The time I washed Sarge’s passport

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Our latest European weekend road trip started with us loading up the car and checking to make sure we had everyone’s passports. Sarge thought I had packed his, but I just had mine and the kids’. So he went back inside and discovered his passport was in the pocket of a pair of his work pants that I had put through the washing machine.

We tried in vain to flatten the pages as we started our drive. We weren’t sure we’d make it past the border crossing on our way from Croatia to Slovenia, and we almost didn’t. The Slovenian border guard was definitely not pleased. He grumbled and looked like he was going to toss it in the trash. Eventually, he scanned and stamped our passports and let us through. I still have lingering border-crossing anxiety.

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When we made it to our Airbnb in Ljubljana, our host, Vandana, welcomed us with maps and a wealth of information about the capital city. She also runs a youth hostel, is a painter and a yoga teacher and is a real ambassador for Slovenia. We talked for half an hour about the region’s history, parks, caves and attractions.

Meanwhile, Sarge found a heavy table leg to press his passport, and the kids found an English-language movie channel and the wifi password. We had to pull the boys away from the screens to set off to see Ljubljana’s bridges, castle and dragons.

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We managed to miss the river cruise I had already paid for, the second time this has happened to us in a river city on our travels. I think the lesson here is to avoid buying boat tour tickets in advance. The boat will leave without you.

We abandoned our original plans and wandered past government buildings, Slovene statues and pedestrian bridges in search of food. Sarge and the kids saw a sign for a “Burger Bar,” and we decided we had to check it out. We hadn’t had American-style burgers in six months. The way they serve them in the city where we’re living in Croatia is more like Croatian meat patties on flatbread.

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I’m not sure if it was because we had skipped lunch or that the burgers, French fries and onion rings were that good, but we enjoyed the comfort food of Pop’s Place. I read later that it’s considered one of Europe’s top burger joints. I’m glad we ran into it on accident.

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There’s so much to say about Ljubljana (one of my newfound favorite cities) that it will take a few posts to get to everything. (See upcoming posts about the Ljubljana Food Tour and the castle).

For me, one of the highlights was just strolling through it. It’s small and walkable. Ljubljana stopped allowing cars in its city center in 2007. Now, its core is a pedestrian zone with open-air markets, shops and cafes and interesting architecture in every direction.

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We left our mark on Ljubljana by hanging a “lock of love” on Butcher’s Bridge. While Sarge and I have not yet made it to Paris see the famous love locks over the River Seine, I like the idea of leaving a symbol of unbreakable love alongside locks of thousands of other couples. Sarge carved our initials onto a padlock, and the kids took pictures as we locked it on the bridge and threw the keys into the river. They didn’t even cringe when we kissed.

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It’s hard not to fall in love with Ljubljana itself. I don’t know if many Americans have heard of it, much less can pronounce it (Americans call it “loo-blee-ah-nuh.” Local pronunciation is more like “lyoo-blyah-nah.”) It somehow escaped my memory of learning geography and names of capital cities. Part of me would like to keep it a secret. It’s still relatively uncrowded and underrated. It looks like something out of a fairy tale and even has tall tales about dragons to go along with it.

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Just don’t tell anybody else how great it is. I’d hate to ruin it.

 

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.

 

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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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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Driving Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pigeons in the Piazza

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Back when we were young newlyweds, Sarge and I planned a European rendezvous.

At the time, he was serving a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan, and I was working as a newspaper reporter in Hawaii. We met up on his mid-tour leave in Germany, rented a car on an Army post and set off for more countries than we had ever been – all in the span of two weeks.

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One of my favorite spots we visited was Venice, where we stayed in a hotel off the beaten path that had interesting artwork on the walls and a romantic arbor-covered restaurant in the back garden.

When we made spur-of-the-moment plans last week to take a weekend trip to Venice, I pulled out my worn Italy guidebook that I packed from the States and searched for that little hideaway. Of course, it was completely booked. It’s July in Venice. But through the magic of the internet, I found a reasonably priced apartment across the canal on the island of Giudecca, and we piled in our tiny rental car for another European road trip.

We told the boys we’d do all of the quintessential touristy things we could fit in a 24-hour tour, including taking in the art and architecture, a gondola ride, Venetian food and souvenir shops.

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I had forgotten about the birds. I had no idea one of my boys’ lasting memories of Venice might just be playing with the pigeons.

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As soon as we entered St. Mark’s Square, it wasn’t the breathtaking beauty of what Napoleon once called “the drawing room of Europe” that they boys noticed. It was the hundreds of pigeons and what seemed like almost as many Bangladeshi birdseed hawkers.

Half a dozen vendors accosted us, shoving bird food in the boys’ hands and roses in mine, and putting their palms out to Sarge for money. It probably cost Sarge 40 euro for us to walk across Piazza San Marco.

“We’re not spending money,” Sarge explained when I urged him to stop handing out coins. “We’re making memories.”

Those street hawkers loved us. The boys made it out of the pigeon frenzy alive, and I ended up with a dozen red roses.

I also had a chance to relive some nostalgic memories. We took that gondola ride with the kids, just like Sarge and I had done years before.

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And the next morning, we found that hotel with the grapevine arbor. It wasn’t open to the public for breakfast, but we snapped a few photos anyway.

We picked up some souvenirs, a glass bracelet for me and fedoras for the boys. “W” talked me into letting him get a dog, at least one made of Murano glass. Thank goodness he didn’t pick a pigeon. Those things will give me nightmares.

Road Trips and Memories

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When I was a kid, we went on family vacations every summer, and those trips are some of the highlights of my childhood memories.

My dad, an avid boater, liked to go to the water. My mom, a teacher, liked to educate us with history and culture. So we usually did a little of both. Dad strategically packed everything for our family of six. Sometimes we rented an RV – once to Walt Disney World and once to Canada. On another trip, Dad towed the sailboat to South Carolina. And for several years, we rode in style in the family van that he configured with a table and benches that collapsed into a bed. Mom made the brown cushions and the curtains, and we had plenty of room to play games, color or sleep.

We always had maps and a giant road atlas that I’m sure my siblings and I fought over to pinpoint where we were going and whether we were almost there. I remember my older brother being an excellent navigator. I miss those maps.

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On our European mini road trip this weekend, we relied on our phone apps to get us to our destinations. My phone service didn’t connect outside of Croatia, so it was hard to tell what country we were even in just going by road signs that I couldn’t read.

Some things, though, are universal. Border crossings are exciting, whether it’s a state or a country. And as much as I love having authentic experiences meeting people who can talk about what life is like where they live, I still love touristy stuff.

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I like double-decker buses that you can hop on and off to get an overview of a city. I like watching street performers and wondering how they endure wearing body paint in the summer heat. I like landmarks and statues and taking goofy pictures with the kids. And I like seeing the world from my kids’ perspective.

One of the boys’ favorite parts of the trip was spotting Ferrari sports cars in Budapest, Hungary. If they were going to have a scrapbook from this trip, it would include pictures from their self-guided tour of the parking garage near the apartment we rented, where they excitedly documented cool cars.

That scrapbook also would include a picture of the architectural sculpture directly across the street from the apartment we rented. “A,” who is 11, opened his bedroom window to take pictures and giggle. “Mom!” he said, “Doesn’t it look like he’s taking a selfie naked?”

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“A” liked the hustle and bustle of Budapest’s urban core and the tall buildings and people milling about. “I’m going to miss this city,” he said when we left. “I’d like to live here for a few days.”

“W,” our 10-year-old, liked that our Airbnb rental was above a Lego store. And he was impressed to learn that the man who invented the Rubik’s Cube was from Budapest.

The next day, Vienna, Austria, became their next favorite city. Its Ferris wheel and amusement park caught their eyes as much as any palace or monument we visited.

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Our whirlwind tour of Budapest and Vienna didn’t leave us much time to cruise along the Danube River (which we tried to do, but the tour boat unfortunately left without us when there was no one to unlock the pier gate). We didn’t have time for museums or to linger in coffee shops or a chance to see one of my favorite paintings in person. But I’m sure Gustav Klimt’s works will still be in the Belvedere Museum if I make it back to Vienna.

We had the usual trip headaches (including that tour boat leaving without us!), a parking ticket and no air conditioning on a hot Vienna night. But we left impressed with the history and beauty of both cities, the grand boulevards and majestic buildings.