Talk to the American

Life often offers up its little nuggets.

Sunday is often a “down” day for me here at Smiling Hill (unless there’s some exploring to do). I’ll sleep late (9am), have a big breakfast after my workout, work on my tan a bit, take a dip in the pool and spend the rest of the day surfing the Web or watching TV. Same as in any country, right? (But at least I have a pretty good premium TV program in the apartment.) Today was a typical Sunday.

Except.

The Smiling Hill pool at the Goodies Restaurant complex.

It was obviously going to be a hot one, I figured as I scaled the hill a few times before breakfast. Lots of sun, good for the tan. It doesn’t take long here, almost on the equator, for the sun to fry you. Then, Sumatran coffee, pancakes, Canadien bacon, fresh-squeezed OJ and cold milk. Fast forward to sitting at the pool and on the Web.

There were a couple of local families around the pool, and a few expats in the restaurant. Some stray kids were swimming. I was stting at a table poolside, listening to some music and reading the news.

Out of nowhere, one of the teen boys swimming came over and asked in very halting English if he could speak to me. Actually, he wanted to have a conversation with me – because he was taking a course in English and wanted to practice. He said he was 16 and had been in Batam a year (I think). He told me where he was from but I didn’t understand.

I offered him a seat at the table. He had trouble starting so I tried a couple of easy questions. Finally, I told him I was a journalist, and he understood and became more animated. Actually, he kind of smiled when I told him. Don’t know if that was good or bad. So when he showed interest in that I called my blog up on my laptop. He knew what the word blog meant. I figured the pictures there might be of interest and create some conversation.

Navigating the blog was too slow, though, and about this time his friend showed up. Wish I had taken pictures (I had my camera with me) but these were just two normal teenage boys, nice smiles, friendly and interested. Oh, courteous, too. I started showing pictures of Croatia, and then a third person showed up.

This guy was a little older, and spoke good English. He had been to Sweden and Paris, but was impressed with all the countries I have on my blog as having been visited. Turns out he was helping the younger two learn English and had encouraged them to approach me so they could practice. “Go talk to the American.”

I went through some of my Croatia photo files but thought they would be more interested in Rome, so we went through a bunch of those before my battery died. The boys thanked me, we shook hands and touched our hearts, and they went back to swimming.

You never know what life will throw at you.

Leaving Croatia

Woke up very early on my departure date (11.21.11) as expected. I was ready to go more than an hour before it was time. In fact, the day before, Sunday, I was so nervous that I decided to make the long walk into town to release the energy. I did manage to consolidate what I needed into one suitcase, my small backpack and my computer bag. I left the other suitcase, full of clothes, with my hosts for charity.

After telling Visjna several times that she didn’t need to cook me breakfast or make me coffee because I already had mine, I paid for my utilities for the two months – 50 euros per month, which covered Internet, TV (for what good it was), water and electric. Zdravko then drove me to the bus station – after I gave Visjna a good hug. The ticket to Zagreb was 150 kunas ($30), which was $4 less than it was from Zagreb to Zadar when I arrived. There also was a $1.40 charge for my suitcase. Shook Zdravko’s hand but he decided to embrace me and kiss me on both cheeks.

The bus was half empty so I had two seats to myself. The trip back was mostly on the new highway and took 3 1/2 hours. Pretty boring drive through the countryside except for the mountain ranges and the winter scene waiting for us halfway to the capital. There was heavy fog in the higher altitudes where we were traveling. It was also below zero. That meant all the trees and bushes along the way were coated in a thin layer of ice. A wonderland in white. Quite beautiful and something I hadn’t seen since living in New Hampshire in the 70s.

The day before, I had the foresight to make myself a couple of sandwiches for the trip, so I had one for lunch on the bus when we made a rest stop halfway to Zagreb. I ate the second one with my last Croatian beer at the airport. Some leftover cookies will have to do me until late tonight after I arrive in Rome.

When we unloaded at the Zagreb bus station, I had some trouble finding where the buses to the airport were docking – and it was below freezing outside! Yikes! A taxi to the airport would have been very expensive. I’ve learned that if you want to find someone who understands English in Croatia you should look for someone younger. So there was a young man working at a food stand outside the station and he directed me to the Croatia Airlines office 50 feet away, where the airport buses load in the back. They run every 30 minutes but I had just missed the 2 p.m. bus because I needed a bathroom break. Only they don’t call them bathrooms in Croatia. They call them water closets. They even use “WC” on signage to direct people to them. Seems strange they use the English initials. The bus ride to the airport costs 30 kunas ($6) and took about 25 minutes in midday traffic.

There was no one waiting in line to check in. The woman behind the counter didn’t say whether my checked bag was too heavy and I was not going to ask. I was not charged for it. I guess Lufthansa lets you check the first bag free. I had forgotten to reserve my seat but that was not a problem as I was early and had my choice. I also got a good seat on the Munich to Rome flight, next to the emergency exit. Lots of extra leg room. U.S. airlines now charge you extra for those seats..

My flight to Munich was on a turboprop instead of a jet. The passengers were taken by bus to the tarmac to board. We were late taking off and the flight encountered stiff headwinds, making us even later. With only a 55-minute window to catch my connecting flight to Rome, I was getting a little worried.

In addition, I had to hand my backpack over at the plane to be stored in the hold. This would not normally be a problem, except …. wait for it …. I had bought a bottle of Jim Beam at the duty free store and jammed it into the backpack, thinking I was carrying it on board with me. Not! To make it worse, the bourbon was in the same pocket as my Nikon. So now I’m worried about making my Rome flight and also worried that I’ll recapture my backpack with a broken bottle of bourbon and a thoroughly wet – and ruined – expensive camera. Did I mention that the plane was very warm? I hate flying! At least they gave us chocolates twice during the flight. I like chocolate.

But it gets better in Munich. (Now writing on the flight to Rome, and this plane is warm, too.) When we departed on the tarmac, those of us with connecting flights had a driver and van waiting at the plane. Good thing, too, because the Munich airport is so spread out and disjointed I never would have found my gate. So me, the driver, and a guy going to Toulouse went for a ride – except we weren’t going to the gate.

First we had to go through security and passport control again. With out trusty guide, we rode around several gate areas, down a couple of roads and finally stopped outside one building. After a short walk, our guide unlocked a door and ushered us to the back of a security line, saying he’d wait for us on the other side. So pull out the laptop and toiletries once again, fill the bins, take off your clothes. You know the drill.

Then we walked out of the building and around to another door, where the passport people were. The guy looked at mine, typed something into his computer (he didn’t do this for the guy going to France) and then stamped my passport. So now I have a German stamp. Then our guide took me to my plane, which was patiently waiting for me and several others who came from other connections. It was a pretty new and nice Embraer 195. When we were finished with all this running around, I just said “Wow!” to my guide.

My seatmate turned out to be American but no sooner had we begun to introduce ourselves then he asked if I would mind swapping seats with his wife, who was seated further back. I said OK but he ended up switching his seat instead. So I have two seats to myself with lots of leg room. They gave us a cream cheese sandwich, which wasn’t nearly as good as the one I had when I flew to Croatia. But Lufthansa seems to treat its customers a lot better, at least in Europe, than the American airlines treat their passengers.

We’re now about 45 minutes from Roma. My stomach is not churning so much anymore but I’ve still got to negotiate Rome customs and get a ride to my hotel. I wrote the hotel’s name and address down on an index card. And I still haven’t had a chance to exchange the kunas I have left for euros, my new currency.