“Why Croatia?” (Part II)
In Part I of “Why Croatia,” I explained how I happened to get here in the first place, for a week in September, 2014. And how, for whatever reason, I felt completely at home here from the minute I stepped off the boat.
By the end of that week?
I was in love with the country.
By the end of the week?
I was having fantasies of living here.
Right next to the sea.
I went to Istanbul for the final week of the trip and cried about leaving Croatia. I walked around Istanbul — an enormous, gorgeous, mysterious city — completely depressed. I even spent a couple of my afternoons there sitting and staring morosely out the window at the Bosphorous. Which I NEVER do. I never sit and stare morosely out windows. Even in boring places.
The minute I got back to California, I began considering how I’d return to Croatia. Financially. Work-wise. Kid-wise. Reality-wise. I kept thinking, “People don’t just DO this. They don’t take five-week trips and then get home and need to go again. Or, if they want to . . . they don’t . . . .”
I DID NOT CARE.
I needed to get back to Croatia.
How was this going to work? How could I work it? What about working, for instance?
It didn't matter.
I knew I had to follow the instinct.
By Thanksgiving, I’d bought a non-refundable plane ticket (actually, several . . . because many flights are involved) to Zadar, and arranged with my son’s colleague to rent his place in Diklo for March and April, 2015.
During the holidays, I met a man in California and we fell in love. I came to Croatia anyway, without him. (He was invited. He wouldn’t take the time off work.)
We broke up during my stay here.
I did not break up with Croatia.
I came here again for almost another month in September, and knew what I had to do: to go back to California, get everything in order, and come back here. To live here as much as I could.
And that’s exactly what I did.
“But . . . WHY?” you ask.
In Part III, I’ll talk about the connections and . . . spiritual? . . . apects. Today, we’ll cover the stuff that would make sense to anyone, regardless.
Along with that sea, this little country about the size of West Virginia has stunning rivers, mountains, old world villages, walled cities, great architecture . . . .
And . . . .
And this is just two photos of the maybe 5,000 (literally) I’ve taken here so far. There are primordial waterfalls at Plitvice and Krka. There are miles and miles and miles of stunning coastline. There are 1,200 islands off-shore. There is the walled city of Dubrovnik. There is a wine-country region northwest of Zagreb (even though most of the country is “wine country” . . . grapes grow everywhere. Even outside my bedroom window, 50 m from the Adriatic) that rivals Napa’s for rolling-hills gorgeousness. There are backcountry roads with herds of sheep crossing them. There is cosmopolitan Zagreb, with museum after museum after museum, and city park after city park. There is Split, the busiest port on this side of the Adriatic, where the half of the old town and city center sits inside what was Roman Emperor Diocletian’s fourth-century AD palace/garrison.
There are stone walls, stone churches, stone roofs from centuries and centuries ago. There is gorgeous vegetation growing everywhere. . . except on on the stark grey rock Velebit mountains that run like a spine down most of the country. There are national parks. Stunning bridges. Lakes. Snow-capped peaks. There is green green green, blue blue blue, and greys and whites and browns. There are seaside villages with church steeples and red tile roofs and “rives” (seaside walks) for strolling alongside the Adriatic. There are caves to explore and rivers to raft. There are Unesco World Heritage sites. If you are a boater, you are in Heaven. Also snorkeling and scuba diving.
And all of this, so close together. A drive from the north to the south of the country on the toll highway takes about as long as it does to drive from the Bay Area to San Diego.
In short: if you are someone inspired by natural and architectural beauty, this place — square foot for square foot — is about as close to Heaven on Earth as you’re going to get.
2. The Romans
They were here.
All over the place.
Salona, just outside Split, was the capital of their province of Dalmatia.
For the equivalent of about $8, you can buy an entrance ticket to the remains of this city AND CLIMB ALL OVER EVERYTHING! Investigating all on your own, in un-roped-off glee.
Which to me is another version of Heaven. Because I feel a particular affinity for imaginary members of the Roman Empire, having written a murder mystery/crime drama (THE ROAD PRESENTS ITSELF . . . buy it on Amazon!) about several of them. And those characters still live in my brain, and I am looking forward to when they start writing the sequel that I will type for them (which is how the first one went).
And it’s not just Salona where the Romans were.
They were all over Croatia. Including in downtown present-day Zadar, where you can visit (and climb all over) remains of the town’s forum. Which I do, while eating a slice of pizza for lunch after working out at the gym.
I’ve also, for example, visited ruins off of dirt roads in the Roman settlements of Burnum, Asseria and Varvaria. And walked around the floor of the amphitheater where gladiators fought in present-day Pula.
You don’t get to do this kind of thing in California.
And I need communion with my characters.
3. Proximity to other very cool places.
Last month, I rode the bus to Budapest. (Actually, it took three buses, because there were transfers. But it was still only about and eight total hour trip . . . just about as much time as you’d spend driving to an airport and getting there early, flying on a delayed flight, getting your luggage and getting transport to your hotel on the other end . . . .)
Round trip cost?
Two weeks ago, I flew to Sicily and stayed a week. Round trip airfare was just under $300.
If you are staying in Central Europe, the rest of Europe is not too far away. In fact, it all pretty much fits inside the same space as the continental United States takes up .
In other words, when I am in this time of my life hungry for travel and beauty and other cultures, it’s much easier and cheaper to jump off from here to visit them than it is from California.
4. The finances
Bless the kuna, Croatia’s American-wallet-friendly currency.
The exchange rate is favorable to the American dollar, and prices for almost everything in Croatia are much less than in the San Francisco Bay Area. For example, a coffee drink will run you about $1.50 to $2.00 in the cities (and the countryside is even cheaper). My trainer at the gym charges the equivalent of $18 for a 90-minute session. Groceries run me about $60 a week, versus about $100 in the Bay Area. A nice dinner out, with wine, will cost you around $30 a person.
What this means is that if I live here half the year, I do not need to have a “job-job.” I can do my art and write and not make any money off of them without freaking out about that. On the other hand, if I live full-time in California, I need to work at least half-time. (Why not full-time? Because I was a lawyer and married to another one for 20 years. When all that ended, there was enough of a bank roll . . . just enough . . . to make this all work. Barring disasters. Fingers crossed.)
Especially given everything set forth in numbers 1, 2 and 3 . . . when you add this in, the math is clear: who wouldn’t want to live in this place half time and NOT have a job-job, versus staying full-time in California and needing to work for pay?
5. The way it feels here.
Which is safe, relaxed, and friendly. I never feel odd or worried walking around by myself, even back home in the dark after hanging out writing in a caffe in the evening, or riding the bus home. Most people in America seem to assume the area (or all the world?) is rife with crime. “Do you feel safe there?!?!?!” they ask in concern, frequently, when I am home.
In fact, I feel watched-out-for. Like if some stranger was going to do something bad, another stranger would actually help me. People’s attitudes to each other is communal and family-like.
There have been wars here, over this territory, for thousands and thousands of years. The last one was in the early-mid 1990s. That is not happening now. And there is a stunning lack (compared to say . . . America . . .) of violent crime.
It’s not just the feeling of safety that feels right and good here, either. It’s the feeling of smaller-place life. Where there are 4,000,000 people in the entire country, and so there are not the same problems, difficulties and attitudes that come with bigger places.
Bus drivers and neighbors wave to you. People are kind to you, even if you can’t yet speak their language. Old ladies on the bus grab your hand and squeeze it, happy to see you again.
I’ll take that kind of thing any day. As much as possible. And am grateful for it.