Sunday, September 18, 2022

The Balkans Part 2

 


Albania

This guy's been smoking since his ninth birthday and he’s 36. He looks 50. He drives a stolen German Mercedes 200d that's 40% bondo. He's got way too much hair on his arms and the best tan you've ever seen and he's never owned a pair of sunglasses. His squint would make Clint Eastwood blush. I’m not describing an individual. This accounts for 70% of the male population of Albania, and 20% of the female population.



Shkoder

We entered near a lake and spent nearly a week gorging ourselves on Albanian cuisine. Who knew it would be so good? I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Albanian restaurant, and now I know what we’ve all been missing. We passed horse pulled wagons as we buzzed the long distance on the e-scooters to buy fruits and veggies from a tented fresh market. No one speaks English and their hands are rough from the fields. The currency is colorful and extravagant in order to make up for the earth tones of their lives.



Put The History Here

Albania has a rich and deep history with many epochs of deserved pride. However, most recently there hasn’t been much to brag about. After WW2 ended, the murderous communist dictator Enver Hoxha ruled with a cruel paranoid iron fist. Albania was essentially cut off from the world from 1976 until Hoxha’s’ death in April 1985. During that time, he forced the nation to build over 173,000 bunkers. That’s almost 15 bunkers per square mile (5.7 bunkers per sq KM). You see them everywhere. Talk about paranoia. It was money that could have been better spent as the country barely had roads and not enough housing. One bunker contained enough concrete to build a 2-bedroom home. 

Photo courtesy of Marc Morell


Death On The Road

It started with. "Wow, there's some bad drivers here." it quickly became "Holy cow. These people are terrible drivers." Then it graduated to, "I think these people are worse than Peruvians". Peruvians are now the second worst, and the Colombians are in third place. Titles change hands. New champions are crowned. Congratulations Albania, you are the world's worst drivers.



"I am Albanian. I drive around looking for job..... or causing accident, whichever pay more."

In reality the common citizen could only recently afford a car and the roads were so bad up until 20 years ago that buying one would have been silly anyway. 20 years of driving is less than one generation. No one’s dad ever taught them how to drive. In fact, I don’t think anyone every taught them to drive. Somewhere, there's an Albanian waiting to pull out in front of you.

Durres

There are cities that are so breathtakingly beautiful that words can never approach the adoration that they deserve. Durres in NOT one of those places. There is no reason to go to this city other than the archeological museum. And if you go to the museum, you won’t be impressed. There are far better museums. But… Walk behind the building and see what awaits you. 




The Balkan Real Estate Market

Croatia is no longer cheap. You and I should have bought there 2 decades ago. Montenegro is soaring now as the world looks south of overpriced Croatia. We missed that real estate market too. Do yourself a favor and buy seafront land in southern Albania and hope past results reflect future trends.


The Smoking Is Out Of Control

The woman at the table next to us when I asked her if they were smokers before choosing our table: “No, but I understand you. Everyone here smokes. But here is different. In your country only the lowest of people smoke. The trash at the bottom. I know USA. I work Disney cruise line 8 years.”

Ahh - Eastern Europe.... What you save in prices, you pay for with your lungs. I've seen Spanish hams that were less cured than these faces. In almost all of the Balkans they still smoke INDOORS! It's unbelievable - restaurants, retail shops, damn near everywhere. The cashier rings me up with a cigarette hanging from his lips. Total barbarians. We used to go to the restaurants that had the best reviews but those are crowded with smokers. Now we have to preference bad empty restaurants. Can you imagine saying: “It looks good but it has a 3 star average. It’s gonna be way too smokey. We need to be looking at 2 stars.”

The black lung emphysema gag choking smokers of the Balkans love their children too

If you're begging and smoking you won’t get a penny from me. Furthermore, I would cruelly add that you deserve your poverty and ill health. That's how little I think of people who smoke. If your thing was gnawing on cyanide in the privacy of your own home, I wouldn’t say a word but your rights end when I have to breathe your smoke. Don’t hit me up for food money with a cigarette in your hand. That disgusting habit just exposed your lie.

Berat

This place might have been the highlight




A fortressed city at the top of the hill. Many people still live there. Fascinating to walk the old ramparts

The Jews

Albania is the only country in Europe that had more Jews after WW2 than before (11 times more!). Absolute Heroes! Why? Albania was the only European country with a Muslim majority and they were committed to saving their Jews even under German occupation. So, the next time someone bad mouths the Muslims or Albanians make them aware of this fact and their custom of “Besa”. 

The Muslims

I don’t know how you can sing 5 times a day, every day and still not have any rhythm or melody. It’s just this headache inducing warble.



One good thing about Muslim countries is that there isn't a lot of dog poop to step in. They are so anti dog. You don't have to worry about it.

Muslim cultures make wonderfully delicious desserts. My theory is that because they can't drink alcohol, all that energy they don't spend brewing and distilling and drinking, they put into making excellent sweets, plus they can afford the calories, because - no alcohol. 



The frequency of beards has increased with the Muslim populations. I grew one to show a little solidarity with my hosts.   I now comb my face with a toothbrush. This is literally werewolf training 101. I did this to myself in the 90’s once. There was a lot less grey. I might try it again in 30 years.

The Balkan Uniform

Sweatpants and a collared track suit top.... The Balkan uniform. All the better to criminal. I know that statistically the crime rate is incredibly low, but they are so good at looking sketchy. When worn with a beard, one instantly becomes Balkan macho. The added bonus is the ease in which you can disappear into the crowd. When your hobby is money laundering and human trafficking there's really only one respectable fashion. Once the sun sets, you can change into your “designer sweats” and show up fashionably late for your dinner reservations. No one will look at you sideways.



Test Case Albania

Albania, like the rest of the world, was Capitalist for thousands of years. Then they had Communism for 45 years and for the last 30 years they’ve been Capitalist again. In the city of Berat our host’s name was Elizabeth. She was 65 years old. She was born under Communism and was 35 when Capitalism began to return (it doesn’t happen overnight and, in the beginning, it consists of a land grab by the connected who then try to grasp how to monetize what they control from a populace that isn’t used to paying. It’s clumsy and markets aren’t quick to reveal themselves to those untrained in the art) Her family grabbed a children’s playground and rec center. Over the years they’ve turned it into a camp ground for motorhomes and backpackers. Somewhere, someone is lamenting the loss of their land, when before the communists, it was their orchard. 

“Elizabeth – was it better under communism or Capitalism?” “Under Communism we no have things! No makeup. No earrings. Only the scent of butter. Now have things but now must pay. Must pay gas. Must pay electric.” I’m not sure she was the brightest person to interview. She spent most of her time trying to trick Aleja into giving her sunglasses. 

Capitalism Vs Communism

I think if we had to distill it down to one determining factor to decide which is better: Communism or Capitalism, maybe it could be the number of patents. You can google it yourself.  The communists invent almost nothing. There's no incentive to innovate. When the very definition of their lives is uniformity and life quality equalized across the spectrum of all humanity - they aren’t trying to better lives through innovation. Redistribution yes – innovation no. Why strive when your surplus is taken from you and given to the average?

It's the antithesis of what occurs naturally with humans; where we work to improve our lives. We’ve been homo Sapiens for 300,000 years and constantly innovating. When the reward is taken away and you know that your life can't ever get better (No Tall Poppies!) than creativity stagnates. Nobody invents. Nobody is encouraged to do so. There is zero incentive. When you remove the reward system nobody wants to spend one calorie to build a better mouse trap. The proof is in the patents. We loved the Balkans under Capitalism. I doubt we would be saying the same had we visited in the 80’s.


These last 2 dispatches on the Balkans were a little challenging. I had to cover war, ethnic cleansing and long lingering hatreds, and then I threw in the lecture on economic systems for free. I do apologize. I can promise you that the next dispatch will be only positive and fluffy: Next up – SWEDEN!

Your man on point,

Captain Bobby




Wednesday, August 31, 2022

The Balkans Part 1

 


Captain Bobby – Amateur Anthropologist

“Hi, I'm new in town. I'm gonna want a thick steak, a glass of mature red, a SIM card, and the nearest ATM. Oh.... and I'm gonna need to see all your castles, and anything else that might fall under the realm of archeology. I’ll begin my historical interrogation after the cocktails arrive. Take your time, I'll be here awhile"… I might be a douchebag – but I’m an efficient douchebag. 

In addition to the above shenanigans, I was determined to finally understand this war-torn region by unraveling the knots that persisted in my mind regarding their troubles. I took a nonstop series of trains from Berlin to Istanbul in 1991 and passed right through what was then Yugoslavia in its impending decline, but since I never left the train stations, I really had no clue what was happening. I think I’ve finally decoded the cipher. This dispatch is going to be heavy on history so I would advise you to look away now, and get back to the cat videos of Facebook.

Killing In The Name Of…

Here’s how to keep this confusing morass a little more orderly in your head. Remember that it is almost always religion that makes people kill each other and the participants (willing or otherwise) are the Croats = Catholic, Serbs = Eastern orthodox, Bosniaks & Kosovars = Muslim. Keep this is mind as you read on. It’ll help explain their unexplainable hatred. A note: Before you call me a reductionist, please remember this is a blog, not a dissertation and I’m tackling this in 1500 words. 

The bullet holes remain. This is Mostar in Bosnia Herzegovina

The History in a Nutshell

After WW2 the 6 republics of the region were cobbled together to form Yugoslavia. They were: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia & Herzegovina (2 names but one country. Just leave it at that or I’ll never get through this explanation). Yugoslavia was ruled by strongman communist Josip Broz Tito and considered mostly a success up until his death in 1980. Then the economic current shifted and political instability crept in. They struggled through the 80s with ethnic tensions on the rise and debts mounting. The League of Communists of Yugoslavia dissolved in Jan of 1990 and they relabeled themselves as regional “socialist” organizations. A new wind was stirring. Communism was collapsing, capitalism was on the rise and the ethnic separatist parties were gaining support. The issue that would move to the forefront is that Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Muslims didn’t live neatly within the newly drawn lines of the soon to be seceding regions. Without Tito’s iron fist holding them together a break up was imminent and humans don’t play nice. 

The Chronology

1. June 25 1991 - Both Slovenia & Croatia declared independence. Slovenia got away clean with only a few shots fired. Croatia wasn’t so lucky. 

    a. The Yugoslavian army under the control of Slobodan Milosevic, was mostly comprised of Serbs. He went to war under the banner of protecting Serbs within Croatia. 

2. Sept 25 1991 – Macedonia declares independence. It was a completely peaceful divorce. 

3. April 6 1992 – Bosnia & Herzegovina receive international recognition following their declaration of independence and are attacked by Serbia the same day

    a. The Siege of Sarajevo lasted almost 4 years. The atrocities committed were horrendous. The Serbian leaders were convicted of crimes against humanity

4. The War in Kosovo – It’s really difficult to pick a starting date. Let’s call it March 1998. And who were they at war with? One guess… Did you guess Serbia?

    a. June 12 1999 – Serbia’s Milosevic accepts 30,000 UN peacekeeping soldiers into Kosovo after NATO forces bomb Serbia for months

        i. War crimes occurred on both sides. 

5. June 3 2006 – Montenegro splits from Serbia in a peaceful divorce


First Impressions of Bosnia & Herzegovina 

It's obviously poor. The roads are in worse shape and there's no lights in the tunnels. Unlit tunnels aren’t good. If you can’t afford to light them how much can I trust the engineering?

You’ve always referred to them as Bosnians but the correct term is actually Bosniaks, which is far weirder and better in every way.

I spotted 9 Mosques standing on this bridge
Mostar

The Ottoman Empire is gone but this city is a time capsule. Enjoy these photos










Quite literally "living in a van parked down by the river"


This sweetheart of a host showed us the property bunker left over from the war, was kind to his gypsy neighbors, and gave us a bottle of flavored syrup. We loved Mostar

Sarajevo

I’m fascinated by history. This city was the location of a single event that I believe impacted the world more than any other. (If you want to challenge that – get your notes in order and call me. I’d love to debate it.) Gavrilo Princip was a Bosnian Serb who assassinated Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia and launched WW1. The treaty of Versailles which ended WW1 guaranteed WW2. 

The morning of the assassinations

Histories worst example of a wrong turn and dumb deadly luck


It was very cold and we parked at the top of a mountain that overlooks the valley. I was a freshman in college when Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984. My future looked bright, theirs was dimming. 






Ethnic Cleansing 

War is horrible, and killing civilians is unspeakable, but a thick red line is crossed when a combatant commits resources to building torture & death camps. The Serbs did just that. They industrialized murder. It is really easy to see who the bad guys were in the war. 

We went to 2 different war museums. It's all so tragically sad. After the first one, and a week later, my response was “I suppose we can visit another one today, but let’s go this afternoon so we keep the morning depression free and we can start ‘forget drinking’ right after.”

No photos posted here. You're welcome.

Montenegro 

The Bay of Kotor is an earthly delight. Geographically speaking it is a bay inside of a bay; even better than Costa Rico’s Golfito. We loved it so much we spent every night of our Montenegro trip in this one spot. There is obviously much more to see upon our next lap.





This ancient wall weaved it's way up and down the hill so as to protect them from behind and above


WW2 sub den for hiding submarines. This is one of 3.
They finished them just days before the war ended



Macedonia

Stop at nothing – book your trip to the city of Ohrid now. Prior to our arrival we camped across the lake, staring at it for 4 days and enjoying the town of Struga as a warm up. Castles, fortresses, amphitheaters, and cobblestone streets ringed with shorefront and tasty restaurants. Ohrid is Lovely. 

Macedonia has one of the coolest flags!



Dating back to the Pre-Roman times!


We picked up my old friend Terry Allen south of Skopje and he toured the Balkans with us up to Croatia. It was a 2 week period soaked in buttery foods and way too much wine. 

The world famous (infamous?) Terry Allen!

Kosovo

Our first night in Prizren was fantastic. We met a group of young politicos who were in town for a conference and the sharing of drinks commenced. 



We returned to the camper after midnight and as we were unlocking Encore these guys pulled up in their car to park in the same lot that we're in for the night. We made eye contact I said: “Hey guys a favor please.... when you come back later, please be quiet, because we live in here.” They readily agreed and 5 minutes later there's a knock on the door. I look out, it's the same two guys and they have ice cream treats for us. I asked them why and they said they're just so happy that we came to visit their country. That did it. I’m a fan for life. 



On our way out of town we stopped for breakfast and the owner of the restaurant asked where we were from. When he found out Terry and I were from the USA he gave us a bottle of wine and said, “Thank you, we love USA. Our country not exist without USA.” It’s nice to be thanked for a change. 



Kosovars are ethnic Albanians. Albania will be in Balkans: Part 2



Serbia

When the Serbs can’t speak English, they speak to us in German. I suppose they figure any language is more understandable than their own.... and of course, they are correct. We visited ancient fortresses and other remnants of the Romans up to the Ottomans. The foods of the Balkans did not disappoint and it was nice to see my old friend again who generously paid for everything. We over imbibed and laughed from the belly about our 30 year history. 




The shirtless Serbs of Belgrade playing dominoes

Next Up

Albania and the Balkan Conclusion. 

Your man on point,

Blacktop Bobby








Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Croatia




Our track within and from France

On the Move

We awoke in Venice Italy, crossed thru Slovenia, got our passports stamped and parked outside a closed camp ground. At 9pm the security guard told us “Go! Now you must go.” That was our first day in Croatia. In France, everywhere is a campground. In Croatia it is heavily regulated and the laws are enforced with lofty fines so as to corral you into the very expensive campgrounds that are everywhere in the country. Ok – I’ll pay, but this one was closed for the winter.

“Go! Now you must go.” That Slavic accent with the Yoda phrasing makes them sound like they're proficient and resigned to the trouble they are about to cause. We went. I hate driving this big rig after dark on strange roads. Fortunately, we weren’t the only campers that were being evicted, and the other guys knew our surroundings. We ended up a few KM down the road. The next day we pulled into Polidor Family Campground and ended up staying for almost 3 weeks. 



I never expected we would sit in the same place for 19 days. In retrospect I think the enormity of what we had done was finally realized and sat down squarely on my chest and forced me to reflect. Moving to Europe, navigating the bureaucracy of France, shopping and buying Encore, the stress of the title deed and the insurance, the drive to get out of the Schengen Zone to stop the clock so we could re-enter for the summer and drive to Sweden…It all finally caught up with us. We needed some time to sit still and get to know our new home / vehicle. We now had the stint to shuffle things around and perfect our storage challenges. We opened and explored all the crevices we had previously ignored and made some changes for comfort and practicality. 

The repairs and improvements have begun


The Auxiliary Transport

Our campground was in a pretty location near the sea but far from everything else. That led to the next quandary: “How do we leave the mothership and get around?” We needed a secondary mode of transportation to increase our diameter of fun. We can't fit bikes in the garage (not even folding bikes. It’s a very small garage. “Garage” is motorhome vernacular for the storage locker at the stern of the vehicle) I could mount a bike rack off the back but I don’t want to add length or to encourage thieves to take another look at us. Hence, the e-scooters were purchased. They fold and fit perfectly in the garage. What a great decision. 


Let’s Get Something Straight . . .

The name of this country isn’t anything close to Croatia. It’s actually Hrvatska. The Slavs’ pronunciation exists through something that even Wikipedia calls a phenomenon: “Liquid consonants”. It’s too detailed for this dispatch but you might find it interesting to learn how the unspellable shakes hands with the unpronounceable (paraphrased and stolen from the late great PJ O’Rourke). Croatian sounds like a cross between Russian and Italian. It’s got the staccato rhythm of the Tuscans and that drugged Slavic blur, like a tongue on Nembutal. 

Dobro means "Good". “Dobro, bro”! Nobody, and I mean nobody, thinks that joke is funny. I doubt they even know it’s a joke. They probably think I have a stutter so they pity me. But I’m not gonna stop saying it. Don’t feel bad for my nonexistent stutter, pity me because I’m such a dork.


The Latins of the Balkans

There are a bunch of loud Slovenians parked across from us. It’s happened more than once. The loud party hounds are always the Slovenians. Aleja asked me, "Do you think the Slovenians are the Latins of the Balkans?" - "Yep!" Croatia is their coastal neighbor, they come in swarms, and like the Latins they have zero control over their volume. 

Istria

The Istria is a large peninsula shaped like a shield that is shared by Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, but mostly Croatia (89%). It’s changed hands over the millennia so many times that many cultures have claimed roots to it. In addition to those named above the Austrians and Hungarians ruled it as well as the ancient Liburnians, Romans and Venetians. 











Dvigrad Ruins 

They are really something unique. This town was never destroyed, just abandoned, and since no modern villages arose nearby the photo-ops are astounding. I never tire of finding a quiet corner, focusing on a well-worn stepping stone and trying my mightiest to project myself back in time to imagine the lives of those who walked before me. 


Vrsar

I’ve sailed the Caribbean, the South Pacific and the waters of Indonesia (way too many laps!) and I can tell you with authority that you can’t beat the gin-colored water of Croatia. Vrsar was the first in a long line of gorgeous stops we made and we aren’t even on the Dalmatian Coast yet. There’s a reason your intolerable work colleague keeps bending your ear about Croatia. 

Rovinj

Humanity loves scarcity as much as it loves seafront. This might explain why people will pack themselves into a peninsula with a shoe horn. The density is dizzying and the quaint charms of these deliciously photogenic little medieval seaside towns overflows into the lively streets. Get ready – this became a recurring theme for the next month.


Pula

“You want Roman ruins? Oh, we got Roman ruins!” In 45 BC Pula became an important Roman port. Its coliseum is one the world’s best preserved and it’s Temple of Augustus, as well as the various arches and early gates are testimonies to its antiquity. This coast just keeps getting better.


“Thank You For Sharing Your Cigarette Sir”

I thought France was full of smokers. Boy was I wrong. Nothing compares to the number of smokers in Eastern Europe. That hacking cough is the default setting in this part of the world, and though it sounds like one huge covid super spreader event it’s just people slow dying of emphysema. Even though I despise the smoke and the smokers I thank the pantheon of gods for the mosquito and big tobacco or world population would be at 12 billion and you’d be scrounging for a naked corn cob to gnaw.

The Dalmatian Coast

For us, it began on a near island called Krk (Apparently, there is a shortage of vowels in this part of the world). We had a roaring good evening with our new friends Brad and Oksana Perkins who I had been stalking for many months, drooling over her photos and gleaning all I could from their social media output to best prepare for this Euro trip. I fumbled a wine glass and it exploded like a grape juice hand grenade, but with 8 hands working feverishly for an hour we got Encore back to pristine. 


We met our new friend Dominic in Starigrad and continued to meet for beers and friendly talks in Zadar & Sibenik. The latter is a strategic city beneath a protection affording hilltop fortress with a sneaky path to open water. I can imagine how in awe the ancient Illyrian felt when he realized that channel ran into a huge protected bay. It’s every maritime explorer’s dream. 


Trogir 

We celebrated Aleja’s birthday here. It’s a splendid little island city easily accessed as we zipped all around with those e-scooters. It’s been continuously inhabited for 2300 years. The longest rule was by The Venetians for 4 centuries. If only these walls could speak.


Split

The world’s most complete Roman palace is the centerpiece of this incredible city. Diocletian’s grandiose edifice is more of a fortress than a palace and was large enough to be an entire city unto itself. The stone work of the sub structure is almost as perfectly fitted as the Inca masonry of Peru and 1100 years older. And what an enormous arched basement it is – vacuous and regal and built on a slant. An engineering marvel that has withstood it all, including 1700 years of remodeling.  


The palace was completed in 305 AD but Split had been inhabited by ancient Greeks and Illyrians for 600 years prior. They didn’t know it at the time but they were building sets for Hollywood and assuring a tourist revenue flow for their descendants. 


Krka National Park

We took a break from the coast and headed a little inland for some waterfall hiking in a gorgeous park and the Slovenians woke us only one time late at night. The photos are the obvious showcase for the natural beauty but the designers who crafted the walking trails of this area did a wonderful job creating a soothing stroll through nature. I highly recommend this place.


Dubrovnik

On a couple occasions as we tripped down the coast, I found myself asking “Do we really need to see another medieval city?” Anyone could forgive such a crass question after seeing as many award winning picturesque coastal towns with their walled fortresses and cobblestone streets as we did. However - The scope of Dubrovnik is astounding. It tops all the rest – even Split, and that’s saying something.


For 400 years from the 14th century to 1808 Dubrovnik ruled itself as a free state. While interviewing a local over cocktails she explained that the citizens don’t feel Croatian any more than they felt Yugoslavian. They are Dubrovniks. In fact, you even have to leave Croatia to get here since it is not connected by land to the main country. That self-determining spirit got them through once more when they were shelled for 7 months during the Croatia war of independence in 1991. You’ve seen hours of film of this city even if you haven’t been here – it was King’s Landing in Game of Thrones.




Next Up – Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo

Ahh Europe! – what a wonderful continent for an extended road trip. I hope you enjoy the stories as much as we enjoy creating them.

Your man on point,

Capt Bobby