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.

Trading Beautiful for Beautiful

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It’s May 12th and we are on our way to Bologna, Italy by car from Croatia. It’s a symphony of red poppies as they are blooming everywhere along the roadside in our new hometown of Pula.  I’ve never seen red poppies blooming outside of photographs, and the landscape doesn’t seem quite real dotted with these red circular flowers growing in the wild.

The barren twisted brown grapevines that we passed just a few weeks ago are now bursting with leaves and reaching for the skies.

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They naturally know the right direction, and as we head off to Italy, I wonder, do we? Why are we leaving one beautiful place for another?

And it truly is a beautiful sight as we pass through the rugged Croatian countryside on the way to Italy.  You pass through olive orchards full of trees with gnarled branches of sage and silver leaves. The fertile ground that they are planted in is full of white stones covered with the ubiquitous rusty red soil of Istria.

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The dirt here seems to be filled with nature’s own Miracle-Gro as the plants here don’t just seem to bloom, they seem to burst forth with colorful flowers and bright green leaves at a rate which I have never seen.

 

Little circular stone houses can be seen from the highway sitting to the side of vineyard and olive groves.fullsizeoutput_48c4 The unique huts, known as “kažuni,” were traditionally used as shelters for farmers and shepherds as they worked the land. The huts gave them respite from the weather as they worked the land.  Their geometric shapes give a semi-primitive and uniform aspect to land, which also has stone walls blocking off farms and tracts of land. Farmers had to clear the rocky land from stones and in doing so built fences and kažuni from the cleared stones.

Why are we leaving one beautiful place for another?

As you drive down the highway throughout the Istrian peninsula in Croatia, you can see medieval villages on hills in the distance with their pointed bell towers and red terra-cotta roofed homes circling the hilly countryside. They all seem to bear a striking resemblance to one another and again, the uniformity gives the landscape a calm, peaceful feel. Historically the villages were built on hills with protective stone walls to keep out invaders, but now they just add to the beauty of this rugged, hilly terrain.

We travel for about an hour or so until we come up to the border crossing for Slovenia, as you have to pass through a small portion of Slovenia to get to Italy from Croatia. Cars are lined up for at least a mile already, and one car has overheated during its wait. Its distraught occupants are all crowded around the hood like surgeons around an operating table.  Their journey has been temporarily halted, like many of ours in life. It’s a minor aggravation that will hopefully push them forward and make them appreciate their journey more once it has resumed.

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Onward we travel, through the Italian countryside which provides a contrast to the Croatian one. The trees turn tall and pointy, or short and spherical, the soil changes to a light brown color, and the grassy fields become more manicured. Still you can watch miles and miles of  incredibly beautiful vineyards and olive orchards, although they are on much larger plots of land. In fact, I start to spy more and more tractors, which aren’t a common sight on the Croatian landscape, and more luxurious villas as we move closer to Venice.  It’s trading one type of scenery for another, both of which are lovely in their own way.

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Photo by Roland Dumke on Pexels.com

 

As we journey onward, I reflect back on the beauty of Southern Louisiana with its cypress-kneed swamps, bright fuchsia azaleas and mossy oak trees, and of my friends and family there who are gathering eating spicy crawfish and drinking cold beer that I have traded temporarily for fresh olive oil, whole grilled sea bass, wild asparagus with Istrian wine. Both are delicious and exotic and yet are so different.

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Why do we search for places that are beautiful and different from our own? What is this wanderlust that is so strong in some people’s natures and not others? As I travel onward to Bologna, I only know one thing: The journey is breathtaking, but what I leave behind is equally so.

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And yet… this wanderlust I feel is stronger and it carries me forward like the tide….. I will continue to move with it until I can no longer.

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