Making memories on a bus tour

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We had nicknames for some of the people on the bus. There was Charlie Sheen and Mr. Magoo, the dad from “The Goldbergs,” the Vegas Ladies, the Park Ranger from Portland and The Millennials.

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I’m not sure what they called us.

On our bus tour of Eastern Europe, my mom, two aunts and I were a family pack on a girls’ trip. Our acquaintances probably called me “the blogger” and my mom “the retired English teacher.” One of my aunts picked up the handle “Delta” (where she worked before she retired). We had to call my other aunt “Mary” in public, instead of her nickname since childhood, “Beaner.” It wasn’t until later in life that she and the rest of my family realized some people took offense to her name as derogatory slang, and it wouldn’t be cool to yell, “Hey, Beaner!” across a crowded airport. Now, only her closest friends are allowed to call her that.

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If it hadn’t been for my mom and aunts, I probably wouldn’t have considered taking a bus tour through Croatia and Slovenia with stops along the way in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. I’ve always been more of a do-it-yourself kind of traveler who prefers taking in the sights with a group of four rather than 40.

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But it came down to price. For less than $150 per day (not much more than airfare alone would have cost my family to come and see me in Croatia), they got a package deal from Gate 1 Travel that included airfare from New York, nine nights of accommodations at nice hotels, more than a dozen meals and breakfasts, an English-speaking tour manager and local guides.

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What I learned on my first bus tour is that it’s an efficient way to explore foreign cities. You don’t have to do all of the research yourself, and you can’t beat the hotel buying power of a tour company.

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We started off in Venice, where my mom and one of my aunts flew in. They spent the week visiting with my family. Then in Croatia, we spent two nights in Opatija, one night in Split, three nights in Dubrovnik and one night in Zagreb. In Slovenia, we spent two nights in Bled. We also took some side trips to places such as Rovinj, Pula and Montenegro. It would have been tough to cover that much territory and stay in resorts for that price on our own.

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The cons of bus tours? Sitting next to Mr. Magoo at dinner, getting trapped in a couple of authentic tourist traps, being rushed through some cities and not being able to shake the feeling of being on a school field trip.

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We traveled with a group of mainly retired Americans. That changed the experience from the rest of my stay here – full of months when I barely heard any other American voices. On weekend trips with my husband and kids, we have been able to see a little more of the charm of small towns here and the way people live. We’ve also tried to communicate with the locals in at least a little bit of their own language. You lose that traveling with a big group that already speaks your language.

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For much of the trip, my mom was disappointed with the food. For months, I’d been talking up the seafood of the Adriatic, the Mediterranean and Italian dishes and the fruit stands and vegetable markets. I’m not sure a bus tour makes for the best dining experiences. Judging a country’s food by bus tour buffets is kind of like judging American cuisine by only the restaurants that can handle being bombarded by a bus crowd.

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Overall, Gate 1 delivered on its tagline to show us “more of the world for less.” We saw the highlights of multiple cities without having to worry about the details.

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Even though I had been to some of the cities before, local guides stood out in places like Pula, which has one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters in the world, and in Split, where a guide took us underground to see the cellars of Diocletian’s Palace. We also walked the ancient city walls above Dubrovnik on a fall day when most of the tourists had already left, and the rooftop views were fantastic.

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We made memories we’ll talk about for years to come.

I woke up this morning to see a Facebook message from my Aunt Beaner with a mesmerizing little video about ways to fold napkins. I had to laugh because it made me think of the fancy folded napkin she wore like a paper cap when we were joking around during one of our dinner outings.

Maybe at some holiday gathering years from now, there will be napkin caps all around and we’ll play that hat game we learned at a bus tour dinner. Just like that time in Slovenia.

Traveling without to-go cups

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One of the things I’ve missed since moving abroad has been talking to my mom.

In the States, she and my dad live less than half an hour away. They dote on the grandkids and entertain the family. We catch up by phone at least a couple of times a week and get together often. Being in a time zone six hours ahead has cut down our talking time.

We’re making up for it this week. She and two of my aunts are here visiting, and we are taking a bus tour through Croatia, a bit of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Slovenia.

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We started in Italy with a quick weekend in Venice, where my mom and one of my aunts flew in. They spent the week with us in Zadar, taking in national parks and hanging out with my family. Then we left for an all-girls vacation.

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Right now, I’m rooming with my mother in a hotel in Dubrovnik, and the sound of my typing is probably keeping her awake. She’s not complaining. She just doesn’t want me to stay up too late because we have another full day tomorrow on the Gate 1 Travel bus to get to Croatia’s capital city of Zagreb. The wake-up call will be an early one.

Growing up, our family always took vacations. They were usually simple road trips and summer beach destinations. This is my first bus tour and my first time traveling with my mom, one of her sisters and one of my dad’s sisters. It has been a bonding experience and neat for me to be able to connect with my aunts as an adult.

More than just seeing different parts of the world, what makes this trip special is being able to do it with these women.

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We’ve shared wine, stories, songs and selfies, critiqued the food and explored places we never thought we’d go.

We all went to the same all-girl high school and even took a picture with a school newsletter to send in for publication. Since we didn’t have the real newsletter to hold up, my oldest son drew us one before we left, and my mom has been carrying it around everywhere we go.

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My mom says she doesn’t have the adventurous spirit that I do to be able to live abroad and go without the comforts she misses. That would include things to do with coffee the way she likes it: a tall Starbucks-brand coffee pod made in a Keurig and mixed with Coffee-mate. She also seems alarmed that I don’t have flour in my pantry or a dryer to soften my towels.

To me, enjoying life here is about learning to adapt. Try your coffee another way.

As one of our tour guides said, there will never be Starbucks on every corner in Croatia. It goes against the country’s coffee culture. Here, take-out cups are seen as a sacrilege. You have to make time to catch up with people. The ritual is to have coffee together – not by yourself.

Our bus leaves early tomorrow. I’m waking up early to find some coffee with my mom and aunts. I’m not sure the hotel where we’re staying is the right place to start a tradition with them (the coffee here is terrible). But we’ll adapt and spend another day exploring a new place together.

 

 

 

 

Reuniting with my family’s Bosnian exchange student

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The last time I saw my parents’ Bosnian exchange student, we were living in our own self-absorbed worlds. I was 25, working as a sports writer at USA Today near Washington, D.C.,  and going through a bad breakup. She was 18, living in Kentucky with my parents, and homesick and traumatized by war.

I didn’t get to know her much mostly because I wasn’t around. My memories of her were from stories my parents and younger sisters told of their adventures together, circa 1995, when Sabina was attending high school at my alma mater, Notre Dame Academy, an all-girls school in Park Hills, Ky.

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At the time, I didn’t grasp what she must have been going through. She grew up in Tuzla in northern Bosnia, a city that lost more than 250,000 people as the former Yugoslavia erupted in to chaos in the early 1990s. She was a Muslim whose parents got her out of a war zone by sending her to live in the States and go to a Catholic school. My parents took her to Mass on Sundays and home to the suburbs. It must have been so surreal for her. In the pre-email era, she was cut off from communication with her friends and family, except for occasional phone calls and whatever she got in the mail.

I never actually heard the stories of her war experiences and what became of her life until a few days ago – 21 years after I last saw her – when she and her son welcomed me and my two sons for a weekend visit in Sarajevo.

Even before she learned through Facebook that my family was coming to live in nearby Croatia, she had invited us to come and stay with her. When I realized she was only a five-hour drive away, we made plans for a reunion. Even though I was only a peripheral part of her American experience, I got the sense that she wanted to give back to my family and host us.

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She warned me that Bosnia was a country without real highways. Still, I was excited to rent an automatic car for a weekend and set off for the Balkans. I didn’t realize my GPS would take me on a gravel road over the mountains to get there. My 11-year-old asked if we should turn around when we got to a narrow off-roading section near the Bosnian border. But we kept going because I didn’t know how else to get there. I only later read that there are some stretches of road considered “God said good night” (God-forsaken) areas. Luckily, we navigated them while it was still daylight.

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When we got to Sarajevo, Sabina greeted us outside her tall, Soviet-era apartment building in the residential area across the river from where she works at the American Embassy. She told me the place she lives now is similar to the building where she used to live in Tuzla during the war, where they would go to the basement during air raids and had no water or electricity and little food. She recalled a time in her teens when her friends all went out to a neighborhood gathering spot and she happened to stay home. More than 70 people were gunned down that day as the Serbs attacked the Muslims, including some of her friends. The town held a mass memorial service so neighbors could gather in safety in the dark of night.

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My weekend was an education about a war that I didn’t pay much attention to in my 20s. Ironically, I didn’t know my husband yet then. He was tuned in because he was an American soldier. When Sabina returned to Bosnia, she worked as a translator for the Army in Tuzla at the same base where my husband was working as an Army medic. It struck me how different their world experiences were from mine during that time of our lives. They were experiencing life and death when I was just out of college and felt like I was just beginning mine. I didn’t consider the world’s problems mine.

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Sabina took us to war and history museums and to the Tunnel of Hope, a wartime tunnel built to smuggle food, war supplies and humanitarian aid into the city of Sarajevo. She set me up with a Sarajevo city tour guide, Raza, who also had a personal story that struck me. Raza was 11 when the war started. Her younger brother had a learning disability, and his teachers wanted to send him to live with professors in Germany to escape the war. They sent Raza as his caretaker. She and her brother were in Germany for three years, and it changed the course of her life. She speaks German like it’s her mother tongue and English almost as well. She found strength during a time that could have broken her. And she returned to Bosnia because her mother wanted her to come back. As she told me her story, I thought of my own boys, the same age she and her brother were during the war. Could I have left my boys in Germany for three years to escape the war while my husband and I stayed behind? What horrific choices people had to make not so long ago.

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Only a couple of decades after the war, we toured a once-burned and now restored Sarajevo City Hall and a history museum filled with before and after pictures and heartbreaking items, like a bloody sweater from a young boy struck and killed by a bullet that first hit his mother.

Sabina showed us some cheerful spots, too – a festival going on in her neighborhood, a restaurant where a celebrity chef was doing the cooking, a hilltop overlook where the kids rode a roller coaster. My 10- and 11-year-old boys were enthralled with her 14-year-old son, who had his own green screen, YouTube channel and 300+ followers.

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As our boys became friends, Sabina and I reminisced about her time in America, her experiences with my family, our fondness for the late Sister Mary Reina (who encouraged us both to pursue our interests in art), and the coincidences that brought us together again.

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I wished my parents could have been on the trip to see Sabina now and have some closure on whatever became of their exchange student. They hadn’t kept in touch much in the last couple of decades. They weren’t sure what happened to the group of exchange students who came to Kentucky in 1995.

I was glad to talk to my mom last night and tell her Sabina turned out to have a good life. Her experience in America made a real difference. She learned fluent English during her year abroad, and it helped her establish a thriving career doing work for government agencies.  My parents should be proud of their contributions and being a safe haven during a time of war. I might not have been paying much attention then. But I’m glad I tuned back in to see Sabina’s happy ending.