Vienna

At the end of October I decide to head back. Besides the fact that it is getting dark around four thirty, I have completely run out of money.

There is a long line up at the Croatian border. When it’s finally my turn, a guard pulls me aside, searches my car, and finds some cabbages bought in Bosnia. He tells me I cannot bring cabbages into the European Union and that I will need to go dispose of them and come back. I do not want to wait in the line up again, I want to go home.

I ask him if I can roll the cabbages over the border. He considers this for a moment, then waves me into Croatia with a sad smile.

I cross over the Drava river and into Hungary around eight or nine. In a remote town in the plains I find a hotel. It is too pricey for me, but I don’t care anymore. I fall asleep watching a Hungarian news broadcast and dream of an empty boat making its way upstream a river four or five times the width of the Drava. In the morning the woman who owns the hotel cooks me breakfast and waves to me as I pull out of the driveway. I take the Autobahn for the first time since I left Munich and I arrive home around six.

Outside my window a few trees have held onto their leaves as an indication of the spectacular autumn I’ve missed. Within a week of returning, they are completely bare. It begins to rain, then snow. Across the city, the hammering of workers setting up the Christmas markets can be heard. They are hanging lights from the lindens on the Ringstraße, which looks even whiter and cleaner and sadder after all the rain.

I spend December looking for a job. A friend of a friend chips her tooth and gives me her ticket to the premier of As You Like It at the Burgtheatre. I buy standing area tickets to the Musikverein, where the Györ Philharmonic Orchestra plays a Mozart concerto. The crowd, strung with pearls, claps wildly. The little white haired Hungarian conductor bows deeply.

Schönbrunn. Beautiful and empty in the winter.

Mostar

I drive inland again, past the border and through Bosnia and Herzegovina’s faded little seaside town, Neum. The limestone hills, grey shrubs, and burnt, black trees of Herzegovina replace the blue sea, olive trees, oleander bushes, and Aleppo pines of the coast. The openness and quiet comes as a relief.

After three hours or so, the road joins up with the Neretva River. I follow it through the outer suburbs of Mostar, to my hotel, the Park Villa, which is much less glamorous than it sounds. After I’ve checked in, I trace the river back by foot, past an mosque, through the shopping district, to the Mostar Bridge, which arches impossibly high over the banks of the Neretva, stretching from the Bosniak side to the Croat one. (I don’t realize or recognize this while I’m there, however. It’s only later, in Banja Luka, when an angry Serb veteran who rents me a cottage describes Mostar as a face ‘split in two’).

Feeling tired, I sit down on the river bank below and watch teenagers leap from a nearby springboard and school children pick their noses and scratch sticks into the mud.

On my way back to the Park Villa I stumble upon the Josip Broz Tito Club.
Inside, four men sit in the four corners of the room.  Between them, through a cloud of cigarette smoke I see a huge red tapestry with Tito’s profile: his rounded forehead, his slightly hooked nose, his small, curved lips. Next to it, on the wall, a calendar with all the special holidays marked with a red star: March 8th, May 1st, November 7th. The men fall silent when I enter.

‘Dobar dan, do you have coffee here?’ I ask with an idiotic smile.

One of the men rises, pushes an ashtray towards me, and disappears into the back room. He comes back a few minutes later with a hot cup of coffee.

Every once and awhile the man closest to me turns in his seat towards me, and I expect him to say something, but he looks past me, into the street. His eyes are wide. They do not look at anything in particular, they just stare.

It’s on us, the fifth man says, as I get out my wallet to pay.

I walk back along the Brace Fejica. The beggars get up from their places and sit together on a bench, talking, laughing and crying. The air is not exactly cold, but the smell of autumn rises from the river to linger with the smell of roasting meat and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. A nightclub plays Avril Lavigne. The sound of the Koran rises from the tower of the mosque. Pious men move in its direction and slip off their shoes at its door. My bed in the

Jumping from the Ottoman Bridge is banned, so kids jump from this platform now.
Many buildings in Bosnia and Herzegovina still bear traces of the war.
The hills of Herzegovina.

Dubrovnik

A fisherman on the Adriatic Sea.
Much of the rock surrounding Dubrovnik is Karst, or Limestone.
A small playground on the outskirts of the Old Town. A reminder that people actually live here.
Winners celebrate a victory.

Hotel Zlača

The best hotel of the journey was the one I needed the most. I’d be happy to see it again, if I ever get the chance to.

It’s hard to describe the relief that one feels after driving through the mountains of Bosnia for hours searching for a hotel at meeting some young men in a parking lot who say, actually yes, there is a hotel in the woods a little ways from here, and we’ll take you there, and following their car to a junction and being told with utter seriousness to continue for fifteen kilometers up a dirt road but make sure you don’t turn right or left until you reach the ravine. You what they say, because well, you don’t have any cell phone coverage and not a lot of better options.

The relief you feel when you’ve driven that dark little road with your eye glued to the odometer, and crossed that ravine and and really came face to face with the glowing lights of a hotel. A real hotel!

And the relief when the man at the reception stands up to greet you in a blue, pressed shirt in his simple, quiet way and hands you the keys that end up being the wrong keys but who cares, and you get into your hotel room and the bed is filled with ladybugs but who cares!

Down in the restaurant, the servers are sitting at a table smoking. When you come in they all stand up without smiling. One takes your order, the second brings you your wine, the third brings you your food, a grey bowl of veal soup and ćevapčići. Then they sit down again and continue to smoke.

After awhile, the third disappears and returns with two slices of birthday cake. With his balding head, he gestures in the direction of a back room, where, as if on cue, an accordion begins to play. Someone begins to sing and everyone is dances slowly. They go on like this for awhile until the power goes out. The first waiter brings over a candle, the second clears away our plates, the third brings over an ashtray. Then they all sit down again. The accordion continues, as if nothing happened. It is dark except for Andreas’ face and the three red circles of their cigarettes.

+ The Hotel Zlača from the outside.
The sign reads: Complaints book is at the reception.

The Fair

Once a week there is a market in Puračić. Makeshift parking lots pop up everywhere, and the grass that has just managed to recover from last week’s market is trampled anew. Everything imaginable is for sale here: used car parts, knock-off designer bags, sheepskins, little robot dogs that open their mouths to bark, rugs, coffee sets, sausages, old shoes. Once a week the main street contracts and becomes a narrow, furious pipe of movement, transporting shoppers from dusty makeshift parking lots to the main square, where there is a merry-go-round. Next to it, pigs, lambs and chickens turn on spits in time with the music. In a tent, three men in tight, matching sweaters sing a Turkish pop song. A woman hops onto on one of the folding tables and begins to dance. The table wobbles dangerously but does not break.

Over ninety percent of people in Puračić are Bosniaks, many of which are practicing Muslims.
An exit to one of the many parking lots.
A married pair watches the musicians.
Many Bosnians feel that…
Enjoying the music.

Brcko District

They are stacking the hay in Brcko district in great heaps. Farmers, bent in half at the hips, raise their heads and squint their eyes to watch us pass. The road continues up the mountain. At some point we are afraid that the car won’t make it and we look for a place to turn around. In a small clearing, a boy and his father skin a rabbit which is hanging from a telephone pole. It is steaming in the cold. On the hill, they are lighting fires: clearing up before the winter comes.

A graveyard in the mountains.
A Muslim Graveyard up in the mountains. Bosnia is a country full of graves, many of them new.
A haystack typical of Brcko District.
A farmer preparing his fields for winter.

Budapest

Budapest

Anyone who wishes to know what I got up to in Budapest, need only follow the trail of my parking fines. They lead from Józsefváros in Pest, to Bikás park, to the scenic cliffs in Buda that look over the city, the slow ships on the river Danube, and the dark plains beyond.

Parking fines come in what resembles a dog waste-bag, tucked affectionately under the windshield wiper. Once you get one, you begin to see them everywhere. When you see a car with a pile of six or seven, you can’t help but wince in solidarity.

Why did I end up with so many parking fines, you might ask? Why not just pay for a ticket like everyone else? I need only show you Budapest’s parking machines with instructions solely in Hungarian, looking like relics from the Communist times and you will understand my desperation. In the five minutes it takes to find, examine and stand gaping at the machine,  a green bag will have already landed on the windshield.

A few streets in Józsefváros, where I’m staying, are being torn up and redone. When Friday evening comes, the street becomes still, and tools and materials are left here and there, waiting for Monday. When Monday comes, the workers return, and with them, the noise. After sitting for ten minutes on a bench in Józsefváros, a thin layer of dust has accumulated on my head and amidst all the working people, I look and feel useless.

From this bench, I watch construction workers who gaze at iridescent green beetles on the sidewalk. I watch the shadows of yellow honey-locust trees on the walls. I watch the ticketing officer on his rounds. He slips green bags under the cars with a mournful expression (he doesn’t look nearly as mean as I imagined). I watch old women with shopping bags swinging, propelling them forward, youths who trip over their legs, and middle-aged men who drag their feet as if they weighed a million tons. I watch fights between lovers and neighbours passing objects through windows. When it becomes night, the street-lamps grow so dim that it’s impossible to see anything at all.

Leaving Budapest

Thin October sun falls sideways into the Budapest train station. I stand amongst a mass of people at the end of the platform. We fidget in anticipation of whoever is coming or perhaps our own going. The station is quiet, and somehow provincial: people run over the tracks and slip between standing trains. When the train from Munich finally arrives, Andreas gets off, very pale. He has the flu. We decide to spend two extra days in Budapest to let him rest. It’s the weekend, so I don’t have to worry about parking fines.

We pack up on Monday, only to discover that the car won’t start. Neighbours help Andreas push while I ease the car into second gear. the car starts with a cough, and we glide out of Budapest and head south.

We follow a narrow road into the plains. Wild sloes and other plants we have no names for graze the sides of the car. At some point the road turns to sand, and darkness falls almost immediately. A dog with one eye appears out of this blurry darkness and runs in front of our front wheel and I get out to make sure we didn’t run over it, but it has disappeared entirely. Behind us, I only see the sand that we’ve kicked up settle on the acacias. The night air is damp and foul as a cellar.

The road continues a little ways, around a swamp, to the Panzio. A white dog the size of a young cow growls at us as we try to find the door, but remains lying down. Only in the morning I will see that it is chained to a tree. An old woman sits us at a table and brings two glasses of thin red table wine, a massive tureen filled with egg soup, and a plate of cabbage rolls. After supper, she brings an apple strudel as flat as the plains, and stands at the doorway while we eat it. At night, a layer of fog settles a few inches off the ground and the moon shines flatly on an acacia forest. At three or four, the fog parts a little and the moonlight makes ripples on the sand, as though we are deep underwater. I remember that this country used to be an enormous sea.

Typical barns in the Hungarian Plains.
‘I remember that this country used to be an enormous sea…’
A border town.
‘Black Lightning’, the Hungarian Puli

Banská Štiavnica and Kralova

I arrive in Slovakia sooner than anticipated. I had hoped to stop a few times in the Tatras and admire the changing colors, but everything is covered in fog, and getting out of the car means standing in a cold drizzle. It’s impossible to know if the sheep that emerge from the fog are white or grey or black, so caked are they in mud. They enter the fog again quickly, as if forced out against their will.

I meet a friend of mine from Vienna at the station in Zvolen, and together we drive up the mountain to Kralova, where we’ve rented a small hut.

In Kralova, the animal population far outnumbers the human ones. Among its animal citizens: cows with large, wet eyes, sheep that sniff at the car, cats that scratch at the window at night, and horses that growl like dogs and pace at fences. Among its human citizens; a few old shepards, a small family, and our next door neighbors (friendly but preoccupied). They tend to their cows and shake apple trees full of dark, shiny apples. A black dog with a red cast hops after each falling apple and tries to catch it in her mouth.

On Saturday we make our way slowly down the mountain, which has been cut up by the rain and covered in flattened, speckled frogs. In Banska Stiavinica we find a little white windowless restaurant where we eat halusky and cabbage soup and flip through Slovak tabloid magazines.

Kráľovná Alžbeta, mŕtva!

Queen Elizabeth, dead!

A map of Slovakia.

Four Places in Krakow

Breakfast in Kazimierz:

My hotel is in the attic of an old Mikvah, a ritual bathhouse and I sleep there like a stone. The breakfast room doubles as a place for the publishing house to hold meetings and for klezmer musicians to tune their instruments before they play for the dinner guests. Obscure Israeli celebrities beam down at me from picture frames. The table is already set: herring and onions, plums, cake, boiled eggs, mackerel, cream cheese, jam, toast, and coffee.
As I take my place and begin my ritual of making sandwiches to slip in my coat pockets (I really have no appetite in the morning), a Orthodox man comes in, teetering under the weight of multiple black suitcases and a hat box. He sits down at an empty table across from me, calls the waitress over, and asks her anything is kosher. She shakes her head. He lets out a small sigh, checks his watch, and orders an espresso, two glasses of slivovitz and a bowl of plums, which he drinks and eats with slow luxuriousness.

St. Mary’s Basilica:

Across from the main market square in the Old Town is St. Mary’s Basilica (completed in 1347). Entering it, you feel as though you’ve stepped inside some bodily organ, so rich and red are the walls. Gilded ribbons run up the walls like little veins to a vaulted ceiling, the blue of Polish pottery, and covered with stars.
Every hour, the Hejnał Mariacki is played by a trumpeter up in one of St. Mary’s two towers. It’s a sad, plain kind of bugle call that warbles over the market square and then suddenly dies out— a nod to a 13th century trumpeter shot in the throat mid-song.

Inside St. Mary’s it’s warm and quiet. People talk in hushed, solemn voices. When they pray, they only move their lips. Every once and awhile, when the door swings open to let someone in or out, it’s possible to hear music from the market square and the hoofbeats of horses. It smells of damp wood, recent rain, and urine from the horses lined up nearby. Some of their drivers have fallen asleep in their carriages.

The Temple Synagogue:

Outside the temple synagogue in Kazimierz, three Orthodox men crowd around a smartphone. A fourth man paces nearby, reading the Talmud, and mouthing the words to himself. All four have plastic caps stretched over their hats to protect them from the rain, which has let up for a few minutes but will surely start again.
An Über pulls up, and they file in, ducking their heads carefully to avoid hitting their hats on the rim of the car. The fourth trails after them. He doesn’t take his eyes off his book. They all drive away, bouncing over the cobblestones.

Plac Nowy:

My second hotel room in Krakow faces the Plac Nowy, a market square in Kazimierz. Unable to sleep for some reason, I lie awake the whole night, listening to the sounds of the square, which swells and empties according to its own natural laws.

Around two, students leave the bar underneath the hotel and fill the square. They laugh and shout in thin, happy voices. At three it becomes quiet— quieter than the Polish countryside. At four, some drunkards arrive, argue, make up, and sing songs. Around five, silence again, broken up only occasionally by the screech of a bird.

At six, I move over to the window and watch the sky begin to lighten, and the construction workers drink coffee at the little kiosk. At seven, they are replaced by old men with woolen caps and long faces, who sit on benches and watch the street vendors laying out their wares: menorahs, books, communist pins, old coins.

It must have rained sometime in the night because the pavement is wet and the rooftops are gleaming.

Outside the Skalka Monastery in Kazimierz.
Bene Quiescas, Rest in Peace.
Supper: Cholent, Stuffed Goose Neck, Borscht, Mazah Ball Soup and more…
Inside the Synagogue Stara in Kazimierz.

 

The Spa

In the middle of a pine forest an hour’s drive from Warsaw, is a spa. My old car, covered with bird droppings from Warsaw and dust from the road sticks out like a sore thumb among rows of polished luxury cars. A woman in an ill-fitting suit greets me at the reception. Her name tag is upside down, I cannot read it.
We have a lot of guests at the moment, she says. Is the economy room okay for you, madam? The economy room is just fine. Wobbling on patent heels, she leads me to the end of the hall. The lights are dimmable, pillows plump enough to break your neck. A housecoat and a swimming cap are laid out on the bed. Dinner is served until nine, she tells me. The pool closes at eleven. Have a wonderful stay, she says, then slams the door.

I am the only person in the dining room. The one solitary waitress gets up from a chair in the back and smiles vaguely. I order, and she disappears behind a door in the back where I see a solitary cook. She appears half an hour later with my meal: rabbit with roasted pumpkin, squash, and potatoes which I eat with thin white wine. It is one of the best meals of my life. While I eat, porcelain roosters stare at me with beady, painted eyes. Everywhere, elevator jazz plays. After dinner I go to the pool. There I am also alone. The jazz is here too, I can even hear it when my head is underwater.

Pine forests around the spa.