7–21–16 Croatian islands near Senj

Last night we landed in a place that felt more like us. At the end of a small road on a long island covered with camping sites on one side, there is a restaurant bar on the beach. It’s not fantastic, but it’s good, they serve a good local beer, which is rare for the Balkans, and you can wade in surf while you wait for your meal and watch the sun set behind the islands in oranges and pinks while you eat. There were a lot of Yellowjackets, but after I have a couple beers they seem to calm down. The is a hiking trail on the island that feels like Texas with Olive trees instead of Live Oaks, no fire ants, 80 degree summer evenings, and of course the Mediterranean. Maybe more like California, but the hardscrabble road and old rock walls evoke livestock, grapes, olives, and fishing. These old dry stack walls are several centuries to thousands of years old. When Jason and Heracles ran overland, it was over these rocks and walls. The Greeks were here, and the Romans, the Christians, Muslims, Ottomans… But the walls seem a lot like the barb wire one encounters in Texas, ends sticking out of trees they were once wrapped around. I skim across the surface of history wherever I go, and I only see so far down, which gives everything a certain equivalence.

My sense of historical time is different here, because of continuous habitation by people I relate to. Strangely, when looking at world history, I feel the Romans as my primary ancestors (though not Italy), more than the Goths and Galls and Slavs I likely got my genes from. Learning about Roman conquest of these peoples, I identify with the Romans but feel sympathy for the conquered in the same way I feel sympathy for native Americans. The Romans took not only their land but the identity of their descendants. I often wonder how Mestizo people feel, being the product of this kind of rape. The idea is so repellent that it’s hard to grasp, but whatever your ethnic background, at some point your people were taken by another group and you survived, taking the identify of the conquerors.

I’m hungry for more details about pre-Romans, and if I knew more I might identify more with them. I like how they feel like Native Americans, and how if you go back far enough you always find tribes. When Rome took Nimes, they adopted the local Spring god, Nemeasus, and gave it a prominent place in their panoply, even naming the city after it. The Roman style of hybridizing their religion worked really well and left long lasting cultural structures that are still here. Contrast this with Christian Imperialism (Spanish, Portuguese, British), which tried to stamp out paganism like disease. They left behind unintended institutions, like the hybrid Virgin of Guadalupe. Or the Mongols, who couldn’t care less who their subjects prayed to. They left behind very little, like a brushfire on the plains, consuming fuel lying on the ground leaving blackened stubs of bushes and weeds that would grow back stronger for the fire.

The grandmother who had been watching the little girl Eliza was playing with walked over and told me definitively that the tree I was placing my hammock in was not safe for it. At first I thought, ok old croatian lady in a bikini, I’m sure you run the show at home but I happen to know something about rigging and trees, but she explained that the tree had started to lean badly last week and her husband and friend had placed the two support beams there. This seemed like her beach, so I sat among the rocks like everyone else and listened to opera on her transistor radio. Later she brought out these little balls of fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar and passed them around.

These islands are less than a mile apart and Laura and I would probably be swimming between them if one of us didn’t have to watch Eliza. In the pool, there is nothing but the lane and what’s in your head, but in an ocean with clear waters, a galaxy passes under you. Here were urchin, anemone, smelt, odd bits of coral, ubiquitous sea cucumbers looking like healthy sized human feces. Patches of seagrass alternated with swaths of white sand and rocky outcroppings. I swam past private beaches, around various kinds of boats.

When it was Laura’s turn she came back with two hand sized urchins with short purple spines with white tips. I had been researching if and how to eat these things because we had been seeing many. The best method seems to be to lever them apart with two opposing spoons. Some commenters on a video seemed to loved the sound with an almost sexual intensity. This bothered me more than the sound itself. I did it quickly with a folding knife and a multi-tool and made a mess of it, but still managed to present several coherent fingers of uni on a wet board for a viscera picnic on the beach. Laura could not watch the coup de gras but after it was open wanted to solve the riddle of how the spines moved. I was focused on getting through the necessary steps and did not want to solve any riddles. Hunting, taking a life, requires sorting through feelings, psychotherapy, not at the beginning, when the hunter is traumatized by what they do, nor later when the action has been practiced into habit, but in the choices made to transition from one to the other.

After dinner we caught a night ferry back to Senj and stood on the upper deck with the other drivers. The wind was not cold, the sea was not blue but more wine-colored, and dark. I wondered, as I did this entire summer, what Eliza was making of all this.