“The city is sleeping,” said the young Russian boy. We all closed our eyes. As I sat around the beach blanket with six children from Russia, Italy and Croatia still dripping from the salty Adriatic Sea and playing the card game Mafia, I wondered, how did I get here?
We had just been swimming off the rocky beach of Pješćana Uvala when I was invited to share a beach blanket with a new friend’s daughters and some children they had befriended.
I closed my eyes because that’s what you are supposed to do when the city is sleeping in the Mafia game, and I thought, how does a middle-aged woman from the USA wind up on a beach in Croatia playing a Mafia card game with foreign children?
“The mafia is waking up,” says the boy with his precious Russian accent. He is the narrator for the game. I open my eyes as I realize that I am the Mafia. Who, me?
Nikolina, 14, from Split in Croatia, begins to laugh at me as she sees I have discovered I have one of the two mafia cards, and I blurt out to everyone, “Wait, I have to kill someone?”
The narrator looks a little disconcerted. Apparently, the mafia doesn’t speak, it just points at the person it wants to knock off, and that person is eliminated from the game. Whoops!
Little Olga, 5, from Moscow, giggles infectiously as we have to start the game over now because I have opened my big mouth and ruined it. It’s quite obvious that I’d never make a good mafia member.
Part of the fun in living in a resort destination in the summer is the new people we meet in our apartment complex and on the beach. They have enriched our lives tremendously. The past few weeks have been particularly exciting as we got to celebrate our apartment manager Edvard’s birthday and meet some more of his family and friends.
I’ve written about Edvard before, but I could never write about him enough. He and his family have made our stay in Croatia so pleasant and fun, and I feel like they are a big part of the reason we feel like Pula is home. His sense of humor and willingness to help us at every turn has made wading through the Croatian bureaucracy that much easier. And his birthday feasts are legendary. At least the two we have been honored to share in since we came here a year and a half ago are.
His mother and father cooked a feast for us last week to celebrate his 47th birthday. We indulged in fresh salads and the delicious ćevapčići, a meat dish famous around this area. The dish is very hard to pronounce, but very easy to eat. It was grilled by Kristo, an expert grill “meister,” who also happens to be Edvard’s dad and who is originally from Bosnia.
Ćevapi or ćevapčići is a grilled dish of minced meat, a type of kebab meat, found traditionally in the countries of southeastern Europe or the Balkans. It has a great flavor and my carnivorous husband gobbles it down furiously whenever he sees it.
Edvard’s mother Stojanka made us several dishes: fried zucchini, pita na sirom, a cheesy filo dough pastry, and a Russia pea salad and other delightfully fresh vegetables and more; and Edvard’s girlfriend Marija made a delicious torte cake. Marija and her brother also brought homemade rakia (Croatian brandy) from their home in Slavonia which was so strong, it brought tears to our eyes. But it’s a prerequisite at the beginning of every Croatian celebration, so we downed it in typical Croatian style.
As we ate, we talked with his lovely cousin Leonora from Bosnia who now lives with her husband and daughters in Italy and his friend Alex (of German origin) who lives in Zagreb and her boyfriend. Edvard had invited our dear friends James and Carolyn from Louisiana and their nieces from California as well, so it was truly an international event.
So how did this birthday party lead me to where I wind up on the beach playing mafia with Russian, Croatian and Italian children?
Well, I met Edvard’s cousin Leonora at the beach a few days ago, and she invited me to sit with her daughters on a beach blanket after we were finished swimming. Her girls, along with Edvard’s niece Nikolina, had befriended a Russian family from Moscow who sat next to us on the beach, and the children were playing the infamous card game.
The Russian mother saw me sitting on the blanket and invited me to join in the game. I felt really honored to be a part of their holiday experience and family tradition. The dad even took some pictures of us playing, so I guess I wound up in the vacation pictures of a family in Moscow.
The Istrian region gets tourists from all over the world, primarily German, Italian and Austrian since they are so close, but also from the Scandinavian countries and Czechia, Romania, Poland and Russia as well. We’ve met people from all over the world here. And learning new traditions and customs is part of the the fun.
I’ve noticed a lot more people playing cards on the beaches in Croatia than I have back in say Florida or the Gulf Coast, and not just children either. Families, couples, children together often sit quietly on the beach or at tables in the beachside cafes playing card games.
This card game, Mafia, which I had never heard of before this day, was created by Dmitry Davidoff of Moscow in 1986, and it became popular in Russia first before spreading to Europe and finally the USA.
The game has two major groups: the mafia and the innocents; and two major phases: the part where the mafia kills someone by pointing at them (not by telling everyone that they are the mafia, ouch!), and the part where the people wake up and try to decide who is in the mafia and vote them out of the game. There is also a phase in which the sheriff comes in and tries to expose the mafia.
“The sheriff is waking up,” said the boy.
Thank goodness there was a sheriff in town to try to find the bad guys. The second game I was a mere citizen and luckily, after the last game and my big mouth, no one suspected me of being in the Mafia. We decided it was Olga, and she smiled and giggled some more. She’s the cutest little Mafia kingpin I’ve ever seen.
It was a good game for children to get to know one another, apparently the young girls from Croatia and Italy had never played it before they met this family either. They all had a good grasp of English and played the game in English, which was impressive just in itself, since their native tongues were Russian, Italian and Croatian.
Anyway, you never know what you will wind up doing or experiencing when you take a big step like moving to a foreign country or even a small one, like speaking to stranger on a beach. Last year on the beach near our home, we met a vacationing Romanian doctor who now lives and works in Austria, and my husband and I have since become good friends and had many enjoyable experiences with him and his family. I’ll post about those adventures another time.
Until then, keep an eye out for the bad guys, and keep your mouth shut if you are one of them.