After a closer inspection of our Eurail tickets two weeks into our train travel, Adam noticed that for some reason we had first class train tickets, not the second class ones that we had paid for. We were immediately seized with elation and regret. What the hell have we been doing sitting in second class? We also realized with a slight pang that our overnight ordeal in Paris could have been avoided had we known that we were able to purchase first class tickets. But as Hemingway said, (and this will be the only time you will ever see me quote Hemingway), ˝Paris was always worth it.˝ We vowed to move up and take our rightful place in the train passenger hierarchy. We went to the first class counter at the Hamburg train station. No line. First class was paying off already. I looked at the long line of second class passengers and smiled smugly. We were feeling pretty special. It was too late to do anything about the night train, but no matter, the reclining seats ended up being comfy enough to get a decent night’s sleep in. We boarded the next train to Croatia 20 minutes after we got off of the night train. This was to be our first class debut. We walked through the second class cabin noting its myriad inadequacies in our minds. Through a glass partition we found our first class seats which were…exactly like the second class seats. There had to be some mistake. I checked the class on the door. It had an large “1” on it. We sat down confused but hopeful that some new amenity would present itself. I was expecting that upon our departure from the station balloons and candy might fall from the ceiling. Perhaps a pony in a party hat would march down the aisle so that we could ride him into the second class cabin and show them what they were missing. But none of that happened. We even had to pay for coffee and tea. The ride was pleasant enough anyway. It should be known that I am utterly enthralled with Bavaria. The scenery through southern Germany and Austria was riveting—I didn’t even want to go to the bathroom for fear that I would miss something good. Much the way that you don’t want to blink during an episode of Flavor of Love lest you miss some crazy bitch yanking someone’s weave out or crapping on the floor. For half of the train ride we were virtually in peace except for the guy who was exceedingly concerned about whether he would have mobile phone service in Croatia. Near the Slovenian border two old men who insisted on using their outside voices even though they were sitting right next to each other got on the train as well as an obnoxious child who was not told to be quiet because everyone loves kids, right? Kids playing loudly are sooooo cute, right? Note to parents who don’t know: No. Not everyone thinks that this is cute. In fact, some people conspire to trip these kids as they run up and down the aisle. From this point on the train ride was ridiculously slow.
Upon first impression, I didn’t think that I was going to much care for Croatia. The slow train, the infuriating encounter with the bitchy concessions lady at the smoke-filled train station, the dreary weather, and the fact that we couldn’t find anything decent to eat in the area after eating only oranges and a can of Pringles that day all conspired to make me feel like taking the train straight on through to Serbia. We had a train layover in Zagreb, a city that we knew nothing about. When the weather cleared up and we were able to go for a lengthier walk, we were astounded by what we saw and our attitudes did a 180. The center of Zagreb is like a little Paris or Rome except for not as expensive. There were little bars and cafes everywhere you looked and the employees were beginning to get ready for the Friday night crowd, setting out tablecloths and chairs. The majestic old buildings and museums were lit up and the main square was crowded with people meeting up for the evening. As we wandered the streets enchanted with the surroundings I felt that perhaps I was falling a little bit in love with Croatia. On the walk back everything, even the train station, looked lovelier. As we waited for the night train, we tried to figure out what kind of accommodations we were going to have. We had paid a pretty hefty sum for the supplement, and I was convinced we were going to have a private double bunk. Adam was more cautious and thought we would probably only get a 6 bunk cabin and have to share with other people. I reminded him that that was the worst case scenario, and even then, who cares? We would have a bunk to stretch out in and sleep for the 9 hours it would take to get to Split. As it turned out, we would have neither of these things.
We were a little confused when we tried to board the train. The whole train was made up of compartments of 6 seats—no beds at all. Also, we were supposed to be in car 22, but we only had a choice of 1,2,3, or 4. I asked a conductor where the car was. He looked at my ticket and shook his head vehemently while wagging his finger in my face, “No. No, no, no.”
Oh. Well that cleared that up. We thought that perhaps part of the train was missing as it was still early, but we waited and still nothing showed up. Finally I found a conductor who spoke some English. He told me that we would have to change trains at one of the stations and that was why our car wasn’t there. O.K. then. We boarded the train feeling very uncertain.
It took one more conversation with two Croatian women translating to find out that we were taking a train for about an hour and a half and then, since they were working on the tracks, we would have to take a bus to Split. So much for getting any sleep. Only the large tour group of deaf people were seemingly undisturbed by this news. The group leader (who was not deaf, but could sign) ran around to each car explaining the situation and each group continued nonchalantly with its animated conversation. The conversation in our car was decidedly not animated as we were far from happy about this change in plans. At a stop that didn’t seem to be an actual stop, we disembarked sans platform and ran over to the buses. No one, not even the bus drivers, seemed to know where the buses were headed. Everyone ran from one bus to another en masse looking like bewildered sheep being herded in a sheep dog competition. People were shouting out names of destinations, there was frantic overhead signing, and finally we got on the bus that seemed to be going to Split with about 45 deaf people and a few other tourists who also had no idea what the hell was going on.
At this point the whole episode was just too absurd. I felt like the mother in the movie Home Alone who finds herself riding in a van with a polka band. The bus had no bathroom. It had one working speaker that was to blare static-laden Croatian music all night and that speaker was right above our heads. All around us were deaf people having jolly conversations until the bus driver shut off the lights and effectively put the kibosh on any further communications. The bus driver stopped about once an hour for a cigarette break and one time he took 30 minutes. I believe that they make you start smoking in elementary school here, so of course when the driver stopped for a break the entire bus emptied out except for us and the few other tourists.
Because the scene was so Dali-esque, after the first half-hour I broke into irrepressible giggles. When was Allen Funt coming out to tell us to smile because we were on Candid Camera? But after the 4th smoke break and several hours without sleep, the situation ceased to be amusing. When we finally pulled into Split, it was a little past 6AM. We could not yet go to the house that we rented, nor did we have any idea how we were going to get there. My love for Croatia was again dwindling.
Split is a gorgeous town on the Adriatic Sea. Its center is next to the marina where you find the remains of Diocletian’s retirement palace, picturesque narrow streets, and busy markets. If we hadn’t been so sleep-deprived and pissed off, I’m sure we would have enjoyed it immensely. I snapped some pictures of the sunrise, but I just wasn’t into sightseeing. Besides, we had to figure out how we were going to get to the house that was 25 km from Split. It doesn’t seem like much, but when you don’t even remotely speak the language and the short-range bus system is incoherent, 25 km is a significant obstacle. I called Mrs. Babik, the lady who was renting us the house, to find out what time we could go there and to see if she could tell us the best way to get there. Here is how the conversation went:
“Hello. This is Dawn Nelson. I’m renting the house from you this week.”
“Yes. I’m renting the house?”
“Renting my house?”
“Yes. I was wondering what time we could arrive.”
“You come in 12 hours.”
“You come in 10 or 12 hours.”
“Do you mean 12:00?”
“You come 12 hours. Bye”
So that was that. Since it would be 8PM in 12 hours, I figured that she must have meant to come at 12:00, but I saw that calling back would do no good. We contemplated renting a car and then taking the bus, but neither of us was in the proper frame of mind to try to conquer another bus ride. I trudged over to the tourist information center to ask how much we should expect to be charged for a taxi. I must have looked incredibly pitiful, for the man was very helpful. He said that he would take us for 200 kuna (around $40) and that he would call the woman and talk to her about the house. I almost cried tears of joy. That amount sounded reasonable to me considering the distance, but we asked a cab driver just to see. He wanted 50 euro, so we were getting a good deal. I screwed up enough courage to brave the open-air market to get some food for dinner, and by a system of hand gestures and holding things up, I was able to make some purchases. Then we piled into Mr. Tourism’s car and we drove up the coast to a small town about 5 km from Omis. He called the woman who was coming to meet us and show us the house, and the left us adding that if we needed anything else we knew where to find him. We transferred our bags to the woman’s car and proceeded up the hill to the house.
When I had my brief and rather unsuccessful conversation with Mrs. Babik on the phone, I had pictured her as and old, cranky, fat lady with a scarf on her head and wearing support hose to constrain her giant ankles. The actual Mrs. Babik could not have been more different. She was an older lady, but very slim and spunky and smartly dressed. She was not at all cranky, she simply did not speak very much English. “Croatian, and French. Not much English,” she said.
“Espanol?” we ventured?
Five languages and none of them matched. So she showed us the house all the time speaking a strange mixture of Croatian and English peppered with French and Italian words here and there. Never mind. We got the gist of it. And why did it matter? We had a three-story house on a hill overlooking the Adriatic for the entire week. How could I help falling back in love with Croatia?
Our schedule was unintentionally set by the second day. Since the house was not in a major town, it was time consuming to get anywhere else. We did go into Omis one day and back to Split on another, but for the most part we slept until 9 or 10, had breakfast and went to the local market for food for the day, read for a few hours with the view of the sea in front of us, studied our Spanish for an hour or two, and then had dinner and relaxed with a bottle of wine. We resumed playing our card game “Platypus” that we invented way back at the start of our time in Australia, and Adam had a jolly good time making an Excel spreadsheet that would automatically take care of all scoring and record keeping for us. It really is a thing of beauty.
We did not do a lot of sightseeing in Croatia, rather we just had a relaxing week. And that’s fine with us. The impulse to sightsee constantly needs to be curbed when you’re on a year-long trip. After a while it starts to feel like you need a vacation from your vacation, and that’s just what we had here.