Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Day 1 in Croatia

“Areg, you must go sailing on the Croatian coast!” That’s right I said to my roommate Branko - and I should probably go sky diving soon or on a $5,000 safari in Kruger National park. That was back in 2000 when I could barely think about anything other than getting through my junior year in college and keeping enough money in my bank account for alcohol and bacon calzones after 4am.

Fast forward 7 years later to August 2007 and after 4 years of less than glamorous non-stop management consulting work, complaining about being in Boston for too long, and feeling stagnant; it was time to put my frequent flyers to good use and head out to the former Yugoslav Republic of Croatia! It would be my first time in Europe since 2002 and it turned out to be the most eventful and action packed trip I’d ever taken.

The trip for me actually really started of course, when I hung up my cell phone after booking my flights with American Airlines. You see, for those of you who know me well enough you know that my approach to extravagant vacations is a very procedural and intense phenomena; it’s also a little window into my slightly obsessive compulsive personality. It’s not the kind of obsessive compulsive disorder where I stalk old girlfriends or break the law. It’s more of a PG-13 tendency to Google the hell out of every new person I meet and to plan out each and every minute of my vacations like my life depended on it. But the first rule that really gets my vacation planning rolling of course, is to get mentally stimulated about a new location. I don’t like going to the same country twice, and I don’t like going to places that are typical vacation locales. So luckily Croatia didn’t violate either of those rules, nor was it on a US State Department list of places not to visit.

In its favor, it happened to have hundreds of miles of beautiful coastline, gorgeous Slavic women, incredible architecture, and years of history shaped by regional integration and disintegration. While many travelers would be heading out to Cancun for some dollar drafts and the chance to hookup with a promiscuous teeny bopper from Miami-Dade county, I would be heading to the sophisticated cultural paradise of Hrvatska (Croatia) - enriching myself on all levels, and trying to be as euro-chic as possible.

On my day of departure I was as pumped up as Hugo Chavez about to insult the President of the United States. This would not only be a vacation, it would the chance to liberate myself from the monotony of daily life. My route was from Boston to Raleigh-Durham, then to London, and then to Split Croatia – the second largest city in Croatia after the capital. Zagreb. As my British Airways flight approached the airport in Split, I gazed out my window and congratulated myself on a vacation spot well chosen; there were 10’s if not hundreds of islands below me each with some combination of lush vegetation and interesting rock formations. This trip would be like Greece without having to pay Euro prices, like the Bahamas with 10 times more culture but most of all, a chance to get my biweekly direct deposit while potentially being hungover and in bed on a Tuesday afternoon.

My flight finally arrived at Split Airport and we deplaned and went through customs. What an airport I thought to myself, it was extremely modern and tidy by any standard. I got my bags, darted into the gift shop and bought a quick $50 in phone cards before barely making it to a waiting bus that would take us into downtown Split. Why I felt the need to buy phone cards at that moment and risk the chance of missing the last shuttle bus into town was beyond me, yet very typical of the hyper multi-tasker I morph into during vacations.

I made it to the bus and grabbed one of the last seats left settling in for the short ride into town. Looking around, it was apparent that we were on a nearly new Mercedes passenger bus surrounded by elegantly dressed travelers about to depart one of the most charming airports I’d ever been in. This was Croatia? Take that gross domestic product and multiply it by ten – this place was nice! Soon however, I noticed an unfortunate teenage girl who began complaining in English that she didn’t have a seat on the bus and would have to stand in the aisle. Her complaining couldn’t have lasted more than 10 seconds. Almost immediately, the driver erupted into a full-on rage in Croatian, silencing the entire bus as he ripped this poor girl a new one. I wasn’t exactly sure if the punishment really fit the crime here but from what I could make out from the verbal onslaught, it amounted to, “shut the fuck up you stupid tourist brat-whore, you’re lucky enough to be on the bus, you can get off the bus if standing is too much of a problem, but shut the fuck up so I can start driving everyone else into town.”. I didn’t hear another word out of that girl. By the drivers standards, the little tourist brat probably deserved the reaming too. But the whole thing reminded me that were weren’t in Kansas anymore. In fact, experience has taught me that further east you go past a certain longitude, the shorter the tempers and the more fiery the people. From Italy to Crotia to Serbia, Greece, Turkey and Armenia and into Russia, people don’t hide their feelings and will come to a boil faster than Reverand Jeremiah Wright at a white power rally.

Back on the bus everything was status quo again and we continued to meander through the hills and valleys of this country which grew on me with every passing minute. The landscape whizzing by was interesting. It was one part southern California and 2 parts Croatia; whatever that means. Well, I couldn’t exactly label it but it was beautiful nonetheless and I was just happy that Croatian used the Latin alphabet so I could sound out words on the road signs and pretend to guess their meaning. Maybe I could have asked the bus driver what they meant and then try to guess the meaning of each of the swear words he would have used back at me as punishment for pestering him with silly questions.

About 20 minutes elapsed and we pulled into the bus main bus station in Split. It just kept getting better. The town was absolutely breathtaking with white marble bell towers in the distance and a cool promenade along the water with palm trees and tons of cafes bustling with people who seemed like they were really enjoying themselves. They were probably happy because they didn’t live to work, rather they worked to live and probably got more than 2 weeks vacation time a year. Or maybe they were just drunk and high, but hey I thought I would try to see psycho-analyze remotely.

Our short-fused bus driver was back to tourist-friendly mode and diligently helped everyone remove their bags from the bus. Before I could take in anymore scenery we encountered a small group of female entrepreneurs from Split. Well, they weren’t as entrepreneurial as they were direct. Each one of them, about 40 to 60 years in age, held a hand written advertisement on a piece of cardboard about rooms for rent in their homes. It was as if they had written the signs in front of a mirror, reversing and blending English and Croatian words and somehow managing to write out the symbol for “dollar” and “Euro” in so many different ways I thought each of them were offering alternate approaches to proving the Pythagorean Theorem and wanted to know if their answers were right or wrong. Well, let me just say they were wrong. Dead wrong in fact, if they thought that OCD Areg Bagdasarian would ever randomly stay at the home of a stranger offering them a room even if it was a harmless babushka shaped grandmother who probably had hosted hundreds of happy tourists summer after summer. No way – tonight was not the night to get mugged, drugged and or raped as I slept in some apartment in a city I’d never been in so I could save a few bucks. That night would in fact, come in another Croatian city, but I’d be spared most of the bad stuff that I thought would happen. No, I would avoid the babushka Holiday Inns and march straight to the hotel that I had booked weeks ago online. “Kastel Split” as it was called was what I had deemed to be the perfect blend of location and value after an exhaustive internet search of places to stay in the city. This place was so good in fact, that according to their website the hotel is

at the most attractive location in town, southern part of 1700 years old Diocletian's palace with beautiful sea view, islands and the medieval square with the statue of famous writer Marko Marulic. Outstanding location, affordable prices and the thirty years old tradition will make your staying safe and pleasant.”

I was glad that my “staying” would be safe and pleasant, and that statue of famous writer Marko Marulic would be just outside the hotel. Actually, that statue would enhance the cultural quotient I was so desperately seeking. But even if the hotel proprietor’s had replaced Marko Marulic’s statue with one of Sadam Hussein performing a sex act, I’d still consider that culturally enriching as long as the hotel was close to all the bars and restaurants in Split.

I walked off the bus with my massive backpack and followed a map to my hotel Kastel Split. The city was soooo happening – I imagined this vacation to be the beginning of one perpetually long “Friday night” where I would start bar hopping immediately and stay up late each night either trying to drink more or so overcome with joy that I didn’t have to be sitting in front of a computer that I would completely lose it. Yes, this early desire ended up being a very close approximation to what I got during my 10 day stay, but with some nice added bonuses. Like the smell of sulfuric acid/mildly rotten eggs seeping from the ground all throughout the city. Or the fact that “finding your hotel in Split” means getting lost inside a labyrinth of a walled city that would make a lab rat cry and beg for directions. After an eternity I found my hotel and collapsed into bed.

Vacations are a lot of work I thought to myself, but totally worth it. It was time to think of the game plan for tomorrow, and to realize that I was probably much more deranged that a harmless Croatian babushka grandmother.

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