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.

No Liquids and No Gondoliers

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The post office here is not the friendliest place on Earth.

Of the handful of times I’ve been to Hrvatska Pošta, the service operated by the Republic of Croatia, I’ve tried to give it a second and third chance. Maybe it’s just my lack of knowledge of the language or of their process that’s the problem. Or maybe the level of customer service here is just a different standard. A less friendly standard. Sometimes even a harsh standard.

When you walk into the post office, it’s kind of like a deli counter where you have to take a number at an electronic kiosk. The screen is all in Croatian, and you get a different ticket if you’re mailing something than if you’re doing a money transfer or other services the post office provides. I’ve had to hold my phone up on my Google Translate app to figure it out what kind of ticket to select. People behind me have been a little impatient about that.

I’ve noticed that the concept of lines here barely exists. When we were boarding a bus at a Krka National Park last month, for example, it felt like we were in danger of being trampled. Even at some of the groceries, I’ve seen people crowd the cashiers and try to cut ahead if they have fewer items. I would imagine that’s why they have a strict line system at the post office.

But even when I thought it was my turn, the clerk said no. My ticket clearly said I was in the right line. There was no one behind me, and I thought maybe I selected the wrong kind of ticket. I gave the clerk a confused look and she finally let me proceed. I needed a box to package my items, and when she saw one of the things I wanted to mail, she said no. It was a bottle of tightly sealed olive oil, a prized good of this region. No, my parents will not be getting Istrian olive oil delivered. No liquids allowed.

I left a little frustrated, still wondering what I did wrong with the line system and how I could get around the mailing liquids issue, when I decided to do something more relaxing.

While Sarge and I had our coffee on the lanai this morning, I told him I wished I could find another old lady to sing to me, like the Nonna I never had. He told me to go find the guy with the rowboat who takes people from the car side of Zadar to the pedestrian-filled Old Town. So I did.

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I walked around the marina in search of the rower, what they refer to here as a “barkajoli.” I wanted it to be like Venice, where a gondolier might sing to me while we crossed the water. That was not to be today. My barkajoli was on his cell phone the whole time.

Still, it was a lovely jaunt that was more peaceful than the footbridge. The passenger beside me was friendly, spoke a little English, and let me know the charge for the service was only 5 Kuna (less than a dollar).

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As I write this, I’m in a café, where I could really use a glass of water. Cold tap water would be perfect, not all of this water “with gas.” But I’m going to have to stalk the waiter if I want a refill. Service here is different. You can order one cup of coffee and sit in a café all morning an no one will care that you are taking up a table.

Maybe being here will teach me to relax, take my time and not rush the check. Unless I’m in line at the post office. Then I’ll have to learn to push ahead and get my package in the mail.

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