MalaMataZine was not the blog name I wanted (MalaZine was
taken). But, it has grown on me.
First, my name is Mala Matacin and it sounds a lot like how my last name is supposed to be pronounced in Croatian (Ma-ta-ts-een). The c in my last name is pronounced like the “ts” in “cats” or “pizza”.
Second, mala in Croatian means “small”. And, of course, a zine is self-generated, non-official publication often produced in small quantities for those interested in a particular subject. I love that zines are alternative narratives written by and for those who occupy marginalized spaces; and as a professor, I am deeply interested in and committed to addressing issues of privilege and oppression.
Third, I am an academic at the University of Hartford who is spending my year in Croatia connecting with scholars, activists, and organizations who are working to address gender inequalities–a “small zine” of my experiences suits my blog name.
Fourth, it highlights my name which has always been a source of connection to my Croatian heritage on both my mother’s and father’s sides. My father was born in Preko and my grandfather (on my mom’s side) was born in Dubrovnik.
So, welcome to Mala’s little online zine! I will be writing about both my professional
and personal experiences and sharing my photos.
I welcome you to follow along, respond to my posts, and send advice. I fly out tomorrow (September 1, 2019).
“Everybody’s vain. Everybody wants their frame even when they’re dying.”
(Tim Page, October 3, 2019, War Photo Limited Museum, Dubrovnik, Croatia)
How does an evening go after a statement like that? A whirlwind of history, images, candid discussion, stories, discomfort, and hard questions.
I went to the War Photo Limited Museum in Dubrovnik on the evening of October 3, 2019 to see Tim Page, one of the most famous photojournalists from the Vietnam War talk about his photos and experience. I had been to the museum previously and saw NAM Contact, the exhibit on Page’s work. (I also saw the permanent collection, The End of Yugoslavia, but my reaction to that collection and my conversations with its co-founder and war photojournalist, Wade Goddard, will wait for another post).
I was a little girl during the Vietnam war and there are only two things I remember: that my uncle was there and he needed food. I have very distinct memories of being in my grandmother’s kitchen watching her, my aunt, and my mom putting snacks into boxes to be shipped to him. There were probably other things that went into those boxes but I was very focused on the snacks that I, most likely, wished I were getting. I was a child, after all. I felt really special when they allowed me to help to put items into those care packages. I don’t remember watching any of the news on TV about the war. Perhaps I was shielded from the images and footage that people like Tim Page were risking their lives for so that the world could see what was happening there. As Tim told those of us gathered at the museum that evening, Vietnam was the first “TV” war where the photos helped to change public opinion across the United States. His job as a war photographer was to capture what was happening because without them, nothing would have stopped.
Truth be told, I don’t particularly want to view images of war, its aftermath, its victims. They are hard to look at. The reality of what people do to each other is unshakably disturbing and takes a little of my soul. Once seen, I can’t un-see it. It may sound odd, but my role as a viewer of human tragedy means becoming part of the narrative and unless I do something with what I’ve seen, I feel complicit. Unlike the images in the Love Stories Museum I last wrote about, war and its aftermath is not a side of human nature that I like to face. The most difficult photos for me to sit through that night were the ones of children living with birth defects caused by Agent Orange.
War “bring us
closer to what we hate about ourselves” (Tim Page, October 3, 2019, War
Photo Limited Museum, Dubrovnik, Croatia).
Another mic drop.
Maybe that is why I ask myself to view these images. If we don’t face what we hate about humanity (and I would argue, ourselves), then how can we stop it? How do we envision a different possibility?
Tim covered the Vietnam war at a time where there was no media censorship. The U.S. military actively encouraged the press to be involved and share what was happening with the public. Tim did. He reported being only able to carry about 20-25 rolls with him and he wished he could have shot even more pictures. But, getting those photos out was not easy—it would take 25 minutes to send just one using a large drum-like machine that reminded me of the old mimeograph machines that printed in purple ink.
He’s now in his mid-70s and you would never know that he was wounded four times and pronounced DOA after the last one–he is vivacious, a riveting storyteller, and unapologetic. One of the things that struck me about him was his unflinching tenacity to get the photos. In his book, Page After Page: Memoirs of a War-Torn Photographer (1989), he describes how he started to see his life as “free time” (after a near death experience) which might explain the places he went that most others would not. In our time together at the museum, he talked about how he had to completely shift his way of thinking in order to go to the places he did. He never expected to get out of Vietnam alive and he said if he was going to die the next day, he would take every chance he got but admitted that “we saw things that no one should see.” I wondered aloud how he coped and, without missing a beat, he listed them: alcohol, cigarettes, pot, sex, and drugs. Having a delete button and being able to sleep were crucial “otherwise I would go bloody nuts.”
Risk-taking is not part of who I am yet I am thankful for those photojournalists like Tim and Wade who enter spaces of conflict to bring back what they witness. I felt privileged to sit in a room with these incredibly animated men talk about their profession, making a living, ethics, the meaning of images and their impact, and what we do with the current proliferation of images.
After purchasing NAM Contact and getting his autograph, Tim picked up his Leica camera (the only kind he uses) and said, “wait”. Tim Page took a picture…of me. Is he correct? Are we all just vain? Might it be one of the last things that people remember about us? I don’t know but if I’m honest with myself, I have to be with all my discomfort and admit he’s right. I got my frame.
It is difficult to know what to do with so
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records . . .
Since there is no place large enough to contain so much happiness, you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you into everything you touch. You are not responsible. You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it, and in that way, be known.
I’ve been thinking a lot about love—its forms, power, elusiveness, surprises, secrets, shame, the need to justify our choices, who gets to claim it…and who doesn’t. It strikes me as one of the most influential forces we have as human beings and yet, like Nye’s poem describes, there is nothing to hold onto like there is with sadness. In another poem (Kindness), Nye uses the language of sorrow and loss to describe kindness. Why doesn’t love and connection have the “grip” that things like war and tragedy do? Part of this may be for survival sake; being aware of danger is part of the human stress response. But this post is not about giving a lesson on the nervous and endocrine system—you can take a class with me for that (!)—bur rather about my experience of going to the Love Stories Museum in Dubrovnik and my conversations with one of its founders/owners, Dragan Mišković.
Dragan describes himself as a very positive person who has been inspired by the many museums he has visited over his lifetime. He was struck by the fact that of the eight billion people on the planet whose commonality is love, there was no museum dedicated to it. In May, 2018 he and some members of his family opened the Love Stories Museum located just outside the walls of the Old City (Grad) in Dubrovnik. In the short time that it has been open, it has gained quite a following. The museum has an excellent rating on TripAdvisor, has several articles from the Lonely Planet, and has been written about in local newspaper (e.g., Total Croatia News). I will add that Dragan is also a very generous and kind man–he offered a bottle of water to each visitor and allowed me to return to the museum to talk with him and take more photos.
The intention of the museum is to celebrate love and togetherness, sharing its positive emotions in the most romantic place in Croatia. It was a conscious decision on the part of the creators not to include negative emotions associated with love (e.g., heartache). Dragan admits that sometimes it is hard to draw people in with “just” happiness and together we wondered why this is. We speculated about how negativity is so much more present in news/media to catch people’s attention. Perhaps, as Nye’s poetry suggests, we may need sorrow to fully appreciate joy. Croatia has both the Love Stories Museum in Dubrovnik and the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb and it will be interesting to explore my experiences of both—stay tuned!
You will need to be able to climb stairs to see all the exhibits in the Love Stories Museum. There are three floors and eight rooms, each with a different theme and music to fit the topic. The Croatia room celebrates local Dubrovnik legends. For example, one legend is that if you can stand on the owl gargoyle head on the wall of the Franciscan Monastery and take your shirt off, you will find true love. You will also find two liqueurs in this room reported to be “love enhancers”— Rozulin or Rozalin is made from rose petals and Limoncello, of course, from lemons. And, of course one of the best known aphrodisiacs are oysters. But oysters that come from Ston are said to have a distinct nutrient blend that people come from all over to try…and oh, I have!
The music and movie room celebrates love in film and music. I grew up listening to the Dubrovački Trubaduri (a Croatian folk/pop band that was formed in the 1960s) so it made me happy to see the tradition of the troubadours represented here. The plaque says that if you ask any local over the age of 60 what music was playing in the background when they had their first kiss or dance, it probably was one from this group. Although this music wasn’t playing in the background of my first kiss, it shaped the sounds and experiences of my childhood—singing my heart out to words I did not understand, dancing in my Babi’s little house, and attending the large Sveti Vlaho (St. Blaise) festivals in the Bay Area (California). In fact, I attribute my love of dancing to the Dubrovački Trubaduri. My friend Mike Hess and his wife, Megan Kamerick, have a global music show on Monday nights on public radio out of Albuquerque, New Mexico (https://www.kunm.org/?fbclid=IwAR3_uzW4cwd7BOaTYYcC0FFk1SYfJWVk7fdhOVQZEdfB2oW-MaJr47e40i0). One of my “missions” is to send him any new Balkan music that I discover, but I’m so steeped in the “old” stuff. How can you not want to dance to Mi Smo Dečki (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wD5PJoZ2_Q)?? They are sort of like the Croatian version of the Beatles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRu2Q3a_t5c.!
There is a room especially designed for children, a Game of Thrones section, one that is dedicated to love in mythology (e.g., Venus, Hathor, Parvati), and a personal item room where you can read personal stories paired with an item that represents the story. There is also a selfie space complete with kissing bench which Dragan told me was optional—good thing since I didn’t have anyone to kiss!
But, my favorite room of all is located on the top floor—the Ljubavni Zid (the Love Wall). It’s a wall covered in paper hearts with love stories of those who have visited the museum from all over the world. The room also has a space where you can write your own message and add it to the wall. The description of the museum says it takes about 45 minutes to get through it, but I know I spent more than 45 minutes just in this one room. I loved reading what people wrote. For me, these love stories added a needed dimension and complexity to the museum’s sole focus on romantic, heteronormative love. There were messages about self-love, pets, love’s absence, family members, the desire for love, love’s heartache, expressions of love beyond the gender binary, and some pretty funny ones too. I asked Dragan about the obvious cisgender, romantic love stories on display and why there was not a single one from those who identified as LGBTQ+. He has asked for other stories but people have been reluctant to share them (other than those on the love wall). I have only been here in Dubrovnik for two months, but my sense about the inclusion and support of the LGBTQ+ community and anyone who is gender expansive is non-existent. If this is the case, then I understand why people would not want to put their names, stories, and items on display here. But, from the Ljubavni Zid, it’s clear that there are such love stories and my hope for The Love Museum is that they will strive to be more inclusive of all narratives.
Dragan agreed to save all those beautiful hearts from the Ljubavni Zid so that my students and I can do research project to identify and come up with themes of other people’s love stories. I’m excited about this partnership!
So what was my love story that I left on the wall? I don’t have any one story, one person, or one experience—I have many that incorporate all the complexities of joy and grief. I wrote what was most true in that moment which is about how expansive my love feels.
What would you write for the Ljubavni Zid? There is a place for your love stories here.
I grew up Catholic and attended Santa Clara University
(SCU), a Jesuit institution. Although I
no longer identify with Catholicism, my Jesuit education instilled a value I
hold dear—service to community. When I attended SCU, the University’s academic
schedule left Wednesdays open for volunteering or engaging in service learning
projects. I certainly didn’t spend all my Wednesdays volunteering, but it did
create a culture where service was not only considered important, but expected.
I owe my academic career to one such experience in college, but that is another
So imagine my surprise to be here in Croatia, where just over 86% of the residents are Catholic, that this sense of service to community is nearly non-existent. In my visit to Libertas University, I met Anja Marković, the Executive Director of Bonsai , who is working to change the culture of volunteering in Dubrovnik. Bonsai is a relatively new non-profit organization that was founded in 2008 and reimagined in 2010 that put volunteering as its center. Their mission is to increase community engagement through volunteering based on the values of tolerance and respect, active participation, and social sustainability.
I spent time with Anja on two occasions—a beautiful sunset dinner with the two resident directors of API at Libertas University (Nada and Ivana) and a day trip to Šipan with her and members of other NGOs/volunteers. Anja is a psychologist very much dedicated to addressing the needs of those who are marginalized within this community, especially those with mental illness and learning/physical disabilities. She works hard to recruit and engage others in service.
One of the things I have loved about my own personal journey here is a connection to family and a better understanding of my heritage. Family is central and certain structures are in place to support the family. For example, women are given six months maternity leave with full pay and if she wants to take the entire year off, she can get half of her salary for the remaining six months. If a woman has a third (or more) child, she is allowed to take three years off with an income of approximately $300 US dollars. I’ve discovered a wonderful website: Expat in Croatia and it outlines more about family leave policies if you’re interested. But, Croatian salaries are low—an average of 6420 kuna per month (approximately $962 US dollars). According to the most recent data from Croatia’s gender equality ombudswoman, the gender wage gap is 13.19% (women make less) and that gap has been increasing since 2010. Similar to the US, women tend to be employed in occupations that pay less—education, non-profits, and healthcare (and certainly is true of those who I have met). But, I digress…the other side of a family-centric culture is that the burden of care for mental or physical illnesses fall heavily on the family–primarily women. Mental illness or learning disabilities are particularly stigmatized so families are reluctant to reach out to those like Anja who can provide psychological support.
The photos above are from our day at the beach in Šipan where a member of the group found some beautiful starfish! Don’t worry, they were all returned to the sea.
I was also shocked to learn that there is no infrastructure
provided for domestic violence or sexual assault. There are no
shelters for domestic violence or support for those who are victims of intimate
partner violence. There is no sex education in schools at any level
but it is mandatory to take a religion class (specifically Catholicism). In
fact, even at a University level, there are no courses where one can study
gender or sexuality, at least in Dubrovnik (my colleagues said that it is
different in Zagreb). I hope to work
with Anja and Libertas University to build an event here in Dubrovnik (e.g., Take Back the Night) when I return
with study abroad students.
And it’s not true that people don’t volunteer here, it’s the nature of it. One of my cousins gives one hour of her time per week to a church in the Old City so that it can remain open 24-hours a day to visitors (can you imagine taking the 2-3 am shift??). During busy hours, there is more than one person in the church which translates to hundreds of volunteer hours per week. I wonder what might happen to the level of volunteering if the required religion classes emphasized the Jesuit value of service to one’s community.
I co-teach a newly created interdisciplinary course with Professor Kristin Comeforo at the University of Hartford (“Systems of Oppression: Our Binary Code”) for which I am trying to set up a customized study abroad experience here in Croatia. I’m connecting with scholars, organizations, and activists who are addressing gender issues, one of my main interests. Nada Raic and Ivana Bajurin (resident directors at Libertas University who I introduced in my last post) connected me to Vesna Barišić who is one of the few people who grew up and remains living in the Old City (there are only about 900 people). She gave me a personalized three hour tour (!) of Dubrovnik. She has a great interest in how women, Jewish, and other marginalized groups were regarded historically. If you would like a tour or better understanding of minority groups in Dubrovnik, I highly recommend that you take a tour with her. I was taking notes like mad—I couldn’t keep up with her! I’ll highlight a few things that I learned from her.
Not surprisingly, a woman’s sole purpose in Dubrovnik during the 13th-17th century was to get married and have children. Marriages, of course, had nothing to do with love but everything to do with producing heirs. Girls as young as 7 or 8 were already “engaged” and married by the time they were about 15, usually to a man who was twice their age. Prior to the 15th century the bride didn’t even have to be at her own wedding—only the two fathers were required to be present. After all, marriage was an economic exchange and families could afford only one dowry that went along with the eldest daughter. The younger daughters were put into a convent (there were seven convents within the city walls) if they were under the age of 12. Since 12 was the age of consent, girls older than that had to give their consent before entering a convent.
There were no graveyards so families living within the city walls had to be buried there. Nobility could afford to build their own church next to their house so that they could be buried together. Women died often in childbirth so it was normal for a man to remarry several times. Like me, you might be wondering what happened to all his wives who died in childbirth? Since he probably had many wives, they may have been buried, but their names were never recorded on a headstone. This lack of recognition was partly due to the fact that it was not her family name, but her husband’s. Can you imagine how many women have literally been erased in this way? This lack of identification is likely the case for millions of people who have been systematically wiped out after being buried in mass graves due to war, natural disasters/famine, crime, the holocaust, refugees lost at sea…).
Girls were never educated, even those from wealthy families (this changed in the 1500s). A girl was not allowed to look through the windows of her house because she might be seen from the outside; this was considered indecent exposure for which she could be punished. It makes me wonder if the shutters over the windows so typical of the architecture here have anything to do with preventing girls and women from being seen. There is an impressive stone balustrade leading to the Dominican monastery. At some point, it was partially walled up so that when women walked up the ramp, their ankles would be hidden from sight. Women could only leave her home for two reasons: 1) to visit relatives and 2) to attend church. I suppose the fact that there are 30 churches within the walls of the Old Town is a good thing because, as Vesna suggested, women went to church a lot as it was the only way they could gather with other women—to connect, chat, and exchange news.
The streets of Dubrovnik are named either for their characteristics/locations or are named after well-known men. There is only one street in the town that is named after a woman—Ulica Cvijete Zuzorić—and it’s only because of her “scandal”. She was born in Dubrovnik in 1552 (at that time, it was called The Republic of Ragusa). Her father was a merchant and the family moved to Ancona, Italy where she was educated. She was a lyric poet who wrote and spoke Croatian, Italian, and Latin. She married an Italian nobleman who was appointed to be Florence’s ambassador to Ragusa. The couple would host gatherings in their home for artists and scientists for discussions. After her husband died, Cvijete was severely criticized (and most likely envied for her freedom) for continuing to hold such gatherings which were well-known in the literary and artistic community. In 1974, the Croatian acoustic duo Buco and Srđan wrote a song dedicated to her: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qjrm-C3Bv-0.
A walk with Vesna is a walk into a less well-known history of Dubrovnik, certainly an opportunity to hear the stories of those whose histories are hidden in the margins. I hope you will consider studying abroad here and walking with us.
I never studied abroad when I was in college. It scared me. I was raised in a tiny two
bedroom house in the middle of my grandparent’s pear orchard. The town of Upper Lake, CAmaybe had 500 residents. The nearest “big town” was Ukiah with a
population of about 15,000. It took us
40 minutes to get there but they had a bowling alley, a movie theater, and more
than one stop light. Yep, lots to do
there! When it was time to look at
colleges, I wanted to apply to UC Berkeley
so my parents and I went to visit. I saw
the polka dot man and was on a campus
(not even a city) that had more people and buildings than any town I had ever
lived in. I felt anxious and
overwhelmed; I didn’t even apply. If
Berkeley was overwhelming then certainly studying abroad was not going to be in
The other reason, I think, is that my family didn’t really travel. Our vacations consisted of weekly summer camping trips to the coast, which I adored. The only trip I remember taking with my extended family was a week in Lake Tahoe for Christmas. Maybe traveling was expensive. Maybe traveling was a value my family simply didn’t hold. Or maybe, as an immigrant family, my father didn’t want to leave a country he risked his life for. All I know is that my father was terrified to return to the former Yugoslavia even after he became a citizen of the United States.
So here I am in the country of his birth and, of all things, working on a customized study abroad experience for my students.
I spent a fulfilling three days at Libertas International University with the two Resident Directors of API (the study abroad organization that the University of Hartford is affiliated with)—Ivana Bajurin and Nada Raic. These two women are described as “being a resource for you” both on-site and in Croatia. Let me just say that is exactly what they were and remain for me—without their knowledge, support, kindness, and willingness to help me understand the long process of applying for temporary residency, I don’t know where I would be. Nada is on maternity leave and was still present for all our meetings and activities—seriously, that is above and beyond the call of duty.
Libertas International University is a small, private institution located in Old Town (Grad) Dubrovnik located on the second floor of the Dominican Monastery that dates back to 1301. They have several majors (e.g., International Relations and Diplomacy; International Business and Economics) and host customized study abroad programs like the one I am creating. Dubrovnik is a UNESCO World Heritage site and as such, any changes in buildings are strictly overseen by the ministry of heritage—an extraordinary number of permits are required. For example, in renovating the monastery for the University, some frescos from the 15th century were discovered on some of the walls and great care had to be taken with documenting and preserving them. And don’t expect these buildings to be air conditioned—definitely not approved by the ministry of heritage and culture! Although I will say that the classrooms have portable air conditioners for when it gets really hot and humid.
I was able to sit in on an International Business
class co-taught by Professors Janice McCormick (Former Director of PhD at
Harvard University, Graduate School of Business) and Iva Adzic. Their interactive teaching methodology was
very similar to my style and I felt right at home in their class. It made me excited to think about my own
students sitting in one of these rooms in the not too distant future. I also
had a lively lunch with Ivana, Nada, and Professor Jerko Ban, a Catholic priest,
who teaches a course in Comparative Religion. His community and hospital work
with those who have dementia, are deaf and/or blind, or in need of palliative
care, reaffirmed my growing understanding that there is little to no systems
for such care in Croatian culture. Families are left alone to deal with mental
and/or physical illness.
As part of my visit at Libertas, I had a wonderful tour of Dubrovnik with Vesna Barišić and met Anja Marković, executive director of Bonsai, a community-based volunteer organization. I have much to share about what I learned from these women and will write about that in another post.
I went on an excursion to Lokrum Island with Nada, Ivana, and the current API students studying abroad here. The island is short boat ride from Old Town and a popular day trip for locals and visitors. Our tour guide led us through the botanical gardens, the ruins of a Benedictine Monastery, the dead sea (a small lake) olive trees, and gorgeous views of the Adriatic Sea. If you like peacocks and rabbits, you’ll love Lokrum—they are everywhere! The bunnies are quite peaceful and friendly, you’ll see dozens of them hanging out eating grass while people are sunbathing. And, of course, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you may recognize the Kindom of Qarth, as seasons 2 and 3 were filmed on Lokrum. Within the walls of the monastery, a room has been converted to a small museum regarding the series. And yes, there is a replica of the Iron Throne that visitors can sit on. Although I am not a GOT fan, I did not pass up this opportunity.
I did not go hungry! Nada and Ivana made sure that I was well fed (a good Croatian custom!) and that we took time to sit and have coffee (another good tradition). In fact, I think most of my “meetings” on the first day were in outdoor restaurants eating lunch, having dessert, and drinking coffee. While visiting Libertas, I stayed at the Orhan Rooms, just outside the city walls, convenient to everything. If you want the experience of staying in one of these ancient buildings, then Orhan is the place for you; you will not like it if you want modern/new types of accommodations. The owners also have a restaurant (Orhan Restaurant) where guests are served breakfast. As you can see, the view from the restaurant is one of a kind and worth navigating the small streets to find. For Game of Thrones fans, you will recognize this site filmed on Pile Bay looking up at Fort Lovrijenac (Fort Lawrence). On the second and last night of my visit, we ate at Levanat Restaurant in the Lapad section of Dubrovnik. It sits on the walking trail from Sunset Beach with a spectacular view of the Adriatic; that night I got my sunset dinner with Nada, Ivana, and Anja.
If you are a university student scared of studying abroad and choose to come with me or spend a semester here, please know that Ivana and Nada will take care of you! If I had guides like them when I was in college, my fears would have been allayed. Even my father eventually overcame his fears and returned to visit his home.
I’m not a gardener. Well, at least not a successful one. In Connecticut, the soil is rich and summers have a healthy dose of rain, creating an ideal environment for growing plants. After a long, cold winter, I can hardly wait to get outside to pull weeds and rake the leaves that fell too late the previous fall. I search for the first purple crocuses that invariably pop up on my front lawn. I’m excited to go to the nursery to buy vegetables and herbs to plant in the yard. I’ve tried to grow everything—cucumbers, beans, squash, peppers—you name it. One year it rained so much that all the leaves were covered in mold and the plants died. Another year, animals or bugs got to the veggies before I could. The only thing I can ever coax from the ground is basil. But, even then, I can never seem to make pesto before the plant goes to seed or we have an early frost and it all dies. I’ve largely given up on growing vegetables—it’s cheaper for me to just buy what I need.
But, I come
from a family of farmers whose livelihood depended on their ability to grow
food. My grandparents owned a 100-arce pear orchard in Northern California,
where I grew up. They also grew walnuts
and a few cherry and fig trees. I loved
that orchard. Babi and Ðedi
(my grandmother and grandfather) have both passed away but when I return to visit, I often go
back to the orchard they owned. Their house is no longer standing, the sheds
are collapsing, and all the pears have been replaced by walnut trees. But, the remains of the small roses that Babi
planted under three of the walnut trees are still there. The last time I visited, I picked a small
rose and pressed it between two sheets of wax paper. There is something precious to me about this
connection to her. Unlike me, she had
the ability to grow things that still remain to this day. In fact, she had a way of making both plants
and people flourish.
Still. It has
been a revelation to see how much that growing food (and making wine!) remains part
of my family’s daily lives here in Croatia.
This work goes back for generations. Unlike the fertile soil of Northern
California and the Neretva Delta (62 miles northwest
of Dubrovnik), the land
around Gromača and Orašac is rocky
and hard to till. Still. I’ve seen some of the property my relatives own, but until
recently, hadn’t had the opportunity to be there for picking. My cousins needed to pick vegetables before
the next day’s rain and agreed to let me come along. I wasn’t much help. Actually,
I wasn’t any help. I wandered the orchard, took pictures, and simply
took in the fact that generations of my family walked and worked this land. Still.
For a majority of the land’s history, there were only
olive trees. My cousins pulled out
several of them to make room for a vegetable garden and I was in awe. I thought
of the effort it was to pull weeds in my own backyard and it was nothing compared to the labor needed for
this property; and it is labor. It was so colorful. There were several varieties of tomatoes,
peppers, eggplants, and melons. There were cucumbers, cabbage plants, cherry and
pomegranate trees, goji berries, and tobacco.
One cousin picked a large stack of tobacco and put them in his
greenhouse to dry.
Just as I was walking near one section of the orchard, I heard a voice yell “try the figs!” I did. Ðedi loved his fig trees and I think of him every time I see one. I searched the clumps of hanging fruit and found a couple that were ripe. Perfection. There are over 700 varieties of figs but the most common ones grown in Croatia are green and retain this color even when they are ripe; the green only gets brighter as they’re ready to be picked. Once you bite into a fig, there is no other flavor or color that looks quite the same—no wonder it is considered an erotic fruit/aphrodisiac. Fun fact—figs are not considered fruits but inverted flowers which require special pollination. This process is fascinating and if you’re interested in knowing more, here is one website to check out: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/what-are-figs_n_57bc3dc5e4b03d51368a989a
In November, it will be time to harvest the ripe olives
which will be made into olive oil. I
plan on being there. I hope to help but will
most likely be taking photos and writing about the process. Hey, we all have our skill sets. And who knows? Maybe when I return to my garden next year, I
will plant a fig tree.
On the day I left for Croatia, my best friend Heather helped me to adhere three temporary tattoos she gave me as a gift. One was the cancer constellation (my zodiac sign) and the others said “Dance” and “Courage”. I set an intention for each one and consciously chose where to put them. “Dance” went onto the ankle of my left foot. I broke my left leg in three places earlier this summer—tibia, fibula, and ankle—and this accident prevented me from leaving for sabbatical until September. It also prevents me from dancing, which I love! I intend to dance once I am fully healed, but that can take up to a year. I was hoping to do the Linđo and Kolo while I was here, but I will need to watch them instead. Regardless of participating or watching, dancing brings me joy. Now that I am done with my conference, there is the process of settling into my current surroundings. I can’t walk too quickly or far but I’m incredibly lucky, for now, to be staying at my cousin’s apartment which is close to Sunset Beach on Uvala Lapad Bay. For the past four days, I haven’t missed a sunset and it’s striking how each night, the sun and sky are different. For those of you who see my posts on Facebook, you see that I cannot help but post sunset pictures!
“Courage” we put over my heart. I brought two heart necklaces with me—one from my father and one from my friend Connie. The heart she gave me opens to reveal a tiny compass inside. When I feel lost, I am reminded to look into my heart and find home. I have already worn them both; they tie me to my past and ground me to the present. Although I love traveling, I have not done it extensively and to be away from home for nearly a year is both exciting and terrifying. I am someone who needs connection so having access to the internet and a working phone has become a vital part of my first week and a half here. Each day I try and take on one new task that I will need for my stay. Two days ago, that was getting a Croatian SIM card from Hrvatski Telecom (T-mobile).
The Cancer zodiac constellation tattoo
we put on the inside of my arm. Here, I set the intention that the universe
would guide me. As someone who likes to plan, understand, and be in as much
control as possible, I knew so much would be out of hands.
I did not think guidance would come
in the form of an agent from Verizon yesterday morning. After spending nearly two days panicking over
what had happened to my phone, Adrian chatted me through over an hour of
resetting it (I have an eight page transcript of that interaction should I need
it again). I’m forever grateful, Adrian,
as this was not about my phone per se, but my lack of connection.
Despite my best efforts to plan for cell
phone service, I have learned three things:
Make sure your cell phone is unlocked
from your carrier! Even if the phone is paid for, not being used, or no longer
under any contract, that does not mean it’s unlocked. I was encouraged by
several friends who travel outside the US that I should get a T-Mobile plan as they do not charge extra for
international service. But, their current
policy only allows 90 days of such service—that wasn’t going to work for
me. So, my best option was to have two
phones. Heather gave me her old iphone,
but didn’t know it was locked (I kept getting an error message when the
Croatian SIM card went into it). The young woman who sold me the SIM card said
it was no problem to switch my Croatian and Verizon cards in my phone. Great suggestion…not!
Do NOT put a foreign SIM card into
your phone thinking that you can put your old one in without problems. It
doesn’t work that way. My phone now had
two numbers—a US and Croatian one. It was confused and so was I. If you purchase a SIM card in Croatia, know
that most of them ONLY work in Croatia. Here is a good resource about cell
phones in Croatia. Otherwise, get a
SIM card that can be used in multiple European countries: https://www.traveltomtom.net/travel-tips/europe-sim-card
Most importantly, have a best friend
who knows how frenetic you can get when you’re anxious and can support both your
emotional and practical needs.
Although my temporary tattoos have
faded, their intentions are permanent and a daily reminder of what I will
continue to need during my sabbatical stay here.
Ples, Hrabrost, i Vođenje (Dance, Courage, and Guidance).
Remember Miss Mary Ann from the children’s
TV show Romper Room? If you’re from my generation, you might
remember how she looked through her “magic mirror” and identified who she saw
out in her TV audience (“I see Tommy and Mary. I see Frank and Amy…”). I used to wait for Miss Mary Ann to see me, to say my name, to acknowledge
my presence. She never did despite my
best attempts to situate myself right in front of the television set.
Croatia is making up for Miss Mary Ann!
I hear my name all the time and I think that people are calling me when they’re
not. “Mala” in Croatian means little or
small. It’s also an endearing term used
for babies or small children, as in “little one”.
So I wasn’t too surprised to hear of
a festival called “Mala Gospa” but I had no idea what it was. “Mala Gospa” translates as “little lady” and acknowledges
the birth of the Virgin Mary, also known as the Nativity of Mary.
Even though there is no known date of Mary’s birth, it is celebrated on September
8th. It struck me how foreign
such a celebration was to my Catholic upbringing. I felt lucky to be in Gromača, the little village
where my grandfather (Ðedi) and some of my cousins were born, to participate in
this feast day. (The feast part is a whole other story)!
People from Gromača and other small
villages gathered in the center of the town around what appeared to be a
permanent installation of an icon of Mary. The village only has about 140
inhabitants so I was surprised to see about 50 people gathering for the
procession to the church. I was grateful
for a cousin who held my hand and guided me through some of the rocky terrain and
tenuous stairs. I broke my leg three months ago and walking is slow and
unsteady at times but I did not want to miss this! There were prayers and singing during the
procession until we got to one of the smallest churches I have ever seen. Inside,
the iconography of Mary was so pronounced.
Unlike the large crosses that hang on the altar of every single Catholic
church I’ve seen, the little church in Gromača has a large portrait of Mary
(holding Jesus, of course), instead.
That struck me. I wonder if this
reverence for Mary is true in small villages here or the way Catholocism has been
shaped in Croatia generally.
But, the Catholic church is still
deeply patriarchal. I noticed how the
men were the ones to carry the banners during the procession and take up the
front rows of the church. I have a lot
to learn so if you have any thoughts or information, I’d love to know more.
“Though I know that evening’s empire has returned into sand Vanished from my hand Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet I have no one to meet And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming”
(from Mr. Tambourine Man, Bob Dylan)
Bob Dylan’s voice was not the one I was expecting to come out of the little radio in my cousin’s apartment on my first morning here. I never really listened to any of the lyrics (I’m not a huge Dylan fan—don’t hate me) but the song was familiar and soothing. Dylan’s words acknowledged my fatigue, unfamiliar surroundings, and little connection. I had a horrid first night trying to sleep (new place, sounds, thunderstorms, heat, and a wicked migraine at 3 am).
Without a little dog to wake me up early or being surrounded by familiar household noises, I decided to immerse myself in some new morning sounds—like listening to the Croatian language. But, there was a surprising amount of English on the radio. Apparently, about three years ago, The Dubrovnik Times in partnership with Soundset Ragusa (The Voice of Dubrovnik) began to bring news of Dubrovnik to the world in English. I found out that my direct flight from Philadelphia to Dubrovnik on American Airlines was new and only bagan this summer—“…It is the first time in 28-years that Croatia has had direct flights from an American destination” (http://bit.ly/2jYobTv). Lucky me.