Familiarity and habit, these are the actions of self-enforced domesticity. Each of these actions have also become a vital aspect of my travels around Central and Eastern Europe. While travel is a form of escape from them, it is only a temporary one. I find myself out of habit coming back to some of the same places again and again. Seeking out the familiar to provide comfort and quell the anxiety which threatens to devolve into aimless wanderings on trips abroad. A habit is hard to break. Thus, I found myself in Dubrovnik eating at the exact same place as eight years earlier on that first visit to the Old Town.
In the span of time between past and present not much had changed at what amounted to a fast food restaurant. It served the same food for nearly the same price almost a decade later. While there I ordered the same dish that I always do on these journeys, Cevapi, a grilled dish of minced meat that makes me crave visits to the Balkans. I first ate Cevapi in Sarajevo during my visit to that city in 2011. Since then, I have found myself seeking it out again and again. This includes in cities that are not part of the Balkans. I recall at least three occasions when I sought out restaurants serving it in Budapest. On my last trip to Europe before this one, I spent an entire weeklong visit to Montenegro feasting on this delicacy each evening. Having Cevapi one last time in Dubrovnik made me feel like I was enjoying a well cooked meal at a home away from home.
Habit Forming – The Trigger Event
Home, if I have one in Eastern Europe, can be traced to the experiences I keep coming back to again and again. It is not just restaurants. it is also monuments and museums or places so powerful for me that I cannot resist the urge to revisit them. I find comfort in the familiar. Several years ago, I had a few hours in Vienna before departing for the Austrian countryside. Did I take this time to seek out something new? Not a chance. Instead, I made a return visit to the Museum of Military History (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum). Ostensibly, this was to see the artifacts from Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo, the trigger event for the starting gun that signaled the outbreak of World War I.
The artifacts included the Archduke’s bloodstained tunic. Upon reflection, I wonder if the artifacts really were the underlying reason for my return? This return visit took place near the end of a two week trip. I was feeling anxious and edgy, more worried about the logistics of heading home than seeing something new. As soon as I walked into the museum I felt at ease, as though my worries had vanished. It is rather disturbing that this museum – which felt like home for a few hours – captured my interest due to artifacts from a murder. Nonetheless, I still find comfort in thoughts of that visit to the museum.
Domestic Travels – A Circular Logic
In Dubrovnik I found myself caught within the travel equivalent of circular logic. I was not just returning to the Old Town many years after a first visit. I was also returning to several of the same places I had been before. Just as the medieval walls confine the Old Town, so my previous visits confined me. I retraced my footsteps by entering through the Pile Gate, stopped for a moment to ponder Onofrio’s Fountain and found another stroll down the jam packed promenade of the Stradun irresistible. I had seen it all before and was prepared to see it all again. I was caught up in my own personal history more than that of the Old Town’s history. Dubrovnik might be over a thousand years old, but that was no match for my memory of that first visit. Seeing the same places was like visiting with old friends, albeit friends that were frozen in time and inanimate in everything but my mind. At the Pile Gate I was comforted by the site of the city’s patron, Saint Blaise. I watched as those around me failed to notice his presence. They did not need Saint Blaise, but I did. The site of his statuesque form was intensely comforting.
The idea of seeing something different in Dubrovnik was an opportunity that I was not taking. Walking those endless, narrow alleyways that wait to be stirred out of their silence. was not nearly as interesting to me as it had been on my first visit. I recoiled at the thought of leaving my comfort zone. I knew from experience that the backstreets of the Old Town offered a multitude of unique experiences. Ones that are very different from the glories fed to the masses, but I found them painful to consider. They reminded me of my own loneliness, even when surrounded by fantasy, there was always a melancholic aspect to my life. It often seduced me with laziness. On this day in Dubrovnik, I was confronted by the fact that my travels were becoming more like my domestic life. An enervating repetition of habits that dulled the senses. For me, there is safety in regimentation. I had come so far to not go any farther. Or so I thought.
Collision Course – A Tantalizing Glimpse
While downing yet another meal of Cevapi, the idea of how to finally break free of the sensory numbing strictures with which I had mentally shackled myself came to mind. There was a church that I had spied from a distance while walking along the Stradun. I could see hints of its Baroque elements peeking out through the shafts of streets. Such scenes offered brief, tantalizing glimpses of architectural greatness exposed for the eye. I had no idea whether I had been there before. The mystery of it had been slowly building inside of me. Now a day before departure came the last chance to make its acquaintance. This would be a respite from regimentation and allow me to kick the habit that had been holding me back. Going there would offer the opportunity to explore another side of the city. One where locals still lived not for the sake of tourism, but for themselves and their families. I was ready for one last journey into that other world, the one where history and reality collide.