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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Road Trips and Memories

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When I was a kid, we went on family vacations every summer, and those trips are some of the highlights of my childhood memories.

My dad, an avid boater, liked to go to the water. My mom, a teacher, liked to educate us with history and culture. So we usually did a little of both. Dad strategically packed everything for our family of six. Sometimes we rented an RV – once to Walt Disney World and once to Canada. On another trip, Dad towed the sailboat to South Carolina. And for several years, we rode in style in the family van that he configured with a table and benches that collapsed into a bed. Mom made the brown cushions and the curtains, and we had plenty of room to play games, color or sleep.

We always had maps and a giant road atlas that I’m sure my siblings and I fought over to pinpoint where we were going and whether we were almost there. I remember my older brother being an excellent navigator. I miss those maps.

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On our European mini road trip this weekend, we relied on our phone apps to get us to our destinations. My phone service didn’t connect outside of Croatia, so it was hard to tell what country we were even in just going by road signs that I couldn’t read.

Some things, though, are universal. Border crossings are exciting, whether it’s a state or a country. And as much as I love having authentic experiences meeting people who can talk about what life is like where they live, I still love touristy stuff.

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I like double-decker buses that you can hop on and off to get an overview of a city. I like watching street performers and wondering how they endure wearing body paint in the summer heat. I like landmarks and statues and taking goofy pictures with the kids. And I like seeing the world from my kids’ perspective.

One of the boys’ favorite parts of the trip was spotting Ferrari sports cars in Budapest, Hungary. If they were going to have a scrapbook from this trip, it would include pictures from their self-guided tour of the parking garage near the apartment we rented, where they excitedly documented cool cars.

That scrapbook also would include a picture of the architectural sculpture directly across the street from the apartment we rented. “A,” who is 11, opened his bedroom window to take pictures and giggle. “Mom!” he said, “Doesn’t it look like he’s taking a selfie naked?”

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“A” liked the hustle and bustle of Budapest’s urban core and the tall buildings and people milling about. “I’m going to miss this city,” he said when we left. “I’d like to live here for a few days.”

“W,” our 10-year-old, liked that our Airbnb rental was above a Lego store. And he was impressed to learn that the man who invented the Rubik’s Cube was from Budapest.

The next day, Vienna, Austria, became their next favorite city. Its Ferris wheel and amusement park caught their eyes as much as any palace or monument we visited.

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Our whirlwind tour of Budapest and Vienna didn’t leave us much time to cruise along the Danube River (which we tried to do, but the tour boat unfortunately left without us when there was no one to unlock the pier gate). We didn’t have time for museums or to linger in coffee shops or a chance to see one of my favorite paintings in person. But I’m sure Gustav Klimt’s works will still be in the Belvedere Museum if I make it back to Vienna.

We had the usual trip headaches (including that tour boat leaving without us!), a parking ticket and no air conditioning on a hot Vienna night. But we left impressed with the history and beauty of both cities, the grand boulevards and majestic buildings.