I caught a whiff of the perfume I wore in Croatia the other day and almost broke down in tears, I longed so badly to be back there. Trust me, I know I could do well to shut up about last summer, but I can't help it – it was one of those experiences I was bewilderingly nostalgic for even as it was happening. Those were the weeks in which I yearned for a 'pause' button.
Dubrovnik will always represent my season of "in between." It was the intermission between two major acts in the play that is my life: the end of school and whatever was to come next. At the time, I was petrified about what was to follow and very crestfallen to see college go. Yet every day in Europe, and in Croatia particularly, I was so very carefree. With hardly ever a drop of makeup on, hair a matted mess, soaking up only the history of former Yugoslavia and nothing else... it was a profound and meaningful and anchoring chapter.
In Part I, I shared a few cherished memories with you. Today, I have more.
I will never, ever, ever forget...
Our agro-tourism dinner in the hills on the outskirts of Dubrovnik –
Hands down, one of the best meals I have EVER had in my life. When I first saw "agro-tourism" on the itinerary, I'll admit I was skeptical and my mind jumped to harvesting crops in overalls before being allowed to taste the fruits of our labor. Nope! This happened right at the very tail-end of our time in Dubrovnik, a farewell dinner of sorts. The charter bus picked us all up, a welcome reprieve of air-conditioning on full blast, and took us on one last scenic drive alongside the coast and dropped us off in Dubelj, in the hills on the outskirts of Dubrovnik.
There, we were met with a sprightly gentleman who whisked us away into the old family cellar, where their olive oil has been produced for generations. He walked us through in great detail the processes of making truly fantastic olive oil, urging us to assist every now and then and allowing us to pet the workhorse for a job well done.
That was about the extent of "harvesting crops in overalls" – tough work, huh? He then herded us out of the cellar, down a pathway lined with artichokes and herbs and purple blossoms, aaaaand...
Oh, and homemade herb (blegh) and rose (lovely!) brandies, sweet miniature pears, and candied orange peels to tease our tastebuds. Homemade brandies and liquers are a cultural treasure in Croatia – every dwelling has jars of them sunbathing on window ledges, with all sorts of fruits and herbs soaking in them. Our favorites: sour cherry and sweet orange! Quite strong and meant to be sipped, but delightful all the same.
A warm grandma-like figure chattered away, shooing her husband and kids into the kitchen to help with the food, and showing us her sprawling garden before seating us and beginning to serve the courses.
FIRST OF ALL, she kept on bringing jug after jug of heady red wine, tickled when we shook our heads, insisting that we continue imbibing. She drizzled the homemade olive oil onto our plates and uncovered crusty bread for us to taste. Amazing. Then, she carried over platters of salty prosciutto, sweet cherry tomatoes, pecorino, and spicy arugula, all of which came from the very farm we were visiting!
Then, she brought over a steaming bowl of vegetable risotto (um, I had thirds or maybe fourths, but who knows... see: wine), followed by a heaping serving of salad made with the freshest tomatoes and cucumbers. At this time, we were groaning and uncomfortably full, and THEN
laughing, she plops multiple platters of grilled and skewered smoky meats (cevapi!!), zucchini, and potatoes in front of us, absolutely refusing to take 'no more' for an answer.
Giggling still, she disappeared into the depths of her kitchen and re-emerged with a tin pan and we watched in awe as she flipped the pan over on a plate and clapped when she successfully wiggled a gorgeous and traditional 'creme caramel' out of the confines of the pan.
So stuffed were we, we each only managed about three servings after unbuttoning our shorts and rubbing our bellies in pain, but boy. was. it. worth. it. As we worked on the dessert, our hosts stood in front of us, thanking us in Croatian and telling us their life story, with the help of translations from our tour guide. They told us about their beloved farm and current agro-tourism business, about being young and resourceful during the war, and gave us advice if we are ever to become decision-makers in the future ('war' is never the answer). Teary-eyed and tipsy, we thanked them for letting us experience a truly homemade Croatian meal in their backyard. Absolutely unforgettable.
Needless to say, upon returning to our hotel, we passed out within seconds of turning on a Serbo-Croatian dubbed episode of Bones.
"Drifting," my final college assignment. We wandered, captured snapshots of the people, places, and moments that spoke to us, and created a narrative for our own Dubrovnik experiences.
The first part of my final college assignment was "to drift," a term coined by my professor that referred to simply wandering around Dubrovnik, letting architecture and geography and curiosity pull and drive us into different directions. Screw Google maps, essentially. We were to do this, and then produce two photos that created a narrative of Dubrovnik for us.
One morning, Cassandra and I woke up at 6am when the beaches and streets were empty and dare I say it – there was even a slight chill in the air. We walked the three miles to Old Town Starigrad, and right as we reached the gates of Old Town, the sky opened and thunder crashed and rain poured over us. I've talked many times before about the stifling heat and brutal sunshine, so you'll understand how totally out of the ordinary this downpour was.
We continued onwards and savored the stillness of a town that is never still, seeing hints of local life, so sacred and rare at landmarks usually so overtaken by hoards of sweaty tourists:
We headed towards the central market, which is open every day in a main square of Old Town, from morning until noon. The past few times we had visited, the vendors catered strictly to tourists, waving them over for prettily packaged goody bags of candied orange peels or gaudy souvenirs.
In the early morning however, we discovered, the market comes alive. Croatian grandmas and grandpas barter over the day's fruits and vegetables and fresh flowers, and small groups of close friends settle down at the cafes for cappuccinos. We wanted in, too:
Before long, the skies cleared and the sun (*side-eye*) took its rightful place once again, and the cruise ship crowds descended. Cassandra and I retreated back to our Lapad hotel for breakfast, still in awe that we were lucky enough to observe a slice of Dubrovnik unseen by many others. When the rest of our crew joined us at breakfast, we excitedly twittered on about the thunderstorm and they all looked at us as if we were crazy.
"Rain? Are you sure? Here?" To this day, they remain skeptical and we are still convinced that perhaps the heat got to us and the morning was simply a hallucination.
Learning and soaking up knowledge, in a more general sense.
Of course, there was more learning to be done. For instance, the second part of our project. Cassandra and I chose to compare and contrast our impressions of Sarajevo and Dubrovnik. In doing so, we continued to 'drift' the streets of Old Town as well as Lapad, seeking out locals to converse with. We mustered up the courage to approach shopowners, restaurant hostesses, hotel employees, cruise ship tourists, and students and ask for their opinions of Dubrovnik. We spoke Serbo-Croatian, English, Italian, Spanish, and Mandarin with locals and visitors alike. We wrote everyone's thoughts down on two separate postcards: Croatians on one, tourists on another, and in our final presentation, spoke of our own views as the overlapping section of this Venn diagram.
This exercise forced us out of our comfort zones and helped us gain a whole new perspective of this tourist town. We learned that some visitors wanted 'more luxury hotels,' some teenagers thought that 'it was shit through the branches' (something was missing in translation, I'm guessing), and some more thoughtful folks lamented 'Dubrovnik will be weighed down by its beauty / its beauty will be its downfall.'
We were assigned national literary classics to read (as you can see above, totally not leaving it till the last minute) and even met with one of the poets we studied.
We stumbled across diamonds we wouldn't have otherwise, thanks to 'drifting,' such as this little jewelry shop below. It is owned by a couple from Zagreb who design and make every single piece by themselves. There, we also met an Irish fellow who told us to adventure, to live, and also? To buy a custom piece of jewelry from the artist who owns the shop. Yes, sir!
Learning the language through three-hour crash courses, learning to try beloved foods and drinks (plijeskavica! Tangerine Schweppes! Banana chocolate candies!), learning the history of former Yugoslavia from professors who are experts in the subject and not to mention natives of the region, learning its culture today by way of chatting with the locals for our photography project, learning alongside a group of diverse, intelligent friends. Learning not to press my own perspectives of a country's narrative as the absolute truth, but to continue the quest for understanding additional viewpoints. Learning to challenge my beliefs and my worldview always, learning things I never knew I never knew.
It was the most I ever learned from a college course.
The ordinary rituals and moments from our day-to-day.
What is most precious to me was the 'Dubrovnik normal' we created for our brief and fleeting stint in the city. Waking up in time for a leisurely breakfast at the hotel across the street. It wasn't anything to write home about, but there was something delightful in the simplicity of a cup of burnt cappuccino and a glass of cold cherry juice, toast slathered with a mustard that pinches your nose and some boiled sausages and crusty eggs. Lectures in the late morning and early afternoon in the chilly conference room of the five-star hotel down the street from our two-star abode, a stark contrast to our lack of WiFi and air-conditioning. Office hours on the terrace of our hotel.
Searching for new lunch spots – from pastries at a bakery, to snacks from the supermarket, to breezy brunches next to the sea. Searching for shaky WiFi (the signal was actually strongest at the beach) and quick afternoon naps. Swims in the warm waters of the Adriatic. Holding up two fingers and a shy 'dva, molim... Hvala!' to the bus driver for our tickets to Old Town. Spending evenings on the terrace or drinking wine on the beach, sometimes having a Taylor Swift dance party on the shore with our professors' kids. Drifting. Cliff-diving at Buza Bar. Nights feasting at group dinners in Old Town usually, and then capping off the day with a visit to Dolce Vita for the best ice cream in town.
What a normal to have.
Leaving Dubrovnik, for brief stints of time and for new adventures ahead.
Some of the most special moments took place outside of Dubrovnik but during the span of the course. We took a day trip to Korcula, which is supposedly Marco Polo's birthplace - it had THE bluest waters. We spent a weekend in Bosnia & Herzegovina, roadtripping through the countryside and staying in heartbreakingly resilient and beautiful Sarajevo, which for all intents and purposes changed my worldview. All of these are stories I still have to share.
Finally, it was time for us to leave this beloved city for real. A black car picked us up, the driver telling us to come back in September (um... and we are...!). We went through the ridiculously tight security check, met up with our professor's family in the airport (turns out we were on the same flight to Belgrade) and endured a bumpy but quick flight to Serbia. At that point, we bid adieu to our professor's family, and proceeded to wile away the long ten hours of our layover in Belgrade.
You see, Cassandra and I had planned to spend a few of those hours exploring Belgrade but due to unforeseen circumstances – the lone ATM was broken, there was no luggage storage, and the heat was upwards of the 100's that day – we made the executive decision to lay low instead.
But it wasn't for naught! Two amazing things happened.
One, the discovery of one of the best ice creams either of us have had. Although the actual ice cream stand closed before we lined up, we sampled a packaged version from an airport restaurant and thought it was to-die-for. It's called Moritz Eis, and lest you thought we were just delirious from boredom, our professor and her daughter were in total agreement when we emailed them to try it. We went every single day! they emailed back.
Second! We caught a glimpse of THE most breathtaking sunset that either of us had ever seen. It was over in the matter of seconds so I wasn't able to snap a photo, but you have to understand that even after seeing ridiculously picturesque sunsets on our balcony in Split, on the terrace in Dubrovnik, and even the sunset to top all sunsets in Santorini days later, this one was the ultimate.
Like I said, it was over in the matter of moments and we saw it through the customs barriers cutting us off from Serbia, but it's a scene I'll never forget. A neon coral orb suspended in a mist of pinks and yellows and oranges and bright, bright bloodred, dipping quickly and quietly below the trees. I was spellbound, and it stilled my soul.