‘Ride it like you stole it’

feet.jpg

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.

coffee culture.jpg

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.

aidan by sea organ.jpg

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.

Leach family pic.jpg

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.

bulletin board.jpg

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.”

zadar sunset March.jpg

 

Lessons from the Birthday Boy

birthday card.jpg

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.

not tuna.jpg

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.

birthday boy.jpg

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.

invite.jpg

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.

legos

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

swans.jpg

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.

bird.jpg

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.

city from water.jpg

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.

spires.jpg

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.

hilltop view.jpg

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.

pub cheers.jpg

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.

aglow.jpg

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.

prague family pic.jpg

Getting serious about a load of rubbish

trash reminder

The most complicated thing about house-sitting in Germany is figuring out what to do with the trash.

I’m afraid we’re collecting it all wrong, and it might upset the neighbors. My oldest son already used a neighbor’s trash can when he couldn’t find a place to throw something away. I hope they didn’t see him doing it. It felt like a punishable offense. We’re not following the rules like good Germans. I don’t think they tolerate this American trait very well.

Our landlord in Croatia gave us different colored bags for recycling there. But Croats are a little more laid back about everything. Germans are definitely more rigid about the rubbish.

I remember years ago visiting American friends on a German Army post. Our friends warned us not to mess up the garbage sorting system. I thought it was kind of a joke. Now I know it’s serious business. Mishandling trash here is kind of an environmental sin.

trash calendar.jpg

The homeowners where we’re staying left us a schedule so we wouldn’t miss the paper and compost collection days, which are only once or twice a month. There are baskets in the kitchen for glass and returnable plastic bottles, a compost pot, a bin for paper and cardboard, one for packaging and a waste can for everything else. There’s a color scheme for the bins, extra rules for what’s considered packaging, and a calendar to keep track of garbage days.

bottles1.jpg

I could become a hoarder if I lived here, because I just keep creating piles of things I want to toss out. Our stack of Christmas wrapping paper and boxes won’t fit in the paper bin. I’ve spoiled the compost with leftovers I’m not sure are supposed to be in it. I haven’t figured out when the general waste is supposed to go out. Thank goodness we don’t have to dispose of the Christmas tree. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.

christmas trash.jpg

In America, I rarely think about what I throw away. We have just two ways to sort it: the recycle bin and everything else. Our neighborhood felt the pain when the city switched trash collection companies. Instead of being allowed to toss as much trash as we wanted, we had to put stickers on large items and follow strict rules for yard waste. Germany makes that look like a luxury.

My generation was raised to appreciate clever packaging and not feel guilty about throwing it away. Growing up, we minimized garbage with a trash compactor. My kids are much more educated about recycling and saving the world.

paper.jpg

The Germany way when it comes to garbage is a little daunting. I don’t like being forced into such a rigid system of recycling, even though I know it’s better for the environment. Waste management here works well because it’s based on rules that most people follow.

By the time we leave, I may figure out what the rules are.

Goodbye, corner bathtub

black and white and red apartment.jpg

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.

will and luke.jpg

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.

sunset from balcony.jpg

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.

bathroom2

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.

goodbye.jpg

 

Krampus fear and St. Nick cheer

stnickcandy.jpg

Traditions run deep here, and that’s one of the things I love about Croatia.

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas, something I’ve celebrated since I was a kid. Sarge grew up in Florida and missed out on this particular custom. In my childhood suburb of Cincinnati, St. Nicholas Day was definitely a part of the Christmas culture. If you woke up Dec. 6 with coal in your stocking, you knew you had a few weeks to shape up before Santa came. St. Nick was the one who filled stockings with fruit, nuts, chocolate coins and probably a toothbrush. The official countdown to Christmas break was on.

aidanrednose.jpg

Our boys came home from school on Monday talking about how their classmates said St. Nick brought sticks to naughty children here instead of coal. And instead of stockings, kids here polish up a shoe or boot and place it on a windowsill or doorstep. They go to sleep hoping for candy instead of sticks.

Last night, our boys chose the biggest shoe they could find. Our oldest cleaned up a hiking boot, and our youngest set a high-top Converse outside our doorstep. In the morning, they woke up to shoes full of tangerines, pistachios, candy coins, a chocolate St. Nick and a chocolate Krampus (the Christmas devil). Oh, yeah, and the evil American Elf on the Shelf showed up here, too. We should have named him Krampus.

elf.jpg

I don’t remember Krampus ever being part of our St. Nicholas traditions growing up, but as an adult, I can fully appreciate the fear the beast-like creature can instill in kids who don’t want to be punished for being naughty.

Krampus was on full display in our town in Croatia today. Just after dark, Krampus, St. Nicholas and a man dressed as an elf marched through the Old Town in an odd little ritual that’s part of the advent celebration here. It wasn’t quite the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade the boys were expecting, but it was memorable.

stnickmarch2

When I read up on other traditions associated with this day in Croatia, I learned that in the fishing village of Komiza on one of the islands, they honor St. Nicholas as the patron saint of sailors and fishermen. On St. Nicholas Day, they carry his statue in a procession and burn an old boat in front of the saint’s church as they pray for protection for the next year. Then they throw the ashes on newly built boats as a blessing.

advent1.jpg

As a family living abroad, we are short on holiday traditions this year. We haven’t tromped through woods for a tree or even put up a fake one. We will miss family gatherings back home. And since we are away, we aren’t sending out our annual Christmas cards.

But today, in addition to the treat-filled shoes, we also had a bottle of homemade fresh-pressed olive oil placed on our doorstep. We ran into people we knew in Zadar’s Old Town. We admired the Christmas market’s lights, and the smell of vendors’ pancakes and mulled wine. And we’ll all have a hard time getting Krampus out of our minds.

‘Mom, what is adultery?’

castletown.jpg

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.”

castle

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.

witchcraft

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.

adultry.jpg

“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.

little things.jpg

 

Traveling without to-go cups

my mom.jpg

One of the things I’ve missed since moving abroad has been talking to my mom.

In the States, she and my dad live less than half an hour away. They dote on the grandkids and entertain the family. We catch up by phone at least a couple of times a week and get together often. Being in a time zone six hours ahead has cut down our talking time.

We’re making up for it this week. She and two of my aunts are here visiting, and we are taking a bus tour through Croatia, a bit of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Slovenia.

venice selfie.jpg

We started in Italy with a quick weekend in Venice, where my mom and one of my aunts flew in. They spent the week with us in Zadar, taking in national parks and hanging out with my family. Then we left for an all-girls vacation.

dubrovnik selfie.jpg

Right now, I’m rooming with my mother in a hotel in Dubrovnik, and the sound of my typing is probably keeping her awake. She’s not complaining. She just doesn’t want me to stay up too late because we have another full day tomorrow on the Gate 1 Travel bus to get to Croatia’s capital city of Zagreb. The wake-up call will be an early one.

Growing up, our family always took vacations. They were usually simple road trips and summer beach destinations. This is my first bus tour and my first time traveling with my mom, one of her sisters and one of my dad’s sisters. It has been a bonding experience and neat for me to be able to connect with my aunts as an adult.

More than just seeing different parts of the world, what makes this trip special is being able to do it with these women.

umbrellas.jpg

We’ve shared wine, stories, songs and selfies, critiqued the food and explored places we never thought we’d go.

We all went to the same all-girl high school and even took a picture with a school newsletter to send in for publication. Since we didn’t have the real newsletter to hold up, my oldest son drew us one before we left, and my mom has been carrying it around everywhere we go.

notre damian.jpg

My mom says she doesn’t have the adventurous spirit that I do to be able to live abroad and go without the comforts she misses. That would include things to do with coffee the way she likes it: a tall Starbucks-brand coffee pod made in a Keurig and mixed with Coffee-mate. She also seems alarmed that I don’t have flour in my pantry or a dryer to soften my towels.

To me, enjoying life here is about learning to adapt. Try your coffee another way.

As one of our tour guides said, there will never be Starbucks on every corner in Croatia. It goes against the country’s coffee culture. Here, take-out cups are seen as a sacrilege. You have to make time to catch up with people. The ritual is to have coffee together – not by yourself.

Our bus leaves early tomorrow. I’m waking up early to find some coffee with my mom and aunts. I’m not sure the hotel where we’re staying is the right place to start a tradition with them (the coffee here is terrible). But we’ll adapt and spend another day exploring a new place together.

 

 

 

 

‘Sretan rođendan!’ – A happy birthday in Croatia

cake.jpg

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:

lunch view.jpg

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.

kobona pece.jpg

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).

bell peppers.jpg

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.

candles.jpg

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.

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

dog sunset.jpg

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.

fire today.jpg

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.

church old town.jpg

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.

swimming at krka.jpg

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