Pine Barrens

I haven’t written anything in a very long time on this blog and my new year’s resolution for 2019 was to force myself to write something, even something short, every single day.

After all, how am I ever supposed to become the award-winning Netflix writer unless I give the gift of the gab a jolt of the keyboard on a Monday to Sunday frequency (that one was for you Kristinn Hrafnsson!). As I sat down to think about what to write about on this dreary, second week of January Wednesday – but still not first week of the year according to the saving principle of the Orthodox calendar, my thoughts abandoned me. Then, as I was perusing suburban Canadian cable television in all its glory, it hit me. Actually, it stared me down in the face straight across the room from a Samsung smart TV monitor. Pine Barrens.

It’s truly problematic when the first topic a person writes about as they are about to begin 2019 is their ex. Especially an ex of almost a decade ago. Or is it cathartic? Perhaps ‘pathetically- falletic’ fits the bill in this case. It was -9C outside, freezing rain pelted the streets of suburban Oakville, and my brooding over fair-white snowflakes falling on the beautiful city of Belgrade and upcoming New Year fun with my bestie was getting me down as Google flights kept increasing the price of my air ticket with each Chrome refresh. My significant other was all the way in Iceland, another Canuck friend wasn’t feeling like a Starbucks run, and it seemed like the only presentable option with 10:00pm EST about to roll in was green-tea, Netflix, dog and chill. I was feeling perfectly humbug, lethargic and pathetically-falletic with not much to do. There folks, you’ve now witnessed me craft a retrofit word out of an English lit term used to depict episodes in your life when the weather mirrors your emotions. Actually, I’m lying. The Webster’s definition states that it is a term used to attribute human feelings and emotions to inanimate objects and things, especially art and animals. Instead, I have bastardized it for my own selfish purposes. What a way to start the new year. I sighed, squiggled into the corner of the couch, dog on lap and piping green tea on coffee table and pummeled the arrow up button on the remote control with more tenacity than Serena Williams at a back-hand. Gloom and doom took over me. And then, just like that I froze. I couldn’t believe it. I sat up and hit the guide and info button on the sticky Bell remote control while a wry smile took over my face. What in God’s name could trigger memories of an ex from almost ten years ago you ask? Believe it or not binge-watching HBO.

About a decade ago I dated – better put: ‘squandered-time,’ with a man who I thought I was head over heels in love with at the time. Funny thing about relationships, you look back years later and you wonder how you could have been so stupid and what attracted you to the person in the first place? What were their defining qualities and characteristics? But as the adage goes, if you knew then what you know now, you’d both probably have been a lot better off if you had parted ways sooner. Be that as it may, a decade can go a long way in shaping a person and ten years ago he wasn’t just a boyfriend, he was more like the center of my very little world. Or so I allowed my mind to believe.

As with most ‘relationships,’ you lose yourself in them like a kid at a playground. You want the good times to last forever and you hang on to those good times when the seas of your ‘relation-ship’ become rough and wavy. Sometimes you put the good times on a pedestal they don’t deserve to be on. You know intuitively that they don’t deserve that pedestal, but it doesn’t matter. If your ship is to survive, sails and anchor intact, it’s best to preserve them and navigate the easier route, ignoring choppy waters and storms you can see forming from a distance. It’s easy to judge our ships from the vantage point of today. We all do it and it’s neither fair nor just. It’s the same process as examining history by applying the principles and standards of the present moment. One becomes a relationship-revanchionist.

I was neither happy nor content in the relationship. In all due fairness, neither was he. Yet we sailed along, hitting branches along the shoreline, lingering for a few months, then wading off when another current would propel us forward and so the ‘relations’ continued, uncharted and unmapped and utterly without direction. Sometimes the ship sailed full-steam ahead with all sails aligned, but more often it would sail alone, the Captain just as off course as the only other singular crew member onboard - myself. We were like the Titanic except we hit iceberg after iceberg and never managed to sink. We didn’t have the good fortune of a Carpathia to rescue us either so onward we sailed like goose in a fog. We just weren’t a good match, but every attempt by both parties to make a clean break never worked out as planned. By early 2010, we found ourselves in our mid-30s, sharing common friends, love and romance fading only to be replaced with a dependency on each other more from a work perspective than anything else. During this period, we often spent long hours together at one another’s apartments (probably to avoid dining alone) and to do the one thing which we both loved more than anything else at time – binge watching a particular television series to death. For us, that series was The Sopranos.

I’d like to believe I was the one who got him into the show, but it’s been so long that I cannot even remember. I only know I had been an avid fan of the show prior to meeting him and had binged it while working and living in the EU two relationships prior to him. I’ve always found that the odd thing about relationships is that when they end, and you’re filled with sorrow and heartache, you say to yourself you’ll remember everything about the person – every scent, every corner of their kitchen, every item on the coffee table and in the cupboard drawers. You’ll memorize every insignificant detail better than a treasure map or the wallpaper on your first childhood bedroom. But give it ten years and you struggle to even remember the color of the kitchen paint or which side the bedroom door faced.  

When I first met him, the only things he seemed to be interested in were Poland, conspiracy theories and UFC, something I abhorred (errr, UFC that is), but as with most people, I pretended I liked men-torturing-other-men-caveman-style to appease him and find a common banter for conversation. When it wasn’t UFC, his interests at least tended toward dramatic and crime-genre films and TV shows, which wasn’t too shabby as we usually landed on something we could watch together. I prided myself on introducing him to cable primetime network series and especially for forcing him to watch Mad Men, a show he genuinely got into and which we enjoyed together. All because of me. But it was The Sopranos, the famed HBO show about an Italian-American mafia head who struggles with panic attacks and anxiety while running an operation pitting two feuding families against each other, which really became our defining ‘thing.’

Nowadays I have trouble remembering the layout of his living room, which I swore to preserve in my memory after it all ended. The only thing I do remember was this great yellow couch. It was soft and big and unusual, in that no matter which side you sat on, there was ample leg-stretch room for two. The couch was the go-to-piece-of-furniture after a full day spent at our mediocre jobs, which at the time, we thought were uber important (note to self: far-from-it!). Popcorn, laughs, giggles, jokes, hugs, tidbits of gossip, world news, family news, the latest tech craze and the insightful fad had all been discussed on the safety of the big yellow couch. Numerous gin and tonics, Caesars, and gourmand platters of prosciutto and cheese had been sipped and nibbled on it and tremendous break-up fights and make-up hugs had been witnessed on it. The couch bore the stains of our relationship just as it had the small corner wine spill of girlfriends’ past, which, like Kramer he tried to hide by turning the cushion seat over. But if there was one thing that the big yellow couch was most remembered for it was the countless, wonderful nights where it sheltered and harbored us during hours of Soprano binge-watching.

We’d start at approximately 9:00pm on the evenings when HBO would air the series in back-to-back episodes and go until the wee hours of the morning, and wind up half-awake, hair dishevelled, plate-on-the floor, crumbles of cheese in those hard to vacuum corner bits, while we struggled to finish episode 5 at the God-forsaken hour of 2:30am EST. It was hard to wake up the next morning and get ready for work while shuffling around like silent zombies, yet nothing could deter us from the mediocre pleasure of four to five hours of straight sets with our favorite characters. After a while Tony may as well have made us Capo’s, so obsessed were we with the one-liners and life of Tony, Paulie, Chris and Silvio that you’d think David Chase had written the show just for us.

There was one episode in particular that had us racing home the minute we knew Rogers would air it in that week’s line-up. Pine Barrens. An episode that may as well have single-handedly won every Emmy award in the year it debuted. If you don’t believe me just Google it or stream this masterpiece on couchtuner.com. Why? Because its brilliant, genius and bona-fide, grade-A script-writing from beginning to end.

The plot summary: Chris and Paulie are sent on a simple mission by Tony to collect some dough from Slava, T’s Russian-doppelgänger. Instead, in typical Paulie Walnuts style, a simple collection-day turns into a horror show when the Russian they extort payback from attacks them for destroying his remote control. Chris’ attempt to avenge Paulie are met with anger by said Russian who is then wacked by both men before being wrapped in a wall carpet, slung into the trunk of a car, and deposited in a south Jersey frozen woodland. It’s only when they get to the proposed burial site – Pine Barrens, a remote park reminiscent of Algonquin to south Jersey, that they discover the Russian is still alive, multiple head wounds, slashes and all. As the Siberian giant is marched off to an execution site and forced to dig his own grave, my ex and I would howl with laughter at the Russian-to-English translation as he eyes Chris and Paulie with discontent and a blue moon in his eye: “You cocksuckers! I wash my balls with frozen ice!” What follows is a second botched murder attempt with the Russian running through the woods with the same ease and finesse as Federer finishing off Nadal, barefoot, barely dressed and oblivious to the sub-zero temperature of his surroundings, while a stunned and frozen-to-the-bone Paulie and Chris are left shoeless and totally in disbelief at their unkillable Rasputin. They’ve also got a lot of explaining to do for T, who is none impressed and doesn’t know what to tell Slava. “This guy better not come back to tell his story, you got me?!,” yells Tony into a 2001 unreliable Siemens handset that can barely hatch onto signal. “Slava tells me he was some commando in Chechnya. He killed 17 people and was in the elite unit!” On the other end of a poor cell phone reception in lower New Jersey, Paulie looks at a bleeding and concussion-shaking Chris and exclaims “No shit? Tony says this guy was an interior decorator. He killed 17 Czechoslovakians!” ….” Fuck me,” says Chris. “His apartment looked like shit.”

This incredibly well-scripted exchange would have both my ex and I at the edge of our seats and howling with laughter, literally punching the big yellow sofa cushions while wiping back tears. The Russian was someone we could totally relate to as we were both Slavic and we all knew characters in real-life as funny and primitive as Chris and Paulie. We’d re-watch the episode so often that at some point we knew the entire scene by heart, repeating the lines even before the actors did and laugh just as much the 330th time as we did the first time.

Fond memories of watching this series and this particular episode prevented me from watching the show after we broke up. This mimicked my behaviour with many things to come. Following the break up, my German-half was fully unleashed (although Croatians are just as volatile, especially Dalmatians). I’d still linger about in the same area we lived in, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, hoping for a reconciliation. Pathetic. Sometimes visit the same restaurants, and so it went on. Try self-inflicted wounds and torture and then tell me how long you last. But about a year after we finally broke up for good, he did something so unforgiveable that I stopped all these behaviours cold turkey. After about three years I stopped visiting the same area we lived in and the city of Toronto altogether. Then I enforced the no-go policy, meaning no visits to the same conjugal happy places ever again – none of the old restaurants that you used to visit with your ex, coffee shops, bookstores, brunch venues, parks, shopping malls, common outings and so on and so on. As television genres switched, I no longer had to avoid HBO and was free to watch what I chose. It’s now been over six years since I have last seen him, just casually walking on a street, and I don’t even remember what he looks like anymore. Every item or gift he ever gave me has been purged or re-gifted, every email erased, every photograph deleted (and in the case of prints – burned). Four years ago, I made the wonderful decision to cut off the last remaining common friend. It didn’t even hurt as much as I thought it would and with that, all ties to him were finally and totally severed. The one thing that couldn’t be cut however, were memories or the odd reminders.

A few years after the break-up, I entered and then ended a relationship with a German man who to this day I count as a very close friend, confidante and mentor. He encouraged my writing as more than just a hobby whereas my old ex had scoffed at it and on my occasions even belittled it. Parting ways on uber friendly terms with the German man made me realize that other than my acrimonious Polish ex, I had stayed on good terms with every past boyfriend prior to and since. A previous Polish ex is still a lifelong friend and confidante, as are his wife and children, who also happen to be neighbours in the Toronto suburb close to my family home. He’s also my tax accountant and a genuinely wonderful human being (and you never want to piss off your tax accountant!). The Croat ex prior to him is also dear to my heart and a person I regularly see during just about every annual visit to the Motherland. The ex prior to him was the first big love of my life and he passed away at the very young age of 53 much to the shock of many in October of 2018. His death came as a blow to me, because although we had parted on not so great terms in 1997, I would still nod hello when I ran into him twenty years later, even though words were never exchanged. The passing of this man, Franz, made me think about past ex’s and particularly the one I never speak to and with whom I never shall. But just as with far away countries and the benefit of an ocean of space, so too did I gain in distancing myself from Canada vis-a-vis virtually obliterating any memory of my decade old ex from my mind. Until recently.

In the past few years, a healthy and happy relationship with myself would take me to Iceland of all places, where age, maturity, contentedness, timing and providence, finally worked together and contributed toward meeting my soul mate. Or better put the human being who completes you and puts up with you, and who was probably always meant for you even though you never admitted or acknowledged it. My current partner is an older man who is more at peace with the world and his place in it. And when I met him so was I. This is why things work better now, and this is why it’s different ten years onward.

I acknowledge I wasn’t in a great place when I met my ex. Neither was he. As two directionless souls we steered a ship that wasn’t enduring much of our relations. We probably weren’t too different from many people in our generation at that point in our post-2007-recession-filled lives. Takes a wiser person to say it. Takes an even bigger person to admit it. I’m bigger now than I was then. Back then I was petty and stubbornly stupid.

Looking back on it, I was just plain miserable and lost in Toronto having just returned from ten wonderful years abroad in the US and the EU. Toronto did not hold any charm for me and I was truly unhappy and bored with my employment and life situation. Instead of acknowledging that and owning up to it, I wallowed in misery and sought comfort and shelter in a relationship with someone who was just as directionless and restless as I was. It’s no wonder the big yellow couch acted as a security blanket. For four wonderful years it weathered all our arguments, sheltered all our storms, and provided tremendous comic relief in the form of Tony Soprano mocking Vito Spatafore and Roger Stirling questioning Don Draper on his over-abundant mojo.

This past summer while watching the World Cup 2018 from our house in Iceland, my new partner began flipping channels during the half-time break. During the fifteen-minute pause of the Argentina and Iceland match he decided he wanted to watch the Mad Men episode where Joan is loaned to a Jaguar exec for the night so that Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price could gain the account. I was cooking dinner and coming in and out of the living room, demanding he pause Mad Men and rejoin the football match in progress. Fifty-nine agonizing minutes later and the entire street screaming with excitement as Iceland tied, we settled into our cozy Nordic sitting chairs and hunkered down with a plate of steaming schnitzel, over-onioned potato salad and sauerkraut in hand (a lἀ moi of course), ready for a night of binging with Don Draper and crew. Episode after episode had us erupting in laughter, until we got to the episode - whose title I have forgotten - but where the climax appears to be the good-looking office writer named Ken getting his foot run over by an indoor lawn mower on demo display. My partner laughed like a hyena while I collected plates and went to the kitchen to rinse them. Once there I spooned out ice cream with his daughter and we took the bowls outside to the patio. My partner joined us, and we sat there for some time discussing the possibilities of Iceland and Croatia’s progression at the World Cup in Russia. After a while it began to rain softly, so we went back inside and called it a night. As my partner and his daughter switched to Icelandic and my understanding filtered off when I realized they were talking about “Kenny and the lawnmower episode”, my mind wandered off to a distant memory from the year 2010.

Then, just as now, I too had watched that Mad Men episode. In a different city, a different country, with a different person and on a different couch. I no longer remember the room, I no longer remember the conversation, and I no longer remember the person. But I do remember lots of laughter and visions of a big yellow couch remain.  I now know that where relationships are concerned, the ship can sail, the anchor can be harbored elsewhere, and the ropes that once bound can truly be cut. But the ‘relation’ can never truly be severed. Relations live deep in the aorta of the memory and come back time after time, triggered by a dream, a scent, and even that place you’ve buried so deep inside yourself and vowed to never reopen. There they hibernate, only to emerge when you least expect them to, despite all the self-inflicted barriers you’ve put in place. No matter how many restaurants, coffee shops, movie houses, streets, parks and Japanese restaurants on Bloor street you’ve Achtung-ed and made verboten, those relations come back to jolt you and reassert themselves in the most mundane things and places.

For me, and perhaps others like me, that relation revealed itself in Pine Barrens. It was 10:00pm and I was sitting in the living room of my parents’ house, filled with self-loathing because I couldn’t find the resolve to flip the channel and watch anything else. I’d been so strict with myself for the better half of almost ten years and stuck to the Bismarck-like principles of avoiding, cutting off, blocking, and guarding a wall. Jon Snow and Donald Trump would have been proud of me. But on the evening of January 6th, I hesitated. I lingered too long. Before I knew it, Pine Barrens had sucked me in and swallowed me whole. The bizarre thing is that after it was over, I didn’t feel the need to replay the many arguments or bad moments I had with my ex over in my head as I probably would have done even six years ago, just from being triggered by a memory. Instead I felt inner peace, a total calm and serenity. I felt nothing, yet I felt everything. Bittersweet, but bereft of any animosity. Why did it take almost seven years to reach this phase, I asked myself? Why not sooner? I wondered if somewhere out there on that cold January evening he too was still up, awake, and watching Pine Barrens from the comfort of the big yellow couch. Did the couch still exist in the corner of the living room or it had been replaced just as I had?

As that thought weighed on my mind, I grabbed the television remote, turned off the TV and made my way to bed. Present or not, the big yellow couch could never be truly discarded. I knew that now. It was an artifact of a time long-ago and remained entrenched in that room just like the relics of everyone who had ever lingered there. It just took the Pine Barrens to finally see that clearly.

 

 

 

 

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Why Croatia is Already the World Cup Winner

Tomorrow, Sunday, July 15th, is going to be the longest and most emotional day of my entire life. It’s also safe to say that same feeling will be felt by the entire 4.1 million co-citizens of the country I call home, Croatia. The same can be said for people all around the world who are going to be watching what we Croats can only refer to as a historic day. A day of hope, a day of inspiration, a day to be proud, a day to celebrate, a day to shed tears of joy, sorrow, happiness and exhilaration - no matter who is crowned the victor of football’s ultimate prize. Because for Croatia, for all my countrymen and countrywomen, for the millions of us in the diaspora and for the millions more supporting us who will not sleep a wink tonight – Croatia is already the winner.

From the moment this frenzied World Cup began over one month ago, Croatian fans the world over cheered on the ‘Vatreni’ (‘Blazers’ in English) with all the passion and love we could muster. We alone knew what it took for our team to even get to Russia. We alone knew the path to the World Cup was always going to have more obstacles in it for our team than perhaps any other. And we knew this precisely because we are Croatian. Being Croatian means being part of a nation which has always faced incredible obstacles, huge roadblocks, towering fences, and powerful barricades and barriers. It’s in our history. It’s in our karma. It’s in our destiny and it’s always been our fate. We knew we were never ‘wanted’ at the big boys’ club, the big boys table and in this instance – the big boys game. How did we know this? Because we are Croatian. Because that’s been the story of our own existence for the majority of our lives, of that of our parents, of that of our grandparents and that of our ancestors. It’s been the narrative that was weaved probably since the time we were in our Mother’s womb. We know this inherently well because this tale has been repeated to us time and time again. We’ve always been the underdog and we’ve always had to fight harder than the others to get this far, to get anything really. To understand us, you must know our story. You must meet us. You must appreciate that we, according to every rule and regulation, shouldn’t even be here. Yet despite the odds, and one might say precisely BECAUSE the odds are always so stacked up against us, here is precisely where we’ve arrived. If you are a believer in fate, karma, universal signs and the payback power of the universe, you may already know why we are going to be tomorrow’s winners. If you’re not, read on and buckle your seatbelts.

Our government will tell you we are a country with a population of roughly 4.1 million people. They lie. The last official census was taken in 2012 and since then, like many European countries new to the EU we’ve seen a flight, a brain-drain, of our best and brilliant, usually young people, who have fled abroad to the western EU states, North America and Australia. Not just in search of better jobs either. Look at our national football team for example. They’re a great blueprint for the growing trend in Croatian in the last twenty years. All but two play for top European and global clubs. Typical of the times, right? Not so. This departure of our best, brightest and our future DNA holders wouldn’t be so bad if you took into consideration we lost another 2 million after the war of the 1990s either as internally displaced refugees, through ethnic cleansing, forced migration, and of course war casualties and deaths. Add to this the 1 million we gained rom Croatians who fled the break-up of Yugoslavia and its subsequent wars to the newly proclaimed Republic of Croatia, and for whom we are largely grateful as many of those refugees supplied some of the very football players you will see on display tomorrow (Modrić’s parents fled their home in south Croatia to live in a seaside hotel while his grandfather was killed by Serb forces, Rakitić’s parents are Bosnian-Croats who fled to Switzerland ahead of the war, Lovren’s parents also Bosnian-Croats who fled to Germany during the war, and Mario Mandžukić’s family fled from one Croatian region to another, all during the war). Positive prospects beyond football? Our birth rate is constantly declining. We are having fewer and fewer kids, which is also typical of new EU states (although something tells me that 9 months from the end of this World Cup we are going to see a baby footprint spike across Croatia. The point of all this is that we are an INCREDIBLY small country and we aren’t getting any larger even with an abundant diaspora population (Croats are always fond of saying that the 5 million people we had before the 1990s war was matched by an equally large and perhaps larger 5-10 million living in the diaspora) this demographic situation is not expected to change any time soon. Our economy could be doing much better, political apathy and mistrust is at an all-time high and nobody knows how to fix the ever-present problem of corruption despite the fact we’ve had twenty-seven years of independence to try.

Despite our small population numbers, despite the small geographic size of our boomerang-shaped country (roughly equivalent in size to the US state of Kentucky), and even though we are not a world superpower or an economic powerhouse, there is one quality we over-index on: success on the sporting stage. I’m not just referring to football (soccer) either. Football may be the most popular sport in Croatia in terms of sheer numbers and the output of players, but its closely followed by handball, basketball, tennis, water polo, volleyball, skiing, and general athletics – and we’re Olympic and World medalists in each one mentioned above, sometimes on triple occasions. This is a fact none of us can understand or even try to explain to a non-Croat. I’ve spent the better half of the last ten years fielding questions from many outsiders with the common narrative being: ‘Why and how are Croatians so exceptionally talented at sports? How does your country manage to produce so many talented athletes in just about every sport? Explain it?” I can’t because there is no explanation. There are a few tell tale signs and one is genetics. People from Croatia are among the tallest in the world and certainly in the top three of tallest in Europe. This is not surprising, but we don’t have a scientific explanation for why this is. If you travel to Croatia (or Serbia or Montenegro) one of the first things you are going to notice is that this is a region that ‘somehow’ breeds exceptionally tall people. Height is an advantage in sports. But not every sport. Still, it’s a genetic explanation that cannot be explained, much less understood. Our cuisine is a hybrid mix of Austrian, Hungarian, Italian and Turkish influences, so this too cannot be the reason. We eat just as many proteins and carbs as the next person and our diet could be better managed. We indulge in 3-5 coffees a day and the art of sipping coffees at outdoor cafes all day long without a care in the world, could garner us a World Cup medal if we fail tomorrow. Our water is clean and safe to drink. But none of these factors can explain our consistent sporting successes. We aren’t a rich nation and our GDP per capita, while definitely better than most Eastern European states and better performing than some current EU states, still cannot explain how a nation of 4.1 (or 3.7 million) people did this. Nor can our past. But our past may shed a better light as to HOW and WHY we got here.

In the news themes that every major media organization has pumped out about Croatia this past week, there has been one that lay below the surface and that few picked up on or even dived into, so I’m going to shed the spotlight on it now. While many of you may know that we fought a war for our independence in the early to mid 1990s, you might not know, that the first ‘shot’ was fired on the soccer pitch. Not a typo and you read that correctly. I’m referring to a May 1990 riot at Zagreb's Maksimir Stadium that stopped a game between the local team, FK Dinamo and the visiting club, Red Star from Belgrade. This was, to many Croatians, the beginning of the war that established our country as a separate state. The Serbian fans were led into the riot by Željko Ražnjatović, aka ‘Arkan,’ a future war criminal, and the police (considered by many at the time instruments of the Serb-led Yugoslav state) who intervened too late and focused on the hardcore Dinamo fans – the Bad Blue Boys, as they call themselves. A young Dinamo player at the time, Zvonimir Boban, got into the fight to help a bleeding and wounded fan and kicked a Yugoslav police officer wielding a baton, thereby igniting the Croatian public’s passions. To Croats, his act became a symbol of resistance. To everyone of my generation, that very image of Boban splashed across every single newspaper in the country the next morning cemented the fact that this wasn’t just about football. It was about much more, and it always has been ever since.

At another soccer game, between Hajduk Split and Partizan Belgrade, in September 1990, Hajduk's hardcore fans, the Torcida, burned the Yugoslav flag and chanted, "Croatia – independent state."  Franjo Tudjman, the nationalist leader at the head of our independence drive, used the soccer fan organisations' radicalism to drive his message and soccer itself to acquire legitimacy for an increasingly independent Croatia. In October 1990, a game between a selection of Croat players and the US national team was seen as the secessionists' major diplomatic success. Our athletes – including and most especially our soccer players, continued serving as Tudjman's informal ambassadors throughout the ensuing war and in the nation-building years that followed.  For Tudjman and many in the Croatian Soccer Federation, soccer was a weapon and a tool for building a national identity for domestic consumption and for a world that wasn't particularly interested in distinguishing between "former Yugoslav" states.  What that golden generation of 1998 have done and what the current 2018 squad have repeated twenty years to-almost-the-day, is something that many of us thought would never happen. They have fulfilled a long-held dream, they have rekindled a long-held hope, and they have re-opened that long held-pandora’s-box fantasy that none of us ever thought we would live to see again in our lifetimes. And I do mean ever. Ever.

If you know a Croatian, you will likely know that ALL of us know precisely where we were, what we wore, and whom we were with when EIGHT monumental things in our national narrative as a country occurred. 1. We all know exactly where we were the day Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1990. 2. We all know exactly where we were the day the war broke out. 3. We all know exactly where we were the day Croatia was first recognized as an independent state (Takk Island!). 4. We all know exactly where we were the day the war ended. 5. We all know exactly where we were the day Croatia won third place in the world at our first ever World Cup appearance in 1998. 6. We all know where we were when our co-citizen, Goran Ivanišević, became the first Croatian to win a Wimbledon final. 7. We all know where we’ve been the past few weeks watching the unimaginable unfold in Russia, and finally: 8. We all know where we are going to be tomorrow for this historic day, truly the absolute biggest and most defining day in our country’s history. That’s the order and I defy anyone who will find a Croat that doesn’t have an immediate answer for the seven - and soon to be eight - milestone events described above.

Because to answer the question of how we survived this incredible run you also have to know that we are huge believers in fate, karma, divine intervention, the universe, and second only to the Serbs when it comes to conspiracy-theory-beliefs and bizarre superstitions (we aren’t neighbours for nothing!). As one of the most superstitious Croats in existence, here’s my theoretic-take-low-down-attempt at further explaining our success story as defined by historic proofs, spoofs and my own inner beliefs (and I won’t be taken aback if I am proven wrong tomorrow, but I, like many Croatians believe in the power of universal signs and we have eight sure-fire ones below to rely on):

1.       History is on our side. The French are technically the strongest and most agile and consistent team in this tournament. There is no doubt about that. But sometimes tact, agility and technical advantages can be broken down given the unknown formula factor of: fate+karma=CroatiaΦ. As a person who is armed with a history degree, I know the French have NEVER been victorious in Russia. If they win tomorrow, they will have laid to rest not just a World Cup win, but also a 300-year old curse when it comes to Russian soil. The last great French squad to enter Russia was led by a fellow napoleon Napoleon. His army was frozen to the bone in a town called Borodino where hundreds of thousands of them died while attempting what every army before and after them (even the mighty Germans) tried to do and failed. Invade and win in Russia and live to tell about it. That may have been nearly 200 years ago, but the omen and the lesson remain. Croatia on the other hand?

2.       Russia is our historic soil. We may not be Russians but at this point we’re literally ‘kinda’ the next best thing. We’re Slavs. We know this land. We know this territory. We’ve never invaded it. We respect it. We understand it. We eat similar food and have similar customs. We speak a language so eerily similar that if a Russian were to slow down while talking, we’d understand 80 percent of every word. Not fiction. Google it if you don’t believe me. Unlike Poland, Ukraine and some other immediate Slavic next-door neighbours, we’re too far away geographically for Russia to give a damn, and they, generally speaking, like us. They vacation on our coastline and usually are amused when they learn how many old Russian words we’ve retained in our language (a source of general pride among Croats by the way). We’ve never had historic or political issues with Russia, so we are seen as a zero-threat region with beautiful beaches and uber-tall people to play some great tennis with and then enjoy some grilled Croatian barbeque amongst (which is also eerily similar to Russian shashlik). Our historic homeland ‘Belo Horvatska’ or White Croatia, now rests in western Russia, where all the Slavic tribes originally come from (as the legendary sagas state) one brother went east, another west and the last ‘jug’ (meaning ‘south’) went south. Among us Slavs, we sometimes squabble. But if I were to bet my bottom dollar I would say with certainty that half of Mother Russia will be downing vodka at 4pm tomorrow afternoon in an outward sign of victory that the ‘baby brother Slavs’ beat the French. If omens, superstitions and the soil of our ancestors provide any karmic relief, along with the cheers of our fans and our Russian brothers and sisters, we should take this. ‘Should.’

3.       Our Flag – the beloved Checkerboard. I think, in fact I rather believe, that we are the only country in the world, whose flag includes an emblem that pays homage to sports. When people ask why we have a Checkerboard in the middle of the flag I must answer as my co-citizens do. Legend has it that one of our Kings, in an effort to win his freedom from his captors, played a long chess match against his opponent and was released with his freedom intact. Chess is the thinking mans brain sport. A sport nonetheless. In Croatia, chess is a national obsession. A passion. A game of such respect that there are open air chess clubs all throughout the country, stone chess tables at most beach resorts, and even human chess games where each person plays a set-piece on specially crafted sidewalk-squared tiles. Chess is taught very early in primary schools throughout the country, most of whom have their own chess clubs and some of the best chess players of the old Yugoslavia were Croats. Gary Kasparov was one of the first international elites to make Croatia his second homeland when he purchased a summer house in 1994 on the Dalmatian coast. Tomorrow’s final game will also have our players switch from the dark home away jersey to play in our traditional red-and-white checkered jersey. When we see our flag, we usually cry. Recent bigoted statements by a Canadian media personality calling it the ‘picnic-table flag’ or the Indy 500 emblem don’t rile us. We love our flag that much that we often never want to take it down. Our flag is a good luck token. It’s an omen and it’s a sign. Checkers will do dominate tomorrow’s match more so than Les Bleus.

4.       Our National Soccer Team Manager is ‘Golden.’ Literally. Zlatko Dalić was not a household name before this tournament began. In fact, most Croatians had never even heard of him. He wasn’t beloved like Slaven Bilić, or adored and respected like Miroslav Blažević (who coached the ’98 team) and he wasn’t Otto-the-Great Barić of the 2000s. He was a fellow we all had to Google just like the rest of you. We learned he had coached many Middle Eastern clubs to great results. Impressive. But not in Croatia where proving your soccer worth has always meant you played for either Dinamo Zagreb or Hajduk Split, went on to the English Premier League and ONLY then could you come back and hold the honor of coaching the national team. Boy, were we wrong. Just like the current national team, Zlatko Dalić’s humble and modest rise towards success is every bit as inspirational as the teams itself. He stayed out of the spotlight, kept his head to the ground and inspired a silent dignity and respect with each impressive win. But there’s one more thing he has going for him that may be the deciding factor tomorrow. His name. Zlatko is a very old Croatian and Serbian male name and it’s the diminutive form for the word in Croatian which literally means ‘GOLD’ (“ZLATO”). Was he given the name ‘Golden’ one for no reason at all? I think not.

5.       The Date. Tomorrow may just be Sunday, July 15th to much of the world, but to Croatians it’s the 30_day countdown to one of the most important religious holidays in the country and to a spiritual leader many Croatians (including myself) have been praying to while watching these games. August 15th is the Feast Day of the Assumption of the Blessed Lady – the Virgin Mary. The ‘Bogorodica’ as we call her in Croatian. For a country which is largely Christian, she is one of the most revered and liked symbols. I literally do not know a Croatian house (even Atheists) who don’t have an icon of the Bogorodica in their home and who haven’t evoked her name during a difficult moment or in their great hour of need. We had a death in my family this week and during every single second half of every single match, I’ve turned off the TV and gone to a quiet room to meditate in silence and pray while picturing her icon in front of me along with the images of every Croat loved one I have lost over the years. It may seem strange to some, even peculiar to others, but its akin to what the Thai soccer boys were doing in that cave during their great hour of need – praying to the Buddha. In that same fashion, we pray to the Bogorodica, perhaps not so much for ourselves, but for courage and strength for our team and in my case, for deceased loved ones who will never get to see this moment. The Bogorodica is a great lady and she works in mysterious ways. She’s got our back.

6.       The Stadium and the Date…Again. I am a big believer in the number 8 (read the last bullet to understand why). Luzhniki was built as a homage to the Russians’ great love for its nature and its rivers (another trait shared by its Slavic cousins, the Croats). The name ‘Luzhniki’ is a reference to the flood meadows in the bend of the Moskva River where the stadium was built, translating roughly as "The Meadows". The Croatian anthem also pays tribute to our three big rivers: The Sava, the Drava, and the Danube. Then there is the reliance on the repeat performance of things happening in the omen of ‘Eights.’ In 2008, another major underdog story occurred on the pitch at Luzhniki Stadium. Manchester United beat Chelsea after a 1–1 draw to win their third European Cup. Just like Croatia, it involved penalties, a fight to the end mentality, AND a tremendous belief in themselves. 2008. Today: 2018. Coincidence?

7.       The Players. Modrić, Rakitić, Mandžukić, Perišić, Lovren, Vida, Strinić, Rebić, Vrsaljko, Subašić, Kovačić, Kramarić, Pivarić, and the rest may not seem like superstars on the level of Messi and Ronaldo. But Messi and Ronaldo are gone. So are the mighty Germans. So are the Argentines. So are the Brazilians. So are the English. So are the Portuguese. Our players – ALL of them actually with the exception of two, play in the best English Premier League clubs, The Bundesliga, La Liga, and the Top French, Italian, Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian clubs among them. This is normal for Europe’s big four: England, Germany, Spain and France who between themselves have a combined population of 249.2 million. It’s unexplainable and unbelievable given the population of Croatia – 4.1 million (if you decide to believe our government) or 3.7 million people if you believe in reality and income tax returns.

8.       The Writer. Not to toot my own horn here, but according to my Chinese friends, I was born on the luckiest day of the year and with the luckiest combination of digits imaginable. Although, this only holds true in China but nevertheless as a person born on August 8, at 08:08am (the eighth day of the eighth month on the eighth second of the eighth hour), I am going to take my monumental day of arrival and energetically transfer all the supposed luck of my weekly lottery ticket number to the Croatian National Football squad tomorrow.

If all of this hasn’t convinced you that Croatians have spirit and if you know nothing about the Croatian national character (and being from a tiny nation we tend to have similar traits) maybe the following description shall. Croatians are among the happiest and most interesting people you will ever meet. Two qualities are very much appreciated in Croatia, actually three, and our parents raise us to appreciate these and display them whenever we can: Humor, Generosity and Humility. Now, they usually do not go hand in hand, but I would defy you to meet a Croat who doesn’t have one of those three if NOT all three qualities embedded in their character. If you ever meet us, our goal in life is to feed you. All day, every hour, every day. One drink is not enough. One slice of cake will usually be followed by another. When you are invited to our home, we take special care in how you as a guest will be treated. I guess that’s why amongst ourselves, we always discuss and notice unkind behaviour and people who are stingy or perceived as non-generous. That’s never a quality you will see among Croats, who usually fight amongst each other over who picks up the bar tab. I had a friend in Iceland who used to say he loved when I came to visit, because it always felt like Christmas. Our humour is legendary and the way in which jokes are told and re-told can hold a crowd for hours. In being humble, we are taught by very strict parents to keep our nose to the ground, work hard, stay focused and never display signs of narcissism – definitely not the Croat way. You may wonder why this is but there is even an explanation for that.

It’s because we are outsiders and always have been. We weren’t supposed to be at this World Cup, just as we weren’t supposed to exist as a nation. Tenacity, hard work, determination, flooding the western states through our diaspora as talented workers, students and forced entrepreneurs – all of this taught us the very qualities the football team is displaying in front of the world today. That we are worthy. That we matter just as much as the next person. That we may be the smallest team left and the smallest per size, but that those metrics no longer matter anymore, not when you have Luka Modrić’s right or left foot, Rakitić’s precision and Mario Mandžukić’s lion heart. Not when the majority of the globe is watching you, typing your country’s name into a Google browset, and booking an airline ticket to that ‘other’ European Medittereanan destination at the expense of the big four: Spain, Italy, France and Greece (no offense to any of these countries!). We’re the comeback kid, the underdog baton wielders (post-Iceland), the Checkerboard nation the world has gone mad for. From Syria, to Myannmar, to North Korea, to Iceland, the number of people rallying behind this dark horse of a country has surpassed every living expectation. As Croatians its filled our hearts with such a pride and joy that can never be adequately described. In every tweet, every post, every kind word I receive, I am filled with so much emotion that even as writer it is difficult to convey this. Watching the games in Iceland has truly impressed me with the sheer wonder of what my countrymen have pulled off. In Iceland, where every other friend of an even smaller nation than Croatia cheers us on with genuine emotion, I am constantly reminded of the class and sportsmanship that still exist and that really define the only other true underdog that took part in this tournament. I’m often left alone with my thoughts shielding my tears from their humble kindness and gentle nature, qualities I recognize. It’s electric. It’s toxic. It’s unbelievable.

When asked how Croatia got this far, I humbly answer and respond in the best way I can by bringing up the reasons I have in this article. And when I run out of those, I delve into the unexplainable reasons, of which there are plenty The way we were raised, the values and ethics our parents taught us. I spent half my life in the West, some of it trying to explain to people where Croatia even was on a map (the constant introductions as that kid from ‘Czechoslovakia’ or the ‘Soviet Union’ always being the highlight of my day), the other half proving to many bigoted Canadians that just because I was the kid of immigrant parents, did not mean I wasn’t ‘worthy.’ To be an immigrant Croatian may be even harder than being a Croatian-Croatian. Bear with me. The responsibility and burden are a hundred times greater. You have to excel at sports, you have to excel in academics, you have to be careful of how you chose your friends (and most of the times your parents will choose them for you anyway) and you have to think through every major life decision with extra care and examination. Why? Because like the Jews, the Armenians and to some extent anyone fighting for nationhood today (ironically, Palestinians come to mind), you are statistically not supposed to exist, much less succeed. But like any down-trodden member of a perceived ‘less-worthy’ nation, our parents, grandparents and their parents before them, constantly rammed down our throats that famous adage: ‘We are here to give you a better life, the privileges that were taken from us are being passed on to you. Remember that, don’t less us down, don’t let the nation down, and whatever you do - be proud you are Croatian, hold your head up high when they laugh, get the better marks, serve the better aces, get into the better schools.”

In essence, beat them at their own game and while you’re at it show them that even members of the smallest nation can achieve monumentally larger than life results. We’ve always been fed this narrative and while you may think it would produce a generation of kids who would rebel and roll their eyes, it’s actually had quite the opposite effect. We are that much prouder, that much MORE PERSISTENT and that much more willing to never give up. I know I can only speak for myself, I wager that any Croatian person will giggle at the following reminder. When I was a teenager and a young adult living on my own abroad, and even now an almost middle-age woman - my Mother still repeats the same refrain every time before hanging up the phone on me to say goodbye (and I believe most Croatian parents state the same): ‘Pamet u glavu’ (literally translated as: May wisdom be in your head’ wherever you go). This is meant as a reminder that my behaviour and etiquette outside the home, is not only a reflection of my own character and those of the people who raised me, ultimately, it’s a reflection of the community and nation whose blood I carry through my veins.  

In closing, when I read, as I often have this past week the phrase ‘it’s just a game,’ I have to remind people that in Croatia it is not. In Croatia the game is life. The game is national pride, national status, a national echo that will ring throughout the country tomorrow louder than our anthem, Lijepa Naša. the game is a reminder to all of us of the monumental pedestal 10 men have reached on behalf of all 4.1 million of us. As Ivan Rakitić stated earlier today, tomorrow’s strength will not be determined by the 10 players on the pitch, rather by the 4.1+ million hearts of every Croatian the world over transmitting itself into them. Why? Because we have paid our dues. We’ve finally arrived on the biggest stage in the world and we aren’t going away any time soon. When you’ve literally had to fight for your independence and been lucky enough to have it granted (thank you Iceland and Germany!), when you’ve been through numerous wars (thank you Ottoman Turks and Serbia for teaching us survival skills!), when you’ve been through economic turmoil since your country has been around in various geographic forms (thank you great depression, 1990s recession, pre-war sanctions, and global economic downturn - for teaching us to be as resilient as we always were and always had to be!), when people don’t even know where your country is on a map and sneer at you for coming from that backwards part of South-Eastern Europe that was responsible for WWI (thank you Balkan peninsula for your tough geography, grit and diversity of landscape which we have nurtured and eked out an existence in!) – WHEN YOU HAVE BEEN THROUGH ALL OF THIS AND MUCH, MUCH MORE – the French are a piece of pie (err…brioche, and they will certainly get a run for their money in just a few hours time). We know what we have to do, and the pressure is indeed great. The pressure is almost unimaginable. But we’ve been there before. Ironically enough in 1998 facing the same opponent. What’s the difference? We’re tougher, grittier, more determined, hungrier, ferocious and ready. We know we have nothing to lose and even less to concede.

For all of you watching tomorrow morning, one thing is certain. It’s Croatia’s moment. It’s Croatia’s time. It’s Croatia’s hour. Cinderella may have crashed the ball, but she’s not going home at midnight. Football has indeed come home, but not to the country you expected, rather to the one which fought for it the most - through blood, sweat and tears, and some extra penalties to boot. We don’t need a medal or a fancy golden cup, or millions of dollars in prize money to tell the world what we already know in our hearts. That we’re already champions. All 4.1 million of us and Luka Modrić’s two feet.

 

We Need to Talk About Croatia

October 8, 2017 marked 26 years since Croatia declared independence. While many people celebrated and posted happy messages on social media reminding each other of the date, nominally a happy day, I sat on a train feeing dismal and frustrated. A few hours earlier a colleague from Zagreb, a well-known political reporter had sent me a message lamenting the potential outcome of the upcoming Horvatinčić trial. “What do you mean I asked? Surely, they are going to find him guilty on all counts? Have you seen our latest tourism numbers? The Minister of Tourism is going to protest if he gets anything short of life in prison and the Italian Ambassador will most likely resign, as rightly he should!” I shouted back. “That’s not what I’m hearing. My source at the district court is telling me the judge is going to drop the charges and let him walk,” said my friend. “Is the judge a certified lunatic?” I asked while shouting into my cell phone avoiding the glances of the other travellers. "Katarina, welcome to freaking Croatia…and by the way, happy Independence Day” said my friend. I hung up the phone and held my head down in shock. Except there was nothing be shocked about at all.

To refresh your memory and bring you up to speed on the details of the case, Mr. Tomislav (‘Tomo’) Horvatinčić, one of Croatia’s more well-known and in-your-face millionaires was soon to hear the verdict in a trial which saw him accused of driving his luxury mega yacht 50 knots (26km/hour) over the maritime speed limit while vacationing on the Dalmatian coast in 2011, thus hitting and ultimately killing a visiting Italian tourist couple. The case had captivated the entire nation as this was not the first time our bratty and gutless co-citizen had murdered innocent people. His first claim to fame occurred in 1980 when he hit and subsequently killed an 89-year old woman while failing to stop at a traffic light in Zagreb. He not only missed the light, he holds the distinctive claim of striking the poor soul and then driving off as if nothing had happened. Jail time? Zero. But let’s blame that one on the evil machinations of the Yugoslav penal code, right? Wrong. In 1989 he killed another pour soul, this time a man while again speeding, failing to stop, and leaving the scene of a crime. Jail time? Zero. To be fair to the Yugoslavs, his drivers license was at least suspended in that unfortunate incident. For a record 90-days. Pay the right people off and voila, he was back on the streets of Zagreb, only this time in independent Croatia, that bastion of western democracy with the most enlightened judicial system in the post-socialist world. Only his track record (no pun intended) did not stop there. In 1997 Horvatinčić struck a family of four in yet another auto speeding accident, but because all of them somehow miraculously survived, all charges against him were dubiously dropped. Jail time? Zero. In any normal country this would have been stopped much earlier, but we’re talking about Croatia here so keep calm and read on.

Horvatinčić’s name was splashed across national newspapers as recently as 2011 for killing the young Italian tourist couple, this time with a yacht. Perhaps he got tired of mowing people down with automobiles and decided to try his luck at maritime transportation. At the time of the most recent incident, public outrage was at an all-time high and it wasn’t just because of the details of the case, the brazen behaviour of a silver-spoon fed spineless oligarch and the wild-west untouchable attitude he displayed after each incident. It had more to do with the fact that ever since independence, the ‘Horvatinčić’s’ of Croatia have began piling up and have produced an ugly pattern that speaks directly to the sort of nation we’ve become.

Prior to Horvatinčić we were gripped with the sensational corruption case linked to Dr. Ivo Sanader, our former Prime Minister who guzzled millions from state coffers to enrich the likes of his family, friends, and political cronies, whose track record was only surpassed by Dr. Franjo Tudjman, our war-time President whose own family corruption scandals are so wide and numerous I am not even going to waste time or energy by listing them here. Add to this the laundry list of accusations and charges racked up against the veritable long-term Mayor of Zagreb, Milan Bandić (nickname ‘Bandit,’ a persona who can’t seem to exit the Mayor’s Office even when forced to by the Police), Nadan Vidošević, the George Clooney look-a-like who for a long-time ran (or should I say ‘used and abused’) the privilege of directing the Croatian Chamber of Commerce for his own personal gain, and the list goes on and on. Week after week, month after month, year after year, we barely react anymore when turning the pages of Večernji List, Dnevnik, or Slobodna Dalmacija, because these stories fill more pages than advertising space. And that’s just scratching the surface of the political level.

On a sporting level – oh yes dear readers, even at the sporting level we are reminded that corruption and graft has become as common as a household staple like sugar. Our best illustration rests in the despicable behaviour and weekly shenanigans of Zdravko Mamić, the former director and national manager of the Dinamo Zagreb football club who wields so much power over the Croatian Soccer Federation that he can single-handedly make or break the career of a promising young player (this, regardless of the fact that he no longer actually holds the position he once did). Even world-class players who have left Croatia to make their fortunes in international clubs still fear the wrath of Mamić and avoid him at all costs. This was best seen in a recent incident where our most beloved footballer, Luka Modrić, changed his testimony in a Croatian court to avoid Mamić and his henchmen. To be fair to poor Luka, I’d have probably done the same. Short of probably fearing for his life and that of his wife and child, he must have known that ‘veritas’ is not worth a lot in a Croatian court and can actually cost one their limbs, err, golden foot. The prosecutor would have exonerated Mamić anyway or face a car bomb on the way home. I’m not even mincing words here. Mamić’s implication in mafia-like scandals, extortion, threats, perjury, and the likes, makes him the Croatian version of Al-Capone-meets-Harvey-Weinstein (minus the sexual assault claims although, hey, it’s Croatia we’re discussing here, hang around long enough and anything is possible).

Finally, on the economic level, the one man who many held in high regard and who we naively believed to be the only remnant of a positive commercial success story in a country that has experienced the pitfalls of botched-privatization in the 1990s and 2000s - Ivica Todorić, the founder of Agrokor (the largest retail, food, and business consortium in the region with headquarters in Zagreb and 60,000 employees across all states of the former-Yugoslavia) was recently exposed in a criminal investigation that involves himself, his two sons, 12 senior executives, and has now plunged the entire country into an economic spiral just when it had begun to bounce back from the global economic crisis. The shock and reverberation of Agrokor’s fall from grace, one of the most respected and sought after private enterprise employers, was the tip of the iceberg for most Croatians who have long since lost all faith in political leadership. As head of a company many viewed a rare beacon of success and run according to international business standards and practices, Todorić’s name was considered a natural one for future political office. We believed that if he could run his own economic fiefdom in the spirit of free enterprise and meritocracy, surely there was hope that the same would occur if he ever made his way to the ballot. But we were again wrong and this too did not happen.

At this point you’re probably wondering where did we go wrong? Let me walk you through it as best I can by reciting living memory. I remember the stages of my life prior to, during, and post independence being proclaimed. At first, we were jubilant, even the idea of greater freedom and democracy within a looser association of federative Yugoslav states sounded enticing. Freedom to control our own republican finances and economic course of path while still being diplomatically and federally tied to joint state institutions actually struck everyone as an interesting idea. Had Tudjman and Milosević not been the elected Presidents of Croatia and Serbia proper, this idea may have even worked in principle. Nobody actually believed that Croatia would take this notion one step further and walk away as an independent state. Past experiences taught us it wasn’t very likely to happen (as in, it ‘wouldn’t’ be tolerated) and within Croatia there didn’t seem to be the socio-political appetite for it until the Berlin Wall came down.

Then, one by one, the neighbouring countries surrounding us began to tread toward the path of full democracy and in some cases, independence from a larger federative unit. When the satellite states that made up the former Soviet Union jumped on the self-determination bandwagon, our then as-of-yet elected leadership proposed the same. To be fair however, by this point the political situation in former Yugoslavia had deteriorated to such an extent that the Croats (and the Slovenes before them) felt economic independence was one-step short of the penultimate goal, and as the war-mongering and hateful spats between Zagreb and Belgrade escalated week after week, the Croatian government took the unilateral step of proclaiming independence on October 8, 1991. Suddenly we had the opportunity to rectify decades of mutual distrust and politically perceived wrongs, by playing master in our own house and shaping the destiny of the sort of Croatia we had always dreamed of having and felt we deserved. Only that never happened either.

I could go on and on about what the Croatia we thought ‘we were going to get’ should have looked like but many will either disagree with me or agree with me (If I was a betting person, I’d venture I have more detractors and those who fall in the ‘disagree’ category). In my childish 15-year old mindset, I thought we were getting a country that would follow a secular and western European model of religious freedom and tolerance, a state which respected and protected all its citizens regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, class, and gender. But that never happened.

I thought that our new found elected government would miraculously fill St. Mark’s Square with the impassioned voices of Savka Dabčević Kučar and Vladimir Marković, or the harbingers of a Stjepan Radić and Vlatko Maček, thereby picking up on the socio-political-liberal echelons of the great Croatian political question dating as far back as the 1930s (in the case of Radić and Maček) and continuing into the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s under Dabčević-Kučar and Marković. It was a natural presumption to think such things given that they had ignited the very ideals that pushed the campaign for greater autonomy for the Croats in the first place, and were well familiar with the decades long complaints about the repressive and brutal political machinations that the Croats claimed to have endured under the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (in the case of Radić and Maček) and the federative Yugoslav system (in the case of Dabčević-Kučar and Marković), which colloquially always meant living under the ‘pro-Serbian military regime might.’ In his heyday, Radić had warned that even if Croatia were ever to break free of the Kingdom, the new state would only survive for a time before the bickering began again, brother against brother, family against family.  In schoolbooks he is fondly remembered for the phrase which we were all known to recite by heart, the adage that we were a nation caught like ‘geese in a fog’ (translation: “Ko guske u magli’) at the crossroads of national interests in which a few would triumph and reap the rewards of the state at the expense of the common good.

I don’t know why Radić made the statement but his background and the times in which he lived may help to explain it. He was born in Austria-Hungary and later became a citizen of the first failed Yugoslav experiment called ‘The Kingdom.’ A close friend of the King and our most senior elected representative in Belgrade, he and his brother Vladimir as founding members of the Peasant Party, made many friends and even more enemies because of their candour and honesty. One of those enemies eventually assassinated him in broad-day light during a heated parliamentary session. What is certain to me is that Radić saw the bickering of the Croats and may have even been fearful of the sort of state he would have eventually led had the assassination not occurred. The King was willing to dissolve Parliament and ensure that each of the republics was set on a better footing within a looser association of states, but before that could even happen the King himself was also assassinated while visiting Marseille in 1931. If the pieces of this peculiar puzzle are starting to make sense to you and you can guess where this is heading, then keep on reading. With the death of Radić and the genteel voice of reason which he brought to Sabor (a voice which, let me explicitly and clearly state has NEVER been replicated or repeated in our country since), we had hopes that someone else would rise to the occasion, fill the big man’s great footsteps, and lead us toward the path of freedom and democracy as he had charted it. Only that never happened either.

Instead, in the euphoria and chaos of a state forged during war (and I refer now to the recent war of the 1990s), we got a center-right government, elected overwhelmingly by the citizens of Croatia to represent the citizens of Croatia. Croatian citizens of Serb extraction chose by and large not to participate in these elections and instead held their own, arguing that if Croats could opt for self-determination, then so could they. I choose my words here carefully because I am certainly cognizant of the fact that what Croatian citizens saw in the Croatian Democratic Union (commonly known by the acronym HDZ) in the early 1990s was a party that sought to fulfill on one over-arching campaign promise - to chart a new path that would result in outright independence from the federative state many had known for over 50 years. In this, the HDZ was explicitly clear.

Love them or hate them (and for the record I fall in the latter camp) it was an unbelievable claim and one that even the most hopeful and willing couldn’t quite believe. I recall listening to the campaign speeches with both my parents stunned and in total disbelief that independence was actually stated as an outright goal. I was a teenager and had never known an independent Croatia in my lifetime. I had however heard about a time, long before I was born and before my parents were born, when Croatia was briefly independent (1941 - 1945) in the hushed voices of my maternal grandparents who had fought on the Partisan side, while describing my paternal grandparents, whose families had fought on that ‘other’ side. It was in those early days of 1991 that I had suddenly for the first time in my life also heard about what was done in the name of ‘that’ Croatia. The HDZ party that swept the country in the elections of ‘91 however told us not to worry, as that sort of Croatia, a country that functioned on fear, injustice, perjury, corruption, slander, unspeakable crimes, and so on and so on, could never happen again. This was a new party that had nothing to do with the party that proclaimed Croatian independence during WWII (notwithstanding the fact that some of them shouted the same Nazi slogans used during WWII, wore the same memorabilia or were the grandchildren of previous Ustaša party members). Not all, some. The new government claimed that they were different and that this time around, free from the historical revanchism of Yugoslavia we would finally get the independent state we deserved. But we were wrong about that too.

During the Homeland War (the war that Croats refer to when describing the conflict that broke out between Croatia and Serbia in 1991) we banded together because war has a way of uniting even the most unlikely of people. My father despised the HDZ for a variety of reasons but the most basic was that he was a proponent of the party led by Dabčević-Kučar, then known as the Croatian People’s Party (HNS) and had even campaigned for her as she was a long-time associate and colleague of my uncle who ran on the same party ticket. Many of our family members were proponents of the HDZ though, and in the early days of the campaign struggle there were arguments and raised voices and for many years thereafter my father refused to speak to two of his brothers because of their pro-HDZ views. This made family Christmas’ and Easters’ gatherings all the more awkward.

When they came to power though, my father like many in the city I grew up in, a hot-bed of anti-HDZ sentiment, grudgingly accepted their victory as everyone did the day that independence was actually announced, October 8, 1991. I remember the day well. My mother came home from work early to take my sister to a dentist appointment and when she walked into the kitchen to wash some dishes, the telephone rang. She answered it and I could hear the excited voice of my uncle, my father’s older brother on the other end. He was screaming and shouting, asking her if she, if all of us in fact, were watching state news on television. We hadn’t been. When she turned the tv on and saw the President and the entire National Assembly standing and proclaiming independence, she dropped the plate she had been washing and it broke into tiny glass pieces all across the kitchen floor. I was attempting to help her pick up some of the larger pieces, when she sat down and began to cry. I thought she was crying tears of happiness, but I didn’t know until many years later that that was not the case. I didn’t really know what to do and the awkwardness in the room was so thick you could cut it with a knife, so my sister and I consoled her and we began to cry too. To this day I don’t know why I cried. Maybe it was to show my Mother than I cared or maybe it was because the woman singing the anthem on national tv was crying as well and looked terribly distraught and emotional, as was everyone we knew. You never want to be that sole person who doesn’t cry during a historic occasion. The old people and fluttering flags on St. Mark’s Square filled the entire length of Jelačić platz and it seemed that a sea of humanity had rushed from their apartment buildings and made their way to castle square to cheer and rejoice. Everyone but my father.

He came home from work and watched the celebrations on state tv with a grin. I don’t recall if he cried or not, although it’s possible he may have in that moment. In fact, I am sure he must have. When he turned the tv off he turned to my mother and my brothers and sisters and I, stared at the ground for a while, shuffled his feet, straightened his shoulders and then said, ‘there’s going to be a war.’ He then got up and left the room, while my Mother began to silently cry some more while clutching a family photo album. I remember that moment as if it were yesterday because to stop my Mother from crying I prompted her to help me with my English project which involved building a fold-out paper theatre for Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She didn’t cry again until two months later when my father’s draft papers had arrived and we had become toughened by sanctions and watching family members flee. My mother’s fear of war was deeply embedded in her by the stories passed down to her by her own mother, my grandmother Ana. I remember being angry and exasperated that while normal children the world over were being tucked into bed by doting parents who read them Snow White or The Snow Queen, my sister and I would go to bed hearing my mother talk about some of the most depressing and horrific war stories as told to her by my grandmother. I don’t know if re-telling it made her feel better but it made me feel sixty million times worse to know that my grandmother and her generation had to suffer such cruelties and it made me extremely fearful of war in general.

But when war actually breaks out you become stronger than you can imagine and in a way you live two parallel lives, there’s your every-day life which involves school, friends, teenage drama, and then there’s that other life, the one where you hide in basements, where war sirens take over the radio, where every night you are packing clothes and necessities for those unfortunate enough to live in towns making up the front line, and all of a sudden rationing food or barred from watching tv and using electricity because it wall attract the F-16s you had previously only thought existed in Hollywood films like Top Gun.

War creates a state of psychosis which is difficult to understand. It’s difficult to write about but the one thing it does is very well is either polarize a nation, or unite it, and in the case of the Croatian homeland war it definitely united people regardless of whom you voted for. When the entire world ignores you, when your basic human rights are being trampled upon, when you are a refugee or a displaced person, when you are victimized on a daily basis, you succumb to an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality and can easily fall victim to nationalist sentiments when you see your co-citizens being murdered, shot at, raped and pillaged. At some point, the more intelligent person walks away from this fog and realizes that the state-run media propaganda machine has just done a better job of turning humans into imbecilic mice and they try to warn the others. But the others don’t listen as they’re too tired and exhausted, the individual is branded a traitor, the war continues, hundreds of thousands lose their lives, millions are displaced, and we are later told that this was the collective price, that everything we endured was for the common good. We’re told that those who ‘gave’ us an independent state (a funny claim as their sons and daughters certainly never served one day on the front lines) have delivered us to safety and freedom like Moses lead the Jews after 40 years of walking in the desert. Only this was a grandiose lie too. Another lie in the litany of lies they’ve fed us since 1991 onwards.

So, what did they give us? The answer is the sort of state we deserve. If we as a nation can continue to elect the sort of human poison we have repeatedly, consistently, and unequivocally voted in, for a record 26-years in a row, then the issue is not our elected government at all. The issue dear co-citizens are we, ourselves. Our elected officials, such as they are, and I don’t mean to take away from the record of the few decent folks who do try to cement change, are a representation of society.  Therefore, if something is rotten in Sabor, then it’s time to talk about Croatia and the sort of society we have become. Only then can we have a healthy and honest discussion about the sort of society we want to be.

While we can only point the finger at elected representation, each of them brings to office a collective psychological whole shaped by the historicism of having come to age pre-1991 in a socialist system ripe with challenges and disputes, or on the cusp of a post-1991 burgeoning-democracy that is still learning through trial and error. To those of us who fall into the post-1991 camp, it’s the errors that continue to pile up, committed as they are in a system oozing with an overabundance of red-tape-bureaucratic minutia and a penal and judicial code that probably hasn’t changed much since Austrian times (read Franz Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’ if you aren’t familiar with bureaucracy 9.0 Eastern-European style), that has us most worked up. This is primarily because we thought we were going to acquire and shape a state better than the ones our parents and grandparents complained about. This is not to say to say that our new state isin’t better – although that too is open to debate depending on who you ask - but if I was to list and examine some of the more morose social legalities and peculiarities of present-day Croatia (without verbally naming the country), you might actually conclude that I was referring to some dictatorial African state rather than a cultured and nominally civilized country smack in the middle of central Europe. In egalitarian countries like Iceland and some of the more progressive Nordic and Scandinavian states, citizens would take to the streets and force a shut-down of the government by camping out in the hundreds of thousands in front of Parliament (as they did do in Iceland when government corruption was revealed in the Panama Paper leaks in the spring of 2016). What do we do in Croatia when an elected official is prosecuted and found to have committed the worst of crimes? We usually breathe a collective sigh of relief for approximately 2-5 years and then turn around and elect them again. Why? Because we’re geese in a fog.

To give you some concrete examples of the sort of political and legal digressions which you can readily read about in Croatia and which we may at some point consider patenting as they truly border on the unimaginable (Hollywood couldn’t script this if they tried!), please consider some of the laments below as outlined by my colleague Ms. Andrea Andrassy, a well-known Croatian social and political commentator and columnist (I added some more). The list begins with ‘only’ in Croatia:

1.       Only in Croatia is abortion attempted to be categorized and equated with murder, but actual murder is usually challenged and debated at every opportunity and dismissed with a 5-year sentence (moral of the story? Come to Croatia and murder as many people as you want. You’ll only serve 40-years and if you pay the Judge in cash, you can bet your bottom dollar you’ll be out in five).

2.       Only in Croatia will you face jail time for the 4 marijuana joints you smoked in your car, rather than for the 4 dead bodies actually discovered in your car.

3.       Only in Croatia will a poor, jay-walking Grandmother be thrown to the ground, searched and arrested, while the sons and daughters of the rich and privileged who mow down a 16-year old at a traffic light are escorted out of the country, red-carpet style, to the first waiting government airplane en-route to Switzerland, bank account and full rights intact.

4.       Only in Croatia will a bicyclist without a helmet be stopped, ticketed, and penalized for pedalling 63 in a 60 zone, while known murderers are somehow ‘conspicuously’ overlooked and waved through at the border with Austria (and probably given a week- long supply of Jana water and Bajadera to satisfy their hunger…sorry Ms. Andrassy, couldn’t resist).

5.       Only in Croatia will the State Commercial Inspection Office shut down a small business enterprise which has a few more Kuna’s in it’s till, while allowing the largest state employer that doctored its own books, and engaged in criminal financial activities encompassing three states and leaving all of them on the verge of financial ruin and bankruptcy, go untouched.

6.       Only in Croatia do the poor go unforgiven and are often penalized for even the most minor of accrued debts, while millionaires and billionaires (our ‘golden’ class) are pardoned the most astronomical debt by comparison.

7.       Only in Croatia will a hungry family be told by its elected government, to ‘slice its bread thinner and spread it further.’

8.       Only in Croatia will a family be told that it isin’t a family in so far as it doesn’t have children.

9.       Only in Croatia are all children a gift of God, except of course if you are a child born with Down Syndrome, because then the Pastor won’t allow for the rite of First Communion unless the bribe he receives is as large as your chromosome count.

10.   Only in Croatia will people vote for a party which promises them Euros for every child born to the couple (note: by couple I am obviously referring to straight-laced, Christian and heterosexual of course, because that’s the definition of a family according to the Church, oops sorry, I mean the State! Or do I actually mean the Church? Best to ask your elected representative they may or may not know the answer).

11.   Only in Croatia will you get a property tax invoice for a property tax you have already paid.

12.   Only in Croatia will a person die right before the locked doors of the Emergency Clinic, begging to be admitted until their heart gives out.

13.   Only in Croatia are you forced to pay telecom charges for services which were never actually rendered to you in the first place. Unless you’re the rich of course, in which case HT will answer your phone call within 20 seconds versus waiting on the line for three hours only to have someone drop the call when they realize why you’re calling.

14.   Only in Croatia will a female from Zadar who works at the deli counter be fired for snacking on two grams of pršut, thus rendering her employer a loss of $2 - $3 euros, while another woman from Sisak will drain the state’s coffers by 10 million euros and walk away untouched, unscathed, unfired, and straight into a parliamentary portfolio for a 2-term mandate.

15.   Only in Croatia are service staff prevented from taking a vacation and enjoying their own seaside during the summer. Because their services are essential 24-hours a day, every day, 360 days a year. But perhaps it’s actually better they don’t go to the seaside so as to avoid being killed by Mr. Horvatinčić and his yacht. Unless of course they have to work on it.

16.   Only in Croatia does an invoice of 25 Kuna’s which the utility company forgot to send you, get rectified with another one in the amount of 700 Kuna’s. Exercising your right to dispute it will probably cost you another 300 Kuna’s so you don’t bother.

17.   Only in Croatia will Customs Officers demand you open your packages in front of them, and will forcefully open them should you protest. They will then demand you pay them the service fee for the opening of said packages. Obviously in cash only and on the spot. Did you think otherwise?

18.   Only in Croatia will Customs Officers fine old grandfathers returning from Austria for the few purchased trinkets they intend to sell during Advent on roadside stalls (usually to compensate from their diminishing pensions), while the same Custom Officers are in no hurry to arrest the group of grandfathers who sold our public road tolls to the Austrians and pocketed millions in kick-backs in the process.

19.   Only in Croatia will the full name and photograph of the cleaning lady who is ‘accused’ (but nowhere close to ‘proven’) of stealing Tarik Filipović’s jewellery be published on the front pages of the dailies, but when someone has without a doubt committed a murder or killed someone in a traffic accident where they deliberately ran the red, the papers only publish the abbreviated initials of their name.

20.   Only in Croatia, a country of 4 million people will you find 9,000 actively paid State Councillors (‘Viječnici’). New York City has 8 million people and only has 49.

21.   Only in Croatia will you encounter legal attempts to privatize your reproductive organs and egg cells to ensure that you can give birth at any time. Even if raped.

22.   Only in Croatia is rape a serious crime, especially if the rapist is a Priest or Deacon. Then the underage minor whom he raped and assaulted is moved to another county so that she can avoid the shame she brought to herself and think about her actions.

23.   Only in Croatia will a well-known county court judge release a rapist who continued to rape a 13-year old girl because she didn’t scream ‘NO’ loudly enough, while charging a dog for barking too loudly and irritating his neighbour (but said Judge will probably argue upon reading this that had the young girl screamed ‘NO’ louder, he may have charged her too for disturbing the public peace).

24.   Only in Croatia will a well-known CURRENT Public Prosecutor and former war-time General be exonerated and acquitted for raping 23 Bosnian Muslim women during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was defending the extended ‘Motherland’ from a 12-year old, a few 20-year old’s, a 48-year old and a 60-year old. They were trespassing terrorists who deserved what they got and had ample warning of a pending attack, even at the ripe old age of 12.

25.   Only in Croatia is a Mother penalized for taking care of her gravely ill child and forced to go back to work the day after the funeral so that she can pay back her employer the difference between time worked and time spent as a short-term or long-term caregiver, while the state milk-bottle continues to feed elected Parliamentarians two years after the end date of their term.

26.   Only in Croatia will the troupe of an independent theatre performance be arrested and thrown in prison for exposing certain tycoons, oligarchs, criminal politicians and business leaders, while those same tycoons, oligarchs, criminal politicians and business leaders who SHOULD be in prison watch the same play from the front row of a London theatre and lament their good fortune at having left Croatia with full wallets and Swiss bank accounts stocked to the nine.

27.   Only in Croatia will you encounter a nation still bickering over who was where in 1991 (frontline, breadline, or airport boarding-line), while the children of those born in ’91 (or shortly thereafter) are fleeing in the tens of thousands to Ireland and Iceland.

28.   Only in Croatia can you raise the Nazi salute, paint Nazi slogans, and chant Nazi euphoria at public demonstrations, sporting events, concert halls and even while the Prime Minister is in attendance and walk away knowing that absolutely nothing will happen to you, while that same behaviour would garner a fine, arrest, or long-term sentence in Germany.

29.   Only in Croatia will you encounter a society who upon meeting each other for the first time, will usually gravitate towards asking which side your grandfather fought on during WWII in the very first hour of conversation (more like 30 minutes). Your answer, depending on who you are providing it to, can decide a lot about your future as a citizen, ranging from everything to hiring options, revoked meritocracy, nepotism, and the golden spoon of privilege if your ancestor was on the perceived ‘right’ side which is actually the wrong side in every civilized western European and global state. Except for North Korea.

30.   Only in Croatia is WWII so vividly discussed on a daily basis that if you visit us, you may actually believe it had only ended yesterday and not in 1945. So, what are you waiting for? Come visit us asap! Apart from 1,200 islands and the most crystal-clear turquoise sea you’ve arguably ever seen, you’ll never hear so much about WWII anywhere else in Europe. It’s like we invented it.

31.   Only in Croatia are plaques, signs, and monuments dedicated to the victims of WWII replaced by plaques, signs, and monuments to those who perpetrated the crimes.

32.   Only in Croatia will elected officials visit and lay wreaths at Auschwitz and domestic concentration camps only to turn around and visit the memorial sites and gravestones of those who ran Auschwitz and domestic concentration camps and ensure that the perpetrators get a wreath too. Because as we all know, both the victims and the perpetrators suffered equally.

33.   Only in Croatia will the Serbs be blamed for everything and anything, notwithstanding the fact that we did a stellar and efficient job at butchering close to a million of them during WWII and evicting another 250,000 of them during the recent war. Even though the majority of them are now gone, rest assured that the few who remain are responsible for every wrong in our new state including but not limited to: forest fires, high Bura winds, dead dogs and cats, a bad viticulture year, crystallization of Kiki candies, the failing kiwi crop in Metković, the rising rate of the Kuna, earthquakes, inflation, a bad tourism year – go ahead, name any social and economic problem and at the root of it you will surely find a Serb. Just not Nikola Tesla. He was our sole good guy and alternating-current cash cow.

34.   Only in Croatia is a national minority consistently used as a scapegoat for every perceived existing past, present, and future historic wrong by both elected and non-elected government alike in order to shine the light away from their own failed policies and lack of. Because it’s much more logical to blame the underdog than those we hold accountable to actually fix our past and current economic woes, right?

This is the sort of country we got and the country we now call home. It’s a country where the Horvatinčić’s are allowed to walk the streets as free as a bird after killing multiple people, at the expense of the ailing grandfather in Serbia who isin’t allowed to return until he can prove where he was every micro-second of the war, or the war veteran from Dubrovnik who has to fight tooth and nail for his injury allowance, or the pensioner from Rijeka who was robbed of his legal earnings by the corrupt oligarch who swallowed his life savings in a pyramid scheme and fled the country with the blessing of the state, or the countless number of hard-working families who face eviction for failing to pay a month’s rent or a utility bill.

The State Prosecutor didn’t free Tomo Horvatinčić – we all did - just as we exonerated Tudjman, Sanader, Bandić, Vidošević and soon the entire Todorić family as well. Why do we continue to allow the Ivica’s, Ante’s, Tomo’s and Milan’s to get away with this? Why do we continue to elect the anatomically incompetent sapiens that roam the halls of Sabor to govern us? Because we’re geese in a fog that’s 80 years thick. So, let’s talk about Croatia, because I think it’s about high time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Birna....with Love.

Today afternoon a friend texted me the horrible news that Icelandic police had finally found the body of Birna Brjἀnsdottir, 20 years old and missing for eight days. It has been a story that has transfixed the country like no other. Gone without a trace, no answer on her cell phone, no response to text messages, a frantic Mother searching for her daughter who can be seen on video footage getting into a stranger’s white car in the early hours of the morning, all alone, looking disoriented, confused and most probably frightened. For eight days, all of Iceland held their breath, hoping and praying that this beautiful young girl would be found safe and alive, that she had merely run off with the driver and that the story would have somewhat of a happy ending. I prayed with them. For eight long days and nights, people all over this beautiful country organized search and rescue teams, held vigils, and hoped her Mother, family and friends would see Birna’s big smile again. Eight days. They were surely the most horrible and unimaginable eight days Birna’s Mother will probably ever have experienced in her entire life. I know. I know this because in January 2008 I went through the same, only for my family and I the horror lasted three days. Three days that may as well have been a lifetime.

On that horrible morning in early January, I came home from visiting a friend to find my Mother inconsolably crying, while my Father paced the house, telephone in hand. I asked what was wrong and just presumed someone in our family had either died, was in bad health, or had gotten into some sort of accident. Instead, what my Mother told me completely blindsided and shocked me. She told me that a few hours earlier she had received a call from relatives in Croatia informing her that my cousin, Kristina Šušnjara, my uncle’s daughter was missing. “What do you mean, missing?” I repeated over and over again while stuffing a slice of mum’s newly baked apple strudel into my mouth. I didn’t take her seriously and didn’t understand why my Mother was over-reacting. “MISSING! Stop eating and pay attention for a minute! She has gone missing! She cannot be found and they think someone kidnapped her,” my Mother shouted. That got my attention, although I still thought she was panicking for no reason. How do you kidnap a grown girl of seventeen in a town of 20,000 people where everyone knows everyone?

My Mother went on to tell me that she had received a call from her sisters, my aunts, who were in a state of heightened panic. The night before, Kristina was to have met two of her friends in a nearby town and attended a post-New Years Eve concert by a well-known singer. Only she never made it into town. In fact, she never made it to her friend’s house either. When she did not return the next morning, or answer her parents’ and brother’s text messages, her Mother (my Aunt) called the friends phone number only to be told that Kristina failed to show up at the agreed upon meeting place. That set into a motion a series of events that forever changed our lives. My Mother pleaded with me to tell her if I perhaps had a secret? Had Kristina ever confided in me? Did she perhaps have a boyfriend nobody knew about or was she involved in something she did not want the family to know about? I even recall rolling my eyes and making fun of my mom’s conservative, Christian way of life. This was her way of asking was Kristina friends with the wrong crowd, did she live an ‘alternative lifestyle’ or perhaps have a boyfriend who she knew we would disapprove of and had simply run off for a few days? I laughed and kept telling my mum that she was crazy, nuts, that they were all losing their minds. Of course she wasn’t living an alternative lifestyle, or had some moronic boyfriend that they didn’t like. She just hadn’t come home which was unusual for her and was probably at someone’s house or had left the city for a few days. She was 17-years old after all and was free to do as she pleased, even if this was a small town and even if everyone was in a complete state of disarray. My Mother reminded me that at 17-years old, Kristina was not an adult under the law as the legal age in Croatia is 18. I hadn’t thought of that, but it didn’t really matter. Kids there are introduced to alcohol, drugs and sex at a much younger age than in North America, and that was my point. What was all the fuss about? Surely, she would return home in a few hours and her mobile phone probably just ran out of battery I assured my mum. That seemed to calm her fears for a little while and for the first time I saw her sat down and mumble, “maybe you are right.”

The truth was the opposite. As much as I was trying to calm my Mother down, the more she kept yelling at me reveal any small tidbit of a clue, the more perplexed, worried and agitated I became. To protect my Mother from the worst possible fear – that Kristina had been kidnapped or worse, I kept trying convince her that this was all one big misunderstanding. Deep inside however, I was completely falling apart. If this had been any one of my other cousins I probably would not have been so worried, but Kristina was different. She was an introverted shy girl, who kept mostly to herself and to her books. She was studious and harboured dreams of going to University and becoming a writer. She was not a flashy girl, she didn’t go out to pubs and cafes as her peers did, and this was considered somewhat unusual for a teenage Croatian girl, pubs and cafes being introduced in our culture at quite a young age, but responsibly. Not Kristina though. She was always concerned for the welfare of others, particularly her parents and animals, and when she wasn’t helping others she could be found writing away for hours on end. On one of the last occasions on which I had seen her, she went on and on about her aspirations to become a writer and her hopes that she would get a scholarship like I had and leave to study abroad. I told her to consider Harvard or Yale and that I would help her with the paperwork. This was a girl who had no interest in boys whatsoever and at 17-years old I don’t even believe she had ever even had a serious love interest, much less an actual boyfriend. She was very tall for her age, with long reddish-blond hair and big, beautiful blue-green eyes. She was precocious and pretty even as a little girl, with long goldilocks like curls that my aunt would weave around her head, in a braided pattern.

My Mother and Father busied themselves on the telephone making frantic phone calls and waiting by the telephone for what seemed like hours. As Kristina was much younger than me, I was in constant text messaging contact with my other female cousins - Milena, Ana, Ivanka, Mirella and Magdalena - those closest in age to her and the daughters of my other aunts. Everyone was immobilized by panic and nobody could account for what had happened to her.  It was as if she had just vanished into thin air, nobody had seen her, and repeated calls and text messages to her phone appeared ‘delivered’ if unanswered. As bad as it was on the first day, nobody really thought to think the worst, and if we did, we kept it to ourselves, none of us confiding our thoughts to one another. At the time, I was in a relationship with a Polish man. I remember he too kept trying to offer words of comfort by falling back on the one line we all kept repeating like a safety blanket, “Come on, don’t think the worst. This is Croatia for Christ’s sake? This sort of thing just doesn’t happen in our countries. She probably ran off with some Albanian or Bosnian guy and is too embarrassed to face the family. You’ll see, she’ll probably be back tomorrow.”

As sad as that now sounds, back then those words actually gave me some false comfort and security. I am certain someone must have told Birna’s Mother the same. I can’t fault the people who told me such things because they meant it with the best intentions. Looking back, I think when this sort of thing happens, you don’t want to think the worst because you are afraid that your thoughts will somehow allow a reality to occur. As well, we all falsely comforted ourselves with the fact that her disappearance DID in fact happen in a very small town, and in a very small country. With 4.5 million people my ex was right, this sort of thing just didn’t happen in a place like Croatia. Rather, it was easier to believe it occurring in larger countries like Canada or the US. We kept convincing ourselves of this on day one and tried to make it through a night of fitful sleep knowing that by the next morning a text message or some sign of Kristina would manifest itself.

Only it did not. On day two, the police, who had already been informed the day before, began an official search as at this point 24-hours had already passed. Given the six-hour time difference, by the time I woke up the next morning in Toronto, Canada, her disappearance was all over Croatian state TV and splashed across the newspapers of every major publication in the country as well as neighbouring ones. By evening the search and rescue operation was the largest in independent Croatian state history and our family name was splashed across Google headlines when just typing in the word ‘Croatia.’ Once you see your family home on television hour by hour, your loved ones photographed and video-taped while wailing in pain, journalists and reporters elbowing to get them to say a few words, the severity of the situation hits home. That entire day I sat in the living room of my parents’ home with my younger sister Ana, who of the five of us siblings was closest to age in Kristina and the one who had interacted with her the most. My sister was inconsolable and between the shaking, crying, and constant vomiting, she kept repeating the absolute worst, that someone had surely stalked Kristina while she was innocently walking, had dragged her into a car and had taken her off into the unknown to do unimaginable and reprehensible things to. Being the calmest one in the family and often the voice of reason, I kept urging her to settle down, think positively, and not upset mum and dad.  It was during this three-day waiting period that my sister Ana began to develop panic and anxiety attacks which later led to severe migraines that have endured to this day. We probably all had nightmares and didn’t want to tell each other for fear of upsetting one another. For me the nightmares of bad people chasing Kristina and me not being able to reach her in time and save her, continue to occur year after year, and I am not even her Mother. I can only imagine how much worse it must be for my Aunt.

As news of her disappearance spread to neighbouring countries, friends from Montenegro and Serbia who were familiar with the last name began calling me, completely freaked out. Each message began with, “I saw the last name and thought of you. This cannot possibly be someone in your family, can it?” they asked. Only it was. People never think this sort of thing can happen to someone you love, someone in your family, because it is too horrific and unimaginable to even comprehend. I know this because I used to be one of those naïve people. I used to think that this sort of thing can only happen to ‘other’ people’s family. I used to wonder what the mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters of missing kids felt like. I’d stare at their faces in the newspaper for hours wondering how they even found the will to get out of bed in the morning, to go on knowing that a piece of them was gone forever. I remember one particularly horrible and notorious case that gripped Canada many years earlier where the victim, Kristen French, a girl who was the same age as myself at the time, went missing. For many weeks after her kidnapping, all of Canada prayed and hoped she would be found. When her body was finally discovered, dead and unrecognizable, I recall the grief of my own family and all the families of my friends. The same grief was experienced by the entire country of 30 million people, but despite all this it was probably one-one-millionth of the grief felt by Kristen French’s parents. So was the case with my cousin Kristina’s family and so surely is the case with Birna’s.

While we waited for any shred of news about Kristina, story after story began to emerge. The two most believed variations were that she had hitch-hiked for a ride into town and that a blue vehicle with French license plates had pulled over and she had gotten in. The belief that it must have been a crazed tourist that did this was so heated that the Minister of Tourism got involved and made a public plea asking Croatians to refrain from attacking French tourists until every lead was double checked. By the second day, it went from being a French tourist, to a Bosnian national, and ultimately two men from both countries were questioned and dismissed. There was no evidence to suggest they had been involved. With no real leads, the press began writing all kinds of things that upset us and hurt us deeply. They tried to paint Kristina as a ‘loose-girl’ who perhaps was drunk or on drugs, even though everyone they interviewed told them over and over again that she wasn’t like that at all, and was more a child than a teenager. It got to the point where I had to physically turn off the satellite TV and take the iPad away from both my mum and dad, everything we were reading was misleading, repetitive, and to horrific to grasp. I just wanted just wanted this hell to be over.

On day three I got my wish. It was about seven o’clock in the morning when I woke up to a sound I don’t wish to ever again hear in my lifetime. It was the sound of my Mother’s screams. Knowing this could only mean the absolute worst, I got up and went downstairs, not even checking my own phone which at this point was flooded with hundreds of text messages from relatives and friends. In the kitchen of my parents house I found my Mother at the table, trembling, barely able to breathe, gasping for air while clutching a framed picture of Kristina to her heart. Behind her stood my younger sister, who embraced my Mother while sobbing, wailing, and shaking herself. My father, a strong but quiet man, visibly upset and distressed stood behind them, while the older of my two brothers paced the floor and exchanged text messages while fighting back tears.

My cousin Kristina’s body had been found down the side of a deep mountain ditch in a remote part of the country literally on the border with Bosnia. A man walking his dog early in the morning noticed the canine growling at something deep below in a ravine. He tried to control the dog, but the dog kept dragging him further down the mountain side towards a dangerous cliff. From the precipice on which he stood in that early morning January fog, his eye made out what he thought looked like a human leg. Thinking it was a hunter who had fallen and lost his way in the heavy morning mist, he called the police who in turn called search and rescue. Only they did not find a wounded hunter. They found my cousin Kristina.

Search and rescue didn’t take long to deduce it was her even though her body had begun to decompose. She was identified by her pink jacket, her handbag (a Christmas gift from my Aunt) and her shoes. Soon after, a swat team of police officers and hundreds of emergency vehicles arrived at the home of my aunt and uncle. As everyone in the city bears the same last name, they all knew that the arrival of the police, especially the Chief of Police of the entire province of Dalmatia could mean nothing good. I wasn’t there but I was told that the crying began even before they reached my aunt and uncle’s house, a line of relatives and neighbours standing outside their front doors crying, grieving and begging the police to tell them she was at least found alive. When the Chief of Police put his head down and refused to look at them, everyone understood it to be the worst. An entire village sobbed and held onto each other. My aunt had been on heavy sedatives for three days already and under watch by doting neighbours and even her own brothers. It was her brother who answered the door and collapsed into the arms of the Chief of Police when he was told. That was how the rest of us found out, the image of him being hugged by a tearful Police Chief on national television. My aunt did not even hear him say the words, because one look at all the important police dignitaries of Croatia assembled in her humble kitchen confirmed her own worst fears and she fainted then and there. None of us had expected Kristina to be found alive, but as the investigation unfolded, none of were prepared for what we were about to hear and it was even worse than we had imagined.

Kristina was forced into the vehicle of a man from a neighbouring city while she was innocently walking towards a friend’s house, not even three kilometres from home. When she tried to protest, he hit her repeatedly and gripped her arm as she tried to open the door to escape. Somehow, she got free and ran out. He then pulled the car over to the side of the road and ran after her. When he caught up with her a struggle ensued and it was then that he beat her with a steel rod, the type one uses to change a tire. Apparently, he had hidden it within his jacket (ironic as he later lied about this in court claiming he was ‘mentally insane,’ then retracting the statement when the judge pressed him on it). The force of the impact knocked her out and he dragged her half-conscious body back to the car and then drove her to the border region with Bosnia where for hours he raped, tortured, and continued to do all sorts of disgusting and heinous things to her while she lay there wounded and pleading to be released. When he was finished, he dragged her body to the tip of the mountain and threw her down, like she was a bag of potatoes. No consideration for a human life whatsoever. I wish I could tell you that her misery ended there, only it didn’t. We later learned from the coroner that she somehow survived this tumble, hitting rocks and crags as she was hurled down. She was alive for a few hours more before the hand of God took her. Of all the things we heard after her body was discovered, that was the hardest thing to bear. My aunt would cry over and over again, “to think how cold and bruised she must have been, calling my name in the snow and, rain and I couldn’t help her.” I cry while typing this, a river of tears every time I think of it and in Croatian it sounds so much worse than in English. Can there be anything worse in this world than for a parent to lose their child and in such a way?

You think you know what a person must be going through and feeling, but there is no possible way to know. Take your own grief and multiply it by a million and still it is not enough. For my Aunt, the grief was so overwhelming that it felt like a 60,000,000 pound weight dragging her deeper and deeper down the ocean every single day. My uncle retreated into himself. My cousin Luka, who was to have driven his sister that fateful day but couldn’t get to her in time, can one just imagine the thoughts that will plague him for the rest of his life? For me personally her death brought out so many ‘what if’s.’ For days, weeks and months, I used to fantasize about the type of personal revenge I would extract on her murderer. Of course we live in a country where a crime is punishable by the rule of the law and the law only. However, if you think that prevented the worst sorts of thoughts from entering my head, or that of my male cousins, think again. It was probably the only thing that kept me going and which kept me sane. I know people judged me for it and called me crazy and truthfully, I don’t care. Until it happens to you or your family, you can never understand what this type of pain means or what it can do to a person, even a sane and rational one. I stopped believing in man’s justice and only craved heavenly justice. For three long days that seemed like eternity we all held our breadth, and the entire nation did as well. I recall the grief-stricken face of the Mayor, a family friend, truly sickened and upset, the anchorman on the main state TV station who couldn’t keep a tear from sliding down his cheek while reporting on the day of the funeral, or the wife of the Prime Minister, a personal friend who wept as if it were her own child. When I look back on this from today’s vantage point eight years later, I know that it is because as a small country, where everyone knows everyone, we felt we were invulnerable from this sort of thing ever happening. For this reason, the fear and sorrow that gripped the nation was understandable. The support and kind wishes of our neighbours, friends, and even our enemies, was indescribable. In this one thing - the brutal murder and loss of a child, a daughter, sister, niece, cousin, friend and citizen - everyone was united in their own variation of heartache and sorrow.

In writing this, I know that Iceland will wake up tomorrow with some closure and that the nation will feel a little bit better knowing that Birna’s beautiful soul will finally be put to rest and that her family will finally be able to hold a funeral and ‘move on’. However, let me remind you that funeral’s do not mean the grieving ends, and her family will never be able to ‘move on’, at least not in the way that people seem to think they will. Her death only marks the beginning of a new and never-ending chapter of grief that will affect them, shape them, haunt them, and yes, dare I say it, even strengthen them until the day they see her lovely face again. I know...because it happened to me.

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In commemoration of my cousin, Kristina Šušnjara, a beautiful and talented girl, whose Shakespearean voice was taken too early, and whose writer’s voice was silenced. I carry on your flame and your pen…. And to you Birna Brjἀnsdottir, a young woman I never had the opportunity to know, but who was blessed to walk the shores of Iceland, the country I plan to one day call home, may the angels shine their light on you and keep your smile forever.

 

 

Birna.

Birna.

My cousin Kristina

My cousin Kristina

Death or Something Like It in South Iceland

June 20th, 2016, is a day I will not easily forget because it is the day I almost lost my life. I say 'almost' because if it were not for the intervention of fate in the form of a very tall, noble and Viking-ish Icelandic Tour Guide, the universe in the form of a lower sea tide, and possibly God himself (and in acknowledging this I suppose I am supporting his divine existence), I would not be penning this post today. I write this because a few days ago I was reminded by an Icelandic writer colleague that a female German tourist had in fact died on the very same beach where I had planned to carry out my dastardly and imbecilic sea stunt last year. On that eventful mid-summer's day, I found myself in South Iceland, my favorite country in the world, a country I have visited often before, and a place that I plan to call home one day.

Being the ardent adventurer, I was determined to do in Iceland what I was unable to do when visiting the winter before, take a short swim and dip in the North Atlantic ocean just to say 'I had.' You may wonder what in God's name would compel a person of robust intelligence to do such a thing. Growing up in Canada, I have long been obsessed with doing what our idol and countryman, Terry Fox, had done in running from sea to sea (or in our case, ocean to ocean) and dipping his foot in both during a cross-country marathon to raise awareness for cancer research. As I had only ever taken a dip in the Pacific Ocean during various trips to Vancouver, I was possessed by the idea of doing the same in the Atlantic Ocean in the parts of it which touch the maritime regions of Canada, where I had never swam before. In terms of the Atlantic itself, I had only swam in the portions of it which correspond with the American states of New York, New Jersey, Maine, Massachusetts, Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, however the water is quite warm south of the Canadian border, so for argument's sake we can state that those experiences do not exactly count.

That brings me back to that fateful day and my state of mind, or lack of it. I profess I was one of those stupid people who ran out to the sea in South Iceland (Suðurland) with great delight. It was a very windy but beautiful June day, and I was visiting Reynisfarja beach with an Icelandic Photographer and Tour Guide friend, Thorsten Henn. If it were not for his repeated and angry warnings during the entire car ride down from Reykjavik, I tell you I would have rushed into the sea for a long and leisurely dip. No joke. In fact I tried the very first chance I got. The waves were not even high that day. Thorsten was becoming more and more agitated with me as he had warned me numerous times while still in the car not to stray too far away from him, that the weather conditions change quite quickly in Iceland. He was also highly irritated by my constant demands to view and play with a puffin up close. Looking back, I have no idea how he didn't throttle me with his bare hands, but being ever the gentleman he just kept politely reminding me in his own way that the nature and animals were not there to be touched and petted like a domestic house cat. Of course I did not listen to him. I prided myself on my camping and portaging experiences in Canada and treks across the Alps and South East Europe, not comprehending that he was talking about one of the most volatile and geologically active countries on the entire planet. When we arrived at the beach we separated for a few minutes as Thorsten made his way to the only hospitality cafe located further up on the dunes. Once I was out of his site, I made a bold dash for the water. I was about three or five metres from the shoreline -- shoes and socks off -- when I was grabbed by another Icelandic tour guide, a tall and burly man who scolded me for my stupidity and reiterated that I was endangering my life. I had ran past this tour guide who stopped mid-way through a speech to his own group when he yelled after me, "Where the hell do you think you are going (in English)?" and I had completely ignored him, obsessed with the idea of swimming in the ocean and seeing a puffin up close. My feet were already wet and sinking into the sand, completely drenched in water. I imagine the entire episode lasted only a few seconds but all I can really recall was the approaching wave and the bizarre feeling of sticking to the sand, something I hadn't felt on the Atlantic seaboard of North America. It felt like quicksand and the water seemed to be coming in fast, not to mention it was so icy cold that it felt like a million sharp daggers left in a freezer overnight. The other tour guide dragged me a few metres away from the shoreline, which by this point kept receding but coming back in at lightening speed. By this point, the Germans he was with could hear the yelling in English and probably understand what it was he was saying. The tour guides all know one another and I got a royal and well-deserved 'telling-off.' In my own defense there was really nothing I could say. Looking around I was surprised to see others on the beach who had also taken off their socks and shoes furtively putting them back on and moving further away from the water and the waves which suddenly seemed to be getting bigger and bigger and coming in faster.  Back at the cafe, feet drenched, wet, and shaken, I was terrified of telling Thorsten what had transpired but figured I had better before he heard about it from the others. Of course he exploded on me and unleashed his full fury and wrath (and if you think I have a German temper, let me tell you I had finally met my match in this world|!), and the entire day was ruined. Even my noble attempts to drown our misery out in the hearty Icelandic lamb soup and my notorious attempts at dismissing the entire episode through a light-hearted story did not lighten Thorsten's mood. Between slurps of the soup and generous portions of delicious Icelandic brown bread, he kept repeating how I was not off the hook. I tried to ignore him by pretending to be ensconced in a book of ballads and saga tales by a Montenegrin Prince Bishop that I had sandwiched into my backpack, which only angered him more. I deserved every expletive directed at me and instead of my usual angry pout, I decided to be the bigger person and apologize for my inconsiderate actions.

During the car ride back to Reykjavik I was remorseful and after a while so was Thorsten. If nothing else can make people reconcile, a pit stop for a warm coffee and a mouth watering croissant always does the trick. It was in the long silence of that road trip back that he began to tell me of some of the horrible things he had witnessed in Iceland because of people's foolishness, during a long period of time working as a pro photographer and Tour Guide industry insider. He explained he was angry because with 10+ years of experience leading groups across the entire country, people of all shapes and sizes believed they were stronger than the elements and Mother Nature, until catastrophe struck. I argued I was originally from Croatia and a very strong swimmer. He just shook his head and told me over and over again, "No Katarina. This is not the Adriatic Sea but the North Atlantic Ocean for God's sake! The currents are so strong here and a sneaker wave can suck in even a world champion swimmer and wash him out to sea like a cork. You are endangering not just your own life but that of rescue crews as well!"

Of course he was right and of course I was impulsive and utterly foolish. Looking back, I shudder to think what would have happened if the other tour guide had not picked me up and plucked me out of that knee-deep water and well away from harm. I will never forget that split second moment of fear which the Balkaner in me would never readily admit and which I had never told anyone about before,. The thought of the ocean sucking me in and dragging me out towards a near certain death had never even entered my mind. Once long ago, I had seen a movie called Amistad about an actual slave ship which was transporting some of the first Africans to the New World. An ex-boyfrind and I would often spend fitful nights haunted by one memorable scene in which a group of sick and beaten slaves are chained one to another and then thrown overboard in the dangerous waters of the mid-Atlantic, which sucked in and drowned each of these helpless people while the one bound next to them watched on in horror awaiting their turn. That image of certain death by drowning was running through my mind as Thorsten drove back toward the capital. The day passed on in silence and we eventually went out for dinner and forgot about the incident, putting it behind us. To this day however, I am so thankful for the wonderful network of seasoned Icelandic friends who have inspired me with their wisdom, tenacity, and veneration for their homeland, a country that in a geological sense, is constantly evolving. Now, whenever I visit Iceland I am thoroughly conscientious and respectful of all the do's and dont's in this volcanic and fissure-strewn, wonderland of a state. It is with this in mind that I implore you, friends and visitors alike, when planning a trip or sojourn to Iceland, please respect all the signs as a courtesy and ensure that Mother Nature stays untouched by our human footprint and selfish selfie-obsessed tactics. If you don't its just too high a price to pay.

A typical and scenic drive throughout Iceland produces many scenes like this. In my entire life, I have never seen so many rainbows as I have in Iceland. Every day, all the time, and everywhere. Surely there is a pot of gold at the end of every magical road.

A typical and scenic drive throughout Iceland produces many scenes like this. In my entire life, I have never seen so many rainbows as I have in Iceland. Every day, all the time, and everywhere. Surely there is a pot of gold at the end of every magical road.

The famous Black Sand Beach at Reynisfjara

The famous Black Sand Beach at Reynisfjara

Sea waves which can cause 'sneaker waves' driven by the tides that strike out of nowhere.

Sea waves which can cause 'sneaker waves' driven by the tides that strike out of nowhere.

One minute calm and sunny, the weather changes quite quickly and can make for some rather dramatic but beautiful and wild scenery at the same time.

One minute calm and sunny, the weather changes quite quickly and can make for some rather dramatic but beautiful and wild scenery at the same time.

The famous cave and basalt columns which tourists try to climb for the perfect selfie. Something must be done to stop this. At least I did not climb the column or touch the rock, a natural geographical formation built over millions of years of erosion.

The famous cave and basalt columns which tourists try to climb for the perfect selfie. Something must be done to stop this. At least I did not climb the column or touch the rock, a natural geographical formation built over millions of years of erosion.

America Votes. Election Night Jitters 2016

I spent U.S. Presidential Election day 2016 like most of you, frantically pacing and worrying as only a Canadian can as to who would take the oval office for the next four years. The only difference is I work for Canada's largest news organization and the atmosphere by 3:00pm was eclectic and dazed. Everyone was under the impression Hilary Clinton would easily take this.

By the time I left the office at 9:30pm, the scene on the third-floor Editorial newsroom was a nervous frenzy of sheer panic and complete and total disbelief. If Hilary had been predicted to win by our own poll builders and online predictive analysis wizards, then so much for big data. When the American voter goes to the polls, they really are lead by the heart, and probably less by the mind. The gluten-free pizza our Editor-in-Chief and Publisher had ordered for the war-room like set up we had put together for those who had to work late was barely being devoured, the wine glasses hardly touched. Instead, most of us were standing about not quite knowing what to do with ourselves. I told a coworker I was heading out for a cigarette. "I'll join you" he said. We walked out scratching our head wondering when Clinton was going to pick up the pace. All the releases for tomorrow which were embargoed are probably being dusted, re-edited, re-scrutinized and re-written as I write this. I mumbled an apology and departed the office heading toward my father and mother's home in the leafy, upscale Canadian lakeside suburb of Oakville, a mere 25-minutes drive from downtown Toronto. Typically a conservative bastion of uber-wealthy and well-educated suburbanites resembling something of a Tarrytown, NY, I was certain mum and dad would break this down for me over a home cooked meal.

When I arrived, mum was still at work (she is a hospital worker on a long shift) and dad was glued to his iPad and CNN. "What do you think?" I asked. He didn't even look up from the tablet. 'You're the reporter with the insider knowledge. Whatever happens, but especially if he wins, just count your lucky stars you're a white, Christian woman with a German last name' he muttered. My father. A European immigrant from a traditionally conservative Christian country, who although bright, intelligent, decent and honest, is as stoic as Winston Churchill in charge of the light brigade. In times of disbelief he typically utters those hard-to-swallow one-liners which others are afraid to state out loud and which I scoff at and raise my eyebrows at. Except this time he may just be right, no matter how much I hate the sound of it. The last time he responded with the same one-liner to me was the year the Balkans -- the part of Europe we hail from, exploded into war." He was stone faced, extremely upset and emotional. My father has never been emotional. I have rarely seen him smile or laugh. He usually only speaks when he has something commanding to say (a typically German trait). Dad has always been uncharacteristically pragmatic, ahead of the times, and shrewd. 'Nothing will happen to you or to us. This is Croatia, not Bosnia. We are white, Christian-conservatives, multi-lingual, from a well-to-do family, America will protect us. We are allies." In that one-line, he summed up everything that is unbelievable about the Donald Trump possibility for a presidency. To anyone who watched a state fall apart the way I did, this has very EERIE similarities to that time and that era. I wonder how I am to face my ethnic co-workers tomorrow. Many of them have relatives living and working in the US, some of them American citizens, who hail from the very countries and regions - Mexico and the Middle East that have been the targets of Trump's rhetoric. And then there is me. I am worried and I have no reason to be. I am worried for every decent, hard-working human being I know that resides south of the 49th parallel. This is not the America I know or remember, and I should know. I had the privilege of working in Washington, D.C., the cradle of North American democracy in the late 1990s. I spent three years on Embassy Row and had open access to Congress, the Senate, and the Pentagon (the latter of which was my employer). I was chosen to attend Harvard University in the early 2000s on a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship. While biking around Boston, I truly lived and breathed the American dream, and obtained two post-graduate degrees along the way. I took advantage of everything avant-garde North-Eastern American life had to offer. Now all that seems like a distant false reality.

How could this happen? It's now 12:04am and Trump is leading with a delegate count of 232. My parents' American next-door neighbours who hail from Michigan (him) and Georgia (her), are our favorite neighbours on the entire street. We love and admire their generosity, football loyalties and especially her lilting southern accent. They in turn love our European cooking and etiquette, especially my mother's, a trained pastry chef. They are impressed with our multi-lingualism and truly admire our European (and Canadian) laissez-faire attitude toward everything. We truly adore them and as neighbours help each other out at every given opportunity. They are die hard Trump supporters and put a sign on their leafy, and very Canadian front lawn. Of course everyone in the neighbourhood stared. Of course nobody said a word. Canadians are a peaceful, quiet and reflective bunch. When I went to walk my parents' dog about two hours ago, I could hear the cheers coming from inside their home as Trump picked up state after state. I know that the decent thing to do is congratulate them tomorrow morning, after all it's not my election. The problem is it doesn't feel that way. It feels as if this is OUR election too. It feels as if this is a battle between Mordor and Gondor, and Mordor is leading. I realize that's a bad analogy but it's the best one I can think of. I scoop up small bits of dog poop on the warmest November night in living Canadian memory. Fog is in the air and there is a withering look on the trees and the gaslit street. The British would call this a 'pea souper' kind of night. It seemed rather fitting given the occasion. What's the English lit term for this occasion? I think it's called pathetic fallacy, or when the weather mirrors your emotions.

I lit up a cigarette and walk over to my sister's house five doors away. The kids are in their jammies, scrubbed and ready for bed, but instead they are feeding off the tension and euphoria of the grown-ups. My seven-year old nephew is completely confused. Between his iPad and the minecraft app he follows, he bemusingly glances up at the TV monitor flashing Anderson Cooper's face and says, "I can't believe the bad guy is winning." I leave my kale salad aside and quizzingly look at him. "Why would you say he is a bad guy Markus?" I ask. "Auntie, don't you know anything? His color is like red and he said he's gonna build a lego wall against Mexico. He's not chill!" Oh the innocence and insouciance of a second-grader. He continued, "but I mean his wife is really pretty, but like she has to be because he's not good looking. Do you think she makes him palacinke every night?" Palacinke for those who do not know are french crepes prepared a specific way in the countries of Eastern and South Eastern Europe - Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary and Serbia included. They are Markus' favorite European treat and to a seven-year old brain it is imperative that if Melanija is from Slovenia, surely she must know how to make them. Triple trumped and dummed down Politics 101 as seen through a child's eye. Looking at him innocently pondering the future of America from the auspices of a quaint and quiet Canadian street, I can't help but think of the millions of American children who are going to go to sleep tonight frightened and scared and not at all amused at a Trump win. I can just imagine the heavy hearts of a Mexican immigrant child or the poor boy or girl from Syria and Iraq wondering what is going to happen to them now. My father tells me to count my lucky stars that I am white, Christian and have a German last name. For the first time in my adult life, I shamefully have to agree with him.

Signing off. It's 1:03am and Trump is still ahead. Unless something miraculous happens in the next two hours, he has clinched this with a projectile nobody could have predicted. I have watched every single American election with mum and dad, with significant others, and with expatriate friends while living in Europe. None have evoked the poisonous atmosphere of this one. It was a battle for the winner of the lesser evils and carried out in a manner more like reality tv than a presidential race. My mother who just returned from her shift said Trump was the word whispered on the shocked lips of both patients and doctors alike. Text messages have already begun pouring in from my friends in DC, Brussels, London, Zagreb, Belgrade and Moscow. The Eastern Europeans are excited. Trump is friendly with Putin and the first lady speaks Slavic, surely this is a win-win for the region. The Belgians are horrified and in a mocking mood. My significant other What Apps me from London: "What the fuck is this? Brexit all over again? What the hell is wrong with you people?" I have to constantly remind him I am Canadian. "Pardon, Katarina." I tell him to go to bed, it's going to be a long night for me and an early day tomorrow, likely to be our second busiest news day of the year. "Take care of yourself, it's a mad, mad, mad, mad world out there," he says.....It's just about to get a notch crazier. 1:16am, Trump at 238 and Clinton at 215. Aldous Huxley must be turning in his grave right now. Brave New World? When I drove to Oakville from Toronto I had Simon and Garfunkel playing on the media drive and was humming along to Mrs. Robinson. It's one of my favorite songs and I always turn up the volume on the line that goes: "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio a nation turned it's lonely eyes to you." America defeated and divided. Just who will they turn their eyes to now.

Katarina over and out. Signing off.

 

Life with a Stalker

I haven't opened this blog to the public in quite some time. In fact in January of this year, I had to shut it down in entirety because of a stalker. Today, a four year process to have the stalker legally defined has concluded and finally this nightmare is over (well, here is hoping). This person has done everything in their capacity to destroy the social fabric of my life and at times has even succeeded.

It's one of the oddest things to reflect upon but this entire experience has humbled me in ways that I couldn't have imagined when this nightmare began many years ago. I read somewhere that sometimes you have to find peace and forgive people who are not worth forgiving and who will certainly never apologize for their actions. In the last few years I have had to do this over and over again for the first time in my adult life. In Buddhist countries they equate this with strength and true power. I'm not quite sure if I believe this but I do know that once I began to let go of the feelings of anger and anxiety associated with the stalker, wonderful things began to happen. I met more and more like minded writers and artists and human beings more aligned to my way of thinking and believing. The circle of negativity was gone and I chose to live a happy life that was never again going to be influenced by someone else's actions or non-actions. One good thing after another began to occur. The cataclysmic moment came in the autumn of 2014 when I met someone special who opened a lot of doors for me professionally. All of a sudden film writing, a dream I had long harbored became a reality. That would certainly never have happened given the environment which was my world only eight years ago, an environment filled with energy-sucking individuals through whom the stalker was introduced into my life. I cannot quite say that I forgive the stalker but I have learned to let go, take the higher road and aim high every time they aimed low (do not mean to sound like Hilary Clinton but it is a great line). I stopped reacting to their every move and learned that silence is golden and often the best response. In a nutshell, living through this has been one of the greatest educational experiences of my life. I've become a stronger and more compassionate human being, a better listener, a more acute observer, and ultimately a better writer than I was before. Whereas I used to think that I was the only person in the world that such a thing could happen to, sharing this experience with other people made me realize it happens quite a lot - especially if you are a woman, especially if you are talented, especially if someone is envious of you, and most especially if you are a writer.

If you've never had to deal with a stalker then count your blessings. It's not a walk in the park, rather one of the most horrible experiences anyone can ever have to go through. People often ask me what its like and the best way to describe it is like living in a city under siege.  You never know when there is going to be an attack but each time it happens you just get better at preparing for the next one. Over time you become more immune and numb to it. This person (and in my case she was a woman ironically enough!) has not only caused me a lot of unnecessary grief and anxiety, she has done the same to my friends and family. I do not know why she stopped over the course of the last few months but I am just grateful that she has. 

Now that it's finally over I can get back to the art of living and writing, which is my passion and the one thing in my life I have truly been good at. Other women are probably better at a ton of things. For me it's always been my books, my writing, my travels, my horses and my dog. I have recently started a dream job that allows me to work remotely in my beloved Europe while still splitting time in Canada with my wonderful family at The Globe. My life is truly blessed and I am so grateful. In the next few days and weeks, this blog, including my travel, politics, film and personal work, will once again be on view for all to enjoy (Jedi camp, Icelandic film sets, musings from Middle Eastern bunkers and much more). It's going to take some time so please be patient and bear with me.

In the meantime, thank you to everyone who has been supportive, inspirational and encouraging over the course of the past few years. Your well wishes and motivational insight kept me going when times were really tough and the road ahead looked bleak. Thank you to all my friends in Croatia, Iceland, France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Montenegro, Italy, Spain, Thailand, the US and of course Canada.  A very special thank you to my Mother, Sisters, Cousins, Editor and Producer for your unwavering belief in me. 

 

 

Šibenik: A Renaissance King’s Town on the Dalmatian Coast

Today I was invited to Šibenik (pronounced ‘Shebeneek’), a town I had not stepped foot in since August of 1995, three days after what Croatians call the ‘Homeland War ended. Back then it did not impress me much, it felt rather run down, in bad need of a paint job and evidence of the Croatian war was everywhere. When the bus I was riding in which was packed with UN personnel pulled into the main bus station, I got a glimpse of just how devastating the war had been. Pocket-shell marks were evident on some of the grimy old communist-style cereal box hotels, and the mood at the bus station cafes was pensive and somber. The war had just ended in this part of Dalmatia as part of Operation Storm (‘Oluja’) but was still winding down in other parts of the country. It would end in just a few days’ time but nobody knew it then.

When I got off the bus, young Croatian soldiers would walk by hugging one another and breaking into tears. Every now and then old men and women would pat them on the shoulder or give them words of encouragement.  I saw an old man wrap his arms around a very thin, tall young soldier and sob as he hugged him. Was it his father or grandfather? An old babushka passed some flowers into my hand and asked me to give them to some of the young soldiers standing by the café and so I did. They looked shy and uneasy. One could sense I was from abroad as my Croatian had the accent of someone who had immigrated a few years back and he asked where. “Canada,” I replied. “Ahhh. I have a cousin in Hamilton. Do you know it?” he asked. Of course I did, and so we struck up a conversation. His name was Josip (‘Joseph’) and he was an architecture student when the war began and he received the conscription call. One of his brothers was fighting in Slavonia, a northern Croatian province along the border with Hungary and Serbia where fighting had been particularly intense and he was worried about him. Josip was very kind to me and had a quiet, courteous and gentle aura. He had an animated and excited way of talking about things which was typical of young people and I liked him instantly. He asked me if I would like a coffee, which was odd as I was the one who should have treated him. My bus was on its way to Zagreb and was only stopping in Šibenik for an hour or so to collect more passengers. Josip was originally from Šibenik and asked me if I had ever seen the city before. I had not and told him as much. I shall never forget the suave look he shot my way as his eyes widened in disbelief. “What? You’re from Split and you’ve never been here before (it was odd yet true)? It’s too bad you have to see the city looking like this. It’s the most beautiful city in all of Dalmatia, even more beautiful than your Split! Seriously though, what a shame that for your first time you have to see it like this,” said Josip. That last sentence stuck in my head. I picked up the bill which was the least I could do and we shook hands and parted. He told me he wanted to help his parents rebuild their family home on the island of Brodarica and complete his architecture degree now that the war was over. I wished him luck and gave him my Toronto address. Croatians always do that sort of thing for other Croatians. He in turn gave me his home address in Šibenik and made me promise to visit again in three years time. “Why three years I asked?” as I boarded the bus. “Because in three years we’ll fix it up and it will again be the most beautiful town in all of Dalmatia! Even more beautiful than Split!” he yelled off as I waved away and laughed giving him an acknowledging thumbs up.

I am ashamed to say I waited 20 years to fulfill my promise to Josip. Oh I had returned to Croatia on many occasions after the war, almost every summer in fact. From 2000 to 2005 while working as a NATO representative, I even lived part of the time in the capital city Zagreb, and would commute on the shuttle flight to Brussels every few weeks. During that period I would drive down to Split to stay with my relatives but for some reason which I still cannot figure out, I always by-passed Šibenik. Even when relatives and I would visit nearby Trogir, Zadar and Biograd-na-Moru. Maybe it was the fear of seeing the pocket scarred town, maybe it was the fact that I generally do not like to be reminded of sad memories, and the memories of that first visit also happened to coincide with the end of a summer romance a few nights before. I cannot recall what it was that kept me away but it was a foolish decision not to return because the Šibenik I discovered on the day of my first return, September 20th, 2016, felt like nothing that can be described in either English, Croatian or any other language which I speak so well. Šibenik was resplendent, thriving, completely restored, and drop dead gorgeous. Dare I say it, I was falling in love with it by the micro-second and discovering it with the slow precision of a toddler unwrapping that first Christmas gift.

Founded in 1066, Šibenik is considered the oldest authentic Croatian town and a city of King’s. Unlike other cities on the Adriatic coast of Dalmatia, it wasn’t founded by Greeks and Romans, rather by the White Croats, a 6th century Slavic tribe that migrated to today’s Croatia from their prehistoric homeland which was nestled west of the Carpathians and south of the Tatras, probably in the triangular area that today makes up parts of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. How they got here is anyone’s guess but legend and historical fact tells us that they crossed the Carpathians on foot in the early 7th century and arrived on the shores of the Adriatic sometime thereafter. It’s believed that these original Croatian tribes settled somewhere in the vicinity of Šibenik and established the first vestiges of a medieval Croatian kingdom in the part of the country which even today acts as its biggest province and coastal region, Dalmatia.

Šibenik is sometimes referred to by its vernacular name in Croatian, ‘Krešimirovgrad’ (‘Krešimir’s City’) because it is here that the first Croatian King, Krešimir the Great, was crowned in 1066. After he died without producing an heir, Šibenik, like the rest of Dalmatia and northern Croatia, was pulled back and forth in an ownership tug of war between Byzantium, Venice, Vienna, and the Kingdom of Hungary for the better half of the next 700 years. It passed from Austria-Hungary to the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918 (later known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), then to Italy during the period of the Second World War, and in 1945 found itself in the newly formed federated country of Yugoslavia (‘Land of the Southern Slavs’) where it would remain for the next 45 years. It wasn’t until 1992, when the war that ripped the former Yugoslavia apart cemented its position again in a newly formed Croat state, something it had not been a part of in 926 years. Here it has remained for the last 24 years and counting.

I visited the city on the third day of the week that marked its 950th birthday celebration and it was truly unbelievable to see how far it had come. Gone are the rugged old relics of communism and the pocket marks of the war of the 1990's. Today’s Šibenik is as glittering as a newly minted gold coin and thriving with what must have been millions of dollars in investment and infrastructure projects. The Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic architecture on display on just about every street corner was so splendid that one is at a loss for words to try and describe the harmonious blend of all these impressive styles that somehow balance out and work quite nicely in Šibenik.

I began by doing what I do in every new city, touring the open air market.  Here too I found change on an unprecedented scale. Everything was clean, better organized, and offered more abundance than I had known before.  Fruits and vegetables I had never even seen were on display by hawkers who addressed me in fluent English, Italian, German and Croatian. This has always been one of the things that has most impressed me about Croatia, the ability of ordinary people both young and old to switch between two to three languages with a finesse and flair that is enviable. Try travelling to Italy and Hungary, our much larger neighbours and you will experience none of this.

At the marketplace it is customary to haggle over prices but not for too long. Most vendors will allow you to try some of their fruit and produce before making up your mind and you don’t have to purchase anything if you don’t want to. No offense is taken. I spoke with a man named Martin who had one of the fancier stands and was selling savoy cabbage (my father and my uncle Anton’s weakness!), endives, arugula, lavender, figs, pomegranates, honey and best of all, ‘Žižulja,’ as they are known in Croatian (Chinese Dates/or Jujubes as they are known in English). Everything was organic and had never been laced with pesticides. Martin, his brother Andro, their two wives and children, worked the farm together and brought in the produce every morning from a nearby village. I explained to him that in North America I had developed an airborne allergy to strawberries and would wind up in an emergency room if a strawberry was even in the vicinity, never mind biting into one. Before I had left Yugoslavia as a fifteen-year old immigrant, I used to forage the forests of Dalmatia for wild strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and bilberries with my family every summer and would eat them fresh off the vine. Three decades spent eating every chemically sprayed fruit available in North America had exposed me to a pesticide reaction that left me with horrible rashes, terrified of the sight of a strawberry, and with no way of knowing what was toxin-free and what was not. “You can eat buckets of my strawberries and nothing will happen to you,” Martin reassured me. “We Dalmatian farmers fought really hard to not have the EU dictate to us on the spraying of pesticides, and most farmers here would rather make no profit than spray our fruit. Go ahead, try them” he said while pushing a palm full of white and red strawberries into my hand. The fact that I had not broken out into welts was already an encouraging sign. I nibbled on the ends of a plump crimson strawberry and held my breath for ten seconds while looking at him skeptically. “You see Katarina, you are alive!” exclaimed Martin with a beaming smile. I nibbled on some more while his wife offered me a shot of honey brandy (a local specialty) “to disinfect the throat…just in case,” replied Martin. Realizing funeral plans could be held off, I told him I was completely stunned by how fantastic the entire town looked considering I had not visited in over two decades.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Last summer I blogged from the film set of Castello Barone and St. John's fortress which were located on the hills overlooking Šibenik, but because of our tight schedule I hadn’t had a chance to make it into town at all. He explained to me that the entire marketplace area had received a huge investment boost from EU funds when Croatia joined the union three years ago. Ever since, the organization and consumer offerings had improved tremendously. Stalls were marked and the vendors all knew each other. I had seen this same level of detail and organization in the oldest open-air produce market in the country in my home town of Split. If one of the vendors did not have a particularly sought after food item or staple, no problem. They simply pointed you in the direction of the person who did. I was looking for a specific type of ewe’s cheese that is endemic to this part of the western Balkans, called ‘Kajmak’. He didn’t sell it but he pointed out teta Kata (‘Auntie Katie’) who had the cheese in a stand further down the row. “Tell her Martin sent you,” he mumbled. “She’ll give you a discount and she sells the best Kajmak in town.” I thanked him and made my way down towards the vicinity of Kata’s stall (who truly did sell kajmak so delicious it was to die for! Best of all she gave me a generous portion to try on a freshly baked slice of homemade bread).

The second thing to do was explore the Piazza, the central square of every Dalmatian town where life’s comings and goings were discussed, people watching was the order of the day, and coffee was drunk like an art form, one after another after another. Everything in Croatia happens over a coffee – romances are formed, break-ups occur, engagements are announced, and deaths and illnesses are discussed (usually in detail). Seriously. People are hired, fired, admired, ridiculed, and gossiped about over a coffee. Weddings are planned over a coffee and so are funerals, and I once even witnessed the most amicable divorce discussion of my adult life between a gorgeous Croatian couple sipping macchiato's in Dubrovnik. It all seemed so laissez-faire and chic that I made a mental note to do the same if I ever found myself in such a predicament (Croatians tend to do everything with grace and finesse). My home town of Split, Dalmatia’s largest city and capital is known for its quay side ‘Riva,' a promenade lined with hundreds of cafes facing the Adriatic sea, where the locals engage in two things - the art of coffee sipping and the 'giro' or 'passiaggata,' the brisk evening walk typical of many Mediterranean towns where one is dressed to the nine to see and be seen. When I was younger, there was nothing better than sitting with my aunts and uncles while they ordered cappuccino after cappuccino, while we children were treated with 'kava sa šlagom' (coffee with whipped cream) as long as we behaved.

Coffee was served as an art form and usually provided on a silver tray with a small glass of rose petal water, with waiters displaying their skills and talents and developing a core and loyal clientele. This was over 30 years ago in communist Yugoslavia and even then the cafes were thriving, so you can imagine my horror upon arriving in North America where the art of coffee has disappeared only to be replaced by the industrialized sized portions served at Starbucks, something Croatians scoff at. I used to daydream that the Romans sat around when they built the town of Split over 2,000 years ago sipping the Roman equivalent of coffee and people watching just as we do today. Being from Split, I was from what you could call the capital of coffee Mecca in Croatia. I should also mention that Dalmatian towns engage in ‘coffee rivalries’ in much the same way as they do with soccer rivalries, so I was curious to see if Šibenik could hold its own and compare.

Again, I was pleasantly surprised. Winding my way down into the heart of the city’s central piazza where I had actually planned to sip that first coffee, I found myself sidetracked on Zagrebačka Ulica by an alluring sign which read ‘Caffeteria Giro Espresso.’ Need I say more? It was 11:30 am and I hadn’t yet had my morning dose of java. At this point coffee - any coffee, was as arousing as a siren and I was Odysseus. The piazza would have to wait. I plunked myself down and a strikingly tall Dalmatian fellow (the average height on this coast is 6’0 feet for both males and females) asked me what I would like to order. “Double espresso,” I retorted. He grimaced and sighed upon hearing my Split accent. “Coming right up” he said. I wish I could tell you that the coffee sucked and that I walked away with a haughty smirk knowing that Split still stood firm and held carte-blanche on Dalmatian coffee culture. Sadly I couldn’t. What I sipped on was arguably the best double espresso to have ever been brewed and savoured in the three weeks since arriving in Croatia. It was so good that the waiter couldn’t help but lean against the white stone entrance door to Giro Espresso and remark “bet you don’t have anything that good in Split.” Now if I was a betting man like James Bond, I would have clearly lost. Defeat was imminent and so with the class and demeanor befitting a Dalmatian lady raised abroad, I cleared my throat and muttered “you’re right, it’s amazingly good. May I please have another?” I must have sat there for over an hour wiggling my toes in delight while kava poured through me and warmed up my body like a bubbling volcano. The waiter, whose name I cannot recall asked me what I did for a living. “Writer,” I responded. He looked intrigued. “A lot going on here since last week. Are you here following the Brad Pitt story?” he asked. I was not I informed him. Brad Pitt had arrived in Croatia a few days earlier to invest in a billion dollar hotel complex located about 10km south of Šibenik in a beach town called Zablaće. That was two weeks ago. Now all anyone and their mother were discussing was the break-up of Brangelina and a developing story making its way in the local press about a mystery Croatian woman he had reportedly been spotted with days before the bust up with Angie was splashed across world headlines (and no, it wasn’t me). “No I’m not here to cover that. I came to write about tourism and the town’s 950th birthday. I was here last year blogging from the Game of Thrones set up on the hill at Castello Barone and St. John's, but I didn’t have time to make it into town then because of my schedule. Today I'm going to see the cathedral and am hoping to take some artistic photos of the palazzo's and town square.” I pointed to the brand new Nikon DX5 professional camera a photographer friend had suggested I purchase. “Wow! That’s a great one” said the waiter, "but if you want my advice, you'd better hurry. The sun is going to hit the northern side of the Cathedral in about 15 minutes and there are already hundreds of tourists down there. If you want the best shot, you’ve got about an hour left before the piazza is covered in afternoon light and you won’t be able to shoot anything close-up after that because it's going to be too bright. Even with a great camera like that one.” With that I scrambled to pay the bill, thanked him and rushed off.

It was a short walk down from the market into the heart of old Šibenik’s piazza, which is built into a large open-air space flanked on the southern side by the great Cathedral of St. James, a renaissance masterpiece that also extends out onto the northern side by the City Hall (or ‘Gradska Vijecnica/Palazzo Vecchio),’ resplendent in Venetian style and adorned with Juliet-like balconies, braided porticos, and the windows which made the Republic of Venice so famous. The piazza square was located at ulica Kralja Tomislava (King Tomislav street – yet another King!) and was completely adorned with little purple and yellow flags hanging from string wires that zigzagged across creating a beautiful wilting effect. It reminded me of the same feeling I first had when stepping into the Piazza San Marco in Venice and the square adorning Sienna’s Duomo. Magnificent, and best seen in the magical afternoon light of a glorious Dalmatian sun.

As I entered the square, I marveled at the fine view it provided of St. James’ Cathedral, arguably Croatia’s finest and grandest votive church building. The cathedral was begun in 1298 and completed in 1431, taking more than two centuries to replace the original Romanesque structure into a triple-nave basilica containing three apses and a dome (32 metres high). It was built by a a master craftsman of the time known as ‘Nikola Firentinac’ (‘Nicolo di Fiorentino’ or Nicholas of Florence) and remains the single most important architectural monument of the early Renaissance in the entire country. Since 2000, the Cathedral has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List and it’s not difficult to see why. Despite being born on these shores, I like all the hundreds of other tourists who had flocked to the piazza to get a glimpse of St. James was awestruck. My travelling companion for the day, Martina, later told me that while I was busy snapping away photo after photo, she was busy taking secret photos of my facial expressions which gravitated from stunned disbelief that something so beautiful could have been built hundreds of years ago in a style that today’s architects cannot even replicate, to sheer humility at being able to view it so closely and intimately.

Dedicated to St. James the Apostle, Nicolo spent more than half his life working on the cathedral which today draws in millions of tourists a year to admire his craftsmanship and genius. When the patrician families of Šibenik (then a city state of Venice) commissioned Nicolo with this great task, he promised them a cathedral that would combine the best elements of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. Nicolo delivered on this promise but retained an element of his artistic flair and character which is the stuff of legend and which every tour guide is quick to point out much to the amusement and smiles of the crowds, be they Italians, Germans, Brits or Japanese. Tired of religion and clearly a figure who was way ahead of his time, Nicolo was instructed to adorn the façade of the cathedral with the heads of religious figures, primarily saints and disciples. He would have none of it. Instead he created a total of 74 immortalized cherubic heads, masterpieces representing the ordinary people who had crossed his path, from patrician bosses to fellow artists or anyone he happened to be impressed by. I have traveled far and wide both as a writer and a former art history student and I had truly never seen anything like this in the world before. Spell-binding. On the northern side of the cathedral facing the piazza were two golden carved stone winged lions I had seen in picture books in my parents library. Throngs of tourists were pressed around them and I listened in on an Italian tour group comprised of northerners (probably Venetians and Veronese) who seemed stunned when the tour guide informed them that they would actually see more winged lions along the Dalmatian coast than they would ever see in Venice. The Italians circled the tour guide and began asking where else in Croatia they could find the lions, the symbol of Venice or ‘La Serenissima’ and I used the brief moment of distraction to admire the lions and take my own shots. Above the lions there was a large, perfectly symmetrical stained glass Rosetta window built out of fine white marble from the island of Brač (the Croatian Carrara). I snapped away while my travel companion, Martina, and her two children Ella and Lukas played happily with some pigeons. The sheer number of people aiming towards the sky armed with selfie sticks and cameras hoisted, proved that St. James Cathedral was still as captivating to today’s crowds as it was to Venetian citizens hundreds of years ago.

Of course while all this was going on there was yet another group of tourists elbowing their way into the piazza to catch a glimpse of the great cathedral and its doors, which were digitally altered and enhanced using CGI technology when the building was used as a setting for its greatest achievement in the millennial era - the Game of Thrones series stand in location for the kingdom of Braavos and more precisely, ‘The Temple of the Many Faced Gods.’ The Italians and Japanese were suddenly outnumbered 1,000 to 1 by the sheer volume and throngs of screaming American and Australian teenagers shouting in excitement at the discovery of the home abode of Jaquen H’ghar. Half expecting to find the Waif and Arya Stark emerging from the cathedral doors ready for a sword fight, two teenage sisters from Scotland looked as if they would break down into tears when I informed them that post-production of the show had ended in Šibenik and had moved on further down the coast to the city of Dubrovnik (King’s Landing to GOT fans). The catastrophic look on their faces was more than I could bear and I wondered if Nicolo had any idea back in the 14th century that his renaissance masterpiece would be synonymous with a fictional kingdom to crazed television fans around the globe seven centuries later. I didn’t have time to dwell on this thought for too long because someone in the millennial group discovered that although they couldn’t locate Arya, the cathedral square was teeming with Pokemon Go characters. In just a few shouts thousands of teenagers descended into a corner of the piazza like a school of moving fish, much to the chagrin of the Croatian locals who rolled their eyes in annoyance.

Of the other churches which are located close to the old city center there were a handful that were equally as enticing as St. James and of these my favorites included the 16th century Church of St. Nicholas dedicated to sailors and seafarers (the interior of which contains some great models of old sailing ships); the 15th century Church of All Saints located on a stunning cliff side precipice near Castello Barone overlooking the city; the 12th century Benedictine Monastery; the 16th century Church of St. John with it’s fine Campanile and Turkish clock; the 12th century Church of the Holy Spirit with it’s ornate organ and Gothic details; the 13th century Orthodox Church of the Assumption of the Mother of God (sometimes also referred to as ‘Sveti Spas’ or ‘Church of the Holy Saviour’) and the 15th century Church of St. Julian (also referred to as ‘the Crusader Church’), which like many of Šibenik’s churches once belonged to the Knights Templars, it’s original builders and founders. I was informed that the altars in the two latter churches were used by the Catholic and Orthodox congregations, occasionally at the same time, but most often during periods of cooperation and need – a fantastic example of mutual harmony and co-existence that served the Christian faithful on these shores for centuries.

It was hard to leave the city square but Martina insisted that I move on and follow her for an afternoon walking tour of some of the city’s notable patrician palazzo's, the most outstanding being the Palazzo Rossini, Palazzo Foscala and the Palazzo Pelegrini, the latter of which has been transformed into Croatia’s only JRE-star restaurant (a Michelin accreditation) and where I had a dinner reservation booked two days later. It is considered one of the finest culinary locales in Croatia and getting a reservation was all but impossible, so please plan well in advance (read more about my tasting menu at Palazzo Pelegrini in a separate blog).

Of the three palazzo’s, it was the Palazzo Rossini that stood out among the series of exceptional palaces of medieval Šibenik as the oldest, and the most valuable monument to Romanesque residential architecture in central Dalmatia. Built in the 13th century and named after its last owner, it looked as if it had been plucked out of the heart of Verona and deposited into a charming side street of old Šibenik. Although it was originally constructed in the Romanesque style, later modifications added elements of Gothic and Renaissance detailing. The western wing of the palazzo was built in the Gothic style in the 15th century as a separate structure, only to be connected to the older, eastern section into a single structural unit in the 16th century, at which time it also acquired its present Renaissance features. The Palazzo Rossini best testifies to the fact that Šibenik’s residents kept pace with the new artistic and architectural techniques that came from Europe’s cultural centres at the time, notably Venice of which they were an integral component.

Over the course of history, the palazzo passed hands and belonged to various noble and patrician families. The Tobolović family had a coat-of-arms installed on it in the Gothic style and it was deemed one of the most beautiful in Šibenik at the time. The original coat-of-arms ended up in Vienna, where it was sold by a member of the Rossini family. In the 16th century, the palace belonged to the Ivetić family who were exceptionally wealthy and associated with trade and ship building, and their coat-of-arms can be seen on the apse of the well in the central courtyard. During the Venetian-Ottoman wars of the 16th century the Ivetić family, who were descendants of the Rossini’s, financed a large segment of the Dalmatian fleet that accompanied the Doge’s naval units during the Battle of Lepanto. Many of Dalmatia’s finest sea captains, sailors and merchant marines hailed from this coast, and can trace their lineage to the city of Šibenik and its neighbouring islands.

Next on the agenda was the Palazzo Pelegrini, also known as ‘Tambača’ in Croatian. It was located only about 100 metres away from Palazzo Rossini on Ulica Juraj Dalmatinac ('George the Dalmatian street') next to the Square of the Four Wells, and it was the second consecutive palazzo with a fine view of the piazza by the western façade of St. James Cathedral. The Renaissance and Baroque components of the Palazzo Pelegrini encompassed a square medieval tower of the same name which were once adjacent to the southern city walls and linked it to the nearby Teodošević Tower. The whole effect was mind-boggling - think Renaissance level Minecraft designed by a 15th century architect. The walls of Palazzo Pelegrini included a separate fortified tower that acted as a bulwark and extended into a double opening, one of which continues into Juraj Dalmatinac street, while the other exits out towards the entrance to the Square of the Four Wells. The Pelegrini family of nobles lived in Šibenik from the 16th to 19th centuries, when the family’s last descendant died.

Castello Barone, the last site of interest to visit for the day, also provided one of the best views of Šibenik from a good height. I had been here before in 2015 while blogging from the set of Game of Thrones (Season 5 and Season 6). At the time it was buzzing with activity as the American and British film crews were finalizing post-production shooting with the Croatian team and stand in cast (parts of it stood in as the scene of the castle-like theatre where Arya watched her assigned hit-list victim, Lady Crane, give a performance dressed as Cersei during the episodes titled ‘The Door’ and ‘Blood of my Blood’). The castle is one of the four remaining castle fortifications open for public viewing in Šibenik and provides a majestic panorama out to sea. The other three are the castle fortresses of St. John - another Game of Thrones film site and located even higher than Barone on a mountain precipice; St. Michael; and St. Nicholas, the latter of which is a sea castle built onto a rock-like promontory deep in the middle of the Bay of Šibenik. Designed in 1548 by the Venetian architect Giangirolamo Sanmicheli who designed the three patrician palazzos Pompeii, Canossa and Bevilacqua in Verona, the Palazzo San Luca and Palazzo San Polo in Venice, and the Porta Terraferma in Zadar (subject of another blog), the fortress of St. Nicholas was tasked with defending the city harbour from encroaching Ottoman ships. It’s considered the finest example of a Renaissance sea fortification along the entire Dalmatian coast and is today used as a venue for concerts and art exhibits. Viewed from the hill upon which Castello Barone sits, it resembled a sleeping dragon in the middle of the Adriatic waiting for its prey (no wonder Game of Thrones execs decided to film here!).

Barone, which is sometimes referred to as ‘Fort Šubićevac’ in Croatian, is located some distance north of the old city core and several hundred metres south-east of the Fortress of St. John (Šibenik’s highest castle). It stands at an elevation of 80 metres above sea level on a hill called Vidakuša (‘The Lookout Point’) and was originally named after the small Church of St. Vitus, built by the Byzantines and cemented by the Knight Templars long before the current castle was built.

Construction started in 1646, at the same time as the Fortress of St. John, with which it played a vital role in the defence of the city against the Ottomans. The fortress long bore the name of Baron Degenfeld, a German serving the Venetian Republic, who led the defence of Šibenik from 1646 to 1647. In 1659, it was expanded and restored by Anton Bernardo, who did the same for the Fortress of St. John. In the early 20th century, the Šibenik City Council purchased Castello Barone and its surroundings and called this part of the city 'Šubićevac' after the Šubić family of old Croatian nobility. Today it is used as an open-air theatre where stage performances, concerts, and art exhibits are held during the spring and summer months, although most of the current throngs present when I arrived were only interested in Game of Thrones.

My day in Šibenik was coming to a close. Martina and the kids were somewhere below in the city enjoying the last evening gelato before we were to head on home and call it a night. From the vantage point of Castello Barone, the bay of Šibenik was enveloped in a gorgeous early autumn sun set, as orange and vibrant as a tangerine. Glittering boats and yachts were bobbing in the harbour and hundreds of tiny little islands were shimmering in the distance. Farther out at sea I could spot a few of the adorable light houses I had seen when cruising a few days earlier by boat, and somewhere out there lay the islands of the Kornati Archipelago, a yachters paradise and a national sea park which I was set to explore three days later. It was the last day before the start of autumn and I could spot swimmers still emerging from the warm sea. They were probably wondering where to consume dinner, a thought that was beginning to cross my own mind as well. Time stood still and the remote sounds of life emerging from the streets below were occasionally drowned out by the horn of a cruise ship pulling into harbour. I spotted citizens lazily awakening from their afternoon slumber, shutters and doors (‘portune’ as they are known in Dalmatian) slowly opening in the Renaissance side streets, and pigeons scurrying away to avoid an emerging game of outdoor soccer played in the piazza by precious Croatian six-year old's. Restaurant awns and pergolas were being wound up and opened, and a Croatian teenager had set up an impromptu viola concert in front of the cathedral and was playing Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major Op. 9, No. 20 (my personal favorite) to a curious crowd that began congregating around her.

I could get use to this I thought. A few minutes later my iPhone began beeping. It was Martina and she was waiting for me down by the harbour. A new bar had opened and we should try one last cappuccino and perhaps a campari before heading home for the evening. As I made my way down the marble steps and enjoyed the fine evening view of hundreds of tiny restaurants preparing their tables, nestled between Renaissance and Romanesque courtyards and atriums, I couldn’t help but think of Josip and how proud he must be of his city today. I wished our paths had crossed again but they hadn’t and I had no way of finding him as I had lost the address he had given me over twenty years ago. Nonetheless, my great wish is that he somehow stumbles across this write-up for I can now tell him with the most genuine honesty that the Šibenik he had promised I visit one day had surpassed my every expectation and critique. It’s a must-see on anyone’s Croatian sojourn and if you’re brave enough to deal with the Hollywood throngs and the tourist hordes who are flocking to it to unravel its charms, you won’t be disappointed.

Š  ibenik like most Dalmatian towns was a city state of Venice, and there is no more bona fide stamp of a former Venetian city than the Lion of St. Mark. Stone lions are literally to be found on just about every civic and Christian building in the coastal regions of Dalmatia, Istria and Montenegro.

Šibenik like most Dalmatian towns was a city state of Venice, and there is no more bona fide stamp of a former Venetian city than the Lion of St. Mark. Stone lions are literally to be found on just about every civic and Christian building in the coastal regions of Dalmatia, Istria and Montenegro.

Nicolo di Fiorentino (literally Nicholas of Florence), built Šibenik's Cathedral of St. James, a Renaissance masterpiece infusing Romanesque and Renaissance details on an older structure that stood on the same grounds. On the archways and atriums that ador  n the outside of the cathedral, Nicolo cunningly sculpted 74 unique heads. Each symbolizes his contemporaries and as the legend goes, he spared no one. The faces represent craftsman, ordinary people, wealthy patrician scions, and some claim even his lovers and enemies. Despite being engaged by a wealthy patrician family to sculpt heads that represented the various Christian saints, Nicolo turned his back on this idea and built them to represent the vices of humanity as he saw them. A true rebel and agnostic who outwitted his peers, he remains one of my most favorite Renaissance characters of all time. The detail in each face is astounding. I could stare at them all day.

Nicolo di Fiorentino (literally Nicholas of Florence), built Šibenik's Cathedral of St. James, a Renaissance masterpiece infusing Romanesque and Renaissance details on an older structure that stood on the same grounds. On the archways and atriums that adorn the outside of the cathedral, Nicolo cunningly sculpted 74 unique heads. Each symbolizes his contemporaries and as the legend goes, he spared no one. The faces represent craftsman, ordinary people, wealthy patrician scions, and some claim even his lovers and enemies. Despite being engaged by a wealthy patrician family to sculpt heads that represented the various Christian saints, Nicolo turned his back on this idea and built them to represent the vices of humanity as he saw them. A true rebel and agnostic who outwitted his peers, he remains one of my most favorite Renaissance characters of all time. The detail in each face is astounding. I could stare at them all day.

A detail on a patrician house in Šibenik. Notice the latticed window carving and cornichon. The white marble stone of Dalmatia was used in the construction of all Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque building.

A detail on a patrician house in Šibenik. Notice the latticed window carving and cornichon. The white marble stone of Dalmatia was used in the construction of all Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque building.

St. George slaying the dragon. He is pictured here on the exterior of the Chapel of St. George (Sveti Juraj), one of the smaller chapels one passes on the walk towards St. James Cathedral. The chapel was used as a location shot for the Game of Thrones fictional kingdom of Braavos outside of which Arya sat while waiting for the Faceless Man to accept her coin in Season 4.

St. George slaying the dragon. He is pictured here on the exterior of the Chapel of St. George (Sveti Juraj), one of the smaller chapels one passes on the walk towards St. James Cathedral. The chapel was used as a location shot for the Game of Thrones fictional kingdom of Braavos outside of which Arya sat while waiting for the Faceless Man to accept her coin in Season 4.

A fine view of the main city square with the Town Hall (Gradska Vijecnica or Palazzo Vecchio) in the background.

A fine view of the main city square with the Town Hall (Gradska Vijecnica or Palazzo Vecchio) in the background.

The fine details of a Renaissance era courtyard. 

The fine details of a Renaissance era courtyard. 

Stained glass window on a patrician home depicting St. Michael the Arch Angel (Sveti Mihajlo).

Stained glass window on a patrician home depicting St. Michael the Arch Angel (Sveti Mihajlo).

St. James carrying his chisel and the Holy Book. He is elegant, classy, determined, and sort of suave. Kind of like a 14th century Marlboro Man if ever there was one.

St. James carrying his chisel and the Holy Book. He is elegant, classy, determined, and sort of suave. Kind of like a 14th century Marlboro Man if ever there was one.

One of the most beautiful rustic doors imaginable. The simplicity and harmony of the rose colored tempera hues are breathtakingly simple.

One of the most beautiful rustic doors imaginable. The simplicity and harmony of the rose colored tempera hues are breathtakingly simple.

The Cathedral of St. James viewed from the northern side in the strong Dalmatian sun.

The Cathedral of St. James viewed from the northern side in the strong Dalmatian sun.

Quiet walk in a sunlit side street of old Šibenik. I actually took this photo and am quite proud of it. Evidence of the old and the new in Dalmatia blend in harmoniously.

Quiet walk in a sunlit side street of old Šibenik. I actually took this photo and am quite proud of it. Evidence of the old and the new in Dalmatia blend in harmoniously.

Palazzo Vecchio. I took this shot after waiting for crowds of millennials to exit the square in search of the next Pokemon Go.

Palazzo Vecchio. I took this shot after waiting for crowds of millennials to exit the square in search of the next Pokemon Go.

Stairway and atrium leading to the Palazzo Rossini located within walking distance of the city piazza and central square.

Stairway and atrium leading to the Palazzo Rossini located within walking distance of the city piazza and central square.

The Cathedral of St. James taken against the tempera like hue of an approaching Dalmatian sunset.

The Cathedral of St. James taken against the tempera like hue of an approaching Dalmatian sunset.

The Palazzo Vecchio (City Hall building) decked out with banners in honour of the city of Sibenik's 950th birthday.

The Palazzo Vecchio (City Hall building) decked out with banners in honour of the city of Sibenik's 950th birthday.

The Venetian windows adorning the southern facade of the Palazzo Pelegrini.

The Venetian windows adorning the southern facade of the Palazzo Pelegrini.

One of the many cafes adjacent to the Palazzo Vecchio set out for the evening strollers.

One of the many cafes adjacent to the Palazzo Vecchio set out for the evening strollers.

A full view of Palazzo Pelegrini from the piazza square. The statue in the foreground is of Nicolo di Fiorentino (Nicholas of Florence), the architect and genius behind St. James Cathedral.

A full view of Palazzo Pelegrini from the piazza square. The statue in the foreground is of Nicolo di Fiorentino (Nicholas of Florence), the architect and genius behind St. James Cathedral.

A view of St. James Cathedral taken from one of the balconies of the Palazzo Rossini.

A view of St. James Cathedral taken from one of the balconies of the Palazzo Rossini.

St. James Cathedral and it's magnificent portico doors and majestic Rosetta stone window. In the foreground, Croatian children engage in an evening game of soccer by using the piazza square as a pitch, while I sip on a local Malvazija wine at Pelegrini restaurant, Croatia's only JRE and Michelin star establishment.

St. James Cathedral and it's magnificent portico doors and majestic Rosetta stone window. In the foreground, Croatian children engage in an evening game of soccer by using the piazza square as a pitch, while I sip on a local Malvazija wine at Pelegrini restaurant, Croatia's only JRE and Michelin star establishment.

An old street leading to the central piazza adorned with banners celebrating the town's 950th birthday. The golden hued tempera of the Dalmatian marble was evident everywhere and gives the city a very royal look and feel.b

An old street leading to the central piazza adorned with banners celebrating the town's 950th birthday. The golden hued tempera of the Dalmatian marble was evident everywhere and gives the city a very royal look and feel.b

A beautiful head adorning the facade of the Cathedral of St. James.

A beautiful head adorning the facade of the Cathedral of St. James.

More heads. There are 74 in total and they tell a marvelous story carved in Dalmatian marble for anyone who cares to listen.

More heads. There are 74 in total and they tell a marvelous story carved in Dalmatian marble for anyone who cares to listen.

Portrait of the artist. Many believe this head represents the architect himself, Nicolo di Fiorentino.  He glances eastward and away from the direction of Venice and the west which was implied as a sign that he turned his back on Christianity and declared himself a humanist and agnostic (before such terms even existed). My kind of guy.

Portrait of the artist. Many believe this head represents the architect himself, Nicolo di Fiorentino. He glances eastward and away from the direction of Venice and the west which was implied as a sign that he turned his back on Christianity and declared himself a humanist and agnostic (before such terms even existed). My kind of guy.

The Chapel of St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors and seafarers but better known in the west as Father Christmas or Santa Klaus. On his feast day, December 6th, the town hands out chocolate to good children and a 'switch' to the bad ones (as the tradition goes) who are then gobbled up and taken away by Krampus (a bad guy, sort of like the Devil). Good old Saint Nick was sculpted in miniature style and can be seen in the atrium above the main door, hand raised to bless all those who enter. I have 8 Nicholas' in my family so Saint Nicholas is our family saint and my favorite saint of all.

The Chapel of St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors and seafarers but better known in the west as Father Christmas or Santa Klaus. On his feast day, December 6th, the town hands out chocolate to good children and a 'switch' to the bad ones (as the tradition goes) who are then gobbled up and taken away by Krampus (a bad guy, sort of like the Devil). Good old Saint Nick was sculpted in miniature style and can be seen in the atrium above the main door, hand raised to bless all those who enter. I have 8 Nicholas' in my family so Saint Nicholas is our family saint and my favorite saint of all.

A stunning fusion of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance art reminiscent of the late Ravenesse Byzantine style so often seen on the Dalmatian coast, the 14th century Church of the Holy Savior (or Sveti Spas and 'Uznešenje Bogorodice' as it is known in Croat  ian) is reknown for its interior. The altar was shifted and alternated to serve the needs of the cities' Catholic and Orthodox faithful, a fantastic example of mutual harmony and co-existence that served the Christian faithful on these shores for centuries. Constructed and financed by the Knight Templars (and referred to by locals as "the Crusader church"), it served for a time as the Convent of St. Claire before its present day designation as the seat of the Orthodox bishophric in Šibenik.

A stunning fusion of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance art reminiscent of the late Ravenesse Byzantine style so often seen on the Dalmatian coast, the 14th century Church of the Holy Savior (or Sveti Spas and 'Uznešenje Bogorodice' as it is known in Croatian) is reknown for its interior. The altar was shifted and alternated to serve the needs of the cities' Catholic and Orthodox faithful, a fantastic example of mutual harmony and co-existence that served the Christian faithful on these shores for centuries. Constructed and financed by the Knight Templars (and referred to by locals as "the Crusader church"), it served for a time as the Convent of St. Claire before its present day designation as the seat of the Orthodox bishophric in Šibenik.

The pastel coloured hues evident on many of Sibenik's buildings and squares make it the perfect place to relax and partake in the art of coffee-sipping, a Dalmatian national pastime.

The pastel coloured hues evident on many of Sibenik's buildings and squares make it the perfect place to relax and partake in the art of coffee-sipping, a Dalmatian national pastime.

A plaque detailing the 1066 Charter of King Kresimir which declared Sibenik a royal and free city.

A plaque detailing the 1066 Charter of King Kresimir which declared Sibenik a royal and free city.

The door of the Palazzo Rossini. Simply stunning and ornate. The coat of arms shows a dragon with a crown on it's head (not an eagle as was customary at the time).

The door of the Palazzo Rossini. Simply stunning and ornate. The coat of arms shows a dragon with a crown on it's head (not an eagle as was customary at the time).

The famous doors of St. James Cathedral which took Nicolo almost 25 years to complete. People come from all over the world to see them and marvel at the carved vignettes which represent stories and episodes from the old and new testament. Further up adorning the door frame are heads, dragons, demagorgons, you name it, our man Nicolo was a genius. The exterior of the building stood in as the location shot for the House of the Many Faced Gods and the Iron Bank of Braavos in Season 2, 5, and 6 of the Game of Thrones series.

The famous doors of St. James Cathedral which took Nicolo almost 25 years to complete. People come from all over the world to see them and marvel at the carved vignettes which represent stories and episodes from the old and new testament. Further up adorning the door frame are heads, dragons, demagorgons, you name it, our man Nicolo was a genius. The exterior of the building stood in as the location shot for the House of the Many Faced Gods and the Iron Bank of Braavos in Season 2, 5, and 6 of the Game of Thrones series.

Vibrant fruit on display at Sibenik's open-air market, one of the best in Dalmatia.

Vibrant fruit on display at Sibenik's open-air market, one of the best in Dalmatia.

'Žižulje' also known as Chinese dates or Jujube in English.

'Žižulje' also known as Chinese dates or Jujube in English.

Dried figs imbued on a 'grotula' chain. Fig production in Dalmatia was once a huge industry. Today it is only over-clipped by the mass production of dried fig cultivation in Greece and Turkey (Croatia is the EU's third largest producer and exporter of sticky figs). Dalmatian figs are smoked, cured, dried and spliced to create jams, jellies a  nd eau-de-vies. They go well with prosciutto, goat cheese and various types of meat. A true Dalmatian household will have quite a few fig trees adorning their home and courtyard. Back in the day, figs were so plentiful along this coast that pirates raided the bays and the Venetians created a huge profit in export to the far east. The tradition of figs continues to this day in the production of everything from fig based food products to fig soap, fig candles, fig candies and fig newtons for our American friends.

Dried figs imbued on a 'grotula' chain. Fig production in Dalmatia was once a huge industry. Today it is only over-clipped by the mass production of dried fig cultivation in Greece and Turkey (Croatia is the EU's third largest producer and exporter of sticky figs). Dalmatian figs are smoked, cured, dried and spliced to create jams, jellies and eau-de-vies. They go well with prosciutto, goat cheese and various types of meat. A true Dalmatian household will have quite a few fig trees adorning their home and courtyard. Back in the day, figs were so plentiful along this coast that pirates raided the bays and the Venetians created a huge profit in export to the far east. The tradition of figs continues to this day in the production of everything from fig based food products to fig soap, fig candles, fig candies and fig newtons for our American friends.

Sibenik's wonderful open-air market. I took this photo for my father and his brothers, my uncle Ivan and Anton, who combined, represent the three biggest connoisseurs of Savoy Cabbage in the entire world!

Sibenik's wonderful open-air market. I took this photo for my father and his brothers, my uncle Ivan and Anton, who combined, represent the three biggest connoisseurs of Savoy Cabbage in the entire world!

My Grandfather's Village

I do not know too much about my paternal grandparent's except for how they died which was horrible. Ever since I was about six years old or as far back as I can remember, adults of one sort or another have told us about how grandfather died and how grandmother died shortly after him. I don't care or wish to repeat it here because the mere thought of it makes me so sad that my eyes well up and before you know it a river of tears is produced. I have done a great job of acting my entire life and pretending that their deaths and not knowing them hasn't affected me, but great actors are also great liars, and so you can gather that I would only be profusely lying if I told you that the manner in which they died, and in how their children were treated after their deaths does not upset me. It makes my blood boil and the passing of time does not bring me, my siblings, or my extended family any solace. We will never really understand it and it comes up as that topic that nobody wants to linger on for too long at every family gathering because it defies human understanding and just makes us all the more upset. It makes me sadder still that I never got to meet them and that not a single photograph of either one of my grandparents exists. Or so I thought until recently.

For years my siblings and cousins tried our hardest to find a photograph of them. We'd search for older people every time we visited Yugoslavia and later Croatia, but to no avail. Our parents had always told us that the photographs, along with all their personal possessions were burned, confiscated or thrown away when the communist authorities set fire to their home and entire village in 1946, a year after WWII had ended. When we asked why, we never really got an answer, they just shook their head and said we wouldn't understand. So to this day although I can speculate as to the 'why' it doesn't really help when I try to imagine the sordid details of what surely must have been a brutal time in history. 

This troubled me more and more as I got older and in the last four years has really weighed heavily on me. When my father's eldest living brother in Canada, my uncle Paul (Pavle) passed away in 2012, it dawned on me that I had promised him I would be the agent provocateur who would deliver him an existing photo of his father and mother. He recalled that a few months before his mother, my grandmother had passed away, Yugoslavia had photographed all of it's citizens for identity cards. This would have been 1954 and that would make sense as that was the year of the first post-war census. My uncle seemed to recall accompanying my grandmother to be photographed. It wasn't the best lead, but it was a lead. We had a cousin who worked for the Croatian State Archives at the time and I engaged him in the search. He came back to me months later and said there was no trace at all. A file for my grandmother did exist, but it was purged and empty. Classified as an enemy of the state because of her connection to her family, wealthy landowners before the war, was the most probable reason. Again a dead end. After that attempt I gave up even trying. What was the use? Each time any kernel of hope existed, it was just dangled before my eyes only to be cruelly taken away. 

Two years ago, the second eldest of my father's seven natural siblings passed away as well and it happened to be his only natural born sister. Bereft of a grandmother, my aunt served the role of both a grandmother and an aunt to an extended brood of 18 cousins. She had aged considerably and in her late 80's became quite ill with a bronchial infection that eventually lead to other health problems and then her death. My entire life I had always feared and admired my aunt. She was stern and barely smiled and when she did it was only during sad stories or recounting old memories and retelling them in a resigned voice. I never dared ask about my grandmother as I had been warned numerous times not to for fear that it would upset her. My aunt was 17 at the time of my grandmother's death and remembered her being taken away, never to return. She was left all alone as grandfather had passed away six years earlier, and as a teenager found herself responsible for raising six brothers. As the story goes, nobody wanted to help her for fear of incurring the wrath of the communist authorities so none of their relatives paid visits, provided shelter, care or assistance. I cannot even imagine how terrified, frightened and lonely she must have been as she was apparently quite close to her mother.

Post-war Yugoslavia was a poor, communist state which had paid a heavy price during WWII. It had lost over one half of its pre-war population and another four to five million had fled the country with the retreating German army. In 1954, the year of my grandmother's death, the scorched earth policy that both the Partisan and Ustasi (pro-German collaborationist forced) armies had undertaken was still evident, and the rebuilding of the country was slow at best. President Josip Broz 'Tito' had abandoned the Russians and adopted a separate path, and without knowing what the new state held, the Americans were reluctant to invest in it immediately. The tourist boom of the 1960s and 1970s was two decades away and my paternal family, which would have been considered wealthy prior to WWII, was now scattered all over the world in various diaspora's. Those left behind were stripped of every possible possession, prevented from access to care and lucrative state jobs, and for the most part encouraged to emigrate. As the story goes, anyone who had been on the 'wrong side' of Yugoslavia's warring factions during WWII was also excluded from the life that followed it. It was a well-known fact that my father's paternal and maternal family had welcomed the Germans with open arms. They could not have known that the war would end in a German defeat and unlike other families in the area they weren't exactly in a prized position bearing a German last name. You either supported the Germans or you were thrown into their army whether you liked it or not.

When WWII had started, my grandfather was well into his 60's and was spared conscription. My grandmother was his third wife, the other two had died between the wars and had bore him children. Young, beautiful and high-spirited, my grandmother was forced into marriage by her family because of my grandfather's wealth and estate. Despite their age difference, my uncle Phillip, the collector of family folklore always likes to retell the story of their wedding day. Dalmatians are known to be tall, but my grandfather and grandmother were exceptionally tall, each one well over 6'3, this would certainly explain the height in our family today! Their wedding day was attended by many unrelated to either the bride or the groom because people had come from far and away to see the beautiful woman with the snake green eyes and jet black hair and the tall, dashing, older man with piercing blue eyes and fair hair. I used to think my uncle Phillip was embelleshing a bit but later variations of the story by strangers who had attended proved to be true. How my grandmother really felt about my grandfather remains a mystery. I'd like to believe they loved one another because the thought of her marrying such an older man seems rather unfair. Hopefully he did not possess as bad a German temper as many seem to suggest he had and it would help to believe that before the war ruined and crippled their lives that they had experienced some joyful and happy times.

When my aunt passed away many memories of her began to fill my mind. In fact, my memories of my aunt were few and far in between but the one thing which always stuck with me was how she would cry every time she saw me, and she saw me in gaps every five years or so. I vividly recall her visiting me at 11-years old when I was staying with my mother's family. My father's and mother's families were like two different world's and there was no love lost between them either. Still, my maternal grandfather was always kind to my aunt and welcomed her in his home even if the rest of the family had their reservations, which is even more ironic if one considers that he himself was a high-ranking communist party official. What I remember about that visit was that my paternal aunt, who had not seen me in years, began to cry when I was summoned and presented in front of her. I was tall for eleven and had large green eyes. She grabbed my chin, pushed my face up for a good view and hugged me so tight that I was crushed and couldn't breathe. Then she began to silently cry into my hair. I don't even recall if I had hugged her, it was probably so awkward. My maternal grandfather, tried to offer some words of comfort and begged her not to cry, that he would make her a cup of tea. Between the tears and the wailing she kept repeating, "She looks exactly like my mother. She has her grandmother's big green eyes and facial features." That was the first time anyone had ever described my grandmother in a way that I could actually visualize her.

At the funeral of my aunt many older people showed up, some well into their late 80s and 90s. The town in which she was buried is a neighbouring town to the one in which father's paternal family hails from. Located in a beautiful part of Dalmatia that I rarely visit anymore, a small village really, it is known throughout Croatia for a gorgeous, rare and authentic old stone mill dating to about the 15th or 16th century. Hundreds of years ago people used to take their olives, grapes and wheat to be pressed there. It is located high up on a hill overlooking even more hills, mountains, and the crystal clear azure-blue waters of the Adriatic sea. I never enjoyed going there as a kid because it was always associated with horrible stories of WWII. A wealthy place which was viewed as 'collaborationist,' the communists burned down literally everything when they swept the Germans out of the area in late 1945. The house in which my 17-year old aunt had been left an orphan to care for six brothers stood at the top of this hill over a vast valley and plain extending for kilometres before eventually reaching the sea. I couldn't imagine how they all lived there without parents, without anyone to care for them. Every time we visited the place, the sadness was so overwhelming that I would find any excuse to leave.

As years went by, the trees, foliage and natural environment overwhelmed and camouflaged the house and it could no longer be seen from the main road. By the 1990s, the entire extended family built grandiose new homes on the lower side of the hill near a small bay and enclosure from which there sprang a very fine river, the water so cold you could drink it straight out of your hand. A sign that they were doing well and wanted to showcase it to the world. Nevertheless, during family gatherings or religious holidays, we would all walk up to the 'staro selo' (old village) which is where the beautiful 15th. century Church of Saint John the Baptist (Sveti Ivan Krstitelj) is located. All my paternal family members and relatives are buried in it, and high, high on the hill leading to one of the most beautiful cemeteries in all of southern Dalmatia, are the gravestones of my grandparents, who lay side by side one another under a row of ancient cypress trees.

As I grew older and my travels took me elsewhere, I would often reject even visiting this place. My bond with it, if it even ever existed in the first place, completely vanished. My father rarely mentioned it or his relatives - living and dead, except for the bi-annual calls on Christmas and Easter day. The day that my aunt passed away I was staying with my mother's family on another Dalmatian island. It was late September 2014 and I received a phone call from my mother's youngest sister informing me that my father's eldest sibling had died. The times had certainly changed because once upon a time my mother's sister was rather indifferent towards my father's family and his sister especially. In fact she used to get quite upset when I would visit and stay with them. This time however, she was different. I recall arguing with her as to whether or not I should even attend the funeral which was scheduled for two days later.  I can only imagine what you must think of me and that you should imagine how terrible a person I must be to argue with someone on such a topic as attending your own relatives funeral. What you should know was that I had seen my aunt only five days earlier.

At this point she was being cared for by her only daughter, a sweet, good-natured and loving woman named Maria, my first cousin and the cousin I am most closest to. I was visiting my uncle Phillip and he suggested we walk to Maria's house for tea and coffee. Maria and Phillip live in Croatia's second largest city of Split, the capital of Dalmatia province where we hail from. He mentioned that my aunt - his sister- was very ill, in fact more ill than they had led us to believe and that seeing me might lift her spirits. In fact quite the opposite happened when we arrived. Maria looked pale and tired and told us that in the last few days her mother seemed to be slipping in and out of consciousness. This worried my uncle, himself old and the protector of his sister and the one brother closest to her in age, who visited the most (my father is the youngest of all the natural and half-siblings). My uncle demanded to see my aunt and a five minute game of yes and no ensued between him and my cousin Maria, she begging him not to see his sister in such a state and he demanding. I stood by like the UN High Representative trying to be the voice of reason. Seeing how distraught my uncle was I looked at Maria with a resigned expression and she led us into the room she had set up for my aunt. My aunt lay on a converted hospital bed in the room of her granddaughter, my cousin Marina. I couldn't believe how much she had aged since I had seen her last, some nine years earlier. She was motionless and blinked when spoken to, her voice fading and weak. My uncle lifted her and asked if she knew who he was and she slightly nodded. By this time there was a silence in the air and both my cousin Maria, my uncle Phillip, and I, were choking back tears. My uncle tried in his way to tell her about his children, about the weather and the Croatian soccer team's performance that summer (oh we Croats and our soccer!), but my aunt half smiled, half looked indifferent. At that point he remembered I was even there and presented me. He asked if she knew who I was and for what seemed like hours but couldn't have been more than a few awkward seconds she said, 'Mirella. She looks like my mother. I want to go to my mother now.' I kissed my aunt on the forehead and turned my face so she couldn't see the stream of tears that was flowing down my cheeks. I left the room and went outdoors into my cousin Maria's garden. A few minutes later my cousin Maria came outdoors and hugged me. We embraced each other and sobbed, not speaking for quite some time. When I looked up, there was my uncle seated before me, sipping a cup of Turkish coffee, crying silently and staring at the ground. I had never seen my uncle cry. He was a tall, statuesque and proud man and after my father he was the most handsome of all the brothers with his sparkling blue eyes and fair hair. Seeing him cry broke something in me. We had nothing to say to each other and yet there was so much that needed to be said. Eventually, Maria's husband Niko found us like that and asked us if we wanted anything to eat or drink. That stopped the crying and in the silence of the oleanders and fig trees of my cousin Maria's garden, my uncle exclaimed that he would call for a Priest the very next day. This is how I knew my aunt would die.

Seven days later, I finally visited the town my father's father was from after so many years of self imposed exile. The village had changed considerably. As I mentioned earlier, my aunt was buried in the next village over in the grave plot of her husband, a very kind and loving man who had died almost ten years earlier. The entire area had seen considerable improvement due to the tourist boom in Croatia and I couldn't help staring at the high mountains with amazement and pride. It looked like the Kingdom of Rohan from Lord of the Rings meets Captain Correlli's Mandolin, in other words a cross between the majestic mountain peaks of New Zealand meets the beautiful Greek islands (if those two landscapes could be intertwined into one somehow). Sweeping, majestic views whichever way one stared. The beautiful old stone houses I couldn't bear to look at as kid were now resplendent and restored, one could almost imagine what they looked like a hundred years ago - fit for a King. The once hibernating village was full of historic charm and allure in every corner that the eye gazed at. 

After the funeral, after the greeting of the guests and the offers of sweets and refreshments as is the custom in Dalmatia, one of my older cousins organized a walk up to the old village to the ancient home of my grandparents. The foliage and overgrowth had completely enveloped it but a small 'ethno-tourism' project about 100 metres below and including part of the refurbished development of my great-granduncles former home was about as far as we made it. We stopped next to a very old and grand walnut tree, and one of my male cousins remarked that grandfather had planted this tree after WWI. I couldn't quite count how old that actually made the tree and kept thinking about that while the others inspected it for carved names, romantic indications that life had been lived and love had played itself out on this mountain long before any of us had been born. Below us, a small group of Russian and Japanese tourists tried my cousins's wife's homemade walnut brandy and fig jam. Lower still and further down by the main road, groups of male and female Radman's were taking turns playing 'balote' (Dalmatian 'boules') next to a brand new venue of bowling lanes one of my male cousins had built on a site where older lanes had previously existed, set up by great-grandparents over a hundred years ago. It is the definitive Dalmatian pastime and I as I viewed my extended family enjoying a carefree game of balote under the peaceful shade of date and carob trees, I couldn't help but smile knowing that some traditions will never change and there is a certain beauty in their continuity. I sat outside on a large rustic wooden table in the shade of pomegranate and fig bushes surrounded by about thirty or forty relatives, all describing and recalling how we were all related and when we last saw each other. The stories were funny and filled the evening air with humor and wit. Wine appeared and before long old songs were sung, new memories were made, and old ones were honored.

Among the guests at this gathering was an elderly woman named Stana who surprised us all with some news. Her mother had been a close friend of my grandmother and had passed along stories about her to this woman. The woman recalled that her mother had even kept some photographs with my grandmother clearly evident in them on the occasion of another relatives wedding. Another relative present produced the wedding certificate of my grandparents and we all edged closer to take a look at it. It showed the birth and death dates of both my grandfather and grandmother, the witnesses at their weddings and a small marker next to my grandfather's name indicating he had entered into Christian marriage twice before, and included the names of his children from the previous wives. I had never known these things existed for we were always told that the authorities had burned everything down. I cannot describe to you how I felt viewing this document. A great and overwhelming sadness. A thousand if's and why's came to my mind. This was my family and yet I knew really nothing about them except for a few carefully woven stories by an uncle who was perhaps holding onto the nostalgic elements like Vikings held to sagas. Did it really have to be like this?

I could not have been the only one feeling upset by this gnawing sense of anger, as the other cousins bowed their heads in silence and stared at the ground too. Few words were exchanged. I don't recall who broke the ice or how or why, I only know that once it was broken the jovial atmosphere had ended and those with children began their farewells for the night. This always precipitates the domino effect of leaving and the other's piggy-backed on the same excuse and made their departures. Sure we promised to see more of each other, to call, text, and stay in touch via social media. Few though hold to such promises and with busy city lives, hectic jobs and many of us spread across three different continents, such promises come and go like the seasons. 

 

The 15th. century stone mills for which the village is well known throughout Dalmatia and Croatia.

The 15th. century stone mills for which the village is well known throughout Dalmatia and Croatia.

A fine view of the mills and the river stream.

A fine view of the mills and the river stream.

Cascading waterfalls of the stone mills.

Cascading waterfalls of the stone mills.

The ruins of my grandfather's old house. Oddly enough foreigners, mostly Russians are buying these rustic and half derelict old homes and turning them into Villa's and Bed & Breakfasts.

The ruins of my grandfather's old house. Oddly enough foreigners, mostly Russians are buying these rustic and half derelict old homes and turning them into Villa's and Bed & Breakfasts.

My cousin Ivan with his daughter Brigitta. In the foreground are my cousins Ivan, Bruna, Antea, Filipa, Lucija and Ante. Somewhere nearby we lost Petra, Blanka and Maria.

My cousin Ivan with his daughter Brigitta. In the foreground are my cousins Ivan, Bruna, Antea, Filipa, Lucija and Ante. Somewhere nearby we lost Petra, Blanka and Maria.

Rustic Dalmatian stone homes and window frames. Sort of like Provence but in my opinion prettier.

Rustic Dalmatian stone homes and window frames. Sort of like Provence but in my opinion prettier.

An ethno-tourism project in front of the home of my great-granduncle Dusan's son Ivan.

An ethno-tourism project in front of the home of my great-granduncle Dusan's son Ivan.

An old village storied house. A fine example of the typically charming and rustic old Dalmatian stone homes.

An old village storied house. A fine example of the typically charming and rustic old Dalmatian stone homes.

A beautiful seaside view of the island we spend our summers in, Rogoznica.

A beautiful seaside view of the island we spend our summers in, Rogoznica.