Thirty years ago this week, more or less to the day, my life as a traveler began. My mother yanked me out of school and we set off from Vienna for unknown territory to the south. I’d only been in school in Vienna for a few weeks—we'd actually just moved to Vienna at the end of December—and Mrs. Wolfgang, my teacher at the Vienna International School, was quite displeased.*
The first leg of the journey was by train, from Vienna to Ljubljana. In Ljubljana we walked part way up Castle Hill, sliding on ice before deciding it was the better part of wisdom to turn back. We had dinner at a corner cafe, its air heavy with cigarette smoke. From the window of our hotel the next morning I was mesmerized by some office workers in the building across the street. "Do people work hard in Communist countries?" I asked my mother with an American wonder. "Well Yugoslavia isn't really a Communist country, you know. Tito broke with the Soviets." A short lesson followed.
We took the train on to Rijeka and caught the Jadrolinija ferry from there to Dubrovnik. We watched the sunset from the frigid top deck. My mother recited T.S. Eliot. We ate a three-course dinner in the dining room, served by waiters in suits.
The next morning, we docked very early in Split. My mother negotiated with the crew to allow us off while the ship was docked. We walked to Diocletian’s Palace in the dawn light and smelled fresh bread emerging from a bakery. It was a completely new world, full of ancient narrow stone alleys and delivery men who bundled steaming bread into satchels attached to the back of scooters and drove off into the dawn.
A few hours later the boat docked in Hvar and I swooned. There were palm and orange trees, for God’s sake. I was several weeks into my first real winter and the heat felt like a gift. The quay itself was made out of worn stone and the sun was shining brightly. “We have to come back here,” I told my mother. And we returned that summer, for a week.
I don't recall the time we spent in Dubrovnik, but Mostar and Sarajevo both cast huge impressions. In Mostar we walked over Stari Most, a narrow 16th-century Ottoman bridge that towered over the Neretva River below. An unfamiliar sound pierced the late afternoon. “That’s the call of the mosque,” my mother told me. “And that’s a mosque,” she said as she pointed toward a small building. Men were removing their shoes and settling onto mats inside. At that moment a man rode up on his bicycle, noticed our interest, and spoke to us in English. He invited us in to observe. His face was open and sincere.
In Sarajevo we walked through the old bazaar and my mother bought rugs, baskets, and a coffee pot, bargaining for each. She folded the treasures into the basket and we continued on to Zagreb and from there back to Vienna, carrying the basket the entire way. In Zagreb, the departure board didn't seem to list our train home to Vienna. Then we noticed a train leaving at the precise time as ours for Maribor, the last stop in Yugoslavia.
I’d traveled before. I’d been around the world as an infant, but of course I couldn't remember any of it. In my childhood I’d been up and down the West Coast of the US and into Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. But this Yugoslavia was new. This was a world full of people speaking languages I couldn’t understand, doing things I’d never witnessed before. It was unfamiliar and deeply enthralling.
I think it’s accurate to say that my interest in travel began that week in Yugoslavia. Thank you, Mutti.
*This trend of displeasure on the part of Mrs. Wolfgang, it turned out, would have legs. She didn’t think much of my parents’ decision to have me leave school a few weeks before end-of-term exams to travel, either. “You’ll miss the safari day, but that’s your choice of course,” she nasally opined to the entire grade six class. I snorted internally. The safari day? I’m going to travel across Europe for the next four months, you ridiculous woman!