On Wisdom and Travel and Self-Reflection

I do not know the originator of the following concept, but I applaud his or her wisdom in expressing it:

If you can’t intelligently argue for both sides of an issue, you don’t understand the issue well enough to argue for either.

All of us would be far better informed if we lived in accordance with that precept. Without fully understanding both sides (or, for that matter, all sides) of an issue, we cannot fully understand our own “side.” That is, absent knowledge of the foundations upon which an opinion is constructed, we cannot hold well-grounded, defensible positions. Instead, we are limited to uninformed beliefs—beliefs, by the way, that illustrate the shallowness of our thinking and the breadth of our ignorance. All right, that’s out of the way. Now I’ll move on.

I got word this morning, via email, that our bags should be delivered to our door before 2:30 p.m. today. Assuming that assertion comes to pass, my complaints that suggested our luggage was lost forever will be proven to be based on unfounded beliefs. I don’t always follow my own advice; in fact, as good as my advice can be, I sometimes cavalierly disregard it as if it were guidance from a madman. Which it is, of course, but profundity can emerge from the mouth of madmen from time to time.

I’m still processing, mentally, the adventures of our European vacation. The experiences mixed joy and darkness in almost equal measure. We bore joyous witness to beautiful landscapes and participated in festivities of societies flooded with light and life. On the other hand, we learned about and heard first-hand experiences of people who lived through the hellish war of 1992-1995. Though the war is over, the enforced peace is in many respects a dictatorship of diplomacy that robs people of the right to decide how to rule themselves. I learned, by talking to people who live in Sarajevo, that the Dayton Accord imposes upon them diplomatic solutions that prevent them from making changes in the way they are governed. The war is over, but the wounds are fresh; I suspect they will open again one day.

Listening to people who live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Croatia and Montenegro, I heard the voices of people who view history from a very different perspective than the one I was taught. For example, the common view in the U.S. of  Josip Broz Tito is that he was an authoritarian dictator.  In the former Yugoslavia, virtually everyone with whom I spoke saw him as a benevolent leader who was largely responsible for building a strong, resilient society that looked after its citizens. Though he was a communist, he broke from Stalin in the late 1940s and led an economy based in market socialism. Evidence exists throughout the region of the reverence in which he was held by the population he served.

As I said, our experiences comprised mixtures of joy and darkness. The joys included experiencing lively cities like Sarajevo, Dubrovnik, Zagreb, and Ljubljana. Public squares, pedestrian malls, and lively street life differ radically from the automobile-owned streets of American cities. We saw and, in some cases, participated in large public festivals: for example, the hamburger festival. Literally dozens and dozens of hamburger “joints” offered their special versions of hamburgers to adoring crowds. Though the burgers we bought were utterly unimpressive, I’m confident we would have found some to our liking had we been able to spend more time at the festival.

The views of old-town Dubrovnik from the peak of Srd, a low mountain just behind the old city, were spectacular. We rode a funicular to the peak (and I did the same in Sarajevo and Ljubljana) to get us to the best viewing sites around. From high above the cities, we saw the majesty of their expansive territories.  And we walked around large, crystal-clear lakes in national parks. We rode train cars into caves where we viewed enormous stalactites and stalagmites. We had home-hosted dinners with families in Sarajevo and in the Croatian village of Karanac, where we visited with “locals” who shared with us what their day-by-day lives were like.  We drank local wine and brandy and ate food raised and prepared by the cooks. I learned that the very best extra-virgin olive oil is strong and flavorful and should never be used in cooking.

Except for the language barrier, which for me would be impossible to overcome at this stage in my life, I think I could live happily in any of the places we visited. Ultimately, the lessons of our travels around the Balkans was this: places can be beautiful, but it’s the people that make them livable. I couldn’t tolerate all the public smoking for very long, I think, but I did well enough on this trip. Only once did I ask to be moved to a different restaurant table to be away from a smoker.  I’m adaptable.

Some day, perhaps soon, I’ll write about the people we met along the way and people with whom we traveled. And I’ll continue to process my experiences during our 17-day trip through the Balkans.

I got an email this morning, suggesting that our lost luggage has been found and will be delivered to our house by 2:30 p.m. today. I hope that comes to pass. We could use some underwear; washing the same pair day after day already has become tiresome after only a few days.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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