Lessons from the Birthday Boy

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My biggest shortfall after being in Croatia for almost a year is that I still can’t speak Croatian. I know only the pleasantries.

I’ve discovered the limitations of charades and Google Translate. I know greetings, basic numbers and days of the week (barely). But things like parent meetings at the kids’ school leave me lost. I’m still intimidated by the circle of school moms whose conversations I don’t understand. I get excited when I know the words in Croatian television commercials. I’ve given up trying to decipher the local news.

When I’ve ordered pizza for delivery, I put my son on the phone to speak in Croatian.

I make shopping mistakes all the time. I once bought sour cream instead of coffee cream. Last week, I opened a can of something like Spam for lunch when I was expecting it to be tuna. And it’s not only Croatian that gets me. When we were in Germany in December, I bought a goose when I thought I was buying a chicken. We feasted on our first Christmas goose purely by accident.

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I keep thinking if we were staying longer, I’d put the effort into taking language classes. It’s been pretty easy for me to get by relying on the kindness of strangers. I’m just embarrassed that I haven’t caught on to the language the way Sarge and the kids have.

Moving abroad has been harder for the kids than it has been for me. Yes, kids are resilient. They have made friends and adjusted well. At school, even though it’s international, not all classes are in English. Math, for instance, is in Croatian. I’d be in tears by the end of the day. They’ve learned how to adapt.

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Today is our oldest’s 12th birthday. Almost every boy in his class showed up at our place last night to help him celebrate. They didn’t eat as much as American birthday-goers his age. That might be because they were playing outside most of the time. I asked them if they wanted to watch a movie, and they told me they didn’t want technology to spoil the party. They wanted to play. I love these kids.

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The most stressful part of the party for me was writing the invitations in Croatian. I’m still not sure if they were accurate, but they worked. Everyone arrived on time, even the one whose mom called and tried to speak to me in Croatian to get directions. I had to put Sarge on the phone with her husband because we couldn’t get through the language barrier.

This afternoon, our birthday boy is happily playing with Legos. He is looking forward to dinner at our favorite restaurant and having more of his chocolate cake. I interviewed him with a little birthday quiz I found online about his favorite things.

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One of the hardest questions was: “Who is your best friend?” He told me it was too hard to name just one. He has friends all over.

Pete’s Red Sauce

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Back when moving abroad was just a fantasy, I got in touch with my friend Eileen to see how life abroad was going for her. She and her husband made the transition from military life to retirement in Malta. (They were even on “House Hunters International.”) I always hoped we could meet up again.

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Eileen and I were friends what seems like a lifetime ago as military wives in Hawaii. She helped me through a tough year when my husband was in Afghanistan. Our diversions included pontoon boating at the Kaneohe Bay sandbar and organizing neighborhood parties. She was my partner on a women’s sailing club. When my husband returned from war and I got pregnant, she and her husband, Pete, held a surprise baby shower for us.

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It’s been nearly 13 years since that baby shower and the military moves that separated us. Ever since we’ve been in Europe, I’ve been trying to figure out when to squeeze in a visit. When would I ever be this close to Malta? I had to work it into our travels.

Our reunion came last week, when our boys were away on a school ski trip. Sarge and I dropped the boys off on a bus headed to Bosnia. We drove to the airport with our fingers crossed. We prayed the boys would be OK on a ski trip away from us.

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We arrived in Malta to see Eileen holding a welcome sign. We talked like old times. Our husbands bonded over military service stories. And we helped them celebrate another milestone. We were in town for their daughter’s eighth birthday.

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One of my favorite parts of seeing old friends is just hanging out and getting a glimpse of life on their turf. Malta was amazing. It’s on our list of “Places Where We’d Like to Retire.” But rekindling an old friendship was even better.

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During our years apart, Eileen and Pete did Navy moves to Italy, Hawaii and California. Eventually, they moved back to Italy. Pete retired from the Navy, and they went to cooking school in Florence on the GI Bill. Pete was our chef on the trip and made us lasagna and Caesar salad with homemade dressing. He gave me tips on coddling an egg for dressing and making spinach seasoned with garlic and oil.

He told me one of his biggest lessons from culinary school is that you can make a good meal with just a few ingredients. I took notes on his red sauce, which doesn’t need hours to simmer:

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PETE’S RED SAUCE

Ingredients:

  • about ¼ cup olive oil (enough to fully coat the bottom of a large pot. He said it will seem like a lot of oil.)
  • 3 to 4 cloves of pressed garlic
  • 2 teaspoons dry basil
  • a pinch of salt
  • a dash of chili pepper flakes
  • 2 (700-gram) jars of “rustica” (rough-cut) tomatoes
  • 1 (700-gram) jar of thin crushed tomatoes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt or more garlic to taste

Instructions:

Pour the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the garlic, and bring the oil to temperature. You want to flavor the oil but not brown the garlic. Add the basil, a pinch of salt and some chili pepper flakes. Stir with a wooden spoon. Once it starts to boil, and before the garlic browns, lower the heat and add the crushed tomatoes.

In Pete’s case, he used two 700-gram jars of rustic (rough-cut) tomatoes and one jar of thinner tomatoes. He said when I’m back in the States, I can make substitutions. Instead of jars, I can use two cans of crushed tomatoes and one can of tomato puree.

Add a bay leaf.

Let the sauce come to temperature. Bring to a boil and then simmer until slightly thickened. The tomato will soak up the oil. You don’t need hours of simmering. It takes about 30 minutes. Taste to see if it needs more salt or garlic. Remove bay leaf before serving.

 

We’ve already tried this upon our return to Croatia. I have never gone to culinary school, but I’ll never turn down cooking lessons in someone’s kitchen. I may never buy jarred sauce again.

Thanks for the memories, Pete and Eileen. I’ll think of you every time we have pasta and red sauce. Hope to see you again soon, wherever we are in the world.

 

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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‘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.