‘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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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.

 

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.

 

Look at the blues in the sky

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When my in-laws were visiting, we sat at a picnic table outside our Dubrovnik weekend rental to enjoy our morning coffee.

We briefly talked about the events going on back in America that we had read about on our phones on our Facebook and news feeds – a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., violence, racism and President Trump.

“Look at the blues in the sky,” my brother-in-law said, changing the subject. We all looked up to admire the sky.

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That’s one of the benefits of living abroad. You don’t have to feel guilty about being disconnected from the 24/7 news cycle back home. I say this as a recovering newsaholic and former newspaper reporter: It’s refreshing to get away from it all.

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We focused instead on Dubrovnik, a walled city along the Adriatic that has its own history of turbulence, including scars from wartime shelling during the breakup of Yugoslavia 26 years ago. Today, the city is restored to its former glory and has become one of the prized destinations in the Mediterranean.

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We meandered through its ancient streets, saw its churches, fountains and sculptures. We admired the views from the cable car that took us high above the city and dined at a restaurant aptly named Panorama.

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We stuck our feet in the water at a beach called Copacabana and stopped at one of the roadside fruit stands along the Adriatic Highway on our way back to Zadar.

Our biggest troubles were navigating a nine-passenger van through Dubrovnik’s narrow streets (thank God Sarge is an ace at that), having nine people share one tiny bathroom and getting a ticket from one of Croatia’s finest for making a U-turn when we left the roadside fruit stand.

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I’ll take those troubles over 24/7 Trump news any day. My advice? Turn it all off and look at the sky. Blue is the only color you need to see.

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The secret is out: Croatia is not ‘undiscovered’

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The guidebooks say there’s still an “undiscovered” quality about Croatia.

Those guidebooks are not talking about July and August in the seaside towns along the turquoise waters of the Adriatic. It’s peak tourist season here, and Sarge is cursing the tourist drivers as if he were a local.

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The boys and I have taken in some sights, even if we have been elbow-to-elbow with people walking the streets of Old Town Zadar or gazing at waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park. It’s a wonder we didn’t see anyone in the Plitvice crowd pushed off the park’s boardwalks on the water’s edge. But I guess they have railings where it really counts. (The park is stunning, by the way).

Croatia was undiscovered, at least to me, before we moved here. It was under my radar, and I had to look up Zadar on a map when we found out we had the opportunity to move here. Sarge says all the convincing it took was for me to look at Croatia’s proximity to Italy on a map. I was ready to move as soon as he said, “Go!”

Italy has a place in my heart because I’m part Italian on my mother’s side, and my grandfather used walk around his house in Kentucky singing songs like, “’O Sole Mio.” That was one of his favorites. I heard that song here and imagined the singer to be my late grandfather.

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I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Italian flavor of many of the towns here. I had no idea that Pula, on the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula, has a well-preserved Roman colosseum that rivals the one in Rome. Or that the fishing port of Rovinj is “the most Italian town in Croatia” and is officially bilingual (Italian and Croatian). The flavor extends to the foods. I’ve had the best cheese and prosciutto here I’ve ever tasted. And the wine isn’t bad, either.

My preconceived notions of Croatia were that it would have lots of Communist-era architecture and be pockmarked from the war of the early 1990s. There is some of that. But there is lots of beauty beyond those scars.

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I’m struck by the old windows and doors here that function despite their age – and the old people here who function despite their age, making it up steep streets of cobbled stone, walking the stairs to their apartments and leaning out their windows with brightly colored shutters to hang their laundry.

I’ve heard people say that parts of Croatia are “what Italy used to be.” I’m sure the crowds here don’t rival the summer crowds across the Adriatic in Italy. But the charm of Croatia is no longer a part of secret Dalmatia. The word is out. I’m just another American discovering what Eastern Europeans have known for decades. It’s a pretty good time to be here, even if I have to bump elbows with other tourists.

Good friends and great adventures

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After three months of living abroad, our first visitors from America have finally arrived, and I’ve been counting down the days for them to get here.

I told Sarge I was looking forward to talking to Americans again. He said I could always talk to him. But it’s really not the same as talking to my girlfriends from back home. Even with messages and video chats, being far from home has made me miss the human connection of longtime friendships, the same way my kids have missed their school friends. I’m grateful to have friends who would travel the world just to see me.

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My friend Tanya A has been my pal since we were newspaper reporters just out of college, and everyone on the city desk called us “Tanya A” and “Tanya B,” since our maiden names start with A and B. We’ve signed Christmas cards to each other that way ever since. We’ve seen each other through career moves, failed relationships, pregnancies and all the milestones that longtime friendships withstand.

She’s traveled across the country to see me get married in Hawaii, be Godmother to my son in Alabama, go boating in Indiana and stay connected in points in between. Our families have spent weekend trips together and have become close, and our kids are like cousins. Right now, all five kids are piled in one room on beds and air mattresses for a week of sleepovers.

Sleepovers are among the things my boys have missed about America. Their friends in Croatia haven’t had the same American sleepover experience. But the boys and their Chicago cousins brought the experience here, complete with popcorn, Nerf guns and Minecraft video game battles.

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My boys have shown off their favorite find in the Adriatic Sea – inflatable water parks. These are like bounce houses on the water, and my boys can spend hours on them wearing themselves out. Spending the afternoon at one yesterday may explain why all five kids are still asleep this morning.

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Travel has been a unifying bond for us. The kids remember a Spring Break trip to meet up at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis one year. We took a trip to Chicago to see them the year after that. Last year, we met to go pontoon boating on a lake. The kids’ memories of each other are like a collection of vacation snapshots. And we are creating some new ones this week.

One of the great things about being here is having the chance to experience things that are new to everyone. I’m just as excited to be reacquainted with my old pal and reflect on all of the places we’ve already been together.

 

 

The Junk Collector

There’s a truck that comes through our neighborhood nearly every day blaring an announcement.

The first time I heard it, I was home alone, and I ran to our balcony to see what was happening outside. It was a stormy day, and I thought it could be some kind of weather warning, kind of like an American civil defense siren. Maybe it was a tornado warning and I should batten down the hatches.

Not knowing the language, it just sounded ominous, or reminiscent of the Communist era. At least that’s where my mind went. What in the heck was I supposed to know about what was happening? What instructions was this man giving? I really was kind of alarmed.

The truck was gone before I could do anything about it or ask anyone who could understand me. Sarge had no idea what I was talking about when he came home from work. There was no tornado.

But the truck kept coming back. And so did a white van with the same kind of announcements. Upon closer inspection, they didn’t look like any kind of official vehicles. The next time the blue truck came down the street, I realized it was hauling bikes and washing machines.

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What struck me as a scary voice of authority is actually the neighborhood junk collector.

“He’s saying: ‘Old cars, fridges, ovens,’” my Croatian friend translated. “We are cleaning your yards, taking old things that would go to the trash.”

Oh, is that all? It’s just another funny, quirky thing about living in a different culture.

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Today, we took a family outing to the police station. We are in the middle of getting our temporary residency paperwork, and the bureaucracy level involved is, let’s say, on the high side.

We arrived at the police station’s lunch hour, when it’s closed, and a couple dozen people gathered in a muggy lobby and waited for the doors to be unlocked. Except one office was open, and an older man was yelling at the woman behind the desk.

“He sounds mad,” I told Sarge. No, Sarge and our Croatian friend in line confirmed. In Croatia, that’s normal talking.

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And what I thought was way too much red tape in the file folder our clerk was holding? That’s normal here, too. (For example, in addition to our documents we had to have translated, they wanted an official copy of our marriage license that was no more than 6 months old. What? How about our official marriage license from when we got married?) “Just keep smiling,” Sarge said. “She’s trying to help us.”

Sometimes, as an American here, I have to remind myself that I am the foreigner. People try to speak my language even when I can’t understand theirs. Sometimes, what sounds ominous isn’t ominous at all. Maybe it’s just a junk collector. Or maybe someone who doesn’t seem like it at first is actually trying to help. Or maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part. I’ll have to get back to you after I pass “go,” they collect my kuna and I return to the front of the line.

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Driving Lessons

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Sarge has started my driver’s education course. After two months of leaving him behind the wheel of our manual transmission rental car, he’s handing over the reins so I can get a taste of driving in Europe.

Almost all of the cars here are stick shifts. They’re cheaper to buy (and rent) and are more fuel efficient than automatics. In America, only 3 percent of car sales are manual transmissions, compared with 80 percent in some European countries, car-shopping website Edmunds says. In Croatia, mastering a manual is a practical necessity.

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Sarge is of the school that everyone should know how to drive a stick. I’m sure it’s something he’ll teach our kids, even if changing gears on a manual is a novelty by the time they are drivers.

I hadn’t tried to drive a stick shift since I was in college, and it’s a skill I never mastered. I knew it was time for some schooling. For me, it’s kind of like learning the language here: It would be so much easier if I didn’t even attempt it. But I’d always be a little lost if I didn’t at least try.

Lesson One was on Sunday afternoon when the local hardware store closed and their parking lot was nearly empty. (Side note: Hardware stores in Croatia are not really set up for weekend Do-It-Yourselfers. At 2 p.m. on Sunday, you’re out of luck if your project is incomplete and you need more supplies. Might as well take a siesta!)

Sarge, an instructor pilot and natural teacher, drove around the lot and demonstrated how to release the clutch, when to push the gas pedal and how to shift gears and how to reverse. Then, I took the driver’s seat and followed his instructions. He’s good at this kind of thing and was patient as I fumbled through the process.

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Our boys sat in the back seat and watched and added their own commentaries.

“You’re doing great, Mommy,” 11-year-old “A” said. “I’m a little scared, though!”

I was doing well in the flat and nearly empty parking lot.

When Sarge had me turn onto the roads with the other drivers, I got a little nervous. It was the same feeling I had when I joined a women’s sailing club years ago and was left in charge of navigating the boat myself. It takes a while to get in tune with being the captain of the ship.

Especially when you stall out. Lesson One ended when I stalled twice at a stop light and had cars lining up behind me through two rotations of the light.

That’s when I asked Sarge to switch places and take over. I expected the driver behind me to cuss me out in Croatian. Thankfully, he just waved and smiled watching our musical chairs performance.

In Croatia, you have to drive with confidence. Locals drive fast, and motorcycles and scooters zip between traffic. I’m not quite ready to take them on yet. It will take a few more lessons before I feel good about going out on the open road. Until then, I will be a Sunday driver in the Bauhaus parking lot learning a lost art.