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.

Look at the blues in the sky

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When my in-laws were visiting, we sat at a picnic table outside our Dubrovnik weekend rental to enjoy our morning coffee.

We briefly talked about the events going on back in America that we had read about on our phones on our Facebook and news feeds – a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., violence, racism and President Trump.

“Look at the blues in the sky,” my brother-in-law said, changing the subject. We all looked up to admire the sky.

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That’s one of the benefits of living abroad. You don’t have to feel guilty about being disconnected from the 24/7 news cycle back home. I say this as a recovering newsaholic and former newspaper reporter: It’s refreshing to get away from it all.

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We focused instead on Dubrovnik, a walled city along the Adriatic that has its own history of turbulence, including scars from wartime shelling during the breakup of Yugoslavia 26 years ago. Today, the city is restored to its former glory and has become one of the prized destinations in the Mediterranean.

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We meandered through its ancient streets, saw its churches, fountains and sculptures. We admired the views from the cable car that took us high above the city and dined at a restaurant aptly named Panorama.

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We stuck our feet in the water at a beach called Copacabana and stopped at one of the roadside fruit stands along the Adriatic Highway on our way back to Zadar.

Our biggest troubles were navigating a nine-passenger van through Dubrovnik’s narrow streets (thank God Sarge is an ace at that), having nine people share one tiny bathroom and getting a ticket from one of Croatia’s finest for making a U-turn when we left the roadside fruit stand.

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I’ll take those troubles over 24/7 Trump news any day. My advice? Turn it all off and look at the sky. Blue is the only color you need to see.

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Rome, where we almost made history

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The metal prayer candle stand teetered, tipping burning candles and hot wax precariously close to the edge. I hurried over to steady the stand as our tour guide came up beside me.

“You almost just made history,” she said, mostly to my 10-year-old, a curious boy who likes to touch things. It was a close call.

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Thankfully, on our trip to Rome, we did not burn down the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, the city’s oldest and only remaining medieval-style church. It dates back to the third century, and I would have hated to destroy it. The prayer candles must have been working. We said a lot of prayers on this trip.

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We toured Rome with a party of nine – me, Sarge and the boys, my in-laws and brother-in-law’s family – and one more if you include Anni, our tour guide from Local Guddy, a service that pairs tourists with locals to see sights beyond the beaten path.

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We did do the typical touristy things that I had seen before on other trips, making stops to marvel at the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum and the Forum. We tossed some coins in Trevi Fountain and sat on steps nearby to eat gelato. We sweated under the summer sun. We visited St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. We met nuns, gypsies, tramps and thieves and left Rome minus one wallet and passport – but that’s another story for another time.

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With Anni, we discovered an excellent restaurant close to the Vatican (Trattoria Vaticano Giggi) that serves authentic Roman pastas and wine. We visited an uncrowded hilltop (Gianicolo, or Janiculum Hill) with spectacular views of the city. Sarge made friends with a gladiator who let him wear his helmet for a photo op. We cooled our feet in a fountain (Fontana dell’Acqua Paola) that was not nearly as crowded as Trevi. We filled our water bottles from beautiful public drinking fountains that are piped into the city’s aqueduct system. And we discovered the neighborhood of Trastevere.

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Seeing Trastevere was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I would have never known it was there because it’s not on the must-see list of Rome. Maybe it should be. The former working-class neighborhood on the west bank of the Tiber River has all of the cobblestones, piazzas and charm of Italy without the August crowds we ran into everywhere else.

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The Basilica di Santa Maria was magical. Anni told us it was the first church in Rome to hold a public Mass and the first church to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. While we were inside, sunlight streamed in on the ornate, golden walls. We walked around and admired the mosaics, the history, myths and traditions. I will think of it every time I see a prayer candle and remember the time we almost made history.

 

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‘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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