Archive for the 'Eastern Europe' Category

Boys, Boys, Boys: A Solo Female Traveler’s Experience With the Men of Southern Italy, Montenegro and Albania

You know the picture...

“Southern Italy, eh?” He gave me the raised eyebrow of caution. “Watch out for the men.”

This was Alex, his voice lifting above the roar of hair dryers and hip music at the salon, two days before I left on my trip.

A lady friend of his, he continued, had recently spent several weeks in the Mediterranean land of machismo. “Apparently, they all use the same line: ‘I have a girlfriend. But tonight, for you, no girlfriend.’ She said it got really old.”

I laughed. To be honest, it hadn’t crossed my mind yet. Dealing with the men of a country as a solo female traveler is usually one of the first things people ask me about when they hear I travel alone—right after the “is it safe” question. But the truth is, I’ve been doing this sola thing for awhile now, and whether or not the men somewhere will hound me to death doesn’t really factor into my travel considerations. Plus, I’ve done the majority of my traveling in Latin America, where sidewalks can at times feel like catwalks of degradation. As long as the men aren’t physically attacking me, I pretty much feel like I can handle it.

But Alex’s comment did give me pause. When it comes to safety (and drinking tap water), I throw caution to the wind in Europe. It’s the civilized, more highly evolved land of social safety nets and low crime. Hell, the vast majority of Europe is safer than my hometown. My hairdresser’s comment reminded me that, oh yeah, right, I’d be venturing off sola in a scant 48 hours and that maybe I’d ought to mentally prepare.

You stand out as a female solo traveler, and in a way, get to experience a culture more deeply, if no other reason than the fact that its men are talking to you more. My last trip took me to Southern Italy, Montenegro and the capital of Albania (and Croatia, but I only stayed for a day, so I’m not counting it). The men in each these countries treated me totally differently—and, I think, reveal a little something about the culture.


Oh, Italian men. They have quite the reputation. American women swoon for their accents, their sense of style, their motorinos and chest hair. And they’re known for hitting on pretty much anything that moves, serenading you with sweet odes of professed passion.

I don’t get it. And Italian men, apparently, don’t get me.

During my venture Rome-and-southwards, I was largely ignored by Italian men. Which suited me just fine. Again, having traveled heftily through Latin America and once through Morocco, I’m stoked on anything that isn’t street harassment. I’ll take being ignored over obscene insults any day.

But it did cause me wonder… Who the hell are all these American women who are getting hit on Italian men all the time? I’m a cute enough girl, but do you want to know why I wasn’t getting any attention from the dudes? Because they’re surrounded by Italian women—who are impossibly gorgeous and stylish, with their cascade of curly hair and their moody black eyeliner. I wouldn’t hit on me either.

Traveling through Southern Italy was like an adventure in mutual disinterest—as though every guy I passed on the street exchanged a brief little dialog with me: “Thanks but no thanks.” Italy is a pretty culturally conservative place, and I’m a pretty not culturally conservation person, in appearance or attitude. So it makes sense to me that the Italian men and I didn’t vibe. In person, that is.

While I was in Naples my Couchsurfing inbox got flooded with messages from shirtless dudes in sunglasses asking me if I needed a place to stay. (“Um, no.”) But this was the extent of the Italian sleaze I experienced—an indirect, easily ignored, half-assed attempt.

Maybe that was the secret to the purported flirtations of Italian men: that it’s largely impersonal, having less to do with you and whether or not there’s any real potential for something to happen, and more to do with, I dunno, not having anything else better to do? Hitting on someone just for the sake of hitting on someone?…


If ever a girl was thinking of a place to take advantage of men, Montenegro would be the place to do it. I had more offers for rides, tour guides, free drinks, places to stay, etc than anywhere else I’ve been.

But the curious thing was a) all the attention was from middle-aged men, no guys my own age, and b) they somehow managed to stay just on the right side of appropriate and respectful. I never felt violated or threatened by any of the Montenegrin men; it all just came across as really, really nice.

I was of course only getting the attention because I’m a pretty young(ish) American girl traveling alone. Montenegro is really trying to woo Western tourists, and I think I was something of an anomaly; there weren’t many Americans, weren’t many backpackers, weren’t many women alone. I think I was on the one hand intriguing for this reason; I think Montenegrins in general also really want tourists to feel welcome, want to take care of them. I must have sparked all the paternal instincts of the middle-aged men there. But somehow not in a demeaning way. Most curious.


At a certain point one night, it got ridiculous. I had to put on my sweater and get the hell off the dance floor.

It was like moths to a lightbulb. I have never received more male attention from males I actually wanted attention from than in Tirana. It was dangerous.

Albanians my age, it seems, really want to be Western. They’ve lived most of their lives in post-Communist Albania, but still relatively isolated from the rest of Europe. They’re ready, it seems, to be a part of the rest of the world.

For most kids, this striving seems to take the form of mainstream culture, the Top-40 kind. Stylistically, Tirana is filled with tons of extremely beautiful nouveau riche girls, who could, at first glance, blend in on Parisian sidewalks. You look a little closer and you realize that they don’t quite have it right yet; they wear a little too much make-up, their clothes not quite expensive enough.

But the point is, they’re trying really really hard. They have the posture, the poise, the carefully cultivated look of class in the arch of their fingers as they lean back and drag their cigarettes. They also don’t seem like a whole lot of fun—a little snobby, to be honest.

So I stood out, and not just for being foreign. There weren’t any other girls in Tirana like me, in sneakers and a band shirt, with short hair and tattoos. I’m a dime-a-dozen in the Bay Area, but in Tirana, I was the only act in town. And every single rock n roll dude, it seemed, was eying me. Or talking to me. Or offering me drinks or asking me out or wanting to dance with me.

Big-fish-in-a-little-pond syndrome. I’d never experienced it. After the initial rush of validation, though, it felt funny. It didn’t seem real and, in a way, it wasn’t.

It was like Genti’s indie rock band. An Albanian turned Brighton boy, Genti was just another dude in a band in England. But in Albania, he was becoming a big deal, selling a ton of albums and appearing on Albanian TV. It would have been easy, he told me, to really make it there. “But, I dunno,” he yelled over the barroom clatter, “do I really want to be the guy who was ‘really big in Albania’?”

I paused, and asked myself the same question. I was pretty damn sure that if all these rocker dudes were suddenly delivered into the Bay Area, they wouldn’t be tripping off me so much. I wanted to tell them, to put my hand gently on their shoulders and let them know, “Honey, there’s a big world out there, and it’s filled with a fuckton of cuter girls with more tattoos than me.”

But they’d have had to take my word for it. Cause it’s so damn hard for an Albanian to get a tourist visa, or to afford to travel anywhere where rock n roll girls live, places steeped in privilege.

So I did all I could do, which was to shake my head and laugh.

The Foreigner at the Party

Tirana and Rome don’t have much in common—except that it’s absurdly easy to stand out as a tourist.

They come at it from different angles—Rome because there’s so many goddamn tourists (really, do Americans realize that there’s other countries in the world?), and Tirana because there’s so few goddamn tourists (really, do people realize how amazing it is?). But the effect is the same either way: you aren’t ever, ever going to blend in.

Some travelers get bummed out by this, and do everything within their power to fool themselves (and themselves only), acquiring affected accents and scarves for the local football team. But I say fuck it—no one’s gonna buy it anyway. So you may as well just dance.

Friday night felt like a riot in Tirana: chanting crowds, police sirens, streets shut off, smoke billowing and fireworks flashing. It wasn’t a riot, just the Albania-Bosnia football match. The insane energy of it all is a little anxiety-provoking for an American—if it were Oakland, someone would have gotten shot.

Our little clan from the hostel walked through the raucous roads; some had picked up Albanian flags along the way, but it wasn’t any use. We were varied races and ethnicities, all speaking English, and the stares we ellicted became almost laughable, necks craning and feet stopping cold.

“Hello, hello,” shouted a voice from a drunken crowd, as though to point out that we were different and didn’t belong.

Everyone got quiet and a little uncomfortable. I gave a stupidly exaggerated wave. “Howdy!” I exclaimed in a Southern accent. “How y’all doin’?”

And we all had a laugh.

We didn’t end up getting into the stadium. It’s my absolute fate with football—I’ve never managed to actually see a match. So we marched across town to a bar to watch it on TV, amusing everyone with our mispronounciation of “Shqipëri,” the Albanian name for Albania. One of the waiters was so amused he bought everyone at our table—fourteen of us—a round of drinks. Sometimes it pays to stand out.

After the match we went to another bar, an underground spot near the Opera House, walls covered in the photos of the artists that used to hang out there (as well as a healthy layer of cigarette smoke). A DJ was playing drum and bass from his glowing white laptop and everyone was dancing, arms raising to graze the low ceiling.

Again, we were the only foreigners. But the good news is, the language of dance is universal.

So universal, in fact, that everyone was shacking up, disappearing from the dark room in hand-holding couples. At one am, it was just me and the gay Dutch dude left. “We’re dropping like flies!” I screamed over the music.

He kissed me on the cheek.

Saturday took me back to Rome, throat sore and heart heavy, sad and actually a little ill to be leaving. I met up with my couchsurfing host in the evening; we got in the car and drove. And drove and drove, into the damp-smelling dark, street lights thinning and stars appearing. A friend of his was having a birthday party at his parents’ country home.

My first clue that I was somewhere I seriously didn’t belong should have been “country home.” Or the red-candle-lit driveway, that rambled on for half a block. It was dark, so I couldn’t see the house I walking into, but I could sense its presence—something large and sturdy and stately.

We walked into a huge living room, exposed wooden beams and tasteful vases. The crowd was art-opening-hip, wine glasses and expensive haircuts. There was a DJ. There was actual porchetta—a whole pig—being sliced by a little old lady in an apron.

I was in Toms and (again) a Talk Is Poison shirt. I still stank from Tirana’s cigarette smoke, dirty hair stuffed under a beanie. Even in the States, I’d stand out in a party like this.

But I didn’t get any snotty vibes from anyone, so I shrugged and grabbed a plate. I couldn’t really talk to anyone, but I smiled a lot, and people smiled back. No one seemed to mind me too much. It was one of those isn’t-it-funny-where-travel-takes-you moments: if you’d ever asked me, “Hey, do you think you’ll ever end up at a super posh party in a villa outside of Rome?”, I’d have answered, “no.”

After the pig was picked apart, the lights went down and the dance songs started cranking. Good time stuff: “Surfin USA,” “Girl’s Just Wanna Have Fun,” some old rock n roll hits and a couple Italian songs to round it out.

And I danced again. It didn’t matter that I was dirty and foreign and didn’t belong. There was a good time to be had, and sometimes, in the midst of a really good party, the only thing the really “belongs,” so to speak, is fun—the boom of the bass and the way your shoulder dips to the beat.

Tirana, Tirana, The One I’ve Been Waiting For

If Tirana were a boy, it’d be the boy I’ve been waiting to meet.

You rumble across the border, furious windshield wiper and donkeys in the dirt road, hills dripping lush green. You dash from the taxi to the minibus, puddle-footed and soaking-hooded, grab the last seat as a man climbs into the trunk compartment.

You rattle like this through the rainstorm, through a landscape of sheeps and shacks, the smooth round dome of abandoned bunkers, half-built buildings with sleeping bulldozers stuck in the mud, the carcasses of stipped-down cars piled in empty lots. The minibus driver turns on some kind of Albanian butt rock, and you silently thank him for knowing the exact right soundtrack for your entrance into the country.

I’d meant to travel around a bit in Albania, see a UNESCO town or two, climb in a bunker, poke around some old Ottoman castle. Which still all sounds awesome. But four hours in Tirana, and I knew I wouldn’t be going anywhere.

There’s only one other city I’ve walked into and felt this feeling, this long “yeeeesss” coming from some place between my ribs, near my gut, a forgotten organ of intuition. Some places just fit, and you just fit them, and Tirana is one of them.

It’s got a certain electric insanity, that infectious energy, without being a total free-for-all. It’s just dirty enough, has just enough street dogs and decrepit buildings, just enough business men, the click of just enough three-inch heels, attached to smooth legs and slim skirts. It’s like meeting a boy with just enough of “the dark side,” as Luke would say—not a total depraved junkie, but not squeaky clean and wholesome either: a chipped tooth and an ancient wound.

So I walked Tirana’s streets, its run-down markets and posh cafes, past Mercedes Benzes negoitating potholes, 10-years-old smoking cigarettes, old women roasting chestnuts, old men selling gum and lighters, gypsies sitting cross-legged with outstetched palms, the blare of the horns and the hum of the engines and the swoon of the city.

Within a few hours of staggering into the frenetic swarm of this city, I’d fallen in with the artsy, alternative crowd, finding myself at a rock show in a tiny, smokey bar in an otherwise-shuttered mall. The next night was K’tu Ka Art, a weekly show featuring local live music acts. It felt a lot like being at a small show at home, until I had it explained to me.

Apparently, bands in Albania work like this: they play cover songs. God-awful, Top 40, English-language cover songs. A band will book at a certain bar for a year. And every Friday and Saturday, people will go to same bar and hear the same band play the same cover songs.

“Bloody boring as hell,” Ghenti surmised, an indie-rocker dude in a Sonic Youth shirt and a Kurt Cobain sweater. He’d moved to Brighton when he was 16, but came back to Albania every year for a few weeks. So last year he started organizing weekly showcases of local bands, who played their own songs, singing in Albanian.

It’s a small group of people, maybe 30 or so, that are into that scene right now, into something different from the imported cool. And after two nights, I seem to know all of them. Yesterday, I walked around town and kept bumping into people I knew. It’s a funny feeling of belonging, of fitting into a place you just met. (“I feel like I’ve known you for years.”)

Tirana’s also an insanely safe and insanely cheap city. I can’t manage to spend more than $40 a day, and I can’t manage to feel uncomfortable walking its streets, even at 2am. (“Heaven must have sent you from above…”) The people are startlingly friendly, and I haven’t received any street harrassment—just a lot of stares for being the one tattooed girl in the whole city (more on that in another post).

The only drawback of the city, I told Robo, is that I smoke too much. It’s too easy and too cheap ($1.50 for a pack). It was the K’tu Ka Art afterparty, in a basement bar playing a soundtrack of “Vogue,” “Highway to Hell,” and “I Love Rock N Roll.”

“No, I think it’s a good thing,” Robo replied, yelling over the music.

“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”

“It means you’re having fun.”

“Yeah, I’ll try telling my mom that,” I smiled, leaning in to the flicker of his lighter.

He leaned back, regarded me there: sitting at the bar, happy as could be with my can of Coke, singing along to cheesy hits with Tirana’s tiny clan of rock n roll kids.

He patted me on the shoulder. “You should be an advertisement for ‘Come to Albania.'”

I threw my head back and laughed.

My Own Private Ulcinj

A beachtown in October is a haunted thing. Umbrellas folded and lounge chairs stacked, soda machines unplugged and a chilled air of desolation—packed up and shut down, another season over, as the clouds thicken and the waters dull.

Ulcinj is as mangy and lazy as a street dog. It has the restless wind of a border town, which in a way it is. Thirty-some minutes from the Albanian border, the town’s population is 80% Albanian, 80% Muslim. I didn’t realize what a sharp difference that would be until I got here, heard the ghostly adhans echoing from minarets, passed old women with white scarves over their heads, saw the men sitting crosslegged at cafe tables. And garbage—garbage everywhere, skinny stray cats stalking through the mess.

There are no gleaming ads for Montenegro tourism, no English restaurant menus, no cruise ship docks. The former pirates’ cove is run-down and dirty, filled with the buzz of flies and the smoke of kebab shops, bazars of cheap jewlery and beach blankets.

“It’s political,” the man who runs the guesthouse tells me. “The investment, it goes up to Budva, Bar, Kotor. Ulcinj is…” He brushes his hands in a dismissive manner.

“Is what?”

“Too close to Albania.”

“They don’t like Albania much in Montenegro, do they?” When any of the people I’d struck up conversation with had asked me where I was headed next, they’d shake their heads sadly. “Albania!” the chef at the Sveti Stefan hotel had exclaimed, clutching his heart. “Oh, is better you go back to America!” (This, of course, has the opposite effect on me—I want to go more now, to see why Montenegrins don’t like it.)

“No, no,” the Ulcinj guesthouse keeper sighs. “Is long history. But Ulcinj, tourism now is…” he makes a downward motion with his hand, like a line chart dropped, or an airplane crashing.

Maybe that’s why it felt especially desolate as I walked around today. The weather changed today—late summer is gone and autumn has arrived, clouds and cool air, the fitfulness of something escaping. Most of the shops were closed, the streets near the coast empty. I wandered through the old town, a ghost town of stone and trash, laundry lines and the soft sound of voices floating out of windows—my own private Ulcinj. It wasn’t just that the season had ended; there was a weightier sense of abandonment, disrepair.


A man with the face of a Swoon woodcut pauses as he passes me. He doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular, and he starts chatting with me, as Montenegrin men will do, not letting the language barrier get in his way. It’s always a sincere and entirely unsleezy exchange; they want to know where I’m from, if I like their country.

I can’t follow much of what he’s telling me, so instead I watch the deep lines in his face, an impossible etching of sun and time. He is a fisherman and his doctor, no, his daughter, lives in Tirana. He hasn’t seen her in 5 years—he counts them on his fingers, slowly, tenderly. He gives me a big smile, front teeth missing and the others just thin little slits. He pats me on the shoulder, says “thank you,” though I’m not sure why. “Hvala,” I reply, my one word of Montenegrin.

I wander out of the stone arch of the old town, and wonder if he was a ghost.

I walk along the coast, and it’s an endless string on rocky coves, rubbish falling from the cliffs like weeds or rocks. The cement sun decks are all fenced off, locked up, an amusement park at night. I continue, go deeper, through a sponge of dead leaves and dirt, picturing the sun, the gleam of tan bodies—imagining being here, walking, with someone I love, picnic packed and towel-clutching. But, no, I’m alone, with the grey and the wind.

Maybe the guesthouse keeper is right—maybe in 5, 10 years, Ulcinj tourism will come back, go up again, the hopeful angle of his climbing hand. But for now, for today, it’s a spooky little place to spend a day.

Sveti Stefan, Forbidden Island

In a little cove on the Montenegro coast, cleaved between staggers of rock and water clear as glass, I’ve discovered what is simultaneously the most beautiful and depressing place I’ve never been: Sveti Stefan.

A little jumble of terracotta roofs, grey stone buildings that look like they were carved right out the rock, a couple trees poking through, all sitting plump and pretty and perfect in that glittering, glittering water: what could be more picturesque?

So you take pictures. Lots of them. You see the other vacationers—Eastern Europeans and a handful of Italians—doing the same. You’ll go over, have a stroll, feel the old cobbled stones through your soles, soak in the Old World ambiance before you work on that sunburn you’ve been itching for.

Only you can’t. You can’t actually go in Sveti Stefan. On the narrow isthmus leading up to the island—made of sand and reinforced with a stone-wall walkway—there’s a sign telling you you can’t. And a security guard, to remind you. And another one at the end of the isthmus (you can see him down there, pacing dutifully).

This is because the entire town is a resort. The entire town.

I hadn’t actually grasped that part in the guidebook: “an old fishing village that was nationalized in the 1950s and turned into a resort…” The resort was closed, but scheduled to reopen; in the meantime, a township had sprung up onshore, keeping the beaches alive with the gentle buzz of non-corporate tourism. All of which promised to change the moment the resort reopened—so go while you can, I read between the lines.

I envisioned a monstrous, skeletal structure with workcrews hanging from cranes, somewhere off to the side of an idyllic pebble beach—an eyesore, but something you could turn your back to. I did not picture the entire island, the remains of a 15th-century village, privatized and closed off to the public.

It’s like a modern-day version of a Forbidden Island. But instead of pirates burying the booty, it’s luxury travel mongols.

Awkward photo Boris insisted on taking

Sitting in the sand, under one of the umbrellas Boris the hotel worker graciously has let you set up camp beneath (hey, it’s October, officially low-season), you feel a little like a grubby kid with their nose pressed up to the glass of some fancy restaurant. It’s a pathetic feeling of alienation—you mean I can’t even walk in there?—that surprises you.

You watch a small boatload of people disembark. The gentle breeze carries their posh British accents over your way; you watch them climb the steps in a wave of white scarves and sun hats. They’re greeted by some resort offical and whisked off down the isthmus, a bagpipe player gloriously leading the way. You pick some pebbles off your leg and feel more dejected.

There’s a story there, and you know it. You imagine some 60 years ago, a traditional, working-class town filled with fishermen and their families. You imagine the boats going out in the morning, the nets coming back full in the afternoon; you picture the women in aprons calling from the windows at their children, running down narrow lanes. You picture them all forcibly removed from their homes, uprooted and unearthed after 500 years, and not able to return home. Because wealthy people wanted to work on their sunburns.

Such displacement happens in the world, yes, but usually in the name of war, religion, apartheid. But tourism?

You wander over to the shady terrace of a fancy cafe for an overpriced espresso. It’s killing you—the story, the story hiding in there, that you can see but can’t get into—so you ask the guy serving you your coffee. He gives you the Disney version. Afterall, he works for the resort.

The town’s population had been dwindling, and, in the 50s, the government bought out the last remaining families—15 or 16, who were given “nice pieces of land” in exchange. The town was then turned into a resort—“the only town resort in the world,” he says with a puff of pride—and saw the likes of Hollywood celebrities and European royalty. Then, “alas,” during the wars of the 90s, the resort fell into disrepair.

But “thankfully,” a German company interveened and purchased the resort. They made a series of exhaustive, tasteful renovations that manage to “retain the Mediterranean charm.” (“It’s really very excellent.”) The resort will officially reopen and accept guests sometime within a year—the British people I saw were probably on a promotional tour.

“Are there ever any other kind of tours? Like for the public?”

“No, no. It is closed. It’s not so nice—you pay to come to a place and have tourists outside your window all day.”

I nod slowly, thinking of a comment I heard once about why private schools should have tuition: “otherwise all the poor people would come rushing in.”

“But, maybe, I don’t know,” the espresso server continues, “you are here for awhile,” shrugs, “maybe I can work some magic, get you a tour.” He sneaks a sidelong glance.

The writer in me wants to press. The feminist in me wants to puke.

I sit there, instead, and watch the island, the steeple from the old church peeking up above the roofs and the green of its remaining trees. I watch the water nod in white glimmers and think, “Yes, yes, there’s a story there.” If I could just get in, if I could just walk among its buildings, sit on its stones, I might be able to get it, a hint of it—hear what is left, the melancholy echoes that have remained.

For a moment I wonder what is worse: that it be preserved, turned into a storybook land that’s accessible to only the fabulously wealthy, where they can indulge their sun-strewn fantasies of a simple life in a long-gone simple world. Or that it turn into a theme-park, another Venice—a soulless caricature of itself. Because, let’s be honest: in this day and age, there’s no way a place as pretty as this would escape the clutches of tourism.

But then I come to my senses. An entire island privitized. You’ve got to be kidding me.

I lick the last bit of froth from my espresso and watch my pretty, pretty island, sitting forbidden in its lonely paradise. And I think: if I could afford it, would I stay there?


Kotor Fragments

View from the bus
Little town tumbling—orange roofs and white walls, a piercing spire poking through. They huddle there, like that, against the flat glass of water and the great grey of the mountains, rising up, behind their shoulders, like a fanged phantom in an old movie.

Looking up
An opposite feeling from looking down from a great height—an inverted vertigo—but still something you feel in your throat: a mild choking, the sense of great force, the immensity of rock, a gravity that could crush you, take you, toss you up and swallow you whole—but instead just makes you utter one long “fuuuuck.”

Boy by the bay
Little tough guy, maybe 7 or 8, comes buzzing up on his bicycle. Buzzing because the plastic crate fastened to the handlebars has sagged down and is rubbing against the front wheel. He looks at me as he passes, nods at my arm, then stops—skids his worn sneakers on cement—and circles back.

He juts his chin at my right arm, an international gesture for “show me your tattoos.” I roll up my sleeve and he smiles. He juts his chin at my other arm, and I repeat.

He gives me a broad grin—one molded yellow tooth—and extends his arm in a thumbs up. I smile back with my gleaming row of American white. He nods again, then pushes off, pedals away, is gone.

Something of a little girl still in her, something in the smile and the slouch, that behind the grim skin and grey smile, under the coat-hanger bathrobe and shuffle of slippers, seems vulnerable—breakable but not broken.

Abandoned hotel
Broken glass and shattered tile, ruins of an old hotel—an exquisite home for the ravens.

I like this place better by morning—the umbrellas folded and the stones still wet, the sun a soft thing, haloing from behind the mountains’ immense back. I like the footsteps, the sound of voices, the rattle of stroller wheels. I like the cats in the doorways and the pigeons staring, staring from their stoop between green shutters.

Dubrovnik, I Don’t Hate You

Amid the souvenoir shops, currency exchange offices and endless umbrellas of the tourist restaurants of Dubrovnik’s Old Town, I realized that something in me had changed.

It wasn’t a sudden, burning-bush kind of change, but slower, more subtle. It’s something that’s been changing in me, I suspect, for some time, without me noticing it—a transformation, unfolding gently, quietly, while I wasn’t looking. And it took Dubrovnik to make me aware of it: I no longer hate tourists.

And more than that, I no longer despise hard-partying backpackers, 20-year-olds that sleep all day and drink/cruise for girls all night on mom and dad’s bill. In short, my disapproval of how other people travel, when it isn’t my way of traveling, has dissipated.

I endured the torturous, fluorescent, overly air-conditioned ferry ride from Bari, Italy, in search of sunnier—and cheaper—shores. Well, um, Croatia ain’t it, I’ve discovered. And especially not Dubrovnik.

Yes, really.

My guidebook gushed about the splendor of the city. After I slept off the sleepless ferry ride, I curled up next to my $4 americano and watched the scene parade by: tour groups led by umbrella thrusting guides; middle-aged folks clutching their Rick Steves’; lots and lots of English. Later, at my hostel, I listened to the play-by-play recounting of the previous night’s drunken antics, and who’d made out with the hottest girl (it was Mark, the kid with the Justin Bieber hair).

And the remarkable thing was, I was okay with it all.

Now it could be that I’m getting older. It could be that I’m more well-traveled, and settling into myself. But I think it’s got more to do with something else, with this personal journey I’ve been on lately, entirely unrelated to travel. It’s got to do with taking care of yourself, with stopping using other people as a way of not looking at your own shit; it’s got to do with lovingly detatching from sick people. It’s potent shit, and it’s changing everything. Including, apparently, the way I travel.

No one likes to think of themself as a judgy a-hole, but hey, we all got our faults. In previous years, Dubrovnik would have evoked all my self-righteous better-than-thou-ness: too expensive, too touristy, too too. And it’s true that I’m not really into the scene here; I definitely dig the more obscure, the more offbeat and bizarre.

But it isn’t awful—it’s not theme-park-ish and you don’t get that resentment vibe from the locals. And it is beautiful: smooth stone streets gleaming white; sheets of ancient walls; passageways that lead to startling, sparkling vistas of aqua-clear water that really does live up to the hype.

And I’m letting myself enjoy that without judging it.

As I’ve learned to focus more on accepting myself, I’ve discovered a curious by-product: I’m better able to accept others, better able to let them be themselves, whatever that entails. And this doesn’t just come, apparently, with emotionally unavailable active alcoholics; it apparently also comes with accepting other travelers.

When you’re constantly measuring yourself against other people, when you’re constantly using other people to determine your worth and what exactly it is you are, there isn’t a lot of room left to just be okay, to just sit with yourself and be okay. And I’m learning to do that. I’m learning to go swim off the deck of a jokey tourist bar with a couple dudes I don’t have much in common with, learning to lay out in the Adriatic sun of a destination I’m not nuts about, and let that be okay.

I don’t think I’ll ever be into the big huge tourists destinations. I’ll probably always love the less obvious, the little-off; I’ll probably always love digging around, getting the dirt of a destination under my nails. That’s just what I’m into. It’s not any better or any worse than what anyone else is into. (Including getting black-out drunk and hooking up with random girls.)

Even now, with the chatter from the hostel’s common room filtering up the stairs, through the cracks under the door, over to my glowing light on this rickety bunk, even now it’s okay. Tomorrow I’ll take off for Montenegro, in search of something a little more me.

But Dubrovnik, I gotta say, it was a pretty good day. And I don’t hate you.

Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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