The Journey back ….it’s the little things

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Mike and I are a little jet lagged from our return back to Pula from the USA, but ready to be out on the water.

Just returned from a day sailing trip to Premantura with Mike. The day has been cool and sunny but an unexpected rainstorm has us tucked inside our new boat Rita.

We just got back to Croatia last Friday night from New Orleans, dropped off all but one of our suitcases and hightailed it to our favorite beachfront restaurant called Skužas. We ordered two giant brancines (sea bass) and some blitva (Swiss chard.) We were very, very tired, but feeling very satisfied with one of our favorite Pula dinners. It was topped off with the mandatory after-dinner rakija (strong brandy) from our waiter. It was blissful after a long journey, and all doubts from the previous day travels dissipated with the “dobradosli” (welcome) from the restaurant owner, who works out at the gym with Mike.

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But the next day was difficult for me. Jet lag and an overwhelming sense of everything I had left behind albeit temporarily brought a sense of loss and sadness. That accompanied with a suitcase misplaced by the airline brought doubt that maybe we should not have left for another year. The suitcase that was lost held a few very important things: my year’s worth of prescription medications, my favorite fluffy robe, a security blanket of sorts for my middle-aged cold-natured self, and some homemade pepper jelly from my mom. I had a serious sinus headache and guess where my allergy meds were?

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My dear mom’s spicy pepper jelly. 

My oldest daughter scolded me via FaceTime about how you should never pack your meds in anything but a carryon, but I was afraid of going through security looking like a walking pharmacy with all the Pepto Bismol, Sudafed, Alleve, Tylenol and prescription meds I had packed. I had found some of these things are hard to come by in Croatia.

So I brought a year’s worth.

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 I’m going to miss these two, my eldest Sarah and husband Jonathan, especially since they now have a cheese grater.

I also had something else in this suitcase. About 35 packets of Hidden Valley Ranch dip.

Okay, you can say it. That’s a little weird.

Maybe.

But in the expat community that lives in Istria, I had had a request for this particular item. One of the many kind people I had met in the expat group was a lady who was originally from Florida, had moved to Perth, then had met and married a Croatian in Australia and had moved to Istria.

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If you look in the bottom center of this picture, you’ll see the Ranch dip fest going on an an expat event in Rovinj.

She had somehow managed to do what most marketing experts can only dream of.

She had brought a tray of colorful vegetables to an expat event that included a large bowl of ranch dip she had made. The dip combined with the fresh Croatian vegetables were an instant hit, and the rest was history. She kept bringing the dish to more expat events and everyone had become hooked on its creamy, white spiced goodness.

But time was ticking by and her Ranch reserves were depleting. And there I was. Waiting in the wings. In the US with all the ranch dip a person could dream of. I decided I was going to be a hero and packed enough ranch dip in my suitcase to feed a small vegetarian army.

In the suitcase that was now missing.

Ok, I could live without the meds. And maybe I could live without the fuzzy robe, too, but the feeling that I was going to let everyone down was truly disappointing. And I had a really bad sinus headache.

So I called my youngest daughter and boo-hooed to her a little. Maybe I shouldn’t have left her and my sweet puppy, my mom, my sisters, my nieces, my family and my dear friends that I love so much, I said. “But mom, you’re in Croatia,” she said incredulously, “you love it there. You can travel all around Europe.” I could hear it in her voice, “have you lost your freaking mind?” Možda. (Maybe).

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I already miss my youngest daughter Marina and husband Patrick so much.

Did I tell you what a wimp I am when I don’t feel good?

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I miss Madelyn in the middle, too. And of course, who could forget sweet Ranger.

So I woke up this morning to our apartment doors opening and closing and the sound of a large suitcase being wheeled into our apartment. I yawned and reached for my nonexistent fuzzy robe….Could it be?

I jumped out of bed and there it was…my robe, my medicine, and a huge box of Junior Mints! (Oh, I forgot about packing those. Score!)

IMG_1550And yes, YES! A really large quantity of ranch dip!

Apparently the ranch dip must have seemed suspicious as it was my only suitcase that had been searched by TSA. Of course, it couldn’t have been the pharmaceuticals.

I texted my daughter immediately. But it was only 1 am in New Orleans. I think she was probably asleep. But she knows how much the fluffy robe means. I heard from her later in the day.

Anyway, so today was a better day. My sinus headache is gone. Thanks, Sudafed. My jet lag is receding. The sun is out and warming up the beautiful water that mesmerizes me daily.fullsizeoutput_60e8

Traveling can be harrowing sometimes. Things you hold dear can slip away in an instant. Things that make leaving home more comfortable can be lost forever.  The loss can make you appreciate “the little things” more or realize that you have to suck it up sometimes. And you can’t always be a hero.

But at least I will be this time. 😉

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It’s Raining Figs, Halleluja!

The other day I noticed there were ants crawling all over the sandals in my room.  I went to go smack these annoying little creatures with that very same set of sandals when I saw a sticky, gooey, dark brown blob with tiny seeds smashed all over on the bottom of them.  Think Fig Newtons and remove the little cake coating, and that’s what was on the bottom of my shoes. Have I mentioned it’s fig season here in Croatia?

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Yes, everywhere you go around the city there are reminders and remainders of figs, or smokva as they are called here in Croatia. On the sides of the roads, you see people with baskets picking them. In the market in town, little old ladies are selling them fresh or dried, in preserves or in jellies. Mike and I were sitting at a beachside cafe when a lady came up to us selling cartons of them. Our friends in the tiny town of Kringa were given a huge case of them from a local restaurant owner who was up to his eyeballs in figs.

There are so many trees with figs in my neighborhood that they are literally dropping all over the sidewalks where they sit until they are smashed underfoot by unsuspecting tourists. (Oh, by the way, it is also tourist season.)

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While August is peak fig season in Croatia, it is also peak tourist season (photo by Michael Gelpi).

Every few days our landlord drops off a little bowl of these beautiful little green fruits with the pinkish white interiors. They are different from the ones I am used to from New Orleans, but just as delicious. To date, I have cooked fig jam, had them in salads, eaten them raw and am working on concocting a fig cobbler. Sweet!

I’ve honestly never seen so many figs in my life. It’s a figpocalypse.

I have to admit that I had felt a little guilty in the beginning of June when I saw two figs on a branch overhanging a fence and I took them.  Carolyn and I had been on our way back from a grocery trip to Plodine when we saw the two plump figs just waiting to be picked, and I just popped those babies right into my rolling shopping bag while Carolyn looked around to make sure no one was watching us. Seeing all the fig trees as we walked along the roadway back home had made me dream of the day when figs would be available to buy at the market in town.

I’ve honestly never seen so many figs in my life. It’s a figpocalypse.

Looking back, it seems a little ridiculous to worry about as there are so many fig trees Nabisco would be able to stock Fig Newtons in stores for a year with all the figs I’ve seen smashed on the sidewalks and roadways. Well, maybe that is an exaggeration.  But really, be careful what you wish for.

A Walk on the Wild (Asparagus) Side

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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).

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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.

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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?

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