The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

IMG_1983

Many times when we are traveling we have expectations of what we want to see and do and how to pack the most into the little time we do have. We sometimes deviate, but it’s hard to do if you’ve set an itinerary in stone. Planning is good, but a little spontaneity can give us our most lasting memories. And sometimes these memories are of our shared humanity on the bus of life. 

Take our recent trip to France. It was our last day in France and we were back where we had started in Nice after 11 days of driving through the beautiful cities of Provence. We were ready to stay put and just meander through the streets of Nice, but the clerk at our hotel had recommended a scenic public bus ride to Monaco as one of the most beautiful bus rides you will ever take.

Since Monaco had been a place that I had wanted to visit, but had I felt like it was just too much after all the running around we had been doing throughout the South of France, it was put back on the list. So we laced up our tennis shoes and decided to venture out on the Bus 100 from Nice to Monaco/Menton.

IMG_1988

Round and Round

The night before we went on the bus, I put my planning cap back on and researched a little about this ride. Bus 100 starts at the port in Nice and takes you all the way to the beautiful city of Monaco and the ritzy casino of Monte Carlo and ends in the city of Menton, stopping at many quaint little towns and villages along the way.

IMG_2021

One website I found recommended that you sit on the right side of the bus as you’ll get the best views of the dramatic scenery, and to let a bus pass you by if you see it doesn’t have any seats to offer as the next one will be coming in just 15 minutes and you will then be first in line for your choice of a prime seat. So we had a plan, we’d be prepared to get the most out of this little deviation.

We walked to the bus stop and prepared to get on the bus. There was no line so we tried to board and realized we didn’t have enough change for the ride (a whopping 1.50 Euros per person), but we only had large bills. I walked through the bus as Mike dug for change and realized there was no line because everyone was already on board and there were no seats. We took the advice from the website and hopped off the bus and waited for the next one in 15 minutes. Mike went to go get change, and I waited in the line. We had a plan.

The next bus comes by and we hop on and get our choice of the seats on the scenic “right” side. I am so proud that I did my research and smug that we are going to have a great view.

And view we had. It truly was one of the most breathtaking bus rides I have been on.  Even though the day was overcast, the bus meandered through the mountains and cliffs of the Nice countryside and offered dramatic views of small villages that perched on the sides of the Mediterranean Sea.

IMG_1955

We passed small towns like Le Port, Petite Afrique and Pont Saint-Jean. Ah, this is the life, we thought.

All Through the Town

We arrive in Monaco and walk around through the infamous city of Monte Carlo. IMG_1977We see the workers setting up bleachers for the 2018 Grand Prix that will take place in just a few days and fixing up some of the buildings. We decide the Monte Carlo casino might be nice to see even though we are not big gamblers. The beautiful people are walking around dressed up to the nines and the tourists like us are gawking and checking out their designer attire and expensive cars.

 

IMG_1978

Next we walk up the steep stone pathway to the Prince of Monaco’s castle and look down at the city below and marvel that Princess Grace had lived in such a beautiful place with gorgeous exotic gardens that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea.

IMG_2040Then we decide we have had enough of the rich and famous and decide to catch the 100 Bus back to one of the smaller towns we had seen along the bus ride and have a coffee and relax.  It takes a minute to find the bus stop but we find it, hop it and stop in a city called Le Port and start looking around.

An hour or so later, we head back to the bus stop of Le Port. We sit down to wait for the next bus and two teenage French girls walk up and are waiting with us. One has a black T-shirt on that says New York and the other sports another black T-shirt and has earphones in her ears. They are staring at their iPhones and waiting along with us although they don’t acknowledge us.

About 10 minutes later we see a bus in the distance as it winds down the road toward us.  We stand up and get ready to board. Then one of the teenagers gets a look of horror on her face and says, “Oh, Complet!” and falls dramatically back on the bench like only a teenager can do. Mike and I look at each other with question marks in our eyes and see the bus zoom by us with the word “Complet” at the top of the lighted panel.

Oh, it’s full, now I get it. Yikes. It’s about 4 pm and now I’m starting to realize why it’s “complet.” Ouch, maybe we shouldn’t have stayed so long at Le Port, and I’m visualizing us having to take a taxi back to the city as I know the buses stop running at around 8 pm. Both of our phones are almost dead, too. So much for planning.

At 4:30 another bus goes by. Yep, you guessed it, it’s “Complet.” Another 15 minutes goes by.  Another bus in the distance. It looks like it …is…going….to…..stop and it does. Thank God.

Move on Back

The teenagers go in before us and then we are in, but it is standing room only, and it seems pretty “complet” to me. We are literally jammed into one another. Still, I’m thankful the bus stopped, and we are on our way.

It’s funny the things you notice when you are standing up in a crowded bus as compared to sitting down comfortably in a seat. Like, where do I put my hands so I don’t fall when the bus stops short or takes a sharp turn fast like buses are known to do?

I have a choice between holding on to the little plastic handles that hang down, but I’m fairly short and the things are fairly high up, so they don’t give me the support I need to brace myself. But if I hang on to the seat handles below, I feel like I’m invading the person sitting down’s personal space.

I opt for the latter because the man sitting down smiles kindly at me. He’s an elderly gentleman who is so well-dressed and dapper, yet has a look of sadness in his eyes. He has a brown felt top hat sitting on his lap, sports a brown tweed jacket and a cranberry tie, and he looks like he walked straight out of a Sherlock Holmes novel and landed in the 21st century. I feel comforted by his presence, so I hold on to the handle by his seat, separate my legs into a yoga warrior pose, and I’m ready to go.

IMG_3512 2

The bus true to form speeds around the curves, but the warrior pose and the seat handle work well, as I move back and forth in time to the rhythms of the bus. And I’m still enjoying the incredible scenery as the clouds have lifted and the cliffs look even more  beautiful. I can do this, I think to myself.

Then the bus comes to a stop at a bus stop in another small town. Wait, aren’t we full? Apparently not. Geez, how many people can this bus hold?

Apparently about 10 more people because that’s how many jam onto the already crowded bus. At this point I get pushed further in right next to a tall young man who lucky for him can reach the plastic handles, but unfortunately for me, because of my diminished height, my head is rather close to his rather fragrant armpit. The teenage girls are sandwiched in front of him, and so I lean over to a lovely French lady who just boarded and fortunately smells very good, like French soap and fresh floral perfume.

Before I can get my bearing and find a new handle to hold on to, the 10 people who just got on the bus start jockeying around the ticket machine trying to get their tickets cards validated. They are all locals who apparently must ride this bus when they get off of work each day.  The bus crowd becomes a living organism with the bus cards being passed back and forth between riders to reach the ticket machine. Everyone helps out and soon all the cards are validated and everyone is all smiles at the team effort. Mission accomplished. And we are on our way.

I notice with amazement that the teenage girls are able to stare at their iPhones and balance in the bus without any problem, and I admire their youthful abilities. I wish I had such good balance, I think, until the bus takes another turn sharply and one of the teenagers falls right into me.

“Pardon,” she says and laughs with embarrassment. “It’s okay,” I say.

A few minutes later the bus takes another turn and it is the French lady falling into me and another more profuse, “Pardon” heads my way.  The elderly gentleman smiles at me but looks a little concerned.

All Day Long

Through all of this, there is one passenger (and her owner) that is unruffled and sleeping without a bit of concern about the passengers packed in like sardines around her.  It’s a little white puppy dozing comfortably in a basket who sits on an elderly lady’s lap. She is the picture of bliss. (Either that or she has motion sickness and is trying to sleep it off.) You can see a hint of the puppy on her owner’s lap in the photo above, next to the elderly gentleman.

The bus comes to another bus stop but we zoom by it.  Our bus now has the “Complet” sign on, and I imagine more teenagers rolling their eyes and plopping onto benches at the bus stop, or people silently cursing the tourists like me who invade their bus each day at rush hour.

We finally make it back to Nice and everyone disembarks.

IMG_3518

I feel like I’ve gotten to know the people here in a much more intimate way than on the journey over where I had a prime seat and the best views.  Maybe traveling isn’t all about the views and the buildings and the scenery. Maybe it’s about total strangers acting together in perfect synchronicity to help each other board a bus. Maybe it’s about the shared humanity and the individual journeys that collide and separate in ways that change us for the better or the worse.

IMG_3521 4.JPG
After a long nap on Bus 100 from Nice to Menton, this little pup is bright eyed and ready to walk the streets of Nice. 

Until we are all “complet.”

A Walk on the Wild (Asparagus) Side

IMG_2111

A few weeks ago Carolyn and I were wandering off in the woods of the Soline Forest again near Pula and ran smack into a little boy of about 6 years-old and his mom.  The boy ran right up to us and proclaimed something excitedly in Croatian and showed us a fist full of a green plant he had collected.

“Do you speak English?” we said to them. “Govorim Hrvastki!” (I speak Croatian!) the little boy said enthusiastically and ran off back in the woods to grab some more of the plant he carried.  His mom laughed with us and said, “A little.” It always surprises me when someone says they speak “a little” English here because they always seem to be able to converse with us pretty well.  They certainly know more English than we know Croatian.

Anyway, what the little boy was running around exuberantly collecting was wild asparagus which grows around the Croatian countryside during early spring. It apparently is a delicacy here and widely sought after like the truffles are in the fall. Croatians have been scouring the countryside for these little spears called “šparoge” for many centuries. They believe the plants have medicinal properties, and of course, with all of the vitamins and antioxidants packed in the asparagus, they have nutritional ones as well.

This little boy and his mom proceeded to show us what to look for in the brush to locate the small spears that were just bursting forth from the established plants. They are a lot thinner than the ones we are used to eating in the U.S. and apparently there are plenty to go around.  The next thing we know, thanks to the young mom and her son, we were spotting them on our own.

I brought one with me to show Mike and James who were waiting for us at a local cafe while we explored.  The waiter saw I had an asparagus in my hand and told us proudly he had just collected a large amount of them in Premantura the previous weekend and told us where to go to find our own.  Much bigger than the one I had found, he said. I love it that the local people are so free with information about their area. Unfortunately, we never were able to go wild asparagus hunting in the woods in Premantura, but the next week I found them in the local market and bought a large bunch for about 25 kunas (~$4 USD).

IMG_2113

The lady above sold them to me and told me the small spears are good in omelettes, with pasta, in salads or just on their own with Istrian olive oil. I made a pasta dish with the delicate shoots and they were really good, a little more pungent than the bigger ones we are used to, but I can definitely see their appeal. And the fact you can just go pick them on a pleasant day in spring for free makes them even more appealing.

Here is the dish I cooked with them for our dinner. It was very good, except that I didn’t do a very good job of taking off the bottom part of the stalk which was a little woody, so there were some left over stems on our plates. Whoops. Next time I’ll know better.

img_0077-1

Living in such a fertile area like the Istrian Peninsula makes it easy to eat by the growing seasons. Having read the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life  by Barbara Kingsolver who discusses her family’s experience of a year of eating only locally-sourced food had inspired my book club and I to attempt to do it in New Orleans at one point, but it was a little difficult.  I can see it would be a lot easier to do in a place like Istria where the neighborhoods are surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, and fig trees and other fruit trees grow like weeds around every corner.

Our neighbor’s trellis here in Pješčana Uvala hung heavy with a multitude of kiwi last October when we we visited, and I can’t wait till those bad boys are in season here. Right now it’s also strawberry season, so I’ve been scooping them up at the market, too. What can you forage for in the area surrounding your home? Could you live by eating just what is produced in your area by the season?

IMG_7545

 

 

The Hours Invite Us to Dream

I have a favorite quote from Maya Angelou that says: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”  I’d like to offer a slight twist to that quote for travelers:

“When locals give you advice about their hometown, believe them. And take it, of course.”

So many times in the last few months we have talked with our Airbnb host, waiter, or hotel receptionist and have visited places that we probably would have skipped or not even known about had we not listened to their recommendations. Those places were truly the ones that most inspired me on our recent quest through the heart of Provence. But first, remember, ask and you shall receive. You have to ask people for their advice in order to receive it.IMG_1408

One of the first recommendations that we received was from our Airbnb host François in Antibes who strongly recommended hiking the trail along Cap d’Antibes and a visit to the medieval walled town of St. Paul de Vence. Both of these destinations were not even on our radar when we planned the trip, and both turned out to be two of the best places we visited on our two week journey.

The Cap d’Antibes hiking trail was an incredible coastal walk along the peninsula among steep limestone cliffs and rocky coves which were bursting with spring blooms and whose yellow-orange stones provided a sharp contrast with the view of the azure water below. The trail also brought you through the exclusive neighborhoods that boast millionaire villas which house the rich and famous.

 

The walk was truly breathtaking and after we finished we sat at a ritzy little cafe on the French Riviera. We were extremely thirsty after the long walk and so we got some expensive water (I mean, it was the Riviera), and then I fell in love with this italian lemon sorbet dessert called Segel, so it was a win, win all around.

We did have one issue though. We got lost at the beginning of the trail and we took about an hour detour until we actually found the hiking trail. That was a little frustrating. Someone told us to turn left when we should have turned right, but I won’t mention any names. Someone also blamed it on Google Maps. Nevertheless, it was a extremely good place to get lost in. And we reached our step-goal that day for sure. C’est la vie.

‘Les heures nous invitent à la rêverie’

The second place Françoise recommended was St. Paul de Vence, which was a picture perfect medieval village perched high up a on a hilltop about 17 km from Antibes. I recently learned that the bell from the tower from the town hall was cast in 1443 and has the inscription, “‘Les heures nous invitent à la rêverie’,”  which means, “The hours invite us to dream.” And dream people have. Artists, writers, poets, actors, and everyday people like you and me have visited and been inspired. I’m already dreaming about how I can go back there.

fullsizeoutput_46e0

Surrounded by ancient stone walls, the incredible scenery of the village and the dreamlike way the light hits the old stone buildings and small alleyways have inspired some of the world’s most famous artists. fullsizeoutput_476aI was not surprised to see the gravesite of Marc Chagall in the small cemetery there and learn that Pablo Picasso and other famous artists and writers have spent time in this magical little village. The village has since become a mecca for artists and is filled with art galleries and an art museum.  While we were walking around we saw several artists including the one in the photo below painting or drawing in the little rustic alleyways.

 

After we left Antibes, we got another recommendation from our sweet French host Eden in Aix-en-Provence who told us we should go to Cassis and the Calanques and then drive along the Route de Crêtes, when we asked her for her favorite places to visit in Aix-en-Provence.  Note: These places were not even in Aix-en-Provence, but she said these were the places where she liked to spend her free time and visited any chance she could.  We really could have skipped Aix-en-Provence altogether and spent all of our time in Cassis and the Calanques because we wound up loving that area so much, but then we would never have met Eden.

She also said in her precious French accent that we picked the perfect time to visit Provence, the shoulder season of March-April (she also recommended September-October) before the tourists descend on the place and when the weather is nicer. There were already many tourists there, but it wasn’t packed like it apparently gets during the summer, so remember that if you plan a trip there.

So what the heck is a “calanque”? It sounds like a noise you make when you drop something. The Calanques are little creeks or inlets that dip into the limestone mountainsides along the area from Marseille to the city of Cassis. They have little azure water coves in them, and you can take a tour of them by water in a boat, which we did, or hike them, which is what I would do if I ever return.  I honestly don’t think the photos we took do them justice, but here are a few of these majestic natural phenomena.

Cassis is a charming little city that sits on the hilly coast between the Calanque National Park and the Route de Crêtes, a fabulous ride along the coast with magical scenery and ochre-colored cliffs that are worth a visit to that area just on their own merits. If you have ever ridden along Big Sur on the Pacific Coast Highway 1 in California, this French route rivals that beautiful drive, which has always been at the top of my lists of scenery that is the most beautiful in the world.

 

And speaking of drives, one of the best bus rides we have ever taken was aboard the Number 100 from Nice to Monaco-Menton which was recommended to us by a hotel receptionist when we asked what his favorite thing was to do in Nice. Again, it took us out of the city of Nice where we were staying, but it offered some truly dramatic views that I’ll never forget. The bus trip itself was so interesting that it will be the subject of a future post called, “The Wheels on the Bus.”

So thank you François, Eden, Jean-Dominique and others who have helped us along our journey throughout Provence. Your favorites have become our favorites, too.

What was the best travel advice that you have been given by a local? And what places in your hometown would you recommend to a traveler that might be off the grid?

fullsizeoutput_47e1

On Being Grateful and the Nature of Traveling

fullsizeoutput_3e33We learn a lot about our true nature when we are traveling, and some of the things we learn about ourselves aren’t so complimentary. Often times when things don’t go as planned or places don’t meet our expectations, we balk, we gripe, we complain. But these are the very experiences that teach us the most about ourselves and the world around us.

Our recent trip to the South of France was no exception, and we had several of these types of experiences. Some turned out great and far exceeded our expectations, while some taught us lessons that will change the way we do things the next time. Many of the things that happened to us were not planned or expected on our recent journey, which overall was a glorious and beautiful trip. But it wasn’t perfect.

For example, upon our arrival to Trieste, Italy, where we had to spend the night before our flight to Nice, we checked into our hotel.  Or tried to. We were tired from an uncomfortably warm bus ride from Pula that had given James, Carolyn and I a mild case of motion sickness. We thought that because we had booked a hotel that it would be easy to check-in. Well, it was a little more complicated than that.

After we walked several grimy streets in the area of Trieste near the bus station, we finally tracked the place down. It was behind giant wooden doors in a large 19th century building that you needed someone to buzz you into. The sign was very small, the door was very large. The place was advertised as a hotel with a shared bathroom and truth be told I chose it because it was the cheapest.

After several attempts to find a way to get into the place, we finally called the owner.  He wasn’t there, but could be there at 8 p.m. There is no one at the hotel? we wondered. It was 5:00 p.m. We were carrying backpacks and we were tired, so we finally got him to agree to be there at 6:30.  Then we get another phone call, his assistant would be there at 6:30. Okay, so we showed up then.

We waited at the giant wooden door and waited. Finally around 7 p.m. a woman walks up, fumbles with some ancient skeleton keys and lets us in. The place has an elevator from the early 1900s and it’s actually pretty cool.

111F3624-A4EE-443C-AF51-D80275DA0775.jpeg
James and Carolyn in the oldest elevator in Trieste.

She says it’s the oldest in the city.  It’s a nice elevator but only holds two people, so some of us walk up the four floors on the beautiful old staircase and some of us take the elevator. My poor pack mule husband who was carrying both our backpacks up got to ride it up.

A stench hits us when the lady opens the door to the “hotel.” It’s some serious cigarette smoke, and we hear some men loudly talking in the first bedrooms near the entrance. I hold my breath as we go by their rooms. You can hear our footsteps on the old wooden floors. The building seems ancient and reminds me of an old school dormitory or better yet, a convent.  Wooden floors, artificial flower arrangements from another decade or so and old wooden furniture with dusty doilies, like the kind your elderly grandmother had.

“We’re staying at some old Italian grandma’s house,” James says.

The assistant shows us where the shared bathrooms are on the way in, and we see a lady sitting by the receptionist desk.  A receptionist? Where was she when we were waiting by the giant door? Apparently, we just had to buzz her, and she would have let us in. We thought we did. We’re perplexed. Why didn’t the owner just tell us that? We walk down the long wooden halls with our footsteps echoing down the corridor. I feel like I’m in the movie, “The Shining,” waiting for the ghostly twin girls to appear at the end of the hallway, but here we are. We are at the door of our room. There are three single cot-like beds in the double room Mike and I booked. We can just push two of them together, the lady tells us. So we do.

There are also two small disposable plastic cups on a small table, about the size of the type you use to rinse your mouth in, and we are informed we can get water down the hall in the bathroom. No sink or faucets in the bedroom, or mirrors, for that matter. Do vampires live here? I’m silently shrieking inside, we have to drink water from the bathroom faucet where people use the restroom?  This was not worth the $30 dollars I saved. I’ll just have to be thirsty.

Meanwhile Carolyn and James are shown to their room which is like an old dorm room and a quarter of the size of ours with only two single beds. We tell Carolyn she can come sleep in our room if she feels too claustrophobic. We have the extra bed. She doesn’t but should have because she said she was up the entire night because every time she turned over her bed squeaked loudly and she could hear every move in the hotel as well.  Mike and I sleep pretty well thanks to the down comforters with covers that were super soft, but I was a little thirsty. We had to be up at 4 a.m. to be at the bus station for 5 a.m. in order to catch our flight from Venice to Nice.

So what is the moral of the story. We survived. The place wasn’t filthy, just ancient. The bed covers were amazing. We could have been stuck out on the street somewhere in the cold. And yes, I broke down in the morning and drank some of the water out of the old bathroom faucet. I mean, I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom, what was the difference?fullsizeoutput_15c3

Looking back I realize I’m more than just a little spoiled about creature comforts.  I don’t know if it’s my age or our culture that says everything has to be exactly how we want it to be. We think we can’t inhale cigarette smoke and we think we shouldn’t drink water from a bathroom faucet. But everything can’t be clean and washed and pressed in life. Life is not always perfectly comfortable, especially when you are traveling. You are going to come in contact with bad smells and uncomfortable conditions if you are truly taking a journey. I’m sure there are many younger people who are used to traveling in hostels or in third world countries where things like this are normal and part of the experience. If I had booked a hostel, I guess I would have expected more discomforts. But there is that stubborn word, “expected.”  Often times in life, that is the problem. Things don’t meet our expectations. But are they enough? Are our needs met? And I look back more than a little ashamed that I was so unappreciative of the beginning of what was to be a beautiful adventure. My next posts will show the more glamorous side of the journey, but for now, I’ll be more grateful for what I am given, even water from a public bathroom faucet.

fullsizeoutput_45ca

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

“Moj Grad Je Vinograd” (My Town is a Vineyard): Festival of Wine 2018 in Gračišće

fullsizeoutput_456aOn the day after Easter Sunday our landlord Edvard told us there was a festival we should consider attending. The week before we had been away from Croatia traveling in Denmark, then had returned home and gone sightseeing around Croatia with our guests from Hungary, so I guess we were more than a little tired. Actually, we were quite exhausted. (But if you are like my daughter, Sarah, you are not really feeling too sorry for me right now.)IMG_0753

 

 

Anyway, Edvard mentioned two things about this festival that peaked our interest: one was that it was centered around Istrian wine and another was the setting of the festival was a small medieval village called Gračišće, which is surrounded by vineyards and boasts panoramic views of the Učka mountain range and the Julian Alps of Slovenia.

 

B61C9EC3-6EAD-43EF-8F7E-62B99CEF548C.jpeg
“The hills are alive with the sound of” accordions. Accordions? Yep, accordions. This is the incredible view from the medieval town of Gračišće which hosts a large Istrian wine festival each year with plenty of local food and traditional music.

The price to enter the 25th annual Festival of Wine 2018 was a mere 10 euro ($12 USD) and with that fee, you received: a wine glass with a little bag to carry the glass around your neck, a wine guide with each maker and their offerings, and a plethora of wines around the village to sample. Since I used to work the wine tastings at the Wine Market in Slidell, Louisiana, with my lovely friends Michelle and Doug Reker, I thought it might be interesting to taste some of the local wines we had been encountering in the stores in Croatia.

IMG_0676
Mike, James and Carolyn at the Festival of Wine 2018 in the medieval town of Gračišće, Croatia. 

The entrance ticket to the festival allows you to sample all of the 251 wines from 82 winemakers in the Istrian region. Quite the bargain! (Or quite the hangover if you are ambitious enough to try them all!) Festival goers walk in and out the medieval buildings to sample the delicious Istrian wine offerings. Delicious local food was offered for sale as well.

 

Considering that over 10,000 visitors were expected to attend the festival, we thought it would be a great chance to immerse ourself in the local culture.

The visitors were said to be primarily from Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Italy. We can attest to the fact that there were few if any other Americans there. Carload after carload of people pulled up to the little mountain town which had men in fluorescent colored vests directing traffic onto large fields on the outskirts of the city which served as parking areas for the festival guests.

IMG_0718
When you live in Grasčiče, signs like the center one that say, “My town is a vineyard” are appropriate

Many of them were local Croatians from nearby cities and villages, but not all as we found out.

At one point Carolyn accidentally bumped into a petite leather clad Italian biker who was very chic-looking with her jet black hair and carrying her shiny black helmet. The alleys through the town were quite small and crowded, and by this time, we had sampled quite a few wines. Still, the woman gave her an unnecessary scowl and said rather sharply, “Tranquillo!!” (Calm down!). Carolyn apologized profusely (her and I were both already “tranquillo”), but she was perplexed as to what exactly she had done to receive the wrath of the biker lady. Luckily, none of us spoke Italian, so we’ll never know.  So yes, we met at least one Italian.

 

D2D4CE97-7B19-4A7A-9E1C-B2C3374CF209.jpeg
Carolyn and I are “molto tranquillo” at the Festival of Wine. James and Mike wish they were this “tranquillo.”

Other than that, the crowd seemed like it was mostly Croatians, and besides the encounter with the biker, everyone we met was extremely friendly.  A little pushy sometimes to get to the wine counters (aren’t we all?), but friendly none the less. Below is a picture of the inside of the amazing little medieval cottages the crowds flowed in and out of to get their wine samples.

88DA00A5-FCD0-4E72-B5F3-20779CCF1247.jpeg

And here is a photo of a very friendly girl who posed for us while pouring Carolyn a wine sample.  She said that not too many people from the USA normally attended the festival.

fullsizeoutput_456d
This sweet young woman posed for us at one of the wine counters in one of the small medieval buildings that served as booths for the wine tasting.

The most amazing thing about the festival had to be that thousands of people were walking around a village that had been there for centuries with many of the buildings almost like they were 500 years ago.  In the photo below, festival goers stroll around St. Mary’s Church which was built in 1425! I found a fascinating blog called “Istria Outside My Window,” which tells the whole history of the town and its buildings for those who are interested in reading more about this beautiful little village. There is even a post from the blog about St. Mary’s Church.

8F816B62-2264-4316-8C93-00C3AD96A494.jpeg
Guests at the Festival of Wine 2018 wander around the beautiful medieval church of St. Mary in Grasčiče.

One of my favorite things about the festival besides the old medieval buildings and churches were the locals playing music throughout the streets.  One band came strolling through the streets like a second line band in New Orleans and made me feel right at home.

 

Other musicians stood in the alleyways and on doorsteps and belted out Croatian folk music.  For some of the songs, the crowd would join in singing. Even the younger generation was carrying on the tradition as we saw a very young trio of musicians playing the traditional instruments and songs surrounded by younger couples waltzing around the group. However, this accordion player on the right in the bottom photos won the prize. He played straight from his heart.

 

A Moveable Feast: Easter in Croatia with the Hungarians and the New Orleanians

Sometimes you are asked to do something you had not planned on doing.  Maybe even thought of doing. Or dreamed of doing. That is what happened to Mike and I when we were asked by a good friend to host a foreign exchange student.

fullsizeoutput_4542
Dorka and I at the Roman amphitheater in Pula.

Our children were grown and living on their own. Our youngest, Marina, was planning a wedding, and the house was very quiet. Almost too quiet. Still, would we have thought to bring a teenage girl into our home to relive another year of high school and all the responsibilities that go along with that?

We went back and forth about it.  It was almost like the decision-making process you have when you are thinking of having a baby.  Is this the right time? Can we provide everything she needs? Do we have the time and energy to give her the attention she deserves?

 

fullsizeoutput_4556
Mike and I with Dorka at the beach in Premantura during her Easter visit with us and her family.

Fast forward three years later and we are sitting in Croatia with that fearless, spunky young Hungarian woman that we are so glad we welcomed into our lives and her very lovely family sharing a bountiful Easter meal. Living here in Croatia has allowed us to not only meet her family but spend a unforgettable holiday that we will always cherish.

fullsizeoutput_45c2
The Leitner family together with part of the Gelpi family met in Croatia for a lovely Easter weekend.

Meeting the Leitner family was such a pleasure for us as we had only met them through Skype when Dorka was living with us in Louisiana.  We felt an immediate bond with them as only those who have shared the trials and tribulations of raising teenagers can.

Béla and Zsuzsa, Dorka’s parents, and Dorka and her little sister Luca, brought with them a Hungarian bounty of foods including Tokaji wine, paprika, a huge slab of smoked bacon, ham, cheese and sausage and the infamous pálinka that Dorka had warned me about. The food was incredibly delicious.fullsizeoutput_44f6 And for those of you who have never had the pleasure of trying palinka, it’s a very strong fruit Brandy that the Hungarians drink for celebrations that was invented in the Middle Ages.  It’s very potent and was an immediate icebreaker. In the picture below, you can see it in the cool corked bottle.  It’s half empty. This was the morning after we met the Leitners.

IMG_0517

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” — Ernest Hemingway

Béla gave a heartwarming toast after they arrived and we chugged our glasses of palinka and wiped the tears from our eyes. Was it the toast or the palinka?  We may never know. What I do know is that sometimes you need to take a step out of your comfort zone and do something that you have not planned on doing.  It may be a lot of work. It may be uncomfortable and difficult at times.

For example, a few days after Dorka arrived we had a serious family emergency, and she had to live through it with us and adjust to what we were going through.  It could have made things very difficult for our relationship with her, but it only strengthened it and brought us closer.  Throughout her time living with us, there were many moments of joy, laughter and silliness. And many Taco Tuesdays as Dorka became a true Mexican food fan with my daughter Sarah and son-in-law Jonathan. But there was also heartache and pain with the death of my father-in-law and the illness of my father. I think we all grew as a result of the situation.

Dorka became part of our family and will always be a part of it. And now that we have met her parents and her sister, they, too, have become a part of our family.  We hope to see them again before we leave for the USA.  So I have nothing but gratitude for that friend who asked us to become a host family. (Really, thank you, Ron Davis!)

fullsizeoutput_44fc

This picture above taken in Rovinj summarizes the incredible year we spent with Dorka: sunny but with life’s storms to overcome in the distance; like the water, clear and deep, like the limestone, hard but beautiful beyond belief.

By the way, for all you New Orleanians, don’t think I didn’t introduce our favorite Hungarian family to the food we all know and love in New Orleans! When they arrived, I made gumbo and jambalaya which everyone loved. I took a picture of the preparations but forgot about the finished product.

And we had to have a Taco Tuesday with the Leitner family, even though we did it on Easter Sunday.  We shared a wonderful Mexican  meal complete with guacamole, tacos and burritos with Dorka, Luca, Béla, Zsuzsa and Carolyn and James. Good times. May you all be so fortunate to enjoy such a moveable feast with old friends and new!

fullsizeoutput_4520
Carolyn and I with Béla and Zsusa at the seaside in Premantura. Yes, that’s Dorka photobombing us in the distance. 

 

 

A Visit from the Policija and Komplikacije (Complications)

April 5, 2018

I interrupt this series of posts to announce we have just had our first official visit from the Croatian policija.  Yes, you heard right. We were woken up early this morning with a knock on our door from our landlord Edvard.  Since we were still in bed because we both had insomnia the night before, we jumped up and Mike ran to the door. It was almost 8 a.m.

“The policija are here,” Edvard said apologetically. “They are downstairs waiting for you.”

IMG_9400
Stormy weather beckons outside of the window of our Pjescana Uvala apartment.

Bleary-eyed and disheveled, we hurriedly got dressed. I donned a baseball cap to hide my bedhead, and we both ran down the four flights of steps to our landlords apartment.

Sitting on a chair with a notebook in her hand was the cutest policewoman I think I have ever seen. She looked like she was about 25 years old and had a ponytail sticking out from behind her official police cap. She looked like she was playing police because she was so unlike the image of what I had imagined the Croatian police would look like.

Carolyn and James were already sitting on the sofa talking with her. I took a deep breath and sat down.

The police visit is just one of the steps the Croatian government takes to approve your visa for a one-year stay.  They do it to insure you are living at the place you say you are living at, and it makes sense if you think about it. Still, it is a little unnerving because you know they have the power to reject your stay and at this point we have invested a lot of time and money by prepaying our year’s rent and moving here. We really want to stay.

So we answered a few questions the police woman asked and that was that. She told us we would receive a card in the mail in a few weeks and we were finished. I think the whole interview process took less than five minutes. So for now we will wait for our cards in the mail and see what happens.

fullsizeoutput_177c
James waits for his turn in line at the police station to turn in his original visa application.

 

 

 

April 9, 2018

8:30 am: We are sitting in the Policija station waiting for our number to be called.  On Friday we received word through the mail ( “a blue envelope” is what Edvard called it) that there was a problem with our health insurance submission for our visa application, so we are at the police station waiting our turn. It is our second time at the police station since we arrived.  The first time was to apply for our visa.

IMG_E9350
Mike at our first visit to the police station to apply for our year long visa.

Edvard is singing, “Stranci in the night,” to the tune of “Strangers in the Night.” “Stranci” means strangers or foreigners in Croatian. “Stranci” is what it says at the counter where we need to talk someone about our visa. He is trying to break the tension because he knows we are nervous.  He is being very silly.  It works. I can’t stop laughing.

Finally our number is called, but the person we need to speak to is not available. We will have to come back at 2 p.m.

2 p.m.:   We are back at the station waiting for the person we need to speak to.  Edvard is back as well, and we feel bad that we have taken more time out of his day to be our intermediary.  He is a not only a very conscientious landlord, but a busy real estate broker who speaks three or four languages. We hate to waste his time.  Ten minutes after 2 p.m. a lady says it will be five more minutes.  A half an hour later, we are called into the office.  We are learning about Croatian time, Edvard jokes, although he is always very punctual.

As we make our way into the small office, the lady tells Edvard curtly he is not needed, and he can wait outside if we have any questions.  I swallow hard.  I know she speaks English, but it is broken and these are complicated discussions.  And our Croatian is abysmal. Still, Edvard is ushered outside as we sit down and wait to hear what the issue is with our visa.

She then tells us our insurance from home is not valid here.  We insist that our insurance company said it was. She explains, then reads us rules and tells us to sign things.  They are in Croatian.  I ask her some questions because she doesn’t say why our insurance isn’t valid. She appears to get agitated after explaining a few times, although she is not really answering the questions I ask.  “Do I understand?” she says impatiently.  “Yes,” I say, but I don’t really.  Mike says he understands as well, but he doesn’t either.

Mike says he understands as well, but he doesn’t either.

We are then told we need to visit the Croatian Health Insurance office to speak with them. So we need to go there. That we understand. Why we need to go there is another matter. We have no idea. At this point we think they might approve our health insurance or maybe we need to get their health insurance. And she gives us her telephone number to give to Edvard if we have any questions for her (go figure!) and we are on our way.

IMG_0923
The Croatian Healthcare Insurance System Office in Pula is where foreigners must go to sign up for the countries healthcare once they are approved for a year long visa.

April 10, 2018

3 p.m.  We are on our way to the Croatian Health Care System office with Edvard.  Mike and I are arguing over whether we should get Edvard to call the lady at the police department before we head to the office or after. Edvard laughs and says the woman is always right, so we are on our way to the office.

Passing through the streets of Pula, I am again struck by its beauty.  Its thick wooden shutters with peeling paint on pale plastered buildings with terra cotta roofs. The rustic iron gates and the olive trees that line the driveways. The hilly terrain and deep green grass that contrasts with the dark rust soil that makes the area so fertile.

IMG_0913The imposing  Roman Arch of Sergi that rises above the limestone streets and alleyways. The fact that we have have a chance to live in such an ancient and beautiful city is a dream come true. Will that be in jeopardy today because of health insurance?

We arrive at the office, and I’m very nervous.  Edvard is joking as usual, and Mike and I feel fortunate that we have such an interesting and humorous advocate here in Croatia. We enter the building and Mike decides he should call the lady at the police station before we go into the office.  IMG_0922We stand in a cold, dark hallway.  Edvard points at a door and says, “This is us,” he says. “See, it says here, ‘complications (komplikacije).’ That’s what we have, “complications,” he laughs. I immediately think that is the office we are supposed to go into.

Then he calls the police station.  He launches into a long and what sounds like a very heated discussion with the lady from the police station.  He is very loud and paces up and down the cold hallway.  I am freezing and thinking that she must be telling him we are not approved for our visa and have to go home. This conversation seems to go on forever. Yes, komplikacije alright.

Finally he is off the phone.  He is aggravated and says we are probably going to have to enroll in the Croatian Healthcare System.  Plus we will have to pay a large fee to enter the system, about 5500 kunas (around $900 USD) per person. The entrance fee is a little steep, I’ll admit, but what will it cost per month after we enroll?  That’s why we are at this office, he says.

So we pass up the door with the “Komplikacije” sign and enter another set of double doors.  Edvard is aggravated more on our behalf, and he begins to talk to the ladies at the healthcare system office.  Again a series of Croatian sentences I don’t understand and it sounds very heated like before. Back and forth it goes. Edvard argues endlessly with the ladies, and Mike and I just stand there like American statues. The words are flying around like the seagulls around our apartment. Are we getting kicked out? Is it going to be a million kunas? What is going on?

Finally, they stop and explain that yes, we have to sign up for Croatian health care and it is 5500 kunas per person.  The cost per month for both of us to have complete care for both doctor’s visits, prescriptions and hospitalization is…drumroll, please….A million kunas? Ten thousand kunas? Nope, 1000 kunas or about $170 per month. For both of us. Sigh, I think we can do that.

So while it is not the best news that we will have to pay for additional insurance, we will be covered completely for any emergencies in Croatia.  And we have still have our insurance in the US for when we return home. I asked Edvard how much his insurance costs as a Croatian citizen: a whopping $150 per year. So he was furious that we would have to pay such a high “penalty” (that’s what he called the fee) for staying in the country for a year. I’m sure it would be higher and more difficult for “stranci” to get insurance in our country.

Oh, and I found out what the office was that Edvard was pointing to that said, “Komplikacije.” It was for Croatian Pregnancy Complications and Maternal and Parental Care. I guess we should have realized that when we saw a Croatian father push a stroller into the office.

Let’s hope our visa is approved and there are no more “complications.” The best lesson through all of this as well as through life itself is to maintain your sense of humor.  It’s the best medicine for “komplikacije.”