01.12.2015 - 03.12.2015
Even though it is a small country, Croatia's different regions are as distinct from one another as America's. In Križevci the weather had been gray and foggy, the houses are cement behemoths, and the food is heavy and delicious with a lot of cheese and potatoes, sausages and schnitzel, and so much pork you feel you might soon oink. But in Dalmatia, the southern coastal region just over the Dinaric Alps, Croatia leaves the alpine, Germanic influence behind and is instead much more Mediterranean. Both are lovely. Both are superbly Croatian.
Our grandmother was from Split, the second largest city in the country and the capital of the Dalmatian region. It was only a five hour bus ride from Zagreb, where Dalia dropped us off on Tuesday afternoon. But she had arranged with the bus driver to drop us off just before Split, in Kaštel Lukčić (KAH-SHH-tell- LUKE-shh-itch). He literally did just that, pausing the bus on the side of the road and depositing us on the curb, not far from a closed gas station. We loitered awkwardly for a little while before we were spotted by Mirjana (MEER-yahn-ah), Dalia's mom.
The acorn does not fall far from the tree. Mirjana has even more energy and vitality than her daughter, and she breathlessly apologized for her lack of English after twice engulfing me in a bear hug and kissing both my cheeks. She is slender and quite tall, with copper hair always pulled back into a bun, and a warm, smiling face. I met her twice before, once briefly when I came to Dalmatia in 2010 and also when she came to Toronto when I was four, but that hardly counts. I love her. Just like with Dalia, Siniša and their family, and Jane in Australia, being with her makes you feel safe, cosseted and pampered all at once, in a way that makes you want to curl up like a spoiled puppy and beg for your adoption.
We barely had our shoes off at Mirjana's house before she was heaping food onto the small table. We were warmly greeted by Mladen (MM-LAH-den), Dalia's father, who speaks almost no English but communicates what he wants to just fine without it. Mladen is my grandmother's first cousin (remember, there is a quiz on this later), grown a bit portly in his late seventies, with a thick shock of white hair and bright, youthful brown eyes. He has to be shoehorned out of the house, so his regular uniform is flannel pajamas and a bathrobe, and he is never far from his heavy black pipe. He spends most of his time reading out on the balcony or watching National Geographic. Mladen is a retired doctor and Mirjana is a retired librarian, and their house is a testament to 70s modernity. The layout is a bit...experimental, but it has six bedrooms and a very impressive garden, which Mirjana tends religiously.
As we sat down to a late dinner, both of them exclaimed what is to me a quintessentially Croatian statement: "you have lost weight! Here, eat something!" It is not a request. As I have mentioned, Croatians take feeding you very seriously, whether you need it or not. Luckily the long bus ride had left us a bit peckish, because Mirjana was already labeling a black risotto into our bowls.
Now, when I say black, I mean black. I don't mean it was a black rice grain or something that makes a grayish risotto; this was a midnight, inky black. Because that's what it was, ink. Mirjana had diced up and cooked tiny squid to tender, pink perfection, and used their ink to flavor the sticky risotto. Squid ink has long been something I've wanted to try and I must admit, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the color. Picture a bowl of thick oatmeal the color of a charcoal briquette, with a few curling pink tentacles visible. I had to look Mladen dead in the eye to keep my mind off my spoon as I ate. But once I put the color out of my mind, it was really delicious. Surprisingly sweet and very tender. I wish I had a picture.
Mirjana, ever the librarian through and through, had compiled a stack of brochures and tourist booklets for us in English, since she didn't feel her language skills could do the area justice. The next morning we started out at Mladen's brother's house, which was exactly fifteen yards away from the front door. Filko and his wife, daughter and grandson all live next door. We had a little visit in the living room for a few minutes, during which everyone agreed that I am the spitting image of Vojana (dad's mother), and Gina must look like....well they don't know who. Our mother maybe, whom they have never met. I spoke up only to say that actually, back home everyone says I am the spitting image of my mother and they assume Gina must look like Dad's family. When we talked about it later, Gina said it can be a bit disappointing when no one can see her family ties. But we know that she looks like Mom when Mom was younger, and Dad always used to say that G got her olive skin and brown hair from his father (who died in Argentina before I was born). Personally I am not sure how to take all of the assertions that I look exactly like Vojana. We had a strange relationship. But while it might feel weird to suddenly be told you have the physical characteristics of your precedents, it was much weirder still when Dalia told me she felt a shock when she thought my handwriting was my grandmother's. We can all expect to have a least a few physical characteristics of our families, but something as personal as your handwriting can be quite jarring. Dalia told me she was also a bit disturbed by it, as for a millisecond she felt she was getting a letter from beyond the grave.
But back to cheerful things! Sightseeing! Kaštela is a strip of seven towns in a row along the Adriatic coast, between the UNESCO towns of Split and Trogir. It is so named for the squat stone castles (kaštela!) that distinguish each of the towns. Kaštel Lukčić is in the middle, and Mirjana and Mladen's house is a three minute walk from the sea. After leaving her brother-in-law's house, Mirjana took us on a stroll towards the water, which was calm and a deep cerulean. She said in broken English that every single day during the summer she sits on a little private strip of beach with her friends, where they spend the afternoon swimming, chatting, smoking and drinking coffee. "Wonderful, wonderful!" Mirjana exclaimed, kissing her fingertips, with what was to become her characteristic phrase.
We saw the eponymous castle, which is several hundred years old. It is blocky and formidable, with one foot in the sea and a now-dry moat running under the creaky wooden drawbridge. This castle is the former home of Dobrila, from the local romantic legend of Dobrila and Mjenko. It's elaborate Romeo and Juliet style tale from the 1700s, but instead of the lovers killing themselves in a tangle of miscommunication, they were finally allowed by their parents to marry, only for Dobrila's father to later be overcome in a fit of vengeful rage and shoot her young husband. She became sick with grief and never recovered, and the young couple are buried together in a small churchyard nearby. Miljenko's house also still stands, just a few hundred meters down the road. Dobrila's house is open to the public though, as it is now a combination music school and town museum. Mirjana says they have many area events there when the weather is nicer, such as concerts and even fashion shows.
We had coffee at a small cafe down on the sea wall, and though the locals are all wearing winter jackets and scrunching their faces into the cold, nothing can keep them indoors. Gina and I are not at all bothered and find the weather downright balmy for December. Mirjana left us collecting sea glass on her beach while she went home to prepare lunch. We had gnocchi with veal cutlets in a light tomato sauce--as I said the food in Dalmatia is very different from the north. Here there is a lot more fish and seafood, risotto and maybe a bit of light pasta. They put lemon and olive oil on absolutely everything (yum), and even the wines are lighter.
Mirjana drove us to Trogir, which is only a few kilometers up the coast. The area has been continuously inhabited since prehistoric times, and the stone city--nestled nicely on a small island created by a narrow inlet of water--dates back to Grecian control of the area. This old part of the city (the modern part sprawls along the coast while the old is limited to the island) is now a UNESCO world heritage site, and rightly so. It's gorgeous. And, luckily for us, devoid of tourists because of the winter season.
I had never been to Trogir before which is a shame because it is lovely. Constructed out of the characteristic Dalmatian stone, which is smooth underfoot but a bit rough on the walls, and the color of deep French vanilla ice cream. The window shutters and many of the doors are either Kelly green or midnight blue, and there are cats everywhere. I don't know what it is about these old stone towns, but everywhere I have been in Dalmatia, from Trogir to Split, from Hvar to Dubrovnik, they old cities are alive with fat, happy cats. If you know me then you already know I spend a considerable amount of time trying to get them to come to me, and while some listen and are rewarded with chin scratches, most of them stare back at me like I am stupid for a while before walking off with a flick of their tails. Ahh well. I will always try.
The next morning was the only time I saw Mladen in real clothes. He drove us to Split and dropped us off at the ferry, which unfortunately is operating it's winter schedule right now aka running as few boats as possible. Mirjana was accompanying us to Vis, an island where our grandmother's house is. Croatia has over a thousand islands, many of them big enough to have one or two small cities on them.
Vis is the furthest out in the Adriatic, in fact if the day is clear and you hike to the highest point, you can see Italy. It has two small towns, Vis and Komiża, but as it isn't heavily populated and is so far out, there are only a few ferries a day that reach it. And they are not the quick little catamarans but the lumbering ships of titanic proportions, that can hold a whole belly full of cars and even semis, as well as several floors of passengers. These monstrosities take a whopping 2.5 hours one way. So unless we were going to spend the night on Vis, we had exactly two hours on the island to try and find the neighbor and to see the house. The last ferry left Vis at 3:30pm and if we weren't in it then we would have to spend the night on the island (and no, the house is in no shape for habitation).
Mirjana had been unable to reach Nikola the neighbor by phone and speculated that he was dead.
Nikola owns a pizza restaurant/bar/guesthouse next door to our grandmother's house, and he is in possession of the keys. He uses it for storage and harvests the lemons, pomegranates, limes and figs that grow in the walled garden out back. I found his establishment from memory and we were relieved to find that he is indeed alive, just with all new phone numbers.
He fetched the key, which is iron and the length of my hand, and we headed around the corner to our house. Nikola, a handsome man in perhaps his mid-fifties with thick silver hair and long eyelashes, speaks only a few words of English from his navy days. Mirjana didn't feel confident enough to translate on the spot (we had been employing Google Translate quite a bit at home), so they chatted and he updated her on the state of the house while Gina and I poked around. This is the front:
And this is the back
It's condition is about what I expected. I was last here in 2010 and the roof was on its last legs then, so time has not improved this. It still needs new floors and interior walls, and the kitchen and bathroom are completely devoid of fixtures. But the exterior walls, which are handhewn stone (French vanilla) and over 300 years old, are as solid as ever. So that is something. Nikola claims it is the oldest house in Vis. We poked our heads upstairs, which is empty, and into each of the two bedrooms, which he seems to be using to raise small songbirds in tiny cages (hobby?). There is some stuff piled on the floor here and there, mostly home repair mishmash. The garden is a bit different than I remember though. The area that used to be tomatoes, peppers and persimmon plants is now packed with more lemon trees, and the grass is quite overgrown. The garden wall really needs attention and the summer kitchen, which is a small brick structure against the back of the garden, might need to come down entirely. At the very least it's roof is no longer useable, and has caved in near the door. But the lemon trees were literally sagging with fruit, and seemed to be thriving. The pomegranate tree was out of season but still bore a few wizened poms in its yellow boughs.
I am really not sure what to do about it at this point. On the one hand, we have the (huge) key to our great-grandmother's house on a gorgeous island in the middle of the Adriatic. One of the bedroom windows has a view of the sea and the monastery across the bay, and the garden is packed with fruit trees. On the other hand, it's In a very bad way and we have no way to fix the damage wrought by time and neglect. Even if we did have the money (we don't), overseeing such a huge construction project on such a remote island in a foreign country where we don't speak the language is a task that is beyond astronomical. It's quite a conundrum.
But Thursday's objective was just to assess the house (to our untrained eyes), reconnect with Nikola, take photos for reference, and acquaint Gina with Vis. We managed to achieve all of this in the two hours allotted as well as share pizza with Nikola in the square in front of his establishment. Gina and I went back to the house alone for a bit before we had to board the ferry home with Mirjana, and Nikola gave us bags and bags of stuff to take home--limoncello made from our lemons, cherry and carob liquors he also made himself, fig and almond cakes made from our figs, jars of honey (Croatians are addicted to honey) and two huge grocery bags of fresh lemons from our garden. Dalmatian lemons are no ordinary lemons. They would walk right up to an American lemon and punch it in the face. They smell very strong before you even cut into them, and their juice is thick, yellow and cloudy. They are the lemony-est lemons you could imagine. It's heavenly.
I fell asleep on the ferry home, overwhelmed by the range of emotions I experience when I visit Vis. Gratitude, awe, piqué, sadness, excitement, hope, resignation and powerlessness all wrestle for space in my head during these moments, then leak into my heart and I tend to just shut down in an attempt to cope with it all.