I was 14 when the Bosnian War ended in 1995. I remember hearing about it, but it was a world so far removed from my world that I didn’t bother to learn about it. Later, we all heard and read about the genocides, the mass rapes and the ethnic cleansing that went on as the rest of the world turned their heads. It’s one thing to read about it and another to be in the places where these atrocities happened.
We occasionally came across abandoned, bullet-ridden houses in Croatia, but seeing the remaining damage in Mostar was shocking. Rows and rows of pock-marked buildings stood next to brand new ones as silent but sobering reminders of the war. One especially notable place left over from the war is the “sniper tower”, a former bank building that was occupied by Serb and Croat forces.
As we made our way to the sniper tower in the afternoon (before the junkies go to the building in the evening to get high), we ran into a traveling American couple we met at the bus station on our way to Mostar the day before. THANK GOD. We wouldn’t have to explore the creepy abandoned building by ourselves!
If it weren’t for the crazy night we had last night, Zagreb would’ve been just another unmemorable city on our travels. But first, how we got there.
We had planned to meet our friend Ching-I from New York in Croatia, and decided that Zagreb (the capital of Croatia) would be the most convenient place for her to fly into to start exploring the rest of this weirdly-shaped country. After a day of sightseeing around Zagreb, the three of us quickly realized that the city itself really wasn’t anything special. There weren’t any really notable landmarks or tasty food to distract us from the blandness of the city.
Since we spent the weekend in Zagreb, we decided to check out the only “queer-friendly” bar (that wasn’t a club) I could find on the internet. We had some time to kill so we watched “Gravity” in IMAX for a mere $9 (not as cheap as Tallinn, though) and then walked back to the bar.
Café Vimpi is a cozy bilevel bar/café with a narrow spiral staircase that is a deathtrap for drunk people. But there weren’t any accidents that night, and the three of us settled around a small table and were served by the friendly lesbian bartender. Groups of queer people started trickling in, but we’re shy and we kept to ourselves. After a round of 0.5L Radlers, we looked around and ordered Tomislav beers, what the locals seemed to be drinking.
It’s not hard to find a beautiful place on the Istrian coast of Croatia. We knew we were going to be spending more time on the coast in the coming weeks, so we found a small, secluded hilltown of Groznjan as our first stop.
We took a bus to a tiny town called Buje on a cold and rainy afternoon and paid an idle old man we found in a café to drive us the rest of the way (about 8.5km on an uphill). Perched atop a hill overlooking farms and smaller villages below, Groznjan is a cluster of the cutest stone houses with a population of less than 100. When the town’s population dwindled and was on the verge of becoming a ghost town, a colony of artists moved in and made it their home and workplace. You can see the artists’ influence on the town in the brightly painted shutters, the beautiful plants decorating the houses and the ateliers dotting the place.
On yet another date to a cemetery, N and I visited the Cimitero Monumentale, known for the ornate and often gigantic burial monuments to the dead. I knew the Italians were pretty pious people, but daaaayyyuum! The massive mausoleums of all different architectural styles lined up next to each other make the place look like some sort of bizarre city that built itself without a city planner, based on the whims of each of the buildings’ residents. I guess that’s essentially what a cemetery is. But you’ve never seen anything like this, with one resident (or more likely their families) trying to outdo one another in height, size, artistic style or all of the above. Check out the photos and see for yourselves.
Some people might feel trapped if they found themselves in a small farmhouse in the middle of the country with no form of transportation to get out. We were actually totally fine, and used the isolation wisely. We spied on the sheep grazing next door, tried to catch the rooster unawares, bit into random fruits growing on bushes and trees to see if they were edible, played with bees, drew pictures and did all of the things normal people do.
So when Hubert asked us if we’d like to accompany him into town for customer deliveries, food shopping and anything else, we eagerly jumped into his van. We must’ve made quite a sight; Hubert with his flyaway hair tucked under a wide-brimmed hat and a hand-rolled cigarette sticking out of his mouth, and the two of us following him with our hats on and our jeans and boots covered in mud like two little Asian migrant workers. If we did, the French were polite enough not to stare as we stopped at a supermarket and picked up some necessities.
People say there is nothing like the French countryside and it’s true. After extensive searching on the French WWOOFing site, we found an opportunity with an organic farmer in a tiny village called Saint-Menoux. For two weeks, we learned French and Patois slang, drank exorbitant amounts of wine to stay warm at night, ate good organic food made by our farmer (a former chef at Michelin-starred restaurants) with the vegetables from his garden, had discussions in French and English late into the night, drove around the neighboring farms and chateaus in a beat-up Kia minivan and rocked out to Michael Jackson and Bryan Adams. Oh, and we did some work.
N and I left gay Paris and carpooled in a spacious Renault to the nearest town of Moulins to meet the farmer we would be spending two weeks with. As I sat there looking out of the window, Sancerre blew by us, its perfect rows of vineyards stretching on and on. I realized why people wax poetic about the countryside of this vast country. Old stone barns and farmhouses dotted the landscape, the red tiled roofs complementing the rolling green hills. Sheep grazed while the white cattle lay on the grass, sunning themselves. This wasn’t Middle America. This was heaven.
Because the farmer spoke mostly French, our email communications had been brief. We had little idea of what to expect besides the fact that he was gay-friendly and had a spare room for us in his house, so we were more than a little relieved when we met our farmer, Hubert-Brice, who ended up being a perfect gentleman and a progressive at heart. We had read horror stories of WWOOFing experiences, where the farmers exploited the workers, worked them all day, verbally abused them… Fortunately for us, it was clear that Hubert joined WWOOFing more for the cultural exchange than anything else. He found it amusing and surreal that a couple of New Yorkers found themselves in the middle of France to learn about organic farming.
“Do you speak English?”, I asked him in French. “Yes, a little.”, he responded in French, with the shrug that all French people do to indicate, Eh, what can you do? Great. Ever since I graduated college, my French had gone to shit and I stood there trying to figure out how to say, “Well, you’re going to have to learn how to speak because I sure as hell can’t communicate with you in mostly French.” Instead, I said, “We can communicate using both French and English.” Or at least that’s what I think I said. Communication ended up being a little difficult at times, but Hubert was extremely patient with my broken French and so we managed over the course of two weeks.
Now for the farming bit. Or the little bit of farming that we did. Hubert was kind and let us lazy bums sleep in while he woke up every morning around 7:00 (and on Saturdays, he was out of the door by 5:00 to go to market). We were ready to work by 10:00, at which point we were given small tasks to do, like harvesting string beans (they grow very fast so we did this a lot), picking tomatoes, weeding (because Hubert’s farm is 100% pesticide free, weeding is a big part of keeping the plants healthy), pulling up old plants to get the plot ready for next spring, and transplanting leeks.
Poor Belgium. It is a tiny country that is unfairly eclipsed by the glamour and wealth of France to its south. Brussels is an exquisite city, but lives in the shadow of flamboyant Paris 162 miles away. As such, it is also less touristy and allowed us tourist-hating tourists to explore it in peace and quiet.
The only museum I was interested in checking out was the Magritte Museum, having been a long-time fan. It’s kind of lame that they don’t allow photography inside, because the exhibition setup was unique. Magritte’s work was accompanied by his thoughts and quotes on the walls, and they put many of his lesser-known graphic design work on display. You won’t find his more famous paintings here, but like the Van Gogh Museum, the exhibition does a good job at showing how Magritte grew and evolved as an artist. I wish we had more time for the Contemporary Museum in the same building.
Flex had recommended the Musical Instruments Museum, which I was thoroughly skeptical about. But we trusted his taste in things so off we went, and we were glad we did. MIM is housed in a five- or six-story Art Deco building, and showcases a huge collection of old instruments from around the world. To my utmost ignorant eye, most of them look like some kind of mutant spawn of recognizable Western instruments.
My only brush with Belgium prior to visiting was the chicken waterzooi my mother would make for dinner sometimes. In the ‘80s, my uncle was an editor for a Japanese newspaper and was stationed in Brussels for a while, and my cool cousins grew up speaking French and, I assume, eating lots of quality chocolate. The waterzooi recipe came from a Belgian friend of my aunt’s, and was something she brought with her when the family was transferred back to Tokyo. Its light cream broth with a hint of tanginess from the lemon always reminds me of home.
With four days to spend in Brussels, we scoured Couchsurfing for the perfect host to spend that time with. We found it in the form of a tall, stylin’, chain-smoking Belgian named Flex who quit his cushy fulltime job to work for himself and to enjoy a more flexible schedule. Flex lives in a beautiful apartment in the hip neighborhood of Saint Gilles, which reminded us of Park Slope (Brooklyn), but with a lot of cool Art Deco architecture and a much more happening scene during the work week.
The first night in the city, Flex took us to an outdoor market where we bought freshly-made Moroccan wraps and a bottle of cava to share on the steps of the Saint Gilles Town Hall. It was a Monday night and people were packed into the square eating and drinking late into the night as if they didn’t have work the next day. We finished the night with Belgian beers at a nearby bar, Moeder Lambic.
I caught a glimpse of one of my cousins here, a beer lover (well, alcohol lover) who would’ve undoubtedly sat at one of the wooden tables savoring the bar’s offerings. When we left the bar after midnight, there were still a good number of Belgians there. Seriously, Europeans know how to have a good time.
Besides their beer, Belgians take chocolate very, very seriously. Flex pointed us in the direction of the Grand Sablon neighborhood where all of the big chocolatiers are clustered. We realized that we’ve already had most of these chocolates in Tokyo or New York: Wittamer, Neuhaus, Pierre Marcolini, Godiva… But we also realized that they were much cheaper in Belgium so we sat down at Wittamer for dessert and I caught a glimpse of my aunt walking through the neighborhood with her sons in tow.
Years ago over a family dinner, my dear uncle went on a drunken rant about how Amsterdam was literally, “hell on earth.” What kind of civilized society, he asked the table, would accept homosexuality, allow drug use and legalize prostitution? We all responded in the way Japanese people do to awkward situations: silence, with no eye contact.
I was doing my best not to get emotional, although my uncle had no idea at the time that he was verbally attacking me. I had only recently come out to my parents then, and certainly not to my relatives. My parents’ strong disapproval was a fresh wound, and my uncle was rubbing salt in it. A cousin unknowingly came to my rescue, and the conversation shifted onto other things.
Since that night, I always wondered what Amsterdam was really like. Pieces of information came via friends who had visited (“Oh my god, the coffeehouses!”), but I knew I had to see it for myself. So we planned the tail end of our Germany tour so we could easily get to Amsterdam.
We decided to avoid the party scene and focus on getting some culture at the two big museums there: the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. We bought tickets in advance as recommended by everyone, since both museums just reopened after being closed for years and everyone in Europe seemed to be converging on them at the same time.
The Rijksmuseum was nicely renovated. N said it was almost unrecognizeable from the last time she was there. Apparently, the Dutch want this museum to be the “Louvre of the Netherlands”. We have been completely spoiled by New York City museums, which are generally empty or at least large enough to be manageable. Dealing with the crowd at the Rijksmuseum was a bit much, especially being jostled around by the very recognizable clusters of loud Spaniards and Italians.
If I absolutely had to be buried in a cemetery*, it would be without a doubt Hamburg’s Ohlsdorf Cemetery. The second largest cemetery in the world after Long Island’s Calverton National Cemetery, the non-denominational Ohlsdorf Cemetery “has an area of 391 hectares (966 acres) with 12 chapels, over 1.5 million burials in more than 280,000 burial sites and streets with a length of 17 km (11 mi). There are 4 entrances for vehicles and public transport is provided with 25 bus stops.” This is a cemetery on steroids. N and I spent a quiet afternoon driving and walking through the memorials for the war dead and the beautiful civilian burial sites.