HVAR, Croatia, August 20, 2011 —I always suspected that our trip to Hvar – the legend-shrouded island off the Croatian coast – would be “interesting.” The events of the last few days proved just how accurate my premonition was.
Of course, it could hardly have been otherwise.
Things are bound to get interesting when you decide to explore the splendors of the Old Continent – or any continent, for that matter – with two girls aged nine and two.
The trip began innocently enough with a two hour flight from Moscow to Budapest. Even though it was early August, Hungary’s capital was rainy and cold. While much of the US has been sweltering this summer, large patches of Europe have experienced unseasonably low temperatures. Central Europe especially has had an ugly time of it.
My family tell me that in the latter half of July rain was a daily occurrence in Slovakia and beyond. So copious was the precipitation that some people were beginning to think that God was about to judge the world by water as he did in the days of Noah.
The second stage of our journey – the four hour ride from Budapest to Zagreb – passed relatively smoothly.
The only unpleasant part was the Hungarian-Croatian border where we were “greeted” by security personnel who required that we submit to inspection. Such crossings are becoming increasingly rare in Europe due to the expansion of the European Union within whose borders travel is unrestricted. You simply drive straight through as you would between New York and New Jersey.
The difference is that you suddenly find yourself in another country where language and culture can be completely different from the one you just left behind.
Since Croatia is not part of the EU, we had to face bureaucrats with pistols on their hips. As bureaucrats are wont to do when dealing with the public, they gave us surly looks and stared at us as if we were criminals. They asked us to open the boot of our rental car and looked at our baggage with a mixture of superiority and annoyance. Then they let us go, acting as if they were doing us a favor.
All throughout the inspection, they treated us with condescension of people who are conscious of their power and position. One cannot but notice how people’s sense of self-importance tends to shoot up the moment they get to wear a governmentally-issued shirt and a plastic badge.
Words can hardly do justice to the spectacular two hour ferry ride from Split to the Hvar Island. The lush isles passing by on the cobalt sea seemed almost surreal. It nearly felt as if one were on a movie set where a sequence was just being filmed called “Entranceway into Magic Land.”
Upon disembarking, a winding costal road took us to the island’s picturesque capital. It was a wonderful ride with spectacular vistas opening up at almost every turn. Thankfully, this time neither of the children became ill, which made the experience all the more enjoyable.
Dinner followed a fifteen minute walk down to the Hvar Town harbor. It evinces that special Mediterranean magic that is felt so distinctly in the towns of the French Riviera or Italy’s Amalfi coast. What makes these Mediterranean places so unique is their historical setting.
These are not hastily built tourist destinations. The buildings you see there today were built over the course of many centuries. In Hvar Town, for example, you can walk along 13th century city walls that surround Gothic palaces within. A small Romanesque church a thousand years old graces the main square. Such Mediterranean pearls were put together by a number of successive generations who apparently shared one thing in common – good taste.
And in some instances they achieved a postcard perfect result.
As we sat by the waterside waiting to be served, we watched crowds of suntanned people passing by. On the water before us floated luxurious yachts of the world’s wealthy. Among them stood out the
Octopus, the luxurious super-yacht belonging to Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft. When launched in 2003, it was the world’s largest vessel of its kind. Allen’s ark carries sixty permanent crew, two helicopters, seven boats, a submarine and a sea floor crawling vehicle that is operated by remote control. It may be true that money can’t buy happiness, but it can at least get you a bit of fun.
As I was contemplating the lovely setting, I detected a suspect odor coming from the direction of our two year old. A follow-up confirmed my fear: It was a diaper accident. As luck would have it, it was one of those rare times we had brought no extra diaper.
After exchanging accusatory looks with my better half, I was dispatched to the hotel to fetch that essential accessory. I managed to make it back in less than twenty-five minutes, and we happily performed the change on a grassy patch nearby.
As I wiped off my sweat and was about to have a cold drink, I noticed that our older daughter was not around.
It took nearly fifteen minutes of frantic search to find her in one of the apparel boutiques where she was fully absorbed in the latest from the world of fashion. I was too relieved and too tired to administer punishment.
Sensing how worried we had been, she promised she would never wander off again without telling us first. I hope she keeps her word this time, since we have heard that one before.
Reinvigorated by the fresh diaper, the baby was now eager to explore the harbor herself. I stumbled in her wake as she meandered through the surging crowd of holidaymakers. Then she began to run. I was about to stop her when she ran face first into the knee of an Italian who was paying more attention to his female companion than to what was under his feet.
The baby flew backward and the back of her head hit the cobblestone surface. My heart stopped when I heard the dull thump; I was sure it was a concussion.
The charming Italian understandably felt very bad about the incident, and he attempted to soothe the screaming child with goofy faces. The man apparently had no experience with small children. Rather than carrying on like this, he should have been thinking about fetching a doctor.
I tried to reassure him it was not really his fault, but I thought to myself that the next time he should watch his step and not go around kneeing little girls in the face.
For the next hour, we watched the baby with tense concern. After she had calmed down somewhat, we repeatedly asked her where mamma and daddy were. Thankfully, she still knew. There was no concussion, after all. They say the skulls of young children are rather more elastic than those of adults. I fully believe it now.
Earlier in the day I had planned to spend a couple of hours in contemplation and mystical transports on the sea-facing balcony of our hotel room. But when we staggered in that evening, I had no strength for such pursuits. After a day like that sleep truly becomes the foremost object of desire.
The last thing I remember was the sound of my little girl sucking on the bottle as I felt asleep next to her.
When I belatedly stepped onto the balcony the next morning, the Adriatic greeted me in its full glory. The green hues of the lush foliage in the gardens below contrasted splendidly with the azure blue of the water. Three smaller islands further out stood silent sentry to the morning’s splendor.
As I looked out, I thought things cannot get much more beautiful than this. God truly is a supreme artist.
In one of his books, Henry James describes the amazement of his heroine as she takes in the beauty of the English countryside on a sunny spring day. But as she marvels at the magnificence around her, she also becomes aware of its fragility and fleeting nature.
The truth that James captured in that passage does not only apply to British spring, however. It also applies to beauty in general, because all beauty is ultimately mortal. And not only beauty, but also everything that there is. Scientists tell us that one day the universe itself will run out of energy. It then will die a thermodynamic death. When that happens, corpses of celestial bodies will float through the endless expanse of a dead cosmos.
All the beauty that has ever been – whether that of English spring, or of the Mediterranean coast, or of anything else – will have been for naught.
But those who paint this bleak scenario leave out one crucial variable: God.
With God things could never end in such nihilistic fashion. If we really want to know how it will all fall out, we can read about it in the book of Revelation. There in chapter twenty one, God showed the Apostle John a vision of what will happen at the end of time: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.”
John’s was a glorious vision, and the apostle struggled to find words to articulate it. This is not so surprising. If the world can be so beautiful in its present fallen form, how much more beautiful it will be when it is no longer subject to corruption and death.
We have indeed much to look forward to. As the Bible says, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”
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