Making memories on a bus tour


We had nicknames for some of the people on the bus. There was Charlie Sheen and Mr. Magoo, the dad from “The Goldbergs,” the Vegas Ladies, the Park Ranger from Portland and The Millennials.

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I’m not sure what they called us.

On our bus tour of Eastern Europe, my mom, two aunts and I were a family pack on a girls’ trip. Our acquaintances probably called me “the blogger” and my mom “the retired English teacher.” One of my aunts picked up the handle “Delta” (where she worked before she retired). We had to call my other aunt “Mary” in public, instead of her nickname since childhood, “Beaner.” It wasn’t until later in life that she and the rest of my family realized some people took offense to her name as derogatory slang, and it wouldn’t be cool to yell, “Hey, Beaner!” across a crowded airport. Now, only her closest friends are allowed to call her that.

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If it hadn’t been for my mom and aunts, I probably wouldn’t have considered taking a bus tour through Croatia and Slovenia with stops along the way in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. I’ve always been more of a do-it-yourself kind of traveler who prefers taking in the sights with a group of four rather than 40.


But it came down to price. For less than $150 per day (not much more than airfare alone would have cost my family to come and see me in Croatia), they got a package deal from Gate 1 Travel that included airfare from New York, nine nights of accommodations at nice hotels, more than a dozen meals and breakfasts, an English-speaking tour manager and local guides.


What I learned on my first bus tour is that it’s an efficient way to explore foreign cities. You don’t have to do all of the research yourself, and you can’t beat the hotel buying power of a tour company.


We started off in Venice, where my mom and one of my aunts flew in. They spent the week visiting with my family. Then in Croatia, we spent two nights in Opatija, one night in Split, three nights in Dubrovnik and one night in Zagreb. In Slovenia, we spent two nights in Bled. We also took some side trips to places such as Rovinj, Pula and Montenegro. It would have been tough to cover that much territory and stay in resorts for that price on our own.

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The cons of bus tours? Sitting next to Mr. Magoo at dinner, getting trapped in a couple of authentic tourist traps, being rushed through some cities and not being able to shake the feeling of being on a school field trip.

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We traveled with a group of mainly retired Americans. That changed the experience from the rest of my stay here – full of months when I barely heard any other American voices. On weekend trips with my husband and kids, we have been able to see a little more of the charm of small towns here and the way people live. We’ve also tried to communicate with the locals in at least a little bit of their own language. You lose that traveling with a big group that already speaks your language.


For much of the trip, my mom was disappointed with the food. For months, I’d been talking up the seafood of the Adriatic, the Mediterranean and Italian dishes and the fruit stands and vegetable markets. I’m not sure a bus tour makes for the best dining experiences. Judging a country’s food by bus tour buffets is kind of like judging American cuisine by only the restaurants that can handle being bombarded by a bus crowd.


Overall, Gate 1 delivered on its tagline to show us “more of the world for less.” We saw the highlights of multiple cities without having to worry about the details.

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Even though I had been to some of the cities before, local guides stood out in places like Pula, which has one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters in the world, and in Split, where a guide took us underground to see the cellars of Diocletian’s Palace. We also walked the ancient city walls above Dubrovnik on a fall day when most of the tourists had already left, and the rooftop views were fantastic.

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We made memories we’ll talk about for years to come.

I woke up this morning to see a Facebook message from my Aunt Beaner with a mesmerizing little video about ways to fold napkins. I had to laugh because it made me think of the fancy folded napkin she wore like a paper cap when we were joking around during one of our dinner outings.

Maybe at some holiday gathering years from now, there will be napkin caps all around and we’ll play that hat game we learned at a bus tour dinner. Just like that time in Slovenia.


What to Buy in Croatia

We are between visitors again, and the apartment is quiet.

The only evidence of our houseguests is a pile of bedding, some towels spinning in the washer and a shopping list my friend left behind. My friend Jen is a superb list-maker, party planner and entertainer. She’s a lawyer by trade, but I always tell her she would make a great caterer or event planner.

She lives down the street from me in America and once lent me enough Thanksgiving decorations and serving platters to outfit my house and hers when we both had guests in town. She keeps cookware and dishes stocked in her basement and lets her friends browse her inventory. She’s the neighborhood guru for finding the best grocery prices for our annual progressive dinner. She researches everything and keeps meticulous spreadsheets and notes.

She knew what to shop for before she even got here. I’m saving her shopping list:


Licitar Hearts

I’ve seen heart-shaped Christmas ornaments in Croatia’s souvenir shops, but I never really knew much about them. They are called “licitar hearts,” or “licitarsko srce,” and they traditionally were decorated honey biscuits people gave their sweethearts for weddings or Valentine’s Day. The hearts date back as far as the 16th century, and they used to be made from wooden or copper molds and decorated like gingerbread cookies. While there aren’t as many handmade biscuits anymore, romantics still give the hearts as a symbol of affection.

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Olive Oil

Local olive oil is a staple in our pantry. When we first arrived, our landlord gave us a bottle of hand-pressed oil. It was so good that it didn’t last long. Local farmers have told us about staking claim on the oldest olive trees in the world in Croatia. I don’t know how much of their lore is true. All I know is this olive oil is good stuff. We use it for cooking, dip our bread in it and would love to send it to family and friends, if the post office would let us.



I might thumb my nose at boxed wine in the States, but I don’t turn down wine kept in plastic bottles here. For every carport covered in grapevines in this country, there’s a stash of homemade wine kept in recycled bottles. Everyone I know makes their own. And it’s better than I expected. There’s plenty of high-end bottles, too. Post-Communist wineries these days are producing quality wines. Not only are people buying back old family vineyards, but they’re learning from other winemakers and making a name for themselves. When I go back to America, I’ll probably recognize some local vineyard names on fancy wine lists. But I’ll still think fondly of the wine served from plastic bottles.

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Maraschino Liqueur

Our favorite restaurant owner tells us the local Maraschino liqueur distillery in Zadar does not open its doors to the public. I’d love to get a glimpse inside to check out the operation. For five centuries, the Maraska company has been producing a cherry brandy first created by pharmacists of the Dominican monastery in Zadar from the region’s marasca cherries. The distillery’s website says the drink was a favorite of many European royal families, including Napoleon, French Kings Louis XVIII and Charles X, English Queen Victoria and King George IV. Alfred Hitchcock, Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplain are all said to have been fans. The drink was on the cargo list found on the Titanic. There’s also some in our freezer.


Salt from Nin

I didn’t really think the local salt museum would be a hit with my pre-teen boys, so I haven’t make them tour the saltworks company with me. But we have tried the salts. What’s not to like about sea salt? I prefer the kind without the added rosemary or basil. Basic sea salt is my favorite, and they do package them up nicely for gifts here. The village of Nin is worth checking out, too. It has a sandy beach, kite surfing and cobblestones. The town is tiny but rich in history — and salt.



Lavender is still harvested by hand here, and old wives are still telling tales about it. When I first got here and was bothered by mosquitos, a woman in a grocery store led me to the lavender oil to keep them away. I can’t say it worked for me, but we’ve given it a shot. I drop lavender oil in the bath for good measure. The locals use it for bug bites, too, and for cuts and burns. They put it in sachets, dolls and soaps. They put drops of its oil on their pillows at night to help with sleep, and they say it calms sea sickness and sunburnt lips.



Every time I go to the farmers’ market in Old Town, I see cheese sellers at kiosks handing out tastes of their goods. I can’t even pronounce the varieties of cheeses available here, but I do know words like “paški sir,” a sheep’s milk delicacy from the island of Pag. And I know the prosciutto and cheese plates served at restaurants here are some of the best I’ve tried.


Pralines, Chocolates and Candied Bitter Orange Peels

I hadn’t even heard of Croatian pralines, but now they’re on my list to find. My kids like the Croatian chocolate (even if they miss Reese’s). The locals showed us how to enjoy candied fruit peels with our coffee. We’re all out of chocolate and orange peels. I better restock.


Scarves and Neckties

It’s not scarf season now, but when we got here in the spring, we heard about how grandmas here worry that a bare neck will make you catch a cold. They say here that drafts can be deadly. Maybe that’s why they sell so many scarves, even in the summer. And the neckties? Legend has it that Croatia invented the necktie. They say it dates back to the time of Croatian mercenaries who wore knotted neckerchiefs to arouse the interest of  the Parisians. There’s even an International Necktie Day coming up in October.

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I don’t think Jen crossed off everything on her shopping list. But now I know what to bring back.




Rome, where we almost made history


The metal prayer candle stand teetered, tipping burning candles and hot wax precariously close to the edge. I hurried over to steady the stand as our tour guide came up beside me.

“You almost just made history,” she said, mostly to my 10-year-old, a curious boy who likes to touch things. It was a close call.

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Thankfully, on our trip to Rome, we did not burn down the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, the city’s oldest and only remaining medieval-style church. It dates back to the third century, and I would have hated to destroy it. The prayer candles must have been working. We said a lot of prayers on this trip.

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We toured Rome with a party of nine – me, Sarge and the boys, my in-laws and brother-in-law’s family – and one more if you include Anni, our tour guide from Local Guddy, a service that pairs tourists with locals to see sights beyond the beaten path.


We did do the typical touristy things that I had seen before on other trips, making stops to marvel at the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum and the Forum. We tossed some coins in Trevi Fountain and sat on steps nearby to eat gelato. We sweated under the summer sun. We visited St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. We met nuns, gypsies, tramps and thieves and left Rome minus one wallet and passport – but that’s another story for another time.

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With Anni, we discovered an excellent restaurant close to the Vatican (Trattoria Vaticano Giggi) that serves authentic Roman pastas and wine. We visited an uncrowded hilltop (Gianicolo, or Janiculum Hill) with spectacular views of the city. Sarge made friends with a gladiator who let him wear his helmet for a photo op. We cooled our feet in a fountain (Fontana dell’Acqua Paola) that was not nearly as crowded as Trevi. We filled our water bottles from beautiful public drinking fountains that are piped into the city’s aqueduct system. And we discovered the neighborhood of Trastevere.


Seeing Trastevere was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I would have never known it was there because it’s not on the must-see list of Rome. Maybe it should be. The former working-class neighborhood on the west bank of the Tiber River has all of the cobblestones, piazzas and charm of Italy without the August crowds we ran into everywhere else.


The Basilica di Santa Maria was magical. Anni told us it was the first church in Rome to hold a public Mass and the first church to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. While we were inside, sunlight streamed in on the ornate, golden walls. We walked around and admired the mosaics, the history, myths and traditions. I will think of it every time I see a prayer candle and remember the time we almost made history.




Keep On Pedaling

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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.

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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.


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.


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.

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Death Notices


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


The Nonna I Never Had


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.

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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.

Pounding the Marble Pavement


Sarge’s company rented him a stick-shift car, and I don’t know how to drive it yet. Being on foot is my favorite kind of exercise anyway, so I don’t mind walking. And I’m noticing things I would never see from the driver’s seat.

We went to dinner a couple of nights ago at Gricko Grill, a tiny owner-run spot where we had simple grilled meats wrapped in pita bread and served with raw onions. We all gave it rave reviews. On the walk home, we noticed a wedding party driving the other way, kind of like a New Orleans-style funeral parade. The party went by waving flags, singing, honking and shouting as they passed. We smiled, waved and shouted back.

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My favorite place to walk so far is just a mile from our house in Old Town, an ancient area that spent several centuries under Venetian rule. It reminds me of Italy, with its Forum, Roman ruins, churches, shops and cafes. One of the most remarkable things about Old Town Zadar is that it’s paved in marble that’s almost slippery enough to skate across, polished by millions of feet over the centuries.

That’s not the only mesmerizing thing about the city. There’s a Sea Organ built into the marble steps along the Adriatic Sea that plays haunting piped music as the waves lap against the steps. And nearby, there’s a modern Greeting to the Sun with glass plates formed in a circle that collect solar energy for a light show at night. We were there on a chilly and windy afternoon, so we sat on the solar panels to warm up and people watch.


For dinner, we went somewhere that’s already becoming one of Sarge’s favorites – Kobona Bonaca – a place where he dined alone when he first arrived in town. The restaurant is tucked behind the Sea Organ by a church square.

“I tried to open the door and it was locked,” Sarge said of his first experience there. “I turned around to leave and the door opened. It was the owner. He put his hands in his pockets and said, ‘Do you have jingle lingle?’ I said, ‘Yes, I have jingle lingle!’ He said, ‘Then you can come in!’ ”

Then he poured Sarge a drink on the house, served him braised lamb and talked about America, Croatia’s civil war in the 1990s and things they had in common, like the fact that they both spent time living in Florida.

The owner remembered Sarge right away when we walked in. He sat us in a sunny spot at a heavy wooden table and brought us drinks, then something extra – a shot of cherry liqueur. The drink is one of the city’s specialties, and the owner said his friend distilled it himself from the Maraska cherries grown in this region. I let the kids take a sip. They said it tasted like cough drops. To me, it was more like a sweet cherry dessert, like a brandy.

By the time dinner was over, we went back to the end of the peninsula by the Sea Organ in time for the sunset. We had read that legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock once said that Zadar had “the most beautiful sunset in the world, more beautiful than the one in Key West, in Florida, applauded at every evening.”

Sarge used to live in Florida, and then we both lived in Hawaii, and we’ve seen some amazing sunsets. Last night’s was a pretty good one.

We watched it with our feet hanging over the sea wall. And with that, young W kicked his leg and accidentally sent his Adidas sneaker flying into the Adriatic. Sarge said his shoe will probably make it to Italy before W does.


Praise God and Pass the Ammunition



Sarge is a man who likes rules. He just pulled out the tape measure, and by his count, if I don’t overstuff my bag, I will be within airline regulations (62-inch maximum dimensions) for check-in luggage our trip.

He got us all good-sized Army duffel bags for Christmas. He said if that’s all the room soldiers need to take on yearlong deployments, that’s all we need to take to Croatia for eight months. So we’re each taking a duffel bag and a backpack.

At least that’s the plan. I haven’t even packed yet, and I’m already trying to figure out how to break the rules.

Sarge is heading out before the rest of us. That leaves me to finish packing and meet him halfway around the world with A&W, our 10- and 11-year-old boys.

The last time I traveled solo with them, it almost felt like we were going to be on an episode of “Locked Up Abroad.” It was Thanksgiving weekend, and I let the boys pack their electronics and snacks themselves. I didn’t even look to see what they stuffed in their bags.

Next thing I know, we’re getting flagged by the Transportation Security Administration in the airport screening line. They cordoned us off to wait, and I started sweating, wondering if someone smuggled drugs in our bags and if I was going to get arrested and handcuffed in front of the kids. Soon, a small swarm of TSA agents appeared. I had no idea what was going on, but they were examining something in W’s backpack.

“Whose bag is this?” an agent asked about the old black military backpack with a helicopter embroidered in yellow stitching.

“It’s my son’s,” I stammered. “I mean, it’s my husband’s, but my son is using it.”

An agent pulled something out of the bag, and after a prolonged discussion in their security huddle, they finally showed me what was so troubling. It was a bullet. I had forgotten that was the backpack Sarge sometimes took deer hunting. He had left a rifle bullet as long as my thumb inside. W swears he didn’t know it was there.

The TSA confiscated the bullet and let us continue to our gate. I figured they put us on some kind of watch list and will double-check us for weapons on every trip we take from here to eternity.

When we finally got on the plane and settled in for takeoff, W pulled something else I didn’t know he had out of the backpack. It was a crucifix. He hung it neatly on the tray table hook and looked pretty pleased with himself.

I had to crack up, wondering what the TSA agents thought about a boy carrying candy, a bullet and a crucifix. W said he just wanted to pray for our safe travels.

I’ll take all the good mojo we can get, knowing that wherever we go, we’ll get there on a wing and a prayer.

Checking One Off the Bucket List

WHIITEWe’re moving abroad.

I’ve always wanted to say that. I can’t believe it’s happening in a few weeks. And while it sounds glamorous, the truth is getting here has not been all that pretty.

A year ago, things at my house were not going well. I got a call at work one day to pick up my youngest son from school because he was sick. When we got home, I was surprised to find my husband there. I was even more surprised to learn he had left his corporate job that day for good.

I was worried about money, stability and the state of our marriage. It didn’t occur to me that day that what he was doing would make us happier in the long run.

He wanted to do something he was passionate about. He had been a career serviceman, and the calling never left him. I was the one who had grown weary of deployments and danger. He was being recruited to go back to flying helicopters, something he loved. It meant taking a job across the country, away from me and the kids for most of the year. It was a leap of faith for all of us.

Now that the bumpy part is over, it’s easier to say that the distance made us stronger. We hashed out the things that had been bothering us and decided to start checking things off of our bucket lists.

That’s how we end up here, planning a move to Croatia. And this is the beginning of my story of life in the jump seat: when a pilot’s life lets go and lets life take off.

P.S. You’ll be hearing more soon about Sarge, my husband. I let him have veto power over this post, and he said he was OK with it. Except I left out one part: He was right. Sarge told me months ago that everything was going to be all right, and I didn’t believe him. But he was right.