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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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.

4th of July with the Expats

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Move abroad, and chances are, when there’s a holiday party, you’ll be invited.

I love holidays. I come from a family of holiday over-achievers. If there’s a day to be celebrated, there’s going to be a party. Or at least a gathering. And plenty of food and libations.

The 4th of July is my favorite celebration of summer. It doesn’t have the depressing undertones of Memorial Day (fellow military spouses might get what I mean here) or the “summer is over” feeling of Labor Day. It means I’m usually at a pool or a lake or a barbecue enjoying life in the USA.

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This year, we’re in Croatia, and it’s the first time in a long time that Sarge has had to work on the 4th. I don’t get homesick often, but truth be told, today is one of those days that I miss my kids being in the neighborhood bike parade or the family going boating for the weekend or just hanging out with my parents and siblings and all of the cousins at my parents’ pool.

The boys and I wore red, white and blue anyway and met up with our band of brothers – the American expat group we met on Facebook. They invited us to a cookout.

We had the assignment of bringing watermelon, so I searched for one that would fit in my bicycle basket and could make it to our destination without incident. We succeeded.

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Our hosts, a fantastic American nomadic couple traveling the world with their 7-month-old baby, had been preparing for days. They had a cooler full of ice (unheard of in Croatia!), real cheeseburgers (also unheard of in Croatia!) and buns, corn on the cob, vegetable skewers, lemonade and libations and a Frisbee game to take part in.

They also had American music, which I’ve sorely been missing, and chalk for the kids to mark their territory with a flag.

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None of us could find fireworks here, but it didn’t matter. I may not have seen explosions in the sky or heard the “Star-Spangled Banner,” but I haven’t given up my national identity. The red, white and blue balloons we spotted on our bike ride to the expats’ party made us feel like we had arrived. We had found our people.

We are American expats abroad. We are lucky to be here. And we are lucky to be able to return home when we want to our baseball games and barbecues and flag-waving freedom.

Happy Independence Day, America! You are something to celebrate.