No Liquids and No Gondoliers

postoffice.jpg

The post office here is not the friendliest place on Earth.

Of the handful of times I’ve been to Hrvatska Pošta, the service operated by the Republic of Croatia, I’ve tried to give it a second and third chance. Maybe it’s just my lack of knowledge of the language or of their process that’s the problem. Or maybe the level of customer service here is just a different standard. A less friendly standard. Sometimes even a harsh standard.

When you walk into the post office, it’s kind of like a deli counter where you have to take a number at an electronic kiosk. The screen is all in Croatian, and you get a different ticket if you’re mailing something than if you’re doing a money transfer or other services the post office provides. I’ve had to hold my phone up on my Google Translate app to figure it out what kind of ticket to select. People behind me have been a little impatient about that.

I’ve noticed that the concept of lines here barely exists. When we were boarding a bus at a Krka National Park last month, for example, it felt like we were in danger of being trampled. Even at some of the groceries, I’ve seen people crowd the cashiers and try to cut ahead if they have fewer items. I would imagine that’s why they have a strict line system at the post office.

But even when I thought it was my turn, the clerk said no. My ticket clearly said I was in the right line. There was no one behind me, and I thought maybe I selected the wrong kind of ticket. I gave the clerk a confused look and she finally let me proceed. I needed a box to package my items, and when she saw one of the things I wanted to mail, she said no. It was a bottle of tightly sealed olive oil, a prized good of this region. No, my parents will not be getting Istrian olive oil delivered. No liquids allowed.

I left a little frustrated, still wondering what I did wrong with the line system and how I could get around the mailing liquids issue, when I decided to do something more relaxing.

While Sarge and I had our coffee on the lanai this morning, I told him I wished I could find another old lady to sing to me, like the Nonna I never had. He told me to go find the guy with the rowboat who takes people from the car side of Zadar to the pedestrian-filled Old Town. So I did.

rowboat sign.jpg

I walked around the marina in search of the rower, what they refer to here as a “barkajoli.” I wanted it to be like Venice, where a gondolier might sing to me while we crossed the water. That was not to be today. My barkajoli was on his cell phone the whole time.

Still, it was a lovely jaunt that was more peaceful than the footbridge. The passenger beside me was friendly, spoke a little English, and let me know the charge for the service was only 5 Kuna (less than a dollar).

rowboat.jpg

As I write this, I’m in a café, where I could really use a glass of water. Cold tap water would be perfect, not all of this water “with gas.” But I’m going to have to stalk the waiter if I want a refill. Service here is different. You can order one cup of coffee and sit in a café all morning an no one will care that you are taking up a table.

Maybe being here will teach me to relax, take my time and not rush the check. Unless I’m in line at the post office. Then I’ll have to learn to push ahead and get my package in the mail.

SaveSave

Farmers’ Secrets

The secrets of life may be discovered by talking to the farmers who run the fruit stands along the scenic Adriatic Highway along the coast between Split and Dubrovnik.

One of the treasures from our weekend road trip to the southern tip of Croatia is a piece of scrap paper tucked in my purse. On it, a farmer’s wife from the Neretva River valley mapped out a centuries-old olive grove to find the best olive oil, her favorite restaurant to have lamb and her recommendation for a sandy beach where we wouldn’t step on too many stones.

note.jpg

Between offering us skewers of cantaloupe, sips of freshly squeezed orange juice and spoons of jam from the fruit in their fields, the English-speaking Croatian couple we met at their roadside produce stand offered advice on health and wellness and the benefits of a slower pace of life.

Earlier in the day, “W,” my 10-year-old, picked me a flower near the restaurant where we had lunch at the cable car stop high above the walled city of Dubrovnik. I fashioned his gift into a corsage and tied it around my wrist. I had forgotten about it by the time we got to the fruit stand, but the farmer’s wife saw it and picked a yellow flower to go with it.

corsage.jpg

Her husband explained that the fragile yellow Mediterranean plant is known as “the immortal,” and it contains a sought-after essential oil. His wife said people come to isolated islands along the coast just to pick it. The farmer told me to soak the flower heads in olive oil for 40 days and then rub it into my skin. Maybe he knows where to find the Fountain of Youth, too.

In his next breath, the farmer switch topics to beer and gave Sarge the local perspective on the merits of Ožujsko over Karlovačko. Then he gave us more samples: peaches for our boys and fresh candied orange and lemon peels that had been drying in the sun for us.

stand.jpg

At one roadside stand, we got an unexpected culinary lesson and a glimpse into the lives of people who do backbreaking work to really bring the farm to people’s tables. Tourism is their livelihood, and the relationships they make with people who stop in mean the difference between making a sale or being passed up.

We didn’t leave empty-handed. The bottles of fruit syrup were too pretty to pass up. We got an assortment of items and some candied fruit the sellers suggested we have with coffee instead of adding sugar to our coffee.

stand2.jpg

Before we could head back to the car, the farmer filled another bag with peaches and figs and handed it to me while he shoved a fig in my mouth. He told us go down to the sandy beach, sit in the water and eat peaches and figs. That, he said, would be the perfect way to experience Croatia.

Keep On Pedaling

bike shadow.jpg

We have wheels.

Sarge bought us used bikes over the weekend from a Croatian Craigslist-type seller who had dozens of bicycles in various states of repair parked on the side of his house. We negotiated the price through broken English, our sad attempts at Croatian and the help of a bilingual child. The seller delivered the bikes to us that evening and says he’ll buy them back from us when we leave the country.

Right now, I’m happy to be staying for a while. We have more places to explore.

With our new wheels, the boys and I have already made trips to the beach, the market and to school – all in less than half the time it would have taken us to walk. I have the “mom” bike with a basket on the front and the back.

purple bike

The kids are pleased with their reconditioned models mostly because it will save them from walking everywhere. And we’re all learning the rules of the road, after being yelled at first in Croatian, then in German, then in English by the same driver who wanted us to walk our bikes through a crosswalk instead of ride them.

Today, I rode the kids to school and then headed to the city’s Sea Organ for a little inspiration to start the day. Here’s the haunting tune it plays when the waves roll in over the steps along the boardwalk:

 

Then I set up my office for the morning in a café at the Old Town forum, where I secured a shady table, a Wi-Fi connection and a macchiato, and I could hear the charming sound of a man playing the accordion and singing for tips.

accordian.jpg

Aside from a giant knot I have on my shin from an error negotiating a curb, getting around on my new ride has been pretty sweet. Sarge says he may need to get me training wheels, but it’s all coming back to me like riding a bicycle.

I even bought a pair of white Converse to blend in with the locals. (Read about my aversion to painful heels). My bike gave me a good excuse to invest in practical footwear.

Converse.jpg

I can’t say I miss my car or sitting in traffic. I do miss my car radio and listening to news and music on my commute. The accordion is a nice change, though.

I’m learning to adapt to twists in the road and curbs that jump up on you. You’ve got to take some time to get your footing, move ahead and keep on pedaling.

pink bike2.jpg

The Difference a Friend Makes

paintball invite.jpg

Three weeks into being the new kid at an international school, “W,” my youngest, received a birthday invitation to go to a paintball party. I can’t tell you how excited that made my whole family.

A couple of Mondays ago, I was lamenting that 10-year-old “W” was having problems adjusting to life in another country. Making a couple of friends has made all the difference — for all of us.

boys last night.jpg

One friend I’ll call “D” has already shown my boys cool swimming spots and the best places to get ice cream and pizza. After school one day, he was our personal tour guide and translator around town. I first got to know him when a play date at his house turned into a get-together for both our families. That turned into another gathering and an invitation to go to their family’s weekend home for a barbecue.

jumping.jpg

That was our most amazing invitation yet. It was an idyllic setting along a quiet bay with clear turquoise water that made us want to jump in, despite the cold water. It was so gorgeous I felt like I was in a dream. After a dip, we warmed up with good food and company at “D’s” great-grandparents’ cottage.

Multiple generations of “D’s” family treated us like one of their own. They served us coffee, homemade bread, soup, smoked meats and cheese, salad, potatoes and meat grilled on the brick barbecue. We ended the meal with baklava “D’s” grandma made and rakia (Croatian moonshine) that was a gift from a neighbor.

baklava.jpg

Great-Granny told us lots of stories in Croatian even when no one was translating and I was the only one sitting next to her. The translated parts included tales of giving birth to seven children with no doctor or midwife and how she had to warm one tiny newborn daughter in the oven (yes, she survived). She told of her wartime memories. And I didn’t need to speak her language to know she worried that my kids with bare feet would catch a cold when they ran around with no shoes on after playing in the sea.

Aside from a few troublesome teens (they exist everywhere) who have bothered our kids at the playground by our house, everyone has welcomed us here. This morning, our landlord left a bag of freshly picked cherries at our doorstep. Small gestures like that have made our move easier.

We’ve been grateful for invitations from strangers. Sometimes it feels like being on a blind date. I went to meet some Expats from an online group for drinks one night, and I had to post that I was the one wearing a black-and-white striped dress and jean jacket so they could spot me. One morning this week, some moms from the boys’ school sent me a message inviting me to meet them for breakfast, and I introduced myself first by video so they could recognize me.

I’m realizing that I’m not too old to make new friends myself. But I’m mostly relieved that my kids are learning the art of doing it themselves.

friends2.gif

Heel the Pain

feet2.gif

For the life of me, I cannot figure out how the stylish women here walk everywhere in heels. They can do it gracefully on stone pavement. It’s like watching magicians.

We have been here for a little more than three weeks, and today is the first day I decided to spend the whole day in sneakers.

I’m looking distinctly American today, with my leggings, tank top, hoodie and hair in a sloppy bun. It’s my “I’m going for a walk” look. And even on a rainy Saturday, I feel a little underdressed.

I had to pare down my wardrobe for this move. (See Sarge’s luggage restrictions). On the advice of my expat acquaintances, I leaned toward slightly dressy clothing. I brought mostly skirts, casual dresses, a few pairs of jeans and didn’t even pack a single pair of shorts. I’ve been logging miles walking in cute wedge shoes that aren’t nearly as comfortable as they seemed back home.

On the advice of my feet, my workout-like attire beat out everything else today, and the ladies at the market didn’t seem to care.

flower ladies2

A group of women who look to be in their 70s run a little farmers’ market near my house. They dress in black like it’s their uniform. Typically, it’s with skirts that fall below their knees, sheer black hose and sensible shoes. I don’t know if they dress that way because they’re widows or because that’s the way women their age dress. It kind of makes everything else they’re selling look more vibrant. Yesterday, I scored two bright red tomatoes and two yellowish-orange mini peaches for about a dollar. Today, white and pink flowers caught my eye. So I bought a huge bouquet for only 15 kuna (about $2.25).

high heels.jpg

Elsewhere in town, metallic sneakers and Chuck Taylor All-Stars seem to be the rage in the women’s casual shoe department. I don’t know if I could pull off that look, either.

Even on a rainy Saturday, the fashionable women were strutting around in heels. My feet can’t hack that high style. I’d rather stick out like the sore American heel that I am, and one day I’ll stick to sensible shoes like the wise women at the farmers’ market.

Death Notices

death.jpg

They post obituary notices on bulletin boards along the streets here.

I find this oddly fascinating.

Back in my days as a newspaper reporter, I wrote my share of obits. I was in a car accident when I was 27, and I fractured my pelvis. It grounded me from my regular reporting on the police beat for a couple of months. Crutches aren’t really conducive to running around chasing breaking stories. So I was assigned to writing “feature obits” about notable people in the community.

death2.jpg

I kind of loved it. I was the reporter who was often mistaken for the social worker when I showed up at a crime scene. I had to knock on a lot of doors where the people inside were having the worst day of their lives. It made me empathetic, or maybe it just brought out that trait in me.

Writing obits was sometimes a job pushed on interns so they could learn story structure and get some practice. I never considered it grunt work.

I liked the challenge of it, especially in the days before the internet, when I got to do some research and chat with the newspaper librarians (a job that probably doesn’t exist anymore). I had to learn how to hit the phones and talk to people, how to do things accurately on deadline. I gained confidence finding ways to sensitively ask grieving families to open up about someone’s life. And I found a real art in writing a good obituary.

death3.jpg

Here in Croatia, in this strange place with its old-world traditions, looking up from worn cobblestone streets to see death notices doesn’t really seem morbid. It seems like you could stand here and witness the circle of life.

death4.jpg

It’s funny that it strikes me that people here still read newspapers. I sat in a café and worked on my laptop this morning, and I was the only one with a laptop. The café was not full of people on their phones, like I see at home. They were talking and reading, but mostly they were in small groups talking.

death5.jpg

I don’t know if the newspaper here runs obituaries or if funeral homes post them online, like they do in America. But I do like watching people noticing death notices posted on the bulletin boards. It’s the ultimate revolving door, where the news of the day replaces yesterday’s. And in its place, life goes on, and someone else takes notice.

death6.jpg

The Nonna I Never Had

edge

After I walked the boys to school today, I headed toward a different neighborhood for my morning walk. I wanted to take a path along the water’s edge. I took a detour to avoid a muddy construction zone. That’s when I ventured into an alley where an old woman was having a smoke.

She could have easily passed me and said nothing. I’ve noticed a lot of Europeans don’t greet strangers in passing the way Americans do. Sometimes I say, “Bok!” and wave just to see if people return my hellos. So far, almost every “Bok!” has gotten a friendly reply. I think I just smiled at the woman in the alley, but something made her catch up to me and start talking.

We quickly established that she didn’t know English, and it wasn’t Croatian she was speaking. She was Italian, and she looked incredulous to hear I didn’t know any Italiano. Maybe she could sense I have some Italian in my blood. I could make out enough to know she was asking my name. Then she began to sing it: “Tan-yah, oh, Tan-ee-ah!” Bella something-or-other, she sang and smoked. By this time, she had looped her arm in mine and was leading me down the street.

A white-haired man on a bicycle stopped to talk to her. I could tell he was asking who I was and probably why the heck she was serenading me. “Americano.” No Italiano. Something or other. He had no time for that. “No English,” he said as he rode off.

 

The old woman was not deterred. She asked me more questions. She belted out more songs. She pointed toward her side door and asked me to come and sit down at her kitchen table with the rose tablecloth that matched her vase of roses.

italian woman house 2

Part of me wondered what the heck I was doing sitting down in a stranger’s house when I couldn’t even understand her. But I was so entertained, I couldn’t say no. She seemed harmless and lonely. She was the Italian nonna I never had. She made me laugh.

She said her name and it was something close to Maria, maybe Mariska, I couldn’t really be sure. Her house looked like what I would imagine my distant Italian relatives’ homes would look like, with Catholic figurines within arm’s reach.

When her phone rang, she gestured for me to stay while she went in the other room to answer it. I snapped some pictures of the room while she was gone.

Italian womans house

When she returned, she sat down and sang some more until I sang with her.

I think she was going to get up and start making food then. She probably would have let me stay all day. But my Americano impulses didn’t have all day to stay. I felt a little guilty, like a party guest leaving too soon, as I inched out of my seat toward the door. We hugged like old friends before we parted. I felt like I should have kissed her on both cheeks, but I didn’t.

“Grazie,” I said as I began to walk away, “Thank you!”

“Very much!” she called from the door, in the most coherent English she had said yet. “Ciao!”

Then she followed me again, looped her arm in mine and walked me to the crossroads, where we said goodbye once more.

Pep Talk

cars.jpg

A parenting book I once read noted the saying: “You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.”

I hope that’s not true. My unhappiest child is miserable. Or maybe it’s just that it’s Monday, which I can’t even pronounce in Croatian – “ponedjeljak.” It’s going to be a long ponedjeljak.

One child shares my wanderlust. The other just wants to go home.

One is excited to kick around a soccer ball with strangers. The other would rather play with the landlord’s dog or look for the turtle that lives in the front yard instead of trying to talk to anyone.

dog.jpg

“W” went to bed last night already dreading ponedjeljak. He misses his friends, his school, his cousins, his baseball team, his video game chatrooms, his music, familiar food and the comfort of everyone speaking in English.

Sarge and I gave him a pep talk and snuggles, but the boy woke up with a stomachache and held my hand the whole walk to school. There were tears – mostly his. Mine were all on the inside. His teacher saw us sitting outside and tried to tell him it would get easier. “W” doesn’t believe us. He’s probably acting exactly like I did when I didn’t want to go to the all-girl high school my parents sent me to. I ended up loving it. I want “W” to love traveling as much as I do. I hate that he sees it as some kind of punishment.

Traveling the world with kids means dragging them along even when they don’t want to go. I’ve been assigning the boys journal entries in hopes that they’ll savor this experience someday. I peeked in “W’s.” One page is filled with frowny faces and words about how much he hates this place. Sarge told me I shouldn’t have snooped.

scribble.jpg

I can only hope that dealing with homesickness at age 10 will prepare him for transitions he’ll make throughout life. I can make up a better pitch and tell him that dealing with something different is like dipping your toe in a swimming pool. It’s freezing and uncomfortable at first, but then you dive in and get used to it and actually like being in the water.

My words are lost on him right now.

“No matter what anyone says,” he told me this morning, “I’m not going to like it.”

My unhappiest child and I are a little knocked down today. Maybe it will all be better after ponedjeljak.

Lost in Translation

words2

When the doorbell rang and I figured out it was the delivery guy from Croatia Airlines, I was excited. I thought he had come to deliver the last of our lost luggage.

Alas, that was not the case.

Through broken English, he told me he had already delivered a lost bag to our address. “Yes, we got that one,” I told him, “but we are still missing another bag. We were missing two bags,” I said, gesturing with the international peace sign for “two.”

I had already filed a missing claim, talked to a lost and found representative and exchanged phone calls and emails with people with varying levels of English comprehension. But I have a feeling my boys will never see the backpack with their Xbox One game console again. I got an email after the delivery person left that the airline resolved our claim because our baggage had been delivered. I guess I’ll give a missing claim another go.

Still, I’m grateful for every person who has tried to communicate with me in English in this country, even though I can’t speak their language.

market.jpg

This morning, a woman in the Interspar grocery paraded me through the store to show me where the lavender spray was when I asked her through Google Translate what they use to repel mosquitos in the home. Another shopper directed me to the correct package and best price for real butter (maslac). Later, when we were looking for the fish market in Old Town, a 20-something man switched languages to tell us in perfect English where to go and the best time to get there. Even the boys’ school principal, who has been a wealth of information, apologized when I met with her and she was stumped on an English word. I told her I should be the one apologizing.

When I found out we were moving here, I started a Croatian language tutorial and quickly gave up, deciding it was too hard. Now I’m ready to try again.

I blend in enough here that most people I encounter speak to me in Croatian, and most of the time I don’t know how to respond. I know it doesn’t cut it when I look at them and shrug: “English?”

I’m getting encouragement from my 11-year-old. Of all of us, “A” may be assimilating the easiest. He just had two boys come into the yard and ask him to play. He met them yesterday, when they called him “the American.” Today, they know each other’s names, and they have another soccer, uh, football date set for 7 p.m. in the neighborhood playground.

After school yesterday, “A” handed me his notebook so I could brush up on my language skills. He’s been a good note-taker, even if it hasn’t been officially part of his classes. He writes down what people say, from the way they great each other to the days of the week. My favorite entry so far was this drawing from science class:

sciene notebook

When we got home, I placed Post-It notes around the apartment with Croatian words for phrases such as “good morning” and “good night.”

words

Sarge and I have been studying a toddler picture book to see if we can get anything to sink in.

book2

Our 11-year-old assures us we’ll catch on. We just need to take notes and practice. I think we have a lot to learn from him. After our lesson, we should go out and play and make new friends. I think that is how it is supposed to work.

What’s Black and White and Red All Over?

apartment.jpg

Our apartment, that’s what.

It’s the beginning of tourist season here. That has meant finding a place to live at just the wrong time. I had my heart set on a beautiful Mediterranean-style house in the neighborhood near the boys’ school that had plenty of room for family to visit and for the kids to play in the yard. But that fell through when the landlord changed her mind, and we scrambled to find something else the month before we arrived.

apartment kitchen

After several disappointments dealing with Croatian landlords from a world away, we finally found this place, billed as a modern apartment with free parking. We’re on the top floor of a three-story building built 12 years ago. As my friend Tine said when I showed her the pictures, it kind of reminds you of a circa 1985 Robert Palmer “Addicted to Love” video. I’d slick my hair back and take a picture, but I just don’t have the red lipstick to complete the look.

apartment picture.jpg

Our Croatian landlords, Cedomir and Ljiljana, invited me to have lunch this week. I will be communicating through a lot of pantomiming and confused looks unless I pull out Google Translate to assist. I bought the Croatian version of Post-It Notes today to start hanging Croatian words around the apartment so I can start speaking their language.

We call Cedomir by his nickname, which sounds to me like “Cheddo.” He speaks a little bit of English. His wife studied German in school, and her English is limited, so we’ve been piecing together conversations as best we can.

Cheddo had gifts waiting for me when I arrived. Those included olive oil that he pressed himself, smoked ham that he fired up in his man-cave oven on the first floor and sausage that I’m making for dinner tonight.

He is 65 and has grandkids the boys’ age. He’s a fisherman and loves food and drink, from what I can gather. He gave up drinking alcohol three years ago. But that doesn’t stop him from offering toasts.

As Sarge and the boys and I were about to leave the apartment a couple of days ago to buy some supplies for home and school, he stopped us at the door. He offered the boys rollerblades and a skateboard. Then he asked Sarge and me to come in. He wanted to show us something about the house. Then he pulled out a plastic water bottle that didn’t have water in it.

“Schnapps!” he called. “For your blood!”

Ljiljana appeared with four cut-glass vessels and set them before us. Cheddo went to the freezer and pulled out a paper bag of figs and poured us drinks. I’m not sure what he poured, but a close match would be Kentucky moonshine. Ljiljana gave Sarge the fourth shot that Cheddo left sitting. She drank hers and poured herself another. She offered me more, but I declined. It was 11 o-clock on a Sunday morning, and I wasn’t quite ready for a nap.

Our landlords are definitely entertaining, and I can’t complain about living here, even if it wasn’t my first choice.

We’re within walking distance of the international school and tourist destinations. We have a decent (by European standards) sized refrigerator, and even a dishwasher. Our first meal at home was a memorable entree of local sea bass that Sarge grilled for us. I’m content here.

dinner.jpg

Our main bathroom is huge, with a large corner tub, a toilet and a bidet. Sarge told the boys the bidet was a water fountain, but they didn’t buy it.

We have a tiny washing machine in a small second bathroom. I have been doing laundry almost daily and hanging it out to dry. I miss my dryer.

We get only one English station on the television, so our entertainment has included watching Croatian music television and making up the words to the songs. I’m glad for the break from our addiction to screens. It will give us time to build new habits.

We don’t have a yard to ourselves, but the boys have been playing at a soccer and basketball court that we can see from our balcony. And from the same spot, I can turn the other way and spot the sea out in the distance.

balcony.jpg