From Restlessness to Precarious Liberation— April 19, 2014 to July 13, 2014
How would my life have changed had I caught a fish? I’d spent a small fortune on fishing gear for my girls and myself (mostly for myself). I was a native son, after all— the streams, rivers, and lakes belonged to me, and I’d fished them in my youth. So, I was almost bursting with great expectations when I left the girls to fend for themselves a few hundred yards down the shoreline of the Wachusett Reservoir on that first day of fishing season. Imagine my surprise when little Natasha came running up to me, not 20 minutes later, and announced, “Daddy! Daddy! Mommy got a fish!” Yeah, right, she must have snagged her line, I thought— until I saw her standing there absolutely glowing with pride as she hurried to cast out her lure. That’s when I made a not-so-subtle adjustment to my own pride and convinced myself that her catching a fish was as good as anything that could have happened, including me catching a fish. I couldn’t help commenting though, as I took this photo, in the simple language that we share, “Very stupid fish.” I then headed quickly off to not catch my own fish. She didn’t catch any more fish that day, at least not with her fishing gear, but somehow she convinced an otherwise devout catch-and-release advocate to part with an even bigger specimen. Now that was an unlucky fish, but they both tasted great.
How would my life have changed had I made a really great beer, or even one that was moderately palatable? Well, fishing required waking up too early or setting off in the late afternoon which, I was inclined to think, was the time one should begin drinking. It was a fact that Massachusetts was protecting its fish by prohibiting the consumption of alcohol on its public land. And, the one time I was talked into going in the early afternoon, when all the fish should have been sleeping, Natasha’s mom caught another large fish. So, instead, after spending more than a thousand dollars on equipment, I began brewing beer. The scale was a fraction of the scale of the nano-brewery (Bugger All Brewery) I had dreamed of, but that’s all my budget would allow. Though the beer I brewed was mostly crap (I didn’t get a chance to taste some of it), I did learn that making beer, although quite difficult, is really fun, especially while you are drinking a good store-bought beer—the two don’t mix well, however, as I discovered the hard way by often forgetting to add ingredients and burning myself on several occasions.
The photo above was taken roughly one week before I flew to Shanghai to meet my boss and attend a supplier meeting. For those of you who may have forgotten, I do have a job. When I departed, I had precisely nothing to my name except some fishing gear in storage and some shiny beer making equipment in my dad’s garage (not to mention no small amount of debt). In an email before departing, my boss had hinted that he may have something enticing up his sleeve to offer me– some means of bettering my shabby financial circumstances. Actually, I’m still not convinced that my boss and the other executives at my company, who all seemed to be in agreement, hadn’t had their drinking water tampered with. They’d decided that they were not going to renew the contract with our guy in Geneva, Switzerland, which was a nice way of saying that they were going to sack him. I was to become sales representative for the entire world, excluding Japan, and I’d get a suitable “package” to go along with the position. Although I thought they were as mad as hatters to shoulder me with such responsibility and great expectations, I kept my mouth shut.
It’s more than a 13-hour flight from Shanghai back to the East Coast of the US. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t even turn on the inflight entertainment. I schemed, but in the grinning, hopeful kind of way I’m known to do before I do something stupid. I wanted out. Out of the country in which, it was claimed, I appeared socially dysfunctional even at family gatherings (especially at family gatherings). My boss left Shanghai thinking that I’d be carrying out my new responsibilities from the US. But, frankly, assuming that I’d ever been adjusted to it, I was definitely having trouble getting readjusted. My company’s customer base, outside of Japan, is in Europe, and they were going to sack the guy there, so it made perfect sense for me to pack up my two girls and our paltry belongings and, as a first step, park them safely back in Vientiane. And so it was that my sojourn on American soil ended. We arrived back in Vientiane on July 13, 2014, and I began plotting my next series of moves.
Selling the Move to Europe
What better way to get prepared for a move to Europe than by making use of a drinking vessel fashioned, although hastily and with little skill, from the horn of a goat. Drinking horns have been used there at least from Classical Antiquity. And what better beverage could one be offered than locally produced moonshine that’s had the recently dispatched goat’s semen soaking in it. We’d been away from Vientiane for a total of just less than 9 months, and I’d already forgotten that such delights could be found there.
The dilemma I faced with going to Europe was that I had to pretend that I didn’t really want to go there. You see, corporations have an inherent disdain for paying someone well for doing something they like, especially where they want to do it. You can usually find this stated in a sub-article somewhere in a company’s Articles of Incorporation. I’d returned to Vientiane at precisely the time when they were mulling over what my future “package” would be, so it created a bit of a fuss. In fact, I could easily do my work just as well from Vientiane as I could from Venice or some other European city, but since they thought I wanted to be back in Vientiane, I had to get my butt out of there. The truth is, until I can afford a house of my own in Vientiane, staying there is very close to being unbearable. Who knows when they’d slaughter another goat and serve up the semen with a splash of moonshine in a recycled PET bottle.
There was an undeniably good argument for being based in Europe, however, so to discuss this, and for more mundane reasons, I flew to Japan. This was less than two weeks after getting back to Vientiane.
Fast Forwarding to the Present
Ever since I began my gradual but persistent abandonment of Japan in the late ’90s, I’ve been what’s known as a perpetual traveler. Although it may sound romantic, it mostly just involves making frequent visa runs and having to buy all sorts of stuff in somebody else’s name. Some rich people become perpetual travelers for tax-related reasons that, for the record, I know nothing about. What is clear, however, is that almost all countries welcome travelers (aka tourists) with open arms while shackling their residents and citizenry with the burden of their Sovereign debt.
It’s now the fourth week of my third sojourn in Split, Croatia. My first trip here was for just over three weeks and began almost exactly a month after leaving the US. My research had paid off. I loved the place. In another classic case of having far too much time on my hands, I had narrowed down the entire westernmost peninsula of Eurasia to this little 100m² sliver of real estate on the eastern slope of Marjan to be my temporary home. Marjan, at an elevation of 178m, was one of my main reasons for choosing Split. The entire peninsula upon which it rises has been used as a park by the citizens of Split since the 3rd century. A brisk trot to the top and back, with brief pauses to admire the spectacular views, takes about 35 minutes– a nice bit of minimum daily exercise which would be better done daily.
I found an apartment right in the center of the sliver I mentioned above. It makes me wonder if there isn’t something to this concept of divine intervention that the Roman Catholic population here believes in so feverishly. The owner (my landlady) is like no landlady ever portrayed in any movie or characterized in any book. She’s absolutely delightful. The apartment is cozy, and the neighbors are helpful and friendly. The Roman palace of Emperor Diocletian is just minutes away on foot.
Little Natasha and I can come here on our US passports for 90 days in any given 180 day period, but despite her country’s former status as a second-world nation aligned with the Soviet block, and with little if any guilt for sitting around doing nothing while the US illegally bombed her mother’s country to smithereens [from Irish smidiríní, diminutive form of smiodar (“fragment”), in case you were wondering], Croatia, once part of Yugoslavia, made her mother go to their embassy in Beijing, China, to get a tourist visa. The distance from Vientiane to Beijing is 2,775km, and the distance between Vientiane and Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city, is 8,325km, so she had to travel exactly one third of that distance to get her visa. She couldn’t do that, however, until she first got a visa to go to China. But we looked at it as an opportunity to admire one of the world’s smoggiest cities.
My second and so far longest sojourn in Split began, with Natasha and her mom in tow, on September 28, 2014. We were Europeans now, and what could be more European than buying a pair of outrageously expensive e-bikes? The weather was still warm, Natasha liked the English language kindergarten that she was attending three times a week, and her mom, a fanatic when it comes to consuming strangely-shaped aquatic creatures, couldn’t get enough of the fresh seafood market in the old part of the city. Our apartment is actually located within a compound of sorts where the kids play freely without traffic or intruders to worry about– we were all welcomed into this slice of a neighborhood to the point where it became difficult to get Natasha to come back home in the evenings.
As reasons for making this city our temporary home, I had many, but not all of them were particularly flattering. One was the difficulty and obscurity of the language spoken here. Utter anything sounding almost fluent and the locals will be tipping off of their scooters and tripping down their staircases. They don’t expect you to even try learning their language, and they think it would be impossible for you even if you did. When Natasha asked me why the other kids in the compound speak “Blah, blah, blah,” I made her think about how she spoke differently to her grandmother in Laos and to her grandfather in the US. I wouldn’t mind if her little spongy mind was inclined to learn Croatian, so I took that opportunity to explain to her about how Croatian is a South Slavic language that has, like most other Slavic languages, an extensive system of inflection. . . and she went running out the door.
So, even as the temperatures began to fall, the little ones were content and it was decided that we would apply for temporary stay permits which would allow us to stay longer than the prescribed 90 days in any given 180 day period. I had every reason to believe, or so I thought, that it would be something one could accomplish before having breakfast, as the Japanese say. The officials here seemed to think so, too, and we visited them on several occasions while we worked on our applications and showed them our supporting documentation. Then, in an incident that was very awkward for all of us, it was discovered in some fine print of some legal immigration-related text that Natasha and I, as carriers of US passports, could apply for our temporary stay permits here in Split, but her mom would have to f**k off back to her crappy little country and apply for it at the Croatian embassy in Beijing, which, I remind you, is 2,775km from Vientiane (and in the wrong direction, no less). Curious about the origin of the expression “gone tits up,” I discovered that there is no consensus. One person suggests that it’s “Like ‘catsup’ only tastier.”
And so it was that we all had to leave the speakers of blah blah blah behind because they insisted on kicking Natasha’s mom out. Actually, it wasn’t really like that. We just had to leave as scheduled on December 14, 2014. Natasha’s mom had to have a round-trip ticket to come to Croatia, and her visa was tied to it. Natasha had her 5th birthday in Vientiane, and I ended up with a few weeks to once again consider my next moves. Despite the fact that my butt was now entirely in the wrong place again, my company allowed it because, by some twist of fate, it saved them some money. It was a busy few weeks. We bought an aunt’s parcel of land across from the family house and decided to build, someday, our permanent home there (above a pizza restaurant, of course). I decided that the piece of land that we already had would make a great site for my aquaponics adventure– the rooms of our partially-built house there will make great fish tanks. We did the 1,500km round trip to the Bolaven Plateau to pick up some stuff and tell Billy that compromise, in this case, meant kissing the whole coffee plantation and Wrong Way Farm Stay goodbye– until I could afford a helicopter, anyway. I didn’t get back to this part of the Eurasian peninsula until January 27, 2015, and I did it by going the wrong way (via Japan) and ended up on the wrong side of the Adriatic Sea– in a place called Italy.
My new master plan for the future involves Italian water buffaloes– or, more precisely, it involves the cheese made from their milk, mozzarella di bufala. It’s one of those things that you have to taste where it’s made because even refrigeration is said to change its subtle characteristics. So, when I realized that I’d already stayed 90 days out of the given 180-day period that I was permitted to stay in Croatia, and since my new “package” had just kicked in, I decided to splurge a little bit by having what turned out to be a very brief affaire de coeur with Italy. My butt had to be elsewhere, after all, and we even had a customer in Italy.
I entered into a 6 week rental agreement for an apartment in the beautiful countryside of Rome. But there’s a perfectly good reason why people don’t go to Italy in the middle of winter. It was precisely such weather that I had locked myself into just minutes after receiving the key to my drafty apartment. . . by locking myself out. Italy is a country clearly focused on perplexing us. The hot water tap is marked with a C. There’s a strange porcelain fixture next to the toilet, and it’s not a bathtub. All men must have to sit down to pee because I never noticed any urinals in the public toilets (or had I been misguidedly using the ladies’ room?). And all apartment entry doors, I was later told, are self-locking. It had been suggested by the owner, who was by then returning to central Rome, that I put the internet WiFi device in the outside letter box (of course!). So, without any proper footwear or warm clothing, I stepped out to do just that, closing the door behind me. Having accomplished this task, and as I gripped and tried turning the reluctant knob, first I felt disbelief, then a sense of utter helplessness. . . What the f**k! Why was the door doing this to me? Here in Split, Croatia, where everything makes sense, the doors do not lock you out, they merely remind you that you’ve forgotten your key when you fish through your pockets and don’t find one. Eventually it becomes a funny little routine. There’s nothing funny, though, about being locked out of your abode when it’s located in a mid-evil hilltop town whose inhabitants have been suspicious of strangers for centuries– especially if you are walking around in socks and assorted light clothing even though it’s close to freezing outside. A few days later, confident that nothing worse could happen to me, my wallet was deftly picked from my pocket on the subway in Rome. The police affixed a note to my forehead explaining that I should be allowed to use the public toilets without paying as I was a stupid American who had just been robbed. Evidently, they are so busy writing such notes that they have no time to police the subways.
I decided to cut my losses and return to Split as soon as doing so was legal. That was on February 17, 2015. First, on the 16th, I took a train to the coastal city of Ancona. During the 3 weeks I stayed in Italy, I’d been adhering to a diet comprised of one low-carbohydrate meal a day preceded with and followed by as much red wine as I wanted; and, with the help of some exercise, I’d lost 5kg and was feeling good. At the train station in Ancona an apparently intoxicated railway worker rewarded me by shouting, “Hello Richard Gere!” When I boarded the ferry I tried not to look down into the water for fear that I might see Venetian or other turds floating there. In my studies of the Adriatic Sea, I’d learned that the currents flow counter-clockwise– the clean sea water enters from the Albanian side of the Ionian Sea, makes its way up the coast of Montenegro and Croatia, and finally spins around Venice and down the eastern shores of Italy, carrying with it all the turds that have been discharged into it along the way. The ferry operator was Croatian, so even while at port in Ancona, I felt like I was back in Croatia, except that everything was overpriced.
This is, as I stated 10 paragraphs before, my third sojourn in Split, and it has carried on for almost a month. I’m getting kind of tired of it, actually. “Sojourn” is the most accurate word there is, as it means “a temporary stay.” And a one-year temporary stay permit is exactly what I’ve applied for. Perpetual travelers who are applying as such are expected to stay in facilities that are registered and certified tourist-ready. Amongst other things, there must be, on the premises when inspected, a bag of some sort to put your dirty laundry in. The owner came to my rescue and got it all sorted within just two weeks. In Croatia, where they still use sun dials to tell the time and letters are hand-carried by postmen between cities, that was a remarkable achievement. My application for temporary stay was accepted (but not yet approved) on March 2, 2015. A few days later I submitted a document that was given to me to HZZO, the Croatian Health Insurance Fund, so now I’m a perpetual traveler with health insurance. All I have to do now is continue waiting. Luckily, to help me through this process, I discovered 5-liter jugs of good table wine for as little as 45 kunas (US$6.19). I’m going to build a raft with the empties and go fishing.
The question foremost in my mind is “How much longer do I have to do my own dishes?” I have a very reliable dishwasher in Vientiane. The problem is, she’s applying for the same temporary stay permit but in her case it is to “reunite” with family in Croatia (me). Natasha can come on her passport and apply when she gets here. So, to speed things up, I confirmed with the embassy in Beijing that the application could be sent to them by post. So I filled out her application and sent it to her to sign. She just needs to add a few documents and send it to Beijing. I used Hrvatska posta, priority, registered. That was on March 4, 2015. According to the tracking feature on their website, it made it to Zagreb, the capital, the next day– in record time. It only had 8,325km more distance to cover to Vientiane. According to the description of events, 5 minutes after “Receive item at office of exchange” in Zagreb, the next major event was “Insert item into bag.” By now I was on the edge of my seat. The plot thickened with the announcement of another remarkable event, “Remove item from bag,” only 12 minutes later. Then, at first I couldn’t believe it, just 2 minutes after that, with hardly time for the suspense to build, the most significant event in the history of postal services occurred: “Insert item into bag.” And there have been bugger all events since (10 days now). A few days ago I emailed their customer service people inquiring why my very important document was spending so much time in a bag in Zagreb. Does “priority” mail mean something different here? The reply was delightful:
we would like to inform you that item RB975448494HR has left Croatia 5.3.2015.
In postal terminology term ‘Insert item into bag’ means that the item has left the country.
Now that was really illuminating. But it makes me wonder, where did it go? Outer space? Does the tracking feature cease to function after an item has been placed into a bag?
To be continued. . .