For writers travel happens often in both a real and literary space. I always try to track down poetry from wherever I'm going, and sometimes I read novels, essays, blogs. Of course there is always the sketchy narrative presented by Rough Guides which define so many trips from town to town, organized by region-- where to stay, how to order a beer, what history is most important, what to avoid, where to be sure to eat.
Sometimes I enjoy the travel guides, and other times I avoid them because I want to form my own opinions about new landscapes and looming cultures. I try not to fool myself into believing that reading the Rough Guides makes me somehow more authentic a traveler than someone who reads a Michelin guide. Guides are guides. As has been so famously said in other contexts, a map is never the territory.
I'm very interested in the territory and know when I have wandered into it. Sometimes it's an observed space, as it was watching the old man carry his ruck sack into the train station in the Alps; and other times it's a mundane scene as we witnessed when the Austrian daughter left her demented mother in the coach across from us and we watched the old woman go through her purse over and over for hours. She stayed put and before we crossed into Slovenia someone came on the train to get her.
Often I'll read books that don't have a direct connection to exactly where I'm going, but will give me some deep background and present perspectives I didn't expect. When I traveled in China I read a series of books about Americans teaching abroad. I also read an anthology of classic Chinese poetry in translation that had no bearing it seemed on today's Shanghai. When I traveled to Zimbabwe I read the story of a famous local Bishop of the Methodist church and his struggle to maintain a moderate position during the period of nationalism and revolt, but I also returned to a beloved collection of African praise poems.
This trip my parallel reading for southeast Europe was English writer Patrick Leigh Fermor's Between the Woods and Water, one of the books many say is among the best travel writing ever. The book is part of a series by the recently deceased Fermor (who died in 2011 in his 90s), a recreated account of his 1933 walk as a young man from Amsterdam to what he persisted in calling "Constantinople" (of course, now Istanbul). Fermor's book fit me nicely. He's a master at weaving personal narrative, thumbnail sketches of characters he meets along the way, and defining histories of "middle Europe" as he passes through-- Budapest, the Great Hungarian Plain, Transylvania, the Carpathian Uplands.
As we rode the train toward Zagreb, and then on to Split and the Adriatic, I read Fermor's lovely sentences and began to form some ideas about being European I'd never considered before. To live in Europe over time is to dwell between invasions. Fermor mostly follows the course of the Danube on his walk, and along the way recounts the waves of Greeks, Goths, Huns, Slavs, Romans, Germans sweeping back and forth across the plains and mountains of Eastern Europe and the Balkans through the centuries. With each wave, there follows pillage and plunder. Languages shift and even disappear. Churches are reduced to piles of stones and ashes, then rebuilt. Frontiers flux. Cultures change their orientation, east to west, west to east. Nobody ever forgets, and everyone waits for the next disaster, only seven years in the future after his 1933 walk. "Every part of Europe I had crossed so far was to be torn and shattered by war," he writes, knowing all the friends he'd met would soon enough be "vanished into sudden darkness."
As we entered Croatia I thought about the darkness that had raged through their country only two decades earlier. Would we see any signs of this, or would the waves of industrial tourism now beginning to sweep the Croatia have blotted the war all out?
"Travels like these are times of such well-being that spirits soar," Fermor wrote as he was exiting Transylvania, "and this, with the elation of being on the move again..." I felt the same way as the train inched down valley of the Sava toward the capital.
I was relieved when, as we approached Zagreb, Croatia looked calm and serene. There was a sense of the old way still hanging over the rail system, as we clanked along. We passed little villages with red tile roofs and isolated rail stations where station masters waited on the platforms for the train to pass. They all wore red hats.