It is midday on Sunday. We are sitting in a train compartment, waiting to depart Rijeka station. The last time we caught a train, from Sarajevo to Mostar, it was a scramble to get on board. This train looks the same – a little old-fashioned and worn – but as the journey commences here, we were able to take all the time in the world to get organised. We picked up some rolls to eat on board which is just as well. There are only three carriages on this train. Definitely no buffet car.
We have spent the last three nights in Opatija. It has been a journey down memory lane for me. Ten kilometres outside of Rijeka (near Opatija) is a village called Viskovo. I lived there for six months. That was thirty- five years ago, and someone has stolen my village in the meantime. It was once a single lane main road without kerb and guttering, and with a few tracks veering off into the forest, a line of old houses straggling alongside, one half-stocked grocery store and a closed church (religion was not encouraged under socialism). It is now a small town, full of new and renovated houses, restaurants, businesses, asphalted streets and heavy traffic. My particular friend of long ago – Ana – now supplements her pension by cooking and cleaning for the local priest who moved into town some years back.
Times change, and time passes quickly. That is what we all agree as I reconnect with long-lost old friends.
Mira, who came to find us at our apartment, was a child under ten when I saw her last. Now she is a married woman with two almost adult children. She has been looking forward to our visit for months, and she set aside time to show us around the area. She is skilful at negotiating her battered old car around the narrow streets and tight bends of the roads that lead along the coast of this part of Croatia. We are staying in Volosko, the first of a string of former fishing villages that surround Opatija. Opatija itself was popular with the holidaymakers of the Austro Hungarian empire, and it boasts many fine villas and hotels in baroque style. As we pull in and out of one scenic stop after another, Mira points out the various popular beaches and the glimpses back to Rijeka, and to Cres and Krk – two nearby islands. One can actually walk from Volosko all the way to Lovran along a twelve kilometre coastal promenade. (We intended to do this but all available time was taken with catching up with old friends). We ended our drive at a place called Mosenica Draga, another seaside beach town at the base of a mountain, and on the doorstep of the Istria region of Croatia – bordering Italy.
Later that day, we went to Mira’s house for what Australians would call a barbecue, and they call a grill. What was formerly the site of a chicken run has now been re-built into an outside entertainment “house”, and it boasts an open cooking fireplace. Mira’s husband had a roaring fire going, and when it died down into embers, he placed a metal grill on a stand over the coals, and commenced cooking the meat. We gorged ourselves on a meat, salad and fried potato feast. Mira’s mother – Ana – arrived from work shortly after, and then she ducked off to call another relative from the house behind. I was joking about how uncontrollably curly my hair has been since I don’t spend time on it while travelling, and that ended up with me being dragged back to her place for a wash and blow dry in her home-based hairdressing salon. So that will explain why I scrubbed up neatly in some of the photos.
It was a great couple of days catching up with friends who were once so familiar to me. Everyone is related, as people tend not to move much in their lifetime, and as land is divided up through the generations, family members build behind one another. It is this expansion that has created some of the new streets. Some of the family members did relocate to Germany years ago, thinking that they were only going for one or two years to make their fortune, and then finding themselves raising their children in a foreign land. The old people tend to return to their homeland in retirement, but the children stay in the adopted country and make a new branch of the family. Damir is one of them. His mother Rose has been telling him for months that we were coming for a visit, but it sounded so ludicrous to his ears – that we would come all the way from Australia back to this little known, and off the tourist track place – that he thought she was mistaken. He was delighted to find that his plan to visit his parents for the weekend co-incided with our visit. We spent part of Saturday with him at the beach in Icici. It would take Bill and I a long time to adapt to finding lying on pebbles a pleasant way to spend the day at the “beach”, but swimming in the still waters of the Adriatic is quite enjoyable for me. I am not a confident surf swimmer. There is not much surf in the western suburbs of Sydney where I grew up 🙂
Damir says I am a legend in the family, and never a year has passed without them wondering what became of me after we lost touch. I guess the story of a single, young Australian girl turning up in a communist Yugoslav village for no particular reason is something of an urban myth. Everyone I meet is delighted to see me again. It is so very touching. They remember me as a young girl who was quiet and kind, a diligent housekeeper, who tended the chickens and shopped every day for the old lady I cared for. A girl who could get fourteen meals a week out of one chicken and a kilo of meat. I knitted Mira a fair aisle jumper which she wore for Sunday best, and I taught her to knit as well. Ana and Rose taught me how to embroider in the geometric Balkan pattern.
Those who know me now are falling around laughing at the thought of this. JoJo – I can hear you now: “Gwen? A cook and housekeeper? You must be joking!” It is a strange feeling to come face to face with the person you once were. Even I would have to agree that girl no longer exists. She seems a stranger even to me. And as for being quiet – well that definitely is a myth. It was simply that I was still learning their language, and couldn’t get my smart remarks in quickly enough before the conversation moved on.
I am not the only one who has changed. Ana was more of a village woman than me, with a husband and two children, sharing a half of the house of her in-laws. She grew the vegetables that fed them all, and tended the chickens, and the pigs. Every year a pig would turn into salami, and she had a hand to play in that. Now she is a widow, and she lives in a new house, on the floor above Mira. Whenever she has free time from housekeeping for the priest and his guests, she goes mountaineering. She has been all over Europe with a rucksack and walking stocks. She is so strong and fit that I feel quite inadequate by comparison. But as she says, she was born a mountain woman, and being in the mountains is home to her.
Well, enough of the reminiscing. Time to get back into tourist mode. Next stop – Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Thursday 11th – Sunday 14th July 2013, Garrulous Gwendoline, Opatija, Croatia