Nicole met with Matija twice a week to be tutored in Croatian. True he was an English teacher, but he explained that he'd learned proper Croatian grammar by studying foreign languages, so he was qualified to teach her. Nicole couldn't necessarily vouch for his qualifications; she knew, though, that the lessons had quickly become the highlight of her week.
They usually met in the hotel cafe during downtime, sitting across from each other at a faux-wooden table. She had a beginner's book that she worked from, but Matija heavily supplemented the lessons with topics that would allow Nicole to converse in Croatian about subjects that were truly relevant to her.
They sat in the hotel cafe, a worksheet of small-talk phrases that Matija had designed in front of her. While she tried to remember the Croatian word for music -- the Serbo-Croatian word was muzica, but many words were changing officially now that Croatia was its own country -- she looked across the table. Matija's long-fingered hands with their man's knuckles were spread out over the homework she'd done. Thick locks of shaggy blonde hair fell onto his forehead and curled around his ears. His large, brown eyes -- unusual for a natural blonde -- were set evenly in his wide face, giving him a look of openness.
" 'Ajde, Nicole," he said, "Koja glazba ti se sviđa?"
"Oh, 'glazba'!" she exclaimed, filling it in to her worksheet. She moved on to the next exercise, this one asking for 'glazba' types.
"Pa, koja?" Matija asked.
"Molim is more polite."
"Sorry. Molim?" Please?
"I asked which music you liked. Koja glazba ti se sviđa?"
"Oh, right." In Croatian she said, "I please popular music."
Matija patiently corrected, "I am pleased by popular music," the Croatian way for expressing likes. After Nicole had dutifully repeated, Matija said, "Sada pitaj me. Ask me."
"Ah... koja glazba sviđa mi se?"
" Sviđa se ti ili mi?"
"Dobro." In careful Croatian, he said, "I like alternative groups like Flock of Seagulls, the Cure, REM..."
Nicole grinned and tried to tease, "Kao...How do you say 'strange'?"
"First start with the correct question. 'Kako se kaže strange'?"
Nicole dutifully repeated the question.
"Ok, then 'kako čudno glazba."
Matija smiled good-naturedly. In Croatian -- with correction for her benefit, "You think? Such strange music? I like strange music?"
Still in Croatian. "Why do you think so? At least I don't like boring music."
"Yes, boring music. Popular music is boring."
Nicole switched to English. "That's just your funny taste."
Matija shrugged. "Maybe you haven't been properly trained." In a neutral voice he remarked, "There's a Croatian alternative band playing in Pula next weekend. Maybe I should take you -- to educate you."
Nicole sniffed until she realized it was an offer of entertainment on the weekend in the off-season. "Well... I suppose in the name of higher education... Who else is going?"
She didn't know Matija well, but she thought his face slackened into a blank mask. "Oh, probably Martina. Maybe Oliver. Lamentably few Rovinjians have refined taste in music."
She giggled and repeated her new phrase for "What strange music." After a moment, Matija seemed to relax, and their lesson continued.