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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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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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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Good friends and great adventures

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After three months of living abroad, our first visitors from America have finally arrived, and I’ve been counting down the days for them to get here.

I told Sarge I was looking forward to talking to Americans again. He said I could always talk to him. But it’s really not the same as talking to my girlfriends from back home. Even with messages and video chats, being far from home has made me miss the human connection of longtime friendships, the same way my kids have missed their school friends. I’m grateful to have friends who would travel the world just to see me.

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My friend Tanya A has been my pal since we were newspaper reporters just out of college, and everyone on the city desk called us “Tanya A” and “Tanya B,” since our maiden names start with A and B. We’ve signed Christmas cards to each other that way ever since. We’ve seen each other through career moves, failed relationships, pregnancies and all the milestones that longtime friendships withstand.

She’s traveled across the country to see me get married in Hawaii, be Godmother to my son in Alabama, go boating in Indiana and stay connected in points in between. Our families have spent weekend trips together and have become close, and our kids are like cousins. Right now, all five kids are piled in one room on beds and air mattresses for a week of sleepovers.

Sleepovers are among the things my boys have missed about America. Their friends in Croatia haven’t had the same American sleepover experience. But the boys and their Chicago cousins brought the experience here, complete with popcorn, Nerf guns and Minecraft video game battles.

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My boys have shown off their favorite find in the Adriatic Sea – inflatable water parks. These are like bounce houses on the water, and my boys can spend hours on them wearing themselves out. Spending the afternoon at one yesterday may explain why all five kids are still asleep this morning.

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Travel has been a unifying bond for us. The kids remember a Spring Break trip to meet up at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis one year. We took a trip to Chicago to see them the year after that. Last year, we met to go pontoon boating on a lake. The kids’ memories of each other are like a collection of vacation snapshots. And we are creating some new ones this week.

One of the great things about being here is having the chance to experience things that are new to everyone. I’m just as excited to be reacquainted with my old pal and reflect on all of the places we’ve already been together.

 

 

Europe with kids, ain’t it grand?

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“I don’t know why everybody says Europe is so beautiful,” my youngest complained today as we walked our bikes through a crowded street of Old Town Zadar, Croatia, trying to avoid running into tourists. “Look at all the cracks on the stones!”

“Do you know how old those stones are?” I said. I don’t know how old those stones are. Old. Very old.

I’ve spent half the summer defending Very Old Europe to my kids and explaining why they should appreciate their surroundings as much as going to roller coasters and water parks. Some days, I lose the battle.

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Today, I promised them that after I finished my work, we’d go somewhere. My oldest, “A,” wanted to go to a history museum, which naturally meant his brother, “W,” wanted to stay home.

“Why do we have to go somewhere that seems like school?” he said. “It’s summer!”

Sometimes, I think my kids have a secret pact. If one wants to do something, the other must protest. I run the spectrum of wanting to keep them from being spoiled brats to wanting to keep them content in a country that is not their own.

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Today’s destination was the Archeological Museum. Lots of old, cracked things. “W” was not impressed. I kept having to stop and say nagging, motherly things to him, like, “Don’t sit on the tomb!”

“A” is more of a history buff who likes lingering on past lives. We walked around the museum talking about the people who must have made the objects we saw. “W” sped past us looking for interactive exhibits that haven’t arrived in this country just yet.

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If the best education is not learned in the classroom, I hope all of this “old stuff” is rubbing off on both kids. It’s kind of like taking them to an antique store and wanting them notice more than a dusty collection of stuff. Not everything comes with an app or video or a climbing ropes course like the children’s museum back home.

If one child tours museums looking miserable, disinterested and bored, will he still take it in by osmosis? Or do the teenage years last way beyond the teenage years? (He’s only 10).

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I keep having to remind myself that my kids are not mini adults. They’re just kids. Their travel experience is not supposed to be like mine.

We will not look at cracks in cobblestones in the same way. And I need to be fine with that.

 

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The Junk Collector

There’s a truck that comes through our neighborhood nearly every day blaring an announcement.

The first time I heard it, I was home alone, and I ran to our balcony to see what was happening outside. It was a stormy day, and I thought it could be some kind of weather warning, kind of like an American civil defense siren. Maybe it was a tornado warning and I should batten down the hatches.

Not knowing the language, it just sounded ominous, or reminiscent of the Communist era. At least that’s where my mind went. What in the heck was I supposed to know about what was happening? What instructions was this man giving? I really was kind of alarmed.

The truck was gone before I could do anything about it or ask anyone who could understand me. Sarge had no idea what I was talking about when he came home from work. There was no tornado.

But the truck kept coming back. And so did a white van with the same kind of announcements. Upon closer inspection, they didn’t look like any kind of official vehicles. The next time the blue truck came down the street, I realized it was hauling bikes and washing machines.

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What struck me as a scary voice of authority is actually the neighborhood junk collector.

“He’s saying: ‘Old cars, fridges, ovens,’” my Croatian friend translated. “We are cleaning your yards, taking old things that would go to the trash.”

Oh, is that all? It’s just another funny, quirky thing about living in a different culture.

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Today, we took a family outing to the police station. We are in the middle of getting our temporary residency paperwork, and the bureaucracy level involved is, let’s say, on the high side.

We arrived at the police station’s lunch hour, when it’s closed, and a couple dozen people gathered in a muggy lobby and waited for the doors to be unlocked. Except one office was open, and an older man was yelling at the woman behind the desk.

“He sounds mad,” I told Sarge. No, Sarge and our Croatian friend in line confirmed. In Croatia, that’s normal talking.

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And what I thought was way too much red tape in the file folder our clerk was holding? That’s normal here, too. (For example, in addition to our documents we had to have translated, they wanted an official copy of our marriage license that was no more than 6 months old. What? How about our official marriage license from when we got married?) “Just keep smiling,” Sarge said. “She’s trying to help us.”

Sometimes, as an American here, I have to remind myself that I am the foreigner. People try to speak my language even when I can’t understand theirs. Sometimes, what sounds ominous isn’t ominous at all. Maybe it’s just a junk collector. Or maybe someone who doesn’t seem like it at first is actually trying to help. Or maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part. I’ll have to get back to you after I pass “go,” they collect my kuna and I return to the front of the line.

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Haircuts Abroad

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I’ve been wearing my hair in a ponytail every day for more than a month. That’s because I have the worst haircut I’ve ever had since my Shirley Temple look of the fourth grade.

I used to have long hair that fell below my shoulders, maybe too long for a 46-year-old. That must be what my hair stylist thought. I stopped in a hair salon shortly after we arrived here and handed the Croatian-speaking stylist a photo of the cut and color I was going for. But our communication problems went beyond a language barrier. Neither the cut or the color looked like the picture when she was finished. She just kept cutting and then announced in English: “Now we can see your eyes!”

My hair is chin-length now, shorter than it’s been in 20 years. The color the stylist put in it is already all washed out and lightened from the sun. I’m still trying to get used to it. On the bright side, it cost less than half of what it would have in the United States for a cut and color. Too bad I hate it.

“What happened to your hair?” my oldest asked when I got home. “You look like a butterfly.”

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Today, it was the boys’ turn on the chopping block. I took them to the hippest place I could find, a vintage barbershop in Old Town that’s been there for more than 60 years. It’s where my husband’s pilot friends get their hair cut. This was actually the boys’ second time there. They had decent haircuts there a little more than a month ago.

It’s kind of a throwback place with antique chairs, a barber pole in the window, and photos all around of GQ-looking models. It costs only about $7 for a child’s haircut.

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This time, my 10-year-old rebelled. “W” has cowlicks like crazy and desperately needed a trim. I think he would have preferred looking like a skater all summer. But he got a clean-cut look with a bit of gel swooped up on his bangs.

This is a photo of how he reacted when he saw himself in the mirror after it was finished. You can’t hear his whimpers. It really wasn’t that bad, but he didn’t like it.

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Our next stop was for a new hat from a street vendor. And then ice cream.

What’s the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut? It’s not two weeks. It’s the transformative powers of a new hat and of ice cream.

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I’ve read that we are experiencing the modern revival of barber shops. They’re as cool as craft beer, cold-pressed coffee, thick-rimmed glasses and a look that says “Movember” year-round. I find it funny that this is a worldwide trend. Even the “man bun” has made it here.

“Men are rediscovering what it means to be manly, the hipster has been resurrected, and facial hair has become the fad de jour,” I read today in an Australian magazine. Thank goodness my kids are too young to fall for this foolishness.

Even they know they just needed their cowlicks tamed.

Photos in the salon touted everything from bowl cuts to “Flock of Seagulls” hair wings. I think the idea is to make getting a haircut an experience and less of a chore.

Getting a haircut overseas is definitely a cultural experience. It’s like traveling itself: a bit of an adventure, and you just have to roll with the punches no matter what happens.

Haircuts abroad don’t always work out the way you’d hoped. But new hats and ice cream cones have healing benefits the world over.

 

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.

 

 

‘Lucky’ Is All in Your Perspective

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Sarge and I just sent the boys to the market by themselves to forage seafood and bread to go along with our salad for dinner.

The boys are 10 and 11, and they have a bit more freedom in Croatia than they had back home. We did break down and buy them cell phones to call us, but that was only after “W” went with a friend to take a dog for a long walk and didn’t tell us where he was going. We worried about his whereabouts. Now they check in, or they just call to tell on each other, the way brothers do.

They’ve grown up a bit in our nearly two months abroad. Not only do they know more Croatian than I do, but they are adjusting to the differences of life in another country.

A few days ago, their international school let out for the summer. On the last day, they got to take a field trip to an island to swim and play and have pizza and ice cream. Yesterday, they got to go to a classmate’s beach birthday party.

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As a Midwestern mom, I can’t help but think they should feel lucky to have all of these beautiful experiences living by the sea. But feeling “lucky” is all in your perspective. Sometimes all they can talk about is people and things they miss back home.

I don’t know what they’ll remember long-term about life in Croatia. I can only hope that exposing them to different people and cultures will give them insight and skills that will help them in life.

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But I don’t want to overthink it. Moving abroad is a choice we made for them, and sometimes it is overwhelmingly different and foreign. We are each finding our own ways to meet people, make connections and work out the hard parts.

Two months ago, I never would have let my kids ride their bikes to the store in a foreign country and rely on them to find squid and scampi in a market where everything is in a different language. But I have faith that they’ll come back with dinner. And maybe a good story about how they foraged it.

We’ll sit down together for dinner and talk about our day in this sometimes amazing and very different country. And we’ll talk about what we want to do tomorrow.