‘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.

The Difference a Friend Makes

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Three weeks into being the new kid at an international school, “W,” my youngest, received a birthday invitation to go to a paintball party. I can’t tell you how excited that made my whole family.

A couple of Mondays ago, I was lamenting that 10-year-old “W” was having problems adjusting to life in another country. Making a couple of friends has made all the difference — for all of us.

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One friend I’ll call “D” has already shown my boys cool swimming spots and the best places to get ice cream and pizza. After school one day, he was our personal tour guide and translator around town. I first got to know him when a play date at his house turned into a get-together for both our families. That turned into another gathering and an invitation to go to their family’s weekend home for a barbecue.

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That was our most amazing invitation yet. It was an idyllic setting along a quiet bay with clear turquoise water that made us want to jump in, despite the cold water. It was so gorgeous I felt like I was in a dream. After a dip, we warmed up with good food and company at “D’s” great-grandparents’ cottage.

Multiple generations of “D’s” family treated us like one of their own. They served us coffee, homemade bread, soup, smoked meats and cheese, salad, potatoes and meat grilled on the brick barbecue. We ended the meal with baklava “D’s” grandma made and rakia (Croatian moonshine) that was a gift from a neighbor.

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Great-Granny told us lots of stories in Croatian even when no one was translating and I was the only one sitting next to her. The translated parts included tales of giving birth to seven children with no doctor or midwife and how she had to warm one tiny newborn daughter in the oven (yes, she survived). She told of her wartime memories. And I didn’t need to speak her language to know she worried that my kids with bare feet would catch a cold when they ran around with no shoes on after playing in the sea.

Aside from a few troublesome teens (they exist everywhere) who have bothered our kids at the playground by our house, everyone has welcomed us here. This morning, our landlord left a bag of freshly picked cherries at our doorstep. Small gestures like that have made our move easier.

We’ve been grateful for invitations from strangers. Sometimes it feels like being on a blind date. I went to meet some Expats from an online group for drinks one night, and I had to post that I was the one wearing a black-and-white striped dress and jean jacket so they could spot me. One morning this week, some moms from the boys’ school sent me a message inviting me to meet them for breakfast, and I introduced myself first by video so they could recognize me.

I’m realizing that I’m not too old to make new friends myself. But I’m mostly relieved that my kids are learning the art of doing it themselves.

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Pounding the Marble Pavement

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Sarge’s company rented him a stick-shift car, and I don’t know how to drive it yet. Being on foot is my favorite kind of exercise anyway, so I don’t mind walking. And I’m noticing things I would never see from the driver’s seat.

We went to dinner a couple of nights ago at Gricko Grill, a tiny owner-run spot where we had simple grilled meats wrapped in pita bread and served with raw onions. We all gave it rave reviews. On the walk home, we noticed a wedding party driving the other way, kind of like a New Orleans-style funeral parade. The party went by waving flags, singing, honking and shouting as they passed. We smiled, waved and shouted back.

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My favorite place to walk so far is just a mile from our house in Old Town, an ancient area that spent several centuries under Venetian rule. It reminds me of Italy, with its Forum, Roman ruins, churches, shops and cafes. One of the most remarkable things about Old Town Zadar is that it’s paved in marble that’s almost slippery enough to skate across, polished by millions of feet over the centuries.

That’s not the only mesmerizing thing about the city. There’s a Sea Organ built into the marble steps along the Adriatic Sea that plays haunting piped music as the waves lap against the steps. And nearby, there’s a modern Greeting to the Sun with glass plates formed in a circle that collect solar energy for a light show at night. We were there on a chilly and windy afternoon, so we sat on the solar panels to warm up and people watch.

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For dinner, we went somewhere that’s already becoming one of Sarge’s favorites – Kobona Bonaca – a place where he dined alone when he first arrived in town. The restaurant is tucked behind the Sea Organ by a church square.

“I tried to open the door and it was locked,” Sarge said of his first experience there. “I turned around to leave and the door opened. It was the owner. He put his hands in his pockets and said, ‘Do you have jingle lingle?’ I said, ‘Yes, I have jingle lingle!’ He said, ‘Then you can come in!’ ”

Then he poured Sarge a drink on the house, served him braised lamb and talked about America, Croatia’s civil war in the 1990s and things they had in common, like the fact that they both spent time living in Florida.

The owner remembered Sarge right away when we walked in. He sat us in a sunny spot at a heavy wooden table and brought us drinks, then something extra – a shot of cherry liqueur. The drink is one of the city’s specialties, and the owner said his friend distilled it himself from the Maraska cherries grown in this region. I let the kids take a sip. They said it tasted like cough drops. To me, it was more like a sweet cherry dessert, like a brandy.

By the time dinner was over, we went back to the end of the peninsula by the Sea Organ in time for the sunset. We had read that legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock once said that Zadar had “the most beautiful sunset in the world, more beautiful than the one in Key West, in Florida, applauded at every evening.”

Sarge used to live in Florida, and then we both lived in Hawaii, and we’ve seen some amazing sunsets. Last night’s was a pretty good one.

We watched it with our feet hanging over the sea wall. And with that, young W kicked his leg and accidentally sent his Adidas sneaker flying into the Adriatic. Sarge said his shoe will probably make it to Italy before W does.

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