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 :)

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Quick Lit September 2018

This was my stash of second hand books from my trip to the UK. It might not look like much, but we took the "cabin bags only" option on Ryanair, so we had to be extremely careful on weight (and I also had a years´worth of my favourite UK magazine, Country Living). Nice to have some real books to hold.

Not a whole bunch of reading this month - my life has been consumed by filling out forms, especially for school and kindergarten. Here´s what I read for brief moments of relief.

Alan Bennett - The Uncommon Reader
I was really pleased to pick this up as a hardback at the Three Parishes Fete in Dorset. I have seen Talking Heads and The Lady in the Van, but never actually read any Bennett. One day, the Queen almost literally stumbles into reading for pleasure. She soon gets hooked, and chaos follows in the palace. This novella was a delight - witty (especially if you are British or up on modern British history) but respectful and admiring of Her Majesty. I finished it in a day because my husband went out for drinks with friends that evening (yes, I did encourage him to go).

Jenny Colgan - The Little Beach Street Bakery
Last month, someone was kind enough to compliment me on my reading tastes. I had to confess that, with a degree in literature, I feel compelled to be bit of a reading snob. A new exception is Jenny Colgan, a purely-for-fun author. Reading a Jenny Colgan novel is like when my husband brings home those bags of paprika peanuts from Hofer (the name for Aldi here): I open the bag and can´t stop eating them. I would have read this (e) book in the shower if I could. Polly escapes a failed business and relationship by taking cheap lodgings on Mount Polbearne, Cornwall, a tidal island. Her love of baking saves her and opens up possibilities for a new life. Oh, and this is chick lit, so of course there are several possible love interests. Pretty much the same formula as The Cafe By the Sea, right down to the billionaire American character, but hey, it works.

Muriel Spark - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
A slight theme going here, in that the Maggie Smith film version has been a favourite of mine for decades, but I have never read the actual book. Miss Brodie is an unconventional teacher at a very conventional girls school in Edinburgh. Deciding that she has entered her prime, she selects a group of pupils whom she will cultivate to be "la crème de la crème", and proceeds to mould them to her vision: "Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life". If you have seen a screen version, it is not really a spoiler, because the novel jumps between past, present and future; you begin to discover the fates of Miss Brodie´s pupils early on, and then must watch helplessly as she shapes their destinies. A short novel, where every sentence seems crafted, a complete pleasure to read. Now I can say I love both the film and the book.

Jill Murphy - Five Minutes Peace
It was good hunting in the UK this summer: this series favourite (for me and my three year-old - and his Nana, too) was a 50p charity shop find. What parent could not empathise with a book that begins, "The children were having breakfast. This was not a pretty sight"? And so Mrs Large tries to sneak off to the bathroom for an elusive five minutes of peace, with predictable results. The Large family stories hit that perfect note of appealing to parent and child alike.

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy and wishing you la crème de la crème of a reading month!

Monday, 10 September 2018

Slovenian Quick Takes: September 2018

A late summer evening in Koper

1. I have barely had time to read or write anything since I got back from the UK. At that point, everyone had finally received their residency papers, which is pretty much the golden key to everything, so it has been a final push on all aspects of living here, from boring but necessary ones like registering with a doctor (three doctors, actually, one for the adults, one for the teen and one for the toddler) to exciting ones like buying a car. And then the forms, oh the forms... the word vloga is forever seared on my brain with a red hot pen.

2. But at least the weather has cooled down. When we last lived here (arriving in sweaty August), I recall being told something along the lines of, "Don´t worry, the weather will break on September 3 at 2.30pm." And it did - then and now. So much better than Mississippi when you didn´t know if you would be perspiring into October.

3. The three year-old began kindergarten this week, and seems to be enjoying himself. He has already started saying "ne" instead of "no", so I think his language transition will be fine. Weirdly, his kindergarten is run by Seventh Day Adventists. I say weirdly, because as far as I (OK, Google) know, there is not even an SDA church in Slovenia. All it means in practice is that they say grace before their vegetarian meals.

We always have to stop by the canal for a spot of nutria watching on our way to kindergarten

4. Our teen began the new term at the International School Trieste, Italy. I would tell you all about her experiences, but she´s a teen, so all we get out of her is monosyllables unless it´s a demand for money to buy school supplies. Counting our eldest, still at MIT, this means we have three children in school in three different countries. Just colour us cosmopolitan.

5. As well as being the end of summer, September is known as one of the rainy months, so a couple of things we had planned to do were washed out by thunderstorms. We did get down to town one evening for an event called "The Street Revives", which was a hotchpotch of live entertainment, informational stalls (university, local businesses, associations etc.) and vendors, set out along the long, sloping street that runs from the central square to what was the old port. I got a free reusuable bag from a stall run by kids in return for taking their photo. When I said I would put it on my blog, they crowded in front of the camera, so, dutifully, here it is:

6. We are still haunting the Sunday morning flea market, and I scored with an almost new ladies bike last week. As soon as we get a kiddy chair fixed on, Alcuin and I will arrive at kindergarten quickly and in style via the extensive network of bike lanes here.

7. Breaking news: yesterday, I finally got Ted to swim in the sea. To me, raised on the icy coasts of Britain, it is luxurious here: cool (not freezing), calm (we are in a harbour), and more buoyant. To him: it is cold. But he went in anyway. This could become a yearly event.

And P.S. (official exoneration from plagiarism notice!), if any old readers are hanging around, yes, I borrowed the series title idea from Seven Quick Takes, first created by Jennifer Fulwiler, who found fame on Sirius radio and passed the baton to Kelly at This Ain´t the Lyceum.