Croatian Salvation

3 08 2016

For those few of you who are reading this and don’t get my life updates elsewhere, Update: I’ve been spending this summer living and working in Croatia!

Random? I can’t disagree. Croatia is the wild card that I snatched greedily from the deck, the surprise that came along to shake things up. Two months later, I’ve built up some street smarts as well as some soft spots for the place. But I still feel like a derpy foreigner here. This summer has been about embracing the randomness.

The title of this post is stolen from the title of my friend’s Spotify playlist for work, which is a must-have driving up and down these hilly islands where radio comes and goes with every hairpin of the road. On some islands, you get radio from the mainland on one side and radio from Italy, across the Adriatic Sea on the other. One island, Brač, has (weirdly) one of the best radio stations I’ve ever heard. They switch with ease between 90’s middle-school-dance pop, a Simon and Garfunkel song, something from Beyoncé’s new album, then a Croatian 70’s surf-rock song. I’ve been collecting the latter like mad (my own playlist is called “Yacht Rock”). The majority come from a band called Daleka Obala, or “Faraway Shore”. Ana, the one and only Croatian who works here with us, described them as the artists of “required minimum of songs that every Dalmatian must play on guitar for sitting on sea wall drinking”.

As you can imagine, this a dreamy place to spend a summer. Unfortunately, half the population of Europe feels that way as well. The last time I was here I wrote that Dubrovnik, the southernmost and 5th-largest city of Croatia, felt touristy and weird even in November, and that I couldn’t imagine what it must be like in high season. Lo and behold, now not only do I not have to imagine it… but I get the privilege of trying to keep groups of tourists together through the thronging shitshow of the Pile Gate. For some perspective, this small university city of 50,000 gets about 5 million visitors per year (the entire country of Brazil gets 1 million.)

Our staff house is in a village about 20 kilometers from Dubrovnik, meaning that when we want to go to the big city, that’s where we go. And it has been cool to discover what scant local underworld there is, helped by our landlords, an awesome family named the Brautovićes who run an agrotourism business on the property where we live. It was thanks to them that we found the one local bar in the Old City, frequented by the faculty at the university. The Brautovićes are also always cooking. It was from Mato, the dad, that I learned which woods are best for grilling: a mix of dried grapevine, olive wood, and dubrava, the holm oak from which Dubrovnik got its name.

We live in an odd corner of Croatia – the panhandle, as it were. With the Bosnian border just up the mountains, never more than 10 miles from the coast; and Montenegro about 15 miles south, it’s easy to feel a bit trapped. The cycling, while gorgeous, is definitely limited by the dead ends in every direction. So our lives when we’re not out working on trips generally involve a lot of either sitting on the balcony, or sitting at Luka Beach, our village beach (which is more of a rocky swimming hole with a bar).

Life in Dalmatia is hot. I mean like, 85 degrees at night, a hundred during the day. And mosquitoes are the bane of our lives. Especially because our house sits in a nice, wet, irrigated gully of agrotourism crops. How to deal with them is a hilarious point of contention. We Americans have become infamous among our European coworkers for sleeping with the AC on, provoking claims from “It gave me a cold” to “It feels like you could preserve dead bodies in there.” We, on the other hand, need only point out that we’d rather have the windows open, but you can’t let mosquitoes into the room. “Just put some lavender oil on before bed and they’ll leave you alone,” is a common reply, as they swing the windows open to take in the glorious afternoon. IN WHICH MORTAL DANGER LURKS. As we were told by the waiter at a local gelato place: “If you ever think you’re too small to make a difference, just try sleeping with one mosquito inside the room.”

But on the whole, I’m already dreading the moment when I’ll have to leave this special, special place. During my first week here I wrote in my journal, “There is beauty so great here that it doesn’t just please you cerebrally; it physically twists, like a pang of hunger in your stomach.” And it’s true. The sunsets are ridiculous, ribbons of water shining between a ragged procession of islands all turning different colors, lavender, mauve, pale rose, and fading at different speeds in the blinding sea haze. The sea itself is crystal clear and astonishingly blue. There aren’t enough shades of blue to do it justice either in the Crayola box or in the dictionary.

While at work, life involves hopping to island to island – which sounds glamorous. And it is. But consider that most of that hopping is done on the massive car ferry. I may as well pick up some change of address forms, because at this point I have basically moved in. The tipping point was today while I calmly spent 2 minutes brushing with my electric toothbrush while people jostled around me for a sink in the poo-scented bathroom. Or maybe it was when I started going below deck to grab my guitar from the van and play surrounded by parked trucks.

The glamorous part is the islands themselves, of which the most glamorous is Hvar, where the glitzy and ritzy of Europe come to frolic. Everyone you see on the street is gorgeous to the eye. Their tan, svelte silhouettes make them look like they all just stepped out of the gym; their crisp white clothes make them look like they all just stepped out of a Wes Anderson movie. The other highlight of Hvar besides the people-watching is, obviously, the Hvar puns. (Where do the boats dock? The Hvar-bor. What’s the official Red Hot Chili Peppers song? Hvar Tissue…. And so on.)

The official music of Dalmatia, by the way, is something called klappa: barbershop-style a capella singing, based musically on old church music, but with lyrics that are island-country (i.e. about girls and boats, not girls and trucks). On my first visit to Croatia, I’ll always remember how my hitchhikees in Podgora sang folk songs as they stumbled through the starry night. Little did I know that it’s a common hobby for groups of friends to sing klappa together, and it’s even considered manly.

I think my favorite town on our Backroads trip is Pučišća, a sleepy backwater on the island of Brač. The name comes from puteus, Latin for “well”, which was Roman slang for a harbor so steep and fortified that trying to attack it would be like trying to get at the water inside a well. Seeing the way the town rises around three sides of its little bay, the name makes sense. It’s also the home of one of the only three stonemasonry schools in Europe. Everything in the town from façades to streetlamps is made of exquisitely smooth, carved stone, because the masonry students make things for practice and then donate them to the public. To describe it, I have to quote the book I’m reading, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” by Rebecca West: “The houses were built in stone that were the color of edible things,” she says, “of pale honey, of pie-crust, of certain kinds of melon.”

While we’re on the subject, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s a travelogue of a journey through the then-Kingdom of Yugoslavia on the eve of World War II. This lady, Rebecca West, is both incredibly knowledgable about history and incredibly gossipy, and the combination is perfect. It’s amazing how she can take generations of Hapsburg rulers or Roman emperors and turn them into this sexy royal drama – who slept with who, who hated who, who just wanted the best for the people but was thwarted by jealous cousins or gnarly assassinations. There are a million quotes from the book that I could include here, but I want to end by quoting one mini-story which has stayed with me ever since I read it, it’s just so strangely haunting and enchanting. It describes the first time West laid eyes on an island called Korčula, at the town of the same name.

“I had been asleep on one of the benches on deck, and I woke suddenly to find that we were lying beside the quay of a little walled town which was the same creamy-fawn color as some mushrooms and some puppies. It covered a low, rounded peninsula and was surmounted by a church tower, rising from it like a pistil from a flower; and its walls girt it so massively they might have been thought natural cliffs if a specially beautiful lion of St. Mark had not certified them as works of art.

Standing on the quayside was a crowd whose faces were turned away from the steamer. They were all staring up a street that ran down the steepness of the town to the quay. Presently there was a hush, all the window-sashes of the quayside houses were thrown up, and and the crowd shuffled apart to make a clear avenue to the gangway. Then there came out of the street and along this alley four men carrying a stretcher on which there lay a girl of about sixteen. This must have been a notorious tragedy in the town, for the girl was extravagantly beautiful, as beautiful as Korčula itself, and she was very ill. The shadows on her face were blue. She was being taken, a sailor said, to a hospital at Dubrovnik, but I am sure not by her own consent. It was evident that she had wholly lost the will to live. Her hands lay lax and open on the magenta coverlet; and as they turned her stretcher round to manoeuvre it onto the gangway, she opened her eyes and looked up at the tall ship in hostility, because it was something and she wanted nothingness. Behind her the alley closed, the crowd formed into a single block and stared at us as if we were taking with us a sign and a wonder.

But the crowd divided again. Another four men hurried along, carrying this time a chair to which there was strapped an old woman, so immensely old that she had nothing to do with the substance of flesh; she seemed to be compounded of glittering intelligence and a substance more than bony. She looked at the steamer with an air of unconquerable appetite. It was something, and therefore better than nothingness, which was what she feared. When the stretcher-bearers halted in manoeuvering her up the gangway she rose up in her chair, a twisted hieroglyphic expressing the love of life.”

“Živjeli”, goes the Croatian cheers. May you live. Actually they say živjeli, ševeli, oduševeli – “may you live, may you get laid, may you impress”. Typical Balkan madness. But what better could you wish for anyone, honestly?

This summer is random, every mosquito-bitten minute of it. But it’s something. May you always crave something, because it’s better than nothingness. May you live.





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