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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.

The time I washed Sarge’s passport

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Our latest European weekend road trip started with us loading up the car and checking to make sure we had everyone’s passports. Sarge thought I had packed his, but I just had mine and the kids’. So he went back inside and discovered his passport was in the pocket of a pair of his work pants that I had put through the washing machine.

We tried in vain to flatten the pages as we started our drive. We weren’t sure we’d make it past the border crossing on our way from Croatia to Slovenia, and we almost didn’t. The Slovenian border guard was definitely not pleased. He grumbled and looked like he was going to toss it in the trash. Eventually, he scanned and stamped our passports and let us through. I still have lingering border-crossing anxiety.

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When we made it to our Airbnb in Ljubljana, our host, Vandana, welcomed us with maps and a wealth of information about the capital city. She also runs a youth hostel, is a painter and a yoga teacher and is a real ambassador for Slovenia. We talked for half an hour about the region’s history, parks, caves and attractions.

Meanwhile, Sarge found a heavy table leg to press his passport, and the kids found an English-language movie channel and the wifi password. We had to pull the boys away from the screens to set off to see Ljubljana’s bridges, castle and dragons.

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We managed to miss the river cruise I had already paid for, the second time this has happened to us in a river city on our travels. I think the lesson here is to avoid buying boat tour tickets in advance. The boat will leave without you.

We abandoned our original plans and wandered past government buildings, Slovene statues and pedestrian bridges in search of food. Sarge and the kids saw a sign for a “Burger Bar,” and we decided we had to check it out. We hadn’t had American-style burgers in six months. The way they serve them in the city where we’re living in Croatia is more like Croatian meat patties on flatbread.

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I’m not sure if it was because we had skipped lunch or that the burgers, French fries and onion rings were that good, but we enjoyed the comfort food of Pop’s Place. I read later that it’s considered one of Europe’s top burger joints. I’m glad we ran into it on accident.

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There’s so much to say about Ljubljana (one of my newfound favorite cities) that it will take a few posts to get to everything. (See upcoming posts about the Ljubljana Food Tour and the castle).

For me, one of the highlights was just strolling through it. It’s small and walkable. Ljubljana stopped allowing cars in its city center in 2007. Now, its core is a pedestrian zone with open-air markets, shops and cafes and interesting architecture in every direction.

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We left our mark on Ljubljana by hanging a “lock of love” on Butcher’s Bridge. While Sarge and I have not yet made it to Paris see the famous love locks over the River Seine, I like the idea of leaving a symbol of unbreakable love alongside locks of thousands of other couples. Sarge carved our initials onto a padlock, and the kids took pictures as we locked it on the bridge and threw the keys into the river. They didn’t even cringe when we kissed.

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It’s hard not to fall in love with Ljubljana itself. I don’t know if many Americans have heard of it, much less can pronounce it (Americans call it “loo-blee-ah-nuh.” Local pronunciation is more like “lyoo-blyah-nah.”) It somehow escaped my memory of learning geography and names of capital cities. Part of me would like to keep it a secret. It’s still relatively uncrowded and underrated. It looks like something out of a fairy tale and even has tall tales about dragons to go along with it.

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Just don’t tell anybody else how great it is. I’d hate to ruin it.

 

‘Sretan rođendan!’ – A happy birthday in Croatia

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When I think back years from now about memorable birthdays, today’s will probably rank up there.

It’s not because I did anything grand. Well, I did treat myself to a seaside lunch and set up my laptop office for the afternoon in a spot with a nice view:

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My main mark for the year is living abroad and truly feeling alive. I think it took shaking up my surroundings to appreciate my life and the people in it. The only thing missing from this birthday are the people I am missing back home. Their messages, texts and calls flooded in all day and made me feel loved.

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Since Sarge is working nights, he and the boys took me out last weekend to Konoba Pece, in Vinjerac, a neat stone tavern on a hill for some Adriatic seafood. And this weekend, we will be traveling to the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana – which sounds like “Lube-lee-ah-nah,” which is just plain fun to say – for a getaway.

My 47th birthday has been pretty low-key. I stopped in a new neighborhood grocery and finally picked up some local bell peppers, the color of which I have never seen in the United States. They’re light green and more mild than green bell peppers in America. And here, everyone calls them “paprika” (very confusing to me at first, since I associated paprika with the ground red spice).

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Anyway, stuffed peppers are a traditional Croatian dish, so that’s what I made for dinner – “paprika” stuffed with seasoned ground meat and rice. I’m not sure it was a hit with the boys, but it reminded me of stuffed peppers my mom used to make. She and my dad FaceTimed while I was cooking dinner. My mom and I share a birthday week. She said since we are 70 and 47, bookended by sevens, maybe it will bode for lucky days ahead. I’m already feeling like I’m having a lucky year. It’s been full of surprises.

Sometimes my surprises are on purpose, like when I’m at the store and buy something without fully translating the package. Today, I thought I was buying ice cream cake, and instead we had a chestnut and chocolate roll for dessert. It was more like a Christmas log, really, and so frozen it was hard to get a knife through. Definitely not the same as ice cream cake. But it held candles just the same.

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Part of me has felt a little somber this week, thinking about lives lost in the Las Vegas mass shooting a few days ago, and even the death of Tom Petty, part of the soundtrack of my youth.

In a year when I truly feel alive, it makes me want to savor the best parts a little more and embrace the journey. Happy birthday, indeed.

Last taste of summer at Kornati National Park

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Technically, the autumn equinox has not hit yet in this hemisphere. I still have a few more hours to squeeze out of summer. I’m still wearing white jeans, and I took the kids for ice cream after school. I’m not quite ready to let go of this season.

Spending the summer in Croatia has me hooked on this place. The sun-drenched coast, the crystal-clear water, the ancient olive trees, the crowds that gather in Old Town to watch the sunset each evening – I’ve soaked in it all.

But there’s one Zadar acquaintance I have yet to write about, and I will always associate him with summer. I met him one day in the rain. We had coffee together in a neighborhood café and talked about his business – or at least one of his businesses. He’s one of those Croats who has multiple jobs depending on the time of year. He works with tourists in the summer, teaches sports when school is in session and works for a chiropractor when he finds the time.

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His name is Branko, and he has a daughter who shares my name. He spends his summer days riding his bicycle around beaches selling tourists boat trips to the Kornati islands aboard the Plava Laguna (“Blue Lagoon”), a boat run by Kornat Excursions.

Croatia’s coast has more than 1,000 islands. In my time here, I’ve been to just a few. I knew that before the summer was over, I wanted to get to Kornati National Park. While it’s open year-round, summer is the best time for a boat tour that goes to a beach and has an outdoor lunch.

So when Branko invited me to go out on the boat he manages, I took him up on it.

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The tour is an all-day adventure that leaves the marina at 8 am on a boat that can seat 90 people and returns at 6 pm. We didn’t have many empty seats on our excursion. I sat side-to-side on the front of the boat with people who shared blankets and beach towels to block the wind. I tried to brace for the sea breeze under my hoodie, reminding myself that it was still summer.

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A deck hand warmed us up before 9 am with the traditional Croatian offering: a shot of rakija (brandy), compliments of Captain Igor. My body really wanted coffee at that time of morning, but you’d be surprised how cherry brandy can wake you up.

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The 50 Euro ticket (about 380 kuna or $60 US) from Zadar includes a two-hour trip to the islands and back and several stops along the way. It covers food, including a ham-and-cheese sandwich for breakfast; a fish, meat and salad plate and fruit for lunch; and water, wine and juice. It also includes an entrance ticket to the national park, a stop at a rocky beach for swimming, hiking, cliff diving or sun bathing and lunch at the captain’s house, one of the only buildings on the mostly uninhabited Kornati islands.

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The islands, the densest archipelago (or chain of islands) in the Mediterranean, are clustered between Zadar and Sibenik. Aside from being around other tourists and boats, going there reminds you of a Robinson Crusoe-type adventure. You can almost imagine castaways on remote, other-worldly looking sand-colored islands with cracks, caves and cliffs.

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On the way back to the marina, the other passengers and I sat in the sun and looked for dolphins that Branko told us often accompany the boat. We didn’t see any on this trip. As we passed the Sea Organ on the western edge of Zadar’s Riva on the way back to shore, we saw the crowds had already thinned out from the height of the season. The next time the sun goes down, it will officially be fall here and the winds might turn bitter soon. For Branko and the Plava Laguna, there’s always next summer.

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Reuniting with my family’s Bosnian exchange student

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The last time I saw my parents’ Bosnian exchange student, we were living in our own self-absorbed worlds. I was 25, working as a sports writer at USA Today near Washington, D.C.,  and going through a bad breakup. She was 18, living in Kentucky with my parents, and homesick and traumatized by war.

I didn’t get to know her much mostly because I wasn’t around. My memories of her were from stories my parents and younger sisters told of their adventures together, circa 1995, when Sabina was attending high school at my alma mater, Notre Dame Academy, an all-girls school in Park Hills, Ky.

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At the time, I didn’t grasp what she must have been going through. She grew up in Tuzla in northern Bosnia, a city that lost more than 250,000 people as the former Yugoslavia erupted in to chaos in the early 1990s. She was a Muslim whose parents got her out of a war zone by sending her to live in the States and go to a Catholic school. My parents took her to Mass on Sundays and home to the suburbs. It must have been so surreal for her. In the pre-email era, she was cut off from communication with her friends and family, except for occasional phone calls and whatever she got in the mail.

I never actually heard the stories of her war experiences and what became of her life until a few days ago – 21 years after I last saw her – when she and her son welcomed me and my two sons for a weekend visit in Sarajevo.

Even before she learned through Facebook that my family was coming to live in nearby Croatia, she had invited us to come and stay with her. When I realized she was only a five-hour drive away, we made plans for a reunion. Even though I was only a peripheral part of her American experience, I got the sense that she wanted to give back to my family and host us.

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She warned me that Bosnia was a country without real highways. Still, I was excited to rent an automatic car for a weekend and set off for the Balkans. I didn’t realize my GPS would take me on a gravel road over the mountains to get there. My 11-year-old asked if we should turn around when we got to a narrow off-roading section near the Bosnian border. But we kept going because I didn’t know how else to get there. I only later read that there are some stretches of road considered “God said good night” (God-forsaken) areas. Luckily, we navigated them while it was still daylight.

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When we got to Sarajevo, Sabina greeted us outside her tall, Soviet-era apartment building in the residential area across the river from where she works at the American Embassy. She told me the place she lives now is similar to the building where she used to live in Tuzla during the war, where they would go to the basement during air raids and had no water or electricity and little food. She recalled a time in her teens when her friends all went out to a neighborhood gathering spot and she happened to stay home. More than 70 people were gunned down that day as the Serbs attacked the Muslims, including some of her friends. The town held a mass memorial service so neighbors could gather in safety in the dark of night.

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My weekend was an education about a war that I didn’t pay much attention to in my 20s. Ironically, I didn’t know my husband yet then. He was tuned in because he was an American soldier. When Sabina returned to Bosnia, she worked as a translator for the Army in Tuzla at the same base where my husband was working as an Army medic. It struck me how different their world experiences were from mine during that time of our lives. They were experiencing life and death when I was just out of college and felt like I was just beginning mine. I didn’t consider the world’s problems mine.

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Sabina took us to war and history museums and to the Tunnel of Hope, a wartime tunnel built to smuggle food, war supplies and humanitarian aid into the city of Sarajevo. She set me up with a Sarajevo city tour guide, Raza, who also had a personal story that struck me. Raza was 11 when the war started. Her younger brother had a learning disability, and his teachers wanted to send him to live with professors in Germany to escape the war. They sent Raza as his caretaker. She and her brother were in Germany for three years, and it changed the course of her life. She speaks German like it’s her mother tongue and English almost as well. She found strength during a time that could have broken her. And she returned to Bosnia because her mother wanted her to come back. As she told me her story, I thought of my own boys, the same age she and her brother were during the war. Could I have left my boys in Germany for three years to escape the war while my husband and I stayed behind? What horrific choices people had to make not so long ago.

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Only a couple of decades after the war, we toured a once-burned and now restored Sarajevo City Hall and a history museum filled with before and after pictures and heartbreaking items, like a bloody sweater from a young boy struck and killed by a bullet that first hit his mother.

Sabina showed us some cheerful spots, too – a festival going on in her neighborhood, a restaurant where a celebrity chef was doing the cooking, a hilltop overlook where the kids rode a roller coaster. My 10- and 11-year-old boys were enthralled with her 14-year-old son, who had his own green screen, YouTube channel and 300+ followers.

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As our boys became friends, Sabina and I reminisced about her time in America, her experiences with my family, our fondness for the late Sister Mary Reina (who encouraged us both to pursue our interests in art), and the coincidences that brought us together again.

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I wished my parents could have been on the trip to see Sabina now and have some closure on whatever became of their exchange student. They hadn’t kept in touch much in the last couple of decades. They weren’t sure what happened to the group of exchange students who came to Kentucky in 1995.

I was glad to talk to my mom last night and tell her Sabina turned out to have a good life. Her experience in America made a real difference. She learned fluent English during her year abroad, and it helped her establish a thriving career doing work for government agencies.  My parents should be proud of their contributions and being a safe haven during a time of war. I might not have been paying much attention then. But I’m glad I tuned back in to see Sabina’s happy ending.

 

 

Water, water, everywhere

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We may have nothing on Hurricane Irma or the storms devastating other parts of the world. But we do have something here in Croatia I’ve never experienced weather-wise: a cyclone.

The news is saying Cyclone Gracija hit us overnight, dumping more rain in one day in this part of Dalmatia than twice the monthly average.

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It felt like getting smacked by “ponedjeljak” (the Croatian word for “Monday,” which even sounds like a punch in the face) on this Sept. 11. We got the kids to school only for school to be dismissed because they lost power. Since I don’t have a car, I walked to the school to take the kids sturdy umbrellas, which didn’t help much on our walk home, when some drivers pelted us with water.

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Thankfully, our power went out only twice and came back on. I had to change my socks twice but still found dry ones. Sarge got stuck for two hours in traffic on the flooded streets but made it home. We live on the third floor of a building on a hill and didn’t flood. I just got a text that tomorrow is school as usual.

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I guess it takes days like today to remind us that we’re at the mercy of the weather and forces beyond our control. I’ve been getting updates from family and friends back home about Hurricane Irma and the next storms in the forecast. I joked that one of the best things about being here is not having local news in English. I wasn’t worried at all that this was coming. I didn’t have to watch TV reporters stand in the storm and tell others to get inside. No one warned me today was going to be a bad day.

I did hear the same stories of heroism that I expect are happening around the globe: firefighters pumping out buildings, strangers coming to the rescue, neighbors helping neighbors.

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The garden out my back window is flooded. I trust the waters will recede. In time, something beautiful will grow. I hope the same is true for other parts of the world ravaged by storms.

Back to škola

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There are many simple things I love about Croatia. One of them is back-to-school shopping. Or lack of back-to-school shopping, actually. All the boys needed to start their international school classes this morning were some notebooks, pens and pencils and a pair of slippers.

I was used to ridiculously expensive and specific American school shopping lists. It was fantastic not having a list at all this year. I didn’t have to search for blue pens with erasers, folders with prongs, book covers in multiple sizes or family packs of Clorox wipes.

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The only school item I do still need to find is something that exists to torture parents worldwide: a recorder. I thought we had escaped the plastic, flute-like instrument this year. I used to ask my kids to practice on the porch so the screeching wasn’t so close to my ears. The music teacher here insists recorders are essential for the fifth grade. I don’t know if this is the right instrument for developing a love of music. I thought recorders were universally despised. I think the other parents here are with me on this.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what the other parents here are talking about. I’m still getting by on charades half the time. I’ve tried to befriend school moms who are kind enough to speak to me in English. I went to a parent meeting the other day that was an hour-and-a-half – all in Croatian. I could follow the gist of what was going on: Parents at our private school were demanding smaller class sizes. They let their voices be heard, loudly, and they were effective in getting results. I just needed the CliffsNotes version.

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Thankfully, the boys’ teachers text me in English. That’s how I found out the first day of school was going to last only 30 minutes. I was so excited that the kids were going back to school that I had already invited my expats’ group to coffee to celebrate. The kids got out of school so early this morning that they had to crash the coffee party.

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I was glad to see “A” and “W” run out of school smiling. My fifth- and sixth-grade boys might not admit it, but I think they were happy to go back and see friends they made when we got here in the spring. They’re developing skills to get past the language barriers. They both started correcting my Croatian pronunciation when I tried to make small talk with locals this afternoon. I’m taking that as a good sign. We’re all in for a good education this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Education on the Island of Pag

My pre-teen boys have introduced me to a new three strikes rule: The first time you go somewhere, it’s cool. The second time, it’s OK. The third time? That’s boring.

That is why they did not want to take Sarge to the village of Preko over the weekend. They deemed the beautiful little fishing town on the island of Ugljan “too boring” for a third visit. Sarge hasn’t been there yet, but we have. Twice. It is an idyllic little island a 15-minute ferry ride from where we’re living in Zadar. It’s everything I dreamed of last winter when I was freezing my tail off in the States – beaches with turquoise water; the remains of a Roman villa; pretty, narrow streets and stone houses; little to no wifi — the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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The last time we were there, we filled our time finding sea glass and skipping stones. Clearly, I need to introduce my boys to hard labor on this, their last week of summer break before their international school starts. Their European summer has been filled with such boredom.

I took their complaints as a challenge over the weekend and searched for an equally close island where we could go and hang onto the last bits of summer.

We found something new for all of us on the island of Pag, a kind of barren place that looks like not much more than sand-colored limestone mountaintops sticking out of the sea.

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It had a few things going for it: 1) We could get there quickly by car from Zadar. There’s a bridge that leads to the island. 2) It has uncrowded beaches, even in August, except for evening “party” beaches, which didn’t seem to apply to us. And 3) Cheese. It’s known for its cheese, “paški sir,” a goat’s milk cheese said to be one of the best in the world. We had to have some.

Also, upon consulting my guidebooks, they all listed the same restaurant to check out. I decided we must visit Bistro Na Tale and have spit-roasted lamb, or maybe seafood.

So we set off, and we checked everything off the list.

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1) The road to Pag is so interesting. We arrived on an arched bridge from the mainland, and I enjoyed spotting little prayer grottos property owners place along the road.

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The landscape changes from bushes and trees and crops in Zadar to what looks almost like a desert on Pag, where salt fields line the water’s edge in big, rectangular plots. We tried some of the local salt at Bistro Na Tale, one of our first stops, where the lamb and seafood lived up to the travel guide listings.

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2) The tourbooks also listed Zrće Beach in the town of Novalja as a popular spot. My GPS also listed it as “festival” grounds. I’m thinking that probably meant music festival grounds, and this would be the equivalent in the U.S. as a kind of Daytona Beach hotspot for Spring Breakers. Here’s a sampling of how that went down:

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My 11-year-old: “Mom, I think we’re too young for this beach. I saw people making out.”

I thought about replying: “Honey, I think I’m too old for this beach. I saw people making out.”

Instead, I tried to explain why the 20-something girls next to us (not the lovely women in the above photo) had their bikini tops off and were taking pictures of themselves. I told him they were just European and it was a cultural thing, but taking selfies looking naked was a bad idea by any cultural standard.

On the family friendly side, we rented a little red paddle boat with a slide. It was great fun. The water was cold, and the beach was full of pebbles. I wonder which part of our trip the boys will remember!

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3) Cheese. We had to make a couple of stops before we found a roadside vendor with a cheese sign who actually had cheese. The first guy was sitting in a chair next to a kiosk set up for wine tasting looking blissful as the sun was about to set. He looked like he’d had a few tastes. But no cheese. As we drove away, Sarge made up a story about what the guy must have told his wife about having to stay sitting by the coast selling the last of their cheese while he was really sitting there drinking the last of their wine. And that’s how we ended up buying cheese from a guy selling his wares of his white van. At least he had coolers. And samples of cheese and olive oil. It was good. We bought some of both.

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Pag made for a great day, even if it was a little more educational for our sons than I had bargained for. Looks like we have one trip left there before they put it in the “boring” category. Somehow, though, I don’t think they ever think of Pag as boring.

 

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:

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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.

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Wine

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.

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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.

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Lavender

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.

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Cheese

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Even in Croatia, a ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’

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The boys are disappointed that we are not in the United States to view today’s solar eclipse.

There’s no doubt that, if we were there, we’d be buying eclipse glasses, fashioning projectors out of cereal boxes and eating MoonPies or Oreos as we kept an eye on the sky.

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Instead, we have the windows flung open in Croatia, and we’ve been watching something else that could burn our eyes. There’s a smoky fire a few miles away in suburban Zadar that firefighters are battling with the help of planes.

And not too far away on the island of Hvar, close to where our visiting friends are touring today, there’s a wildfire being fueled by the wind.

Fires have been a problem this summer across Dalmatia. They’ve closed highways, displaced tourists, forced evacuations and left people scrambling to defend their homes and businesses.

Yet, a little bit of smoke is easy to overlook with the mountains and huge expanses of water all around us. Being an expat here, it’s easy to dismiss all of Croatia’s rough edges. I try to ride my bike past gritty Communist-era apartment buildings without really looking at them. I’d rather head to picturesque Old Town to look for architectural styles dating back to the Middle Ages.

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This is a land of contrasts. Sarge warned me not to hike off the trails here because there are still minefield warnings. The physical scars of war are not that noticeable here anymore, but it’s clear when you start talking to locals that there’s lingering opposition between the Croats and the Serbs that’s been around forever.

Our friends in town from the States want to know more about the war a quarter century ago and about all the history, warts and all. But it’s kind of like watching a solar eclipse. Isn’t it nice sometimes to blot out everything and focus on staring at something in awe?

Our favorite spots to show off to visitors have all revolved around water – and solar events like amazing sunsets.

With their American neighborhood friend in tow, our boys have jumped in the Adriatic at sunset, just off the steps of the Sea Organ. They’ve played the Croatian version of “Wipeout” at a beachside aquapark, and we’ve gone swimming by waterfalls at Krka National Park for the second time in a month.

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I won’t tire of this place and its natural wonders, even when a little smoke gets in my eyes.