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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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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

‘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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