Over the River and Through The Wood
The orange, yellow and red leaves swirled along the road to the small village of Juršići in Croatia as the sharp crisp, windy air of November and glowing sunshine of autumn announced this was going to be a day to remember.
Inside the tiny European car my husband Mike and I had leased for the next few months were five casseroles, two crockpots full of macaroni and cheese and dirty rice, four pies (pecan, pumpkin and sweet potato), salad, vegetables, dip, and dozens of pralines and other homemade goodies.
And that was just in our car. My friend Carolyn and I had left our apartment in Pula early Saturday to set up a Thanksgiving Feast at the house of our good friends Olga (from Russia) and Zoran (from Slovenia) who had graciously offered their home, a beautifully renovated Istrian schoolhouse from the 1800s, for our festivities.
Mike and Carolyn’s husband James stayed behind to cook the turkeys. Yes, that’s plural; there were three.
As we worked with Zoran and Olga and their daughter Mariska as well as our good friend Tina from Australia, to set up seating for 28 people, other people from all over Istria were putting dishes together or buying supplies to bring to our get together.
Our American friends Shivani and Gregory were headed from Rovinj with four delicious autumnal dishes that were vegetarian friendly, along with a knock-you- out signature cocktail.
Another American friend, Renee, and her husband Tony (from Australia) were coming from Poreč straight on the heels of a trip to South America then to Florida (and the jet lag that comes with it, yikes!) complete with Jell-O shots (you can’t get any more American than that, right?), spinach dip, and bucket loads of Istrian wine.
And little did we know, our friend David from New York was going to show up with a giant baked pumpkin (full of a delicious fruit and nut stuffing) that looked like a work of art.
As we drove along the small highways and byways of the Istrian countryside to Juršići with our precious cargo in tow, cars on the tiny two-lane roads road my bumper impatiently as I was afraid to drive too fast for fear a casserole or pie would be hurled from the backseat and end up as pig food on the floor of the car.
I told Carolyn I felt like a little old lady because I was driving so slow and just then an elderly, grey- haired couple zoomed by in their car and passed us impatiently, and we both laughed. “Okay, geez, I’m going slower than a little old lady,” I said.
“It’s okay,” said Carolyn. “We just need to get there.” And fortunately we did.
So what was this event all about?
Yes, gratitude. Our time in Croatia and, in Europe in general, has been a time of graciousness and generosity on the part of locals and expats alike. We’ve been wined and dined, picked up and dropped off, included in countless family events, taught how to make local dishes, been treated to local dishes, been given food, medicine, and liquors. Did I mention the delicious food?
We’ve laughed with and been embraced by countless people from Croatia as well as people from all over the world, including the Americans living here. They’ve shared their stories, their children, their families, their homes, their laughter and their heartbreaks, and most importantly, their friendships with us.
Starting with our apartment manager Edvard who truly is family now and who made it his mission to hunt down and procure turkeys for our feast, we’ve been treated exceedingly well. Whole turkeys are extremely difficult to find in Istria, and Edvard doggedly pursued many leads until he finally found them three and a half hours away from us on a small farm in a small town outside of Zagreb.
On the Friday before our Thanksgiving celebration he met a relative from that area who drove the turkeys part of the way to Rovinj (about 45 minutes away) to pick up and buy the turkeys for us. It was like a turkey relay race. When he breathlessly dropped the box of turkeys at the front door of our apartment after climbing three flights of stairs with them, he said definitively, in the special way only Edvard can express things:
“Never give up.”
Do Small Things With Great Love
Edvard’s mother and father have given us fruit from their gardens, cooked delicious meals for us, and his mom even spent an afternoon teaching us how to make a traditional Bosnian pastry called burek. Interestingly enough, neither of them speak much English and our Croatian is still pretty abysmal, but we always manage to laugh when we are together.
The Mjedja’s are just a few of the people we’ve been fortunate enough to meet here. Last summer we met a Romanian doctor on the beach and quickly became friends, and this summer he and his girlfriend and mother came back to Pula (they live in Austria) and cooked us an incredible fish dinner in their rented apartment, complete with homemade French fries, no less. (We also loudly sang some Beatles songs and the rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar” on our boat together, truly one of the highlights of this past summer, but that’s another story altogether. Stay tuned.)
Our American friend Shivani who hails from Alaska has been there for us in countless ways. She’s a consummate history buff and a natural born healer. Her and her husband Gregory have brought us to places in Istria that we would have never found otherwise, always with a complete synopsis of the history of the area and its plants, adding a layer of meaning that always enriches our experiences. She’s like a walking history book, but much prettier and more interesting. However, she’ll always hold a special place in my heart for prompting me to become a mermaid for a day and for her help trying to cure my insomnia. She’s that kind of person, pushing you to get a little out of your comfort zone and to try something new, always encouraging you to be your best self. I really love that about her.
Our Ukrainian friend Julia and her New Jersey bred husband prepared a feast of her country’s specialties for us in the tiny town of Kringa last year and sent me home with a bagful of leftovers and some medication from Ukraine to help heal some stomach issues I was having at the time. I was really touched at her consideration and compassion. Like Shivani and Olga, she is a beautiful soul.
And then when I traveled to Greece, both times I was there my friend Liz’s cousin Dimitra was the queen of hospitality and cooked so much delicious Greek food I thought I was going to start speaking Greek. I still have dreams of her moussaka and her Greek meatballs.
The first time I met my good friend Olga, her and Zoran drove me and a lovely Hungarian girl Èvi, who has also since become our dear friend, to Rovinj for an expat event, then drove us both home with Tina, who like many expats here, have become like family to us since that time.
Olga, who later provided her large home Scuola Roveria (see link below) to us for Thanksgiving, then proceeded to offer us, after meeting us this one time, the use of her automobile if we needed to get around. I mean, who does that? Olga does, and in a dismissive way like everyone is as generous and kind as her. Earlier this year her and Zoran hosted a big event at their home to show us all how Istrian pasta is made as well as some delicious Russian dumplings. It was truly a feast, and their kindness and generosity was overwhelming. If you looked up the definition of hospitality in the dictionary, I think their picture might be there.
And how could I forget the delicious dinner and wonderful stay at a brand new condo on Lake Balaton in Hungary, care of our foreign exchange daughter’s parents? Zsuzsa and Béla had just put the finishing touches on their special home and wanted to share it with us. It really touched our hearts. They also treated us to a delicious Hungarian fish dish whose name that I can’t pronounce (like most Hungarian words) and left wine for us and food in the fridge. It was truly a beautiful area we would have never experienced otherwise. And the fact that they shared their daughter with us for a year in the USA is a gift that keeps on giving. Dorka is and always will be a member of our family.
I won’t forget to mention the giant pot of sarma and Istrian wine that our Croatian teacher Suki brought over one stormy Croatian evening. One of my upcoming blogs is about our cultural adventures with her and James and Carolyn.
Or a spontaneous birthday celebration at a restaurant in Vodnjan for Mike where he was sung Happy Birthday in five different languages, much to the dismay of the rest of the people in the restaurant.
These are just a few of the kindnesses we’ve been shown since we arrived almost two years ago. I could never mention every one of them because there have been too many. When I decided to put together this event, these were the things that were going through my mind.
These are a Few of my Favorite Things
A cup of coffee at a cafe pouring over life’s joys and trials, a glass of wine and lunch at a local restaurant or bar talking about our families, a boat ride cooking fresh tuna or swinging off the ropes into the water, rides through the countryside searching for olive oil and adventures, a chat on the beachside with children playing in the water nearby, sharing birthdays together, walks along the rocky coast admiring the incredible scenery together, these are the things that I am thankful for since we have been here in Croatia.
So in other words, our Thanksgiving Feast was just a way to say “thank you, thank you, thank you” in an American way with an American tradition on one of my favorite American holidays.
Okay, my absolute favorite American holiday.
And although many of the people that have treated us so kindly were not even at this event, it was in the spirit of their generosity and to honor them that this event was conceived.
It’s the little things
So what do you get when you combine 30 people from all over the world in one room with an overabundance of food and drink?
Laughter, fellowship, love, loudness, kindness, gratitude, but mostly the warm feeling that “life is good,” “the world is okay,” and “everyone loves Mac and cheese.” (Okay, it was the one dish that I made that I doubled the recipe, and the only vessel of mine that came home completely empty.)
People everywhere just want some hearty food and a few drinks and to enjoy some laughs and a feeling of camaraderie. To be listened to. To share. To be welcomed and embraced. To dance a little. To take a break from their worries and cares and relax in a warm environment.
Our little feast in this town of 150 people had guests from Australia, Bosnia, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Italy, Ireland, Slovenia, Russia, and of course the United States of America. Seven states of the USA were represented: California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Florida, Alaska and New York.
As we went around the table and shared the things we were thankful for with one another, family and friends, new ones and old, loved ones with us and those far away were acknowledged. We had people who were celebrating their very first Thanksgiving and a lovely gentleman who was celebrating his 70th. We remembered those who had passed this meaningful tradition along to us but were no longer among the living and talked about the little things that we take for granted in our lives. We laughed, we cried (okay, maybe it was just me, but I got teary eyed thinking of my mom and my daughters at home and my friends and family in the USA that I miss so much).
And we toasted a lot. After each person said what they were grateful for, we toasted. It may have turned into a drinking game at some point. But who is to say?
The whole toasting exchange may have been a bit awkward, but it was beautiful, like so many of the things in life that are meaningful. It felt good to acknowledge our appreciation for what we have been given in life and to share the culture we cherish with others.
The day was a gift on so many levels, but if we truly think about it, so is every day. However, Thanksgiving allows us to designate a time and a place to show our gratitude, and the holiday has an extra layer to it, knowing our recipes have been passed down from generations before and the celebration has taken place our whole lives with family and friends gives the day added meaning.
Just days before the event, I sat peeling sweet potatoes and grating cheese talking to my 80 year old mom on FaceTime as she discussed the recipes she had given me for our dinner. I thought of the many years my mom had spent preparing elaborate meals and setting up our home to make Thanksgiving such a special event in our lives. I thought of my three daughters spread out across the USA, one in California preparing gumbo to take to a Friendsgiving dinner, one in Florida with my niece and new great nephew making their favorite dishes, sweet potatoes and macaroni and cheese, and my youngest in Louisiana preparing a feast for her husband and in-laws.
And although we weren’t together this year to celebrate with each other, we got to share the spirit of this holiday with a multi-national family who has helped make Croatia feel like home sweet home.
And I’m thankful for that.
*Two very special places to stay if you are interested in visiting the beautiful area of Istria.
Scuola Roveria in Juršići
Villa Canaria in Pješćana Uvala near Pula. (This is where we live in Pula.)