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 dubrovnik

22 prosinec (dec)
I expected
the temperatures to rise as we went south, but a wet snow was falling when I changed planes in Zagreb. Croatians must not fly often, or are not used to numbered seats on local flights, because they milled about the aisles while the flight attendant routed passengers from wrong seats. An announcement explained how to check your seat number. My seat mates, an older couple, showed me their boarding passes three times to confirm they were in the right place. A sigh of relief escaped me as we broke through the clouds to find blue skies over a sunlit shoreline. The old city of Dubrovnik appeared as an unmistakable red-roofed hook along the Dalmatian coast, circled by ancient stone walls jutting out over the sea.

The bus from the airport took a road that followed the sea. Every color of blue was blended in the dusky sunset. I had difficulty finding my way from the main station. I finally showed my little map with the hotel marked to a taxi driver, who shook his head and grumbled, "No cars, you must walk," and pointed to a break in the wall. I followed a little girl down dark steps, through an arch, and emerged in the medieval city. I stopped to catch my breath at the scene: I had surely crossed a timeline somewhere into centuries long past. Streets and buildings all of pale colored stone. In the early evening light, it looked as though they could all have been chiseled from one huge piece of stone, topped with red clay tiles, adorned with dark green slatted shutters. Back in the day, those little shops would have housed butcher, baker and candlestick maker rather than Gucci bags, expensive jewelry and brass ship's hardware-like souvenirs, but the pubs might not have been all that different.

I showed my map twice with the question "Gde je...," pronounced g'day ya..., just like the Czech "Where is...". The first woman directed me around a few blocks to a tiny street; the second, a man carrying a jumble of wire boxes and baskets, beckoned me to come along, through arches tunneling right through many storied buildings, and finally pointed out the doorway. I had rented a private apartment in a house right up against the sea wall; there was no sign. I would never have found it on my own! In the room, one entire wall was covered by a tall, carved wooden breakfront that had to have been assembled inside the room, a bowl of tiny oranges sat on the table, the smell of sea air swirled in the wind.

In off season, there was little activity on Saturday morning. Cats walked softly across stone walls, laundry waved in a chilly wind, little boats bobbed in the port. I climbed the stone steps to circle the old city and strolled along the walkway at the top of the wall, watching the view change with each new perspective. Looking out across the Adriatic Sea, small islands dotted the coastline, just beyond the horizon was the eastern coast of Italy. Under red roofs, structures separated by narrow passages were tied together with lines of multicolored clothing dancing like flags.

The Franciscan monastery museum held some treasures from past days. The chalices from the 15th and 16th century, looked like the goblets from an Indiana Jones movie. Among the dark religious paintings on the wall, a hole from missile shot was framed and labeled, like just another historic artifact.

I entered a shop displaying embroidered cloths and tunics, to find myself in the middle of a conversation between a British couple and the witty shop owner, eager for an audience. He had returned from nine months at war in the 90s just in time to stop his wife from marrying someone else, thinking he was dead. He showed us the hats women would wear before the modern day; if it had a sky blue ribbon, it meant she was available and looking for a husband. The black, white and red country dress on the wall belonged to his grandmother. An embroidered yoke on one costume, was stitched 125 years ago and was so microscopic, it looked like handmade paper with dots and lines of color.

I've missed seafood! I treated myself to grilled shrimp one night (antennae, eyes and all), and a big bowl of mussels over thin pasta the next. A young waitress told me stories of life during the civil war that split Yugoslavia, resulting in seven small countries. "It ruined our lives, my generation," she explained. "I started to go to university, but now I have this job. There are no jobs. We just didn't have any choices." I had heard that complaint from two older male Czech students as well. They were taught to repair equipment although they would have preferred to have gone to college and taken up a profession. Her story was often punctuated with the cry "Buleemee!" (Believe me!)

Little white lights outlined the buildings on Placa Street at night. A young people's string and chorale concert at St. Blases church could be heard in the silence outside. There was standing room only, I squeezed in at the back.

The locals came to set up for the morning vegetable market in one plaza. A woman wrapped in a black shawl showed me her bottles of olive oil, garlic and herbs, turning them upside down to dislodge the contents at bottom. She offered me a taste from a plate of shaved orange peel and dried figs. I bought a bag of the plump, tasty figs. She insisted on throwing an orange into the bag, perhaps to assuage her guilt for overcharging me. At a nearby cafe, thick with cigarette smoke, regulars from the market gathered and I joined them for coffee.

The bus ticket office was closed Sunday and I couldn't figure out which was the airport shuttle, so I took a taxi. I was rewarded with a personal tour of the Dubrovnik Riviera as we compared words in Czech and Croatian.

____________________________

The main entree for Christmas dinner in the Czech Republic, carp, is sold on major street corners and at holiday markets. The long, fat fish float in metal tubs. You can pick out the one you want. He's pulled out in a net, weighed, whacked on the head with a hammer, and chopped up and packaged before your eyes. It seems barbaric to me - blood everywhere, slopping onto the sidewalk and running down the gutters. Some families buy their carp and keep it alive in the bathtub; no one takes a bath for three or four days. I tell my students we buy everything already cut up and wrapped in plastic, no one could tell what these animals were by looking at them. "It's our tradition," they laugh.

New Year's eve day is called Silvester. On the Czech calendar, everyone has a name day, and that's the day for Silvester. When I ask about New Year's resolutions, they laugh again. Yes, some people make them here but why bother when they don't last more than a week or two? Some things are universal.

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