‘Ride it like you stole it’

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The first cruise ship of the season has already come and gone from the harbor here in Zadar, Croatia. We are not far behind it. This is our last week in this beautiful country.

There is a word in Croatian that describes a state of mind I will miss long after we leave. It’s called “fjaka.” It’s a day-dreamy state I fall into when I stare out at the water and watch ships go by.

Here in Croatia, drifting into that fjaka fog is a way of life.

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When we arrived a year ago, I wasn’t sure how I’d fit into a place where it feels like time can stand still. In my American life, I’m impatient and overscheduled. Now I know the value of enjoying a more leisurely pace. There’s something captivating about the cafe culture here. There’s no shame in sitting down with friends for a coffee with real cups and saucers. They still believe that life is better without the distraction of cell phones.

Even our boys, who have been homesick at times, are feeling emotional about leaving. They’ve had their last sleepovers with friends. They’ve sold their bikes and given away their Nerf guns.

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Our oldest, “A,” has been practicing every night for a week for his last big school project. He has the role of American inventor Thomas Edison (the villain) in the school’s animated film about local hero Nikola Tesla. The script is all in Croatian, and I can hardly believe my 12-year-old can read it.

Our youngest, “W,” who’s almost 11, was determined to hate it when we got here. He went on to be voted class president. It took many more months before he would admit that he likes it here. My local friend says that makes him like a real Croat: someone who loves to complain even if deep-down he likes it.

Sarge, who came here to be an instructor pilot, is back at the airfield today. He’s off. I think he just wants to hang out with the guys. The other pilots took him out last weekend and gave him a Croatian football jersey. They said they expect to see pictures of him wearing it back home.

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As for me, I have been having the strangest dreams. One was about corporate jargon. One was about dryer lint overtaking my laundry room. Another was about sea surges. My dreams seem to be about my life here colliding with my “real” life back home. I will be glad to get back to my family and friends. But I don’t know what I will do without fjaka.

Some things here may not be as idyllic as I’ve made them out to be. There can be a frustrating side to time standing still. I’m still impatient. I’ve experienced the country’s bureaucratic offices and inefficient postal service. My local friends tell stories of bribery and corruption doing business here. My language barrier has sheltered me from worrying too much about the negatives. Every place has its problems.

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I’m still awed by the things that drew me in about Croatia. I will miss simple things, like church bells and cobblestone streets. I’ll miss seeing people stop and read the death notices on the corner bulletin boards. I’ll miss the sunsets and the eerie sound of the Sea Organ.

If we were staying longer, I’d buckle down and really learn to speak the language. I’d master driving a stick shift. I’d learn to garden.

What I do know is that life will not wait for you to get around to everything on your list. We are lucky that we have had a year to see more than most people who live here. I’ll savor those moments.

When Sarge quit his desk job to follow his passion, I thought it meant everything would fall apart. Instead, it meant we needed to adopt a new philosophy. “You only get one life,” Sarge likes to say. “Ride it like you stole it.”

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Carnival in Croatia

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In October, we couldn’t find a single Halloween costume in our Croatian town. They take All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day too seriously for Halloween foolery in the mix. But for weeks this winter, our supermarkets have been stocked with costumes in preparation for Carnival.
 
Our boys have been waiting for this day since missing out on American trick-or-treating.
 
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It’s Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. In this Catholic country, it means the kids get to dress up at school, have a masquerade party and eat krafne, Croatian doughnuts. (Which reminds me of an interesting side note: One of my son’s best school friends here is named Donat, which he thinks is hilarious. The name is common here in honor of St. Donatus of Zadar. St. Donat was a bishop in the 9th century who began construction of a circular church now known as the Church of St. Donatus, a landmark of Zadar’s Old Town).
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Young Donat may be one of the Star Wars contingent at school today. Our oldest spent hours last night working on his Darth Vader costume. It’s a store-bought mask complete with a leather jacket, garbage-bag cape and a chest plate fashioned out of a decorated Band-Aid box and a belt.
 
Our youngest is letting me make an appearance at school at lunchtime to paint his face like Sans, a character in Undertale, a role-playing video game.
 
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It’s tradition here to dress in crazy attire to scare away bad spirits before Lent begins. Costumed children go around during the weeks before Carnival ringing doorbells and singing for kuna (money) or candy.
 
Over the weekend, we took a family road trip to Croatia’s port city of Rijeka. It’s the home of the country’s largest Carnival parade – Riječki Karneval. It gave us an eyeful of the spectacle that is Carnival.
 
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We saw things we weren’t expecting. The man standing next to me on the parade route was wearing a costume of three plastic nipples. I don’t know why. He could have been in New Orleans.
 
Most of what we saw was quintessential Croatian culture full of tradition, folklore and pageantry.
 
There’s a lot about Croatia that reminds me of the 1950s, and that includes Carnival costumes that would offend people in America. Blackface does not seem to have the same connotations here as it does back home. In Rijeka, a blackface character with the white turban is supposed to symbolize the victory over the Turks in the 16th century. It’s even on Carnival flags all over the city.
 
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Much like Mardi Gras festivities, people here dress in groups and parade around. My favorite group was men and boys dressed in sheepskin cloaks and clanging cow bells tied around their waists. They’re supposed to drive out evil spirits that gather over the winter months to usher in spring.
 
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Our family krewe let street vendors paint our faces for Sunday’s parade. Except for our oldest, who didn’t want photographic evidence of any such thing. Sarge says he’s an 85-year-old man trapped in a 12-year-old’s body. At least he’s letting himself be Darth Vader today. But I don’t expect him to let me take pictures.
 
It’s time for me to go paint his brother’s face. It’s a Shrove Tuesday we won’t forget. Donats and all.

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.

A weekend in on the water in Prague

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The swans were among the first to greet us in Prague.

That was after our Airbnb houseboat hosts met us on a bank of the Vltava River and handed over the keys to their apartment. They gave us a quick rundown of things to do and see and left us with a bag of bread to feed the birds. They told us we’d probably see dozens of swans.

I didn’t expect that. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect in the Czech Republic. I had worried that staying on a houseboat in the winter in Prague might be risky, damp and cold. I was glad to be wrong.

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Marka and Michal’s place, Houseboat Benjamin & Franklin, ranks up there as a memorable place to spend the night. It’s a modern and cozy, heated two-bedroom apartment. We had mild enough weather to enjoy the waterfront balcony. Our hosts even supplied us with a wifi hotspot, a Czech cell phone and an electric dinghy to take into the city.

As our boys fed the ducks, seagulls and swans, Sarge and I practiced tying bowline knots so we could be sure to secure a parking spot wherever we might find one on the water.

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Our first glimpse of the “the city of 100 spires” was from our little boat gliding along the river on the first sunny Saturday of 2018. As soon as I saw the city skyline, I wished we could stay for longer than a weekend. I was mesmerized by the architecture and art in every direction.

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The only thing on our agenda was to walk around the city. We stopped at places that caught our eye, starting with the Dancing House, a twisty building with a top that looks like Medusa. Next, we checked out the sculptures and vendors along the Charles Bridge, and then we hiked up the hill to the castle.

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On the way down, we ducked into Tavern U Krale Brabantskeho for some refreshments. The pub claims to be the oldest in Prague and dates back to 1375. Our 10-year-old said this cavernous tavern was one of his favorite places of our whole year abroad. It looked like something out of “Harry Potter” with an old-world feel, swords on the walls, candlelight and a costumed barmaid, who, in medieval character, whipped Sarge on the back and asked if he was enjoying his beer. I’m sure the grandparents will be proud that we’re showing the kids great taverns of the world.

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At least we didn’t keep them out late. The sun sets early in January in Prague, around 4:30 p.m. By the time we got back to the dinghy, it was dark. We saw Prague aglow as we headed back to the houseboat. Once we tied up, a couple of swans returned, hoping for some bread crumbs and attention.

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I guess I am biased. I am a boat person. I like having my coffee while looking out over the water. There’s a peacefulness in watching the bending light, the ripples on the water and the world waking up.

This is how I will remember Prague: its steeples and swans, its beauty and its boats. And the kids won’t let me forget the pub.

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‘O tannenbaum, o tannenbaum’

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Yesterday in the German Aldi store, I was stocking up on groceries for the holiday weekend, and I heard a little girl behind me singing “O Tannenbaum.”

I didn’t even have to know any German to know the child, who was about 5, was in the holiday spirit. It gave me all the warm fuzzies. I love the way this country embraces all things Christmas.

The owners of the place where we’re housesitting in Schöneck left a decorated tree up for us. We’ve spent several evenings since we’ve been here visiting Christmas markets in big towns, such as Nürnberg and Frankfurt, and small ones, like Regensburg.

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Our favorite was the one at St. Emmeram Castle in the Bavarian town of Regensburg. I was as taken with the story of the woman behind it as I was with the charm of the market itself. Our German/Irish friends from Sarge’s Army days took us there to see the way the royal Thurn und Taxi family does a Christkindlmarkt: with torches and lanterns lining the path and stalls of high-quality crafts hand-picked by a princess. My friend Sandra told me how back in the day, Princess Gloria was a German socialite who married into royalty and became known as the “punk princess,” known for her and mohawk hair and wild style. After her husband died, she really grew up, studied finance and started running the castle as a business. The castle itself is larger than Buckingham Palace. And in my mind, that princess is still larger than life.

My favorite food of our Christmas market adventures would have to be the “Drei in a Weckla” (three bratwurst sausages in a bun) that my friend Tine from Nürnberg recommended. My drink of choice was the red glühwein (“glowing” mulled wine) served in a holiday mug, and Sarge preferred the white variety that tastes something like apple cider.

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Our boys have found Christmas joy in the form of a dog. Not ours, but the one we are pet-sitting. Otto is a sweet thing, a labradoodle who is getting spoiled with belly rubs. I even forgave him for chewing up my most comfortable shoe while we were out.

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One of my coworkers back home said he hoped we’d have a “magical” Christmas. And I’ll have to say it has felt like one.

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My snow globe wishes came true in Nürnberg. The path where we walk the dog we’re pet-sitting looks like something out of a fairy tale. We visited as many Christmas markets as we could. And despite being in a stranger’s home in a foreign land instead of with loads of family, some traditions from my childhood have found their way here. Tonight, we’ll sit in front of that tree in the living room and recapture some of that magic of Christmas. Merry Christmas to all!

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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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‘Mom, what is adultery?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

Rome, where we almost made history

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The metal prayer candle stand teetered, tipping burning candles and hot wax precariously close to the edge. I hurried over to steady the stand as our tour guide came up beside me.

“You almost just made history,” she said, mostly to my 10-year-old, a curious boy who likes to touch things. It was a close call.

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Thankfully, on our trip to Rome, we did not burn down the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, the city’s oldest and only remaining medieval-style church. It dates back to the third century, and I would have hated to destroy it. The prayer candles must have been working. We said a lot of prayers on this trip.

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We toured Rome with a party of nine – me, Sarge and the boys, my in-laws and brother-in-law’s family – and one more if you include Anni, our tour guide from Local Guddy, a service that pairs tourists with locals to see sights beyond the beaten path.

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We did do the typical touristy things that I had seen before on other trips, making stops to marvel at the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum and the Forum. We tossed some coins in Trevi Fountain and sat on steps nearby to eat gelato. We sweated under the summer sun. We visited St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. We met nuns, gypsies, tramps and thieves and left Rome minus one wallet and passport – but that’s another story for another time.

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With Anni, we discovered an excellent restaurant close to the Vatican (Trattoria Vaticano Giggi) that serves authentic Roman pastas and wine. We visited an uncrowded hilltop (Gianicolo, or Janiculum Hill) with spectacular views of the city. Sarge made friends with a gladiator who let him wear his helmet for a photo op. We cooled our feet in a fountain (Fontana dell’Acqua Paola) that was not nearly as crowded as Trevi. We filled our water bottles from beautiful public drinking fountains that are piped into the city’s aqueduct system. And we discovered the neighborhood of Trastevere.

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Seeing Trastevere was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I would have never known it was there because it’s not on the must-see list of Rome. Maybe it should be. The former working-class neighborhood on the west bank of the Tiber River has all of the cobblestones, piazzas and charm of Italy without the August crowds we ran into everywhere else.

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The Basilica di Santa Maria was magical. Anni told us it was the first church in Rome to hold a public Mass and the first church to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. While we were inside, sunlight streamed in on the ornate, golden walls. We walked around and admired the mosaics, the history, myths and traditions. I will think of it every time I see a prayer candle and remember the time we almost made history.

 

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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.