The Long Way Home

Still Lost in Belgrade


Beograd, the "white city"

Beograd, the "white city"

7:30 am: The view from my Hotel Astoria room faces another gray concrete structure. The window curtains are orange and dim lamps cast a faint glow. The sun is rising, but it’s still freezing outside. The bus leaves at 10 and  I refuse to miss it. 

Last night in the bus station, Ari and I hopped from station agent to agent, asking when the next bus left for Osijek. “Last one,” we were told over and over. We wandered all around the bus station, through the train station, which was surreally quiet. A few military men paced in front of a bench, waiting for the next train. The further east I travel, I begin to see signs for cities in Ukraine, in Turkey, and Belarus. The famed Orient Express stopped here. I imagined Rebecca West writing passages of Black Lamb, Grey Falcon on loose sheets of  brown paper. Not much has changed since then.

Or maybe it has. What we figured out later was that “last one” wasn’t “last bus,” but “next one over,” meaning the next station over. There is an entirely separate station for Croatian buses. This is when language barrier isn’t just a cute little travel tale to tell the folks at home. The importance and beauty of the preposition! 

I am dirty and desperately in need of a toothbrush and a comb. The direness of my financial situation finally kicked in this morning too so I must get to an Internet cafe and track down some money. Two more months of European splendor! If I make it that long. It’s almost 8 am and I’m catching that damn bus back to god-forsaken Hrvatska.

8:43 am: Notes from god-forsaken Serbia

The Internet connection (or lack of) is painfully slow. I spent 45 minutes trying to connect, then gave up. I don’t even have access to email, my lifeline. I stormed back to my room to find 2 women dressed in french maid unifroms standing outside my door. One woman had a broom in her hand and the other a bottle of window cleaner. They pressed their ears to the door, probably checking if I was there. I marched between them, breaking up their little conspiratorial party. They burst into laughter.  When I looked through the peephole in the door to see if they were angry, they had already gone. 

I know I should make the best of this and not have such a crap attitude, but I am so ready to just go. 

10:00 am: I made the bus. I should have asked Ari for 20 dinar for the seat reservation (roughly .32USD – it’s customary for a seat charge on Eastern European buses), but the lady who guarded the turnstile knew I couldn’t understand Serbian and let it slide. See, everyone is so nice here — I just wish the circumstances were different for me to enjoy it all. Am I not cut out for die-hard travel? How brave am I, living on the promises of friends for cash, blowing off my bills back home and doing volunteer work when I could use my own donation? I am so disappointed at how American I am acting right now. 

11:00 am: I am still on this bus. The irony that yesterday the bus left on time and today I am on time and the bus is late is not lost on me. I am laughing to myself thinking of the Hotel Astoria’s idea of an “Internet cafe” — an unheated office room with an empty desk, a spinning rack of travel brochures and a pleather couch loaded with boxes. God I love Eastern Europe! I do, actually.  I already miss Belgrade just thinking of my return to Osijek. 

one last look before I go

one last look before I go



What I Failed to Capture on Film

There were moments in my travels where the camera failed me, or I failed the camera. I wasn’t fast enough to load film or grab the camera from my bag, or I was flat-out too shy to risk that moment. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I chose to be a passive observer, knowing that the images – the ‘proof’ –  could be lost. I retreated to memory, or the quiet of my journal to record those snapshots. 

Slovenia, near the Hungarian border, a stork in her nest. You could see the outline of her against the setting sun, her long beak tucked into her chest. I couldn’t get over the size of her, balanced on top of two crossed telephone poles. I couldn’t believe at that moment that I was there.

Eastern Slovenia, on the balcony off a room at Flisar guesthouse. The moon was orange and hung so low in the sky that it looked as if it would drop into the field. 

Croatia, getting off the bus at the wrong stop and walking two miles back to a gypsy village to teach English to elementary kids. I was pissed off and cold. I looked off to the left of me and there were fields, flat as the American Midwest littered with signs that had skulls and crossbones painted on them. They marked landmines. It was the first moment I really felt that there had been a war there only 10 years before and I was walking in the aftermath of it. I passed stucco-looking homes with red tiled roofs, laundry stiffening on lines. I never understood this – why put your wet laundry out in the cold? I missed my American dryer, which softened all of my jeans. I passed a gypsy family hovering over the hood of a red Skoda, screaming at each other. They were trying to make the car run, but the battery had died. There were chickens walking across the road. The bus never came.

Vukovar, the most painful and confusing part of my trip. When you first enter Vukovar, you are greeted by an abandoned tank, as if someone had jumped out of it and would return right away, but got sidetracked. Which is probably the case. Or they ran out of gas or died along the way to help, which is more likely what happened. Vukovar was the most heavily hit city in Croatia, and it shows. The buildings look as if they were cut in half. There is only part of a train station, and the trains don’t run there anymore. Maybe things have changed even in the two years since I’ve been there, but I look it up on the Web, and I don’t read about a change. Vukovar is along the Danube River, and suprisingly, a stop on the myriad of Danube River tours that are advertised all over the EU. And right at the stop where tourists are released from their cruise, there was the brand new Hotel Lav. My friend Ari and I were the first Americans to enter the hotel, so we got the grand tour. It had just opened a few days earlier from the day we arrived, and the woman at the front desk was very proud of it. There were no guests since it was January, an off-season for Croatia, and even more so in a part of the world that nobody wants to remember, or that nobody knows. We were lead by the desk clerk through mirrored hallways dimly lit, but very modern. One Ikea-esque room, furnished in blond wood and metal, looked out over a bombed-out warehouse roof along the Danube. “This is our presidential suite,” the woman said.

Lake Balaton, Hungary, a snake shooting through the water. A mother tossed her naked little girl into the lake, coaching her to doggie paddle. A man walked out to the middle and the water still went up to his waist. A 70s era discoteque building on the boardwalk stood faded and silent in the sun. I wondered what it was like to be here during communism, when the country was shut out from the world. 

Ireland, a back road, somewhere in Dingle. I don’t remember any place names in Ireland, just the roads and the pitch blackness when it finally grew dark at 10pm. I loved that it grew dark so late, how you could see stars, or hear voices somewhere out there, but unlike America, it felt safe, like you could be out there for a long time and nobody could find you. And the smell was damp and clean and nothing like home.

Homesick for Budapest
I’m homesick for Budapest. I never lived there, but spent a month roaming the city, jobless and homeless. I arrived there in November a few years ago, with one suitcase and a bad case of laryngitis. I rented a third floor room from Catarina, a woman in her 70s who rented spaces to unsuspecting American tourists. The building was near Parliament on the Pest side of the Danube. I entered the dark hallway. There was no heat. The walls were painted an antique hospital green, which were peeling from the window panes. Mailboxes were clearly marked, but barely hanging by the hinges. Catarina called down to me from somewhere above. You Lisa? She said. Yes, I said in a hoarse voice. Where are you? You go up lift, she said. She dropped a pair of keys from the third floor. They landed on top of my suitcase.
She explained that I needed the keys to work the pulley elevator in the middle of the building. She explained, as she showed me the room, that she was lucky to have a working elevator, since a lot of the apartment buildings in Budapest no longer had ones that worked at all. My room was tiny with a bed and a rabbit-eared TV. The small bathroom was the Eastern European kind, with a shower attachment. You usually ended up squatting in the stall because the water pressure was never enough as we’re used to in the States. She quoted me 45 Euros, instead of the 25 that the guide had promised. I would need to move to a hostel after a few days because I was worried about cash. I worried about a lot of things that first week. I worried because I quit my job of seven years. I didn’t have more cash until Christmas, so I had to stretch that last bit for almost two months. And then there was the obvious: What the hell had I just done, leaving home without thinking about why I left in the first place?
detail of catarina's courtyard

detail of catarina's courtyard

 I was so sick the first few days in Budapest that I spent most of them in the room, bundled in a quilt, watching Euro MTV because I couldn’t understand Hungarian. I watched Dancer in the Dark, thankful that I never saw it in English because what I could follow just didn’t make any damn sense in any language. When the antibiotics kicked in and I could talk again, I braved the snow and the language barrier enough to walk the streets. I learned to read maps. Each morning, I highlighted places I really wanted to see, then figured out how the hell to get there. I think of Budapest in flashes – the sun on the Danube, my vision blinded by snow. Standing outside my room, listening to all the apartments grouped in the courtyard around me – the clatter of forks; a cough fit, or a child crying; the click of clothing in the laundry room next to my door. Being accosted by a Dutch Hare Krishna who told every foreign woman that she was beautiful. Walking through the Jewish quarter, trying to imagine the ghetto during World War II. Most of the buildings were pockmarked and scarred, bright yellows and blues against skies that darkened much earlier than home. I ate Chinese food from a place near my little nest, a Magyar version of chow mein smothered over roasted potatoes sprinkled with paprika. I relished those moments alone. 

Buda overlooking the danube

Buda overlooking the danube

In a few weeks time, I had conquered my fears of being completely in a different place, and started to see how people could live in one place forever,  allowing the language to fill them – in street signs and television and the tram clatter or at a train stop. Most of my English was spent writing to people at home, long handwritten letters that I knew would go unanswered because people didn’t write letters anymore. I didn’t care. I knew that the letters were love letters from my temporary home – they were meant more for me than anyone else.

a view through fisherman's bastion

I met so many people in the last few weeks I was there, people I still have contact with after all these years. It’s strange, to think of knowing someone for only a few days, yet feeling close to them in ways you may have known someone much longer. Maybe the brevity of time makes intimacy all that more immediate.

view from a room near Nyugati Station

view from a room near Nyugati Station

I was flipping through a National Geographic article recently about train travel. There was a photo of a morning in a train station right out of an old film. It was Keleti station, and I became excited, because I had suspected it was Keleti station and I had been there. I knew what it looked like in early morning. I had traveled in and out of that station many times, watching the schedule roll numbers on a giant destination board hanging from the ceiling. I remember watching for the times, sitting on top of my giant suitcase, thinking that it felt weird to be on the road because it didn’t feel strange. It felt like that was what I was meant to be doing in my life.

Home felt strange to me and unreal. Now I’m home and Budapest feels as if it didn’t happen. It’s taking a lot for me now to crawl back in memory and write this, trying to recall what the air smelled like on those cold Danube mornings, as I wondered why I ever left home. I have joined the ranks of routine again, and I’m lost because I want to gain back that peace I felt when I was on the road. I miss Budapest because it was the gateway to the rest of my stay in Eastern Europe for the next six months. I learned the gifts of patience, solitude and the importance of accepting who I am.

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