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.

Last taste of summer at Kornati National Park

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Technically, the autumn equinox has not hit yet in this hemisphere. I still have a few more hours to squeeze out of summer. I’m still wearing white jeans, and I took the kids for ice cream after school. I’m not quite ready to let go of this season.

Spending the summer in Croatia has me hooked on this place. The sun-drenched coast, the crystal-clear water, the ancient olive trees, the crowds that gather in Old Town to watch the sunset each evening – I’ve soaked in it all.

But there’s one Zadar acquaintance I have yet to write about, and I will always associate him with summer. I met him one day in the rain. We had coffee together in a neighborhood café and talked about his business – or at least one of his businesses. He’s one of those Croats who has multiple jobs depending on the time of year. He works with tourists in the summer, teaches sports when school is in session and works for a chiropractor when he finds the time.

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His name is Branko, and he has a daughter who shares my name. He spends his summer days riding his bicycle around beaches selling tourists boat trips to the Kornati islands aboard the Plava Laguna (“Blue Lagoon”), a boat run by Kornat Excursions.

Croatia’s coast has more than 1,000 islands. In my time here, I’ve been to just a few. I knew that before the summer was over, I wanted to get to Kornati National Park. While it’s open year-round, summer is the best time for a boat tour that goes to a beach and has an outdoor lunch.

So when Branko invited me to go out on the boat he manages, I took him up on it.

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The tour is an all-day adventure that leaves the marina at 8 am on a boat that can seat 90 people and returns at 6 pm. We didn’t have many empty seats on our excursion. I sat side-to-side on the front of the boat with people who shared blankets and beach towels to block the wind. I tried to brace for the sea breeze under my hoodie, reminding myself that it was still summer.

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A deck hand warmed us up before 9 am with the traditional Croatian offering: a shot of rakija (brandy), compliments of Captain Igor. My body really wanted coffee at that time of morning, but you’d be surprised how cherry brandy can wake you up.

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The 50 Euro ticket (about 380 kuna or $60 US) from Zadar includes a two-hour trip to the islands and back and several stops along the way. It covers food, including a ham-and-cheese sandwich for breakfast; a fish, meat and salad plate and fruit for lunch; and water, wine and juice. It also includes an entrance ticket to the national park, a stop at a rocky beach for swimming, hiking, cliff diving or sun bathing and lunch at the captain’s house, one of the only buildings on the mostly uninhabited Kornati islands.

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The islands, the densest archipelago (or chain of islands) in the Mediterranean, are clustered between Zadar and Sibenik. Aside from being around other tourists and boats, going there reminds you of a Robinson Crusoe-type adventure. You can almost imagine castaways on remote, other-worldly looking sand-colored islands with cracks, caves and cliffs.

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On the way back to the marina, the other passengers and I sat in the sun and looked for dolphins that Branko told us often accompany the boat. We didn’t see any on this trip. As we passed the Sea Organ on the western edge of Zadar’s Riva on the way back to shore, we saw the crowds had already thinned out from the height of the season. The next time the sun goes down, it will officially be fall here and the winds might turn bitter soon. For Branko and the Plava Laguna, there’s always next summer.

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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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