‘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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Easy for you to say

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When we moved to Croatia, I had a hard time pronouncing the simplest things. Even the name of our seaside town, Zadar, seemed simple enough. “Zah-DHAR” seemed right. The local pronunciation is more like “ZAH-der.”

My kids are wondering when I’m ever going to advance beyond my toddler-level Croatian vocabulary. The boys tell me to look at the accent marks to figure out if a “c” is hard or soft, or if a “d” is supposed to sound like a “j.” The alphabet has no “q,” “w,” “x” or “y.” I feel proud of myself when I can run daily errands speaking only the local language. I’m sure I’m mangling what little I know.

That hasn’t stopped me from playing tour guide for family and friends in cities I can barely pronounce.

 

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Plitvice Lakes National Park

(sounds like “plit-vi-che”)

My aunt from Las Vegas said she could have spent her whole vacation at this national park. It was the height of autumn’s color show, and the leaves made October the perfect time to visit the park with its 16 terraced lakes linked by waterfalls. It was a different world from the summer crowds, and each time I’ve been there, I’ve seen it in a new light. It’s a must-see if you are coming to Croatia.

 

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Dubrovnik

(sounds like “dew-broav-nik”)

All of our American visitors have put the walled city of Dubrovnik among the top of the list of places to see in Croatia. It’s a stop for many cruise ships, and it’s becoming ever popular for its Hollywood factor as the setting for “King’s Landing” in the HBO series “Game of Thrones” and the new movie “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” The highlight of my last trip there was walking the medieval city walls and seeing the sea of red-tiled house tops below on the edge of the Adriatic. We also stopped for drinks at Café Buza. The name means “hole in the wall,” and you walk through a hobbit-like door down cliffside steps to get there.

 

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Montenegro

(sounds like “mon-ti-nayg-roh”)

This country in the Balkans was a day trip from Dubrovnik on our Gate 1 Travel bus tour. We visited the Bay of Kotor and the touristy Kotor Old Town. This is the first European city I’ve been to where the outskirts overshadowed the old town. My favorite part was a boat ride out to Our Lady of the Rocks, a church that pays tribute to the sailors and the women who prayed for their safe return.

 

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Pula

(sounds like “puhl-a”)

Coming here with a local guide on our bus tour meant I learned some things about this Roman town on Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula that I would not have known without a guide. I’d been there once before and had been telling people that it has one of the best-preserved colosseums in the world. The guide corrected that. She said the word “colosseum” is reserved for the one in Rome. What Pula has, she said, is a Roman amphitheater. And it’s spectacular.

 

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Rovinj

(sounds like “ro-veen”)

I’ve heard people say that coming to Croatia can be like a trip to Italy without the crowds or the cost. In Rovinj, that’s true. It’s said to be the most Italian town in Croatia, and its cobblestone streets are as picturesque as they are treacherous (pack shoes than can handle slick pavement). Our bus tour made a quick side trip here, and I’d wished they had given us more time to wander around. Artists and locals still live along the old town’s steep streets, and every stop along the way looks like a postcard.

 

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Radovljica

(sounds like “rad-oh-leets-ah”)

This Slovenian town outside Bled was one of the last opportunities for an extra day trip on our bus tour of Croatia and Slovenia. I don’t think I ever would have discovered it on my own. It’s a tiny and enchanting medieval place in the heart of the Slovenian Alps, and I could hear others on my tour talking about how it looked like something from a movie set with its Renaissance and Gothic architecture and painted facades on old buildings. We stopped for wine tasting and a Bavarian-type dinner at a tavern that felt like a throwback to another era.

I may not be able to remember or pronounce their names, but all of these places made for memorable spots to check off my bucket list.

Dovidenja (“doh-vee-jeh-nyah”), Plitvice, Dubrovnik, Montenegro, Pula, Rovinj and Radovljica. Goodbye, for now. I hope to be back.

 

 

 

 

Traveling without to-go cups

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

A taste of the Balkans in Ljubljana

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Some of our best memories of Slovenia have to do with food. We even took home a tall, starched chef hat for 10-year-old “W,” our aspiring chief cook.

The boys tried a little of everything on the culinary spectrum on this trip: American-style burgers that reminded them of home, sugar-toasted almonds that smelled so good we had to buy them from a street vendor, and sushi for lunch at a restaurant where plates came by on a conveyor belt.

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All of that was before our official excursion on the Ljubljana Food Tour.

The food tour is how we met Mirzeta, a Bosnian-born woman who married a local, lived for a while in Malaysia and returned to Slovenia to follow her dream to give tourists a taste of the Balkans. We met her on a Sunday beside three birch trees in front of Prešeren’s Monument, a landmark on the city’s main square. Mirzeta wanted to show us the city and its traditions. She wove stories of art and architecture throughout her food tour.

Forget the burgers and sushi. This was the real cultural experience. And these are some of the foods that define the country:

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Seafood salad: I’ve tried this all over Croatia, and each restaurant puts its own spin on the taste and presentation. Sometimes, it’s octopus served cold like a potato salad with   olives, onions and capers. At Ribca, Ljubljana’s best-known seafood restaurant, fresh ingredients come from the fish market right next door.

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Sausage and cabbage: Next, Mirzeta took us to Gostilna Sokol (the Eagle), a tavern in the city center with a rustic look and waiters dressed in traditional national costumes. We tried a local dish of kranjska klobasa (pork and bacon sausage) with sides that included buckwheat, cabbage and mashed potatoes. Here, the city’s Austrian influence comes through, and it goes down well with beer.

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Pickled turnip stew: One of my favorite tastes of the tour was something between a soup and a stew. I like to try dishes I normally wouldn’t make at home, and this fit the bill. It’s a pickled turnip stew with pork and tastes a little like Chinese hot-and-sour soup. In Slovenia, tradition has it that it was a way to use the abundance of pork meat at slaughtering time. They call it “bujta repa.”

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Chocolate, honey, salt flower and wine: Mirzeta made sure we tried a little of everything, so we also stopped at shops for a sample of chocolate, honey, salt flower and wine. “Chef W” liked the salt flower, salt that forms as a thin delicate crust on the surface of seawater as it evaporates. The shop owner told us to sprinkle it on finished food instead of table salt. We have since added a flower salt container to our dinner table.

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Mushroom dumplings: One of the most interesting restaurants in Ljubljana we visited was a place called Druga Violina (which means “Second Fiddle”). It serves Slovenian dishes and a season menu, but the most interesting thing about the restaurant is that it is accessible to the disabled, hires people with special needs and raises money to support local events. Knowing that made the already delicious food taste a little better. Here, one of the samples we tried was a ravioli-like pasta, kind of like a dumpling, with mushroom sauce. It tasted rich and filling. By then, we were stuffed, but we had to save room for dessert.

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(Photo: The window at “Second Fiddle” restaurant)

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Layer cake: Our final food stop in Ljubljana was at Gostilna Šestica, the oldest restaurant in the city, which has been operating since 1776. We ended our tour with coffee and caramel apple layer cake that they call a “moving cake.” It’s a spiced  cake with layers of apple, poppy seeds, walnuts and ricotta cheese with a caramel sauce that tastes like everything that makes you think of autumn.

As the leaves began to fall in Ljubljana, we admired the scenery, got a taste of a new season and an appreciation for the Balkans. Comfort food here is different and familiar at the same time. I already know I will be coming back for another bite. My mom and aunts are in town, and we are heading back to Ljubljana next week. I may have to catch up with Mirzeta for a coffee.

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.