Monday, 24 December 2018

Grandfather Frost

"We are entering a messy area of eternal discussion," wrote my friend from the International Office.
What were we negotiating? Deciding on gender neutral translations for a highly gendered language? Precision vs readability?

In fact, it was the annual children's party, and the question he threw in my lap was how to translate the name "Dedek mraz" in the invitation, "because there are many different good men delivering gifts in December."

I am a purist. I voted for the literal name: Grandfather Frost. Because that's who was coming.

Grandfather Frost is the communist answer to the saintly Nicholas or decadent western Santa. He has his origins in Morozko, the stern, often deadly god of frost and ice. No ho ho ho here. As far as my research can tell, there is no clear-cut story of his transformation from Slavic god to gift giver. Labelled a demon by the Orthodox church, legends of Morozko grew and developed over the centuries (here is a popular one), until Dedek mraz eventually became a useful figure for the soviet regime, diverting attention from Saint Nicholas and Christmas with his New Year's gift-giving.

His name and appearance vary across Eastern Europe. In Slovenia, he is dressed in pale robes, with a dormouse fur hat (here I have to pause to say that Slovenian dormice are large creatures, not the tiny ones you might think of).

In case you are feeling outraged at these cute little creatures being killed for their fur, let me reassure you that it is also known as the edible dormouse...

Nowadays, instead of freezing maidens to death, in Eastern slavic countries, Dedek mraz is sometimes accompanied by his grandaughter, the snow maiden Snegurochka. 

Coincidentally, I just read a retelling of the Morozko legend involving the Russian folk heroine Vasilisa the beautiful, The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden. If you like your fairy tales dark, I recommend it.

And the party? I was afraid Alcuin would be scared, but the education students warmed up the audience with a cute play about a mouse who lost her house. Then they got the children to chant for Dedek mraz, and by the time he appeared, gift bags in hand, Alcuin was ready to leap over and grab his loot. He was so quick, this is the best photo I could get.

Indeed, many good men have come gift giving. We modestly celebrated Saint Nicholas Day on the 6th, and we'll have the traditional December 25 visit from Father Christmas, with a final present from the Wise Men on Epiphany. I think our new Slavic tradition is going to go down well in our household.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Quick Lit December 2018

Linking up as usual with Modern Mrs Darcy for QuickLit. It was a superlative month to finish out the year, squashing three tried-and-true favourites between quick coffee-time reads.

H. Y. Hanna - Dark, Witch and Creamy
Oh yes, I did. After being contaminated by The Gathering, I needed the literary equivalent of sitting down with a big slab of cake (because stress eating works). This was free, I am mildly curious as to what the appeal is in paranormal cosies, the author is an Oxford graduate, so I thought, why not? It has witches, chocolate, a kitten and murder. The beginning was a little cringe worthy, but I soon got into it. I read it in a day and it left me happy, which is a type of literary merit, I suppose.

Rumer Godden - In This House of Brede
If Dark, Witch and Creamy was not enough to rid myself of the taint of the aforementioned book, a 500-page novel about nuns finally cleansed my soul. This is the story of a group of cloistered Benedictine nuns, focusing on Phillippa, who leaves a successful career in government mid life to pursue a vocation. Godden makes the inner and outer lives of the Benedictine nuns so tangible, I was there in the monastery, hooked on the drama of living in community, even though you get several hundred pages in before anything conventionally dramatic happens. Wonderfully crafted, too, almost like a documentary at times. I almost wept when I got to the end and had to leave Brede.

Sue Monk Kidd - Dance of the Dissident Daughter
The author of The Secret Life of Bees traces her transformation from Southern Baptist wife and Christian inspirational writer to claiming a feminist spirituality outside the church. I would go with the Goodreads reviews on this: It will meet you where you are, and you will love it, or it will leave you flat, maybe irritated if you see journeys to the sacred within us as narcissistic. Having rubbed shoulders with Southern Baptists for twenty years, I empathised with Kidd's dilemma, and the book certainly gave me a better understanding of those espousing a feminist spirituality, but I cannot say it resonated strongly with me.

Dodie Smith - I Capture the Castle (audiobook, read by Jenny Agutter)
An eccentric, genteel, impoverished family living in a ruined castle. Yes, please. This is the type of novel I wish I had written. Through the journals of seventeen year-old Cassandra Mortmain, we learn of her family's plight, sinking into ruin thanks to a 'literary genius' father who has not written for twelve years. Then, the American heirs to the nearby estate arrive, and a Pride-and-Prejudice-style marriage plot is set afloat to save the Mortmains. The plot could easily be cliched, but Smith subtly traces the emotional and intellectual growth of Cassandra across the course of the year to give it a depth belied by the age of the narrator. Beautifully read by the accomplished British actress Jenny Agutter - I put my life on hold to finish this.

Dylan Thomas - Under Milk Wood
This prose-poem "play for voices" was on my definite TBR list for this year. It depicts a day in the life of a Welsh village, from dreamtime to dreamtime. As I opened the book, I had the inspired idea to look up a performance and listen as I followed, so that I could really take in the words. I recommend that, if only so you actually know how all those Welsh names are pronounced! I was fortunate to immediately find the radio cast led by Richard Burton. I listened to it in an evening while my husband was away. A literary nerd experience.

Maggi Andersen - The Viscount's Widowed Lady
I am shamefully behind on reviewing books for members of my critique group. I had read a few chapters of this novel when it was a WIP, and wanted to finish the story. I don't read romance as a rule, but I liked how Althea stood out even among Maggi's always-relatable heroines. She is a widow from an abusive marriage, and although she guards her heart carefully, she is still open to love and strong enough to fight for what matters to her. Viscount Montsimon, an investigator for the king, is at first only interested in seducing Althea, but she quickly becomes embroiled in his latest mission; her late husband had in his possession something that several people would kill for - and Althea stands in their way.

Vesel Božič from Slovenia!

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Quick Lit November 2018

Linking up as usual with Modern Mrs Darcy. I fitted two book club books into this month´s reviews, reading one last minute and getting the other early via the Internet Archive, a free e-book library I discovered. Since all this month´s book were digital or audio, I have included photos related to a couple of the books and World War I.

Indian WWI troops

Abir Mukherjee - A Rising Man
My first ever book club book! It was time to be brave and make some new friends, so I joined up with the English book club at the American Corner in Trieste. This is a detective story set in 1919 Calcutta. Sam Wyndham has accepted a job from a former commanding officer, Taggart, glad to escape England with its memories of the war and his dead wife. A major case blows up when a civil servant is found dead in an alley, a piece of paper stuck in his throat telling the English to leave India. The case - and even Taggart´s reason for involving him - are quickly not what they seem. It took me a while to warm to the book as it is not my usual genre of choice, but I was certainly swiping the pages by the end.

Barbara Pym - A Glass of Blessings
Like Excellent Women, this book paints a portrait of women´s life in the fifties. Wilmet Forsyth is a well-to-do middle class wife. Forbidden by her husband to take a job, but childless, she realises she is wandering through life, too principled to take a lover, too vivacious to be full of good works. In a more literary novel, that might be a formula for bleak self searching, but in Pym it is a wry comedy of manners that gently points out the absurdities of English middle class life. Pym is now my geeky literary palate cleanser. Her books have a light touch, but are not frothy, always a pleasure.

Vera (who served as a voluntary nurse), and her beloved only brother, Edward

Vera Brittain - Testament of Youth [audio book]
An appropriate read as we come to the end of the centenary of WWI. Although the book is best known, and justly, for its eye witness account of the First World War, it is really the story of how the war shaped a young idealist into a political and social activist. The book starts off slowly, building the necessary background for Brittain´s world that is about to be turned on its head. But once it got into the First World War, well, gripping is a clichéword, but at times my insides were literally gripped with emotion. I highly recommend this in audio (mine was read by Sheila Mitchell) - it was like Brittain was with me, telling her story.

Ann Enright - The Gathering
November´s book club book, a Man Booker prize winner. The protagonist, Veronica, embarks on a stream of consciousness journey as she deals with the death of her brother, who committed suicide. There are finely crafted sentences, and the narrative structure is interesting, but Enright includes crude references almost every few pages, and the climax hinges on an event that, as Veronica states right at the beginning, may not have actually happened. Enright described this book as a Hollywood weepie for intellectuals. No, Ms Enright, Testament of Youth is a weepie for intellectuals. This is a weepie for people obsessed with genitals. I confess to skim reading the last half since I felt obliged to finish it for book club, but I felt tainted afterwards.

The Somme. Lest we forget.

Grotta Gigante

Is there a word for a revelation that is simultaneously a duh moment and a wow moment? I had one of those this recent half term. We had two consecutive holidays coming up, Reformation Day and All Saints*, and in Slovenia a holiday is actually a holiday, as in everything shuts down. With the children home for the week, lots of rain in the forecast and hubby about to go on a business trip, I knew I had to plan at least one outing or I would go insane. So what do you do when there is nothing to do and you live in a small European country? The duh moment: you hop over the border to one that does not have a holiday. And the wow moment: we can just hop over the border to one that does not have a holiday.

And if you live in a region riddled by caves beneath your feet and the weather is cold and damp... why not go visit a cave, where the weather is cold and damp?

So a little hearsay and research uncovered a nearby cave we had never heard of before: Grotta Gigante in the Trieste region. Our teenager had some vague objection along the lines that we would have to drive through the town where her school is and she should not have to be near her school at half term (or be seen out with her family), but she was made to leave the cave that is her room anyway.

Credit: Grotta Gigante website

The only other visitors for that hour were a father and son from Slovenia who obviously had the same idea that we did. That worked out really well. The guide gave the English presentation first, then sent us on our way to the next station while she repeated it in Slovene, so we got to walk at our own pace, or the pace of middle aged parents descending 500 steps with a child in a back pack carrier. The three year-old was determined to travel in style the whole way. His sister tried bribing him to walk with promises of a Kit Kat from the vending machine if he walked. "I will walk at the end," he announced, and stayed firmly put.

Grotta Gigante gets its name because it is basically a big hole in the ground. This was not a major tourist cave, like Postojna, but I like avoiding crowds, plus you get more personal tours from people really keen to show you what a hidden treasure you are visiting. Its modest claims to fame include having the world´s largest hall of any tourist cave, and playing host to the longest pendulum in the world, which measures earth tremors.The stalactites are far more impressive than the stalagmites, because the drops of water have so far to fall through the cavern that they tend to splash and disperse on the cave floor.

I was so fixated by the five hundred steps down that I did not think about the 500 steps back up. At that point we were really glad we were staggering walking at our own pace. Ten steps from the exit, a little voice piped up at my back. "I will walk now." Three steps outside the cave, he declared, "I don´t have the energy to walk any more." I foresee a career in international negotiations. And yes, he got his Kit Kat. A deal is a deal.

The pendulum

Touristy stuff: The website is in Italian, but easy to figure out. Since it is a pretty small enterprise, the website warns that official tour times may vary depending on other events, number of visitors etc. If the 1000 steps are not enough of a workout, you can book a four-hour tour that includes climbing down ladders instead (some experience required). Or just go ahead and book the wine tasting tour.

*In Slovenia, the Reformation was the impetus to produce the very first books in Slovene, which is why this basically non-Protestant country marks it as a turning point in Slovene culture. All Saints is a holiday in many traditional Catholic countries.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Days of Autumn

After several rainy(ish) weekends, the one of the 20th managed to play nicely for two events - and no one had any new illness, just the dying remnants of coughs from old infections. On Saturday, we joined our daughter´s school community hike up Monte San Leonardo, beginning from the Italian hill town of Samatorza. But, to immediately backtrack, many of the hill towns just over the border are pretty much Slovene communities that stayed put when the borders were established after all the conflicts of the first part of the twentieth century.

Our daughter gloomily predicted that she would be the only teen compelled to go on the walk. And to be fair, she was right. We had both the oldest and youngest child there. But she got to engage with teachers outside of school, and be dragged out of bed before eight on a Saturday, so what does she have to complain about?

The drive to Samatorza through several villages convinced me once again that I will never be a fully-fledged motorist here. "What are you talking about?" said my husband. "Compared to English country lanes these are highways."

The three year-old was happy to be in his backpack once again, though he apparently expected a cave tour, remembering the excitement of Skočjan. It was not so exciting for us. He acquired that annoying childish habit of growing over the summer, so he was considerably heavier than when we last hiked. What to say about the hike? There were children, there were many small dogs, there was conversation, there were country lanes in fully-fledged autumn, like England, except the light was more golden.

Our son´s wish was unexpectedly granted when we stopped off for the adventurous to explore the entrance of a cave, and for the puffing and panting among us to be grateful I had overpacked when it came to water bottles.

The climax of the walk was the ascent up Monte San Leonardo. This was the point at which we could not even backpack (can that be a verb?) the toddler between us, so he got to climb the last part of the way.  We stopped just in time at the top of the hill, to rest in the shell of a (probably) fifteenth century church, where our boy was outraged that I had not packed a full picnic.

From there it was a thankfully downhill trek, stopping for kids to climb what is known as the pointless lookout, and for an adventurous dachshund to roll in fox poo. Lunch was at an Agritourism farm, Gruden Zbogar. They are popular around here, as restaurants and/or accommodation. You know you are passing a cultural milestone when you are thankful the menu is in Slovene as well as Italian. I followed a recommendation to order something that included a local dish, chifeletti, a sort of combination between gnocchi and a potato croquette.

Home to naps between continuing to work on the mountain of washing from all the shipped clothes which were rather less than fresh after five months in storage.

Sunday, we went along to the Days of Agriculture festival down in Koper. It was more a giant food fare than expo, but it did have tractors kids were allowed to climb on, and a mini farm animal exhibit, so the toddler was just about happy (apart from screaming when I walked past a cube of cheese that he apparently had to have or die).

The photo turned out like this accidentally, but I think it says it all about boys and their toys

The main tent was a marketplace for Istrian agriculture. Cheese, meat, honey, wine, lavender, and pumpkin oil abounded. I also bought some scrummy fruit cake that was almost like Christmas cake (and I was enthusiastic about getting a whole cake nearer Christmas until we figured out that the woman lived a three-hours drive away). There had been a honey competition for local beekeepers the day before, which is why I think everyone included three particular types of honey on their stalls: acacia, bay, and woodland. It was fun to compare the types. I swear I could catch an aftertaste of pine forest in at least one of them.

People here still tend to eat seasonally, and feast on cherries, apples, squash, chestnuts, whatever has just been harvested. After years of American supermarkets offering everything all year round, I am trying to get into this new habit. Right now it is the end of apple season, and squash, chestnuts and Croatian mandarins are in. I am still sporting a cut and blistered thumb from my attempt to remember how to peel hot chestnuts.

A second tent was more informational, with a death-defying display of edible funghi (below), and a very scientific-looking olive oil stand.

By the end, the bottom of the stroller was full, and my purse was literally empty. Luckily, sitting on tractors one last time does not cost any money. On writing this, I reflected that the tractor company should have stocked up on toy tractors. They would have made a killing, and we would have had the beginnings of a tractor collection.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Quick Lit October 2018

I had to rewrite my intro to this month´s QuickLit link up because our shipping arrived, which meant many boxes of books to sort through (we got rid of literally hundreds of books and it was still our biggest category of shipping!). The only problem is that we have an unfurnished temporary apartment that we don´t want to buy much furniture for, so I had to choose which books to unpack and which to leave boxed. You can see how I carefully chose only enough to fit on our revolving bookcase...

...or not, of course.

Richard Foster - Prayer: Finding the heart´s true home
A more practical title for this book would be The Complete Handbook of Christian Prayer, but I suppose that glosses over Foster´s main message. At over 400 pages, it really does cover every conceivable tradition of Christian prayer, discussed with a mix of historical background, experiences and advice from people ranging from acknowledged pillars of the faith across two thousand years to those Foster has encountered in everyday life, plus practical advice and sample prayers. I have no doubt that Foster himself will be numbered among classic Christian authors. I started this several months ago - it is a book you can take all at once or chapter by chapter as a type of workbook. This would be fruitful reading for people of any Christian tradition, but I think open-minded spiritual seekers or those of other traditions might find value in it as well.

Ammon Shea - Reading the OED: One man, one year, 21, 730 pages
Few books make me laugh out loud. If I tell you that one of them is Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, Lynn Truss´s diatribe on the correct use of punctuation, you might understand why I loved this book too (and resolve never to be cornered in conversation with me). Each chapter begins with a short essay related to his reading, the OED, or lexicographical matters, then lists Shea´s favourite words, accompanied with his commentary on the definition. There is a little of the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson in Shea, who serves up his opinions with a snark that had me giggling out loud. The only problem is that I had put aside two pages in my bullet journal for 2018 words whose definitions I wanted to (re)learn. Now I have a huge new list of words too delicious not to commit to memory. And, Mr Shea, I would like to inform you that, growing up in the London suburbs, I have, in fact, been vulpeculated*.

A clue

Anne Bogel - I´d Rather be Reading: The delights and dilemmas of the reading life (audio book)
I admit, it was the cover that sold me on the book. I got the audio version for free with my preorder; a good deal for me since I had to have the physical book delivered to my parents´ house in the UK because THERE IS NO AMAZON IN SLOVENIA. (We are surviving. Thank you for asking.) The title pretty much explains this little gift book, with short essays on all things reading, from living next door to a library, arranging bookshelves, to books that made you cry. I hope MMD fans will not be knocking at my door with torches and pitchforks for saying this, but I would have liked it if Anne had read just a little more slowly, as I wanted to savour her musings. I am looking forward to revisiting the essays in print when I next get to the UK.

Lillian Beckwith - The Hills is Lonely
I am glad I looked up information on the author or I would have ended up feeling embarrassed about my review. The blurb on the back of the yellowed 1970s paperback declared it was an account of the author´s rest cure in the Hebrides, set around the 1940s, but it turns out it is a fictionalised memoir. To be fair, that is standard for the pre-social-media times (think Gerald Durrell and James Herriot), where telling all about your neighbours was still considered impolite. In fact, I would describe it as a slightly more literary James Herriot. If you love all things Scottish, wrap yourself in a blanket, put a good dose of whiskey in a hot cup of tea and cosy up to read about the wild, rainy Hebrides and its equally wild inhabitants.

L.M. Montgomery - Anne of Green Gables
I have so many books queued up on my Kindle that I told myself I wasn´t even getting another free book unless it was a must-read - and then Anne of Green Gables showed up for nothing on my BookBub email, I am guessing because Marilla of Green Gables is due out this month. I have never read it, and I wanted to see why it is such a favourite. It was sweet, enjoyable, and beautifully written, and I think if I had read it as a child, it would be up there with the Little Women and What Katy Did books as my nostalgic loves. As an adult, I have to shamefully confess to skimming over some of Anne´s flights of fancy.

Credit to

I hope October is bringing you all good things autumnal. I have to say I am glad for a break from pumpkin spice everything. I mean, it may be around but the only related word I understand is buče, the general word for squash, so I can remain blissfully ignorant.

*Robbed by a fox.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Festival of Desserts and Sweets

At last, the event I have been anticipating for several months - and the autumn rain even held off! Three whole days of dessert and sweet tasting (plus sweet and dessert wines) at four squares around Koper. I´m not even sure what to say about this, because right now you are probably either salivating as you book your flight for next year or about to click away. For the dessert addicts among us, here is the low down.

Photo credit: Sweet Istria site - just to add a decent photo or two :)

I had planned to check out the festival solo on Friday while I was down in the town at work, but our three year-old got last week´s cold back (hazard of moving to another country) and really needed a day off kindergarten. But I had to take him down to the pharmacy in his stroller for cough medicine. So we got some syrup of root extract of something from the pharmacist that Google translate did not know about, but it was really sweet and my son liked it so that was okay. Once we had made it down the hill, I thought I might as well push him further because you feel, and breathe, so much better in the fresh air when you are bunged up. And then we made it down to the sea front for some thalassotherapy (aka sea air) and ice cream for his throat - and what do you know, there was the desserts festival. We only visited two squares, and it kept an under-the-weather boy quite happy, so really, I am not a selfish mother.

The festival venue was divided into thematic sections. Down by the sea, in Carpaccio Square, were mostly chocolatiers. Slovenians are very into all sorts of dried fruits coated in chocolate, not my favourite, but I gave some a try. Lots of organic chocolate on sale, too. I bought a bar of truffle (as in the mushroom) chocolate because truffles are big in this region, but I haven´t opened it yet so I can´t report back.

Yes, they are chocolate

Up in Tito Square, in front of the cathedral, were local, Istrian desserts, including a gluten-free stall. Figs figure heavily here, as do nuts and apricots. Lost of local olive oil and honey for sale, too.

BTW, I ride my bike through here to work

 Back down by the old town walls, in Prešeren Square, were Slovenian sweets. They are not as saturated with fat or sugar as American or British desserts, but are heavier on pastry cream. A lot of them remind me of the sorts of recipes you get in historical cookbooks.

And along the road from that, in Gortan Square, were more Slovenian desserts and general sweet (candy) stalls, including stand for a vegan bakery newly opened by the people who run our son´s kindergarten. Their chocolate hazelnut cake was pretty yummy.

 There were demonstrations, cooking shows, activities for children, and, something I really feel needs a shout-out, extra water stations laid on for people to refill drinking bottles. You had to buy coupons for tasting samples - five for three euros, and all samples were one or two coupons. There were desserts available for purchase with real-time money, but not as much as I had expected. That didn´t stop people loading up on coupons and taking trayfuls of desserts home.

Photo: Sweet Istria

Saturday, three of us went down at the end of the day (our daughter plead homework), and the place was much more crowded. Good for business, not so much for introverts. I bought a huge jar of local (Ankaran) honey in Tito Square, good for all the coughs, colds and general sniffles sweeping in waves through our house, plus a large bag of chocolates in Carpaccio Square, good for nothing except our spirits. Our daughter met us for dinner - and wow, prices have gone down now that the tourist season is waning. Dinner for four with wine was 25 euros. I spent over twice that amount all told at the festival - purely for purposes of investigation, of course.

Sunday morning, we were meant to meet some people down in Koper and have a last walk through the festival afterwards, but the venue got changed. The only problem was that I still had coupons left over. So, heroically, I gave my husband some peace and quiet to work on his lecture notes in the afternoon and took the little one down once more, plastic container in hand. We used all the coupons to get a dessert selection to bring back for the family and WE DID NOT EAT ONE PIECE  down there, just a tasting of organic dulce de leche. How selfless is that? A trip to the park and a lucky find of a discarded balloon placated the toddler.

Now, a whole year to get my blood sugar levels back to normal before the next festival :)

Touristy stuff. Come see us and the festival! There is still some beautiful weather in this part of the world in September, and prices are getting cheaper! There is even a pre-arranged wet weather venue for the festival, so your sweet tooth will not be disappointed. I believe the website is kept up and running all year, and if you click on the Slovenian version, you can get recipes, though I cannot vouch for what Google translate will have you end up cooking :)

Thursday, 27 September 2018

How do you Poreč?

You know, perhaps, how it is when you are planning a day trip: you go online or pull out the guidebooks, or both, in search of the ten/ twelve things you must do when in a certain place. When a site lists five and two of them aren´t actually in the town itself, perhaps you should be warned to plan your day differently...

Anyhow, we first visted Poreč, along the coast from us in Croatia, ten years ago, and it sticks in my mind for two reasons: one, I left feeling I had not done the place justice, and two, an infamous incident which was sort of related to the first. Having wandered around and not really done much other than stare in the windows of closed shops, we were about to leave when we realised the tide had gone out enough for the girls to play down at the sea. Our eldest, about twelve then, gathered up a collection of sea shells which we boxed up and took home. Some time later that evening, there was an ominous scratching coming from the box, and we opened it to find that a dozen previously very shy hermit crabs had emerged and were scuttling about. After some futile debate involving salinating tap water, my husband had to drive down to Koper beach under cover of darkness to wreak havoc on the ecosystem. I still sometimes wonder if we changed the course of evolution that night.

Where did that toddler head come from?

Fast forward ten years. We had planned to go to Poreč on Saturday, but the toddler was knocked out with a cold on Friday, so we waited a day, even though I was leery that most places would be shut, Croatia being a pretty devout Catholic country. But we hadn´t ventured far from Koper for ages, bogged down in school/ kindergarten administration, so we decided to give it a go. Crossing the border was pretty uneventful - the guard almost thought about opening our passports, then decided he couldn´t be bothered. The previous crossing was much more eventful. We were in a loaned car then, and we got thoroughly grilled at the border because why else would an Anglo-American family take up residence in Slovenia if not to steal old cars and make a getaway into Croatia?

Croatia, as I am ashamed to say I had to check, is in the EU now (it was not a member last time I was travelling around). In my defence, I was confused because it does not yet have the euro. The currency is the kuna, which I also try to forget because it involves memories of my husband spending money in Croatia and then singing "My kuna´s a goner" to the tune of Hakuna Matata from The Lion King.

Oh yes, Poreč. It is about an hour´s drive from us, and, like much of the region, used to belong to Italy until after WWII. But it was a settlement way before then, including as a Roman town, and with a paleo-Christian community. Wikipedia claims it has been the most visited tourist spot in the region since the 1970s, but to my mind the industry has grown even more since we first visited - that is true up and down the coast now cruises seem to be so wildly popular. I need not have worried about wandering empty streets because all of the shops and restaurants were open. 

Entering the old town is like you have stepped out of the Tardis into some sort of timeline crash: bits of roman columns butting up against a restaurant, a medieval tower turned cafe, a Venetian facade along one side of a square, centuries-old paving worn to a shine by millions of feet, lopsided shop doorways packed with wooden ducks. (I didn´t get the wooden duck thing. Maybe it is a message for time travellers.)

First, we decided to make for the one big nerdy destination, the sixth century basilica, built over the fourth century original, with some rather beautiful mosaics. But, like our last visit, the basilica complex was closed, and there was a service going on in the church. We veered off down the streets, deciding to make for the temple of Neptune instead, quickly getting confused by the criss-crossed streets and aforementioned bits of roman architecture dotted everywhere.

At this point, in the interests of truth, I have to confess to some marital disharmony. When we can´t find a place, I like to stop, consult all available maps, and only move on when I feel confident. My husband´s modus operandi is to just start going in any  feasible direction while he works out the route. There is not a good middle ground on this. Plus, I was coming down with my son´s cold, and the weather turned out to be a lot hotter than forecast, so the combination was not doing much for my temperament.

Like I said. Very Catholic.

Time for a retreat to the sea front and our picnic. Thankfully the people on the shadier bench next to us soon vacated it. As with last time, the sea was right up to the wall so playtime was limited to climbing down the steps to the edge of the water, watching jellyfish float by, or a pipe nose fish hunting smaller fish. We were about to retreat to the shade of town when we spotted a large jellyfish marooned on a jetty - and it was still quivering. I am an animal lover, but it was gross in an alien-movie kind of way. It was probably dying, but of course our daughter felt compelled to help it back into the sea (without touching it). This took a looong time in the direct sun, and involved more gross bits of jelly fish falling off ("It´s multiple organisms! It can survive!") so I hope Saint Francis was taking note.

You are lucky the jellyfish is indistinct here.

Resume mission: to find the temple of Neptune. Easy - if Google maps had been cooperating. There is something to be said for paper maps. After much wandering about, stopping at a random park as a preventative measure before the toddler had a meltdown, and sending my husband out on a scouting party, we got there. It was a small pile of ruins in a grassy square, right by the edge of the sea (who would have guessed?) but hey, it was off our list.

I thought I should have at least one photo from 2018 with me in it.

We got somewhat distracted along the way by an expensive natural beauty shop, where my daughter was somewhat annoyed that I did not fully payroll her purchase. She proceeded to give me a lecture on how important it is not to let terrible chemicals leach into my skin, and while I was at it I should stop shaving my legs and drying out my skin. And then she passed a fast food place and begged for money for a funnel cake because apparently what goes directly into your stomach does not matter. Or something.

Wandering back past the basilica, we decided to peek in again - and the church was open. Success! I have become pretty fond of early Christian mosaics. There is a proliferation of lambs (of God). And lots of shiny gold tiles. Plus, fun detective puzzles as you look at the pictures and abbreviated Latin and guess who is who. That means adults get to appreciate the art and children, even small ones, can be (mildly) entertained. Though actually our son was more interested in the nondescript original floor mosaics open for display below the current (by which I mean sixth century) floor level, because people had dropped things over the rails onto the floor (the coins on purpose I suppose; not so sure about the bottle of water), and I know he was wondering if he could do his bit to destroy history.

A final coffee (surprisingly more expensive than in Slovenia) and we headed home. We took several things back from this trip (but thankfully no hermit crabs - or jellyfish). First, we should admit we are not very good at just wandering around and experiencing the ambiance of a place (though to be fair this is harder when you have small children - or when you are coming down with a cold). Secondly, if we are going to a town where there is not a lot of nerdy things to do, we should plan for a nice meal somewhere rather than be cheap and bring a picnic (because see first point). Third, if you are a planner, be kind to yourself and actually plan. It saves the whole family much angst.

Touristy stuff. As I said, Poreč has become very much a summer tourist destination. It was reasonably busy even though the main summer season is ebbing, so I expect the narrow streets could be extremely crowded earlier in the summer (and really hot). I think we should have scoped out the actual beach options nearby and planned part of the day at one. But tourism and tourist shops aside, the old town is very pretty, with lots of chances to spot architectural gems from Roman ruins forward, and if you are good at wandering, you will really enjoy it. Chasing the Donkey has about the best overview of the area that I have seen (though of course I didn´t scroll down far enough to see that blog before we went). P.S. if you drive, there are two big, convenient car parks literally on the edge of the old town. The grassed one is two whole kunas per hour (24p, 32 cents) cheaper than the paved one.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Sunday in Koper

We have been pretty Koper-based for a while, getting the children settled in school and kindergarten, but that just prompted me into actually chronicling what we do around here at the weekend (hint: it is no longer cleaning a 4 bedroom, 3-bathroom house, mowing an acre, weeding or shovelling chicken poop). Sorry I am a bad photographer - I need an internet course on how to take good photos on your android phone when you are short-sighted.

On Sunday morning, there is a flea market in the old town, and, as we are second hand bargain junkies, it is pretty much the highlight of the weekend. We take the longer, but more scenic and shaded route from our apartment in the hills down to town, along the canal.

We come out via the main underpass, which has recently been painted with a mural depicting the history, culture and mythology of Koper...

...and onto the promenade. This wasn´t here when we lived in Koper before. The city is working hard to revamp this section of the coast and make it pleasant for local families and holiday makers.

Here is the entrance to the market. Sorry there are not interesting close ups of the stalls. I still feel dumb taking photos of things like that. It´s like saying, "Hi, let me take a photo of all your old clothes and display it to the entire planet." It is mostly non professionals trading, so there is a bit of everything. As far as I know there aren´t any charity shops/ thrift stores here, so this is where everyone goes for second hand stuff. People even pop over from Italy to sell. So far, we have got bikes for three out of the four of us, plus a few items of clothing. This Sunday, I bought a new-with-tag tunic dress for five euros.  The lady on the stall spoke Italian, but because I am concentrating on Slovene right now, it´s hard to dredge up my poco Italiano. She was rattling off numbers, and I got lost somewhere after solo cinque. I was thinking, Can´t we do this in Slovene? I know my Slovene numbers to 100 if you say them really slowly!

We peruse the market until our toddler is about to launch a full blown rebellion, then head off to the beach down the road. I have mentioned before that actual beaches are thin on the ground (or coast) in this area of the world, the Koper beach is a small artificial stone beach, with a nice park area behind it, plus a sand pit so that the children can actually make sand castles. I get to sharpen my language skills listening to sand pit talk between small children and their parents because they have to say things like gremo domov (we are going home) about twenty times over before they can get the children to budge.

Depending on the time and hunger levels when we leave, we head off for pizza or gelato. The little bakery up the hill sells you a quarter of a pizza for a euro. Or, the ice cream place at the entrance to the beach offers kid-sized portions of gelato for a euro twenty. I am not a big ice cream fan, which is a shame since we are in gelato country, but this weekend the shop up the road had my favourite flavour: ferrero roche, complete with swirls of chocolate nut fondant. So two trips to two ice cream shops later, we were headed back along the promenade, home for lunch. Here is the little one, eating the end of my cone, along with his own.

Happiness is... an ice cream for each hand.

And I would say as a postscript, I know these sorts of posts can sound like showing off, but really, I am so grateful when I stop to think about our new lifestyle. We worked and saved hard in the US for our "working retirement" here in Koper. It´s weird to be a cliche, but really, you are never to old to follow your dreams!

Tourist info: We´re here. Come visit :)