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.

Making Groceries the Croatian Way

If you grow up in New Orleans, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “making groceries” from someone in your family.  For those who live in other parts of the country or the world, the term doesn’t mean a person is going to physically produce some edible product on the spot, but that you are going to the grocery store to buy something to eat.

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My husband Mike after “making groceries” at Konzum, a Croatian grocery chain.

The phrase comes from “faire le marchè” ( The literal translation is “to make the market”) which New Orleanians took from our Louisiana French heritage and transformed to “making groceries.”

Although we have only been living in Croatia a few short weeks so far, we have already been “making groceries” by going to many different grocery stores and outdoor food markets in order to stock our new Croatian pantry. We’ve been to the Konzum, Plodine, Market Grga (all Croatian grocery chains), Lidl (a German chain), and to the “tržnica” or fresh produce market in the center of Pula. We also been to several small corner groceries for a fresh loaf of bread or a quick snack.

” Na tržnicuna tržnicu, prodati debelu svinju… ” –To market, to market, to sell a fat pig…

Two things I’ve noticed right away (besides everything being in Croatian which is more confusing than you might imagine!) are that 1) the Croatians eat a lot of pasta and 2) they also love a huge variety of ham and pork. For example, there is literally one whole aisle of pasta in the Konzum and it’s long and it’s full of delicious variations of pasta on both sides.  They’ve got your fazoli, pljukanci, fusilli, your vermicelli, your tagliatelle con spinach, and many, many, many more that I can’t pronounce. Oh, and that’s just the dry pasta.

There is also fresh pasta in the refrigerated case. Of course there is.  The Fioli brand on the shelf above is a Croatian brand, and the price of 9.99 kunas looks expensive, but is only about $1.45 USD, so it’s very reasonable price-wise for delicious local pasta. So if you like pasta, you will love it here.

For those thinking pasta is an Italian thing, it is. However, besides being very close to Italy (about a 1 1/2  hour car ride), the Istrian peninsula (which includes Pula) was once a part of Italy, so it makes sense that the cuisine would be similar.

The second thing that is very obvious in the grocery stores is the ham (including pršut which we know by the name prosciutto) and other dried and cured meats like salami and sausages. Whole aisles and cases of it with people lined up to the deli counter to buy it.

I got a little intimidated by the girl behind the deli counter when ordering my slices of ham in the Grga (don’t ask me how to pronounce it) and accidentally wound up getting the most delicious smoked ham for our sandwiches. Combined with the slices of freshly sliced gouda cheese and the fresh Croatian bread, Mike and I felt like we were eating gourmet sandwiches for lunch. I’ll do another post on the making of the pršut because it is a very big deal here (They have contests for it like we do for our boiled crawfish and chili), but for now, just know there are multitudes of different salamis, hams, sausages and cured meats, and they are very delicious.

 

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One case of ham in the Croatian grocery Konzum shows a little portion of the vast assortment of hams and salami in Pula. (photo by Carolyn Stewart)

The deli counter below is a popular place for people ordering ham and cheese and sausages, although it was pretty slow mid-morning on a weekday when the photo was taken.

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This case shows the large selection of ham and pršut in the Croatian grocery Konzum. That’s our friend James with the backpack on pulling his grocery basket (photo by Carolyn Stewart).

Besides ham and pasta, the grocery stores all have fresh bread counters similar to those we have in the states. The difference, however is there are no breads on the shelves like our Bunny Bread and Nature’s Own brands. The Croatians, like those in many other European countries, eat only fresh baked bread which is prepared daily and has a very short shelf life because of the lack of preservatives.

Since it is so good, it doesn’t need a long shelf life because you eat it so fast! And it is addictive. I remember my Hungarian foreign exchange student Dorka saying how much she missed the bread from home while she was in the US. It’s easy to see why when you get used to eating fresh bread daily. Lucky I am walking so much here as I gobbled up a loaf of the bread below in a couple of days (with Mike’s help, of course).

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Fresh bread and cured ham make for a delicious Croatian lunch.

There are many other things besides fresh breads that I found that were interesting at the grocery stores. The wafers below were available on the baking aisle for filling. Think soft serve ice cream cones and that is the type of wafer available. (Thanks, Marlene, for the suggestion of filling them with Nutella. I will try that soon.) Oh, the possibilities!

 

I have already found some other favorite products that I really love here that are not available in the U.S., but since this post is getting long, I will start another one for those items.  Also, the tžnica or fresh market has a whole different assortment of vegetables and products from the grocery stores.  The people seem to use the fresh market just as much as the grocery, so I will dedicate still another post to the magic of those markets another day.  Thanks for sharing in my adventures “making groceries” the Croatian way. Vidimo se kasnije! (See you later!)

Off on a Pig Trail (or What’s the Buzz?)

The weather’s been on and off around the Pula area the past few weeks with rain and cold days interspersed with beautiful sunny days that hint of the warm weather to come. On one sunny morning Carolyn and I decided to go explore the area that surrounds our new home. Our apartment is in a neighborhood called Pješčana Uvala which means “sandy cove” in English.  IMG_9103It sits next to the Soline Forest Park, a protected forest of holm or holly oaks, that skirts the shores of the Adriatic. These holm oaks are a native species in the Mediterranean and are one of the top three trees used in the establishment of truffle orchards.  They also produce edible acorns that wild pigs like to eat.

So you didn’t sign up to this blog for a natural science lesson, right? The reason I’m giving you this information is that our landlord had just been telling us the evening before that the forest next to us had a lot of wild pigs and not to go out at night into the forest as they could be aggressive, but he said during the day was fine. In fact, Soline Park has a well-marked path throughout the forest with educational kiosks for families with kids, so I don’t think it is a dangerous place to go. Still knowing about the overabundance of wild pigs did get our attention, especially coming from South Louisiana where my two brothers-in-law are always relaying tales of wild pigs in the marshes and how mad they get when you encounter them with their babies.

As we walked along the trail beside the beautiful clear Adriatic waters, we noticed in a few places the mud looked stirred up like something had been rooting through it.  The path went deeper into the forest and got a little darker as the vegetation got thicker and areas of the stirred up mud got more frequent.  We joked that these wild pigs must be everywhere.

Being the adventurous women that we are, we saw a path up the hill that was filled with limestone rocks and was wider, almost like a small road, so we decided to climb up it to get a view of the whole area. The holm oak forest sits on Soline Hill.

 

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The view from atop Soline Hill looking over Soline Park and back toward our home in Pjescana Uvala.

As we ascended the hill, we saw old abandoned houses and huge rosemary bushes in bloom and were marveling at the abandoned beauty of the trail when we heard something strange. A buzzing sound. Not just a little buzzing though. A loud buzzing. I looked at Carolyn perplexed. “Do you hear that?” I said. Her eyes got wide and she said, “Yes, what is it?” We walked a little further and we came upon this sight. IMG_9112

So what does an old truck in the middle of nowhere have to do with the buzzing sound? Take a closer look.

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It’s a truck full of bee hives!

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Besides olive oil, wine, and truffles, Croatia is also known for its honey or “med” as it is called in Croatian. As luck would have it, we had stumbled upon a mobile apiary out in the middle of the Soline Forest area alive with a huge number of bees buzzing around it. The early blooming rosemary plants are one of the places you can find honeybees this early in the season in Croatia. So the rosemary bushes we had passed in the area may have been the reason the apiary was sitting there buzzing with hundreds of honeybees.  There is even a rosemary honey that is sold in Croatia, so I am interested in tasting it now.

But you are probably wondering why I made such a big deal about the wild pigs at this point. What about the pigs?

As we began to walk past the mobile apiary and take a picture of the view from the top of the hill I looked down and saw hoof prints. Hoof prints from wild pigs.  Walking a little further we came upon some brush and heard a low, deep growling sound. Whatever it was growling, it wasn’t happy with us. And it wasn’t a dog growling, I know what that sounds like. At this point, I have to admit, I was a little scared.  I’m pretty sure Carolyn was, too.  So we took off walking very fast back down the hill until we met up with the regular park path. We didn’t wait to see if it was a wild mama pig, or a wild daddy pig for that matter.  We had had enough excitement for one day.

 

The Place where Cookie Monster lives

On our first day walking around the city of Pula we wandered through the ancient streets in awe. It’s not just a beautiful city, but a historic one as well.  According to one source, archeological remains show evidence that the city of Pula goes back from 400,000 to a million years B.C.  That’s pretty old, especially by U.S. standards.  One of the first things that strikes you when you drive into town is the Pula Arena, one of the best preserved Roman Amphitheaters in the world that was built in the first century B.C.

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Its imposing presence stands above modern day streets and buildings, and the fact that you can drive your car using Google Maps on your iPhone in front of a place where ancient Roman gladiators fought to the death is a pretty surreal experience. Not to mention that the ancient arena holds concerts for its citizens’ enjoyment throughout the year.

If any city had a reason to have a good opinion of itself, it was Pula, which is the largest city on the Istrian Peninsula. Ancient history, incredible wine, delicious olive oil, rich soil that produces a multitude of beautiful fruits and vegetables, and it’s surrounded by crystal clear waters and boasts a temperate climate. Think California with Roman roots and better beaches.

Imagine our surprise when we stopped into a store in the city center and a Croatian lady approached us with a young boy around five or six to ask if he could talk to us. Why? Because he loved America and loved speaking English. Sure, we said, we would love to talk with him. pexels-photo-774316He was quite the little gentleman, and he said hello and answered all of our questions politely and without any traces of a Croatian accent.  If only we could speak Croatian so well, we told him. Besides saying hello, goodbye, where is the bathroom and thank you, we hadn’t been very prolific with our use of Croatian, but wanted to learn more.

We were pleasantly surprised that our first encounter out and about city center had been so positive. Carolyn and I talked for a while with the young mother and learned that the little boy had learned a lot of what he knew from American television.

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A Croatian boy skips along a stone bench in Pula with a New York Yankees cap on. Many Croatian children on the Istrian Peninsula learn English at a young age and most adults speak some English.

Earlier in the week we had gone grocery shopping at Konzum and got some things for our apartment at a German version of Home Depot called Bauhaus, and all of the Croatian cashiers had been very friendly and nice, so we knew the people were kind and receptive to foreign guests. In fact, one cashier even told me, “Bravo!” when I said, “dovidenja,” which means “good-bye.” I was so proud that she could actually understand me.  When people are that encouraging, it makes you want to learn more.

And it hasn’t just been the cashiers that have been kind to us in our short time here. Waiters, waitresses, store clerks, and even people on the street have gone out of their way to help us. One day my stomach was upset, and I went into a grocery store for Tums and the cashier pointed me towards a “ljekarna,” or pharmacy, as they don’t sell any types of drugs, even non-prescription ones, in the grocery.  I walked out of the grocery, still disoriented from jet lag and trying to find my way in a new city, and totally forgot which way she had told me to go.  I felt a tap on the shoulder and an older lady who had stood behind me in the grocery line said, “You go that way,” and pointed to the left. “Hvala,” I replied (thanks!) feeling fortunate that someone had been paying attention.

When people are that encouraging, it makes you want to learn more.

When I got to the pharmacy I was in for another surprise; everything was behind the counter except for a few items like vitamins and lotions. So I go up to the counter and ask in English for something like Tums or Rolaids for an upset stomach. The pharmacist was very sympathetic and gave me an option of Tums or something more potent like Prilosec. It was strange, but I felt comforted by her advice and concern. It’s the little things like that when you are far from home and not feeling well.

Yesterday we went back to the city center and were having lunch when a woman with a little girl sat at the table next to us with her elderly parents.  She looked over and started talking to us and when she realized we were Americans, she told her daughter excitedly, “These people are from the place where Cookie Monster lives!”  The little girl smiled shyly.  She was only five, but her mother said she spoke better in English than she did in Croatian. We couldn’t tell because she was too shy to speak to us, although she did take off her jacket and show us her cute butterfly dress.

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Carolyn and I with our new landlord, Edvard, holding the roses he gave us on International Women’s Day. He is another example of the kind people we have met in our short time in Pula.

Anyway we are glad to be living in a city where the people are friendly and kind like the people we left behind in Southern Louisiana. And we are glad they like Americans because we definitely like them and their beautiful city.

Finding the Right Moment

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One day it happened that there were no more excuses. Our kids were grown, my husband, 57, had retired early, there were no grandkids on the horizon, our house was paid off and we had something that had been missing for a long time in our rushed and hectic lives — free time.

We had always wanted to live abroad and travel throughout Europe, but there had always been so much standing in the way of that dream. Now it felt strange to acknowledge that nothing really was. Surely somebody would come along and tell us that we have to plan “this” or attend “that” or watch their dog or something. Nope. Crickets.

A friend of ours told us he and his wife had just gone to Croatia and were thinking of moving there when he retired. My husband Mike was already retired, so I thought, what are we waiting for?

“Are we really going to do this?” my somewhat skeptical husband Mike asked. I translated that from husband-speak to, “Can we really afford this?” “Yes,” I said. “And we can afford it, too.”

Packing up and moving to Croatia was not an easy decision, and it has taken almost a year to get to the point where we are almost ready to leave. We’ve budgeted and planned with our financial advisor, sold many of our extraneous possessions, researched locations and expenses, and fixed up our home to lease. We even had gutters installed. Why gutters? Not sure, that was Mike’s idea.

We decided on Croatia for several reasons; it has a relatively low cost of living by European standards, and it’s very accessible by bus and train to many places throughout the EU. The third reason and probably the most important to my seafaring husband (aka Captain Mike) is the country borders the beautiful clear Adriatic Sea and is prime sailing territory.

Our goal for our year abroad is to stay in Croatia for three weeks out of every month and spend one week in Europe traveling to places we’ve always wanted to see. Low cost airlines, buses and trains will be our primary means of transportation.

An important benefit from living in Croatia is that it allows U.S. citizens to obtain a year long resident permit if: they have a valid passport, can prove they have income to support themselves, have medical insurance, and can pass a criminal background check. Having this residency permit is important since many countries in Europe only allow US citizens to visit the EU for 90 days and then they must return back to the US for 90 days. Airfare back and forth from the US to Europe could bust many budgets, so it is an important consideration.

After the decision to live in Croatia was made, we realized we needed to find an apartment. Many of the beautiful coastal towns in Croatia have become prime summer vacation territory for Europeans, so trying to find apartments there at a price that fit into our budget proved to be a little daunting via internet. If we wanted to be able to travel for one week of every month, affordable rent was a must.

We decided to take a scouting trip to find an apartment thinking the rental managers might take us more seriously if we were there in person. We could check out a few cities along the coast and go from there. And although we had been to Europe before, we had never been to Croatia, so yes, I guess we needed to make sure we even liked the place.

After finding a low airfare to Rome and Venice, we jumped at the opportunity to scout out our new home. It helps that Venice is just a short ferry ride across the Adriatic Sea to the ancient cities of Pula and Rovinj in Croatia, our two top choices to make our home base. Both place are easily accessible by train, boat and bus from Venice. Pula has the additional benefit of having its own airport, but it is a larger city and not as quaint as Rovinj.

So Captain Mike and I took off in October of 2017 on a scouting mission to find our new home in Croatia.