Saturday 25 January 2014

Waiting for the Bura

In Istria, winds have names, just like in Italy, France, and other Mediterranean countries. So locals never refer to the ‘wind’, they always mention the name of the wind they’re talking about, which would be either the Bura or the Yugo.

So I’ve overheard people say things like:

“The Bura blew over all my flower pots!”

“Go close the window upstairs - the Yugo is banging it!”

Since these winds which blow over the Adriatic Sea have a very strong influence on the weather, the Bura and Yugo are always mentioned in weather reports.

I’m getting to know these two temperamental winds better. Before, wind was just wind for me, but now I know that each has its own very specific characteristics.

“Is this the Bura blowing today?” I would ask, only to be contradicted: “Noooo! This is the Yugo!”

So I’ve been asking people what the differences are and this is what I’ve been able to gather:

The Bura is cold and brings sunny weather and clear skies.
It comes from the North.
It blows in strong gusts.
The Bura makes a lot of noise and blows roof tiles off houses and uproots trees.
The Bura can be very dangerous on the seas.
The Bura (Bora in Italian) is very, very strong in Trieste.
It lasts for a few days only.

The Yugo is a warm wind which brings clouds and rain, and damp, humid air.
It blows from the South (jug means ‘South’).
It blows continuously.
The springtime floods in Venice are blamed on the Yugo (called Sirocco in Italian).
It can last for a week and even longer.

Lately we’ve had too much Yugo. Most of January has been cloudy and damp, but relatively warm, with many long spells of Yugo and rainy weather. As a result, I’ve been hearing a lot of complaints about the Yugo. The dampness brought by the Yugo has been blamed for all sorts of things... Our neighbour told me his knees hurt when there’s too much Yugo. My aunt complained that her cukerančići (a type of sugar-coated biscuit) are too soft because of the Yugo. The mold appearing around doorways is also blamed on – you guessed it – the Yugo. Winter is the season when locals cure meats like pršut – which won’t happen with the humid air of the Yugo. We’ve also been inconvenienced by the Yugo. The newly plastered walls of the house we’re waiting to move into are not drying!

As a result, everyone has been anxiously waiting for the Bura to blow through town so that all will be well again. So after an extended period of Yugo, the first strong gusts of the Bura finally arrived last night. I was sure this was the Bura – because I could hear its fury as it whistled past the windows and rattled the shutters. This morning we woke up to clear blue skies and a bright sunny day. The Bura had worked its magic and blew away the clouds and damp air, bringing a noticeably colder but crisp winter day.

Welcome Bura! May our neighbour get relief from his knee pain and the mold stop growing around doorways! My aunt’s cukerančići will turn out just perfect, and hopefully the plaster on our walls will dry quickly!

Monday 20 January 2014

Memories of my first trip to Istria

The first time I visited Istria was in 1979.

My parents had been living in Canada for over ten years by then, had become Canadian citizens, and during that time my older brother and I were born.

This trip would be the first time my parents were going back home for a visit since they had left. They hadn’t seen their family members for many years and for my brother and me, it would be the very first trip to the place of our parents’ birth where we would meet our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins for the first time. 

Before this trip, the only contact we had with family members in Istria was through letters, photographs and the rare telephone call. We had a collection of photographs my mother kept in a canvas bag of people I didn’t know. Many were black and white and the ones we received in letters were in colour. I remember picking out a wedding photo and asking my father whose wedding it was. “That’s my sister,” he told me, pointing to the bride. My father had a sister? This seemed strange to me. I studied the faces in the photograph with curiosity.

The closest contact I personally had with my faraway family members was through the gifts they would send to us, sometimes through the mail but more often in the suitcases of my parents’ friends and acquaintances. I had a set of children’s handkerchiefs my grandmother had sent me, decorated with hearts and cartoon-like drawings. I also had a purse an aunt had embroidered for me. These tokens were the only tangible things I had which revealed that there were people far away who cared about us.

My father with his family before my parents left for Canada

We travelled from Toronto to Zagreb on JAT Airlines. After a long and uncomfortable flight which seemed endless (for a child anyway) we arrived at Zagreb airport in the middle of the night. I remember a woman at the arrivals area calling out “Svi za Beograd!” (All for Belgrade) in a loud voice, over and over.

I next remember being on a train. When I woke up we had arrived in Pazin and it was still dark. My grandmother was at the door of the train as we disembarked. I knew her only from her photographs but even though it was the first time I was meeting her in person, somehow I already felt close to her.

Next we were at the house where my father was born (and at least four generations of his family before him). The whole family was there to greet us and I was meeting not only my grandparents, but also aunts, uncles and cousins who until then I had only known by name and from the photographs in my mother’s canvas bag.

Going back in time: the Zastava 750!
Istria was very different then. The roads were not paved and the cars were tiny. My grandparents did not have a phone, water was delivered by a truck and stored in a cistern, and there was a squat toilet in the barn. Though I came from a very different world, nothing seemed strange to me. As a child I accepted everything unconditionally and without question. I loved staying at my grandparents’ house and it would become the most idyllic place in the world for me. I loved being outdoors the whole day, feeding the chickens with my grandmother and accompanying my grandfather when he took the cows to the pond. I was delighted and fascinated by all the farm animals and enjoyed picking cherries, plums and figs from the many fruit trees. My grandfather carved tiny wooden toys for us: miniature farming tools like a sickle, a yoke, a basket, a rake, which we loved playing with.

We also spent a lot of time travelling all over Istria visiting my mother’s huge family. I remember the many emotional reunions, and travelling in buses with the doors wide open and the radio turned up loud, playing Rod Stewart's 'Do Ya Think I'm Sexy'.

We spent the whole summer in Istria and it was eventually time to go home and back to school. My grandmother started crying days before we were to leave. But she soon came to visit us in Canada, and four years after our first trip we returned to Istria for another long summer holiday. Then years later when I started travelling independently, I would visit my grandparents almost every year.

Since my first trip to Istria over 30 years ago, many things have changed, both political and economic, as well as social changes. The roads are now in excellent condition and the cars much bigger. There are fewer buses plying the roads though, and the train no longer runs from Zagreb to Pula via Pazin. My grandparents are no longer here. But my vivid childhood memories of my first trip to Istria remain.

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Tuesday 7 January 2014

The last day of Christmas

Yesterday, the 6th of January, was Epiphany, the last day of Christmas. Also known as Three Kings Day, this is a national holiday in Croatia. I liked the fact that the Christmas holidays here extend to January 6th – I had always hated going back to work on January 2nd – here Christmas lasts for the full twelve days, which seems very civilized!

I remember my mother observing the Epiphany holiday and telling me that when she was a child they would call it ‘little Christmas’. In Belgium and Northern France, a special cake is eaten on this day called the galette des rois. Children love it because a small ceramic token is hidden in the cake, and the person who finds it gets to be ‘king’ for the day and wear the paper crown which comes with these cakes sold in bakeries for this occasion.

Here in Gračišće, the holiday was celebrated with a ‘live’ manger scene where the village’s residents dressed up and enacted the nativity story. This was a repeat of the same event which took place on December 26th but unfortunately had become a ‘non-event’ because of the bad weather. So everyone was hoping that the rain would stay away on Epiphany day, and indeed it did.

A stable had been built next to the church’s bell tower where the manger scene was set up (which included several sheep and donkeys!), and along the lanes leading from the village square to the church, there were small stands with people dressed up in period costumes - or as close to ‘Roman’ dress as their imaginations would take them!.

Some were enacting traditional trades and crafts – and many were skilled craftsmen who used to work at these traditional trades: there was a basket weaver, a blacksmith, a barrel-maker, as well as millers and carpenters. It was fun to see our neighbours dressed up in this way.

Scenes from the nativity story were sung by a small choir as a young couple (who had recently had a baby!) dressed as Mary and Joseph made their way through the village, looking for a place to spend the night but being turned away. Finally an innkeeper made some space for them in the stable. Baby Jesus was actually a baby girl, but this didn’t matter, and she managed to somehow sleep peacefully as people crowded into the stable to have a closer look at the live nativity scene. The Three Wise Men of course soon arrived bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, with the village mayor as Balthazar.

Now that the twelve days of Christmas are over, life goes back to normal. For many people today was the first working day of the year, and this morning I saw the Christmas lights being taken down. In keeping with tradition, I’m also taking down the decorations I had put up on this blog!

Wednesday 1 January 2014

New Year's Day in Opatija

Over breakfast we decided to spend New Year’s Day at the seaside. 

Many friends have asked me if we live near the sea. Since Istria is a peninsula, it naturally has lots of seaside. And since we live right in the centre, if we want to go to the sea, we’re spoiled for choice. If we head east, west or south, we’re bound to hit the coast, which is only about 20 kilometres away at its closest point to us. 

So today we decided to head east towards Opatija. We could have taken the highway and the Učka tunnel to get there, but we decided to take the coastal road and we’re glad we did because the views of the Učka mountain range and island of Cres were breathtaking.

The weather was perfect for walking: relatively mild at 10 degrees, and no wind. We parked in the neighbouring coastal town of Ičići and strolled along the scenic seaside promenade to Opatija. Its official name is the ‘Franz Joseph I Promenade’ (after the Austrian emperor) but locals use its Italian appellation, the ‘Lungomare’.

This 12-kilometre long seaside promenade was built over 100 years ago when Opatija was a fashionable tourist destination during the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It still seems to be popular with the Austrians; I heard many people speaking German with the distinctive Austrian accent today. And lots of Italian too.

As we approached Opatija, enjoying the fresh sea air and the views of the Bay of Kvarner on the way, we could hear singing... there was a traditional Klapa concert underway on the seafront in front of the well-known ‘Maiden with the Seagull’ statue. Enchanted by the strong male bass and baritone voices and the sounds of the mandolin, accordion, double bass and classical guitar, we stopped to listen to this group of five male musicians.

Many of the songs they sang were popular Croatian favourites and we liked the music so much that we approached them afterwards to ask if they had a CD. They did and we bought one! The group is called Klapa Nevera – to hear some traditional Croatian Klapa music, check out their YouTube page here.

During the concert, a group of men wearing Santa hats jumped in the water! This was not part of the show, but a few locals taking part in this New Year’s Day tradition of taking a ‘cold swim’.

After lunch we walked back to the car, admiring the many beautiful historic Austro-Hungarian and Italian-style villas.

A trip to Opatija, the music of Klapa Nevera, and a long walk along the Lungomare was a pleasant way to spend the first day of 2014.

Happy New Year!
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