Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Controversial Archbishop

A Controversial Archbishop
Note: Alojzije Viktor Stepinac (1898 – 1960) started out as a Croatian cardinal and ended up as the Archbishop of Zagreb. He served as Archbishop during World War II. On the one hand, he had close associations with the Ustaše (Croatian fascists), but on the other hand, he publicly protested the persecution of the Jews. Pope John Paul II had him beautified, the first step towards sainthood in the Catholic church.

Zagreb                                                                                    June 7, 2000

I spent most of yesterday walking around the city. Zagreb is not nearly so touristed as Prague. Of course, there really isn’t as much to see. It was a gray day, a little chilly with the constant threat of rain. In Balkan Ghosts the author claims that is the weather that best suits Zagreb. I don’t think I agree. Zagreb has colors and beautiful architecture just like any other European city. Unfortunately a lot of it is falling apart and in need of renovation.
            Workers are fixing up Zagreb Cathedral right now. It’s quite interesting, I think it might be Stepinac Cathedral by the next time I see it. The front features a gigantic portrait of Archbishop Stepinac. Inside his resting place is no longer marked by just a simple tomb. Right in the middle of the cathedral is a monstrous monument of the sort with a statue likeness of Stepinac within a glass coffin. People pray to this monument. I found the entire display to be controversially disturbing. 

            I had a conversation with a Croat I met at the hostel, Marko, about Stepinac. He got defensive. “You don’t think Stepinac warrants so much honor?”
            No, I don’t, but I didn’t want to get into an argument, so I said mildly, “You usually don’t see such big displays for ordinary cardinals.”
            “Stepinac wasn’t exactly an ordinary cardinal,” Marko snapped.
            True, most cardinals do not preside over racial massacres. Wise enough not to point this out, I remarked, “Well, you usually only see it for saints.”
            Marko – an Aussie-born Croat, by the way, visiting his “homeland” for the first time – floored  me  by stating Stepinac would likely be named as a saint since the current pope [Polish-born Pope John Paul II] had beautified him. I changed the subject: to my mind, the beautification has to be a political statement since Stepinac had done nothing to warrant sainthood. Mother Theresa he wasn’t.
            After my conversation with Marko, I wandered around Zagreb a bit more, but it was too chilly to just enjoy the day. So, I went in search of a movie theater I had seen earlier. I couldn't find it, but I did find a shop selling one of the wines my Croatian friend had recommended to me. Graševina. I didn't think I 'd like it, but it was actually quite delicious, tart and rich.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Most Polite Chicken Eats Last: Caffe Bar Bolero

           Zlatni Rt,the "Golden Park," stretched away from the town on the far side of the hotel. Even in summer this forested beach park could provide beach-goers with privacy by virtue of its many paths and long expanse of beach. Late November, and Nicole thought she had the whole park to herself.
            She didn't delve too deeply into the paths. She wanted to get back into jogging -- she used to run with Shaun -- but she didn't have her stamina up yet. She acknowledged she might never get it to its former level: she didn't really like running, and she no longer had Shaun as incentive. Nonetheless, in the name of fitness, she jogged along the pebble path that most closely followed the coast.
            Inhaling the fresh pine scent on this cold day certainly did not remind her of Denver. Rather the chill reminded her of a couple weeks ago, when she'd been standing outside the post office almost in frustrated tears. Her study program was offering an optional conference in Zagreb, for which Nicole would have to pay extra. At first she wasn't going to go, so she didn't join her classmates when they went to send the money off. However, after talking to one of the women she was particularly friendly with, Vivijana, she'd decided she really ought to check out the capitol. Besides, the conference isn't until January, and I bet the shopping is way better there than in Rovinj. And surely Daddy will send me some Christmas money since I can't afford to go home. Nicole, knowing how one wired money in the U.S., had asked around until she found out the place to go was the post office. However, in Croatia and with limited language abilities, the process had proved foreign to the point of incomprehensibility. First, you had to buy a form to fill out; in Croatia, you have to pay for forms. Once you'd stood in line and bought the correct form, you had to stand off to the side and fill it out. Even providing Nicole's having gotten the correct form, the completion was impossible as it was all in Croatian. In addition, if this form should be, miraculously, filled out correctly, you were meant to use it and some more money to acquire another form... Hence, Nicole stood outside the post office on a cold day wondering if she was going to miss the deadline if she waited the two weeks until she traveled to Pula again and could ask Vivijana for help.   
            Martina happened to see her, and when she discovered the reason the "amerikanka" was hanging out by the post office, she generously offered to help. Even with knowledge of the process, the transaction took some time. Nicole, grateful, offered to buy Martina a coffee; she declined, however, because she already had plans to meet another friend. She didn't invite Nicole along.
            That seemed to be Rovinjian culture, though: friendly one moment and distant the next.
            Nicole passed a short stretch of white-framed azure water. She continued to let her mind wander. She thought of Oliver as another prime example. She recalled how he'd jumped at the chance to help her buy a cell phone, way back in the beginning. He'd even offered chauffeur services so they could check all the shops in town. Such services were not strictly necessary with Rovinj so small, and the majority of shops located in the center. Nonetheless, Nicole appreciated the gesture. They'd tooled around in his silver car, listening to an over-vamped sound system and with Oliver cracking jokes about what a "sex machine" his car was. Nicole tittered to be polite.
            New phone purchased, Oliver had made a point of assuring his was the first number stored in the phone book.
            The next night, a Saturday night, Nicole had indulged in half a bottle of wine with dinner. The blending of flavors had simply been too scrumptious for her to abstain: fish so fresh it had been alive the night before, cooked with fresh parsley and onions, overlaid by a crust of caramelized lemon. Crunchy salad with nuts and strong olive oil dressing. Soft bread with just a hint of corn. And the crisp Istrian wine, just acidic enough to cut through the oil in the fish and the salad. The wine left her a little light-headed.
            Since she still had only the one number stored in her phone, she sent a message to Oliver stating she was heading to a new Cafe-Bar just off the Carrera, or main street; he was welcome to join her. She didn't think it in the least suggestive -- considering Matija and Martina along with Oliver, these friendships all seemed pretty platonic. He texted back immediately that he would be there and at what time. However Oliver took her invitation, though, he showed up an hour late.
            So, Nicole walked into the Cafe-Bar Bolero and didn't see anyone she knew. She sat on a barstool with a view of the door in the dim interior and ordered a glass of wine. Much of her dinner-buzz had dissipated, but she thought she could recapture it. When the bartender, a young cutie with artistically-gelled hair, served her drink, she tried to strike up a conversation with him; he, however, only spoke enough English to take and deliver orders. A friendly young man, he joked and tried to make her feel welcome, but the music was loud, and he had a job to do. Besides, she hadn't started her lessons with Matija yet -- hadn't even been offered them yet, though she would as soon as he heard this story ("Ugh -- what am I supposed to do with all those stupid declended nouns in a bar, anyway?" "Well, I'm not sure 'declended' is a word, so I can teach you some proper English grammar as well as Croatian small talk...") -- so she doubted her extremely limited vocabulary would have gotten them far. She decided to think of the situation as an adventure and tried to appreciate the ambience solitarily.
            Cafe-Bar Bolero didn't offer anything different from the majority of the bars in Rovinj. The furniture was of metal and smoked glass, and the neon around the bar echoed the pastels in the seat cushions. Primitive, colorful artwork covered the lavender and black walls. The bar offered the usual variety of domestic liquors, beer, wine, and a scant few imports. One Istrian specialty, though, came in the form of a thick, honey-based liqueur called either "medenica" or "medovača." The variety served at Bolero was made by the young owner's uncle. Saša, the bartender, offered Nicole a free shot. Stronger than mead, the liqueur displayed just the right balance of tangy and sweet; it warmed going down and went straight to her head.
            People around her laughed and chatted in loose groups. The bar may have been new, but the cliques were well-established. In the far corner a very young group of girls surveyed the scene from behind long bangs. From time to time they leaned in to remark on some sight, but their expressions never changed. At the end of the bar a coldly handsome man with transparent blue eyes and black curls held court over a circle of young toughs. A smiling couple chatted and chuckled with another smiling couple at a nearby table. Others mingled around; one older man eyed her speculatively, so she dropped her eyes. She refused to allow a feeling of isolation creep in. She ordered another shot of the tempting medovača.
            While Saša delivered the second shot, he caught sight of a new arrival, a rugged-looking man of about forty. Saša greeted him energetically and waved him over. "This is Ivica," he told Nicole. "Ivica have English." He explained something to the new arrival in quick Croatian then turned away to pour a beer.
            Ivica smiled at Nicole, his light mustache highlighting his grin. "Where are you from?"
            "The U.S., Denver, Colorado."
            Ivica nodded. "Yes, I know it. I have an aunt there."
            "Yes. I spent some time there during the war..." They slipped into an easy conversation.
            Oliver finally arrived awhile later with a friend. Nicole didn't notice because she was laughing at a joke Saša had made and Ivica had translated.  When she did catch sight of him, though, his face looked even longer than usual -- perhaps because she was having fun without him and with another man. She saw the ugly flash of irritation for only a moment before he consciously replaced it with his professional grin. He strode up to the bar and placed a familiar hand on Nicole's shoulder. "You having good time, yes?"
            Nerved, Nicole's smile grew brittle. "I wasn't until Ivica showed up." She shifted so that Oliver's hand fell away. "I thought we were supposed to meet, like, an hour ago."
            "Ah, cafe-bar have many, many people. I no can leave Tata alone, no." He shrugged, as if to show how helpless he'd been in the face of the Saturday night rush. "Then I must go to get Dejan."
            Nicole took note of Oliver's companion. Maybe just because he was juxtaposed next to the gangly Oliver, but the compact young man appealed to her. Her body subtly shifted, relaxing in Dejan's direction, and her smile went soft again. "Hello, Dejan. Nice to meet you. I'm Nicole."
            His hazel eyes lazily looked her up and down. " 'Allo. Nice to meet you." His accent was very thick, his words deliberate. He looked past her just long enough to introduce himself to Ivica then met her eyes again.
            Oliver spoke up. "Dejan speak Deutsch, no English. And Croatian, of course. Yes."
            "Da," he agreed.
            Ivica checked his phone and stood. He made a joke about "mladi," the young, and bid his farewells. Before leaving, he paid for all of Nicole's drinks. Oliver noticed.

            Nicole and Dejan flirted lightly for awhile; Nicole refused to notice Oliver was seething. They made do with Nicole's newly-learned Croatian and what English Dejan knew from songs. Occasionally they appealed to Oliver for translation, which he did with bad grace. Mostly they just laughed their way through the exchanges. Every once in awhile he seemed to have to join the court around Coldly Handsome, though. When his attendance started lingering in that area, Nicole followed Ivica's lead in checking her phone before bidding farewell. She didn't even look back at Oliver.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Most Polite Chicken Eats Last: A Discovery

            Early on, before her big blow-up with Oliver, Nicole had regularly visited his cafe-bar with the intention of becoming a regular. Most of the cafes in the Old Town were geared towards tourists, and so were either trendy or quaint. Oliver and his father, however, operated a tiny establishment in the oldest part of the Old Town that catered to fishermen and other local blue collar types. Literally a hole in the wall, Cafe-Bar Oliver (also the father's name) was located on the ground level of a building in which the extended family lived. Oliver was inordinately proud of his little dive, with its three dingy tables and scratched chrome bar.
            A couple days after her lesson with Matija, Nicole lugged her Croatian-language book and notebook into Cafe-Bar Oliver before work. She forced her mind not to flash to her favorite study cafe in Denver, a large, well-lit joint run by tattooed softies near her house. When Oliver (junior) saw Nicole walk into his place of business, he greeted her enthusiastically. "Hi-hi, Nicole, welcome. Here, sit." He shooed away a rubber-faced fisherman with a red nose and settled Nicole at the small table. "Can I get you something for drink?"
            "Ah, yes." She cleared her throat. "Veliki cappuccino." 
            Oliver looked surprised. "You know how to order for Croatian?"
            In her new language she said, "Yes. Matija teaches me Croatian."
            Oliver nodded. Still in English. "Ah, Matija, yes, yes. He is teacher now. Ok, one big cappuccino. Ha-ha, veliki cappuccino."
            Nicole thought he might have been patronizing her; however she decided to ignore it since it could just be a cultural difference. She opened her textbook but watched Oliver for a moment longer. She noticed that he towered over most of the fishermen and builders like a gangly crane. Yet his behavior more resembled a crow, but instead of shiny things he flapped from conversation to jukebox to joke with little in the way of real substance. To be fair, though, he was the barman and had a duty to see to all his customers. When he glanced up and caught her looking at him, he winked. Feeling slightly awkward, Nicole dropped her eyes and worked on matching Matija's instruction with the lesson in front of her. She smiled thinking about the mild curse he'd taught her, reasoning she'd never find it in any textbook and she ought to know how to vent her frustration like a Croat. Still smiling, she got to work.
            Oliver showed up some time later. He slid her coffee in front of her, saying, "One veliki cappuccino, ha-ha." She looked up and saw he was balancing a plated pastry on top of a glass of cola. "My breakfast," he explained. Without waiting for an invitation, he sat down next to her. He broke the flaky pastry in half, and a fine coating of powdered sugar floated down to his lap. "You want half?" he offered.
            Nicole thought of the yogurt and muesli she's eaten after a quick run around the hotel grounds. "Oh, no thanks."
            Oliver's lower lip jutted briefly, conveying apparent irritation that his offer had been refused; however, he seemed to quickly rally. "Ha-ha, more for me." He munched on the pastry, acquiring a ring of powdered sugar around his mouth. His eyes darted over his text book. "Ah, yes, yes, you study now. Matija is good teacher, no?"
            "Oh, yes, definitely," she answered with honest enthusiasm. "He teaches me way more than that lady up in Pula that my program provided." Nicole rolled her eyes. "All she ever wants to teach us is word endings and tenses -- I mean, in the Croatian language it seems like all the words have declensions! Matija says I probably need to learn how to order wine and food -- and ask where the bathroom is -- before I master the 'vokativ' tense." She looked at Oliver and got the feeling he hadn't quite caught the whole meaning of her lament.
            Perhaps Oliver meant to mask his ignorance by changing the focus of the conversation. "Matija, poor Matija." He shook his head in a good imitation of regret. "What a pity."
            "Pity?" Nicole echoed. "What do you mean 'pity'? There's nothing wrong with Matija."
            "Yes, there is. Yes." Oliver nodded sagely. "Yes, when he is a children, a kinder, he have beautiful future. Yes, he is very talented children. Very good at football -- soccer in America, eh? Ha-ha."
            "Um, yes, soccer. He was very good at soccer, er, football? That's great! But I've noticed a lot of Croats are good at football. It's like, the most popular sport."
            "Yes, yes. But Matija is not good -- he is, ah, better. Best. Everyone think he is professional one day, maybe play for national team, maybe move to Italy and make many money. He is so talented."
            Nicole frowned at Oliver, trying to reconcile the image of the Matija he was describing to the young man she was getting to know. Matija was generally fit she thought, though he tended to favor neat but casual clothes that sat on him comfortably, showing he was fit but not indicating how fit. He also moved with more grace than Oliver, certainly; however, having dated an athlete who had gone pro, she didn't sense athletic genius in Matija's demeanor: no barely-restrained cockiness, no urge to show off his athleticism with a "casual" jump over a barrier, no vibration under the skin that indicated he just wanted to run and jump and kick to release all the extra energy inside him. To Oliver she said, "What happened, then? Why did he become a school teacher? Did he have an injury?" She knew that had side-lined one of Shaun's teammates.
            "Uh, injury? No, no. When Matija is 14, 15 he is already playing in league with boys 17, 18. And he is one of the best players. But then he gets these headaches. His parents think is just stress and make him play less football. But his headaches are worse and worse. Then, in a match he, uh... collapse."
            Nicole gasped involuntarily, her heart going out to the young Matija. "What happened?!"
            "Ha, how to say in English? He have problem with brain."
            "A tumor?"
            "Um, cancer? Um, rak?" She knew the word because she'd learned the horoscope.
            "No, no. No rak. It is like he has balloon in his head."
            "An aneurysm?!"
            "Da, yes. 'anirism.' For long time after surgery he no can move whole right side of body." Oliver waved his own right appendage to illustrate, barely avoiding knocking over his coke glass with his elbow.
            "My stars!"
            "Yes, stars. Stars. He no can move whole right side."
            "But... I mean... obviously he got better. He's not paralyzed now. He doesn't even seem to have any trouble moving any parts of his body." She tried to remember if she'd seen even a tremor in his hand; however, when she'd been looking at his hands on her homework, they'd seemed as steady as anyone else's.
            "Yes. No paralyzed. No trouble moving. He have much therapy. Is good for him he is athlete. He is only 15. He is young, he get better and better." Oliver paused here to adjust a mask of sympathy over his face. "But he is no the same. Already after one year he can run and kick. He think maybe he can play football again." Oliver shrugged. "But I think he is not talented now. He is, uh, normal. Typical." Oliver whistled and clapped his hands together. "No more future. He never play football again, not even for fun."
            No, it wouldn't be fun -- not after you'd played like a star. "Oh, that is really so sad." Over-riding pity filled her breast. She struggled to match the kind young man she knew with the devastated boy he must have been.
            "Yes, sad, ha-ha." Oliver drank his cola in one long gulp and stood up. "I have to run cafe-bar. Make money." He took the coke glass but left the mangled pastry next to Nicole's book, his crow's offering.
            The next day Nicole sat with Matija in the deserted hotel cafe. They sat kitty-corner from each other, the faux-wooden table covered with an unused ashtray, their coffee cups, sugar packets, and a big book of pictures Matija had brought along to facilitate their lesson. The book was open to a kitchen scene. "Don't be insulted by the English words by the pictures," he said. "I think you already know most of this vocabulary in English."
            Nicole sniffed. "I'm very handy in the kitchen, thank you very much."
            "Well, let's see. Describe the scene."
            She teased, "In English or Croatian?"
            Matija rolled his eyes exaggeratedly. "What do you think?"
            "Well, next to the stove -- hey, why are those called hobs-"
            " 'Ajde, Nika, in Croatian."
            Nicole paused. "'Nika'? Is that, like, a nickname?" She smiled with pleasure -- nicknames came with pals, and Nicole liked having pals.
            Matija cleared his throat. "Ah, it's a diminutive of your name. Here in Croatia we have such long names that sometimes we get lazy and use the short version." He straightened. "Stop procrastinating. Tell me what you see."
            The directive reminded her of Oliver's story from the previous day. She looked at the picture and started trying to string together simple sentences with her new vocabulary. However, her eyes strayed over to Matija. They traveled over the open plains of his face -- no tremor, no outward indication of what had happened behind his eyes -- to the thick cap of blonde hair. She had known him three months now, and as she thought about it, she realized the hair never got much shorter or longer. It was no particular style -- just a little shaggy. She wondered... Subconsciously she tried to see past the hair to the physical -- and emotional -- scars underneath.
            Matija looked up suddenly, drawing her eyes back to his; they locked startlingly. "What are you looking for?"
            Flustered, she stammered, "Oh, um, nothing. I was, ah, just looking at your hair. It's getting a little long." Oh, stars, I meant to say dark, now that summer is over.
            Matija's gaze grew sharp; discomfiting Nicole further. He looked straight into her eyes, as if probing for the truth of her statement. Nicole prayed that he wouldn't realize she'd been looking for scars, or prayed that he'd play it off if he suspected. However, as he continued to look into his eyes, his look changed subtly, as if a mask were making his features -- and thus his emotions -- blank. With his long-fingered, knuckly right hand he smoothed the hair halfway between ear and crown. "Evo," he said. Here.
            Nicole winced. "Sorry."
            The mask stayed in place. "We will talk about it when you can do it in Croatian." Then his features softened, and his natural kind look returned. "Now, seriously, Nika, you are being a naughty pupil. You may not know that 'hobs' are these cookery rings on top of the stove, but surely you can say something about the kitchen table!"
            Nicole dwelled on his statement for just a moment, recognizing it as a plea to allow them to get to know each other before they discussed painful topics; not a surprising request. Respecting it, she followed his lead and teased, "Hey, in the U.S. 'Hobbs' is a famous stuffed tiger. But, ok, I'll say something about the kitchen table -- and I'll even do it in Croatian just for you!"