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.

‘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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Krampus fear and St. Nick cheer

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Pardoning the turkey

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We are starting off Thanksgiving week celebrating the way any American family would. We’re binge-watching “Stranger Things” on Netflix.

After living in Croatia for half a year and watching only a handful of shows in English, I figured out how to make our VPN (Virtual Private Network) connect. Now we can listen to music on Pandora, catch my favorite radio podcasts (I love “This American Life”) and watch sitcoms that weren’t available on the web in Eastern Europe.

And on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, Sarge helped me with the grocery shopping, a chore he hates. While it was less crowded than any supermarket in America on this date on the calendar, it was a challenge in other ways. A walk down the spice aisle, for example, put our language skills to the test. I now know that “majčina dušica” might translate as “mother of the nuns” in English, but it’s actually “thyme.” Good thing there was a picture on the package. Through trial and error, I’ve also learned the difference between buying heavy cream and sour cream here, even though the packaging is deceptively similar.

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I heard the Interspar grocery would be selling turkeys. That was not entirely correct. I should have done shopping the old-school way and ordered one directly from the butcher. All we could find was turkey legs. So, we will be having whole roasted chicken and some turkey legs. The rest of the turkey gets a pardon.

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We will also have sweet potato casserole with no marshmallows (none to be found in Croatia). I also couldn’t find cranberries of any sort, or canned pumpkin, or measuring cups. I’ll improvise. We’ll still have other standards: mashed potatoes, green beans and rolls. And I will try to make pie dough without measuring the ingredients in actual measuring cups. Tea cup measuring should suffice.

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The kids are celebrating “Italian Week” at their international school this week, and they’re not off for American Thanksgiving. We won’t watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade together. But we might get crazy and let the boys stay up late to watch Netflix or play a family game of “Cluedo” (the board game “Clue,” our favorite).

A year ago, we had an unusual “Friendsgiving” in New Mexico with Sarge’s pilot friends from America and Tunisia when he was working in Roswell. This year, we’re straying from family tradition again. Turkey, relatives and American football won’t play a central role in our feast.

We will still be counting our blessings. We have much to be grateful for this year, especially the opportunity to live abroad and grow closer as a family of four. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, and it will be different in a place where not many other people are celebrating. We won’t have a crackling fire, a La-z-boy chair to nap in after dinner or turkey leftovers for sandwiches the next day.

We will have a spirit of togetherness just the same. We’ll think about what we are grateful for, appreciate what we have and enjoy the simple pleasures of family nights, ordinary days and holidays, wherever we are to celebrate them.

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