Sunday, November 12, 2006

Sveti Martin celebration in Smartno
Dobrovo Castle

Sveti Martin Day [Martinovanje] is celebrated on 11 November. This is the day that St. Martin turns the juice of the grapes into wine and the wine season begins. St. Martin was born in Pannonia, Italy in 316. He begged to be able to join the Christian church at age 10, chose to live as a hermit at age 12 but was conscripted into the Roman army at age 15 because his father was a veteran. He chose to take only one servant with him during his military service and continued to live a life of simplicity sharing everything equally with this servant. While serving as a soldier he saw a cold naked beggar at the gates of the city of Amiens in Gaul and he divided his cloak in half and covered the man. Later in a vision he saw Christ wrapped in his cloak and believed that he had cared for Christ with this act of kindness. Throughout the rest of his life he preached the gospel in the central and western parts of Gaul. He eventually became the Bishop of Tours where he continued to live the life of a hermit. He died around 397 and his feast day is 11 November. I could find no information as to why he is credited with the miracle of wine except that his feast day falls at the time when the wine is ready to be drunk.

To celebrate the feast day Joško lines up the wines from the different vats. Each has its unique sunny golden color, some are still a little cloudy but others are clearing up and look like wine. The flavors have evolved over the past 6 weeks from a sweet dense juice, to a slightly bitter taste lacking any sweetness, to a tangy bland flavor, to an almost tasteless liquid with the hint of wine, to a gentle wine bouquet and then finally to the warm flavor that perfectly reflects the sunny day that the grapes were picked. Each choir member tastes each wine and then by consensus “Kay’s Wine”, that was flavored by my bleeding finger, is chosen as the choir’s wine and will be drunk after practice every Wednesday.

On the evening of the Sveti Martin feast day we go with friends to Šmartno v Brdih to taste the wines of Goriška Brda. This village of 250 population teeters on the spine of a hill surrounded by protection walls that were built in the 16th century. The village was built on Roman ruins and the four watchtowers and gates remain. The streets follow the contour of the hill lined with ancient houses surrounding the church of St. Martin with its tower dating from the 14th century. First floor rooms that once served as stables for animals and storage for equipment now are crowded with people savoring the crop of the region. We buy a glass in a pocket that hangs around our neck at the Kulturna hiša [culture house] and wander from building to building sampling the fare. Pršt, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and homemade bread are served along side the wines grown at the feet of this village. For entertainment choirs perform in various locations, a polka band gets the blood pumping, the dancers swinging and museum buildings are open showing the style of living in old Brda. The streets are dimly lit so the glow from inside the houses is inviting and nostalgic. Life would have been difficult in this windy hilltop village, but I hope that they had community fun like this many times during their year.

There is indication that wine has been grown in Goriška Brda [gorica means small wooded hillsides, brda means hill] since before the Romans, and continuously from the 12th century. In ancient times the Catholic Church owned most of the vineyards. In 1880 a plaque infected the vineyards and by 1900 half of the vines in Slovenija had been attacked by aphids. Before the plague 126,000 acres in Slovenija were planted in vines, but the plaque bankrupted many wine growers forcing thousands to leave the area and immigrate to other lands. Pre-WWII records indicate that only 94,000 acres of vineyards remained in Slovenija. Prior to the entrance into the European Union barren hillsides were once again planted in vines to creep under the restrictive agriculture rules imposed by the EU. The jury is still out as to whether Slovenian wines will be able to survive in competition with the large vineyards of France, Germany and Italy.

In Brda the soil is mostly shale and sandstone and looks like it would have no nutrients for growing anything. The hills are terraced and grass is grown between the vines to prevent erosion. The climate is considered Mediterranean although it is not contiguous to the sea, but the annual rainfall is high and summers are moderately hot. This past summer was a very dry year and the grapes were sweet, but not as abundant.

Taken from
“Of all the Slovene winegrowing areas, Goriska Brda has had the highest "per hectare yield" of medals and awards from wine fairs and exhibitions in the last two decades. The characteristic white wines of the area are gentle, harmonious, fresh, and lively; they generally age well. The best-known white wines of the area are the dry Briski Tokaj (a variety of Toccai Friulano), with its characteristic almond taste and subtle flowery fragrances; the polite Beli Pinot; the strong Sauvignon with its harmony of aromas; dry Chardonnay which reaches its peak with barrique treatment; Sivi Pinot with its long tradition, known on the Italian side as Pinot Grigio; and Malvazija. Perhaps the most characteristic wine of the area is Zlata ("Golden") Rebula. The best red wines of this sub-area are Cabernet Frank, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot - wines with rich and strong pigments that age particularly well - and Modri Pinot, a particularly elegant wine with its stressed extract.
The best known blended wine of the area is the white Brisko vino, a dry white blend of Rebula and Tokaj. The Brici - the Slovene term for inhabitants of Brda - produce and store most of their wine at the Dobrovo winery, the largest production cellar in Slovenia. The Dobrovo cellar also boasts the largest local wine archive that regularly stores some 300,000 bottles of their best vintages. Zlata Rebulais is the most precious wine in store; most of the older bottles are Merlot and Tokaj. This is the only archive in Slovenia that regularly ages Tokaj and offers the best example of how much this wine can improve with age."

I am beginning to distinguish the flavors of Slovene wine, but because so much of what we drink is a blend of grapes I am not always able to distinguish the kind of grape. I particularly like the local Rebula and every once and while I am served a Muškat I like a lot. At the wine bar in Gorizia, Italy the server is always bringing me new reds to taste from the Friulian vineyards and they suit me more than the reds in Slovenija. My friend Jack Keegan has been plying me with wines for years telling me the history that goes with each bottle. I am finally beginning to appreciate the magic and the stories in each glass.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Žumberak, Croatia


Interior church at Stojdraga

Exterior of church at Stojdraga

For the fall holiday we choose to go south to Croatia for a week. We have crossed the border to the coastal towns and spent some time on the island of Mali Lošin, but this will be the first time going into the interior. Because of the tragedies of the war in the ‘90’s Bob has been hesitant to go to the places where neighbor killed neighbor and modern weapons were used to fight resentments held for centuries, but I want to see the villages that grandma and grandpa Rapljenović left a hundred years ago.

The weather is gorgeously cool and clear and the vistas along the way force us to either say over and over again “look at that!” or humble us into silence. Slovenija is truly the most glorious place. As we travel southeast the towns began to change in appearance; the steeples thin out pointing more sharply to heaven, fewer houses are clustered in the villages and the valleys nestle under the quilt of farming. We stop at Otočec Castle across the road from a modern [1960’s] hotel where Bob stayed when he was here in 1968 with grandma Leskovec. It is wonderful hearing him recall the memories of being here, playing the drums with the polka band and dancing the night away. That trip shaped his life like no other single event has and our experience here is bringing to life his 18-year-old dream of living in Slovenija.

Stojdraga, the birth home of Nicolas Rapljenovič hangs on the edge in Žumberak, Croatia over looking Slovenija to the north and Zagreb to the south. Signs near the church tell us that the town recently celebrated its 475th birthday. The church was built in 1530 and the community of old wooden houses and new stucco houses sit at the feet of the cross teetering on the spine of this ridge. The cemetery behind the church is carpeted with Obitelji [family]Rapljenović graves. Never before have we seen so many with the name Rapljenović in one place. We are shocked by how little we know about grandpa. Are some of these graves his brothers and sisters? We don’t even know how many siblings he had or who they were. We really know almost nothing about his life here. Neither he nor grandma wanted to talk about “the old country”; I think it was too painful. They left because life was impossible, no work, no hope for the future and great hardship. Everyday grandpa saw vistas far into the northern valley where he could see for miles and places he had never visited, then in the other direction the lights and buildings of Zagreb glittered in the distance. The sights from this ridge proved that there was more beyond the struggle of his hilltop, but hope for his future came with the loss of this view. When we were choosing the land for our home in Ohio Bob wanted the top of the hill with the open view into the valley. I now understand that his need to see the sky, the horizon and the world beyond is deep in his genes.

An elderly woman is cleaning the graves on the hill. She speaks no English and of course we speak no Croatian, but the dialect spoken on the border is very much like Slovene so we can talk with her a little. We think she is telling us that the Rapljenović families in the cemetery come from two villages, Stojdraga and another, but we don’t understand where. There is still a Rapljenović in town, but we can’t understand anything more. We think that if we go to the school a teacher of English will be able help us get some information, but the woman tells us that there was no longer a school; only old people now live in Stojdraga. We decide that when I return to Ohio in January I will get more information about grandpa’s family, and then we will go searching for the family again.

We have more unanswered questions than we can imagine. Who was grandpa’s family? Why did he leave? Did he come alone? What was his path to America? What was life like for the people who stayed behind? Our limited knowledge of the history tells us that the region was originally occupied as long ago as the early Iron Age and Roman periods. In 1094 the area was included in the Zagreb diocese, but was included in the conflicts between Zagreb and the Italian patriarch. The Ottoman Turks completely devastated the area in the second half of the 15th century and left it deserted. Following the defeat of Hungary by the Turks in 1526 the Austrian Hapsburgs established a line of military out posts in the lower slopes of the Žumberak range as border protection. They brought the Uskoks, Croatians rebels who had fought against the Ottoman army and were Catholic and Orthodox [Asian rituals, but recognized the pope as the head of the church], to serve as the border defense against the Turks in 1530. The church of St. Juraj in Stojdraga was built in the 17th century on the foundation of the original 16th century wooden Greek-Catholic church so we are assuming that some of the Rapljenović clan may have been a part of the original military defense team. [sources: “After Yugoslavia” – Zoë Brân, Wikipedia, Park prirode Žumberak-Samoborsko and Croatian National Tourist Board].

Our trip continues on the only road along this ridge. Sometimes it dives though deep forests of beech and pine trees into the valleys, farm clearings, sinkholes and caves but then winds back to the open vistas across the entire area. We are following a map that grandpa had that shows the old roads and the small towns. The entire area of Žumberak currently has only 3,000 residents, mostly elderly, and the towns do not have enough to warrant a speck on the modern map.

We think that grandma came from Reliči; her name was Mary Relič. A proud sign points us to the village up the hill and around the bend. Homes stick their stoops into the path of the one lane road while farm buildings peak out from behind. Some of the homes built of giant wooden slabs remain in the style of another time, and others are modern and prosperous. There is evidence that people live here by the lace curtains in the windows, the last of the flowers in the gardens and the sounds of cows and chickens, but we see almost no one in the village except two teenage girls coming home from school. We have a difficult time imaging how their isolated life is anything like the teenagers at home. Do they have access to modern media, internet, TV, movies? Do they giggle about movie stars? Will they have a future here or will they have to leave home as grandma did?

As we leave the village, the sight into the valley looking toward the church and her future is the same as she saw when she left her village, and the last house in town, of unpainted slab wood with decorative trim, is what she saw with her last glance of home.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Reliči, Croatia
The last view of the villiage
The view to the church
Grandma roses?
Grandma Mary

A few years ago I wrote a story about Grandma Rapljenovic, my vision of what I thought it must have been like for her. The pictures confirm my story.

Great Grandma Mary left her home in the mountains when she was 15 and she never returned. She wasn’t running away from home when she walked down the hill from her village carrying the small suitcase with all her belongings. She was running to hope and possibility.

Her village was gorgeous in the summer and fall. The fields were planted with wheat and other grains. The hillsides were trimmed a close deep green by the grazing of cows, sheep and goats. The forests were deep and dark places to rest from the heat. Window boxes in each home burst with the brilliant color of red geraniums that were saved from year to year. Cuttings were passed on as wedding gifts so that the blessings of a long productive marriage would carry from generation to generation.

Mary knew everyone and everyone knew her. When she took a comfortable walk to her aunts home, the women in the fields, babushkas on their heads, skirts pulled up above their knees, huge rough hands, would stop their digging or cutting and chat. They always asked whom she was going to marry, if her grandfather had gotten better now that the weather was warmer, if she had heard from her brother in the war and they asked about her roses. The woman knew the answers before they even asked the questions, but they always asked. And as she walked past them she heard them clucking their tongues as they shook their heads in pity for her mother. They thought she was a dreamer, a lazy girl who took walks in the work hours, spent too much time planting and pruning her roses and not enough time tending the cleaning of the barn.

The home where Mary lived with her mother, father, grandfather and brother was not the nicest in the village. It sat on the slope of a hill that was reached by climbing a twisty turning path from the creek bed. The animals lived in the bottom part of the building and the family above them on the second floor. The warmth from the animals helped to keep the family warm in the winter, but of course they also shared their noises and their smells. The house had a cooking room, sitting room and sleeping room. The peč cook stove, fueled by the branches collected in the forest, cooked the food in the cooking room and warmed the entire home even on the hottest summer day from the tile box in the sitting room. The sounds of the milk cow, the plow oxen, the goats, chickens and geese entertained the family night and day drifting up through the cracks in the floor. There was never quiet in this house.

A fence was built around the winter pasture to keep the animals from wandering off the hillside and into the village gardens. Mary planted climbing roses there one spring. She hoped that the glowing brilliant red of the flowers and the deep green of the leaves would hide the ragged rough fence, but day after day the buds were ripped off and the new shoots chewed with delight by the goats. So the roses had a place of their very own along the side of the house. The slope was too steep for anything to grow there and the rocks from the foundation had been left to collect weeds. Each summer beginning at age 12 Mary cleared the rocks away shaping little spaces just the size needed for a rose bush.

Mary got cuttings from the older women. Roses were only grown by the widows who lived in the homes of their children, the bent over gray haired ladies dressed eternally in the black of their loss, who could no longer work in the fields. The wrinkled useless women who were dependent on everyone for everything shaped the beauty of the village. They nurtured the geraniums through the harsh mountain winters keeping them safe from freezing. They picked the wildflowers from the groves of trees to place on the table as a moment of beauty. And they grew the roses.

All around the village roses in a yard was the sign that a grandma widow lived there. If grandpa was still alive then grandma didn’t have time to tend the roses; she had to tend grandpa. But if grandma out lived her husband she was left with only time to cure her loneliness. The other grandma widows would bring cuttings of their most precious plants to the funeral so that the new widow would have something to care for. She would gather the cuttings in a basket and the day after he was buried she could be found on her hands and knees digging a home for her new charges, and everyone knew she would outlive her sadness.

Even when Mary was very little she liked to talk to the grandma widows. She would kneel down beside them in the dirt intently watching them scrape and scratch the soil, trim the brambles back and pluck the bugs that suck the life out of their flowers. She listened deeply to their stories and when she went home she left them feeling less old.

One spring she asked for a cutting. What could it hurt the widow thought, one little cutting to bring some color to the life of this child on the hill. So the widow took a fresh shoot from the velvety red rose and gave it to Mary. Mary took this small thorny woody piece and tenderly stuck it in a clear spot next to the barn. She wrapped the base of the shoot in composted manure and straw and covered it with a glass jar. Each day she tended her new rose by taking off the jar dripping with water drops to let in the fresh morning air and sunshine, and then replaced the jar again as a protection from the evening breeze. She watched and talked to the plant waiting for a response day after day. She never tired of pampering her shoot even when her grandpa told her that she would never get that stick to flower. And then one day a nub of green appeared and she knew that her shoot had begun to root and the next summer she would have her very own roses.

Mary went one day after another to each of the grandma widows asking for a cutting of their most precious flower. Each one thought that it could cause no harm to give beauty to the child that brought them youth, so by the end of spring the sloped wall of the house and barn looked like someone had planted a crop of glass jars.

It wasn’t until the grandma widows were sitting at the same wedding table in the fall that they realized that Mary had changed the path of tradition. She was growing roses for their aesthetic beauty, the joy they brought her, the delight in watching each new shoot come to life. She was using productive time and energy to nurture roses rather than care for the garden. Mary was spending hours with flowers and her family may not have enough vegetables stored for the long winter months. Her family could go hungry because of these roses. The fear was deep in their eyes and the crevices of their faces. Mary must return to the beans, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbages, her summer days must be struggling with the garden weeds and varmints. There was no time in youth for beauty; there was only time for survival, preparing for the cold, guaranteeing that no one would starve in February and March.

They shunned Mary when she came to talk. Their fear for her put the age back on their faces. They told her to stop being foolish, to grow up, to take responsibility for her family. They stopped telling her stories and found no time to listen to hers.

As she grew older they tried their skills at matchmaking. If they found Mary a good husband she would stop this foolishness with the roses. She would be so occupied making her husband thick coffee, cabbage rolls and bread, bearing his children, pampering his home that the roses would be forgotten until he was gone. Then when she became a grandma widow she could return to beauty.

It wasn’t that Mary didn’t want to get married; there just was no one in the village she wanted to marry. Most of the village inhabitants were her relatives. Her family had never left this hillside. They were born here and grew ancient in the home that housed the same life pattern for generation and generation. Her uncle broke this tradition and left when she was 8. She remembered him as tall, big boned and hugely restless. He was always wondering what lay beyond the mountains, what you could see under the lights of the city and how much of a fortune he could make someplace other than this mountaintop. He left for America one spring before the war and before the fields were planted. He and Mary’s grandfather fought late into the night about his leaving and the fact that he didn’t care enough to plant and harvest the crops. Uncle said that if he waited for the time when there was no work to be done he would take his boat ride across the sea in a pine box. The next morning he was gone. He left a flower on the table for Mary’s mama, a coin for her dad, his pocketknife for her brother, his pocket watch for his father and a picture post card of Cleveland for Mary.

No one talked about Uncle after he left. They lived their lives as if he had never lived his. He wrote a letter to them a couple times a year. The letter sat on the table for days, no one opening it; everyone touching it when they thought no one was looking, no one asking to read it; everyone lingering around the table after dinner waiting; but not asking. Finally Mary’s mama would say, “Mary read Uncle’s letter and get it off my table.” Her grandfather would humph himself to his chair, light his pipe, but he didn’t start his normal rocking cadence; he didn’t want to make any sound that would cover Mary’s reading.

Mary read of the giant lake that seemed as big as the ocean, the rows and rows and rows of streets and houses, the neighborhood where everyone spoke Croatian, the bakery where he could buy a slice of home and eat it on the way to work. He wrote of his job in the steel mill with men from Croatia, but also Poles, Hungarians, Russians, and Irish. He told of the money he was saving so that he could own his own home, the corner bar where he sang familiar songs with the other men tears streaming down their homesick faces. Uncle knew that Mary would read the letter so he always added a postscript at the bottom, “Come to Cleveland little kitten and I will find you a rich husband.” Mary never read that line to her family; she just stopped her reading at “I miss you all, love Stanko.”

Mary did not want to marry a cousin; a boy that she had played with all her life. She didn’t want to marry the butcher who had lost his wife leaving him with 4 little children and no help in the shop. She didn’t want to marry the peddler’s son who was always sticky from the last sweet thing he ate. She knew what she didn’t want, but she had no idea what she wanted.
Mary watched her friends leave their homes and marry the boy at the bottom or the top of the hill. Elsie married a war friend of her brothers and moved to the valley, but most of the young women were just shifting locations, not making changes in their lives, not finding love or adventure, but maintaining the sameness. After the entire village celebrated the coupling Mary would wander home early. She tired of the old men tipsy on slivovitz wrapping their arms around her and breathing blessings for her marriage on plum breath. Her step was heavy with sadness, not for herself, but for her friends who were turning into their mothers and grandmothers before her eyes.

Mary’s 15th winter was the coldest her grandfather could remember. The snow piled so deep that they couldn’t get the barn door open. They cut a hole in the floor of the main room and dropped the food and water to the animals from the house. Every washday Mary would strap on the snowshoes and carry the basket of dirty clothes down through the drifts to the creek. She had to break the layer of ice on the creek with a rock so that she could reach the running water under the ice. Each week the ice got thicker and thicker and harder and harder to break. She would kneel on the snow-covered ice, wash the clothes scrubbing between the forming ice crystals and rinse them before a film of ice formed on the creek. When she finished the washing she stumbled up the hill carrying the soaking clothes to the fence by the barn. There she unrolled the frozen garments stretching out their stiffness and hung them over the fence to dry. If there was no sun for days the clothes hung crisp like a frozen scarecrow until the air finally dried them. After Mary completed this weekly chore the clothes on her own body crunched and cracked when she moved, ice crystals formed on her eyelashes, frozen droplets hung from her eyebrows and the stray hair falling from her babushka. When she went to warm herself by the stove her melting clothes formed a pool of creek water under her boots and a chill deep to her marrow.

Mary decided to leave the day after Uncle’s winter letter came. For a week the letter waited to be read as if everyone knew that this single piece of paper would change their lives for eternity.
Uncle had gotten married and bought a house. His bride Katja was from a village a days ride from Mary’s home. She spoke strong English and Croatian. She had gone to an American school and spoke with almost no foreign twist to her words. They bought their home in the Croatian neighborhood just down the street from the bakery where Katja worked. Stanko had stopped in this sweet smelling haven every afternoon on his way to his job. He would buy a slice of potica, a piece of strudel, and Italian pitzel or a Hungarian kifli. Sometimes Katja would put an extra American cookie or chocolate brownie in the bag because his innocent smile warmed her soul. Their meetings became such an important part of each of their days that soon the casual contact was not enough. Katja would ask for her afternoon break when she saw him coming so that when he walked through the door his hat in his hand she had his treat ready. They would walk across to the park, sit on a bench while he ate the warm goodies and share their own stories of home and hope.

On the day when Stanko knew he had enough money to buy the house down the street he asked Katja to be his bride. They sat so long on the bench imaging their future that they almost lost their jobs. From this moment on their talks were overflowing with plans. The house was purchased in the late summer and the wedding, held at St. Stephens Church, on a gloriously warm day circled with cool breezes over the lake. Their wedding night was spent in the freshly new double bed in their perfect newlywed cottage dreaming of the songs of children in the halls.
Stanko wrote of his beautiful wife and the home where they sat each evening on the front porch talking with the neighbors. He also wrote that in his house he could turn on a faucet on the wall and water would come out. One faucet had water as cold as the creek at the bottom of the hill and the other had water has hot as the teakettle on the stove. He told about the tub in the basement that, when filled with water, washed the clothes for Katja. Attached to this machine were two wooden rollers that would wring out the clothes so that when Katja hung them on the line they were almost dry. They had a line outside to catch the sweet Lake Erie breezes in his pockets, but also a line in the basement when the weather was cold.

Mary could not believe what Stanko wrote. She read it over and over again. Water ran out to the walls of Stanko’s new home. Katja didn’t have to carry buckets or break ice. Her hands were not raspy, raw, hurting when the cold split the skin. She had a machine that squeezed the water out of the wet heavy clothes.

By the time Stanko wrote of his happiness Katja was expecting their first American child. This child would read the Cleveland Plain Dealer to his father, answer the phone in pure unbroken English and play baseball with the passion of a natural born fan of the Cleveland Indians. Stanko’s happiness dripped off the pages, and when Mary read “Come to Cleveland little kitten and help us care for our precious baby” she knew that tomorrow she would go.
She shivered in her sleep that night fighting the forces of guilt and hope, sameness and adventure. She woke before dawn packed the little cardboard suitcase, left a note saying that she was going to Cleveland and walked down the twisty turning path to America.

Great grandma Mary lived until she was 90. She died behind her little house in Cleveland bent over her rose bushes. The east wall of her house was lined with roses, each one different than the next. There were sweet little miniature roses and huge droopy flowers. Each one started under a glass jar and lived protected from the winds of Lake Erie. Great grandma worked every morning in the warm sun scratching and scraping the soil with the same tool she had been using for over 70 years. She folded compost made from kitchen scraps tenderly around the roots, tapping them solid with her hands and humming the same modal tune over and over again.
I never heard Great grandma sing to anyone but her roses. Most of the time she would hustle and bustle around the kitchen shifting hot boiling pots and heavy pans of meat. Every time we came to her house, whether we were hungry or not, we sat crowded around the dining room table prepared to eat enough food to feed the whole city of Cleveland. No one was allowed to help her in the kitchen. She would say, “No, No get out of my way. Go sit. I bring food to you.”
Even after living in Cleveland for 75 years her English was difficult to understand. When all the family was gathered in her house and the cooking and cleaning was done she would sit heavy on a straight back wooden chair, her hands crossed her belly watching the words fly around the room. She always seemed to be listening to a foreign language, working too hard to understand, catching the laughter from the smiles not from the words.

Great grandma never went back to Croatia. She would scoff and say that she couldn’t go back to the old country because the fresh mountain air would kill her. She never saw her parents or her brother again. She wrote letters a couple times a year, but as the years moved on she became more and more of a stranger to them. They couldn’t imagine the miracle of her life in America. They would never understand that she couldn’t keep a milk cow on her postage stamp yard lined with cement driveways. They would never understand that she left her children curled deep in sleep every night, rode the bus into the dusty dark bowels of the city to clean the floors and the bathrooms of people she would never see. They would never understand that she bought her bread in a plastic bag, and the tomatoes, green beans and peas came in cans. Here in America life was easier, she didn’t have to work so desperately hard for everything. There was time in the day for leisure, time in the morning sun to tend her roses.

She bought her first rose bush in America at the grocery store. There in the produce section in front of the parsley, rutabagas and turnips was a small table with a dozen starter bushes. Each package had a girl’s name and a picture of a different colored bloom at its climax. She picked up each package turned it around and over. She drove her fingernail into the woody stem smelling if the scent was freshly turned earth or rotten leaves. She stood in front of these shriveled thorny branches inspecting each plant ignoring the other shoppers pushing past her until she chose the perfect plant to take home. She bought the rosebush instead of soap that day. She would ration the soap, use those little left over pieces for one more week so that they could have pink flowers behind the house.

Great grandpa didn’t want to dig up the grass for a flower. His tiny back yard was trimmed and pampered. He pushed the rotary mower back and forth, side-to-side and end-to-end on his miniature piece of land between the driveways. He crawled on his knees with his behind up in the air snipping the edges, and then he sat in his folding chair in the shade of the garage admiring his perfect American lawn.

Great grandpa had no idea of the significance of this pink rose bush named Baby Betsy McCall. His wife never mentioned flowers before. She was practical with her time and their money. She was nothing like those Italians who lived down the street and had red flowers dripping out of every window, lining the driveway and choking the foundation of the house. He never expected this stoic woman who shared his bed, made his tea the way he liked it with 2 squeezed lemons and a cup of sugar to care so passionately about a rose bush.

When he told her no he would not dig a hole in his lawn for a stupid flower, she stood in the kitchen clutching the shriveled plant to her breast. She didn’t say a word. She just stood there staring through him to the other side of the world. Then before she turned to go out side she quietly said between clenched teeth, “I do it myself.”

She had never defied him before. She submitted with silence to his tempers, his drinking too much with the men from the railroad and his strong fisted running of the house. She cooked the meals from the old country that he liked. She scrubbed the floors of the house weekly on her hands and knees. She washed the walls, turned the mattresses, beat the blankets and pillows in the sun each spring. She listened passively to his stories of work and his dreams of making it rich so he could go back to Croatia and show his friends and family how successful he was. There were days when she almost said nothing to him at all.

When she turned away from him and went outside he followed her to the shed yelling in Croatian for the entire neighborhood to hear. She never said a word. She crossed the yard and took the shovel to a sunny spot beneath the kitchen window. Between his curses and screams she began digging a circle in the grass just big enough for her rose. Great grandpa tried to wrestle the shovel out of her hands, but she spread her legs, locked her knees, set her hips and told him to leave her alone.

“All I do is work! Day after day the same - cooking, cleaning up after you - the children - those people downtown. I ask nothing from you. I am going to have a little beauty in my life with or without you!”

Never before had he heard her speak with this tone of passion. It was as if there was a vision behind her eyes that she needed to fulfill. She needed to be able to step back from her life remember who she was and know that her choices were good. After that when he heard that intensity in her voice he stepped out of her path and let her do what she needed to do.
The Betsy McCall rose was the first of a fashion show of summer beauties.

When Grandma Mary became a grandma widow she went to the flower shop and bought an American Pillar climbing red rose. She trained it to wander along the brick façade so that everyone riding past the house could see that an American Grandma widow lived there.

Krajina, Croatia
Plitvice Lakes

We visit Kumrovec, Croatia, the birthplace of Josip Broz “Tito” on the second day of our trip. The village is a restored museum town showing the workings of this town at the turn of the century. Many of the houses have thatched roofs in the old style and the displays inside the buildings demonstrate the nature of life in a typical village. The area shows the remains of its former glory. Fountains lay dry, the railroad that brought loyalists on the pilgrimage to the home of Tito is clogged with weeds, and the factory that employed the people from his village is empty. The bones of the Tito regime lay scattered throughout this valley picked clean by the vultures of nationalism and war.

Tito was born in 1892 of a Croat father and a Slovenian mother in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He attended school until he was 13 years old and then became an apprentice machinist. He worked in the automobile industry in Slovenia, Germany and Austria until he was conscripted into the Austro -Hungarian Army. During World War I he was arrested and imprisoned for anti-war propaganda. When he was released he was sent to fight the Russians where he was wounded and captured. In 1916 he was sent to a Russian work camp in the Ural Mountains where he was once again arrested for organizing prisoner demonstrations. After escaping the work camp he joined demonstrations in St. Petersburg in 1917and the Russian Communist Party in 1918. In 1920 returned to the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, [The Kingdom of Yugoslavia (southern Slavs)] joined the Yugoslav Communist Party and served as a liaison to Stalin.

In 1941 the German, Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian armies attacked Yugoslavia and Tito as Military Commander declared a communist revolt and guerilla campaign against the Nazis. The Nazis retaliated with the killing of 100 civilians for the death of each Nazi and the killing of 50 civilians for each Nazi soldier wounded. Despite the consequences the partisans had the loyalty of the people and were able to liberate territories from both the Germans and the Italians, and in Primorska the land was reclaimed again from the Italians for the Slovenes. In the reclaimed territories provisional governments were established and Tito was named Marshal of Yugoslavia. Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin officially recognized the partisans at the Tehran Conference and in 1945, aided by the Russian army, the partisans were able to force all German regiments from Yugoslovia.

On March 7, 1945 the provisional government of the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia was created under the leadership of Tito uniting a country that had been devestated by war. Cleansing of those who had been Nazi sympathizers and those apposed to the Communist government was prominent in the months following the end of the war, and many families were forced to emmigrate to Argentina to escape imprisionment or the possibility of death.

In 1948 Tito became the first Communist leader to defy the dictates and loyalty required of Stalin. Tito established his own brand of communism that was market socialism or self management socialism where workers in state-run companies benefited from profit sharing. In 1963 the country changed its name to Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Tito was able to hold together extreme groups of passionate Balkans by purging those of extreme nationalism and promising and delivering a modern nation illiminating class differences and promising hope and peace. He died at 88 years of age in 1980.

When there was no longer great leadership the festering hatreds from the war years and beyond exploded and the nationalism that had been white washed during the 40 years of Tito’s leadership tore villages apart.

We see evidence still of this hatred in the Kajina on our way to Plitviška Jezera. The entire area appears abandoned, left to disrepair and vandals. Large modern restaurants [gostilna] with coke signs are deserted, weeds curtaining the entrances and windows cracked with large sharp zigzagging edges across the giant picture windows that once showed people gathering and celebrating. Houses are burned, roofs caved in, riddled with bullet holes. No sign of life but screams of betrayal. Fields that once grew crops or pastured animals are fallow and wild with scrub bushes. The towns that remain no longer have towering church steeples or stores, only streets lined with independent dwellings, bare windows, unkempt paths and blank stares.

Like Žumberak, Krajina was a military zone established by the Austrian Hapsburgs in the 16th century to protect the Empire from the marauding Turks. Serbs from the Dalmatian interior who had fought the Ottoman armies were given land in Krajina in exchange for military protection. The outposts were seldom challenged so the Orthodox Serbs embedded in the area made it home. When the Turks were no longer a threat the Hapsburgs withdrew interest in the area and it became a remote poor rural community of Serbs living peacefully in Croatia. In 1941 the Croat Ustaša, with the support of the Nazis and the Croatian Roman Catholic Church encouraged the blood bath of the Orthodox unbelievers and exterminated thousands of Serbs from the area and destroying whole communities.

In 1991Serbs, afraid that the new Croatian government under Tudjman would once again inflict atrocities on the Krajina and fanned by the battle cries of Milošević, cleansed Kajina of all traces of Croat history and people from the land. Rebels efficiently acted out house bombings by lighting matches to the gas canisters that were attached to the home heating system. Churches were destroyed, villages were burned 2,200 were killed and 140,000 were refugees. Then in 1995 the Croat army reclaimed Kajina in 3 days 14,000 died, 320,00 were displaced and ½ of the Serbian population left Croatia.

Ethnic cleansing caused this gaping hole in the community. Neighbors killing neighbors. People who had lived peacefully together for 500 years, marrying, celebrating, living and dying together pulled the poisonous family stories out from under their pillows to take revenge for the sins of their fathers. Death still hangs in the air.

In the midst of this area of inhumane acts is the most thrilling natural flow of water I have ever seen. Plitviška Jezera is a phenomenon of 16 natural lakes and waterfalls that span a distance of 8 km. The karst limestone has washed away to the solid clay and rock leaving fissures and channels for the running water. Sediment collected from the flowing water solidifies over rocks, fallen logs, piles of leaves and any other obstruction to create traverstine dams that then creates enormous lakes, small pools and yet allow the water to over flow making streams, rushing creeks and waterfalls. The boardwalks all along the lakes are built of longs flattened to create a secure path that weaves above the rushing rapids and the rocking edges making access easy and walking around the lakes very enjoyable. The setting appears to be tropical yet the winter freezes the falls and the dams cover with ice and snow. The delight of a visit in the late fall is the near isolation of this breathtaking place. Despite the misty weather we savor the emptiness of the park and the feeling of being in a deserted paradise silent except for the flow of water.

We both feel so strongly the poison of Krjina and want to head to the Adriatic Sea and the salty winds that will clear our souls. We drive for hours on a new super highway and see nary 100 inhabited houses and no developed land. The valley stretches barren between towering mountain ranges naked as far as we can see. Occasionally a herd of sheep wanders into our sight tended by old people with dogs, but nothing else. Is there no water? Is the soil so shallow that nothing can be grown? Does no one want to tend sheep? Has everyone left the open plain for the tall ugly dilapidated crowded apartments in the city? It breaks my heart that people must leave their mountains or their land to live in the sterile squalor of the city. Of course if that is what they want, then they should have it, but if they desire to life in their hilltop villages is there not work that can be done that will allow them to remain at home? The role of government should be to train and assist those in rural areas to remain and breathe life again into the communities rather than watch them fade. Slovenija seems to be managing well to maintain the mountain villages around us. Tourist farms with beautiful structures and luscious restaurants dot the hillsides. The vinska cesta brings people to buy wine, the villages have a grocery, a bakery and connecting bus transport on a regular basis. The high school students leave their villages for school, but they return home for the weekend. Internet and satellite connection is available in most places and the towns have an aesthetic beauty and quality roads to reach them. The Slovenes also have not given up the old ways. They still have gardens and decorate their homes with flowers; many make their own wine and some slaughter their own hogs to make homemade sausage, salami and prušt.

The Croatian villages wear sadness in the brown/gray of the buildings, the limited number of flowers, the lack of gardens, the roughness of the roads and the deserted abandoned structures. Their shattered lives are mirrored on their faces, blank eyes; slow to smile, hesitant to make eye contact and then only glance from a down turned face.

Walking along Plitviška Jezera we met a small tour. Even before we heard them speak I was certain they were Americans. They politely made room for us on the boardwalk, they made eye contact and many greeted us as total strangers. We have the luxury of cultural self-confidence. We are secure in our world; we have never been conquered, cleansed, abused, destroyed as a people. Our standard of living so exceeds that of most of the world that we can hold our heads high with a smile and a nod.

The last day of our trip we spend along the Adriatic coast. A dark thunderstorm, pushing from the mountains, sends curtains of rain out to meet the waves during the night. The view from our room in the pink of the early morning light is the unspoiled sight of the bare naked island off the coast. As we walk along the beach listening to the waves drag the pebbles back to sea we are so very aware that this is the same view seen by the Greek sailors who landed here and the Roman soldiers that built roads along the rocky face. Senj is a walled village [again to protect from the Turks] with interior medieval squares lined with decaying buildings, broken walls, remnants of decorative windows and doorframes. Functional buildings of the 70’s step up the hillside, but prime location buildings along the sea wall are deserted with no business. The downtown hotel with the view of the harbor is closed, maybe for the season, but maybe forever. Men are standing in the early morning waiting for work buses or are they waiting for work that will not happen on this day? Wood is delivered and stacked next to the downtown buildings waiting for the man to drive up on the little green woodcutter and cut the firewood to the perfect size for the peč to warm the buildings for the winter. The hills that wash into the sea are sprinkled with new summer homes, but no older homes as we see in other places along the coast. We wonder if this harbor was protection for a navy in WWII and the city was bombed of its character and has never quite recovered.

It is a relief to come home to Slovenia, to a place of calm and rational thinking, and to a country that did not choose to destroy itself to spite its neighbors.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


My best friend from high school is here to visit for a week. When I moved to a new high school between my sophomore and junior year Meryl was one of the first people I met at the cafeteria lunch table the first week of school. She has always been the kind of friend who sits up late with me remembering and laughing about our youth and talking about the issues of maturity. We don’t see each other often enough, but it is perfect when we do. Having her here is the greatest joy because she delights in absolutely everything we do. Every morsel she eats, every medieval village, every mountaintop, every shuttered window is a thrill to her. We go to Aquilela to see a 14th century mosaic floor in the Basilica of Sta. Eufemia, to Grado on the seaside, to the star shaped walled city of Palmanova for cappuccino, and then to Venice to search for treasures in glass , to the villages in Slovenia, which are beautiful even in the rain, and finally to the waltzing hills of Umbria .

We leave on Sunday for Venice. We don't know it, but it is the day of the Venice marathon. The runners start on the Brenta Riviera and finish in Venice across the causeway and through the city. The causeway is blocked, traffic is slow and confused because of homemade signs and police looking so very official in full uniform doing the Italian thing; talking, talking, talking. What do they have to talk about?

The city is the normal press of tourists squeezing into narrow passage ways jostling in the density, but it is even more difficult to maneuver because of the running lanes blocking off the path along the Grand Canal, and high water on St. Marco. Wooden platforms crisscross the piazza and pools of water lap at people’s feet gurgling up from the drains. We wander, looking, eating, drinking and shopping for little things that Meryl can resell. Miniatures of everything are made in glass, teeny tiny bugs, cartoon characters, ballerinas, Santa Clauses, even devils with giant penises; tiny miniscule details with fragile lives. The city is so intoxicating. We both are in the clutches of a historical stupor and neither of us want to leave. We find a hotel hidden away from the crowds, stay the night and have dinner of spaghetti with pesto and calamari on Via Garabaldi . The street is dimly lit except for the restaurants. The apartments above are shuttered and dark and only the locals are out and about. The other diners greet those walking by with cheek pecking and hand pumping as if each person is the most important soul in their world. We both enjoy the fantasy that we are members of this historic community that spawned John Cabot and Antonio Vivaldi.

Arm in arm in the darkness we saunter along the Grand Canal to piazza San Marco. Three café are lit and occupied; two with small orchestras that alternate songs. The small crowd of tourists, too cheap to pay the music cover charge and 15 € for ice cream, shift between the two café standing in the darkness listening to the music. A few couples claim the deserted piazza as their dance floor to waltz into romance. We choose a quiet café across the square to share a toast to long friendships, fantasy, music and dancing in the shadow of St. Mark’s Cathedral.

Monday we reclaim the car from the car park and head to Umbria. My plan is to drive along the western coastline to avoid the high speed and crushing trucks on the super highway. It is a coastal road and I expect that there will be great views of the Adriatic and lovely summer villages to pass through, but I am thinking like an American. The road is miserable and a serious driving mistake. This is not highway 1 in New England or highway 101 in California where one does not even have to get out of the car to see the glorious vistas and enjoy the sea. No the Italians leave the beauty of the sea for those who have homes in the tourist towns. We don’t see the sea at all! Instead this road appears to be an expanded farm road that meanders through the swampy areas clogged with slow moving trucks and no place to pass. I finally can stand the traffic no longer and we pull off to enjoy lunch or a cappuccino along the seaside. Everything is closed! The town is completely deserted. The modern apartments that looked over the beach are shuttered tight against the winter. The shops, restaurants, hotels, café are empty, closed tight for the “off season”, and no one was walking the beach. On this glorious warm day in October there is only a hint of the laughter and joy that people share here in the hot summer. I am certain in the heat of the summer this place and all the other towns just like it are hopping, over crowded and crazy wild. Without a doubt I am not traveling this road during the height of tourist season either.

We push on to Gubbio and the reward is great. The city claims to be the largest medieval city in Italy. The buildings are beautifully restored with stone exteriors, hotels, restaurants and shops interspersed among the ancient apartments. The market on Tuesday morning fills the lower square, stores on wheels bring the goods to the customer, rather than expecting the customer to travel the paved cow path to Perugia. Vendors greet the locals by name, calling out the special bargain of the day and the music of the moment is the sound of people connecting with each other. I find it interesting that the voice of the language here in Umbria is so much louder and harsher than the fluid chocolaty melody I hear all the time in Gorizia. The magical flavor is enhanced every evening with luscious local cuisine and wines and quiet walks along the cobbled streets.

Meryl really wants to go to Deruta. Her mother Davie had Deruta pottery when Meryl was growing up and she has collected some of her own pieces, so going to the place where all this beauty is made was a dream come true. The village of Deruta boasts dozens of pottery shops owned and operated by the artists who create the hand painted ceramic ware. The village is a speck on the map near Perugia with an isolated charm that has made a commitment to those who value the brilliant colors, the ancient designs, the slow intense hand painted artistry and the pleasure of speaking to the artists as you watch them work. It is a glorious sunny day and the town has only a trickle of buyers. In each shop the artists work on a piece, painting the designs on hand thrown pottery that has been dipped in white after the firing. Many of the pieces are classic traditional designs that include a stylized dragon. The Raffaellesco pattern is said to have been created by Raphael, the master painter and architect of the Italian High Renaissance. The dragon is “a benevolent deity, bestowing good luck and fair winds to the seagoing merchants of the era with the puffs of wind steaming from his mouth”. Other designs are adaptations of the traditional, but many of the artists have also created unique contemporary motifs. We wander throughout the town peeking in each shop, talking with the artists, comparing the designs and colors. After another gastronomic delight we return to our favorite shops. Meryl buys pieces for the gallery to be sent home and I find a treasure in my favorite colors blue and yellow for which they are so famous.

It was hard to put Meryl on the train for Naples and the second half of her trip. We both are going off alone after a deep connection that spans many many years. It feels pretty lonely without her.