Sunday, May 27, 2007
Saga of the Stolen Wiener Schnitzel
So far, you’ve been given the officially sanctioned “brain box” (as The Economist has so graphically designated anyone with a PhD) travelogue account. Now a bit from the non-“brain box” reporter. Today you’ll read about an incident that even the most inclusive travel books won’t address. (And I dare say, even Rick Steves didn’t see this one coming.) And so begins the rather touching “Saga of the Stolen Wiener Schnitzel”. Where does one begin this tale of woe? How about in the middle of a Ljubljana street intersection where we both simultaneously spotted that glaring beacon in the sky? Well, actually it was a rather nondescript sign somewhat precariously perched on the ubiquitous signpost. But nonetheless, there it was for all to see. Zagreb – 135 Km! Perhaps being a bit less geographically challenged than the average American, we already saw the Croatian writing on the wall, or rather yet another stamp to be ceremoniously grafittied into our passports. (The fact that one of us possesses a passport that is desperately deficient in blank pages, a situation that required more than one border guard to frantically page through in hopes of finding a pristine spot suitable for his country’s official scribble, did little to deter us.) After all, we had already traveled at least 6,000 miles. What was another 135 kilometers? So off to the train station ticket counter, where we, rather skillfully I might add, navigated the train schedule (ok, so the agent quickly reverted to English), expertly handed over our Euros (ok, so we had a little trouble with the denominations of the coinage, but I swear we didn’t look like tourists who trustfully extend their coin-filled palms for the natives to take what they deem appropriate), and soon we were lollygagging our way into yet another country in hopes of seeing a few sites and partaking of the local cuisine for dinner. Yep, all was so perfectly planned. We’d be back in Ljubljana, none the worse for wear, by midnight to catch the 2 a.m. train to Budapest. After duly pilgrimaging to the shrine dedicated to that great humanitarian Croatian saint, Cardinal Stepinac (I’ll defer to the official chronicler here who can tell you the “rest of the story”), we plunked ourselves down at the nearest outdoor eatery to sample a bit of the Croatian culinary delights. And of course, that great European staple, the Wiener Schnitzel, was duly offered. Practically weaned on this pork (also available in veal, but my admittedly highly selective PETA conscious prevents me from indulging in such) delicacy, I naturally had to order this menu selection. And as usual, I was not disappointed. There it was in all its breaded and fried splendor, overhanging, as customary, the large dinner plate. (This reminds me of another great Schnitzel story, there are so many, but that’s another story. ) A gleaming mound of pommes frites completed this culinary ensemble. And try as I might, I was sated after consuming ½ (ok, ¾) of the presented portion. Setting our plates aside, we proceeded to relax in the Zagrebian splendor (ok, despite what I felt to be an almost obscene display of new BMW SUVs and the incarnation of a Sheraton Hotel, the city is shabby indeed and has a way to go before the EU will give it the nod). And then in our peripheral vision, we spotted her; a little, old, alcohol-fueled Croatian woman effortlessly meandering among the tables. No doubt identifying us as “easy” foreign targets (it was the shoes that gave us away every time), she proceeded to communicate to us in her native tongue. Lacking the linguistic skills to respond intelligently, we merely nodded and smiled in hopes of expediting her departure. These benign theatrical gestures did the trick. Within seconds she had hightailed off into the mean back alleys of Zagreb, but not before covertly snatching what remained of my Wiener Schnitzel. It all happened so quickly, before we knew it. We could only gasp at the sheer audacity of this culinary crime, committed in the broad Croatian daylight. (Well, ok, the sun was getting a bit low by dinnertime.) However, two little old, outwardly respectable, Croatian ladies (who had managed to scarf down their huge dinners with little fanfare as well, but unfortunately had to top off the meal with a few smokes) were clearly outraged and quickly summoned the waiter to complain of this unacceptable behavior. (Apparently, this was not, as we suspected, some quaint local custom.) In his broken English, the waiter inquired as to whether I had had enough dinner. In our perfect English, we quickly assured him, that I had indeed finished my meal and bore no grudge against his august eating establishment. Secure in the knowledge that he had not irreparably jeopardized Croatian-American diplomatic relations, he bowed slightly and returned to attend to his duties. Slightly shaken by the experience, we paid the bill and, somewhat self-righteously assuming a stiff upper lip (after all we had been victimized), tramped to the station to board the train back to Slovenia and further adventures abroad. Stay tuned for the next “unofficial” installment: “A Red Light Means Stop, Even in Slovenia” or “What Happens When a Volkswagen Encounters a Tour Bus on a One Lane Highway”.