Still in the southern Irish farmhouse, for about another month, until August 23rd. The weather continues to be quite variable, with more fog recently, alternating with bright sunshine and sometimes very pretty summer weather. A succession of other Airbnb guests come and go, occupying the other available room in 1s, 2s, and 3s, and when a family of 3 and the host and her adult son and daughter and her 3 small dogs and 2 cats are all here, as well as I, it gets quite pleasantly homey. (When it’s just me in the house, and the dogs are shut upstairs and yapping for hours on end, it’s somewhat less appealing, but into each life….)
I’ve been out on 2-3 hour long walks every day, thanks to the miracle of Pokemon Go, the new geolocation app that came out 3 weeks ago. You may remember my playing Ingress when I was in Japan, walking all over Tokyo, Kyoto, and Sapporo in pursuit of abstract game goals in a shared, science fictional, virtual world — kind of a mini-MMO built on top of Google Maps. Well, the company that created that, Niantic, has built a version of the Pokemon game using that same technology, and just like Ingress it rewards walking around. It’s more than a little buggy still, and the servers keep getting overloaded with player demand (it’s already passed Tindr and is over 10% of Twitter’s active user base already and is still growing), but it gives me the incentive I need to walk longer and farther than I would otherwise, for which I am grateful. I’ve never been good at exercise for the sake of exercise, but if you give me some other purpose or goal that happens to involve it, I’ll happily work myself into wonderfully good shape.
I think I mentioned, in a previous post, that I’ve worked out the post-farmhouse schedule: a few days in Dublin, then off to Glasgow for a month, then back to Edinburgh for 6 weeks. I’ve now gone on to work out what’s next: it turns out, it’s super cheap to fly Dublin to JFK, so I’m going to go back to Dublin for a few days on 11/7, fly to JFK and stay in an Airbnb in New York for a few more, then fly round trip to LA on 11/15, staying through Jan 4th before flying back to JFK.
This turns out to be the cheapest course, will give me shorter flights that I won’t feel the need to spend business class frequent flier miles on, and should also minimize jet lag. (I may not manage any side trips during this round of holidays, I’m afraid; the crucial Seattle keystone of those northern legs is missing this year, and the travel’s a bit pricey without it. Next year, for sure, though.) I’m not sure of my exact schedule after that, but at some point after January 4th I’ll fly on to southern Europe — probably Spain or Portugal — and proceed to another European leg from there. I’ve updated my Itinerary page accordingly.
I’ve also added a Books page, next to the Itinerary link above, listing the books I’ve talked about in this blog and linking to the posts I mentioned them in. I read a bunch in my next locations, and was having trouble remembering which ones I’d reviewed in the past and which I hadn’t. The Books page took me longer to compile than I’d expected: I had to browse all my previous posts, and ended up quite happily reading at least 1/3 of them. Turns out, I quite enjoy the sound of my own literary voice! Who’d have thought? (Ok, probably all of you would have thought that. But still.) But it was a kind of crazy nostalgia trip looking at all those pictures; seems like forever ago, now. And just this morning, I was reading this Lifehacker article on how to be a digital nomad, and I could see that not only did I do pretty much all of these things, they’ve largely become second nature to me. It suddenly struck me that this felt like it was just my life now. For 18-20 months, it’s been this weird adventure experience that I’ve been on… and somehow, just recently, it’s shifted psychologically into Just How Things Are. Read, watch TV, browse Twitter, go on walks, sometimes see interesting things, plan where to live next and how to get there, go to a new city, live with new people, lather, rinse, repeat. (BTW, does anyone actually repeat that? Isn’t lathering and rinsing once enough, like 99% of the time?) It’s become as routine and natural as anyone else’s life would be, as much so as any other phase of my life. I rather like that.
So that’s where I am now. But between now and my last blog post is a good 5 months of elapsed time. Don’t worry: I think I can wipe out 1 of those months in one post, today, and the next 2 months in my next one by the end of the week. Let’s see if I’m right!
So, at the end of my 2 weeks in Florence time, it was Monday, February 22nd, and I was supposed to go to Split, Croatia, a sea town on the other side of the Adriatic Sea from Italy. If I recall correctly, one of my earlier maps of Italy includes both Florence and Split, so lets see if I can find that…
Yes, that was it — my whole world from February through May. And you can see how this lays out on the map… It had taken me 90 minutes by train from Rome to Florence, so thumbnailing the map I’d figured I could take a train from Florence to “the coast” in a couple of hours, then a boat across to that little bit of water to Split in 5 or 6 hours, and boom we’re done.
No. Not remotely. First, there *is* no train to the coast. There’s a train up to Bologne, and then a connecting train down to Ancona, where most of the ferries to Split leave from. Except that most of them don’t leave in February, which is the off season. Of the 4 or 5 ferry lines, only one, Jadrolinija, is running at that time of year, and they only have one boat, an overnight ferry that leaves Ancona at 7:45pm and arrives in Split at about 7am.
And it took me no small amount of time to sort that out, sitting in my room in Florence while the wind and rain whipped by outside, hunting through websites with varying levels of English-accessibility and trying to put together an itinerary. I considered trying to take a train all the way, going around the Adriatic instead of across it, but that involved 4 trains and 3 countries and probably having to navigate immigration at each stop, and still took something like 12 hours minimum, getting me in super late. I considered taking a train back down to Rome and flying to Split, but that was weirdly expensive (and would involve the usual airplane hassles). Eventually, I got it all sorted out: my train would leave Florence at around 11:30, take 45 minutes to get to Bologne, a 45 minute wait for the train to Ancona, 3 hours for the trip there, and a leisurely 3.5 hours to get to the ferry — and maybe grab some dinner beforehand. And if somehow I missed the train for the second leg, there was another that still left me plenty of time. Perfect.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha! <nervous twitch> Well, it started out well.
- A slow morning,
- relaxed packing,
- walk to the train station,
- sit there staring at the boards trying to figure out why my train to Bologne isn’t appearing on them with the right info,
- hear that it’s delayed,
- realize I’m looking at the Arrival board not the Departure board,
- go to the Departure board and see the 15 minute delay (relax, plenty of leeway),
- get on the train when it arrives — yaay!
- arrive in Bologne 15 minutes late
- quickly find my train and grab a seat in an uncrowded car at the end
- leave on time — yaay!
- the other 2 people on my car get off at different stops
- the whole train stops on the tracks for over an hour, while I sit there in the empty car hearing very occasional announcements in Italian and (thank gods) English, getting progressively more nervous and noticing that the deserted empty car would be a great place to be murdered
- start up again and make it to Ancona without further delay — yaay!
- walk 25 minutes through an almost industrial seaside area to get down to the pier
- see what has to be my ship (a triple decker ferry with the Jadrolinija logo) but no visible offices to check in at except for the currently closed customs agent
- wait until after 6pm for it to open,
- stand in a line of people (2/3 Chinese) waiting to get on,
- get told by the customs agent that my eTicket won’t get me on, that I have to take a shuttle to where the Jadrolinija offices are, almost back to the train station, get a ticket, and come back — but don’t worry the shuttle runs constantly you have plenty of time
- worry anyway
- go out to the street and catch the shuttle within 5 minutes — yaay!
- get to the ticket offices in 10 minutes, get my ticket, go back to the shuttle stop at 6:20 to wait for the next shuttle with a group of other miscellaneous travellers,
- start making contingency plans in my head for missing my boat
- shuttle arrives at 6:55pm
- get back to customs at 7:15
- get on the boat and breathe sigh of relief.
Jadrolinija could really do with some more explicit instructions on where to go if you buy your tickets online. I could have saved myself so much time and effort and worry if they just said, “Hey, you’ve bought your e-ticket, comrade. Stop at this address to pick up your boarding document! Thanks for sailing Jadrolinija.” I’d have detoured 3 blocks on my walk from the train, and it would all have been handled. Oh well.
So, the customs guys let me through, I walked around the only available route to the landward end of the ferry where the cars enter, showed my ticket, and was led through the parking level to an interior stairwell. Found the check-in desk, got a key card, and found my berth.
When I booked this place, I pored through a bunch of options and picked the one that (a) had a window, (b) had its own bathroom and (c) had only two beds. With tax, it cost me about 1,085 Crotian Kuna — there’s a 7-1 ratio to the dollar so that was about $160. I could have gone as cheaply as about $90 (interior, 4 beds, no bathroom), and I could have paid even more for a single-bed room, but I gambled that, in the off season, the place wouldn’t be packed and I’d have the room to myself. This turned out to be correct, so yay me!
The ferry had a couple of dining rooms; I picked one at random, was greeted by a Croatian waiter who cycled through 4 languages until he found mine, and was seated by the window in a space that looked like a moderately well decorated, Soviet-era banquet room.
When I got back to my room, I set my alarm to get up in time to have breakfast before we docked — but then we docked in Split about an hour earlier than scheduled, so I ended up rushing a bit to eat, get packed, and get out before the cleaning crew arrived. (FYI, sleeping on a largish ferry, even on modestly turbulent seas, is little different from sleeping in any small hotel room, and *way* more peaceful than sleeping on a train.) An uneventful walk down the pier got me to Croatian customs, I popped through that quickly, and was officially in Split by 6:30!
Here I am already talking about directions, and I haven’t even given you a map yet. Where are my manners?
Split is a very old city, the second largest in Croatia, dating back around 2400 years, and it’s been a tourist center for about that long. The wiki page I just linked has a ton of information about its history, economy, and the like, but the reality of it seems to devolve into a few key ingredients.
- The Old City, which is mostly what you see to the left in that panoramic picture (and starting a couple of blocks right of my arrow on the map), primarily containing a huge walled area of very old 3 story stone buildings and narrow streets known as Diocletian’s Palace, after the Roman emperor who had it built in the 4th century AD.
- The Riva, a recently built outdoor restaurant arcade, reclaimed from the water (which used to lap against the Palace’s south gate) and built up between the water and the palace. (I wish them luck with that, when global warming raises the water levels by up to 6 feet.)
- Tourists from all over Europe (and some from Asia), who come to Split in the warmer seasons for its modest beaches, warm weather, and low cost of living (i.e., its weak and grateful economy).
- A vast expanse of Soviet-era buildings, outside the Old City, that look like slightly-decayed modular hell. Think of early-70s architecture, square, looking like stucco and/or aluminum and metal panels with worn and fading pastel colors.
- The Marjan hill, a large, mostly undeveloped park with a high peak and a great view.
- A normally super dry climate, drier than southern California.
Honestly, I’ve never seen as many men in sweatpants as I did in Split. (Zagreb too, but Split the most.) It’s like every eastern European cliche realized. It reminded me of a music video for “Horse Outside” by the Rubberbandits; I saw that a few years ago in the U.S., and I looked it up and embedded it here. But when I sent a link for it to a friend this morning, they said it wasn’t visible anymore in the U.S. — and I proxied into a U.S. connection and couldn’t see it anymore (just derivative videos, not the original). So, I’m deleting the embedded video, with regret. Here, have a Pokemon Go stampede in Central Park instead:
Anyway, I say it’s like an Eastern European cliche, and there’s some truth to that. “Sweatpants” is a stand in for a key truth: this is a Slavic country, culturally connected to Bulgaria, Hungary, and the like, and part of Yugoslavia since WWII, until that broke apart into Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, etc. Croatia has long been culturally influenced by Italy, and they were not happy members of Yugoslavia, and were glad to be out it. Since then, they’ve been investing in infrastructure and building and it seems to have been helping. The country isn’t economically strong, and there’s a lot of unemployment (as there is in most of southern Europe), but they’ve got some amazingly shiny highways and my place in Split had possibly the best internet I’ve yet had in my travels, U.S. included! They get 3 times as many tourists each year as they have residents — mainly from Italy and Germanic countries, and everyone I encountered spoke at least some English, which was super convenient. I, of course, spoke almost no Croatian except for the standard useful phrases (excuse me, thank you, good day) and “Ne razumijem Hrvatski”. (“I don’t speak Croatian.”) I’m told that my pronunciation of that last is excellent.
If you’ve spent anytime around Eastern Europeans and Russians, you’ll know they have this weary look to them, and attitude of, “Life’s rough, there’s nothing you can do about it, just keep going.” The Croatians have an echo of that, but it’s much more cheerfully inflected. It’s almost the same look, but it’s more, “Life’s rough, there’s nothing you can do about it, so just relax and enjoy what you have and the world around you.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people that looked — by our standards at least — relaxed. They’re just being there. I’m sure they get stressed, but — coming as I had from LA via New York and Italy — they sure didn’t seem to show it. And friendlier than anyplace I’ve been except possibly Chiang Mai, and even Chiang Mai seemed tenser — like the Thai knew there were opportunities to be had and some fighting to be done to make the most of them. The Croatians seem to have just let that go. Whether that’s better or worse is a different question, but they felt really kind of nice to be around. The Canadians of Europe.
I had arranged to meet my host, Ivana, at around 9:20 at a church at the western end of the Riva, so from the ferry I walked down a sidewalk between the piers and a row of kind of slightly seedy-looking travel and tourist shops, until I got to the eastern end of the Riva, which was much nicer. I found an ATM, found a coffee shop, and settled down to catch up on email and Twitter.
I did take a few other pictures of the Riva while I was there, but, as is sometimes true, Google does as good or better, and with more variety. It’s basically like a Santa Monica Promenade, except with a 1700 year old building on one side, water on the other, and almost all restaurants (plus 2 banks and a tourist info center). So, nothing like the Promenade, really. They’re both outdoors, that’s the main thing.
After a couple of hours there, I wandered over to the church, Ivana (a very pretty, recent mother in her late-20s/early-30s, very friendly and with excellent English) drove up on her moped in the rain, and directed me up the street to an intersection where she waited to direct me to the base of some stairs, take a left, and walk down to where the Airbnb place was. (I’d rather expected her to meet me in a car, but following her breadcrumbs in the rain worked well enough, and it was only a few blocks up a mild slope.)
The Airbnb place was pretty great; the listing is here. Ivana turned out to be a property manager for a British couple who owned the two unit building and had recently renovated it. They weren’t there most of the the time, and only used the lower floor, so the upper floor studio was rented out on Airbnb. It was a very comfortable space, a single largish room living and dining spaces, a kitchenette (small fridge, range, and microwave, but no oven), electric kettle and French press (but no coffee grinder), high wood-beamed ceiling, a perfectly pleasant bathroom. And, as I mentioned earlier, fantastic internet. Super fast, super stable. The patio had a bit of view of the harbor and rooftops — not a super impressive view in itself, but quite pleasant in the mornings. The weather was normally cool — it was February-March, after all — often windy, sometimes rainy. In short, nearly perfect. And there was *no* traffic noise, except for some occasional boats or seaplanes in the harbor. I gave them a great review on Airbnb, and you should be able to read it on the listing, if you want more details. And I got totally sucked into another round of playing Fallout 4, mixed with finishing season 1 of Daredevil, and reading.
Speaking of which, this studio was a great place to sit and read, and I got a couple or 3 books out of the way while I was there, between the other activities. Including this one, Peace, by Gene Wolfe:
Gene Wolfe is a famous SF writer, especially known for a hard-SF series called The Book of the New Son. I’d read that years ago, and it’s really, really excellent, one of the classic, famous works of SF. So, recently, when Neil Gaiman mentioned Peace being one of his favorite books, I thought I should give it a go.
Alas, while I think I see what Gaiman likes about it, I was largely bored. The book is basically the narration of a very old man in a midwestern town, as he recalls various experiences of his life, starting when he was born in the early 20th century. You immediately realize that something is weird, as he talks to people that he knows aren’t really there — indeed, from the beginning it sounds almost as if he’s the only person left alive in the world — but the book keeps the mystery of what’s really going on running all the way through. It spends most of its time in the past, and very little on his present state. There are clues, although they took me in a direction that subsequent online reading suggests was the wrong one. And, apparently, there are whole websites devoted to analyzing what Wolfe was doing in his books, because it seems that he’s fond of unreliable narrators (those whose viewpoints you can’t trust to be accurate), and he likes mystery. I don’t really mind that — I can be happy with a lot of mystery, and while I think I prefer my narrators to be reliable about their own experiences, I’m not married to it. The thing is, aside from this one central mystery, the book is really just an autobiography of an old guy in a midwestern town. The writing is good, the characters are well realized. But… well… nothing really happens. There are maybe three significant events, and all three of them are brushed past or occluded in a way that saps them of any excitement. I think, in retrospect, that I see what Wolfe was doing here, but it doesn’t make it any more interesting.
And, when I did read Gaiman’s afterword, looked up an online analysis, and got a better sense of the mystery, it wasn’t one of these amazing illuminations that completely changed my view on it. It was just a, “I guess that makes sense. Yeah, I see it, sure.” I suppose there were people whose minds were blown by it, but I wasn’t one. It’s clearly presented that there*is* a mystery; maybe if you’d fixed in your head what that mystery was, only to have it overturned, you’d be more thrown. But, for me, it was just floating there through the whole book, until Gaiman and others encouraged it to gently settle on a perfectly suitable solution. Ok. There we are, then.
So this is clearly a YMMV. I found myself to be disappointed by it, but it’s a well regarded book, and if you find a copy of it in a library or something, you might well turn out to like it. In other words, don’t let my mild boredom with it discourage you from finding out if you, too, would be bored. 😉
As long as I’m here — the view out the north window:
The owners of the studio had left a fairly comprehensive booklet of things in the local area, including a nearby seafood restaurant that they recommended, and I ate there my first night — one of the only two places I ate out at during my stay in Split. They recommended a seafood stew, and the owner persuaded me to have a white wine with it.
It was a good meal, and I was auspiciously placed under a display of Croatian tennis haiku.
There were various smallish grocery stores nearby — Konzum is a popular chain, as is Tom’s — which I frequented until I found the really big Konzum 25 minutes walk away in what might be their only mall. It was a tiny mall, but no less a mall for its small size than a dwarf person is a person, or a dwarf planet a planet. (Pluto, forever.) The mall was called “Joker”, and you can see it on the map, where I have a star labeled “Cinestar”, the name of the theater in that mall (part of a Croatian theater chain). It was there that I got to see Deadpool — yaay! — in English with Croatian subtitles as expected. Damn, but that was a good movie. Not for everyone mind, and a *lot* of over-the-top violence done in a deliberately cartoony style. Deadpool is a Marvel character written very much for laughs, as a bit of a parody of hyper-violent comics heroes of the 90s, and known for breaking the 4th wall and talking directly to the reader — or player, in video games that feature him — or viewer, in this case. And there was a lot of that sort of thing, from the title sequence credits labeling everyone with their stereotyped roles (“Directed by: An Overpaid Tool”), to the Deadpool character mentioning the name of the actor playing him, and commenting that the guy gets acting gigs based on his looks rather than his acting chops. I was really looking forward to this movie, and it did not disappoint. (And, once more, mind blown by people leaving the theater before the after-end-credits scene. Even in Croatia, have they learned nothing?)
Speaking of grocery stores, shopping in Croatia was sometimes a challenge. Nothing like Japan, mind you, but trying to find the word for oatmeal (turns out, it’s “zobene pahuljice”) was a real challenge. They do get some products with English labeling, or German, or Italian. And I had a real blast from the past: in German the word for animal food, what we’d call “feed” as in “horse feed” or “cow feed”, is “futter”. Want to guess what you call “trail mix” in German?
Hah! I’d forgotten that, from my German classes! 🙂
I was, btw, completely unable to find ½-n-½ or cream, and had to make do with milk for my coffee. Wait, that’s not quite true, there was what appeared to be cream, but the ingredients panel was chock full of chemical things, probably intended to preserve it, and I didn’t want to get anywhere near that. It was weird.
Language differences are always fascinating. I was delighted to see this:
Before I leave the grocery subject, I should mention that instant coffee was *everywhere* in grocery stores. Thankfully, I managed to decipher this, and didn’t buy any. Non-instant, pre-ground coffee was in the minority, but it was available. Alas, it was ground way too fine for a French press; I made it work, but the grounds clogged up the press’s filter, and I had to press down so hard that I end up stripping the plastic screw attachment that fitted the central rod to the filter disk. (It shouldn’t have been made of plastic at all, but that’s a different problem.) I sent Ivana an e-mail saying, “Hey, it’s either my fault or the workmanship, but I checked Amazon and that model is 150 kuna. If I leave 200 in the end table, would that be all right? Sorry for the bother.” She said that was fine — and seemed pretty enthusiastic about it. I’m guessing most people just keep their mouths shut instead of volunteering about the problem.
I was able to continue using the press anyway, by jury-rigging the action with a fork. But I switched to whole beans — I kept hearing that Croatians loved their coffee, but apparently they love meeting at cafes for coffee and don’t necessarily love making it well at home. Whole beans were rare, and while I was willing to buy a coffee grinder — and leave it and its Croatian electrical plug in Zagreb when I left that city in May — I literally could not find a grinder anywhere. Not even in appliance stores that carried coffee makers and espresso machines! So I picked up some baking paper and a rolling pin, and used manual grinding.
FYI, the studio’s kitchenette had a couple of battered pots and pans, but I went ahead and bought my first ceramic pan to cook eggs in. It was amazing! Perfectly non-stick, and (being ceramic) not made out of suspect, Eastern European, non-stick materials. I left the pan in Zagreb too; *that* I’ll miss.
On my way to the Joker mall, with the big grocery store, I’d often pass this building, which I think is for a Croatian insurance company:
Marjan and Other Scenery
The Marjan hill above my studio is covered by a massive park covered with scrub pine and succulents — I saw at least 3 kinds of cactus my first day hiking it, which — combined with the parkas that the locals were wearing — persuaded me that I did *not* want to still be in Split come summer. But I hiked that steep hill to reach the top, at least half the days that I was in Split, and it was quite scenic.
I was walking along one of these paths and I thought I saw a small black bear ambling towards me. I stopped dead in some alarm, but it turned out to be a bloody huge dog. There were a lot of giant dogs in Split, but this was a monster. I don’t think it was a Caucasian Shepherd Dog, but it wasn’t far from it. I respect big dogs. Still wouldn’t want a dog, but, if I had to….
I had a good long walk along the southern waterfront that day, intending to circumnavigate the city. Instead, I covered almost all of the southern boundary, turned inland a little way, and was too hot and tired to finish and walked home from there. A minor defeat. But I got gelato when I hit the Riva again, so it wasn’t wasted.
BTW, appropos of nothing except that I ran into a screenshot of TurboTax in my iPhone, I got my taxes done in plenty of time in mid-March. (Thanks again to Sarah for sending me pictures of my tax documents.) Plenty of money back this year, since I got my severance check at the start of 2015, for about ½-a-year’s salary, and they always tax that as if you’ll be earning at that rate for the whole year, which I hadn’t. Didn’t have as many tax deductions in 2015 as usual, of course. Not surprising, with no condo expenses and a much smaller budget for charitable contributions, and I confess that this aspect of my retirement bugs me a bit. I wouldn’t mind more money for non-essential expenses, but I don’t really need it. But I would like more money to give to charities, though. Or kickstarters. Or just people. And even based on what I think I can afford there, I’m still living with some uncertainty about my living expenses, and it makes me reluctant to donate as much as maybe I could. I guess I just need to be patient; 4-5 years down the road, I should have a pretty solid pattern down, and can kick the contributions up a notch. Until then, you do what you can.
You may wonder why I haven’t included much of Diocletian’s Palace. That’s partly because it’s really just a walled set of city blocks, with the formerly interesting bits turned into Christian chapels. I’d just had that in spades in Rome and Florence, and wasn’t really pushing for more here. But I did make a point of hitting the 4 gates before I left:
The South Gate faces onto the Riva — which, if you don’t remember from earlier, has 50 million pictures on Google.
And that was Split! On Tuesday, March 22nd, I packed up early and caught a 09:00 bus to Zagreb (ticket bought 2 days before, because the ticket sellers had almost laughed at me when I tried to buy 2 weeks ahead).
I have to say — and, indeed, there is no reason why I should not — that I really liked Split. It’s not a huge place, and there wasn’t much going on there (I mean, there were some late night dance places and plenty of gambling facilities, but not much for me). But it was pretty, had a huge park, lots of sea air, very friendly people, plenty of English, a great room to stay in. I could really see myself going back there in a couple of years and doing it again. Particularly since I didn’t learn about the most amazing thing in Split until long after I’d left it, when I was in Edinburgh!
Next time. Next time.