Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Most Polite chicken Eats Last: Ruffled Feathers

Against her better judgment, but in the spirit of playing nice, Nicole accepted another invitation to go to the movies with Oliver. She showed up twenty minutes before the movie was slated to start, as agreed. A trio of construction workers sat at a table drinking beer and playing cards. The same rubber-faced fisherman that Oliver had shooed out of a booth to make room for her stood at the bar, also drinking beer. Oliver presided alone behind the bar, king crow of the joint.
            Nicole approached the bar. "Ciao! Kako si?"
            Oliver put on his professional grin. "Hey, hello, hello. Ha-ha, you speak Croatian. How are you. Kako si."
            He said it in such a patronizing tone that irritation flashed in Nicole. She attempted to blow it off.  "Uh, yea. So, where's your father?"
            "Ah, tata, yes. He and Mama are upstairs eating." He mimed eating so Nicole would understand.
            "Oh. But-"
            Oliver's eyes darted away from her to the trio of workers, who were ordering another round. "Može!" he called jovially to them. He darted his look back to Nicole. "Excuse me. Must work. Ha-ha."
            "But-" Nicole tried again, but the crow had flitted away. He left her standing there awkwardly alone while he poured and served the beers. When he returned he asked, "You want something for drink?"
            "Um, do we have time?"
            "Time? What time? Yes, yes. You sit. You want for drink beer? Pivo? No charge. Gratis."
            "Well, thanks, but I don't really drink beer-" Oliver, though, was already pouring it. He ushered her and her unwanted beer to a circular booth. She sat, but he propped on the edge of the table, ready to spring into action should his customers require it.
            Nicole tried again, "Aren't we going to be late for the movie?"        
            "Movie? What movie? You want to go for cinema-house?"
            Nicole struggled not to grit her teeth. "We did have plans to go to the movie. It starts in fifteen minutes."
            "Ah, yes, but see?" He indicated his four patrons. "Café-bar is busy."
            "I thought your father was going to work tonight."
            "No, no. I always work Saturday night alone. All alone."
            Then why did you invite me to go to the movies with you?! She sipped her cheap beer to stifle the impulse to hurl those words in his face. Teeth clenched to further keep the scream inside, she asked, "Then should I just go alone?"
            "No, no. What alone? You stay here at café-bar and drink. Is better. More money for me – ha-ha." He winked to show it was a joke, but Nicole reckoned it wasn't. She took another sip of her beer, again to dampen her anger, then decided to tell Oliver off anyway. However, in walked a pair of regular patrons, whom Nicole vaguely recognized, still in their paint-spattered coveralls. Oliver jumped up to assist them. Nicole sat alone, seething. I fell for it again. I knew Oliver was a flake, and I made plans with him anyway. Why do I keep making plans with this silly crow? I should have made sure Matija or Martina were coming along also. Ugh, if we were back in Denver, I would never have made any plans with him at all. But, no, for some reason I thought it would be a charming idea to stick myself in the middle of this little backwater. Well, the town may be beautiful, but it's boring as hell-
            A voice, deepened in the national habit, interrupted Nicole's thoughts by offering to buy her a drink. She looked up to see it was the newly-arrived pair, a ruggedly handsome man of forty-something and his gorgeous younger companion. It was Ruggedly Handsome who had offered the drink, but Gorgeous Younger was staring right at her. Nicole marshaled her thoughts from English to Croatian so she could construct a sentence telling them she already had a drink but that they were welcome to join her. She managed with simple words and bad grammar that had them grinning, but they accepted. Ruggedly Handsome slid in to the booth next to her, and Gorgeous Younger next to him.
            Nicole apologized for her bad Croatian, they complimented her as having good Croatian, then all introduced themselves: Ruggedly handsome as Ivan and Gorgeous Younger as Marko. The men spoke no English, so Nicole practiced her Croatian. She found herself warming to the task as she discovered she could say many of the things she wanted, one way or another. Ivan and Marko were patient, chuckling merrily at some of her more outlandish attempts. They seemed genuinely pleased that the 'amerikanka' was speaking Croatian at all. Interestingly, alcohol made her more fluent. When she finished her beer, Marko ordered another for her, but she laughingly changed it to wine, in Croatian, and paying Oliver no mind. If she thought of him, she would grow furious all over again, and she was actually having a good time now. When Oliver brought her wine, he sat in the far side of the booth, sliding right up next to Nicole, but she was listening very carefully to a joke Marko was telling. She didn't get it, but she laughed when Ivan laughed. Oliver tried to join in, but the rubber-faced fisherman called for his tab; Oliver flitted away. Nicole, still laughing at the joke she hadn't gotten, made eye contact with Marko; she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. She didn't notice Oliver noticing.
            Ivan, who spoke more slowly and clearly than Marko – Matija would know him for a Slavonian by his accent – started telling Nicole about the work he and Marko did. Nicole sipped her wine and listened, head buzzing pleasantly.
            "Wait," Nicole said in Croatian. In the same, "What is odjivać?"
            " Odjivać," Ivan repeated, as if that explained it, then he made a twisting motion with his hand. Marko also made a twisting motion.
            "Oh, a screwdriver," Nicole said.
            "Screw-dri-ver," she enunciated. Ivan and Marko both tried to repeat, and Nicole giggled. Oliver returned and joined the laughter. "Screwdriver," he said. Nicole ignored him. Still in Croatian she said, "In Americans, screwdriver is same a drink. Vodka and orange juice."
            "You want another drink?" Marko asked. To Oliver, "Get her a vodka-juice."
            "No, no," Nicole protested, but Oliver was gone. "I say, ah, screwdriver is drink."
            "No," Ivan disagreed. "A screwdriver is this." He made the twisting motion again. Marko did it again, too, and this time Nicole joined in. "Ok," she agreed.
            Oliver returned with the vodka-juice. "Oh, Bože," Nicole said. "I will be, how do you say…" She glanced at Oliver, "drunk?"
            "Pijan," he answered.
            To Marko and Ivan she said, "Ja ču biti pijan."
            "Pijana," Ivan corrected. "You are a girl."
            "Da, djevojka," Marko repeated, raising his glass in cheer to her being a girl.
            Oliver took his chance, "Moja djevojka," my girl, but Nicole wasn't listening because she was also raising her glass to being a girl. But Ivan heard. "Really?" he asked Oliver.
            "Yes," Oliver answered.
            "Excuse me," Ivan apologized.
            "What?" Marko asked.
            "She's Oliver's girlfriend," Ivan explained. However, due to grammar, Nicole didn't quite understand the meaning. "I am what girl?" she asked.
            Ivan shot her a funny look, and Oliver said to them, obviously thinking she still wouldn't understand, "Moja djevojka i baš kurva."
            "What?!" Nicole yelled, the full force of her rage returning. She glared at Oliver.
            "Nothing, nothing. Joke, ha-ha."
            "Did you just say I'm your girlfriend and a whore?!"
            "Pa, nothing. Joke only, ha-"
            "Don't 'ha-ha' in that stupid little way you have!" Nicole yelled, finally indulging her pique. "I am not your girlfriend-"
            "Hey, calm down-"
            "-and I am not a whore!"
            "Hey, no yelling, no, no."
            "Don't tell me not to yell!" She pushed him to move so she could get out of the booth. "You treat me like I should be your-your… groupie or something!"
            Oliver tried to assert his manliness, deepening his voice to say, "Hey, no yelling in café-bar."
            "Fuck your café-bar." Finally extricated form the booth, she stood before him quivering in fury. "And fuck you!" She grabbed the vodka-juice and threw the drink in his face. She slammed the glass down, turned on heel, and stormed out of the café.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Most Polite Chicken Eats Last: The Kiss

Chapter 3
            Nicole sat with Martina and a friend of Martina's from Pula, Goran, at a restaurant tucked into a corner of Marshal Tito Square. They were sharing a large order of fresh, fried calamari with a side of french fries. For health's sake, Nicole also had a salad in front of her. It was finally spring, with the end of April's hosting a frosting of pink blossoms, purple flowers, and buds of greenery everywhere. Three weeks straight of gray and rain had just passed, and Nicole exulted to see color and feel warmth again. Not to mention it was the best time to enjoy the freshest of calamari.
            Martina and Goran chatted in the Istrian dialect. Though it wasn't so different from the standard Croatian Matija taught her, Nicole had some difficulty following their fast-paced conversation. About the time she'd get a good enough handle on the topic, they'd move on. A couple times she made comments anyway, usually eliciting a small smile from Martina. At the moment, though, they were apparently discussing a shared experience they'd had with people Nicole didn't know. So, she picked at her salad and let her eyes wander over the square. They looked over the wide expanse of gray concrete with the smooth cobblestones leading away in a Ninja star of directions. The fountain with its proud cupid up top stood stark-white against a red-painted building behind it. The most beautiful sight to Nicole's eyes -- to Rovinjian eyes, she knew -- were the small groups of tourist snapping photos, sitting at cafes, walking with their eyes up on the imposing walled Old Town they were about to enter. Rovinj was waking up.
            Nicole checked the time on her cell phone. "I'd better get back to work."
            Martina looked at her own cell. "It hasn't been even forty-five minutes -- don't you get your full hour?"
            "Well, sure, but it's May Day weekend, and we have a lot of guests checking in."
            Martina and Goran both nodded; they understood the increased demands of tourist season. With "ciao" all around Nicole took off for the pleasant walk back to the hotel.
            She had one of two ways to go, either along the Riva or down the Carrera. Since she wanted to experience the reawakening of social Rovinj, she chose the main street. She passed through an arched passage onto the wide, cobblestone pedestrian street. Shops selling jewelry, souvenirs, clothes, music, even groceries flanked the Carrera. Only one street off-shoot, the one that lead past Cafe-Bar Bolero, forking at the Italian Community Building to lead up the hill away from the sea. Nicole walked past that, past the little corner grocery with its lackluster produce in a stall outside. Tourists affected their vacation gait: stroll and pause, stroll and pause -- very irritating in the height of the season when the Carrera was packed side to side and you couldn't get past them no matter how late you were. At the moment, though, there were only a few clusters, and Nicole really did have some time.
            She exited the Carrera onto the much smaller Lokva Square. Apparently the tiny chapel at its apex was an important Romanesque building; Nicole appreciated the square for the 24-hour bakery off to one side -- it was practically the only place to go after hours during the off-season.
            The sight of the bakery reminded her how Matija had introduced her to it and the wonders of its burek at 2:00 am.
            The evening had started out as one of frustration. Oliver -- when she was still talking to him -- had cancelled last-minute on a pub-outing; they had meant to go with some friends of his from a nearby village, but somehow that wasn't going to work out, and he'd rather just stay at the cafe-bar and, surprise-surprise, make money. Aggravated, she'd called Matija and vented for several minutes, ending with, "So, what are you doing tonight?"
            "Going to an exclusive party that you're not invited to."
            Trusting, "No, seriously."
            "You don't believe me? I get invited to parties..."
            "Yea, but you wouldn't be so mean to say it that way."
            Matija harrumphed. "Well, as it happens my dance card is surprisingly empty. I was going to send out a general text to everyone but you to find out if anyone was up for a drink."
            She thought, "Hey, I've got a bottle of wine. If you stop trying to be mean, I'll share it with you."
            "Is it that domačni wine you keep getting at the green market?" He was referring to some produce-sellers who also sold wine they made themselves.
            "Hey, everyone keeps talking about all the great times they have, drinking the domačni wine..."
            "Notice no one ever says it's because the wine is so delicious." He sighed. "If we're going to torture ourselves, let's go all out. Let's go watch the 'Hollywood shoot 'em up' spectacle they're showing at Gandusio's." He meant the tiny movie theater downtown which showed already-released-to-DVD films if a crowd of at least ten wanted to watch; often, they didn't make the cut. "You bring the wine, and I'll bring, ah... my charm."
            "That is tortuous."
            "I guess I asked for that."
            Halfway through the mediocre film, and with more than half the wine gone, Matija had leaned in and whispered, "I don't know which is worse -- the dialogue or this wine."
            Nicole had inhaled to make some remark, but with Matija still close, she had gotten a deep whiff of his citrus-musk cologne. Startled, she'd succumbed to a fit of giggles that a vain attempt to control had resulted in Matija's giggling along unself-consciously. Nicole finally buried her face in her arms until the laughter subsided; Matija took a long swig of the wine. 
            Film and bottle both finished, the pair stumbled across the square. Probably they had Sax in mind as their destination, but as they entered one of the narrow, Medieval alleys that ran parallel to the riva, one or the other of them steered into a nameless hole-in-the-wall. Bosnian folk music, an exotic mix of Eastern melody over Slavic harmony, blended with the smoke-filled air. They sat at one of those tall tables with the back-less stools. Nicole thought to observe that asking drunks to perch on such unstable seating seemed unwise, but Matija was ordering another bottle of cheap wine, and she forgot. 

            Matija made drunken jokes, and Nicole giggled her way through two more glasses of wine. By then, she was far beyond buzzed. Her head spun, and she realized she couldn't feel her face. She remembered that her step-mom had once recommended drinking a glass of water with each drink -- and she should know. Nicole leaned against the table with the vague notion of whispering to Matija about her step-mom, or maybe about ordering water. Matija had looked up, and their eyes had connected. Their eyes had met many times before, but this time they stayed engaged. Nicole felt her equilibrium slipping, and then somehow they were kissing.
            The kiss was brief. Nicole had felt the sensation of falling, and then Matija had grabbed her arms with an "Opa!" and she was on wobbly feet in front of him. She looked questioningly up at him; he wore a look of bemusement, his lips slightly parted and his soft eyes a bit puzzled. She opened her mouth to ask him what had just happened.
            Matija spoke first. He dropped his hands from her arms and slurred, "Do you believe in 'carnation?"
            "The flowers?" Nicole was even more confused. Did we just kiss? What does that have to do with carnations?
            "'Jeb," Matija swore. He cleared his throat. "Re-incarnation. Do you believe in reincarnation?"
            "Oh." she pushed her hair out of her face, which felt flushed. "Um, I don't know."
            "I do," he stated. He reached for his wine glass and looked down at it. Nicole couldn't gauge the expression on his face; he didn't seem to have one. "I think you and I were brother and sister in our past lives."
            "Oh." She thought some more response might be expected of her, but she couldn't catch his train of thought. Did I just imagine the kiss? Maybe I just fell on Matija, and our lips collided. Maybe I should apologize. "Sorry."
            Matija met her eyes, and there was no doubt that they were expressionless. "Bez veze." No big deal. He pushed his wine glass away. "I need some food, or it is going to be an ugly morning. Have you had burek yet?"

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Most Polite Chciken Eats Last: A Winter Beach

            Nicole jogged to the point of Zlatni Rt that jutted farthest into the Adriatic. She circled around a stone ruin -- likely hundreds of years old -- and headed back towards the hotel. In the short time she'd been out, the clouds had completely overtaken the sun, and the temperature dropped at least ten degrees. She wasn't exactly looking forward to taking a shower in her unheated bathroom -- especially since the tiny water heater offered a very finite amount of warm water -- but coupled with hot tea, she might just warm up again.

            As she passed by the white-rimmed beach again, she noticed a familiar figure just arriving at the water. Delighted, she called, "Matija!" and started walking down to meet him.
            Matija feigned jumping into the frigid water. "Come any closer and I'll do it, I swear!"
            Nicole laughed. "Do it!" She made exaggerated movement towards him.
            "I'm not joking! I really will jump into this very cold water!'
            "Go for it! I dare you!"
            He relaxed. "Ok, I really am joking. You can come closer." As she did, though, he pretended to make a grab for her, "That way I can throw you in the water!"
            She shrieked, "Matija! Behave!"
            He stopped. "Why?"
            "Well... because I don't want one of us to end up in the water."
            He made an elaborate sniffle. "So, you really do care."
            "Well, yea. If you get all cold and wet, you'll want to come to my apartment and use up all my dry towels. You'll probably even use up my little bit of hot water. Then what will I do?" She indicated her head. "I can't go to work looking like this."
            He nodded sagely. "Yes, that would be a tragedy indeed -- much worse than my catching my death of pneumonia." He tossed his head and smiled, though, to show he was, of course, kidding.
            Nicole hugged her elbows. "So, what are you doing down here anyway?"
            "You don't believe I'm really going for a swim?"
            She made a show of looking him over. "You're not wearing a swim suit."
            "Clothing is optional at most beaches in Croatia -- and especially here at Zlatni Rt."
            Nicole gave him an appalled look. "Really?"
            "Oh, yes. You haven't lived until you've seen a leather-skinned German showing you his all."
            "I most certainly have lived without seeing that. And you're still joking, right?"
            "Unfortunately, Nika, right now I'm telling you true things."
            "Oh." Feeling her fingers were getting cold, she started tugging the sleeves of her warm-up jacket down. "But you're not really going for a swim, are you?"
            "Hey, I know all us Slavs look alike, but I'm not Russian. Only Russians go swimming in the sea outside of summer -- and I think most of them wouldn't try it now either." He noticed what she was doing with her sleeves. He frowned. "Are you cold?"      
            "It's a cold day."
            Matija indicated his worn leather jacket and equally worn leather gloves. "Which is why I'm dressed for the weather, not in some terribly fashionable but impractical running suit." He sighed heavily. "But I'll make the sacrifice."
            "What sacri-" She broke off when she saw he was stripping off his gloves.
            Matija offered them to her as if on a silver platter. "Evo. So you can keep your fingers."
            "But..." She took them, but still protested, "What will you do?"
            "Ah, see this is the brilliance of my clothing. Not fashionable but..." He slipped his big hands into his pockets. "Very practical."
            Nicole was touched by the gesture. She slid her hands into the oversized gloves, still warm from Matija's hands.
            Finally, she asked, "Are you ever going to tell me what you're doing down here on such a cold day?"
            "No. Under pain of torture I will never tell you that this is my favorite winter beach-" He gasped and gaped at her, as if he'd really told a secret.
            She laughed duly. "Is it really?"
            Matija relaxed, and they chatted amiably for some time. He related that, as a native Rovinjian, he had a beach for all seasons and all moods.  "Monte is good for a quick swim, Punta Corrente if I want ice cream while I'm sunbathing. Red Island if I plan to spend a lot of time... And this one for winter."

            Nicole looked around. A gray boulder framed the small beach on one side, tall pines on the other. The white pebbles sloped down from the path to the clear Adriatic. The little alcove felt isolated -- but not in the way she did off-and-on as an outsider. Isolated like a favored hiding spot, a place to get out of your head and meditate. She looked sharply at Matija. "Seriously, Matija, was I interrupting you when I came down here?"
            He snorted. "You found out that I am procrastinating. I have a stack of grammar papers this high." He held his hands about a foot apart. "I imagine my students will want them graded before they take their exam next week."
            "I imagine."
            "Hey, come to think of it, it seems about time I gave you and exam."
            Nicole cringed. "I was hoping you'd forget that."
            "Of course I haven't. I'm a very consci- conscien-.." He snapped his fingers. "I forgot to avoid that word."
            "Sure, show off."
            Nicole groaned. "Oh, stars now there's going to be a pronunciation portion to the exam."
            "Hey, that's a great idea."
            "Matija," she pleaded, "I'd like to point out that every day is a test. I live in Croatia."
            "Yes, but as a seasoned teacher of three months, it has come to my attention that my pupils do not study unless I dangle the threat of a test in front of them."
            "Oh, all right. I suppose that's true."
            Matija cleared his throat. "And maybe if you get a good mark on this test, I will reward you with the chance to really practice your Croatian."
            Nicole frowned. "You mean, more of a chance than actually living in the country?"
            "Yes. Ivan and Ivana -- whom you know don't speak any English -- are having a small party Saturday, mostly people who want to watch Gira on their satellite."
            "What's 'Gira'?"
            Matija rolled his eyes. "What are they teaching you about Croatian culture at your classes?"
            "Mostly the Glagolitic script."
            "Well, Gira is a basketball player in the NBA. Since he's from Croatia, we Croats jump at the chance to watch him on satellite TV."
            Matija peered at her. "But maybe watching sports is not your idea of a fun Saturday night."
            She thought of all the sports bars and "parties" she'd gone to with Shaun. "Can I go even if I get a bad grade on my test?"
            "Nika, that would make me a terrible teacher!"
            She jumped on the opportunity he gave her. "That's a 'yes' then," she teased.
            Matija paused. Then he nodded. "Good one."
            "Just kidding -- you're a great teacher."
            Matija seemed to ponder her words. "Sorry, I don't get the joke in that one."
            "Oh, Matija," she laughed. "What time is the party?"