There was something that seemed odd to me. It wasn’t immediate, it took some time for me to figure it out. Something was missing from the landscape, but I couldn’t figure it out. The place was beautiful, the region was gorgeous, and I was having a great time. It really wasn’t until I was in London again that it hit me. I hadn’t seen a single familiar Western franchise for over a week. No McDonalds, no Starbucks, no Gap. Not even an H&M.
Where was this? The Balkans. Starting in Dubrovnik, we took a bus to Mostar to spend two nights, then on to Sarajevo. Then I was off to the island of Hvar, a desert island in the Adriatic where the air smells like lavender and rosemary.
In Dubrovnik there were any number of high end stores catering to the cruise ship passengers and other wealthy tourists. Brad Pitt’s pensive visage gazed out across the Stradun (the main street in the walled portion of Dubrovnik) from the front window of a very expensive jewelry store. Other stores offered pricey luggage, clothing, accessories often tied to some name and that were well out of my price range (or need). But other than that? Nothing that was familiar to me.
Small food shops – often on back streets with little more than a window for an ordering counter – sported signs that exclaimed “Fast Food!” along with pictures of burgers, fries, soft drinks. Coffee was found not in paper cups, but rather in substantial mugs. Americanos were either black or white coffee (white meaning that it had cream in it), and were brought to tables by polite and efficient wait staff. The very notion of a quad venti caramel macchiato with soy? It didn’t exist. No whoppers, no mochas, no other ‘signs’ of home.
To be honest, it was a bit jolting to run into them again; to see this landscape of arches and mermaids, of flashing neon and pulsating music. As odd as it has been to run into these places in unusual places – a burger joint that took up the lower level of a half-timbered building older than the country I come from, a trendy department store next to an ancient ruin – it was odder to suddenly see them again after nearly two weeks without them.
I’m not advocating that one is better than another, that the absence or presence of them is the superior state. No, this is just one of those wonderfully strange side effects of travel. Moments that catch you unaware. Part of what made my time in the Balkans so incredible was that it really was the most foreign foreign place I had been. The language was very different, the buildings were different; the pace of life, the way of life – all different.
I don’t have a lot of pictures of that trip. Which is both kind of sad and really kind of cool. I was so wrapped up in the newness of it all that the camera became an afterthought. I snapped a couple of photos with the very small flip phone I had with me and sadly those are pretty much gone now. Even those pictures were more of a ‘I have to share this with someone right this minute!’ aspect than anything deliberate. Moments of breathtaking beauty, mostly; and mostly after I had split off from my friends and was on my own.
I love it when that happens, to be honest. When I am so in the moment that I actually forget to record the moment. When I am someplace utterly and completely new, no reminders of home, no intrusion of the commercial. At least not to me. Everyplace has their own set of familiar brands. There were the Konzum supermarkets and the Kozmo drug stores in Croatia, for example; places that became familiar to me after staying in a lovely apartment with a full kitchen. And getting bitten by something really nasty and particularly itchy (which was better served by the lavender oil that was sold all along the water front in Hvar). And we quickly become used to them. It is part of that becoming a temporary local, as Rick Steves calls it. It is a wonderful part of the slow travel and the immersion that results from it.