Istria, Croatia

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.

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