The Journey back ….it’s the little things

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Mike and I are a little jet lagged from our return back to Pula from the USA, but ready to be out on the water.

Just returned from a day sailing trip to Premantura with Mike. The day has been cool and sunny but an unexpected rainstorm has us tucked inside our new boat Rita.

We just got back to Croatia last Friday night from New Orleans, dropped off all but one of our suitcases and hightailed it to our favorite beachfront restaurant called Skužas. We ordered two giant brancines (sea bass) and some blitva (Swiss chard.) We were very, very tired, but feeling very satisfied with one of our favorite Pula dinners. It was topped off with the mandatory after-dinner rakija (strong brandy) from our waiter. It was blissful after a long journey, and all doubts from the previous day travels dissipated with the “dobradosli” (welcome) from the restaurant owner, who works out at the gym with Mike.

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But the next day was difficult for me. Jet lag and an overwhelming sense of everything I had left behind albeit temporarily brought a sense of loss and sadness. That accompanied with a suitcase misplaced by the airline brought doubt that maybe we should not have left for another year. The suitcase that was lost held a few very important things: my year’s worth of prescription medications, my favorite fluffy robe, a security blanket of sorts for my middle-aged cold-natured self, and some homemade pepper jelly from my mom. I had a serious sinus headache and guess where my allergy meds were?

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My dear mom’s spicy pepper jelly. 

My oldest daughter scolded me via FaceTime about how you should never pack your meds in anything but a carryon, but I was afraid of going through security looking like a walking pharmacy with all the Pepto Bismol, Sudafed, Alleve, Tylenol and prescription meds I had packed. I had found some of these things are hard to come by in Croatia.

So I brought a year’s worth.

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 I’m going to miss these two, my eldest Sarah and husband Jonathan, especially since they now have a cheese grater.

I also had something else in this suitcase. About 35 packets of Hidden Valley Ranch dip.

Okay, you can say it. That’s a little weird.

Maybe.

But in the expat community that lives in Istria, I had had a request for this particular item. One of the many kind people I had met in the expat group was a lady who was originally from Florida, had moved to Perth, then had met and married a Croatian in Australia and had moved to Istria.

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If you look in the bottom center of this picture, you’ll see the Ranch dip fest going on an an expat event in Rovinj.

She had somehow managed to do what most marketing experts can only dream of.

She had brought a tray of colorful vegetables to an expat event that included a large bowl of ranch dip she had made. The dip combined with the fresh Croatian vegetables were an instant hit, and the rest was history. She kept bringing the dish to more expat events and everyone had become hooked on its creamy, white spiced goodness.

But time was ticking by and her Ranch reserves were depleting. And there I was. Waiting in the wings. In the US with all the ranch dip a person could dream of. I decided I was going to be a hero and packed enough ranch dip in my suitcase to feed a small vegetarian army.

In the suitcase that was now missing.

Ok, I could live without the meds. And maybe I could live without the fuzzy robe, too, but the feeling that I was going to let everyone down was truly disappointing. And I had a really bad sinus headache.

So I called my youngest daughter and boo-hooed to her a little. Maybe I shouldn’t have left her and my sweet puppy, my mom, my sisters, my nieces, my family and my dear friends that I love so much, I said. “But mom, you’re in Croatia,” she said incredulously, “you love it there. You can travel all around Europe.” I could hear it in her voice, “have you lost your freaking mind?” Možda. (Maybe).

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I already miss my youngest daughter Marina and husband Patrick so much.

Did I tell you what a wimp I am when I don’t feel good?

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I miss Madelyn in the middle, too. And of course, who could forget sweet Ranger.

So I woke up this morning to our apartment doors opening and closing and the sound of a large suitcase being wheeled into our apartment. I yawned and reached for my nonexistent fuzzy robe….Could it be?

I jumped out of bed and there it was…my robe, my medicine, and a huge box of Junior Mints! (Oh, I forgot about packing those. Score!)

IMG_1550And yes, YES! A really large quantity of ranch dip!

Apparently the ranch dip must have seemed suspicious as it was my only suitcase that had been searched by TSA. Of course, it couldn’t have been the pharmaceuticals.

I texted my daughter immediately. But it was only 1 am in New Orleans. I think she was probably asleep. But she knows how much the fluffy robe means. I heard from her later in the day.

Anyway, so today was a better day. My sinus headache is gone. Thanks, Sudafed. My jet lag is receding. The sun is out and warming up the beautiful water that mesmerizes me daily.fullsizeoutput_60e8

Traveling can be harrowing sometimes. Things you hold dear can slip away in an instant. Things that make leaving home more comfortable can be lost forever.  The loss can make you appreciate “the little things” more or realize that you have to suck it up sometimes. And you can’t always be a hero.

But at least I will be this time. 😉

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Reaching the Matterhorn

Sitting in a little Art Deco cafe in Zürich, Switzerland called Grand Cafe Odeon. It reminds me so much of a place in Prague that I was lucky enough to spend time in 2009 when my eldest Sarah was studying abroad. I’m drinking a cappuccino, thinking of getting some champagne like the Swiss couple next to me and listening to the ubiquitous jazz that is so well loved in Europe. It’s Sunday, Feb. 10, and I’m reminiscing about the week I just spent here in Switzerland. Europe is such a visual treat with such a classic, unique style from centuries past, and Switzerland is no exception.

Mike stayed back in Pula working on his boat, and my awesome friend Liz met me here in Zürich to do a whirlwind tour of this beautiful country. She had to leave yesterday to get back to work, so I spent it wandering around the city window shopping and absorbing the Swiss character of the buildings and churches including the Grossmünster (I have to admit I love that word.)

The blue and white tram passes through the streets and in front of the cafe. It’s Sunday and pedestrians fill the streets, some tourists, some locals, all immersed in the magical atmosphere that is Zürich. Zürich seems to be the grandest of the cities we have visited here, but Lucerne, Bern, Chur and the picture perfect Zermatt all have captured a part of our hearts.

In third grade I had to pick something to do a social study project on, and I chose the Matterhorn. You could say it was a dream of mine at that early age, but I would have to say I really wasn’t capable of dreaming that big in the third grade. As I plastered paper maché to create the world famous summit, I just liked the idea of it. It was so high and so cold and snowy. So different from Louisiana. So flat and hot and so below sea level.

Even in college or up to my 30s I never really dreamed I would go anywhere near the Matterhorn or Switzerland (or Europe for that matter). I had visited Cancun and Cozumel as a teenager and for my honeymoon, but hadn’t felt it was in my cards to visit Europe. A two-week trip to Europe in the 90s got me close as I visited Geneva, but still the ultimate peak was out of reach.

So when Mike and I planned our adventure in Croatia, the Matterhorn was definitely on my radar. A nagging itch that I wanted to scratch. Reading about the panoramic Glacier Express train that wound its way through the Swiss Alps began to be a slight obsession but unfortunately it wasn’t really something my husband wanted to do. This situation was made worse by the fact that he had just achieved his lifelong dream of purchasing a sailboat in the Adriatic and didn’t want to leave it (for a second!). So I ran the idea by a few of my friends and even considered a solo trip, as I waited to see if one of my best friends would be able to go. My dear friend Liz jumped at the opportunity, but had work obligations and five dogs to worry about.

And then it happened, Liz got dog sitters and a miraculous week off of work. We were going to Switzerland. fullsizeoutput_5962She met me in Lucerne on a blustery snowy day, and we walked around in a dreamlike state marveling at the snow, the centuries old chapel bridge, and the poignant Lion Monument as the snow showered us. Walking in a winter wonderland was an understatement!

 

 

 

After our walk, we stopped in a beautifully little quaint cafe by the riverside and thawed off with cappuccino and reveled in the snowy beauty. We got a typical Lucerne dish, a puff pastry stuffed with pork and covered with a creamy mushroom sauce. Deliciousness!

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IMG_9527Lucerne is so charming.  The intricate metal shop signs, the buildings covered with artwork, even a painted picture on the side of a building claiming the writer Goethe had slept there adds to the romantic element of this beautiful city. Not to mention the incredible wooden bridge built in 1333 called the Kappellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) that spans part of the River Reuss.

Each section of the bridge has a beautiful triangular masterpiece (originally there were 158 of the paintings) which depict the history of Lucerne as you cross the bridge. The walk across the bridge must have been incredibly entertaining for the people of that time, especially since books were a rarity and picture books even rarer.

 

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One of the many painted buildings in the beautiful Swiss city of Lucerne.
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The Kappellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) built originally in 1333 had 158 triangular paintings lining the bridge.

 

 

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

Clocks rule the country of Switzerland and we seriously wandered how a country could support so many luxury watch stores. I mean, how many watches do these people need? There was one on every street corner and then some. And it’s not like there wasn’t a clock tower every where you turned, gonging out the hour in full measure. These watch stores were not hawking your cheap Timex watches either: Rolex, Gübelin, Bucherer, crazy expensive watches.

 

The next stop was Bern, a city that was unique and charming in its own right with no lack of clock towers and beautiful scenery! A blue green river swings around the city in a big “u” shape, and we were surprised to find that Bern actually has a population of bears that live in a open zoo on the outskirts of the city. We think it’s possible that Bern could mean bear, but we still aren’t sure.

Bern also had a beautiful astronomical clock that has a few mechanical components that work as the hours strike (yes, more clocks, folks. surprise, surprise!). A little mechanical king waves his wand and a small rooster flaps his wings and that’s about it, but the clock is incredible nonetheless. We went by a few times right on the hour to watch it work its magic.

Liz and I also climbed the tower of the cathedral in Bern and looked out over the city and then met some Americans from Colorado at the top. Were they as impressed with the snowy wonderland of Switzerland as us southerners from Louisiana as we gushed on and on about the snow-capped mountains? They never answered, but they took our picture, and they looked pretty enamored by the surroundings as well.

 

A Golden Prison

One of our many memorable moments was a conversation we had with our hotel receptionist Magdalena who happened to be Serbian (although born in Switzerland) and a Swiss resident for 30 years. She was adorable and was so tall she towered over us like a lot of Serbians and Croatians do. As we told her we were headed to Zermatt she said she had never been there.

Really? We were shocked! But it’s only an hour and a half away by train, we said! A really comfortable train, no less!  She said some people referred to Bern and Switzerland in general, as a golden prison of sorts, that it is so nice that residents never want to leave their cities. I definitely get that. It’s a pretty remarkable place.

Reaching the Summit

Our last city before we returned back to Zurich was of course the incredible city of Zermatt, near the beautiful Matterhorn. We took an amazing train ride called the Gornergrat Bahn, the world’s first electric cog railway, that travels up through the mountains with some of the most breathtaking mountain scenery in the world. You get several panoramic views of the Matterhorn as you climb 10,000 or so feet. A nice Austrian even told us which side to sit on and that we could open the windows to get rid of the glare. Between that ride, and the ride on the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, the world’s highest 3S cableway the next day, I really felt like I had made it. I had accomplished a dream.

I was in heaven.

And of course, Liz found a dog up there, because we all know that all dogs go to heaven.

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The Tides of Our Lives

IMG_7855In case you have been wondering where my blog has been, the last six or so months have been a whirlwind and I honestly could not keep up.

September and October were festival season in Istria and while most of the tourists had gone home from our happy place in Pješčana Uvala, the days have been busy ones with constant road trips to festivals, visiting several other countries, delving into our language lessons in Croatian and my new stint teaching ESL on a very part-time basis.

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The festival in Buzet was both charming and beautiful

We also did a sailing charter out of Split mid-September and visited several islands around the area including Hvar, Brać, and Vis. And had an intensely frightening experience driving home in a bura. I’ll have a complete blog post on that later.

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Leaving Split in a burn

Also my daughter Madelyn came to visit us in the first week of October. We met her in Rome and did a whirlwind tour of Italy stopping in Bologna, Florence and Venice and came back then and went to the little idyllic Croatian towns of Rovinj and Porec and explored the area around our home with her.

 

Soon after my niece Laura stopped in for a short visit right on the end of a trip she had made to Germany, and we went to Porec and Rovinj (again) and finally enjoyed a really memorable festival centered around Prsut (prosciutto) in a little Croatian village of Tinjan.

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My niece visited us in October after a vacation in Berlin.

 

 

Good times, great times, scary times, the best of times, nowhere near the worst of times, and each visit worthy of an incredibly long blog post or more which I will start writing after I finish this one. So please stay tuned.

 

 

 

But it doesn’t end there. At the end of October Mike and I along with Carolyn met my other daughter Sarah in Dubrovnik to celebrate her 30th birthday and toured parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina then drove northward to Kotor, Montenegro, another incredible journey shared with people I love.

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Mike and Sarah in Dubrovnik as we celebrated her 30th birthday!

And then more teaching, learning and friendships blossoming and a wonderfully warm Thanksgiving with our landlord and friend as well as some American expat friends. Oh, and in between all that, a visit to the tiny Croatian village of Kringa to watch, of all things, a Saints game with an an expat and his lovely Ukrainian wife complete with jambalaya, gumbo, hush puppies and pralines.

So then it was the end of November and we had scheduled a trip to Cologne, Heidelberg and Frankfurt, Germany for the Christmas markets. Such food, Christmas cheer, and festive moments! When we returned home to Pula, we were exhausted. It was almost the end of 2018, but we knew we hadn’t even touched upon all of the things we wanted to do when we planned to move to Europe for a year.

We lived steps from the Adriatic and my husband had only sailed for two weeks out of the ten months we had been here. How could he as we had been traveling so much? And speaking of traveling, I still wanted to visit the Netherlands, Hungary, Finland, Romania, Greece, Turkey, Norway, Spain, Portugal, the southern part of Italy, Poland, and many other places.fullsizeoutput_5941

We will only be in Croatia for a few more days before our visa expires. We have to leave for three months, which we will do, but have decided to come back in June and reapply to stay for another full year. Mike just purchased a boat here and we will be sailing a lot more when we return next year. We will still travel a lot but not at the breakneck speed at which we did this past year, so I will only whittle away a little at my list above, much to the relief of my travel weary husband.

I’m starting to think wanderlust is an addiction, folks. One that I’ll reluctantly cop to. I think I got it from from great grandfather from Bogota, Colombia who traveled all over the world via ships, and my daughter Sarah may have inherited it from me. Možda! (that means “maybe” in Croatian.)

After our three month stint in the USA, I will to continue to teach ESL and enjoy the beautiful country of Croatia. And put a little more effort into my blog, by catching up on the adventures of the last few months. It will be a pleasure to look back on those experiences with the savory warmth of time and not feel like I have to quickly rehash the experiences as they occur.

So please stay tuned.

Is the time right for you?

So how am I feeling about another year away from home? Honestly, it breaks my heart. I have hesitated telling people for fear they would be upset with me. My mom, my kids, my siblings, my nieces and nephews, my friends, my aunts and uncles, are all so far away. My DOG! Omg, I want to cry just thinking of seeing him for three months and then leaving him again. He is now my daughter’s dog, and her and my son-in-law love him as much as we do. But how do I leave everything and everyone I love (except my husband and friends here, of course!) for another year. I think of people who have to do so due to circumstances they cannot control like soldiers going off to war and my heart hurts for them.

But sometimes you know that the time is ripe to do something. That it’s something you need to do. Have to do. A goal you put off your entire life because you didn’t have the means, had too many responsibilities, thought impossible, thought you didn’t deserve it…but I’m here to say, the time is now.

At least it is for me.

For you maybe, too.

Možda.

As we approach the autumn of our lives, we have to assess and decide where we invest our fleeting time and energy. For some it is their grandchildren, others a new career that inspires them or still others, a combination of the two. Some may need to care for an aging loved one or child that still hasn’t found their way in the world. Some may search for a new relationship that replaces the emptiness or heartache of one they left behind. And for others, it is visiting places that they have always wanted to see and embracing a new culture whole heartedly.

Each of us is on our own individual journey and one shouldn’t be seen as more important or “better” than others. The one that completes us, that nurtures our souls and makes our lives feel complete is the one we should move toward. And the journey will change with the tides of our lives. For example, if my mom got ill or my children needed me, I would drop everything without a moment’s hesitation because that is where I would need to be at that time in the depths of my heart, the echoes of my soul.

That said, I refuse to mark time out of habit and stay in a comfortable setting for fear of accomplishing my dreams, and neither should you.

Our bodies are not permanently strong and healthy, nor is the possibility of attaining our dreams a never ending prospect. And the winter of your years will be warmer if you have the fuel of a life well-lived and experiences that nourish your soul to reflect upon as you move towards your final days. It sounds a little morbid, but it’s true.

We only have so much time here on earth as people. (Unless, of course, you believe in reincarnation, but then you could come back as a dog or something.)

Seriously though, Dream big, love hard and make the most of these fleeting moments.

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If the time is right for you.

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A Love Letter to Croatia

As a young mother you never really appreciate how much you will love your children when they are newly born and how that love will exponentially grow throughout their lives.  I remember as soon as I delivered my youngest daughter Marina, I heard her sweet cry and she sounded like a little lamb. I fell in love with her immediately based on those little bleats, and I hadn’t even seen her yet.

When my middle daughter Madelyn was two days old, Mike and I were singing, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” to her in the hospital, and she opened her eyes very brightly and began looking around like newborns do in that semi-blind manner, and I was completely in love with her. Just dumbstruck.

It was no different with my oldest. When my firstborn Sarah was five months old, I heard a halting “ma-ma” from the back of the car, and I looked at her confused because I thought I was hearing things. Did she really say “mama”? She said it again and for the hundredth or so time in her short little life, I was in love all over again. This love has continued to blossom throughout the decades of all of their lives, and now that they are in their twenties, those feelings have multiplied a thousand times over.

So I haven’t exactly birthed a country, but my feelings on Croatia are undergoing a similar metamorphosis.  They are multiplying. Compounding monthly, weekly. Sometimes even daily. fullsizeoutput_4931

On my first visit, our friends James and Carolyn picked us up at the train station in Trieste, Italy, and as they drove us into Croatia for the first time, I was amazed at the green, verdant hills and the endless olive groves and the little wooden stands selling lavender, fig preserves and honey on the roadsides. We continued to Pula with broken castles in the distance and stony grape orchards set amongst the rusty red soil. The weather started to look a little shaky in the distance, but a giant rainbow appeared across the sky. It was a cool, crisp, windy day in October, and I was in love.

“That’s a sign we are meant to be here,” said Carol, who has taken this journey with us. And I had to agree.

Since that time I have swum in the sparking, cool Adriatic and walked its white stony beaches in awe. I have visited the little town of Rovinj with its tiny batana boats and limestone pathways, and my feelings have grown even more.

fullsizeoutput_53a5After seeing the Roman Arena in Pula and discovering the ancient Roman history of the area, I fell hard again. We are living where the gladiators fought and the Romans built their first communities. It’s exhilarating.

 

 

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I see it in my husband Mike as well. He takes a bike ride each evening to see the sunset over the sea and comes back brimming with excitement. One evening he stumbled upon an ancient stone quarry about a five-minute bike ride from our apartment. “This is where they got the stone to build the Roman amphitheater in Pula,” he said amazed. Who wouldn’t be? It was almost in our backyard.

A few months later we traveled with my good friend Liz to Plitvice Jezera, a world renown national park that has a multitude of clear, blue waterfalls and lakes so transparent that the fish look like they are suspended in midair. A few days later we  went with her to Split and witnessed an outdoor mass for the Feast of Corpus Christi at Diocletian’s Palace, and we were dumbfounded at such a spiritual and majestic celebration set inside the ancient Roman walls of the old town.IMG_3119

Perhaps the most important part of this journey has been the people. The people like our landlord, who treats us like family dropping off figs, local honey and homemade cookies. The locals, who humbly marvel that we love the country so much, and patiently listen to our broken attempts at Croatian.  The waiters who all speak English, German, Italian (and possibly Russian or other languages) and calmly try to teach us a few words of Croatian here and there. Some are just thrilled that we even attempt to speak Croatian and give us a “Bravo” when we say something correctly. One young man fist-bumped me when I said, “Samo malo,” meaning “Only little!” when he asked if I wanted some more water. How could you not love people who are so humble and genuine?

There is almost no crime here and when you meet the local people, you realize why.

For example, during the World Cup Finals, we went to the restaurants for most of the games since Croatia had qualified for the playoffs and the atmosphere was electric. My daughter Sarah and Jonathan were visiting the week of the semifinals, and we decided to go to a small restaurant where we knew the wait staff for the Croatia vs. Denmark game.  The whole place was full, but we were able to get a table. Everyone had on the red and white checkerboard jerseys with the names and numbers of all the famous Croatian soccer players. Red streamers, funny hats, a few blow horns, the whole nine yards. Think Saints’ game enthusiasm, my New Orleans’ peeps, and you get the idea.

Everyone in the restaurant was rooting for Croatia. Everyone, that is, except a small table of four in the far corner, where a family of Danish people sat with their two children: one a ten-year old boy who sported a Danish soccer shirt. The game was close all the way through, so it was very tense, but every time Denmark scored that one table got very, very loud, and in my opinion, a little obnoxious. Well, not just in my opinion. They cheered just a little too long and a little too loud and aggressively. Aggressive as in beat on the table for several minutes aggressive. You could see people getting a little uneasy with their extreme enthusiasm, but no one said anything.  Sarah, Jonathan, Mike and I exchanged glances, and we wondered how this was going to end.

Well, if you happened to have watched the World’s Cup finals, you know that in that particular game Croatia won in the final seconds of the game. This was history in the making. The restaurant erupted in cheers, everybody was jumping up and down and hugging and high-fiving each other, when I saw the waiter run to the bar and rush back with some rakia, a Croatian brandy that is passed out during celebrations and happy occasions. I thought he was bringing it to the large table full of Croatians celebrating, but he walked right up to the Danish family.

He then handed the adults each a glass, bowed deferentially to them and held out his hand for a handshake. A Croatian man with his young son then walked over up to the Danish family and shook hands as well, and they took a photo together. That the people in that restaurant had the empathy in their moment of victory to acknowledge their rivals so respectfully sent shivers up my spine. You could see the young Danish boy was heartbroken as it meant Denmark would not go on to the final games, but I think he got a much more important lesson that day than any happiness a Danish victory would have given him.

Those are just a few of the stories. We’ve had older people talk to us at bus stops explaining the history of the region and the war that was only 20 or so years ago. They talk to us like we are old friends and tell us their stories. It’s hard not to love that.

The people are kind, the scenery is breathtaking, and I’ve already written of our love for the olive oil, but we also love the brancine (sea bass), the sardinelas (grilled sardines) and the blitva (spinach, garlic and olive oil with potatoes) and a host of other delicacies that we have come across. And I have to confess that I’ve been taking pictures of fruit since we got here. Yes, I can’t help myself. It grows everywhere and it is something that I love about this place. It’s like California in that everyone has some sort of fruit tree growing in their yards. They have kiwi growing over the trellises that cover their carports, grapes on their fences, pomegranates on the trees and don’t forget the apple and olive trees in the yards or in empty lots. And the fig trees. Geez, it’s like fruit heaven.

I had another crush of happiness a few weekends ago driving through the countryside near the tiny hilltop town of Buzet watching people harvest the grapes we’ve been watching ripen on the vines everywhere we go. We almost got hit by a speed demon driver (Did you know that Mario Andretti was born near Buzet in the town of Motovun in Croatia? Believe me, his relatives are still speeding around the Croatian countryside by the driving I’ve witnessed😳.) The driver was trying to get around a tractor with a trailer behind it spilling over with grapes.

The grapes were shining in the sunlight, more than I’d ever seen in one place at one time, and I found some more of them at the festival we visited a few hours later in the hilltop town of Buzet. The woman who was selling them had three varieties and handed me a generous little bunch of each to try. I filled up a bag of the big purple globes of the Concord variety to take home and thought about the precious gift of being able to watch the vines grow all throughout the countryside from rough, brown, twisting trunks to shooting green vines, from tiny little pebble-like spheres to the perfection of harvest, and how it made me appreciate their value all the more.IMG_3709

As I watch Croatia move forward into the twenty-first century, I see their growing pains and know, like my children, the country is not perfect. About 25 per cent of the country’s youth is moving away each year because there are few opportunities beyond those in the tourism industry. Many complain of the government’s corruption and its lack of investment in the farming communities allowing foreign importers to run small farmers out of business. These are just a few of their concerns, but watching the hard work of those that remain here, their intelligence and willingness to learn, their compassion and fair-mindedness, I have no doubt the country’s future is a bright one. And though it is not perfect, it is perfectly lovable.

The Beauty of Porec’s Euphrasian Basilica

It’s not everyday that you are able to visit a church that opened in 553 AD and then, on top of that, are astounded by the artistic talent you see inside.  That’s just what happened last weekend when we visited the Euphrasian Basilica (also known as the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of Mary) in Poreč, a city on the western coast of the Istrian Peninsula in Croatia that has been around for over 2,000 years. The basilica has been an UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997.

Our day began on a monumental note to begin with as we had traveled from our home in Pula to Dvigrad, the site of the ruins of a medieval castle, which were incredible in themselves, and that I will go into in a later post.   We had also stopped in Kafanar and visited another chapel from the 15th century.  How much better could our day get? Much, much, apparently.

Tucked away modestly on a street in the city of Poreč, the basilica has origins that go back to the late mid-4th century (That’s about 365 A.D.).  Inside the basilica complex there are portions of the mosaic floors from that period that will astound visitors if they really consider the age and the complexity of the mosaic artwork.  As someone who has dabbled in mosaic making, I was blown away.

First to create even the most rudimentary mosaic, you need materials. Stones, glass, grout, tools like tile cutters, pencils to sketch, rulers or some sort of plane to keep your pieces measured and in line. Today it is a quick trip to an art or hobby store for some supplies, then online for others as the materials can be difficult to come by.  For those artists over fifteen hundred years ago, they would laugh at the relative ease we have acquiring materials. They’d be in awe of how they pop up on your doorstop a few days after you pick them out on a “magic machine.” Materials then would have had to have been carried by ship or by horse or mule through the elements.  Or dug up from some remote quarry and transported to the city.

Then after the materials are acquired the artist can begin their work.  Some of the people that made these mosaics had to travel great distances, overcome weather, hardships, and illnesses. The Byzantine masters had to cross continents or countries to begin their work. I’m tired just thinking of the days and circumstances that must have had to have endured just to even begin their projects.

While the earlier mosaics are astounding in themselves, the ones from the 6th century are jaw-dropping.  When entered the church I felt a mixture of disbelief and awe. There is an arch of Christ with the inscription in Latin saying, “I am the true light” with all of the apostles around him. The one of Mary with Child sitting on a beautiful throne surrounded by angels is breathtaking. The gold tiles sparkled in the evening light and gave the basilica a glowing atmosphere.  If you have ever been to San Marco in Venice, you can appreciate the beauty of what I’m describing, but consider this work was done by Byzantine artists four hundred years earlier.  And in a small town in Croatia.

When I walked in, I heard a strange sound that seemed otherworldly. Then I realized it was a woman whispering her prayers as she sat on a pew in the church as she looked at the altar surrounded by the sixth century mosaics.  I was moved in a deeply spiritual way that I can’t describe.  That people’s faith in God so long ago had inspired them to create such beauty brought tears to my eyes.  That someone today had such a intense spiritual connection to the church was inspiring as well to me as a non-practicing Catholic.

Croatia never ceases to amaze and surprise me. Knowing it was once a Roman colony, it shouldn’t really surprise me as much, but it does because the history here is so mind- boggling.  And the prehistory as well.

I am constantly fascinated here by the places we stumble upon.

And glad I am lucky enough to call it my home for a brief time in my life.

The Beautiful Doors of Dublin: an Open and Shut Case

Dublin has some beautiful, majestic and electric-colored doors that stop and dazzle passersby.  On our recent trip to Ireland, we found a multitude of different colors on a variety of entranceways that turned a outing from our lodging in Rathmines to the city center into a pleasant trek of door-watching.

One of my favorite things about traveling to the small cities throughout Europe is ogling the old wooden doors: some bare, some with their peeling paint or glossy finishes, some dressed up with fancy door knockers of all kinds or with hinges that harken back to another era.

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Here is a an old wooden door I saw in the small town of Vodnjan in Croatia.

In Ireland, the doors had a different twist. They were dressed in all the colors of the rainbow and then some, and provided a little magic to the otherwise monotone streets of neutral-tone brick buildings.

In some of the neighborhoods it gave a little personality to an otherwise homogenous landscape. When searching for the origins of these colorful entrances, I found that is exactly why residents as far back as the 1700s began to paint their doors.

According to the Irish Culture and Customs website, it started in 1700 when Dublin residents who felt confined by the strict Georgian architectural requirements on their residences started using the doors and transom windows to express their individuality or to make their properties stand out. “In order to set themselves apart, the former residents of Georgian Dublin painted their front doors whatever color they fancied, added ornate knockers, elegant fanlights above the door, and wrought iron boot scrapers near the entrance,” says Bridget Haggerty in her article, “Whose behind the doors of Dublin?”

 

 

 

The beautiful doors reminded me of my mother’s door back in Abita Springs, Louisiana painted a bright hue of pink that never fails to warm my heart when I visit.  (It also reminded me of how much I miss her since I have been traveling abroad and living in Croatia.)  The yellow and purple doors I saw standing next to one another on a street in the city center were reminiscent of the bold colors of my alma mater Louisiana State University.

Our doors often offer windows into our personalities, our hearts and our tastes. Some people like to blend in, to keep their door in the style of their home. Some like a dignified entrance and use distinguished colors and brass-plated door knockers. Others like the glitzy, cut glass doors which reflect the light and illuminate the home. Colorful doors provide a way to give your house a little spark of cheerfulness and personality. It’s also a way to add some charm to your old battered wooden door, especially if the door needs restaining (I speak from experience).

Besides the penchant for colorful doors, Dubliners definitely have a way of brightening up their streets and storefronts with colorful colors, flowers, lights and personality.

 

It sure makes a long walk into a city more interesting and appealing.  At least that’s what it seemed to do in Dublin.

I think it’s an open and shut case.

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Even this beautiful church in Dublin had its doors painted a lovely shade of red.

On Pašte and Patience

fullsizeoutput_55b8What a difference a week makes! School started this week in Pula, the tourist crowd is dwindling down to a enjoyable amount, and there is a hint of autumn in the air with the temperatures hovering in the mid-to-high 70s.  The rocky beaches that were swarming with people from all over Europe are now dotted with a few here and there, and we are not getting mowed down on our street by speedy German, Italian, Slovenian and Austrian drivers in a race to find the closest beachside parking spots.

With harvest season on the horizon, it’s fast becoming the popular food festival time here in Istria.  Istria is the peninsula we live on by the northwest side of Croatia just next to Italy and Slovenia.  Olive oil, truffles, wine, grapes, sir (cheese), prosciutto, and of course, the infamous Istrian truffles, are all celebrated in the fall months in Croatia. However, one food festival held mid-summer was all about another well-loved food here in Istria, “pašte” (pronounced “pash-tah”), or as we know it,  pasta.

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Fuži is the popular pasta handmade in Istria by the locals.  The spindle shaped delicacy can be found in restaurants and konobas (small homestyle taverns which cook food over an open fire) all over the peninsula.

Although in the U.S. pasta is primarily known as an Italian food, many people don’t realize that the Istrian peninsula was once a part of Italy.  Rome built the city of Pula, Venice ruled the peninsula in the 1500s, and most of the area went back to Italy after World War I for a period of time.  Because of this, many people in the area speak Italian or a mixture of Croatian and Italian. This language melting pot can be really confusing if you are trying out the few words you know in Croatian, and they look at you like you are crazy.  I speak from experience.  Anyway, this mixture of cultures also makes their Istarski fuži pasta quite delicious as a result.

We attended the Istarski Festival Pašte in July held in the courtyard of the beautiful village of Zminj with its small castle walls that were built in medieval times. The village is typical of many in Istria with its old town center sitting on top of a hill filled with beautiful stone buildings amidst cobblestone streets and topped with a bell tower from the Church of St. Michael. One of the amazing things about Croatia is that many of the festivities here are held among ancient buildings and structures that give ordinary events a priceless ambience. (For example, they hold pop concerts in the ancient Roman arena in Pula.)

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The view from the castle walls in Žminj where the Istarski Festival Pašte was held. Families from all over Istria attended the event. 

 

Traditions, traditions

My daughter Sarah and her husband Jonathan visited us mid-summer, and we had quite a good time on the old Kaštel (castle) grounds at the festival sipping Istrian wine, sampling craft beer, and eating the pasta. That is, once we got it.  It was quite an ordeal to achieve this and had to do with another little known fact about Croatians. They don’t have a lot of respect for the line, or queue as its known in the UK. This means they cut ahead sometimes.

“Ah, yes, this is Croatian tradition,” says my tongue-in-cheek landlord Edvard.

We saw this tradition in full effect at the festival as the line for the pasta buffet turned into just a mass of people just surrounding each other waiting and talking as more Croatians joined in to make the mass even larger.

Line Jumping Classifications

On a side note, I’ve noticed there are several type of line jumpers here:

First is the “here is my friend I haven’t seen in ages, let me talk to her and bring my whole family to join in the line in front of these people who have been waiting forever” line cutters.   Then there is the one person in line who is holding a spot for 10 other people who show up at various times in front of you, much to your surprise. Of course there is always “the meander in front of you pretending not to know how far the line goes back” cutter. The list goes on.

“Ah, yes, this is Croatian tradition,” says my tongue-in-cheek landlord Edvard.

When we waited at the police office for our visa applications, we found another type of line jumper. And there they even printed out numbers to avoid people skipping the queue. This type was the “I just have one small question for the clerk” line cutter. Needless to say, everyone in line had just one small question for the clerk. That’s why we had the numbers. But these people didn’t feel like waiting when they saw how long the line was and were so sincere in their pleas that the clerk often waited on them to the detriment of everyone else in line. Carolyn, James, Mike and I got pretty good at standing shoulder to shoulder and nose to back to block your garden variety line cutters when the ticket machine was broken at the station, which happened several times. Ah, those were trying days. Not really though.  It’s nothing we haven’t experienced waiting for a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, so I guess line jumpers are a universal problem. But I digress.

We made it!

We finally made it closer to the pasta buffet when a lady from the festival decided that the mob should be separated in half, and one half was brought to the other end of the buffet line. Then it was just mayhem and people were cutting like crazy. Mike and I have discussed many times that Croatia could really use some outside help in setting up more efficient processes. They were definitely needed here.

Finally we fought our way up to the unfortunate folks (I think it was three) that had the monumental task of serving all the different pastas to a hundred or so people and got our dishes. Of course the pasta was incredibly delicious (I’ve yet to have a bad pasta dish in Croatia), and it was served on really nice plates for festival fare, but next time we won’t come hungry. Or we’ll come after we try some Istarski pašte at a konoba first. Konobas are family run restaurants that cook a lot of their food over open fires in stone ovens. Rustic and quaint, they are an interesting and cozy experience all in themselves.

Anyway, Jonathan was really hungry and went back for second go in the line (he’s a brave soul) and accidentally ordered a ravioli that turned out to be a dessert. He thought it was shrimp ravioli because, of course, the signs were in Croatian.

He was very disappointed and almost considered a third attempt in the line, but alas, went and got a Croatian craft beer instead. Yes, they had that, too, at the festival. They had a whole section set up for a variety of craft beers with catchy names which the beer lovers in our group enjoyed immensely. And most importantly for my husband in that section was that they were playing an incredible selection of vintage rock music from English and American musicians, as well some really unique renditions, that made us feel right at home.

Back to the Pašte…

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What was really fun there was watching the ladies hand roll the different types of pašte. It was a beautiful process and was interesting to watch them roll out the dough and cut it, then shape it into what looked like tiny canollis to me. For one type, they just pulled off little pieces of dough from their dough ball and rolled them by hand. They had simple ingredients and they worked very fast. The festival offered their creations served with truffles, mushrooms,  meat and gravy, or vegetables and olive oil and cheese. Delicious!

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I know I’ve been complaining about the line cutters, but Croatians are extremely kind people, especially to foreigners in their country, and I don’t want to give the impression that they are not in any way. They really have been nothing but kind to us and part of the reason we like it here so much is the friendly nature of the people here. Croatians are also very loving, devoted parents, and their kids seem happy and carefree everywhere we go. At the festival they had tables set up for the children to make their own pasta with machines, and they were having a blast.

Croatian children got a chance to try their hand at making their own pasta at the Žminj Istarski Feste Pašte. They took their jobs very seriously.

So the moral of the story is to not go to the pašte fest hungry and have a little patience. Go with an open mind and an open heart.  Good advice for any visit to a festival!

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Here is a picture of my lovely daughter Sarah in front of some Roman ruins that were found during the construction of a building in Pula. The bench has a quote from US author Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”