Easy Ohrid

Posted in Prose on May 25, 2017 by 1writegirl

I arrived in Ohrid Macedonia in the middle of the night on the only bus to be had from Sofia. The schedule told me I’d get in around 5am. The owner of my Airbnb rental had said he was out of town but could send his friend with the key to fetch me at 7:00 if I could wait that long. What the heck, I thought, it will be daylight by then, I can just read my book while I wait. When you travel and use public transportation you get used to waiting on one end or the other, and two hours is nothing compared to what I typically wait when flying.

Whether the schedule was wrong or my bus driver was on a mission I can’t say. It didn’t feel like we were moving unusually fast, though come to think of it there were a hell of a lot of bumps that almost sent me flying from my attempt at a sideways prone position across the two seats at my disposal to the floor in front of me. In any case he rolled in to the bus station in Ohrid at not quite 2am by my watch. I quickly realized we were in an earlier time zone to boot, so it was actually 1am – six hours before my ride was due to show up and at least 3-4 hours before daybreak. I had no cell phone service since my Bulgarian SIM card didn’t cover Macedonia, even though I had loads of data left, so I could neither call, text nor email the host to beg him to send his friend earlier, if I could even reach him; I had no Macedonian denar with which to pay a taxi to take me to the apartment, and no key to enter it even if I did; and if I somehow managed to find and get to a hotel that was still taking guests at this hour, what would I do if I couldn’t get in touch with my host in time for him to stop his friend from showing up at the station at 7? Take another taxi back to the bus station at 6:30 or so? It appeared I was stuck there.

Once the few taxi drivers who had shown up to meet the wee-hours bus departed (they knew if I didn’t), I found a dark corner outside the bus station (locked up tight of course) and against a small cafe. I reasoned that I didn’t want to draw attention to my presence, not so much because I was worried about my personal safety, but because I had visions of the police harassing me for loitering or something equally harmless, and as a foreigner without the the ability to communicate with them, it just didn’t seem wise to me to advertise the fact that I was using a public place as a makeshift campsite. Do they allow ‘wild camping’ in Macedonia, and does the sidewalk within the city limits count? I had no idea. I plopped my pack into the corner, and positioned the two potted fir trees that decorated the sidewalk strategically in front and to the side of it. Then I squeezed in between the two pots and the wall and leaned back against my pack, with my helmet and food bag against the wall and out of sight.

This is how I remained for the next 3 1/2 hours, shifting occasionally on the cold hard ground, not daring to close my eyes as I listened to passing cars and dogs, hoping that the former wouldn’t catch me in their headlights and decide to investigate or report me to the authorities, nor the latter catch a whiff of my food (do street dogs consider dry pasta, walnuts, olive oil, ouzo and muesli food?) and try to relieve me of it. Not that I would have been able to sleep if I had felt comfortable closing my eyes. I wish I were one of those people who can sleep anywhere, or any time. Eventually the sky began to lighten and it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen the sun rise.

Ohrid turns out to be a lovely, very affordable (see example costs below) place to spend a week. In spite of this there are relatively few tourists here, at least this early in the season, and to my untrained ear anyway, the vast majority of them seem to speak the same, or a similar Slavic language, as the Macedonians. Yet here, as in Sofia, many of the younger people speak English quite well. I’ve also noticed the vendors at the stalls selling souvenirs don’t call out to passers-by to come and inspect (buy) their wares, and the taxi drivers, both land and water, are likewise not aggressive in seeking fares. It’s a very walkable town, it looks and feels safe throughout, and the pace is calmer and more sedate than anywhere else I’ve been this spring.

Like so many old cities and towns in Europe, Ohrid has an abundance of churches, monasteries and basilicas. I find no value in them as houses of worship, but they certainly have great historical significance and are often beautiful examples of centuries old architecture, and I’m amazed at how well-preserved they are; however they strongly resemble one another, at least from the outside, so it’s easy as you walk around the town to mistake one for the other if, like me, you do not read the Cyrillic alphabet.

A fortress, disintegrated in places and restored in others, as well as an “antique theatre” – the only Hellenistic theater in Macedonia – are also draws for many people. Beyond the telling of a story if you are trained to read it (I’m not), structures like this offer me a sense of personal insignificance and anonymity in the face of their great age, the same way visiting faraway places and spending time in wilderness areas does. Their presence reminds me that in the space of time and our vast universe I am but an infinitesimal speck, my life meaningless, and that brings me comfort for some reason when I think about my son’s death. We are all of us here for but a blink of an eye, and while some blinks are shorter than others, they are all just blinks, and the universe cares not one whit more or less for any of its creatures than it does for any other. In one way or another we are all – animal, vegetable, mineral – products of what has come before us as well as fodder for what comes after, our sense of individual purpose and importance a human artifact, existing solely within the context of our minds and nullified by the acts of birth and death. We contribute to or detract from the world, leaving it better or worse not by ourselves but collectively, one blink at a time.

Yesterday I walked around part of Lake Ohrid (estimated to be between 2-3 million years old), past a reedy, marshy area where the chirping sound coming from a network of large greenish-grey frogs was so loud many people walking by, alone or with companions and engaged in conversation slowed then gravitated to the edge of the walkway to silently observe the source of the noise. I’d call it music but it wasn’t exactly melodic, more like a bunch of off-key would be singers gotten together to form their own second rate choir. The number of different sounds in pitch, frequency and duration was fascinating, the singers scattered throughout the tall grasses in the muddy water, blending in so well you really had to look hard to catch their movement and see them. I wondered what they were saying to each other.

Farther down the lake the path changed from paved to gravel then dirt, the numbers of people dwindling correspondingly. Soon I was the only person coming or going in sight, clusters of colorful wildflowers on either side of me and birds singing in the trees overhead. I saw a raven and was reminded of something I learned recently watching Viasat Nature, a channel I’d never heard of since I so rarely watch television, but stumbled upon in this well-equipped Ohrid apartment I’ve rented; that ravens and crows are so intelligent they are considered the primates of the bird family and that there is a subspecies, the Caledonian Crow, members of which have been observed not just using objects in their environment as tools but actually inventing tools to accomplish a specific task, namely retrieving food from tight places. Soon it started to rain, as it has done each day but one since I got here. I kept walking. I don’t know when I got comfortable walking, even hiking, in the rain – somewhere between the Camino and Banff National Park I suppose – but I no longer see it as an impediment to continuing to move. This isn’t to say I look outside when it’s pouring down rain and think, right, let’s go for a walk! Just that if I’m already out there, I don’t duck for cover the way I once might have.

Last night I watched a program that featured the place of guide dogs and other animals in the lives of people with disabilities ranging from diabetes and blindness to PTSD. I recall my grief counselor telling me that I would qualify for an assistance animal and again, as I did when she told me this, I wonder if this is something I should seriously consider. But how do you travel internationally with a dog or other animal to consider? For years before motherhood my traveling companion was a three-legged orange tabby cat named Boo Radley, with whom I covered the width of the United States no less than 3 times; but that was domestic travel for which neither he nor I needed papers or shots. Taking an animal with you when crossing borders means facing stringent customs and immigration regulations and incumbent costs, including quarantine in some places. Even if that weren’t the case, when it takes all your energy to take care of yourself, where do you find the energy to care for a dependent? It hardly seems do-able. A few months ago I heard about a woman who is riding her horse around the world, a pursuit which I find immensely intriguing and appealing; we’ve emailed back and forth a few times but I’ve yet to get into the nitty gritty with her.

Example costs in Ohrid: accommodation in private 1 bedroom apartment in building with elevator, within 10 minutes walking distance of town center: $22/night. Dinner of falafel, pita, humus and vegetables: $3. Loaf of whole grain bread from bakery: 45 cents. Piece of cake from bakery: 75 cents. Bottle of local red wine: $2. Fresh fruits and vegetables at the open air market (“bazaar”): cheap, cheap, cheap.

Sofia, just let me be.

Posted in Prose on May 17, 2017 by 1writegirl

I’ve shifted gears since leaving Croatia. I was moving too fast, finding that it took more energy than I had to continually be in the planning stage of what next, where to stay, how to get there. Better to pick some place and stay put for awhile, a week or ten days, and pursue my intention from the start: just be. I am not a tourist, and I can barely be called a traveler. What I am doing, in body and mind, is wandering – what else can you do when you are simultaneously exhausted and restless – trying to find places where I can feel comfortable putting myself for a bit.

Sofia, the second oldest city in Europe, is good for this it turns out. It is pronounced not like the woman’s name, I learn, but with the accent on the first syllable. Either way I love the way it sounds, the way it feels rolling out of my mouth. I’m in a flat, a spacious, clean and well-stocked one bedroom about 45 minutes walk from the old town which is where the museums etc are all located. I haven’t been down there yet and probably won’t go. The past few days have been very heavy, the build up and come down to do with Mother’s Day, for a start. These days – holidays, birthdays, anniversaries of death – they suck. For now anyway, they are days just to be borne, to live through, fraught as they are with the dark kind of possibility. I’m thankful to be in this quiet, private little place, where my agenda is my own and there is no one to disappoint when I don’t get out of bed.

When I’ve ventured out it has been to the parks and outdoor markets in the area, and once to a grocery store. I pass old dun-colored communist era buildings that are so hostile looking in their stark uniformity that you could almost wonder if they were all prisons at one time. But they weren’t, they were and some still are office buildings, government offices, apartments and the like. Interspersed among them are newer buildings of color and imagination, and frequent, some rather large, patches of green space, burgeoning now with bright colors and scent.

There are always people out, walking on the streets, lingering outside shops and in doorways. The younger ones wear T-shirts with words like “Choose you today,” “Watch, Italian, Love,” and “I’m sexy and I know it.” I see a boy in a Batman shirt, another with Disneyland character clothes and accessories. Many people I pass have an interested, curious air about them when they look at me. It’s not smiling, but it gives me the impression they wouldn’t mind knowing more. This isn’t a place that’s been inundated with tourists, not yet anyway, and that feels like a good thing to me. Unlike Croatia where I continually felt the friendliness was, if not forced then born of a need to please as a means of making financial ends meet, the gestures of hospitality here feel more earnest. Several times I’ve stopped people to ask directions and only once was I rebuffed with a shake of the head, and I think that was only because she didn’t speak English. Otherwise the residents I’ve tapped for information have been very helpful and kind, two women actually walking with me to my expressed destination each time though they were clearly headed somewhere else when I stopped them.

As always since Jackson died I’m alone almost constantly, by choice to some extent and by necessity the rest. Every now and then it feels like too much, and I need to hear another human voice beyond “turn left and go three blocks”; I need to look at someone else’s face, perhaps clasp their hand in greeting, be reminded of my inclusion in the species. So when an acquaintance who heard I was in Sofia gave me the name and phone number of a friend who not only lives here but has a motorcycle (“She said she will be happy to meet you and ride with you!”), I took a deep breath and dialed her number. I introduced myself and said I was here for a week and would enjoy riding with her somewhere, anywhere really, she might be going if she didn’t mind the company. She surprised me by saying, “You must come to my house. Come for dinner. You will be my guest!” When? Tomorrow? The next day? Now, she said. It was after 7pm. Before I had time to think it over and possibly invent an excuse, she instructed me to go outside and hail a taxi, then call her and give the driver the phone. “I wait for you!” She declared, and hung up.

I knew the risk I was taking, but I didn’t see a civilized grown up way out of it at this point; it was me, after all, who had initiated the contact, though this wasn’t what I’d had in mind. What the hell, I thought, and did as she had said. Though it took half an hour to get there and four separate calls from the cab driver before he located her apartment, I arrived to meet a vivacious, attractive 40-something year old woman who hugged me as soon as I stepped out of the taxi, then ushered me first to see her Harley (“a limited edition, see?”), then upstairs to the apartment she shares with her husband (away on business) and 17 year old son. She poured us both a glass of white wine and took me outside to her patio, which is when I realized how far I had come in the taxi. She pointed in one direction – “There is Sofia,” – and in the other was green, up up and up, shrouded in a light evening layer of fog. We were on the side of the mountain called Vitosha. We made a bit of small talk, or rather she chatted away as I nodded and murmured and wondered, like I always do, if there were a way I could stretch the small talk out for the duration of the evening (how many dinner courses would there be?) or if I could leap somehow into big talk, deep and important but not personal, purely philosophical perhaps… when she turned to me abruptly and said, “Violeta told me. About your son.” There it was. Just like that it was done, and like it always does my heart seized up with the spoken acknowledgment of this reality. I crumpled and she pulled me into an embrace. When she stepped back she crossed herself three times, then asked, “How did he die?” I told her. She wanted details. Reluctantly I gave them. I cried harder. She squeezed my hand. A door banged from the inside and she left me to go greet her son. I wiped my face, alone on the terrace, and hoped that would be all. That the subject wouldn’t come up again, at least not the subject of his death. Let me talk about him, if I choose, but let it come from me. Let me decide.

When I wandered back inside her son came up to me and offered his hand. “Dimitri,” he said. “Julie,” I replied. We sat down at the large patio table in the sunroom and I asked him about school. He was soft spoken, and if not quite reticent, certainly less gregarious than his mother. Perfect, I thought. Soon there was a knock on the door and a tall thin pretty woman in her early forties breezed in, her young son trailing behind her. A former model and Miss Bulgaria, I soon learned.

Dinner was served (delicious, 2 courses) and we talked casually for a time about world politics, the history of their country, and travel. I apologized as I always feel I should for Trump and assured them he doesn’t represent all Americans by a long shot. I started to breathe easily, to enjoy the taste of the food, the distinctive flavors in the sauce, the heady feel of the wine swimming through my veins. Mostly I was enjoying being in the soft, gentle company of other women. When they heard where I was headed next and when, my hostess dismissed the idea with a wave of her hand and said “No! Don’t go. You can stay here, I have an extra room. You can stay as long as you like.” I laughed and protested. She insisted. Could I? I wondered. Could I just stay here? All eyes were on me as a silence settled over the table. In that moment I was tempted. Stay. Be fed. Be looked after, shown around, taken for rides on a limited edition Harley. I thought about my Airbnb reservations in Macedonia and Montenegro, trying in vain to recall the cancellation policy of each one. And then, as if she had been biding her time all along; as if I were wearing a sign taped to my forehead that read, Atheist, vulnerable, give it your best shot!; my hostess started to talk about god. God in terms of bringing me here, god in terms of helping me, god in terms of my son’s current whereabouts and my salvation. Inwardly I groaned. Oh no, not this again. I had thought it might be different this time. I so wanted it to be different.

I stood it for as long as I could. I stood it while we sat there eating the remains of our meal and I stood it while she dragged me into the apartment to see the shrine of Jesus and Madonna she’d made at the entrance to her bedroom. I stood it while she informed me she was lighting a candle (“Look, right now I light this candle!”) for the soul of my son. I thought about her hospitality, how good the food was, and how nice it was to eat a meal with others. I didn’t want to repay that kindness with conflict, with argument, and I tried, I really tried, to just keep my mouth shut.

Finally, weary from the effort of pretense, I couldn’t take it anymore. If this is the price of human company, I thought, I won’t pay it. It isn’t worth it. I said I wasn’t religious, I didn’t believe in any of that. “I understand why you do, but it’s not for me,” I said. I thought I was being diplomatic and respectful, if assertive. But my words to the two women (Dimitri, perhaps the most mature person in the room, wordlessly busied himself clearing plates while the little boy had long since retreated to the living room and television) were nothing less than a challenge. For what seemed like hours they pummeled me with exhortations and what I can only believe was to them, reasonable explanation for their faith in god (“You can say ‘the universe’ if you prefer to” offered the beauty queen, as if it were simply a matter of semantics that I hadn’t considered.) They suggested that I was merely angry with god because of my son’s death and would find faith “again”; that I wasn’t in the right place emotionally to be able to accept his benevolence; and that science was proving, with increasing evidence, that there was definitely another plane to which people ascended after death. It was inconceivable to either of them that my belief system never did and never would overlap with theirs.

When the little boy approached his mother to fix him a late night snack, I used the opportunity to take my leave. Much later than I realized…didn’t sleep last night…yawn, yawn, could you please call me a taxi? It arrived, mercifully, within five minutes and I hastily bid them goodbye. My hostess, walking me to the street, insisted that I come back in a couple of days and spend the night, with the idea that we’d go riding the next day for a few hours. “I’ll show you beautiful countryside,” she said. I nodded, and opened the taxi door. I turned toward her and as I leaned in to hug her goodbye I felt an unexpected rush of gratitude, and I kissed her cheek. “Thank you,” I said. I wanted to believe that maybe I could come back and it would be this that would prevail – the camaraderie, the warmth – and that the subject of religion was exhausted between us, leaving room for everything else. But she grabbed me tight and whispered in my ear, “You must believe in god!” I knew then it would never be over for her, she’d never stop. Even if I suddenly saw the light, all the more reason to talk about it. I’d be her miracle; the woman she had brought over from the dark side, singlehandedly. “I’ll call you,” she said, releasing me. I settled into the backseat of the cab, knowing I’d never see her again, knowing I’d feign illness when she called, make retching sounds into the phone if necessary, or claim my plans had changed and I was leaving town sooner than anticipated. She waved as we pulled out into the darkness, and I waved back, sighing, a mixture of relief, sorrow and resignation filling the stale night air of the car.

I want to believe that we’re living in an increasingly secular world, but evidence all around me points to the contrary. Movements like ISIS are gaining momentum around the world, attracting young men and women who feel disenchanted, disenfranchised, and in dire need of an, apparently, violent, self-righteous and divisive cause; there are very few countries in the world, if any, where a political candidate can admit to being an atheist without being disqualified in the minds of voters in spite of any separation of church and state that might supposedly exist; pseudo intellectuals attempt to use the legitimate science of physics out of context to support their mystical and superstitious mumbo-jumbo; and a bereaved mother or father can’t disclose the death of their child without other people pouncing on it as an opportunity to proselytize.

I wondered how long it would be before I feel brave enough to try again. Better luck next time, I tell myself.

Mother’s Day

Posted in Poetry on May 14, 2017 by 1writegirl

I think I would prefer to die
my second death

Now while the scent of him lingers yet
in the soiled clothes strewn around on the
floor of his bedroom

While his footprint remains oil on glass
from our last long road trip
on the windshield of my car
valuable no longer for its re-sale value
nor cargo carrying capacity
but only for this fading track

While his voice is still trapped in someone’s answering machine
Why can’t it be mine?
so that when they come to town
they can play it for me
They haven’t yet erased it
but they will

Before I close my eyes and can no longer see his eyes
Or the dimple in his cheek
Or the mole on his back
Or the dozen other things
that made him mine
especially, mostly, but never all

Before I have lost all trace
and the fine line between memory
and fantasy blurs
and he becomes a saint
or a hero
or a legend

Instead of just a boy
Whom I loved above all others,
All else, present

In the silent aftermath of my
first and last deep breath

So long Croatia

Posted in Prose on May 8, 2017 by 1writegirl

I find myself, at the end of my time in Croatia, in the coastal town of Zadar, home to a unique musical instrument constructed from the combination of man made steps meeting the tide in just the right way, called a “sea organ.” My arrival in this small yet vibrant community coincided with an annual charity race called Wings of Life (or something like that). I dropped my bags off at my lodging then walked the short distance to the old town where, on the outskirts of the ancient rock wall that encloses the original boundaries of Zadar, hundreds if not thousands of runners, joggers, woggers and walkers were setting off en masse. They were a mix of all ages, shapes and sizes, athletic abilities and preparation. I saw people in wheelchairs, mothers pushing strollers, and a couple of nuclear families holding hands and running as one. My landlord tells me that this is one of twenty such races held simultaneously around the world, all with the goal of raising money for charity.

A few words about my experience with Sixt, the car rental company. When I picked up the car in Porec, the counter agent tried to talk me into upgrading to a more expensive car, claiming that the low-end economy car I’d reserved was older with a lot of miles under its belt, and didn’t get good gas mileage like the diesel model he wanted me to rent instead (for an extra $6/day.) When you’re paying $10 a day for your rental car and congratulating yourself on getting a great deal, you don’t want to hear that kind of talk. So I asked a few questions, and learned by “old” he meant 2 years and by “lots of miles,” he meant roughly 20,000. As a lifelong owner of used cars with no fewer than 100k miles at purchase, his suggestion to upgrade struck me as a ridiculous proposition, a clear and obvious attempt at increasing his commission and nothing more. Ditto for the extra collision policy he tried to get me to purchase; my credit card covers me for any damage I might incur. After refusing, albeit politely, the “extras”, he looked knowingly at his colleague (I’m sure I saw him smirk) and they conversed quietly for a few minutes in Croatian and, while I don’t speak or understand the language, I’m pretty sure what they were saying about my quick and immediate dismissal of their generosity wasn’t a compliment. Then we went outside, did our mutual walk-around of the car where he spent about 30 seconds showing me the current scrapes and abrasion the car came with and I concurred, then we were done and I was free to go. But I wasn’t ready to drive away just yet; I wanted to walk downtown to the farmers market and pick up a few things. “No problem,” he said, they’d park the car outside the lot and when I returned it would be waiting for me. This we did, and after about 45 minutes, I came back, got in my little Space Star, and drove it back to my apartment and there it sat, while I took about 3 hours to explore the town on foot. As I climbed the stairwell of my dwelling upon my return, I happened to look down at the bright orange vehicle sitting all by itself in the driveway reserved just for me (the guest) and saw, in the glare of the bright sunlight, something I hadn’t seen in the darkened Sixt parking lot either during or after the transfer of the car into my custody: a small dent in the fender on the passenger side. Alarmed, I immediately sent an email, as the local office was closed by this time, to the address in my inbox from Sixt, which I knew was their headquarters, informing them of my discovery of this dent after I’d retrieved the car, and my intention not to be held accountable for this dent which I had not inflicted. The next morning, having heard nothing back, I returned to the local office where the same counter agent was again on duty. He shook his head and sighed audibly when I walked in the door and before I could even explain why I was there, he cut me off. Yes, yes, he knew, his supervisor had forwarded my email to him, and I shouldn’t worry, they knew the dent was already there; I wouldn’t be charged for it.

Now, 8 days later, the counter agent in Zadar had different ideas. Rather than 30 seconds of sidelong and casual glancing, he spent ten minutes with a magnifying glass in an intimate embrace with every surface of my little Space Star. When he was finished, with a grave face and shake of his head, he informed me that there were 2 new scratches that weren’t there before, and, most disturbingly, a dent on the fender of the passenger side. Oh no, I said, the scratches maybe, but not the dent. Absolutely not the dent. I explained to him about what happened in Porec; he looked at me pityingly, disbelieving, and tut-tutted. “This is why we suggest to customers the collision coverage. I see here you refused the collision coverage. Tut-tut.”

“I’m not paying for that, and I’m not signing anything that says I will,” I declared. In stand-off mode, I held my ground and protested vociferously, though I did not say what I was thinking for fear of sounding paranoid and therefore being summarily dismissed as a whack-job: that while I was off shopping for my vegetables in Porec for 45 minutes after the car had been inspected and the paperwork completed, the counter agent and/or his complicit colleague had had a bit of fun and revenge at my expense, assuming that I wouldn’t see the dent until it was too late and obviously underestimating my ability to be a resolute and tenacious bitch when circumstances dictate this the appropriate course of action. I will gladly (okay, maybe not gladly, but willingly anyway) take responsibility for what I’ve done, but I’ll be damned if I’ll be held accountable for what someone else has done.

After about half an hour, during which he was on and off the phone with the mysterious supervisor, he informed me that due to the fact that it was unclear as to when the damages were actually incurred, they would not be charging me for them. “Even the scratches?” I asked. “Even the scratches,” he replied, tight-lipped and subdued. Lesson learned? Once you pay for the car, take it with you, or if you don’t, inspect it again before you drive it away.

The Space Star, by the way, was a little jewel. Easy to handle, smooth shifting, tight on curves, and very fuel efficient. In 8 days, I got gas only once.

The highlight of my time in Croatia was its natural beauty. I visited three national parks (Papuk, Northern Velebit, and Plitvice Lakes) and enjoyed them all, but my favorite was Plitvice Lakes. Even a downpour of rain the entire day couldn’t disguise how spectacular and highly unusual a place it is, with thousands of waterfalls from small to gigantic, and this being spring, they were all flowing like mad. I hiked my heart out.

I’ve read there roam bear, lynx and wolves in each of these parks. I yearned here, as I always do when I enter wild places, to see these creatures but alas, here as elsewhere they have earned their reputation for elusiveness, so that while I frequently suspect they are aware of my presence when I’m in their territory, they so rarely allow me to be aware of theirs. It’s been no exception here, but this does not detract from the experience of being in the wilderness, being alone in the splendiferous and magnificent company that is the grandeur of Nature. If you know her and love her, she needs no introduction, no explanation and no instructions beyond what we do automatically – see, hear, smell, and breathe her in.

 

Istria, Croatia

Posted in Prose on May 1, 2017 by 1writegirl

I set out yesterday morning in my Space Star. When the man at the rental car counter in Porec told his assistant to go get it, I laughed, thinking he must be joking around.

The sun was shining as I put the windows down and headed up the coast to Novigrad (the first of two of four towns by that name in Croatia I’ll have visited by the time I leave the country), before turning inland.

For the next three or so hours I drove from one small, picturesque town to another with names like Motovun, Groznjan, and Buzet, no less charming for being almost identical to one another with their ancient rock walls and a church at the center. The winding roads took me past fields of grazing sheep, vineyards, and olive groves. I passed one motorcycle after another, in groups, pairs and alone; the vast majority were two-up, and my heart fluttered with yearning to trade places, if only for the afternoon, with any pillion I passed. How can a lifelong love affair that began at the tender age of seven have simmered so slowly on the back burner for so long before boiling over? One of these days, I’ve promised myself, and sooner rather than later, I will learn to ride for myself, then no longer will I be dependent on the agenda, equipment or whims of another. But in the meantime a pillion is all I know how to be, and it’s what I wish for. These roads, as most roads in every European country I’ve been in thus far, seem to have been made for motorcycles with their sharp twists and turns, their narrowness, their rolling, abrupt ends. Again and again a red sporty Suzuki zoomed up behind me and passed me, the rider all in black, enough times that it began to feel personal, until he dropped off along the way once and for all, and I found myself in Hum. I parked in the small gravel lot next to a great big, and rather showy, Royal Star Venture by Yamaha and a Kawasaki I didn’t recognize (which would be most of them.)

Hum is, by all accounts and in spite of an inconsistent answer to the question, “What’s the population?,” the smallest town in the world. I got out to stretch my legs and try a local brandy made with mistletoe called Biska at the town’s only (well what can one expect, with something between 7 and 27 inhabitants) tavern. Either mistletoe is a subtle flavor or my palate is less than discriminating when it comes to brandy. Then I wandered up to the old church and discovered a beautiful cemetery unlike any I’ve ever seen. Each neat grave was covered by a pristine slab of marble, black in most cases but with a few gray and one beautiful speckled brown one thrown in. On the headstones set beside the names were gleaming silver-framed black and white photographs of the buried. Names like Ivan, Josip, Mareja, and Veronika were common. One grave of a couple had the images of their photos etched onto a separate, small roundish marble stone atop it; the only other one like it was that of a boy born the same year as me, who died at a mere 16 years old. He was buried alone, unlike most, and a picture of his sweet smiling face was engraved into the headstone alongside his framed photograph. One family of five, each member born in different years and all buried together in one plot, all died in 1944 except for the mother, who lived a few years beyond. The war? Disease? Coincidence? I could only wonder.

Artificial flowers adorned most of the graves but a few had live plantings that cascaded the entire girth if not the length of the plot, while the graves of the children, set apart from the rest, were planted with rose bushes and other flowering shrubs. These tiny graves were marked in each case but one by a simple wooden cross with no writing anywhere, as if these deaths were too private to share, or too permanently devastating to the psyches of those they left behind to necessitate, even justify, demarcation. I can understand that.

Back in my Space Star I drove toward my last destination of the day before returning to my little apartment rental in Porec – a family owned tavern or konoba called Jadruhi. On the way, as they’d done all day, cars zoomed past me. It’s not that I was driving particularly slowly, it’s that Croatian drivers like to drive fast, well over the speed limits. They like it so much, in fact, that they let little stand in their way; I was passed in no-passing zones, on curves, up hills, within city limits where the speed limit was 30kph, and in a school zone where the lights were flashing. Yet while they’re aggressive about it, they are also, incongruously, polite: they don’t get right up on your ass, they don’t flash their lights or honk at you; they don’t even, so far as I could see, give you the finger. They merely wait for the right opportunity, which doesn’t take long to present itself given almost any situation will do, then dart around you.

At Jadruhi my waitress spoke very little English and asked me if I spoke German. I shook my head and asked in turn “Parlez-vous Francais?” to which she employed the universal sign for a little bit with her hand. We got by. I spent the next hour and a half – not because it actually took me that long to eat but because slow service here, like in most of Southern Europe, is the norm and considered desirable – eating an appetizer of local cheeses, olives and cured meats like prosciutto and salami, and a creamy, incredibly delicious pasta with truffles entree along with an impressively good house red wine. It was my first splurge since I’ve been in Croatia, my first meal out. (I have to space out these decadent ventures, so I get rentals with kitchenettes as much as possible.)

It was late afternoon and the place was almost empty. A few people sat outside on the terrace but it was windy so I chose to eat inside where only one other table was occupied, a party of 5 or 6. They talked between them the entire time, and I was reminded of what a social event a meal is in this part of the world. I felt self conscious in my aloneness, and lonely too, wishing for conversation, for interest and camaraderie if only because the meal was so long and so good that I longed to share it with someone, to sigh and smile and lick my lips in admiration and appreciation with a dinner companion who loves real and delectable food and drink as much as I do; to make a memory that will be part of someone else’s life too.

In the background they were playing a wild variety of music and I was at my most melancholy when I heard a song by Lionel Ritchie, the lead singer of The Commodores before he struck out on his own. I was in my early teens in the late 70’s when they were so popular, and a memory floated back to me now of my 13th summer when I worked as a junior counselor at a summer camp for small children. A friend of mine and I were in a car with two boys we had crushes on, brothers; she was up front with one, I was in the back seat with Kirk, the other. I was sleepy, it was late, and The Commodores came on the radio singing Easy. I scooted over and lay down with my head in Kirk’s lap and closed my eyes, listening to the music and feeling that singular combination of excitement, trepidation and reckless abandon that is the frequent domain of the adolescent, when Kirk ever so gently leaned over and kissed me. What I remember about that kiss is how sensual it was, how tender and inviting, and how soft his lips were.

Here I sat at a wooden table in a small restaurant on the Istrian peninsula of Croatia on a spring afternoon almost 40 years after that summer evening, and within one or two seconds of hearing that song, I felt that kiss again. That is one of music’s gifts, the way it can evoke memory in that way, like a smell can, the way it can take us back decades to a time when we had no knowledge of the cruelty or brevity of life, and suddenly, until the song ends, we are that young naive person again with our entire lives stretching out wide before us; we see, hear, smell and taste that moment again so that it is no longer the words of the song that fill our minds but rather the very kiss itself, and the perception of how soft, how incredibly soft, his lips were.

Croatia: Week Two

Posted in Prose on April 24, 2017 by 1writegirl

It rained most of my time in Zagreb and was much colder than I’d expected (Croatia is the same latitude as Maine, so had I done my homework…) and I had a bad case of jet lag that wouldn’t resolve even with the help of sleeping pills. Thus I ventured out into the city on only two of my four days there. I visited the center square adorned by a large bronze statue of Josip Jelačić von Bužim (a count, general and all-around good guy widely admired for his abolition of serfdom) astride his trusty steed. Under the horse’s tail is a common meeting place it seems. After that I wandered into the Zagreb Cathedral – Croatia’s tallest building – and the Dolac (farmer’s) Market. Another day I visited the botanical gardens, fairly small as those things go but quite lovely nonetheless. I wish I’d had the energy and motivation to explore this city further.

The weekend found me in Velika, in the eastern part of the country on the edge of Papuk Geopark, or “nature park” as the locals call it. The owner of my rental, Anton, is a charming young man who speaks excellent English (learned from watching American movies with English subtitles he tells me) if you discount his habit of beginning every other sentence with “To be honest.” He committed one helpful task after another for me from the moment he picked me up at the train station. I was highly impressed. After showing me my apartment and helping me settle in, he started a fire in the bedroom fireplace for me, then drove me back into town to get groceries. Upon our return he downloaded an app on my phone of hiking trails in the park, and helped me sort out my SIM card situation: down with Vipme – who charged me 80 kuna for voice, SMS and unlimited data, then “suspended” my account after only one day and couldn’t offer an explanation or reinstatement of active status despite Anton’s best efforts – up with Bon Bon! (that’s good good in French, while bombon means candy in Croatian) which incidentally uses the T-Mobile network. That done, I poured us each a glass of wine and asked him about the places he’s traveled (everywhere in Europe except the Baltic states, Greece and Scandinavia.) He gave me lots of good advice about what to see where, both in Croatia and elsewhere.

The apartment is a “flat” in a 3 story century old stone house, with two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom with deep tub, and separate toilet room. Outside my bedroom is a balcony, and the house is on the edge of the forest, with beautiful views both front and back. It snowed 6 inches the night before I arrived, and after Anton left I moved from room to room, from warm to cold and back again, reminded of my grandparents farmhouse in Kentucky where only the main rooms downstairs were heated while the rest of the house – hallways, stairwells and bedrooms – were so cold in winter you could see your breath at night as you closed the doors to the warmth and light and scurried across the linoleum floors, diving into a bed piled high with down comforters and blankets. Here it’s so cold in the toilet that I’ve taken to placing strips of toilet paper on the seat prior to sitting down on an ice cube.

Last night I stepped out onto the balcony, breathed in the fresh, frigid air and thought about someone I traveled with for some time; he was my daily companion for several months and I feel his absence acutely now as I travel alone. My hands quickly turned cold but my legs stayed warm in the leggings he gave me, “gifted” he called it. I wear them each night like pajamas, and little fool that I am, take comfort in the illusion of proximity to him such a small gesture allows me. I gazed up at the sky riddled with stars and my heart ached beyond the steady grip to which I’ve grown accustomed, with bittersweet pangs of conflicting emotions – an old familiar story, what we have versus what we want; in this case an appreciation of the natural beauty surrounding me and the recollection, so specific and vivid, of wanting to sleep out under the stars with him, if only once. He wanted it too I think. We just never seemed to get around to it. As I prepared to return to the warmth of the flat the nearby church bell tolled but once: a quarter past the hour. Fifteen minutes later three peals rang out. This goes on throughout the day and night and reminds me of the Islamic call to prayer so common in some of the Asian countries we traveled through.

Back inside, as I crawled into bed, the sleeve of my motorcycle jacket peeked out from the wardrobe and caught the light from the fire as it would a headlight, its fabric designed to be seen after dark, to glow in the beam of oncoming traffic and keep its wearer safe as she barrels along into the night. Another memory, another twinge. Where are you tonight? I wondered, my whisper just another night sound, like the sighing of old floorboards or the wind in the trees. It is perhaps both my greatest strength and weakness that I don’t love easily but I do love hard.

Today the sun came out and the temperature rose to damn near 60 degrees so I hiked up a very steep trail to Velicki Grad, the ruins of a fortress town from, at best guess, the 13th century. I was completely alone in the forest except for its countless mostly unseen residents, and it was a relief, as it always is, to be in a wild and unspoiled place sans other human beings. I’d say that any child of a naturalist couldn’t help but feel this way, only I know better; neither of my brothers feels half as drawn to and captivated by the natural world as I do. As I silently wished beyond any realistic measure that as quietly as I treaded I might come upon one of the wolves Anton told me have begun to make this place their home again after decades of absence, it occurred to me for the nth time that of all the myriad ways there are to die in this world, I’d much rather meet my end in the fierce embrace of a hungry carnivore, a grizzly bear or mountain lion for instance, just doing what comes naturally, than at the hands of just about any human for any reason, except perhaps as a personal favor and therein act of kindness. If I could bring myself to believe in the fairy tale of reincarnation, I’d be convinced Jackson would come back as a wolf.

While in Zagreb I did little shopping, so I had no cream on hand for my coffee. Not usually a fan of black coffee as I find it somewhat bitter. Culinary tip, passed on to me by my friend in Toronto: Put a tiny pinch of salt in your coffee to remove the bitterness. It works.

Croatia: an introduction

Posted in Prose on April 17, 2017 by 1writegirl

For the past two and a half years, I’ve found that in addition to writing and reading, traveling to new places and exposing myself to new people, food, cultures and customs provides a measure of solace and relief to the angry grief that gnaws silently and sometimes voraciously upon my heart, and thus my life. The more of the world I see and learn about, the greater my understanding of the universal plight of suffering we as humans all endure to some degree at one time or another.

In the immediate aftermath of my son’s death I went to Spain and walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostella, a well-known and heavily traversed path of primarily spiritual intent for the bulk of its hikers. In my case, I was seeking merely a long – a very long – walk. Since then, I’ve been to New Zealand, Central Europe, and a few countries in Asia. Along the way I’ve met almost entirely friendly and good-hearted people, and even managed to make a few new friends.

Last night I landed in Croatia, wanting to be some place cheap (I’m living off my one remaining credit card so unfortunately that fact dictates the choices available to me) and warm. So far, cheap it is proving to be, with bus fare from the airport in Zagreb to the city center at ~$4, an Uber ride to my lodging at less than $2, and private accommodation through Airbnb at less than $25 a night (not as cheap as Asia but, alas, where is?) At a nearby neighborhood market today I found a bottle of red wine and one of Chardonnay for 10 kuna (slightly more than $1) each; the white is traditional glass with a cork while the red is in a plastic bottle with screw top. I tried them both this evening and although the white is slightly better, the red has nothing to be ashamed of.

Warm, Zagreb is not, at least not as warm as I was hoping for. It’s raining this week to boot. It is Spring, I remind myself. Warm will come.

I stopped in Toronto on my way here to spend a few days with a friend I met on The Camino. The flight to Toronto, delayed 4 hours due to weather conditions in Canada, took off to the west, just as the sun was going down. It is the first time in all my years of flying that I can say, with neither cliche nor metaphor in mind, I flew off into the sunset. The sky above the clouds quickly grew dark and heavy with mist and I lost all sense of direction, but almost immediately the setting sun outside my little porthole of a window was replaced with the full (or damn near close to full) moon. Nature is more romantic than any man I’ve known for some time.

On the flight from Toronto to Zagreb via Istanbul, Turkish Airlines made every announcement first in Turkish, then in English, then in French. Each and every announcement began: “Ladies and gentlemen and dear children.” More than a few of us smiled at this original greeting.

To those of you looking for something to read, I recommend The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. Fiction.