iván BRAVE

Writer

From broken wings to zesty food: the country that healed us was Croatia

20 December 2018
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Lavender fields brushed the side of the island of Hvar. It made us feel calm, those handful of nights in paradise. Argentina had been knocked out of the Cup. Threatened were the vibes. But dinner would that night turn things around.

 

I couldn’t even tell you who won the World Cup without googling it to be sure. My mind returns to that morning in Zagreb. Toups and Axel and I had landed without a stress in the world, high off a victory and dizzy from copious drinking till the Petersburgian sunrise. How many naps, uncomfortable naps, do these shuttling cheap half-day euro flights provide to many a weary traveler. St Pete, Moscow, Zagreb. A shot of OJ and an aspirin later, our homie Toups stepped up, rubbing his eyes, to the car rental desk.

 

A beautiful exchange shimmered between him and the rep.

 

Over our shoulder, meanwhile, a new player arrived: Zoe, famous among us. A friend of Axel’s from uni. She courses a reputable law school now, but kicked it on her own all summer long overseas, to ease the tension of one arduous school semester before the next. When she met us, we became four backpackers, in Zagreb, wanting to go south to Split, to make it to Hvar

 

Who spoke the language? None of us. Funny note learned from a trinket saleswoman, though, on day two: locals can communicate a broad range of meaning relying solely on intoned vowels, in place of articulated words. Compare English — a narrow-mouthed, mostly monotonic language –with Hrvati and you compare flat text messages to emojis. This sounds abstract, until I ask you, the reader, to try and speak like a Croat: just say “Ah-Eh” with the desired emotion you wish to communicate. For example, do you see a pretty lady, such as the one at the car rental desk? Say, “A-a-ah Eh-h-h.” Angry with a friend? “Ah! Eh!” Hungry for some Croatian yogurt with nuts and dried fruit? “Ah-e-h-h.” Sleepy for a nap? “Ah. Eh.”

 

Eh? Ah-Eh.

 

I am not sure who in the general public would be interested to try, but this vowel thing taught me to speak from my chest, to add emotion to my words, not just to my vowel-Hrvati, yet in any language. How you talk, remembering what Seneca once wrote, is more important than what you say. After learning Ah-Eh, every communication with the locals became easy, they didn’t hear my foreign tongue and felt threatened, I spoke excitedly, swiftly, pronounced, and they got it, we got it.

 

Airport still? Yes. Toups came to us with a set of keys and his dangling crack of a smile. Winking, almost, he gestured with gusto and jokes.

 

“Who wants to drive?”

 

We each offered our services. Toups cracked up.

 

“Yeah right.”

 

Happy as pie, he drove all the way, south through pristine highways. Destination, Split, a city on the southern coast, to spend two nights at a party hostel, before shipping ourselves out to the lavender island, Hvar. The car ride took deep runs into dark tunnels, opened us up to new conversations unfit for print, let us off at waterfalls and rocky cliffs and even a wine shop slash vineyard where once Bourdain had stepped foot in. In his honor, each of us purchased more than a bottle. Axel and I bought two a piece, one as a gift for back home, one for the couple who would, in a week, house us in Sicily; as well as wine for Croatia itself: some Dalmatia and Barbera varietals to spice up the trip.

 

Why were we in a random Mediterranean countryside, this Croatia? sipping wine I mused. It wasn’t for the EDM festival underway in Split. It wasn’t because we four were GoT fans. Nor could it be that we were following the ig-model trends, for not all of us had Instagram. Fact: Axel and I masterminded the trip, while Toups contributed his indispensable sense of camaraderie and humor, while Zoe too entered the wolf pack supporting us with her perceptive observations and wry wit. We have different tastes, the four of us, yet in common we share a need to travel. Thus we did.

 

I picked, naturally, Russia. Axel picked, as expected, a trendy sexy coastal gourmand haven, Croatia. Toups got us airport lounge access for those overnight airport sleepovers. Zoe keep us boys playing nice, or not. I opened Axel to exploring Sicily, of course later, while Axel warmed me up to Lisboa, at the start of the trip. Toups got us first round at bars, on the one hand, while on the other, Zoe proved essential to organizing the day to day activities, insisting on cool boat rides and turns off the beaten path, assuaging our every hesitation, to repeatedly lead us to the kind of fun we would have otherwise ignored.

 

Split, ain’t going to mention it, except to say that it was bro-y yet historical. Imagine a fraternity spring break to a UNESCO world heritage site. Slung-shot condoms gently glazed the thousand-year-old cobble stones. Staircases as narrow as a teenager’s arm span served for drug deals. Plazas reserved for Sunday markets did the thing they’ve done for centuries each weeknight, made room for tourists to bulldoze each other on ecstasy and fantasy. Yeah, yeah, cool convos were had and a hostel somewhere housed us, those details to come some other time. For now let’s skedaddle.

 

Two nights later we boarded a ship, drifted out to sea, to Hvar, the lavender island.

 

Sigh-ah, sigh-eh. France, the eventual champions, knocked out Argentina. Who could forget. We had raced from the BnB in Hvar to see the game at a sports bar. Why detail it.

 

“Help me keep the Brave boys from making the trip depressing,” Toups told Zoe, who told us later, who both kept us from feeling depressed.

 

Only being ourselves saved us: Axel cooked us a five course meal. Two middle-aged swedes, guests, and a young Serbian, the house-keeper, lent their coquette flare and cigarettes to the party. Toups made jokes. Zoe listened and encouraged. The BnB owner added creamy dessert and pasta. His Greek mother and I recited poetry. (Lavender — have I mentioned it enough? — surrounded us.)

 

All in all, because we experienced the lowest low and then the highest high, that night became the best night of the trip thus far.

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