Cassandra and I got along so swimmingly with Dubrovnik, that we are going back September of THIS year – and we'll be bringing two of our best friends with us! Moral of the story: if you talk incessantly about something, your friends will literally do whatever it takes to shut you up... even if it means taking PTO and dropping lots of dollar bills and flying to the other side of the world.
(Joke's on them, though! Guess who has even more to say now?!)
I find my love for Dubrovnik a little puzzling. It's one of those cities that can seem a bit ... much, upon first impression. Hoards of cruise ship tourists descending upon the streets of Old Town, entertainers decked out in gimmicky get-ups offering silver heart necklaces for sale. Pretty hostesses lining the main street, calling out in English that they have free WiFi, waving menus of overpriced, underwhelming dinner choices. Fifty different 'Game of Thrones' tours, souvenir shops every few steps, and again, the cruise ship crowds.
But it's the kind of city that comes alive the more you get to know it. When you purposefully get lost in the alleyways of Old Town, when you chat with the locals in broken Croatian, when you discover favorite restaurants whose waiters smile forgivingly at said broken Croatian and waitresses who bring over a platter of crostini "just because." When you stay on the outskirts and see grannies and toddlers alike wading into the salty waters, and when you stop by the supermarket every morning, and when you bemoan the heat and try to buy children's cold medicine at the pharmacy and take the local bus and learn about its roots and feast upon its delicacies... well, at that point, Dubrovnik's become a different story.
A few memories from Dubrovnik that I'll never, ever, EVER dare to forget:
Morning coffees by the beach.
Staying in the Lapad peninsula of Dubrovnik meant full access to several private beaches, a few of which had little cafes nestled betwixt the water and the street. After breakfast and before our 9:30am lecture every morning, Cassandra and I would take a seat at one of the cafes, order a cup of coffee each, and simply sit there, taking in the gentle lapping of the (close to nonexistent) waves, the early rising senior crowd rubbing sunscreen and changing into bathing suits behind plastic screens. This is where we fell in love with bijela kava (white coffees, akin to a latte) and Nescafe. Cardboard! I can see you shake your head. We did too... until we got addicted. Those Serbo-Croatians are obsessed with Nescafe, and now we are too. I start my day every day even now with a cup of instant Nescafe.
Once, our 9:30am class was (unknown to us) rescheduled for 9am. When our coffees were placed before us, we threw ice cubes into the mugs, straight up chugged the still-burning liquid, and raced to class, with but a minute to spare!
Living right by the beach at Hotel Adriatic.
OK, so there's no way in hell staying so close to scenes such as those above and below could be anything but heavenly, correct? NO. INCORRECT.
Our group stayed at a two-star hotel, and as our professor's son philosophized: both stars are for the view. It hurts me to say this because I think of our time at this hotel tenderly – our, well... "suffering" – made this trip all the more hilarious and fun. But suffer, we sorta did. There was only one power outlet in every room, the decor was very "50s motel," the air conditioning units in most rooms were kaput and so windows had to be opened. For us, this meant welcoming in a barrage of mosquitos and a lost little salamander who found a home in my suitcase. I couldn't turn off the shower one day so I huddled in a corner in a towel as Cassandra and our friend Alex battled with a rogue shower head on a mission to flood the bathroom. The WiFi was nonexistent unless you found a sweet spot, so I often found myself with one arm atop the air conditioner to stay cool, and the other waving my phone around for a signal. Good times.
But yes, staying here was a favorite memory. For one thing, look at all these stories I get to tell. For another, there were lovelier things to reminisce about as well. Our cleaning lady Maria, who loved to test us on Croatian when she saw us in the morning. The ideal location next to the beautiful beach which allowed us to skip right on over to the rocky shore right after class. That beach! Crystal clear, aquamarine waters. Aqua parks to horse around on – some liked to do belly flops off of the top, while others (me) preferred to hang off the side of a banana boat. Warm, warm water so salty you were practically buoyant, no treading required. One night, we had a Taylor Swift dance party on that shore and we turned on the flashlights on our iPhones to see. Another night, a group of us shared a bottle of wine and many stories as we laid under the evening sky and watched some rowdy Australian boys make quick escapes from the night guard. Our professor liked to tell us that the Adriatic sea heals all: it's all the iodine, she said. I won't argue with that.
The one downside! Sea urchins!! Locals swear by water shoes and at first we turned our noses up. No more. A majority of us stepped on a sea urchin during our time in Croatia and I myself was a victim. We tried every extraction method out there: tweezers, vinegar, soaking my foot in oil and tying a plastic bag around it. In the end, I think it was the iodine of the Adriatic Sea that forced those spiky suckers out.
Surviving the heat – in particular, on July 20th – and reprieves on the terrace.
So, that non-functional air conditioning detail up there?
Misery. We were in Dubrovnik during a heat wave. At one point, we had to climb the City Walls and we wanted to die. The rest of our time in Dubrovnik, the temperature teetered close to 40 Celcius (104 F) and upwards of 80% humidity. That is wet, suffocating, overbearing heat that didn't. let. up. not even in the evenings! I had to mop up so much sweat with a towel or the collar of my shirts that by the end of the last week, I had developed a painful rash on my chest that still will flare up if I think back on that stifling heat. There was one day when a group of us decided on this one restaurant for lunch, but it involved a trek up a long flight of stairs. Cassandra was running behind, finishing up something at the hotel and by the time she made it to the bottom of the stairs, the heat was too much to take.
Can't make it, she texted, ducking under whatever shade she could find. I can't make it up these stairs. Not in this heat. And she walked all the way home. THAT is what it took to fall a Division I athlete, my friends!
And a joke to end all jokes: another afternoon, we couldn't take the lack of A/C any longer and set off to the local pizzeria to work on an assignment in peace and coolness. Right as we were about to pay for our meal, the electricity went out. And because their cash register wasn't working, we were stuck. In the heat. With no escape route from what was supposed to be our escape route in the first place.
The absolute worst time was the night of July 20th. That was the evening after we discovered our little salamander friend and decided to shut the windows before bedtime. Big. mistake. It was actually difficult to breathe. The sheets were wet from my sweat. We considered sleeping on the beach or on the couch in the lobby of the hotel, that's how bad it was. Eventually, Cassandra slept in a sports bra and covered her face with a wet rag. I placed a bottle of cold water under my neck and another one on top of my stomach and yearned for the morning.
Our reprieve was the terrace outside of the hotel. The covered awning protected us from the blistering sun at midday, and the server at the bar looked the other way whenever we brought wine to sip [after reprimanding us the first night] ... soon, she would bring us little chalices of peanuts to share. We'd spend hours on this terrace, talking to our professors at length about San Francisco and Croatia, the war and Stanford classes, our families and reading assignments. We'd all watch the sun set together. I'd journal sometimes, Cassandra would play cards or Head's Up with the professors' kids. Our friends would join us, sometimes bringing snacks and we'd talk and we'd listen and we'd look around and say in disbelief, are we actually here?!
The Summer Games: fireworks and the ballet.
The Summer Games is an annual festival taking place in Old Town – for a month, concerts and performances take place against stunning backdrops: fortresses, ports, and castle walls. We attended the rehearsal of the Opening Ceremony and witnessed peaceful protesting of this year's director, understanding nary a word until a kind woman translated for us. The next night, the official Opening Ceremony, ended in a fireworks display that my friends and I watched from a sandy beach, yards away from the boats they were exploding off of. Tipsy off of Croatian wine and in absolute awe of the lit up sky, I don't think I've ever witnessed a fireworks display so stunning.
Our professors had bought us tickets to a performance of some sort of Italian opera / acapella group and although fascinating, we were distracted by the heat (yes, again) and concentrated mostly on fanning ourselves with whatever scraps of paper we could find.
Hands down one of my favorite nights was after a group dinner... the younger girls made us promise up and down that we'd finally check out the clubbing scene, and at last we relented. But as we walked further and further into the labyrinth of walls and alleys, we came across scaffolding covered in tulle and discovered that we had stumbled upon the dress rehearsal of the ballet – the biggest event of the Games. Hardly able to believe our luck (tickets are impossible to buy), we sat in the bleachers, riveted by the cast of dancers and awestruck by the choreography. Later we realized that the ballet was an adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons / Cruel Intentions. Absolutely breathtaking. (Needless to say, the night of 'clubbing' was canceled once again.)
I'm sure if the sky was falling, the Croatians would be all: ah don't worry, it's not the end of the world!
In fact, more accurately, they'll be claiming: nema problema!No problem! They were the first words I learned in Croatian, even before hello or thank you or please. It's also the phrase I heard over and over again, in response to everything.
Polako, polako is another one. Slow down, slow down! We carried that word with us as a security blanket for when someone spoke Croatian too fast, but it's important when used in a non-literal sense as well. Slow down, what's the rush.
Sve je dobro u mome svijetu: all is well in my world. We found this on a water bottle. Isn't it a lovely thing to think about? It was a mantra repeated over and over again this summer. I remind myself of it, too, now that I'm re-immersed in the fast-paced world of my own reality again.
The more time we spent in Dubrovnik, the more Croatian it seemed we'd become. Before long, my favorite thing to say was, it is what it is. In English (although in Croatian, it is kako je tako je... so much more fun!). I said it so much that Cassandra gave me a bracelet with the phrase for Christmas. It's too hot to function? It is what it is. We have a hundred more pages to read before class tomorrow? It is what it is. We get to spend the rest of the day lounging by the beach? It is what it is. What will happen, will happen. One day after she heard me saying "it is what it is," my friend Justine added: and what a good is, it is.
Whew! Way to write a novel, Caroline. If you're here, thanks for humoring me as I recounted my favorite memories from Croatia. There's a part 2 comin' right up... well, in a week or two. Let's all rest our eyes for a bit, eh?