An Introvert Collecting Stories in Croatia

The boat bobbled along the coast of one of Croatia’s thousand islands. We passed small villages along the coasts that are accessible only by boat and pondered what sustains them. “They finally had to put in some roads,” mentioned Marin, the ship’s captain. “Three years ago there was a fire that burned for three days because no firetrucks could reach it and the weather was too bad for fire-fighting planes.” It is an “old” village mainly of people who have lived there all their lives. We were on our way back from Bol, a touristy beach town on the island of Brac with a blend of the centuries old ruins and the draw of the young touristy crowd. Marin grew up on the boat life learning from his father. His six-year-old son is following in his footsteps and sat on a cushion behind his captain’s wheel. “He only gets one hour a day,” Marin responded when I joked about whether the boy was playing a game or watching a video on the electronic device he held cradled between his knees. The boy has just started kindergarten but on nice days he still heads out to sea with his parents. His older sisters, though, stay in school in Split under the watch of grandma. While the family lives on one of the smaller islands, they maintain an apartment in Split so that the kids have good schools. The choices parents face is universal. How do you get them a good education? How do you balance the world around them and the world of digital media? How do you instill your passions and what you’ve learned over generations? How do you maintain your culture, especially in a country recovering from war and experiencing the influx of tourism as its greatest economic asset?

Branko is happy for the tourism. Approaching sixty, he doesn’t have any other job possibilities but to drive for Uber. His two boys have just gone off to college so the money coming from driving has been sufficient, but he’s hoping more of the locals will start using Uber in the off-season months. He’s thankful for his health and credits eating good food. While there is ample access to McDonald’s in town and several local “fast food” businesses, he’s grateful that his youngest finally stopped eating all that food that has “bad” things put in it. There is plenty of fresh healthy food available, but you have to know, he says, when you go to the market which local farmers are sneaking and using pesticides and which are clean. You just have to know, he nods wisely.

Tourism is also supporting Ivan. A young man driving for a travel company, he works seven days a week during the busy season. He lives with his parents and grandmother, as most people do, he mentions. You see, he remarks, when people build a house they build one floor for each generation. Sometimes you’ll see that the walls are not yet complete or the next floor is not yet added on. “They are waiting for more money to finish the house,” he remarks. “But it is good for the family to live together,” he adds, “We all help each other.”

Miriam works in one of the shops within the old Diocletian Palace built by the Roman Emperor in the 4th century. Unlike almost 3000 other people, however, she doesn’t live within the palace walls, but instead lives “down by the beach” close to where we stayed at Villa Sea Breeze. Wary at first about my line of questioning, she soon began to smile as she talked about her work. She slipped an extra cloth sack of lavender, famously grown in the area, among my souvenir purchases. The young woman at a store nearby was not as reticent. Another traveler and I asked about the “swimmers” on a t-shirt in the front of the store. “Oh,” she responded, “those men are playing Picigin.” Further questioning led to the fact that it is a game played in shallow water along the beach with a hard ball. “It hit me in the face one time and I couldn’t open my eye for two weeks!” she continued, “It’s a really hard ball.” A quick search of Google while pausing for a glass of wine and some appetizers revealed that Picigin was invented in Split when travelers had tried to introduce water polo. The inside rubber from a tennis ball is swatted back and forth among 4-5 players. In an attempt to keep the ball above the water, players are cheered (and in the “World Championship” games, awarded points) for acrobatic prowess in swatting back the ball. Days later in walking the three miles from our villa into the “Old City” we paused to watch some players. Clearly the men upped their game when they noticed “those foreigners” with cameras clicking! (oh….iPhones don’t click….but my SLR does! 😉.)

“There’s no way you’re an introvert,” remarked one of my new friends on this Croatian trip. “You talk with everyone.”

“Ah,” I replied, “but I am a true introvert. It’s just that I am also a story collector. And everyone has a story.”

Each of us on the trip had a story as well about how we had all met Mara. Some of the travelers went to high school with her. Some met her in college or shortly after. Some met her for work and some met her while traveling exotic places. Our stories brought us together in a far-away country to spend time together celebrating her life and celebrating the way that friendship can connect people. Many of us had never met each other before but our one mutual connection led us to a new sisterhood. And connection is really about what matters.

P.S. ….

Mind you, any fellow introvert might have prepared me for  the woes re-entry. But no, I had to crash and burn to figure that out myself! Getting over jet-lag is one thing. Reaclimating to single parenting three active, completely energy-draining young boys is a totally different story. I sure wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t ready for the constant demands to be fed (of all things). The unbending march of the schedule of school and afterschool and evening activities. The seemingly endless bedtime routine. By day four, I was texting a very old “sister” and one of my new “sisters” about my struggle. It definitely took some time to realize I needed to settle down, give myself a little more space, get to bed right after the boys and be patient. Traveling is very good. And traveling is very exhausting!