A Love Letter to Croatia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Viking Museum at Roskilde

IMG_0915Just a short day trip from Copenhagen is a place that was a must-see for my seafaring husband, and I have to admit, I was pretty excited to go there as well. That place was the Viking Museum (or Vikingeskibs Museet) in Roskilde, Denmark, which houses five original sailing vessels from the 11th century.

If you think of what that means,  these boats, which were dug up in the fjord near Roskilde in 1962, were used, touched, and sailed by the actual Vikings!! So grab your Viking spangenhelm (helmet) and come along with us!

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Mike rocking a spangenhelm. (photo by Carolyn Stewart)

As you enter the parking lot for the museum, you notice the museum itself is not just one building but a group of buildings complete with an area near the harbor which is lined with many different types of Scandinavian sailing vessels, both large and small. The buildings house workshops where students are able to learn how to do various types of shipbuilding, woodworking and sailing related crafts like rope-making and sail-making.

On the day we visited, we saw a group of college-age students doing woodworking with traditional tools from the Viking period. In the indoor workshop, the students worked to plane a rudder scraping and sanding it with primitive tools.  All of the work done on the grounds is done with period tools including the felling of trees, splitting of the wood and actually constructing the boats.

It was freezing outside because we were there on a rather cold March day, so there were not many people visiting the museum, but I’m sure in the warmer months the place must be bustling with action. But in true Viking style, Mike, Carolyn and I braved the cold weather, donned our Viking garb and set forth to see the sailing vessels.

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Mike knows it’s serious business being a Viking, but I’m just happy to be along for the ride. (photo by Carolyn Stewart)

The main reason for our visit were the actual longships and sailing vessels that were inside the large Viking Ship Hall.  These five vessels were actually sunk on purpose a thousand years ago in order to make a defense barrier in the fjord as an underwater obstacle to thwart invaders.

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This ship was found in 1962 and was pieced together after the restoration process was complete. In the background, Mike admires the actual prow of the sailing vessel.

It’s truly incredible to come so close to a piece of history and to imagine the men who built the vessel and sailed it.  Thinking of what their lives must have been like, the harsh conditions they faced, their pagan beliefs and perseverance really makes you wonder how you would have survived in such an environment.

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Learning about the excavation process for the ships was just as interesting as seeing the ships themselves. The archeologists had to rope off an area of the fjord and drain it to begin mapping out the wreck site. The thick planks of wood which make up the vessels had been underwater for so long that they had to devise a way to keep the wood from shrinking and disintegrating when they took it out of the water. The wood had to be kept moist as it was dug up, and then placed in a chemical solution for a long period of time until the wood was preserved enough for it to be freeze-dried.

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A close up of the thousand year old planks that make up the Viking vessels.

While the museum collection is based on these five Viking ships that were excavated at Skuldelev in Roskilde Fjord in 1962, it also has a working boatyard where it has made replicas of the five ships and other Scandinavian longships. In the summertime, visitors are able to take cruises on a longship and help row it across the fjord and set the sails.

IMG_0915“From the museum’s own harbour, you can cruise around the beautiful Roskilde fjord and admire the museum’s large collection of traditional Nordic boats,” according to the Visit Copenhagen website.

It is incredible that the remains of these ships have survived so many years.  I highly recommend a visit here if you find yourself in the Copenhagen area.  It is an easy day trip as it’s only 1/2 hour away from the city, and you can also visit the Roskilde Cathedral while you are there, which is another fascinating destination full of history that is worth the trip to Roskilde alone.

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Carolyn tips her pink cap as she steers the Viking vessel away from the Vikingeskibbit Museet.

 

 

 

Searching for a Home in Croatia

 

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As we walked along the cobblestone sidewalks of Rome, I became obsessed with the massive and unique doors that faced the centuries-old streets. Some were brown and heavy with brass knockers; some were heavy black iron; some painted, peeling, and solid, while some were newly varnished and clean. One thing that they all had in common was that they made passersby curious as to what was behind them, and most importantly, who the many people were that had walked through their entrances throughout the years.

The doors became a symbol for me of our new adventure in Croatia and the difference sizes and shapes made me think of the choices that are available to us in our lives. Time and again, we try to open doors that are closed to us, and we hope the right one will open when we want it to.

So as we left Rome inspired and motivated to find a place to lay our weary heads for a year in Europe, I wondered what doors would open ahead for us in Croatia.

Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” ― Joseph Campbell.

We took the train from Rome all the way to Trieste, Italy on our journey to Croatia. We were met by our friends James and Carolyn Stewart, who had arrived ahead of us in Rovinj, Croatia, and they drove us through the mountain roads filled with olive groves and vineyards.

When we made the decision to live abroad for a year, we found we had kindred spirits in our friends James and Carolyn, who at the same point in their lives were planning to move to Europe for a few years. They had been to Croatia the year before and had decided that Rovinj might be ideal for our plans if we could find an apartment to rent.

For those who don’t know where Croatia is, think of the boot of Italy on a map and hop across the Adriatic Sea and the coast along it is part of Croatia. We were looking for an apartment on the Istrian Peninsula which is up around the upper part of the back of the boot.  (See map below.)

 

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Rovinj is quaint town on the Istrian Peninsula and is a magnet for many Europeans during the summer season because of its clear blue waters and limestone lined streets.  While this makes it an incredible vacation spot, it also made it difficult for us to find someone to rent us apartments on a yearly basis, as most just offered vacation rentals. And the few we did find wanted a price that was beyond our modest budget.

 

 

Our second choice, Pula, although a larger city had advantages because of its airport and railway station for easy access to European destinations.  Mike and I had already been in contact with a man named Edvard from Pula, who was tired of the constant influx of people with vacation rentals and was looking for long-term renters.

It was a match made in heaven; he liked us because we were “old” and probably not late night partiers, lol, and we loved the apartments and their proximity to the beach and marina (a 3-minute walk down the street).  Plus, like many of the Croatians we have met,  he was just a really nice person. We stayed in the apartments for a few nights and put down our deposit on the spot.

A door had opened.

 

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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.