Cultural Baggage

I have been living in the Old City of Dubrovnik for four days, which is as akin to living in a medieval fortress as I will ever achieve. I completely understand why they call it the Pearl of the Adriatic–the entire town is made of sleek, polished white stone (which is fiercely slippery when wet) with red terracotta roof tiles and is perched against the technicolor Adriatic sea and a deep green cover of trees outside the walls. We tend to write off the medieval as outdated, something that has been improved upon so many times that its original incarnation has lost its relevance. But what is left of the middle ages is sturdy, solid. These medieval walls saved Dubrovnik during the 1991 civil war.

Earlier today I went to a gallery called War Photo Limited. Tucked into a stone alley in the Old City, the rooms are painted blue-grey and hold enlarged images by AP photographers during several global conflicts in the last decades. It is a collection of powerful, first-hand accounts by the photojournalists whose images are usually edited by others and whose stories are often used as a mere illustration of printed text. Just outside the gallery, the glare of the sun blinds the tourists as we traipse down the slick white Stradun, the main street, toward the Pile Gate, still guarded by an image of Saint Blaise who protected the city from Venice centuries ago and from the ravages of the twentieth century as well.

One image in the exhibition stood out because it showed the boats in the Old Harbor aflame against the cityscape and the bell tower of the Dominican monastery. It was taken from approximately the same spot where I had lunch on a terrace overlooking the busy scene of families and sailors and gelato stands and booths for promoting day cruises. There is a room in the Rector’s Palace, not far from that some Dominican church, that houses a memorial for the Dubrovnik Defenders, the men and boys who died defending the city in 1991. It is simply designed, patriotic and respectful but not sappy. A tattered scrap of fabric is framed on one wall, a flag that flew over Dubrovnik during that time. Its shabbiness reminded me of the original Star-Spangled Banner (although I remember the viewing of the American one was quite a production in when it was revealed to a dramatic rendition of the national anthem in DC when I was ten.) Here the walls hold sepia-toned photos of the Defenders, many of them fuzzy or bitmapped, most likely scanned and cropped from a family photo or Christmas snapshot. Their ages ranged from young boys who would probably be my age now to older men, someone’s dad, maybe even grandfathers by now. A video shows images of the destruction.

There was a similar and even less steady balance of polished tourist attractions and remnants of destruction in Mostar, a town in Bosnia-Herzogovenia where I took a bus excursion this week. People from tour guides to locals to guidebooks are loathe to go into detail about the civil war there, tip-toeing around causes and sides and focusing only on the general devastation and eventual rebuilding. The bridge there is the most obvious example, rebuilt after its destruction with the same technology and materials that the Ottomans had used four hundred years earlier. I remember brushing off the Channel 1 News reports of the Bosnian Civil War in high school homeroom. Trying to figure out why Anderson Cooper was dodging bullets required more political understanding than my fourteen-year-old comprehension was willing to undertake. The excursion day left me feeling a bit hypocritical, going there on a plush bus and taking a few photos of the still-deconstructed blocks surrounded by shiny new buildings and calling myself an educated visitor.

On this trip I have been coming to terms with being a tourist. Or a traveler. Or whatever you want to call meandering with a suitcase. I certainly don’t look down on people for earning a living from tourists. And kitchy souvenirs are my specialty (here is where I confess to purchasing a trivet made entirely of seashells). So why do I look down on myself when I have crossed some sort of line in the imaginary travel sand, as if my wanderings aren’t quite worthy enough to provide any real knowledge or depth of experience? Is it even possible to have an inauthentic experience if you’re actually living it?

Yesterday, for instance, I took a pre-packaged day cruise which managed to encapsulate all of my hopes for a summer vacation. It was a three-island boat tour and beach jaunt with a “fish picnic” or FISH PICNIC! as the brochures and signs on the booths at the Old Harbor claim.  Being out on the sea, facing away from the boat with my feet dangling over the edge above the water was a perfect afternoon of freedom.

This tourist-based economy is no Disneyland. Just below the surface of hospitality and peaceful surroundings is a series of deep wounds. But the mere experience of being here is living. I found an apartment to stay in through a woman listed in the guidebook. She gathered from my email that I was a solo traveler and although she had no rooms available, she made a few calls and found me other places to stay. I inadvertantly cracked up a Bosnian barista when I ordered a coffee–he stretched out his hand so I put mine out to shake it, not realizing it is like Italy where you pay first, and he just wanted my receipt. I could hear the whole bar staff chuckling as he related the story to them while I paid. Some Italian tourists on the boat yesterday invited me to join them as we explored the Elafiti Islands and ate our fish picnic. They live near Mola, the next stop on my journey. Last night I listened to a trio of fiddlers play “Man of Constant Sorrows” bluegrass-style in front of the cathedral in town near Orlando’s column. And today, I spent the afternoon walking around the top of the city walls, surveying the town that houses some surprisingly good Renaissance art, many icons and reliquaries, a million cruise ship tourists, and some pretty good shopping.

This morning I left the key to my apartment in the box outside and began the long climb down 120 medieval stone steps. I have a hard and fast rule of only packing what I can carry, so there’s no self-pity here regarding the absurd weight of my suitcase. It’s entirely my own fault. On the way down there were people socializing on the steps, as usual, and a man thoughtfully gestured to his companions that they should get out of my way. The two women stared at me and leaned on the walls. I quipped, “next time I’m bringing a backpack!” and one of them replied with a sullen, judgemental “yes, that’s too big.” Seriously? Feeling the need to defend myself and not be seen as one of those girls who packs more shoes than she can carry, I said I’d been living out of it for six weeks. They continued to stare at me as a struggled on each step and I heard her say to the other behind my back, “I’d just throw it down the stairs. I wouldn’t carry that thing.” I could hear the pursed lips and wrinkled nose as she eyed my sweaty descent and dirt-streaked Target luggage–filled with clothes and postcards and sea stones and journals and other precious items–with distaste. I fantasized momentarily about marching back up there and bouncing it off her head. Ah, yes, a reminder of why I like vacationing in places where I don’t speak the language.

Near the bottom, a man eating gelato with his family jumped up to help me with the last few stairs. Grazie mille, sir. Even with my only-what-you-can-carry rule, I am no less grateful for people who are stronger (and kinder) than I am.

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