A Travellerspoint blog

Are Dalmatians from Dalmatia?

Life's really pressing questions.

sunny

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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.
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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.
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That's my family y'all.

Posted by Chloeah 11:05 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Delving into Dalmatia

The motherland!

sunny

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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:
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Posted by Chloeah 12:42 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Croatian Thanksgiving

I have a lot of pent up feelings.

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Americans have a broader culinary palette than we are given credit for, but I think we can all agree that generally, we are used to our food not having a face. The only thing that might make it to a standard grocery store with its head still on its shoulders is a fish (do fish have shoulders?) and even then, it's not 100% of the time. So when we decided with Dalia that Gina and I would cook Thanksgiving dinner here in Croatia, I didn't really think about where we would get the turkey. I knew it would be difficult to acquire many of the ingredients we needed for a standard American holiday meal, but as turkey is a common dish here in Croatia, I knew we could get one for our feast. I just didn't know that he was currently just a few houses down, running through the grass, eating bugs, and generally doing whatever it is turkeys do.
RIP, Tom Turkey, and RIP to your wife too (Thomasina?), whom the neighbor felt necessary to off as well, in case we decided one fit in the oven better than the other. She has since been interred in the freezer, since her husband fit in the oven just fine. But unlike Mr, Mrs still has her head attached and her feet have been encased in her butt. But let's move on.
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After Klara drove Gina and me back with her to Križevci Saturday night, we baked the cornucopia we had (so cleverly) sculpted out of braided pizza dough, and I asked about the state of poor Tom. "Oh! He is here!" Exclaimed Dalia, pulling open the living room window and lifting up two plastic bags. "And his wife!" She plopped the bags on the counter, where I could see two wrinkly bird faces pressed graphically against the plastic. You've seen a turkey, right? Not attractive. Defeathering doesn't help. Their faces are pink tinged with blue, and creased with heavy wrinkles. And they stared at me from their plastic shrouds, judging me for their murders. Just a few hours ago they had been gallivanting freely in a neighbor's yard, and now here they were, naked, chilled, exposed on the counter as Dalia pulled Mr's feet out of his butt and stretched his neck over the cutting board....
I squeaked and ran down the short flight of steps to the big dining table, where our construction paper decorations suddenly needed my attention. I am not so skittish as to be a vegetarian but I also don't want our dinner to stare at me as his head is separated from his body, not if I don't have to. And I didn't have to because we have Dalia, and nothing in the kitchen scares her.
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Instead I worked on our decor, which Gina and I had constructed off and on in the last week. We made paper pilgrim hats and Indian feathers (like when you're in first grade) and a turkey with the classic handprint feathers. We scattered gourds, fall leaves, stalks of wheat and pinecones over the table runner, and lit some candles, some of which we tied with cinnamon sticks. There was our edible cornucopia, spilling over with wheat and more tiny gourds, and (my favorite) little candy boxes at each plate we made out of construction paper, broken cinnamon sticks and cotton balls to look like pumpkin pie slices. We were quite thrilled with ourselves (eat dirt Pinterest). And, in case you are wondering, "pinecone" in Croatian is "šiška." Siniša so obligingly scavenged for them for us while he was hunting in the woods.
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I knew I was forgetting something and Gina and I went to bed Saturday night, but we set an alarm for 7:30 the next morning, prepared for a day of chaotic cooking. The cornucopia was baked, Tom was back out on the windowsill (minus his head and feet) and his wife was already stashed in the freezer. We had a list of dishes in order of preparation, and bags of stuff bought in both Zagreb and Križevci. We tried Križevci first obviously, since Siniša's family business is supermarkets, and to their credit they had most of what we needed. But sweet potatoes are not common in Croatia, and when you can find them they are the white variety. Cranberries, either canned or frozen, were a lost cause, as was cornbread for corn casserole. No such horse. But pumpkin was absolutely essential. "Pumpkin," proclaimed Dalia to me with a giggle a few years ago, "is something we feed to pigs in Croatia." But it exists! I don't care if I have to pry it out of a pig's hooves, I will find a pumpkin. Their store had the green, squatty pumpkins that they eat in Australia, they look like some variety of squash but are not pumpkins as Americans think of them. Still, it was something, and we were prepared to purchase one as a backup. But when Gina and I stopped by one of Zagreb's large Konzum stores near Klara's apartment, I rushed for the small basket of small, round, orange pumpkins with a face usually displayed for small children in search of Easter eggs. These pumpkins were being sold as leftover carving pumpkins from the fall but I didn't care, I was going to figure out how to cook this damn thing and we were going to eat it.
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Joy of joys, they also had small packages of orange sweet potatoes and panko bread crumbs, which we would need to make our own French fried onions (there is no such thing as packaged fried onions in Croatia, and after much debate Gina and I decided to fry our own. The other options included cornflakes or the closest thing we could find to Funyuns, but both of these were shot down). Gina's favorite dish is the green bean casserole, so the onions were high on the priority list. Also high on the list were marshmallows, which are also quite foreign here. I needed them for sweet potato casserole, which I especially needed to make not just because I like it but because our family were very weirded out that we would put nuts and marshmallows in a baked dish with POTATOES. Naturally, I needed to win this argument. We had scored a small bag of pecans at a vitamin store (I think because nuts are healthy) but I still lacked marshmallows. Konzum was our last chance, and Gina and I dragged ourselves up and down each aisle repeatedly, refusing to give up. Finally, we found weird shaped marshmallows in crinkly bags on the bottom shelf of the candy aisle. Luckily they had plain ones, not just the pink and yellow twisted ones which are all that usually can be found in Croatia. VICTORY.
So Sunday morning, as I was alone and bleary-eyed in the kitchen, making myself coffee and working out where to start, at least I had most of what we needed, or a reasonable assimilation therein. Gina joined me and Dalia fluttered around for a while, unused to being kicked out of her control room. We insisted though that today she was supposed to rest and have fun, so after she squeezed a few apples she finally gave up and joined Siniša. Gina and I started in on the pies, and I realized with a sinking heart that I had meant to make the pastry dough the night before, as it should chill in the fridge for several hours before use. No matter! Moving on. Gina peeled and cored apples for the apple pie as I baked our precious pumpkin, who basically gave me the finger as best he was able by taking almost two hours to bake all the way, despite much coaxing and increase in temperature. No matter! Moving on! I made the pie pastry and let it sit in the fridge for as long as I was able before rolling it out for the apple pie. Dalia only had heart shaped silicone pans or a 9" springform pan, so I opted for the latter and made a very sad looking apple pie in the springform. No matter! Beauty is nothing in cooking! Moving on!
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We had ripped up a loaf of bread and spread out the prices to get stale on a pan, so I now fetched this from the pantry as Gina slid Tom into the sink. She bathed him oh so tenderly before chopping up and browning a heap of sausage. Now the sausage was also an adjustment, as our grandmother's recipe calls for bits of breakfast sausage in the stuffing. There is no such horse here. Dalia had purchased a variety of pork sausages earlier in the week and we tried them for lunch one day, settling on a red one that is nothing like breakfast sausage but we thought might work in stuffing. The language barrier was an issue during this whole, sausage filled process. How do you explain the difference between breakfast sausage and other sausages of the world? NO MATTER. MOVING ON.
We were already two hours in and we only had one dish finished, my huge, homely apple pie was cooling on the stove as Gina browned sausage and I cursed at the pumpkin still in the oven , calling him an "orange bastard" and trying to refrain from slamming the oven door. Google translate came into play again as I asked Dalia for different herbs for the stuffing, some of which they don't have here (no. such. horse.) but most of which she picked for us fresh from her garden. our grandmother's stuffing recipe, a picture of which was forwarded to us by our mother, called for "poultry seasoning," so we were already guessing which herbs me up that mystery mix. No matter! The measuring spoons were MIA anyways, so I was measuring everything in my hand as needed. Dalia and Siniša were out and Klara was studying for exams, but Marta wandered unsuspectingly into our path and we convinced her to run to the store for us to buy butter. We paid her in marshmallows.
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Two hours later we were doing okay: Tom, thoroughly stuffed, was in the oven upstairs (there is a small kitchenette off the guest room), Gina peeled the rest of the cider apples, and I was finally pulling the orange bastard out of the downstairs oven. I still needed to scoop out his flesh, purée it, and mix the pie filling. Irritatingly, I only needed two cups of pumpkin purée for the pie, so I had around four cups of this "pig food", which already soaked up hours of precious time, leftover. NO MATTER! MOVING ON! So as a last minute decision, as Gina moved on to making the mushroom soup for the green bean casserole and I decided to wedge one more dish into our frantic schedule and started in on some pumpkin cheesecake bars (we needed to make sure the family's pumpkin education was thorough). This required another trip to the store by Marta, as we already needed MORE BUTTER and cream cheese, a reasonable facsimile of which is available here. Bruno also stepped into our web and haplessly asked if we needed help, so I set him to work squashing the apple purée from Gina's cider apples. I love apple cider in the fall but unfortunately, there was no such horse at the supermarket and Dalia was convinced it would be simple to make our own. In the end it was indeed simple in principle but very time consuming in practice. No matter! We had a strapping young cousin who wanted to get out of studying and seemed happy enough to squeeze apple mash through a tea towel until it begged for mercy. Moving on!
We were sweating by this point and I hadn't so much as sat down since we began this infernal process (I love cooking but sometimes you are up to your ears in pumpkin rind and apple mash and you realize you may have overshot a bit). The sweet potatoes were successful boiled and mashed and combined with the precious pecans and other casserole deliciousness, and topped with the (overly sweet) Croatian marshmallows. We were winging it on every recipe by this point, not only because of missing measuring spoons and such but also because many of the ingredients were replacement guesses, and with so many dishes going in and out of the oven, we were winging it as far as baking times and temperatures. I went upstairs to check the turkey only to find that after two and a half hours the vengeful asshole was STILL RAW and seemed in no mood to ever be otherwise. The downstairs oven is newer so we cleared it out and installed Mr Tom where we could keep a closer eye on his still-pink butt. Gina had finished slicing her onions by this point and coated them in egg, flour and panko crumbs. We put these in the upstairs oven and MOVED ON.
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Their cousin Ivana stopped by to chat and helped peel potatoes, and everyone was eyeing the bright-orange sweet potato casserole (complete with puffed and perfectly toasted marshmallows) with a mix of hunger and fear. I was trying to cook down the mushroom soup, which was an instant dry mix and far too thin for the green bean casserole. (No Campbell's here) It had been simmering away on a back burner for quite a while now, and was finally starting to cook down. Bruno had finished pummeling the apples and the resultant cider was just starting to warm in a pot on the stove. I elbowed Gina in the ribs and motioned her towards the pots. "Do you think the mushroom soup still looks too thin?" She picked up the ladle and prodded the apple cider. "Yeah, it needs more time," she said before turned back to the mashed potatoes. Mmkay that's cider but good chat...
Moving on! Every burner on the stove was taken, the long kitchen counter was filled with finished dishes and the makings of the last few, Tom was finally starting to think about cooking in the downstairs oven and upstairs.....
I didn't even need to look at the clock. I leaned around Bruno (faithfully cleaning up his mess) and caught Gina's attention from her potatoes. "Your onions."
FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK..."
She dashed upstairs and Marta looked at me with wide eyes. "Follow her," I said, handing her a spatula and two towels. "She'll need these."
Another minute or two and the smoke alarms would have sounded. As it was, several days passed before the burned onion smell left our room. Gina and Marta came back downstairs with the pace and solemnity of pallbearers, gently lowering the large sheet pan onto a trivet. What were once crescent onion slices coated in crunchy, golden crumbs were now black, shriveled tentacles of death. "It's okay," Marta said encouragingly, breaking off a piece and placing it in her mouth like a champ. "They're......they're still good...." She managed to stretch her mouth into a smile.
"They're not okay but bless your heart for lying," I said. Gina just stared down at the pan with a mix of of sadness and resignation. "Moving on!" I said, and dug for the bag of cornflakes. Thin or not, we dumped the mushroom soup into the baking dish with some carmelized onions and blanched green beans and doused the mix with the cereal, slinging into the oven with more than a little hostility. Tom, according to the glass thermometer I inserted into his posterior (and which the kids had fetched for me from a neighbor), had finally given in to his fight and cooked all the way through. So he was on the counter settling his juices while everything else was getting tragically cold. And, as one last kick in the pants, he had forfeited almost no juices, so I was left to invent a gravy out of thin air. No. Fucking. Matter.
After a quick dig through the spice drawer I procured some bouillon and some flour and managed to whip up a rather tasty gravy, if I do say so myself. CHLOE ONE TURKEY ZERO.
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Finally, finally, finally, we decided the green bean casserole was good enough and we popped everything else in the oven for a bit to warm. I had graphically carved Tom, who did not resemble the standard Butterball. As a male and completely organic turkey, his breast was smaller and his meat gave way only reluctantly. I've carved a turkey before but he put up quite a fight, the crusty old duffer. But at last he was on a platter in the center of the table, surrounded by the sweet potato and green bean casseroles, mashed potatoes (done the Herakovic way), corn, gravy, cherry jam (homemade by Dalia and not too far of a jump from cranberry sauce), stuffing, pumpkin cheesecake bars, and apple and pumpkin pies. I was wearing at least part of each dish on my shirt, but no matter. I really didn't care by that point.
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We adjusted our fancy paper hats and all said what we were thankful for, then Marta and Siniša (as the oldest and youngest people at the table) broke the wishbone. They had to struggle with his tough bones though, and I saw this as one last middle finger from his turkey grave.
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But they loved it! All of it. In the end, the green beans were our weakest dish, but something was bound to be, and it was still edible. The stuffing was excellent, considering there wasn't a single thing in it that matched our grandmother's recipe (cooking skills, level up!) and Dalia fawned over the sweet potatoes. These were rather piercingly sweet because of the strange marshmallows but still good.
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We added Jack Daniels to our Bruno cider and toasted family, travel, and a year of unique opportunities. They assured us that everything, while as strange to them as many of their foods are to us, was excellent. I was pretty proud of my pumpkin pie, which in essentials is not a difficult thing to make but between acquiring the pumpkin and baking it into submission, had been quite the labor of love (And nobody even knew my pastry wasn't properly chilled). By the end of the night we were all close to dead, Gina and I from the mental and physical exhaustion of cooking from scratch the largest American meal of the year in a strange kitchen in a foreign country, and everyone else from the new sensation that is the Thanksgiving coma.
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Posted by Chloeah 10:05 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Merry Christmas Zagreb

Sretan Božić Zagreb <3

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Zagreb is a highly underrated city. She's like the forgotten little sister of Vienna--slightly less fancy perhaps but still with her share of charm and history. Zagreb is the capital of Croatia (Croatia in Croatian is Hrvatska, incidentally, "her-VAHT-skah") and home to roughly a million people. While there are some massive apartment blocks, she really doesn't have skyscrapers or much of the towering glass behemoths we associate with large cities. And is much the better for it.
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We spent a few days in Zagreb at my cousin Klara's (Dalia's eldest daughter) apartment. She just started at a university not far from the apartment, and she is very busy with exams but still found the time to take us out. But first Dalia drove us to Zagreb (less than an hour from Križevci) and took us around a bit.
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The main square, Trg Ban Josip Jelačić, right at the foot of the upper city, flaunts a large state of Ban (like a governor) Jelačić astride a horse. Croatians really love a statue of a man on a horse. I feel like one is always staring down at me, no matter where I am in the city. Some pop-up Christmas stalls were selling Croatian goods in the middle of the square, items like olive oil and brandy, hand-knit mittens and frutile, which are tiny little dollops sort of like doughnuts, with powdered sugar or Nutella on them. We browsed the Christmas displays at Müller, a large department store in the square, before strolling up towards the cathedral.
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The double-spired cathedral is emblematic of Zagreb, and I was impressed to see how much progress has been made on its restoration. Age and pollution has rendered the statues of saints faceless, their hands and clothes worn down to shapeless bumps. The carvings around the front doors and niches of the saints were similarly blunted. Restoration is costly and time-consuming, and when I saw the cathedral first in 2010 and then in 2013, it was draped in scaffolding and the old statues littered the courtyard behind a chainlink fence. Now there is only one small section that still has scaffolding, and the rest of the face of the cathedral is crisp and uniformly sand-colored, with distinct florals and whorls curling between the alcoves of the now clear-faced saints.
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After a bit of time inside the cathedral, Dalia led us through the winding streets of the upper city to the Porta di Pietra just as the sun was setting. It is one of the old gates to the city and I enjoy coming to this small, peaceful spot. When the old city burned in the eighteenth century, one of the huge city gates was destroyed, except for a small portrait of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus, an area the size of a large dinner plate, that remained unharmed. This was taken as a miracle and now the portrait sits behind thick glass and a new iron gate, surrounded by flowers and candles as a token for answered prayers. Stone plaques surround the glass with the words "hvala" and "Majko," ("thank you" and "mother"), and a few names and dates.
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The Klovičevi dvori (Klovic castle) was just a short walk away, where we saw a temporary exhibit on street art. It seemed a strange focus topic for an exhibit (isn't a large part of the point of street art is that it is not in a museum?), it was still very interesting how they covered such a broad topic and its implementation across the globe. The best part though was an interactive computer wall with a "spray can" that you could use to graffiti.
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Gina used this opportunity to practice her new and favorite sentence in Croatian, which Bruno and Marta taught her. "Ej mala oš pivo," which is basically a cocky pickup line, offering to buy someone a beer. My sister has repeated this phrase often and with growing enthusiasm. We finished the night with Dalia by sitting together outside near the Flowers Square. It's quite chilly out but most of the chairs under the wide umbrellas are full of people eating cake and drinking coffee or beer, smoking and chatting. We huddled under blankets as the space heaters buzzed overhead and we talked and people-watched for a long time.
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When G and I tackled Zagreb the next morning by ourselves, and I dragged her to the Museum of Broken Relationships. Calin and I went there with Dalia when I was here last, and I found it very interesting. Gina found it slightly depressing (as she thought she might) but with a unique concept. The museum is comprised of thousands of items submitted by individuals from all over the world (only a portion of which are on display, though they are rotated out periodically). These individuals have donated an object that represents a failed personal relationship in a significant way, along with a short written explanation of the relationship's arc and how the object represents part of it (be it positive or negative).
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This can get depressing after you've read through a few dozen heartbreaking accounts, but it's also supremely interesting. The relationships are largely romantic but there was also a section of familial ones. It can be a downer to read about all of these broken hearts (the common denominator here is that all of these relationships are broken, after all) but many people also wrote that they felt cleansed by this process, and thanked the museum for giving them an outlet to let go of and yet pay homage to these feelings. The items are largely mundane--everything from burned CDs to olive pits, with a huge red wedding dress and a full-sized axe to liven things up--but they all encompassed a human relationship in some way. It makes one think about the objects that might also encompass past relationships in their own past, and how to sum up those stories in a few small paragraphs.
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We then spent several hours in our usual wanderings. Zagreb is a wonderful city for strolling around and getting purposefully lost, even if the sun does start to set at 4pm right now.
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The next day was Saturday, so once Klara had finished some studying we were all able to go out to see the opening of the Zagreb Christmas Market. G and I had seen some of the setup in the Trg Ban Jelačić, as men dragged in huge pine trees and snaked electrical wires through the huts.
The Zagreb Christmas Market is quite classy. Similar to other markets, the huts sell warm mulled wine and cocktails, sausages and sweets such as frutile. They have Croatian handicrafts and tree ornaments, as well as lots of jars of honey and honey liquor (medenica), as well as every flavor of rakija (brandy) you could imagine. (I enjoy rakija and love medenica, but it does rather knock the wind out of you). We ate sausages in the square and then Klara took us to Vincek, a popular local cake and gelato shop.
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Her boyfriend met us there and together the four of us went to Zrinjevac, a small park between the two major squares of the city. When we had crossed through it earlier there was live music in the pavilion and people were just starting to line up at the little houses for wine and things. But now it was wall to wall people, with children and dogs squeezing between the forest of legs. This was the first night of the Christmas Market, and they were there to see the lights turn on to mark the beginning of the Advent season.
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Downtown Zagreb doesn't have ordinary Christmas lights scattered here and there. In addition to the illuminated trees in the main square, there are festoons of lights down each of the main streets, sometimes in the red, white and blue of the Croatian flag or in huge twinkling chandeliers or giant red hearts.
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We were going to go ice skating afterwards at Tomislav Trg not far away. Zagreb just started turning the large public square into an ice skating rink but already it has been voted one of the best in Europe. The crowds however, reflected this status and we didn't feel like waiting in line in the cold for a spot on the ice. Instead we sipped mulled wine and watched the skaters from the square, which is also beautifully decorated and coated in lights. Then Klara drove us all back to Križevci, so we could prepare to cook our Thanksgiving dinner the next day.

Posted by Chloeah 07:51 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Welcome to Croatia, are you hungry?

(Good luck getting rid of us)

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Whatever you are doing, drop it now and go to Croatia. It's just the best. Maybe I'm biased, because we are half Croatian and it is easy and delightful to connect with heritage here. Or maybe it is because the people are warmhearted and friendly, the food is excellent, the cities, villages and countryside are beautiful, and life has a wonderful pace here. Or maybe it is all of it. Picture Italy, throw in a bit of Hungary and rural Austria, and you have Croatia. But without the cost and crowds of most of the rest of the Mediterranean. For those of you who need help...(no judgement, I love maps)
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Northern Croatia is quite chilly right now (who can believe it's December already), with light snow, and the heavy, heartwarming foods, clothes, etc. associated with Central/Eastern Europe. Southern and Coastal Croatia feel much more Mediterranean, with lighter food, and the architecture and landscape more closely associated with southern Italy or Greece. We started in the North, with just a 4 hour bus ride from Vienna (Lord it's good to be in Europe, where everything is so close together).
Siniša met us at the bus station in Zagreb. As a refresher from my 2013 blog, Siniša (SEE-NEE-sha) is the lovely husband of my wonderful cousin Dalia (like the flower). Dalia's grandfather and Gina's and my great-grandfather were brothers. That makes our father's mother (the one who passed away in Toronto), the first cousin of Dalia's dad. Are we all on the same page? There will be a test on this later. For now, let's just be satisfied that the term "cousin" covers all manner of relatives. Dalia Katavić is our cousin, her three children are our cousins, and her husband who generously drove to Zagreb to scoop us up is our cousin-in-law (aka cousin).
If Croatia had jobs and more opportunities I would seriously consider living here. Especially if I could live near the Katavić family. They are so much fun, and always happy (always! This is my third visit, so I am a witness). Klara is 19 and a freshman at a university in Zagreb now, where she is living in an apartment. She is soft spoken and beautiful, with long, light brown hair and the fashion sense of a Parisian model. Bruno is 17, 6.5" tall, a chemistry whiz and a sweetheart yet quite a ham. He and Klara compete in Karate on a global scale. Marta is 15, has more artistic talent in her little finger than I have in my whole being, with a dark brown bob and a mischievous smile. She is following in her sister's fashion footsteps yet is uniquely herself, and is always crafting something new. They are all tri-lingual, crazy smart, sweet, funny, and humble. I challenge you not to feel like a soggy mushroom next to cousins like this. Plus Dalia is also gorgeous and always bouncing off the walls, cooking elaborate meals from scratch without batting an eye, crafting something new for the house, making you feel like the most special person on earth, or devising a new global alternative source of fuel. My favorite thing about Siniša is that he always has a simple, wry comment for any discussion. He is just as hilarious as his son but in a much subtler way. He has that strapping Croatian look, with jet black hair and beautiful eyes. He loves big game hunting and faithfully takes his kids all over the world for karate championships. He was born and raised in Križevci (best way to can try to transcribe that is KREE-jhev-see), which is less than an hour from Zagreb, and where he took us from the bus station.
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Their home was once the house that Siniša's parents built in the traditional Croatian style, but about 5 years ago Dalia and Siniša completely renovated the whole thing into a modern, airy home with tons of space and lots of heart. Križevci is a small city/large town of 10,000 people, but it has the meandering, warm feeling of a village. Most of the homes are the traditional boxy shape with clay roofs and stuccoed walls, and there is an unnaturally high ratio of churches. Siniša's family owns a series of shopping centers and cafes, and he manages the company with his father and brother.
We met them the next morning, when all the family came over to celebrate Klara's 19th birthday two days previous. To Dalia, hosting a lunch for 20 people is nothing, and she and Siniša didn't even break a sweat. He made an enough kotlovina ("food from cauldron", in this case chicken and the ever-present pork, in a sauce made from the breath of heaven) for an army outside, and she was whipping up heaps more food in the kitchen.
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Such is life when you visit Croatians. As Agustina and Cecelia in Buenos Aires can confirm, as a guest, most of your time is spent eating. If you aren't eating, or at least drinking coffee, then something is wrong. There was kotlovina at the party as well as barbecued sausages and different kinds of meat, French salad, fresh salad, bean salad, potatoes, bread, and at least six different kinds of desserts.
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It took Gina and me a day to recover, so Monday was spent lazing around---blogging, reading, and becoming one with our inner house cat. Tuesday we started shopping for our Thanksgiving craft projects, and attended a craft workshop in the evening with Dalia. Each Tuesday a local woman hosts a craft class in the loft of an old nightclub, and this week we made wooden angels that we coated in all manner of things.
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Wednesday Dalia drove us to Varaždin for haircuts. It took us almost an hour from Križevci, but Dalia really believes in Tomislav's coiffure talents and anyways, she wanted to show us the city. Both Gina and I were slightly embarrassed as Tomislav tutted around each of us in turn, eyeing our rags of split ends. He had come back just that morning from Greece, where he won the Balkan championship in hairdressing. The reception desk even bore his golden trophy yet Gina and I were the first souks in his chair, wanting "just a trim." I wanted to tell him that a round-the-world budget doesn't accommodate much in the way of beautification, and we've been through the gamut of climates and physical challenges in the past six months. Instead I just sat there and winced as he marked my now decently long hair for execution, holding his fingers (what felt like) just below my earlobes. Gina had had a similar reaction as her long hair faced the axe. In the end poor, talented Tomislav wasn't satisfied with what we permitted him to lop off, yet Gina and I both left the small salon feeling shorn.
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Varaždin is a lovely city--bigger than Križevci but still with that homey feel. We meandered the streets with Dalia before warming up with coffee and chestnut cake and heading home.
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Posted by Chloeah 03:11 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

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