Here in the Istria Peninsula of Croatia, the economy centers on wine, olive oil and truffles. (No, these are not rich folk.)

Wine and olive oil are pretty simple. People plant, grow, pick, crush mercilessly, ferment, also mercilessly, bottle, cork, uncork and eat or drink it. The grapes and olives put up no fight.

But truffles are a different animal. Er, fungus actually. They’re quite delicious but rather ugly. Taxonomically speaking, I suppose they’re in the same genus as oysters, mustard and perhaps pate. You really don’t want to know their pedigree, but I’ll tell you anyway.

They’re not grown. They’re wild. Very, very wild. And so, like other wildlife, they must be hunted.

The hunt is quite a production. People pay money to participate. Truffles are stealthy and hard to find, so dogs “specially trained” in finding truffles are used.

You probably think they use boars to hunt truffles. I did too. But here in Croatia they use these specially trained dogs. I like that. Has a pig ever been your best friend?

I’m no authority on dogs (my human friends would say dogs are not my best friend either or even casual acquaintances) but I do know there are many different brands of dogs. I suppose the truffle-hunting brand of dogs are “Truffle Retrievers.”

They must be a little like Golden Retrievers, but probably are more successful at retrieving truffles than Goldens are at retrieving gold. Every Golden Retriever owner I’ve known would say that they cost much more gold than they ever retrieved.

So truffle hunters and their truffle retrievers go out hunting for truffles. I wonder what weaponry is required besides a wicker basket. I suppose an AR-15 with a 20-cartridge clip. Because as a bumper sticker once shouted at me, “THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS TOO MUCH AMMO!!!”

So the truffle hunter pokes under rotten logs and such until he spots a truffle. Then BANGBANGBANG!!! He shoots it to death. He blows its ever-lovin’ head off. If he only wounds it, he follows it (which isn’t difficult—they’re stationary) and then shoots and shoots and shoots it to death again and again and again until it’s dead dead dead. Taking care not to shoot his own damned foot off.

Then he points at the truffle corpse and shouts to the truffle retriever dog, “retrieve!” The dog picks up the remains in his mouth and hands it, er mouths it, to the hunter.

But the hard work is just beginning. The truffle hunter now must clean and dress the carcass in the field, quartering it if it’s a big one (over, say 1 ounce) and haul it out on his own back or maybe in a pocket.

Back at the lodge, he’ll tell tales of how the truffle ambushed him, charged him, and nearly ate him alive as fungus can do in a period of only decades, but he kept his wits about him or at least in the general vicinity or maybe in his beer cooler and was able to shoot shoot shoot and kill kill kill the beastie until it was dead dead dead.  

I know you animal etc lovers will feel a bit queasy about this description, but bear in mind that all this is for the good of the truffle herd. If they were not thinned occasionally, they would overpopulate and then die die die all by themselves. Hunting them is actually a very humane thing.

And who doesn’t like shooting things to death death death?

OK, I’ve had a bit of fun at the expense of gun owners today. But before you send me nastygrams, or shoot me, be advised that I, too, have owned guns. Unfortunately, I lost them all (are you listening ATF agents?) in a tragic boat accident where they went overboard on a lake whose name and whereabouts I can’t even remember back when Obama started making gun-taking noises.

Europe itself will never be great again as a world power. It is in a long-term decline resulting from soft socialism, declining birth rates, high immigration by unskilled workers many of whom are hostile toward European culture (but at least most are not illegal), onerous regulations, heavy handed rule from remote Brussels and an indifference or even animosity toward wealth-creating Silicon Valley style venture capitalism which threatens the political elites.

But you can still see the past greatness of Europe. It’s not so much in Rome, Paris, Berlin, London or Madrid. Such cities are great but they give little insight into the greatness of the culture that produced them, a culture that lasted 1,000 years and ruled the earth for several hundred.

For that, you have to get out to the villages in the rural countryside. That’s where Europe lived until the industrial revolution. That’s the Europe that produced Michelangelo, Magellan, Galileo, Mozart, Locke and their great thoughts, acts and works.

It’s easier than you think. Forget about the tour books. You’ll instead make your own tour and it won’t be X cities in Y days. Forget about seeing the sights. The most overrated sight in Europe, by the way, is the Vatican Museum – wait in a long line and stand shoulder to shoulder with a mob that insists (why?) on taking a picture of every single thing.

You’ll instead see the culture. Here’s how.

First, get a general sense of what part you want to see. You have to make choices here. You can’t even see much of a single country in one trip. But remember, the goal is to learn the country, not to see it. You can learn a great deal about French culture, for example, with a few weeks in the villages of Provence or Western France near the Pyrenees or Eastern France near Alsace.

In Spain and especially Italy, at least two distinct cultures co-exist, one in the north and one in the south. You may have to make at least two long trips to each of those countries. 

Ah yes, the length of the trip. Book a one-way ticket. You can book the return flight when it’s time to come home, and it’s way too early now to decide when that will be. I would suggest that most trips should be at least a month or two.

Arrange for lodging for your first few nights and have a good sense of where you’ll go, but don’t try to book it all in advance. Why would you? Once you book in advance, you’re a slave to your itinerary. Better to go at your own pace. Play it by ear.

Under no circumstances should you rent a car. It’s hard to drive on narrow, windy roads where you can’t read all the road signs, and it’s a huge headache parking in a big city (yes, you’ll be in a few big cities too). Take the trains (which are very good) and the buses (which are less so, but reasonably dependable), both of which typically take you to the center of whatever town you’re going to. 

Then walk. It’s the only way to get close to the people and the landscape. See the countryside and villages the way they were seen by the people who built and lived in them. I like walking in a line. Not a straight line, mind you, but a line in the sense that each day I continue my walk between two points. Europe has many such walks, and some have been famous for centuries. The 500-mile Camino de Santiago has been walked by pilgrims for over 1,000 years by several different routes. In the old days, many died in route. They pilgrimed themselves to death.

Don’t pilgrim yourself to death, romantic as it may sound. Walk a day at a time and spend the night in the nicest hotel in town, which will probably cost only about $80. That night, arrange the next night’s hotel online (I like booking.com). Take a rest day when you need it. This is supposed to be a challenge and adventure, but not an ordeal. There will be enough accidental hardship without incurring more on purpose.

Doing it this way will require you to carry all your trip belongings on your back. If you’re careful, your pack will weigh less than 25 pounds. If you’re not, you’ll be miserable.

Learn a little of the language. I’m not good at languages, except possibly American, but even I know enough Spanish to bluff. The goal, after all, is not to communicate in the foreign language but to just give the locals the impression that you’re trying.

Imagine you’re walking down the street in your American hometown and a stranger comes up and says, “Excuzez-moi, ou est la gare routier? You’d be puzzled, no?

By the way, the first word out of your mouth when entering a store or restaurant should be a greeting in the native language. “Bonjour” in France. Surely you can learn that. Then, and only then, you can inquire with a little embarrassment (if you don’t really feel embarrassed, then fake it) whether they speak English. Learn to make that inquiry in the local language too.

Almost always (but not always) the person will gladly speak English to you thereafter. But it’s important to let them know that you know you’re on their turf and asking a cultural favor, and not leave the impression that you think you and your kind have culturally conquered them and theirs.  

We won, OK? Let’s be gracious about it.

I’m reminded of my own deficiencies in this regard. My little reptilian brain thinks there are only two languages: American and foreign. “Foreign” is my primitive Spanglish.

And so when I enter a setting in Europe, no matter which country, my reptilian brain triggers “foreign” and I start speaking Spanglish. But it works. I’ll say “una cerveza por favor” to a person in France or Italy and the listener will reply in English, “Can I help you, sir?” I can only conclude that whatever I say in whatever language, the listener magically hears, “Please speak English to me.”

This may all be a way of saying, try to fit in. Nobody will think you succeed, but they’ll appreciate the effort. And then, they and their culture are yours for the taking. Or at least the borrowing.

BTW, today I started walking. It was just a few hours. Over the next five days, I’ll walk about 60 miles, including a couple of 15+ mile days. Let’s hope the weather holds. The landscape of steep hills each crowned with a picturesque village is quite charming.

E

Here in Croatia, the people are mainly of the ethnicity “Slavic.” The Slavs are an ancient and numerous people who came out of what we now call Ukraine. They migrated west and south into what we now call Eastern and Southern Europe.

An historian from antiquity described them as “tall and robust, while their bodies and hair are neither very fair or blond, nor indeed do they incline entirely to the dark type, but they are all slightly ruddy in color. And they live a hard life, giving no heed to bodily comforts…”

They haven’t changed a bit. They’re big, ruddy, dark-haired people. I’m reminded of the antagonist in the movie “Highlander” but maybe that’s because I identify with the protagonist Connor MacLeod, the good-looking Scotsman with a big sword.

I like to think I could hold my own in a fight with most Europeans, except of course the Germans. Well, OK, and except the Irish because they’re crazy drunk and the Scots because they don’t care whether they live or die and the Dutch because they’re giants and the Italians because they fight dirty and maybe a few others. But I don’t fancy a fight with a Slav.

Like that ancient historian, I’ve taken note of the Croat skin color, since under the new rules it’s racist if I don’t. (But I’ve been careful not to take note of the content of their character, since under the new rules it’s racist if I do.) Their skin color is indeed neither that of a fair skinned person nor that of a person of color. It’s ruddy.

I realize I’m generalizing here, but it’s a fair generalization. In two days walking around the capital of Croatia, I’ve not seen a single person of color. Perhaps I should start inquiring in the cafes for one. “Soooooo, where do the POC’s hang in this neck of the woods?”

Maybe the Slavs are their own POC’s. Muslims conquering Southeastern Europe in the early Middle Ages enslaved the people they conquered (did you think slavery began in 1619?). Many of the conquered were Slavs — so many that the word “Slav” became the root word for “slavery.”

I detect no hard feelings today, a thousand years later, among these former-slave Slavs. They have not demanded reparations from the invading Huns who drove them west out of Ukraine nor the enslaving Muslims who conquered them from the south.

They instead seem to reserve their hostilities for one another. The Balkans are now roughly divided between Catholics and Orthodox. You and I in the undemanding comfort of American pseudo-Christianity might say, “What’s the difference? They’re both mumbo-jumbo ritualists with lots of smoke, mirrors, robes and real estate.”

But they don’t see it that way. To them, there’s a difference worth fighting over. In the breakup of Yugoslavia (a word meaning “southern Slavs”) in the early 1990’s, they killed a couple hundred thousand of themselves over this.

The Orthodox wanted to dominate the Catholics, and the Catholics wanted nothing to do with the Orthodox. They fought a war over the issue. The Catholics won the war. They became the coastal country of Croatia while the Orthodox became land-locked Serbia to the east.

While Serbs use the Cyrillic alphabet, Croats now use a variation of the Roman alphabet. But they seem to have forgotten about the vowels. Their words constitute constant consonants. They have about 18 ways to say “c.”

By the way, what is now Croatia holds a treasure of Neanderthal archeological sites, especially in the northern mountains of the Istria peninsula where I’ll be hiking next week. I’ll certainly keep my eye out, since I love those guys.

I’m curious whether modern Croatians have more than the standard 2-4% Neandie DNA but I’ve been unable to find out. Maybe that’s another question for the cafe crowd after I get an acceptable answer to my question about missing POC’s.

Some of you know that locked-down, masked-up me is now unchained. I’m in one of the few European countries that an American can visit with a vaccination card and without a legitimate reason.

I’m in Croatia hiking, trekking and roustabouting for the next month. You gentle readers can follow my every exploit by simply checking this page occasionally. Relax, there won’t be a quiz afterward.

I’m currently staying in the capital city of Zagreb for a few nights at the Grande Dame of the city, the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel.

Upon arrival in my hotel room, I was greeted by this screen on the TV:

And here is the car that picked me up at the airport:

About the car, manufactured just a few hundred kilometers across the Adriatic Sea, I can’t back that up. And I mean that in both senses. My actual transportation from the airport was not that fast, not that sporty, and didn’t drop me off anywhere near that close.

But even after my arrival in a smoky shuttlebus (they smoke in this part of the world, a lot), I’m confident that European royalty on the Grand Tour never had it so good.

Of course, I personally would never spring for such accommodations. My traveling companion found this place last month when helping me plan the trip, before abandoning me. My abandoning companion is much more discriminating than I about things such as food, wine, lodging, wine, food and wine. More about that later.

Croatia is one of those countries into which Yugoslavia split when the Soviet empire collapsed. This happened back when socialism was considered a failure just because it failed every time it was tried, without considering the “fact” that it had never been tried correctly. That added up to dozens of failures. They weren’t a bit woke in those days, and had little faith that they could make socialism great again if only they did it correctly.

And so after half a century under the yoke of dehumanizing, demoralizing, dis-incentivizing, destructive socialism, Croatia is relatively poor. But not Third World poor.

I know I’m not supposed to say that poor countries are “Third World.” Because that suggests they aren’t just as good as countries that are First or Second World. But let’s be honest. They’re lucky we don’t rank them by their order of wealth. If we did, we’d call Mexico not a Third World country but a “71st World” one. And Ethiopia would be a “139th World” one. Croatia is certainly poorer than France and Switzerland, obviously, and even poorer than Portugal. Heck, they’re waaay poorer than Mississippi which, as most people don’t know, is richer on a per capita basis than Great Britain.

But some of the pre-socialism splendor of Croatia survives. Such as here at my hotel. In fact, both of the restaurants in this magnificent little gem are Michelin rated.

This evening I enjoyed delicious perch wrapped in grape skin. Is there anything that grapes properly grown, handled, blended and fermented, can’t do?