Life's really pressing questions.
04.12.2015 - 06.12.2015
Mirjana was in a flurry of cooking before the sun was even up. Siniša, Klara and Bruno were due in that night and the nona (grandma) in her was in overdrive. Since she had a lot on her plate (ha), her niece Mirna had volunteered to take us into Split for some sightseeing.
She explained the plan over lunch, but I had a hard time concentrating. Mirjana had prepared several types of fish, since it was Friday and they only eat fish and seafood on Fridays (Catholic country). For lunch this included two sizable tuna baked in their entirety (read: heads and scales) with just some lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. These were quite good, though boning them took some time. There were also tiny fish the length of my middle finger though, which took a little more concentration. Some of these she had gutted and lightly fried, and you were to pick them up and eat them like corn on the cob, so you got some scales but the head and backbone were discarded. But their little friends were served cold in a dish of balsamic vinegar and oil, with raw onion and capers.
Let me pause to say that Mirjana is an amazing cook. Not just in that her food is delicious, but in that she grew most of it herself out back. She cures her own olives, makes all her own jam (as does Dalia), chutney, pepper sauce, and pickled peppers. All vegetables and most fruits on her table came from out back. She buys her fish directly from the fishermen, and her chickens from neighbors. She only goes to the store when absolutely necessary, and her food is thoroughly infused with love.
This being said, I had a really hard time with the tiny fish. For whatever reason, I can down a cricket or a raw sea urchin but swallowing a fish whole takes a combination of concentration and distraction akin to pulling off a hangnail or waxing your nether regions. I have a hard time consuming anything blood or bone related (blood sausage is one of the few things on my "never again" list). But when I am a guest, I will eat whatever is in front of me and thank you for it. The little fried fish went okay, taste wise they were good and I just sang a little song loudly in my head as I stripped their tiny skeletons with my teeth and felt slightly like a savage ogre while doing so (same emotions while I ate the sad Guinea pig). But the tiny silver fish with the vinegar and onions took a lot more effort. It's not that the taste was bad, as I said Mirjana is an excellent cook, and I am not a vegetarian so I am familiar with the slight barbarism that comes from eating meat. But actually crunching the bones of tiny creatures is hard, especially when your knife won't go through the backbone and you have to pop the whole thing in your mouth and gnash your teeth like the Rock Eater. Still. I'm a guest so, down the hatch. The onions helped the crunchy factor. But we still got the fish burps for most of the afternoon.
Mirna is Dalia's first cousin, so we are related to her in the exact way we are related to Dalia. She is a beautiful woman in her 40s, with a brown bob shot through with bronze, aqua eyes and an air of assured elegance. She's very soft spoken but her English is very good, as she works for the airport and speaks several languages. She drove us to Split in her little car, which she parked and led us around the city center on foot.
Split is the second largest city in Croatia but by a wide margin--Zagreb has about a million people but Split only about a quarter of that. It has lots of tall apartment blocks but that's about it for big buildings--its major claim to fame is Diocletian's Palace.
Diocletian was the first Roman emperor to retire from office (rather than die). He was born and raised in Dalmatia, and chose a beautiful, unpopulated peninsula on the coast for his retirement palace. The city of Split grew around this structure, which was built more like a military fortress than a leisure palace. Diocletian was originally entombed here according to his instructions. However, ironically, what was once his tomb is now a Christian cathedral. This is ironic because Diocletian was a major persecutor of early Christians, but once they gained a foothold under Emperor Constantine (and Christianity was legal), Diocletian's mausoleum was used as the rear of the cathedral structure, and his coffin tossed out to make way for the remains of Christian martyrs (who died under his instructions). Yikes.
So because it's more of a massive fortress, and half of it was used to house military personnel and their families, it's really a city more than a palace. Picture a giant, boxy number eight with a wall around the whole thing and you have the general idea. The wall is still recognizable on three sides but the fourth has apartments and stores and things along it, and there's only three elaborate gates--the fourth wall used to be directly on the sea (now there's a wide promenade there with cafes and shops). Most of the interior of the palace area is little shops and museums, even apartments; the most recognizably Roman area is the peristyle, which is next to the cathedral. It has columns imported from Egypt as well as a 3500 year old Sphinx, one of four originally stolen from the pharaohs.
The tunnel looking thing at the bottom is the entrance to the vaulted basement, which you can enter, and there's also a museum area down there.
As Mirna explained some of this while we were strolling around the marble palace, she asked us if we had any questions. Gina and I screwed up our faces in thought, exchanged a look of mutual agreement, and Gina paused before saying, "Yes. Can you tell me.....that is, do you know.....if Dalmatian dogs actually originate in Dalmatia?"
That's right we said it. You know you were wondering the same thing, admit it.
The answer dear friends, is yes. And Mirna chuckled at us. We had other, more historically significant questions too but the dog one was rather pressing as we had already seen a few Dalmatian dogs out for a stroll. Dalmatians in Dalmatia!
We saw a few churches and browsed a few shops with Mirna before taking a stroll through the little Christmas market on the promenade next to the sea. I find myself trying to picture what Split might have looked like when my grandmother was growing up here, but it's a bit fruitless. WWII, decades of Communist rule and the Serbo-Croatian war, in addition to the usual ravages and developments of time, must have transformed my grandmother's hometown into something completely unrecognizable. Really, it's unreasonable to try to glimpse what this place might have looked like in the 1930s. But at least the palace must look relatively the same, as well as this giant statue of Grgur Ninski, or Gregory of Nin, a Croatian bishop who introduced the Croatian language into religious services over a thousand years ago. It's said that rubbing his toe will bring you good luck.
After a coffee by the sea with Mirna, she drove us back to Kaštela. Mirjana had once again outdone herself by preparing heaps of food and it wasn't long before Siniša, Klara and Bruno arrived from Križevci. Earlier in the week Mirjana had helped Gina and I write out a family tree, to show exactly we are related to everyone and shed some light on our Croatian roots. It was a wonderful idea and I really appreciate her taking the time to remember and gather as many names as possible, then sit down with us to explain it all as best as possible in her broken English. So as we all sat down to a big fish dinner on Friday night, though we were short Dalia and Marta, I was still struck by the cozy feeling of belonging. Even if the tiny fish were once again staring up at me from my plate.
Saturday was chill, Gina and I wound up not going with the family to Klara's karate fight, so we spent most of the day wandering by the sea. We got to watch her fight later on the tv though, as they record every fight to analyze later with their coach. Klara and Bruno are literally world class karate fighters, and this weekend was the Croatian national championships. Klara won the silver medal on Saturday, but really she might have won the gold if the judges had correctly scored a kick from her opponent. I saw the video, the girl hit Klara with her leg and not her foot, so she should not have received a point. And on Sunday we got to watch as Bruno worked his way towards the gold medal. G and I had never watched a karate fight before, so Klara had to explain a lot of things to us. Bruno's third and final match was awesome to watch, as he kicked the guy's ass and won the gold in 45 seconds.
That's my family y'all.