Goodbye, corner bathtub

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Tonight is our last night in our black-and-white-and-red-all-over Croatia apartment. What I’ve come to think of as our “Duran Duran” décor era is about to be over.

Our original plan was to move back to the States before the new year. Turns out, we’re staying in Croatia for a few more months. But first, we’re going to spend Christmas in Germany. I’ve always wanted to visit a German Christmas market, and just for a moment, feel like I was in a snow globe scene. I hope it is magical for the whole family.

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I found a housesitting job for us on TrustedHousesitters, a website that’s something like Airbnb for pet lovers. The boys will get the Christmas joy of dog-sitting a labradoodle. In exchange, we will get to stay in a German home whose owners are leaving a decorated tree up for us. Their town has already had some snow this week. We really might get our winter wonderland.

On the way there, we’re going to see some friends from Sarge’s Army days and celebrate Sarge’s birthday. It’s bound to be a fun reunion.

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Tomorrow, we’ll bid goodbye to our home for the last half a year. I will miss the giant corner bathtub, the light-filled rooms and the sunset views from the balcony. I’ll also miss our kind landlords, who leave fruit and vegetables at our doorstep and were the first to introduce us to the local culture. I’ll even miss Orange, the turtle that lives in the yard, and the landlords’ sweet dog, Lily.

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We arrived in Croatia with one duffel bag and one backpack each. (Except that one lost backpack the airline never recovered.) Our move to a new apartment by the marina will take several trips for all the extras we’ve accumulated – mostly household goods and beach gear, kid stuff and bicycles. I told Sarge we might have to introduce the country to yard sales before we leave. We’re limited to 22 pounds of carry-on luggage and 44 pounds of checked luggage each when we move back home.

Part of the experience of living abroad has been living with less. Maybe it will help me clear the clutter when I get back to my “real” life. Maybe I can finally clear the boxes out of my basement in Kentucky without wanting to hang on to everything. For now, I’m still savoring living in new places and soaking up the scenery. I’m not ready to leave just yet.

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Krampus fear and St. Nick cheer

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Traditions run deep here, and that’s one of the things I love about Croatia.

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas, something I’ve celebrated since I was a kid. Sarge grew up in Florida and missed out on this particular custom. In my childhood suburb of Cincinnati, St. Nicholas Day was definitely a part of the Christmas culture. If you woke up Dec. 6 with coal in your stocking, you knew you had a few weeks to shape up before Santa came. St. Nick was the one who filled stockings with fruit, nuts, chocolate coins and probably a toothbrush. The official countdown to Christmas break was on.

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Our boys came home from school on Monday talking about how their classmates said St. Nick brought sticks to naughty children here instead of coal. And instead of stockings, kids here polish up a shoe or boot and place it on a windowsill or doorstep. They go to sleep hoping for candy instead of sticks.

Last night, our boys chose the biggest shoe they could find. Our oldest cleaned up a hiking boot, and our youngest set a high-top Converse outside our doorstep. In the morning, they woke up to shoes full of tangerines, pistachios, candy coins, a chocolate St. Nick and a chocolate Krampus (the Christmas devil). Oh, yeah, and the evil American Elf on the Shelf showed up here, too. We should have named him Krampus.

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I don’t remember Krampus ever being part of our St. Nicholas traditions growing up, but as an adult, I can fully appreciate the fear the beast-like creature can instill in kids who don’t want to be punished for being naughty.

Krampus was on full display in our town in Croatia today. Just after dark, Krampus, St. Nicholas and a man dressed as an elf marched through the Old Town in an odd little ritual that’s part of the advent celebration here. It wasn’t quite the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade the boys were expecting, but it was memorable.

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When I read up on other traditions associated with this day in Croatia, I learned that in the fishing village of Komiza on one of the islands, they honor St. Nicholas as the patron saint of sailors and fishermen. On St. Nicholas Day, they carry his statue in a procession and burn an old boat in front of the saint’s church as they pray for protection for the next year. Then they throw the ashes on newly built boats as a blessing.

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As a family living abroad, we are short on holiday traditions this year. We haven’t tromped through woods for a tree or even put up a fake one. We will miss family gatherings back home. And since we are away, we aren’t sending out our annual Christmas cards.

But today, in addition to the treat-filled shoes, we also had a bottle of homemade fresh-pressed olive oil placed on our doorstep. We ran into people we knew in Zadar’s Old Town. We admired the Christmas market’s lights, and the smell of vendors’ pancakes and mulled wine. And we’ll all have a hard time getting Krampus out of our minds.

The legend of the Bura Wind

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There’s something people talk about here as if it’s a human entity: the Bura Wind.

In Croatia, it’s a fierce force, just like the Boreas character from Greek mythology. The mythological story goes that Boreas was the god of the north wind and of winter. He fell in love with the Athenian princess Orithyia. But when charm got him nowhere, he became angry, kidnapped her and made her his wife. A real charmer, that Boreas.

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Even today, the Bura Wind (also known as Bora) can be violent, sometimes bringing gale force that can close highways, keep sailors and ferries at harbor, rip trees from their soil and blow tiles from rooftops.

This dry northern wind also has a good side. It can blow away clouds. My landlord tells me the Bura Wind can be cleansing. I tried to explain (in my English/Croatian/pantomime) that we were beginning to see mold inside on the concrete walls on north side of the house, and I was using bleach to clean it. He told me the Bura Wind would solve the problem. He said I must wait for the dry wind to come so I can air out the apartment, but I must be careful not to open windows on a cloudy day and bring in too much draft (propuh). Forget dehumidifiers or cleaning products, he seemed to be saying. Leave it to the wind.

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The old women who sell cheese at the market say the Bura Wind is good for flavor. It brings sea air to the grass that sheep graze on and saltiness to the cheese. But it’s not just for cheese, they say. It’s also essential for Dalmatian dry-cured prosciutto (pršut). The market women credit the wind for bringing the region these delicacies.

They also talk of the Bura Wind being light and dark. Everyone loves the light one that brings clear skies. The dark one brings rain and clouds. Bura also has an opposite, “Jugo,” which blows from the sea to the land and just brings junk. They wait for a light Bura day to hang their laundry.

Their old wives’ tales don’t stop there. This Bura Wind must help shopkeepers sell a lot of scarves. The women here don’t expose the backs of their necks to the wind for fear of getting sick. I remember buying scarves on a trip to Europe years ago, and I wondered if they would be out of fashion. I’ve discovered scarves are not a trend here. They are a way of life when the temperature dips.

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There’s no Bura Wind today in our Zadar region of Croatia. It’s chilly, cloudy and rainy with a light breeze from the south-southeast. It’s not quite the southwesterly “junk” air, but it’s close. Today’s pretty dreary. We might get a few Bura gusts tomorrow.

With any luck, that fierce Boreas will clear out the clouds. Just like Old Man Winter, Father Frost or Jack Frost, the Bura Wind is bound to make an appearance any day now. He’ll bite our noses and give us a chill, and we’ll know that winter is coming.

 

 

Pardoning the turkey

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We are starting off Thanksgiving week celebrating the way any American family would. We’re binge-watching “Stranger Things” on Netflix.

After living in Croatia for half a year and watching only a handful of shows in English, I figured out how to make our VPN (Virtual Private Network) connect. Now we can listen to music on Pandora, catch my favorite radio podcasts (I love “This American Life”) and watch sitcoms that weren’t available on the web in Eastern Europe.

And on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, Sarge helped me with the grocery shopping, a chore he hates. While it was less crowded than any supermarket in America on this date on the calendar, it was a challenge in other ways. A walk down the spice aisle, for example, put our language skills to the test. I now know that “majčina dušica” might translate as “mother of the nuns” in English, but it’s actually “thyme.” Good thing there was a picture on the package. Through trial and error, I’ve also learned the difference between buying heavy cream and sour cream here, even though the packaging is deceptively similar.

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I heard the Interspar grocery would be selling turkeys. That was not entirely correct. I should have done shopping the old-school way and ordered one directly from the butcher. All we could find was turkey legs. So, we will be having whole roasted chicken and some turkey legs. The rest of the turkey gets a pardon.

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We will also have sweet potato casserole with no marshmallows (none to be found in Croatia). I also couldn’t find cranberries of any sort, or canned pumpkin, or measuring cups. I’ll improvise. We’ll still have other standards: mashed potatoes, green beans and rolls. And I will try to make pie dough without measuring the ingredients in actual measuring cups. Tea cup measuring should suffice.

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The kids are celebrating “Italian Week” at their international school this week, and they’re not off for American Thanksgiving. We won’t watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade together. But we might get crazy and let the boys stay up late to watch Netflix or play a family game of “Cluedo” (the board game “Clue,” our favorite).

A year ago, we had an unusual “Friendsgiving” in New Mexico with Sarge’s pilot friends from America and Tunisia when he was working in Roswell. This year, we’re straying from family tradition again. Turkey, relatives and American football won’t play a central role in our feast.

We will still be counting our blessings. We have much to be grateful for this year, especially the opportunity to live abroad and grow closer as a family of four. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, and it will be different in a place where not many other people are celebrating. We won’t have a crackling fire, a La-z-boy chair to nap in after dinner or turkey leftovers for sandwiches the next day.

We will have a spirit of togetherness just the same. We’ll think about what we are grateful for, appreciate what we have and enjoy the simple pleasures of family nights, ordinary days and holidays, wherever we are to celebrate them.

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‘Mom, what is adultery?’

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The email from the woman in the tour office at Ljubljana Castle in Slovenia struck me as slightly strange.

I told her I’d like to go on a tour called “Behind Bars” with my husband and kids so we could learn about the castle’s history as a penitentiary.

She said that would be fine, “but I hope it wouldn’t be too rough for your sons.”

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I didn’t think much of it, really. I figured my 10- and 11-year old boys would love seeing the castle’s dungeons. And, if anything, hearing stories about lives of prisoners might provide some kind of lesson about how they should behave.

The tour is a performance where actors play the roles of prisoners punished for crimes ranging from manslaughter to witchcraft. It’s well-done and really gives you a sense of what happened to reformers, soldiers and civilians, the rich and the poor, freethinkers and the politically problematic.

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I just didn’t expect that my youngest son’s commentary would entertain the whole crowd. Two other English-speaking couples joined us on the tour, and they were all ears when the tour guide explained the scene we would encounter next: the disgrace of a woman whose adultery earned her public shaming in the Wolves’ Hole, where she was taken by a monk.

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“Mom, what is adultery?” my son asked (loudly) during a lull in the guide’s narrative.

The couple beside me, grandparents from Pennsylvania, turned to hear my response.

“It’s when people are married and one of them cheats,” I said, “Like if a wife has an affair with a neighbor.”

“Does it have to be a neighbor?” my son said.

By this time, I had as much of an audience as the tour guide. During the course of the hour, I also explained “treason” and “prostitution” to my attentive fifth-grader.

Maybe this is what the woman in the tour office meant by “rough.” It definitely wasn’t what I expected. It was better. Sure, we could have chosen a classic guided tour or stuck with the audio guide at the mighty medieval fortress in Slovenia’s capital city. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable.

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Easy for you to say

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When we moved to Croatia, I had a hard time pronouncing the simplest things. Even the name of our seaside town, Zadar, seemed simple enough. “Zah-DHAR” seemed right. The local pronunciation is more like “ZAH-der.”

My kids are wondering when I’m ever going to advance beyond my toddler-level Croatian vocabulary. The boys tell me to look at the accent marks to figure out if a “c” is hard or soft, or if a “d” is supposed to sound like a “j.” The alphabet has no “q,” “w,” “x” or “y.” I feel proud of myself when I can run daily errands speaking only the local language. I’m sure I’m mangling what little I know.

That hasn’t stopped me from playing tour guide for family and friends in cities I can barely pronounce.

 

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Plitvice Lakes National Park

(sounds like “plit-vi-che”)

My aunt from Las Vegas said she could have spent her whole vacation at this national park. It was the height of autumn’s color show, and the leaves made October the perfect time to visit the park with its 16 terraced lakes linked by waterfalls. It was a different world from the summer crowds, and each time I’ve been there, I’ve seen it in a new light. It’s a must-see if you are coming to Croatia.

 

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Dubrovnik

(sounds like “dew-broav-nik”)

All of our American visitors have put the walled city of Dubrovnik among the top of the list of places to see in Croatia. It’s a stop for many cruise ships, and it’s becoming ever popular for its Hollywood factor as the setting for “King’s Landing” in the HBO series “Game of Thrones” and the new movie “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” The highlight of my last trip there was walking the medieval city walls and seeing the sea of red-tiled house tops below on the edge of the Adriatic. We also stopped for drinks at Café Buza. The name means “hole in the wall,” and you walk through a hobbit-like door down cliffside steps to get there.

 

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Montenegro

(sounds like “mon-ti-nayg-roh”)

This country in the Balkans was a day trip from Dubrovnik on our Gate 1 Travel bus tour. We visited the Bay of Kotor and the touristy Kotor Old Town. This is the first European city I’ve been to where the outskirts overshadowed the old town. My favorite part was a boat ride out to Our Lady of the Rocks, a church that pays tribute to the sailors and the women who prayed for their safe return.

 

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Pula

(sounds like “puhl-a”)

Coming here with a local guide on our bus tour meant I learned some things about this Roman town on Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula that I would not have known without a guide. I’d been there once before and had been telling people that it has one of the best-preserved colosseums in the world. The guide corrected that. She said the word “colosseum” is reserved for the one in Rome. What Pula has, she said, is a Roman amphitheater. And it’s spectacular.

 

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Rovinj

(sounds like “ro-veen”)

I’ve heard people say that coming to Croatia can be like a trip to Italy without the crowds or the cost. In Rovinj, that’s true. It’s said to be the most Italian town in Croatia, and its cobblestone streets are as picturesque as they are treacherous (pack shoes than can handle slick pavement). Our bus tour made a quick side trip here, and I’d wished they had given us more time to wander around. Artists and locals still live along the old town’s steep streets, and every stop along the way looks like a postcard.

 

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Radovljica

(sounds like “rad-oh-leets-ah”)

This Slovenian town outside Bled was one of the last opportunities for an extra day trip on our bus tour of Croatia and Slovenia. I don’t think I ever would have discovered it on my own. It’s a tiny and enchanting medieval place in the heart of the Slovenian Alps, and I could hear others on my tour talking about how it looked like something from a movie set with its Renaissance and Gothic architecture and painted facades on old buildings. We stopped for wine tasting and a Bavarian-type dinner at a tavern that felt like a throwback to another era.

I may not be able to remember or pronounce their names, but all of these places made for memorable spots to check off my bucket list.

Dovidenja (“doh-vee-jeh-nyah”), Plitvice, Dubrovnik, Montenegro, Pula, Rovinj and Radovljica. Goodbye, for now. I hope to be back.

 

 

 

 

Making memories on a bus tour

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

At the Graveyard on the Feast of All Saints

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We didn’t find much of a Halloween celebration going on in this part of the world on All Hallows Eve. We didn’t have a single trick-or-treater or any costume parties to attend. Here in this deeply Catholic nation, it’s all about the day after: All Saints Day.

The feast of All Saints is a big deal here. It’s a national holiday. The kids were off school. Sarge was off work. Some of our Croatian friends went back to their hometowns to honor the saints and pay respect to the loved ones they hope make it to heaven.

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I looked on Google Maps this morning and insisted that Sarge and the kids go with me to Gradsko Groblje Zadar, the city cemetery, and the one with a review: four stars for being “spacious and well-kept.” I wanted to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. For the last week, I’ve seen vendors here and in surrounding countries selling candles and stunning flower arrangements in preparation for this holy day.

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When we got to the cemetery, we had trouble finding a parking spot. We followed families who had their hands full of flowers. One was one of Sarge’s coworkers, a Croatian Air Force pilot who came with his wife and two kids to visit a friend’s final resting place. He told us that’s just what they do on this day. It’s a solemn time for reflection.

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I wanted to go back tonight to see the candles all glowing in the cemetery. In Eastern Europe, it’s a tradition to light candles on the graves on this night before All Souls Day. By now, there must be hundreds of candles burning at the city cemetery. But Sarge thinks I’m crazy and that going to watch others lighting candles at graves might not be dignified.

So I will bid my own hushed tribute to the departed.

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The distinction between All Saints and All Souls Day is a bit blurred here. Maybe it’s OK to honor the sinners and the saints at the same time. It was cleansing just to watch people tidying tombstones and watering flowers this morning. It’s a hallowed day for sure.

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My boys stopped in front of graves with no flowers or candles and asked why some didn’t have any. They stopped and said a little prayer for the lonely souls, too.

 

Traveling without to-go cups

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One of the things I’ve missed since moving abroad has been talking to my mom.

In the States, she and my dad live less than half an hour away. They dote on the grandkids and entertain the family. We catch up by phone at least a couple of times a week and get together often. Being in a time zone six hours ahead has cut down our talking time.

We’re making up for it this week. She and two of my aunts are here visiting, and we are taking a bus tour through Croatia, a bit of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Slovenia.

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We started in Italy with a quick weekend in Venice, where my mom and one of my aunts flew in. They spent the week with us in Zadar, taking in national parks and hanging out with my family. Then we left for an all-girls vacation.

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Right now, I’m rooming with my mother in a hotel in Dubrovnik, and the sound of my typing is probably keeping her awake. She’s not complaining. She just doesn’t want me to stay up too late because we have another full day tomorrow on the Gate 1 Travel bus to get to Croatia’s capital city of Zagreb. The wake-up call will be an early one.

Growing up, our family always took vacations. They were usually simple road trips and summer beach destinations. This is my first bus tour and my first time traveling with my mom, one of her sisters and one of my dad’s sisters. It has been a bonding experience and neat for me to be able to connect with my aunts as an adult.

More than just seeing different parts of the world, what makes this trip special is being able to do it with these women.

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We’ve shared wine, stories, songs and selfies, critiqued the food and explored places we never thought we’d go.

We all went to the same all-girl high school and even took a picture with a school newsletter to send in for publication. Since we didn’t have the real newsletter to hold up, my oldest son drew us one before we left, and my mom has been carrying it around everywhere we go.

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My mom says she doesn’t have the adventurous spirit that I do to be able to live abroad and go without the comforts she misses. That would include things to do with coffee the way she likes it: a tall Starbucks-brand coffee pod made in a Keurig and mixed with Coffee-mate. She also seems alarmed that I don’t have flour in my pantry or a dryer to soften my towels.

To me, enjoying life here is about learning to adapt. Try your coffee another way.

As one of our tour guides said, there will never be Starbucks on every corner in Croatia. It goes against the country’s coffee culture. Here, take-out cups are seen as a sacrilege. You have to make time to catch up with people. The ritual is to have coffee together – not by yourself.

Our bus leaves early tomorrow. I’m waking up early to find some coffee with my mom and aunts. I’m not sure the hotel where we’re staying is the right place to start a tradition with them (the coffee here is terrible). But we’ll adapt and spend another day exploring a new place together.

 

 

 

 

A taste of the Balkans in Ljubljana

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Some of our best memories of Slovenia have to do with food. We even took home a tall, starched chef hat for 10-year-old “W,” our aspiring chief cook.

The boys tried a little of everything on the culinary spectrum on this trip: American-style burgers that reminded them of home, sugar-toasted almonds that smelled so good we had to buy them from a street vendor, and sushi for lunch at a restaurant where plates came by on a conveyor belt.

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All of that was before our official excursion on the Ljubljana Food Tour.

The food tour is how we met Mirzeta, a Bosnian-born woman who married a local, lived for a while in Malaysia and returned to Slovenia to follow her dream to give tourists a taste of the Balkans. We met her on a Sunday beside three birch trees in front of Prešeren’s Monument, a landmark on the city’s main square. Mirzeta wanted to show us the city and its traditions. She wove stories of art and architecture throughout her food tour.

Forget the burgers and sushi. This was the real cultural experience. And these are some of the foods that define the country:

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Seafood salad: I’ve tried this all over Croatia, and each restaurant puts its own spin on the taste and presentation. Sometimes, it’s octopus served cold like a potato salad with   olives, onions and capers. At Ribca, Ljubljana’s best-known seafood restaurant, fresh ingredients come from the fish market right next door.

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Sausage and cabbage: Next, Mirzeta took us to Gostilna Sokol (the Eagle), a tavern in the city center with a rustic look and waiters dressed in traditional national costumes. We tried a local dish of kranjska klobasa (pork and bacon sausage) with sides that included buckwheat, cabbage and mashed potatoes. Here, the city’s Austrian influence comes through, and it goes down well with beer.

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Pickled turnip stew: One of my favorite tastes of the tour was something between a soup and a stew. I like to try dishes I normally wouldn’t make at home, and this fit the bill. It’s a pickled turnip stew with pork and tastes a little like Chinese hot-and-sour soup. In Slovenia, tradition has it that it was a way to use the abundance of pork meat at slaughtering time. They call it “bujta repa.”

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Chocolate, honey, salt flower and wine: Mirzeta made sure we tried a little of everything, so we also stopped at shops for a sample of chocolate, honey, salt flower and wine. “Chef W” liked the salt flower, salt that forms as a thin delicate crust on the surface of seawater as it evaporates. The shop owner told us to sprinkle it on finished food instead of table salt. We have since added a flower salt container to our dinner table.

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Mushroom dumplings: One of the most interesting restaurants in Ljubljana we visited was a place called Druga Violina (which means “Second Fiddle”). It serves Slovenian dishes and a season menu, but the most interesting thing about the restaurant is that it is accessible to the disabled, hires people with special needs and raises money to support local events. Knowing that made the already delicious food taste a little better. Here, one of the samples we tried was a ravioli-like pasta, kind of like a dumpling, with mushroom sauce. It tasted rich and filling. By then, we were stuffed, but we had to save room for dessert.

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(Photo: The window at “Second Fiddle” restaurant)

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Layer cake: Our final food stop in Ljubljana was at Gostilna Šestica, the oldest restaurant in the city, which has been operating since 1776. We ended our tour with coffee and caramel apple layer cake that they call a “moving cake.” It’s a spiced  cake with layers of apple, poppy seeds, walnuts and ricotta cheese with a caramel sauce that tastes like everything that makes you think of autumn.

As the leaves began to fall in Ljubljana, we admired the scenery, got a taste of a new season and an appreciation for the Balkans. Comfort food here is different and familiar at the same time. I already know I will be coming back for another bite. My mom and aunts are in town, and we are heading back to Ljubljana next week. I may have to catch up with Mirzeta for a coffee.