Thursday 28 November 2013

The J is pronounced Y

After a lifetime of having my surname mispronounced, misspelled and misunderstood, it is absolutely delightful – and I should also add very odd – to live in a place where my name is understood by everyone, where I don’t even have to ever spell it, and not only that, half the village (OK maybe not half but many, many people) have the same surname as me. 

The cause of this mispronunciation, misspelling and misunderstanding all has to do with the letter J. Growing up in an English-speaking country, my surname was invariably mispronounced because in Croatian (like in many other European languages) the J is pronounced like a Y. 

It could have been worse. I once had a Croatian friend in Canada who had an even harder time than me: the first four letters of her surname were all consonants! At least my family name has a few vowels thrown in for ease of pronunciation. Not that this really helped… I have heard so many distorted and convoluted variations of my surname it’s not even funny. It’s amazing how a J can completely throw people off. Actually, I would be happy if anyone managed to pronounce it right even with the erroneous J sound thrown in. But those exceptional few who pronounced the J like a Y right off the bat (and they were very few and far between) instantly got a big shiny star in my books. 

Then at some point I decided it was time to put things straight. How difficult is it to understand that the J is pronounced like a Y?? Everyone knows how to say Sarajevo and AFC Ajax… So I decided that from that point on, I would gently point out to anyone attempting to pronounce my surname that the J is pronounced Y

So it’s a big relief that for the first time in my life, there is no need to repeat or even spell my surname. It is immediately understood, and duly noted down correctly, not a letter out of place. 

However, I am now confronted by a new problem… this time by my first name! Isabel is not a Croatian name at all so it is often mispronounced or misspelled by Croatian speakers. Being a phonetic language, the S in Croatian is pronounced with a soft ‘sss’ sound, so my name here becomes Isssabel (which I got used to hearing in India). Written down, it is invariably spelled Izabel – which I kinda like! 

I can live with that.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Doors of Istria

A door in Pula

Readers who have followed me here from my India blog will know that I love photographing doors and doorways. I already have a small collection of photographs of doors I've taken in Istria and would like to share a few here. Open the door and step inside...

A door in Oprtalj

A door in Draguć

A door in Gračišće

A door in Livade

A gate in Oprtalj

Another door in Oprtalj

And another gate in Oprtalj

Friday 15 November 2013

Our house – the story

Well I guess it’s time to mention the story of our house in Gračišće and the on-going renovation work, which is the reason why we’re here in Istria. 

We became the owners of this property earlier this year, after a very long process which started more than seven years ago... 

It was during one of our frequent visits to Istria to visit my grandparents and other family that we considered buying a property in Gračišće. About eights years ago, this crumbling and almost deserted village was just starting to experience the beginnings of a rebirth. With each visit, we saw the gradual changes as the old stone houses were being rebuilt and renovated and the village seemed to slowly come back to life. This is a trend happening across many of Istria’s villages but at a slow and measured pace. In most cases, these old houses are bought and completely renovated and then resold at significant mark-ups, or rented out during the tourist season. 

Inspired by the magnificent makeover of Grožnjan, another delightful Istrian hilltop village which was practically a ghost town for decades, we decided we wanted to contribute to the regeneration of Gračišće by restoring one of its old stone houses. At the same time, the decision to buy a house here was also made for sentimental reasons because of the strong family connection I have here. I can also add that we love Istria’s scenic beauty and simply enjoy spending time here so these were all good reasons to buy a house here. 

Buying a house in Istria was not a simple process! It took a lot of time, perseverance and patience.

The first step was to find a house available for sale. Walk around any village in Istria and you’ll see many abandoned houses in various stages of decay so you would think that there’s a lot available. However, the reason why many houses are in a derelict state is because they were abandoned when people emigrated to North and South America, Australia, and other countries in Europe. Many people left, never to come back. Properties automatically got handed down from one generation to the next. Families tended to be big, and as a result a house can have multiple owners on its property title who are often resident in several different countries and even continents. In some cases property registers were not updated properly and as Istria was bartered between countries – from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Italy to Yugoslavia to Croatia – and administrative systems changed as a result – well, you can imagine the mess. 

When we first heard a house was for sale in Gračišće, it was sold before we could even make a bid. Then we heard another old stone house was available which had been abandoned for decades and didn’t even have a roof anymore but it was located on the very edge of the village with a spectacular view. This time we were outbid by a buyer who was willing to pay more than the property’s value (and today the house is still in the same crumbling state). 

Trying to find out who owns one of the village’s many dilapidated houses is detective work. My uncle helped us by asking around and checking property records. Finally we identified a house owner living in Italy who wanted to sell her family home. Before being able to sell, the first step for her was to ‘clear’ the property title which listed 18 persons as part owners! Apparently when her father had bought the house long ago, the property title was not updated. She had to hire a lawyer to investigate who the other 'part owners' were and whether they were even still alive. This process took three years! When things seemed to be resolved and the title could finally be registered in her name, the municipality claimed part ownership and the matter had to be settled in court. To cut a very long story short, it took four years for us to be able to buy this house. 

So after many years of waiting for administrative hurdles to be crossed and hoops jumped through, we now have a home in Gračišće. The next test of patience is the renovation work… this post is already long enough so this will be the topic of a future post!

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Friday 8 November 2013

Taking a pet to Croatia and the EU

Gračišće has not only gained two new inhabitants recently, but also another resident cat. Clearly the fact that we brought our pet cat Squeaky (above) with us all the way from India, is seen as somewhat odd and even amusing by the locals. Though people here do keep cats and dogs as pets, they’re often not allowed inside the house and there are clear limits on how (affectionately) pets are treated. Maybe these emotional barriers are necessary in a society where traditionally people have raised animals to kill and eat them. I don’t know...

But my aunts love to tease me about the time my pet cat was sick while my grandmother was visiting us in Canada. I was a child of 9 and was worried my cat would die. “We don’t cry for animals,” I remember my grandmother telling me, “only for people.” Up to this day, my aunts love to remind me of that incident, which they find absolutely hilarious: “Remember that time you cried because your cat was sick and it had to go to the ‘animal hospital’?!” So imagine the new level of hilarity they got to experience when I told them our South Indian cat was going to travel by plane all the way from India to Croatia.

We weren’t thrilled at the prospect of transporting kitty by plane – cats are not enthusiastic travellers and Squeaky absolutely hates being put into her carrier, even if it’s for a 5-minute drive to the vet’s and has loudly expressed her annoyance each time we had to attempt this. Then of course there was the lengthy paperwork to be done and procedures to be followed… not only to export a pet animal out of India, but also to import it into Croatia.

As I had promised, I have written up an informational post meant for people who plan to travel with a pet to Croatia, or anywhere in the European Union. In this post, I describe the procedure required to import a pet animal into the EU, offer some tips on travelling with pets by plane, and share our experience. I also include information on the procedure to export pets from India. When I was researching this prior to our move, it was difficult to find clear, up-to-date and complete information, so I hope this detailed report will be helpful to people who may arrive at this page via a Google search.

So if you want to know how to take your pet to Croatia, or export it from India, continue reading…

Sunday 3 November 2013

All Saints Day

As my friends in India were lighting lamps for the Diwali holiday recently, people in Croatia and other parts of Europe were lighting candles for a different type of holiday. November 1st is All Saints Day, a day to remember family members and loved ones who are no longer with us. This is a national holiday in Croatia as well as in many other European countries. 

My grandparents, great-grandparents and other extended family members are buried in the cemetery in Gračišće. Cemeteries in Istria are usually located separate from the village and many have tall, evergreen cypress trees. In Gračišće the cemetery is located across the road from the old village in ‘new Gračišće’ with a view of the hills beyond. 

After my grandparents passed away, I would always go to the cemetery first whenever I came to Istria, to pay my respects to them. My father would usually accompany me. We’d first go see the graves of his younger brother and sister who died as infants, which was common in the days when infant mortality was high in many parts of Europe. As we would make our way through the graveyard, he would tell me stories about the people he had known who are buried here… a young girl who had died of polio, an electrician who had fallen from an electrical pole, a young man who was accidentally shot while cleaning his gun during military service. 

On the day before All Saints Day, the cemetery was already full of people tending to their relatives’ graves: sweeping away old leaves and debris, laying fresh flowers and lighting votive candles. The graves were covered in a sea of flowers and there was a smell of burning plastic (from the candles). My grandparents’ graves were already neat and tidy and laid with fresh flowers which meant my aunt had already been there. 

On the morning of the holiday, there were cars parked everywhere around the cemetery as people came to honour their ancestors and attend mass at the church. After mass, families assembled next to the tombstones of their relatives as the village priest led a few prayers for the departed and then sprinkled the congregation and graves with holy water. 

This is a somewhat sombre religious holiday, but also a day when families get together to remember their ancestors and share a meal together afterwards. 

When I passed by the cemetery at night, it was a sea of red lights flickering in the dark – a solemn but beautiful sight!

Friday 1 November 2013

Where the streets have no name

The streets in Gračišće have no name. Yes, the village is that small. So how do addresses work, you ask? Well, each house has a number. The village priest’s house is number 1. Numbers then move consecutively clockwise. More or less consecutively, not always logically. Some houses have a small number plate on their facades, many don’t.

And how do people find an address in the village if there are no street names and most houses don't display a number? It’s a bit like in India - people use landmarks and visual clues. They’ll say: “It’s that green house next to the big church.” Or “It’s that place next to Pino’s old house.” Or “It’s at the end of the road that leads to St. Euphemia Church.”  

There’s one street in the village which has an unofficial name, called ‘Putok’ which means ‘small stream’. I asked why it’s called ‘small stream’ and was told because when it rains the road becomes a small stream. Which reminded me of monsoon time in India.

Letters are addressed to Gračišće followed by the house number, then the village postal code and the name of the village again. In a village where the streets have no name, it’s as simple or potentially confusing as that.

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