Viking eyes, palsied flags, linguistic accretions, marmalade cats, stolen shadows, Tito’s partisans, spavined farms, horse salami, emailed medievalists, Bosnian cigarettes, the Master Radovan & Croatia.
On the Dalmatian coast, we drive by blue seas and Ottoman forts and Romanesque bell towers, past glowing shores of Byzantine tiles of turquoise and gold and over there an ancient Greek colony’s favoured swimming spot like a carved stone tub set at the water’s edge. The city of Zadar has stood 3,000 years, Skradin is more than 6,000 years old and Croatia was inhabited 130,000 years ago. Did Viking eyes glide past these white beaches? Everyone else was here: Illyrians, Avars and Hungarians, Mongols, Celts, Arabs, Franks, Goths, Huns, and Venetians. Napoleon ruled here briefly, after Venice fell it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and in WWII Tito’s partisans roamed these temples and Turkish turrets.
And in our time new armies of refugees walk across Croatia and Slovenia toward closed borders and razor wire, toward Vienna’s walls, a route so many Turks marched centuries before. And there are tourists like us.
It is best to approach the walled city of Trogir from the water, the Venetian fortress looming larger beneath white mountains. Is that snow? No, the Karst’s pale stone, the Velebit range’s marl and lunar limestone. Two-masted clippers dock by cafés dreaming under tropical palms and Algerian glare. What world is this? No cars, and Trogir in November is quiet, but still a sense of a living village, that haphazard market by the water, boats moving and children running with marmalade cats and black dogs and fishermen gathering after work around the small trash can outside the grocer, an inexpensive spot to drink and chat.
Trogir’s name was Tragyrion, from the Greek for “male goat,” the same root as tragedy and goat song and sacrifice. This year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1991 war for Croatian independence from Yugoslavia. Near Trogir’s cathedral I enter a shrine to those dead, almost a cave, a whited sephulchre of a chapel. Twelve thousand died in the Homeland War; I try to imagine twelve thousand Canadians killed in our own streets and fields over sovereignty. Photos of martyrs in the shrine strike me as odd, because their look is so recent, not WWI or WWII. These could be yearbook photos in our epoch: jeans and T-shirts and Freddie Mercury mustaches.
Saracens sacked Trogir and its cathedral in an age of myriad crusades, armies marching south and boats sailing north and men jumping ashore to kill here where we stroll clock towers and palaces, where we admire architecture and marmalade cats and wonder what to drink next.
Clarissa and I wander tiny crooked lanes, under our feet soft soapstone worn smooth by eons. Doctor Who and Game of Thrones and Vampires of Venice filmed in this walled Roman town. We get lost, but you can’t really be lost; a few blocks each way leads to a gate in the wall. Meters from the war shrine and kitty-corner to the Cathedral of St. Lawrence, we choose a dim café.
The cathedral boasts a Romanesque portal by the Master Radovan, a stunning arch of carved saints and apostles and centaurs and mermaids and two stone-jawed lions lunging out as guards with naked Adam and Eve standing on their backs. We can see the famous portal, but we can’t get close, as the church’s iron gates are locked shut.
A pleasant afternoon of sun and dark beer and red wine, November, but mild enough to stand outside to avoid the smoke inside, and Croatia is cigarette smoke. We’re not in Italy, but I think of this square as a piazza, and this place was once Roman and much later Venetian. Why do I love these corners of empire, these shards? Saracens sacked Trogir and its cathedral in an age of myriad crusades, armies marching south and boats sailing north and men jumping ashore to kill here where we stroll clock towers and palaces, where we admire architecture and marmalade cats and wonder what to drink next. Two hundred years to build a masterpiece, an afternoon or so to raze it, dismiss it.
Near us a man smokes and orders Tomislav beer two bottles at a time, a grizzled look, closely cropped hair, a baggy sweater and bandy legs—perhaps a local fisherman. Fish abound in the shops and cafés, fish caught that morning. He downs one beer and on to another, talking to himself, a drinker with purpose. A drink, a cigarette, a drink, a cigarette. We move down a few tables to avoid his smoke. The young bartender is very friendly to us. We chat and gaze at the Loggia, a kind of open meeting place with pleasing pillars and frescoes close enough for us to touch. The Loggia is not locked up.
A woman wanders the tables, asking us for money. As ID she shows me a certificate from the Pope and a banknote pressed under plastic. I decline. She approaches me several times. Does she think I am five different people? I tire of the woman asking me for money, but with few visitors hanging around in November I am a target. How did this woman end up begging in Trogir? You have to try to get here, off the main route, though once a rich ancient port and trade route. Salt, olive oil, goat meat, wine, spices, coffee, slaves, blood. She sings a song, sings that she slept on a side road and someone stole her shadow. Like a slave, she was transported from the east, from the south, but I don’t want to give her money.
Clarissa glances into a side nave, where a man arranges long-stem roses around a huge statue of the Virgin Mary. Perhaps church staff, but he belches: it’s the drunken smoker from the café.
The smoker passes her a few coins and later calls to her again. Change on the table, he is drunk and more generous than me; he calls the woman and places more coins in her hand. She walks away, but he decides he wants a hug for his coins. He chases her, grasps her shoulders, wraps his arms around her, but the woman fears him, tries to elude his grip. This struggle unfolds in the open piazza under the cathedral tower. The woman moves away from him, but he yanks on her hoodie and her head comes back toward him, her back bent and arms flung up. The woman is held by her hood, but she turns wildly, she slaps at him, she ducks and wheels and, finally escaping his grip, runs past the cathedral. Will she call the police? The man returns to his table of Tomislav and Drina cigarettes. We look up later and he has vanished.
Curious about the cathedral’s repeated destruction and the word “Saracen,” I email a medievalist, Dr. Christa Canitz, who replies in seconds.
The Trogir cathedral is extremely interesting for its references to Islam. Some of its pillars are supported by Muslim figures (alongside Christian supporting figures), and, as was common in the western Mediterranean basin, the sculptural programme and its execution are strongly influenced by Muslim craftsmanship; indeed, many of the craftsmen would have been Muslims (yes, Muslims working on a Christian edifice). As for the word “Saracen,” the cultural and linguistic accretions are enormous. Hard to know where to start, but in medieval terminology, the word tends to be applied to Muslims in general and is both romanticising and vilifying. Saracens are the other, in every way. Also, the early twelfth century is too early for the term to be applied to the Ottomans; they weren’t on the scene yet.
Leaving our small table to walk again, we see that the cathedral’s iron gates are wide open. The famous portal by Master Radovan! Lions! Let’s look inside! We happily admire the portal carvings, take photos. A few women pray inside and I look toward the main altar. Clarissa glances into a side nave, where a man arranges long-stem roses around a huge statue of the Virgin Mary. Perhaps church staff, but he belches: it’s the drunken smoker from the café. We both stare, and, in a nimble move, our fisherman leaps atop the altar, standing high to lift Mary into his arms, sloppily kissing and hugging Mary’s statue. His kiss in the square didn’t transpire, so he turns to Mary in the nave; Mary understands his needs. His rough worship at the relics, trembling at the altar and leaping to her side, kissing Mary in tears, and I think of all the tears shed in this few acres by the Adriatic.
A redheaded woman with a baby is upset and wants the priest. I tell her I’ll stand guard below the man in case he falls or drops the statue; I should care about a human, but I’m more worried about Mary. Is the statue an ancient treasure or is it made in China? A very rare copy of the Satyricon surfaced in Trogir, and many Croat masters made art here, so Mary may be a valued relic.
A young Maxim Gorky tremblingly and intimately pressed his lips to the beautiful Virgin Mary’s mouth and was backhanded for his adoration. Mary is beautiful, but not sexual; Gorky did not kiss her correctly.
I stand below him, but he doesn’t see me, his eyes closed in a private moment, head leaning into her, rubbing her neck and shoulders and stomach and back, kissing and moaning, almost sobbing into her face, Maria, Maria! Croatia is a very Catholic country, I know this, and I was an altar boy, but I’ve never witnessed this exact sort of devotion.
Above me roses are falling from him and the statue intimate in his arms. He tries to hold onto the roses and the statue both and seems to wake from a spell, to realize his precarious position. He places his beloved back on the altar and looks down, roses falling. The man leaps from the altar and I dread his landing.
Strangely enough, in the middle of the man’s flight I am reminded of seeing Bruce Springsteen jumping from a piano; he was no longer young and I was filled with worry rather than enjoyment of the rock-and-roll moment; such impact is hard on the knees. What if he falls in pain? But the Boss did it and this man does it. He lands on his feet, arms out like a surfer; he stands and all seems well. But, after a Pinter pause, he topples backward into the stone altar and bonks his head, a palpable hit. He crawls around my feet, groaning. I decide Mary’s virtue is safe for a few seconds and race to the café and young bartender who was friendly.
I’m not sure how much English he knows, but I point at the man’s table: Your best customer is in trouble! We run back to the cathedral doors, the stunning portal and the stunned man. Very exciting. Locals take over and we slip out. I saw none of the church interior, just a man necking with Mary. His whole serious life here, and we witness this odd fragment. A young Maxim Gorky tremblingly and intimately pressed his lips to the beautiful Virgin Mary’s mouth and was backhanded for his adoration. Mary is beautiful, but not sexual; Gorky did not kiss her correctly.
A Filipina who was praying fled the cathedral, but we see her again on the other side of the bridge to Okrug. Eye contact and we nod, a smile hinting at our shared knowledge. Cool out, but she is spooning gelato. So she prays after work. When was the last time I prayed? Does Clarissa pray? Note to self: Ask her. Note to self: Really, don’t forget. We walk back over the bridge to pig out on risotto and stroll afterward to the square. The man drinks and smokes at his table as if he never left the spot to neck and bonk his head.
I stand below him, but he doesn’t see me, his eyes closed in a private moment, head leaning into her, rubbing her neck and shoulders and stomach and back, kissing and moaning, almost sobbing into her face, Maria, Maria!
The redheaded woman with the baby sees us and rushes to thank us profusely for helping her. I’m surprised, as we didn’t do much, but it’s a pleasant feeling.
His wife has died, the redheaded woman says; the poor man is mad with sorrow and alcohol.
Now we feel sorry for the drunken man, a widower. He will feel his head tomorrow. She says something is wrong with his son as well, or maybe the son is away; I’m not sure.
The widower sits at his table and two women stand vigil in the arched doorway of a shop under the Cipiko Palace in case the drunken widower tries to seek Mary again in the cathedral. They can’t go home. The Gothic palace gone to gift shops, the priests vanished and women guard the entrance, guard the ancient square sacked by Saracens in 1123.
And Venice demolished this cathedral in 1420. Jesus, how many times can you rebuild after such destruction? How many palsied flags in this square, on this shore, iron-cannon concussions, men throwing axes and forged swords having their swift word, saying, This is mine, a bloody succession of empires and rulers.
And Clarissa and I travel a succession of squares and piazzas—Venice, Murano, Trieste, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Zadar, Trogir, Split, Opatija, where we walk milky soapstone past the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages, past old wars and new wars and sieges and sackings and shrines. And also a succession of obnoxious tailgaters in costly German cars, and a succession of hotel rooms, each memorable, each necessary, but immediately supplanted by the very next front desk and key and room, held in a photo or two or simply lost when we leave.
They can’t go home. The Gothic palace gone to gift shops, the priests vanished and women guard the entrance, guard the ancient square sacked by Saracens in 1123.
We leave Okrug and drive iris and lavender, olive groves and sage and cypress trees and white stone. No GPS, so error guides us: north of Trogir I miss a turn and by accident we stumble on a gorgeous view of tiny Primosten floating out on the water. I love the look of this sunlit village crammed on an island and must stare out (but stay on the clifftop road!), must steer and stare at this heap of vivid red roof tiles glued to white walls, a village so compressed that domiciles lean on each other in a cartoon jumble and yet a mélange perfectly designed to please my eye, a hundred houses covering a small island hill, rooves rising up to a skinny tower plopped at the top like a candle on a cake, this high tower perched in the best random place.
I want to rent a room inside those walls and admire cliffs and islands in blue sea and be warmed by her ardour and curves, no car crashes and no death and only life and her eyes like part of the rain as she tries wine from Primo and feeds me Ston oysters. Turrets and towers by the sea in magic light, they feed my eye, but there is a stark reason to build out on an island, and every pocked wall attests to that ancient fear of boats and swords on the horizon. But most days we lie on a pier in the sun with a picnic, blue sky and a view of the sea and no wind and we are lucky.
Croatian fare is far tastier than what we ate in Venice and meals cost much less. Here we enjoy piglet pizza, bread-crumbed frogs, frog brodetta, eel brodetta, truffles, tripe, Dmis prosciutto, Lika potato, Lika lamb, Cres lamb, sheep cheese, horseradish, horse salami, garlic sausage, smoked and cured pork, sauerkraut beans, raw red tuna steak, bonito, oval emperor fish, fish paprika, catfish, cuttlefish, oyster stew, Kvarner scampi, sardines, mackerel, mullet, mussels with wine, blackberry wine, fruit schnapps, grapa, pear brandy, dark beer and black risotto, chestnuts and cherries, pumpkin seed oil, buckwheat gruel, corn pudding, pepper cookies, asparagus, olives and Pag cheese. And my new fave, served in Split and the best meal I’ve ever tasted: octopus stew with chickpeas. There are times I think, I have a good life.
Some in the Balkans may be less optimistic. One woman says, “We got the worst of both systems. They no longer believe in communism, they no longer believe in capitalism and they don’t believe in lung cancer.” A man says, “The corporations took the best from us without declaring a war or firing a shot.” People are friendly and grim both! They seem grim until you ask anything and then they open up, blossom. The transformation surprises us time and again. The Adriatic Sea has eagles and dolphins that are grim, then friendly, and they smoke cigarettes made in Bosnia.
Opatija and Trieste are just to the north of Trogir and yet they look completely different—no resemblance. The first two show the clear influence of Vienna, which seems not to have trickled farther south. James Joyce taught Berlitz in Trieste and Pula. How many eye operations? My eyes worry me as we drive tunnels punched through salt-white mountains, hundreds of blinking lights inside these tunnels and I feel stoned, hurtling inside a pinball machine. I’m nervous about scraping walls and worried my eyes will go wonky from flashing lights. It happened in an Okrug grocery, a spastic flicker of florescent lights over yogurt, and it happened in a Belfast Oxfam shop, the same staccato flicker and my eyes wouldn’t focus and I staggered back to a hotel half-blind, some new transaction in my brain nervous as a banner.
I want to rent a room inside those walls and admire cliffs and islands in blue sea and be warmed by her ardour and curves, no car crashes and no death and only life and her eyes like part of the rain as she tries wine from Primo and feeds me Ston oysters.
Serpentine roads fall to the sea from heights above the white desert. Take a fast exit off an ultra-modern autobahn and travel back five centuries. Signs warn of bears and wolves and wild boar; spavined farms sag in mud, no one visible, no kids running, no women squeezing giant udders for milk, farm buildings grouped together like a fortress expecting heathen hordes. Our route lacks room for a donkey with a rick of hay, a cart track zigzagging from peak to sea, yet there are roaring lorries and a big black Mercedes in my mirror, inches from my tail lights. Cliffs and hairpins, blind corners, but the black Merc flies past, no way to see what’s coming, lorries speeding both ways. One lorry pulls over slightly to allow me to pass, but a second big lorry follows me and takes too long and we hear a shriek of metal on stone and in the mirror I see the first truck bouncing off a cliff wall, long trailer shrieking and shaking on this narrow road above deep ravines.
In Zagreb I met a Croatian couple at a party. Car coming in wrong lane, he says, his car at 60, the other car over 90, 150 total of force. To avoid the head-on the man turns left, but the other driver turns the same way and enters the front corner of their VW. The man’s legs are crushed, femur split like wood, and his left knee smashed to particles, his left leg pulled out of his hip socket; he looks, says, That’s not where my leg should be. Conscious the whole time, no pain until they tried to get him out, an hour to get him out. The other man died across from him.
So I worry about blind corners and hope angels are roaring in the curves with us. I don’t want my leg split like wood; I wish to walk. A few scary drives from the autobahn to the sea, but our hejira’s reward is Opatija, a postcard city visited by Nabokov, Mahler, the Habsburg royals and now us.
Vlado’s father, Goran the filmmaker, whom we haven’t met, asks us to look for him on the terrace of a venerable hotel. “Ask,” he says. “Everyone knows the hotel.” We park, lucky to find a spot, and on the street they know the hotel, pointing us to where it faces the sea. A charming town of camellias and fountains, deco hotels in pastel colours and steep hills rising behind, the Nice of the Adriatic.
Goran’s latest film is set in India and the Himalayas, both tough places to shoot, but he sold the film to Amazon. We talk of our travels and Goran says he doesn’t dare drive down to Trogir or Zadar—Belgrade plates on his car, so he says he can’t safely go south of Rijeka.
The Adriatic Sea has eagles and dolphins that are grim, then friendly, and they smoke cigarettes made in Bosnia.
Serbs are blamed for the war, Goran tells us, and those places south of here had it the worst and they don’t forget. Goran was not in the war; he left Yugoslavia. We are the exact same people, he insists, but they hate us. Belgrade was the capital and Serbs called the shots. Serbs took the communist side in WWII, Croatia the Germans. Croatia Catholic, Serbs Orthodox. Pope John Paul II wanted to visit Zagreb, but the visit was not allowed by Belgrade. Serbs attacked Croatia in 1991 to try to force it to stay in Yugoslavia. The twelve thousand lost. A very long list, and people remember.
Hating the war, Goran went into exile in France, stayed decades, but recently his French wife suggested Opatija and its feel of France. So Goran moved south to Croatia. Istria is safe for him, but not down the coast. I think of the many changes in the map and the sailor who said to a journalist, “I was born in one country; now I live in another; maybe I die in yet another country. The names may change, but all the time, God stay one.”
One god, but many permits and tense borders, binoculars trained on traffic, a human hand waving out the black plexiglass asking for an eighty-one-cent toll. I am happy to pay eighty-one cents to get past the checkpoint. Some borders to the north and east were sealed last year when I was in Croatia, refugees stuck in the rain and I was in the rain too and shivering with no coat, but I had a beautiful hotel room (an upgrade to the top floor) and a hot shower and a change of clothes to go hang out with His Excellency the ambassador. Refugees all around us as we travel, but the refugees are not visible, not having Earl Grey tea on this sunny terrace; the refugees do not study the seascape statues and talk of Mahler, Nabokov and the Habsburg elite.
How did we get to Opatija? As random as going to Trogir because Katia’s father owns an apartment there. In Canada we rented a room to Goran’s son Vladimir, also a filmmaker, and Vlado said we must visit his father. Now we meet Goran and he offers us his Opatija apartment here for our next time and I want to come back. Goran can’t chat long; he’s worried about his old dog, a test for cancer and very hard to get an appointment with the vet. And you know how pets become close, part of the family.
Yes, that’s fine, we need to get the rental car back to Ljubljana tonight. Clarissa sends his son Vlado a photo of us with Goran on the terrace. Vlado replies, “He’s drinking juice! Is he sick?”
It happened in an Okrug grocery, a spastic flicker of florescent lights over yogurt, and it happened in a Belfast Oxfam shop, the same staccato flicker and my eyes wouldn’t focus and I staggered back to a hotel half-blind, some new transaction in my brain nervous as a banner.
We make the bright lights of Ljubljana that night. High desert and coastlines, flowers and snow, twisting roads and autobahns, flat green fields and icy mountain passes and kicking the sun beach to beach. Are all these landscapes possible in the same day? Clarissa flies to Montreal and I cross the universe to Pearson Airport’s cellar, what I call the Maritime Ghetto. Arrive at my last gate and told I don’t exist, bumped from my plane: welcome home! The blinking bulbs and a runway’s murky tundra past the plate glass, Gate 34’s shadowland.
No more cathedral portals, no more oily sardines and bread on the white stone beach, no more guarding the Virgin Mary, robes the colour of their turquoise sea. Behind the widower’s town sunlight leaps on spectral mountains, a wall of lunar peaks. The grieving widower kissed Mary in tears, wanting solace, reassurance that someone cared for him, that he was not alone. He does not want to be alone in his house.
I land alone in Canada. The Air Canada woman does not offer knockout octopus stew; she offers the news that I have been kicked out of my seat, that Air Canada did not think I could make the connection.
No, I do not want to stay the night in Pearson Irrational Airport. I want to be in my own bed.
Signs warn of bears and wolves and wild boar; spavined farms sag in mud, no one visible, no kids running, no women squeezing giant udders for milk, farm buildings grouped together like a fortress expecting heathen hordes.
She must check with someone on a walkie-talkie whether I am allowed to sleep in my bed. Like Trogir’s cathedral, women guard the entrances, the portals. In Croatia it was warm on the seaside, then we’d drive a tunnel to snow on the other side of the peaks and that lovely sunlight after a snowstorm, such bold light a good portent, a pleasing pact of sorts. Into snow, then back to the coast and out of snow, switching worlds with a tunnel. Pearson Airport is like that, through a tunnel and back to this world.
I wait with a drink in the lounge, where we pray to the Virgin Mary of Trogir, pray to Our Lady of Those Not Allowed on Board the Dash 28. We lost sailors pray to the god of corners, to the god of the mountains and tunnels and the god of sick dogs in crooked valleys, and we pray to Jesus driven out of high school. And we pray until the Air Canada woman’s walkie-talkie crackles magically and, blowing kisses, she invites me to run out and vanish in tarmac shadows.
Mark Anthony Jarman is the author of Czech Techno, Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, My White Planet, 19 Knives, New Orleans Is Sinking, Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, and the travel book Ireland’s Eye. He has published in Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Brick, American Short Story, The Barcelona Review, Literatura Na Swiecie (Poland), Hobart and Vrij Nederland, and reviews for The Globe & Mail. He is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a Yaddo fellow, has taught at the University of Victoria and the Banff Centre for the Arts and now teaches at the University of New Brunswick, where he is fiction editor of literary journal The Fiddlehead. This story originally appeared in Brick, Issue 99, Summer 2017.
Lead image: Lewis Westwood Flood