in ancient times (I just wrote "is now the former Yugoslavia"... is that an anachronism or prolepticism?). Teni told me that what most Grecians, who think ill of Albania, don't know or refuse to believe is that they are actually Albanians themselves. Sounds pretty typical! Naturally, we went bar hopping in the evening and got drunk. I am starting to wonder if Europe isn't just a place where people are always either in cafes or bars and most likely watching football. Such a decadent place. At one point, I went down to a grassy bit next to the "river" (which looks like a sewage ditch) and attempted to show Teni the head stand yoga position. I failed. Later, I noticed that all my Albanian lekes fell out of my pocket in the process. The next morning, I went back, found them, and bought breakfast.

Crossing the former Yugoslavia was a bit grueling. I first took a minibus from Tirana to Shkroder, a town in the north of the country. I think that's how it's spelled. From there, I had to take another bus across the border itself into the world's second newest country, Montenegro. Montenegro is SLC wedged in between about five other SLCs. I had to bus-hop from town to town to make my way across it. Despite its size, this took all day. At one point, I met a Montenegrin from Chicago who said he works for Bank of America and is the President of the American Society of Montenegro or something. He was wearing a nice suit, so I believed him. He also told me how much the Montenegrins hate Serbs and Croats. Some VIPs showed up later, including a religious figure in appropriate apparel. I ended up around midnight in a place called Herci Novi or something, a town, like every other town in Montenegro, with a castle, a historic center, and a bunch of bars. I had intended on staying in Kotor, which has Europe's southernmost fjord (and, I suppose, a good alternative place to visit if you can't a-fjord Scandinavia haha), but the bus attendant told me I was better off going on to the end of the line. I hate him now, because I couldn't find any cheap rooms in Herci Novi and ended up paying a budget slaughtering 38 euros for a shitty hotel room that including a shitty breakfast that was mostly meat (I gave it up again because it was sickening me). I'm glad I didn't sleep outside, though, as I thought I might, because there was torrential rain, most of which leaked through the window into my shitty hotel room.

In the morning, I learned what I was about to face in Croatia when I had to pay an extra 2VCU to store my bags in the luggage compartment of the bus to Dubrovnik. Bastards! Upon arrival in Dubrovnik, I immediately set out to visit the old town (one of these days, I *will* get sick of old towns), which was once known as Ragusa and was a major rival to Venice during the Renaissance. Well, Dubrovnik turned out to be the ultimate overpriced FTT. It is very pretty but just completely overrun with camera-toting bus people (and cruise linering boat people). One saving grace were the city walls. I love walking around old city walls. Dubrovnik's are particularly well-preserved and from on top of them you get some lovely views of the expensive cafes.

After a few hours in Dubrovnik, I split for Split (Spalato in Italian), just barely missing the early bus because of traffic and resigned to the somewhat later bus, which deposited me in Split around 8 pm. So, I had two hours (until 10 pm, when the bus station luggage room closed) to visit the awesome remains of Diocletian's palace, most of which has been converted into a series of, you guessed it, overpriced bars and cafes for decadent Europeans to waste their money and lives watching football. Still, the palace is impressive, and I was lucky that the cavernous basement was still open. I've never seen a Roman ruin of such grandeur before, mostly because none of them are left. But this place, in its beautiful hugeness, is special, and I hope someday to go back when I'm not rushing across the Balkans like an idiot who can't plan trips.

At 11 pm, I caught another bus to Zagreb, the last place I wanted to go. But there was no other choice. I paid for a piss, I paid to store my bags on the bus, and off I went on an uncomfortable, mostly sleepless journey to the capital of Croatia. I arrived in the early morning and went to the information desk to ask about onward buses to Ljubljana. I was told in Dubrovnik and Split that I'd easily be able to get one and that they depart every half hour. The information lady, naturally, told me there's only one per day at 2 pm. Groan. What about a train? She didn't know. This is a problem in Croatia. The information people don't know anything about other cities. In Dubrovnik, nobody knew about buses out of Split. In Split, no one could tell me about onward transport from Zagreb. I think they should rename them "misinformation offices" and put a lowercase 'm' inside of a circle, instead of an 'i'. The lady in Zagreb was unfriendly, too, as were many people I had to deal with there. Anyway, I wandered in a 5 am daze around the city, looking for the train station, to which I kept being misdirected. I found a nice man who couldn't speak English but whose German I could just barely comprehend, and we went to the station together, since he was on his way to Belgrade. Luckily, thank you travel gods, there was a 7:50 am train to Ljubljana, Slovenia, and this I took, and now there I am.

My host here, Tamara, happens to work at the "hippest" youth hostel in town and, apparently, one of the 25 top places to stay in the world. It's a converted prison in which the rooms are former cells, each one renovated in a unique "hip" style by a different "hip" designer. It is a pretty cool place as hip youth hostels go, but at 19 euros a night, not a place I would deign to stay if I could avoid it. I have to say, too, that it bears out Ljubljana native Slavoj Zizek's observation that the relics of the Communist era have, in a strange way, become fetishized emblems of "the good old days" of Communism today (strange because of the brutality of the Communist system; you don't see this sort of thing happen with the remains of Nazism, for example)--so it is natural that a prison would be converted into a hotel. The current prime minister of Slovenia was even held here once, and he and his fellow inmate-comrades recently came to the hotel for an anniversary luncheon. I didn't see much of the city this first day, because I was tired and it was raining, but I did find one of Zizek's no doubt many offices in the Faculty of Philosophy building (he did *not* magically appear and sign my book, though), and I visited the "castle" (not so impressive). Ljubljana has been compared to Vienna, and I guess I can accept that. It is a little bit like Vienna on a small scale, with many pretty buildings, fountains, a river, and so forth. And, of course, bars--to one of which Tamara, a friend of hers, and I repaired when her shift at the hostel ended. There followed the usual drinking and dancing until 4 am (how do I keep letting myself get talked into these things?) after which Tamara and I went back to her place and slept until noon. Today, I meandered around the old town part of the city a little bit more, visited the city museum, and had the best falafel of my life at a little restaurant operated by a Palestinian. We had a nice chat, and then he charged me 3 euro each for two pieces of baklava. I paid, picked my eyes up off the floor, and went off to write this blog entry. Tonight, I'm overnighting it by train to Milan via Venice (groan again).

So much for perfunctory...

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