Tag Archives: Croatia

Zlarin: Rainbow

Rainbow sidewalk stencil on the island of Zlarin

By Johna Till Johnson

Croatians can be whimsical.

As I was walking along a pier on Zlarin, a small Croatian island in the Adriatic, I noticed a rainbow stenciled on the sidewalk. Who put it there? And why? There are no answers.

But it made me smile.

Zlarin: Anchors at Sunset

The double anchors of Zlarin

By Johna Till Johnson

Last September I paddled the Croatian Adriatic coast with Peak and Paddle Croatia. It was enchanting.

For the first part of the trip, we stayed on the island Zlarin.  It’s a small island (winter population of 284), but has been inhabited since Neolithic times, and is famous for its coral divers.

This double-anchor monument was erected in 1977 to honor Zlarin sailors and emigrants. (Interestingly enough, that group includes Anthony Maglica, the founder of Maglite, who was born in New York City of Croatian parents, but returned to their hometown of Zlarin during World War II.)

I took the photo from the kayak at sunset, after one of our first trips. Stories are to come!

Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes!

Potatoes carefully protected against the elements (Dubrovnik, Croatia)

By Johna Till Johnson

Vlad loved potatoes. I mean, he loved potatoes. He got a light in his eye and a lilt in his voice just talking about them: “Let’s have potatoes for dinner! Boiled ones! The little ones with the white skins!”

Sometimes I’d have to run all over town to find just the right potatoes. (The little ones with the white skins, of course.) Once the potatoes were procured, the cooking process was equally precise: Boil the potatoes in properly salted water. Don’t cook them too long, or they’ll get mushy. (You want the teeth to pierce the skin with a satisfying crunch, but the interiors should be soft and tender.)

Add plenty of butter to the hot, freshly drained potatoes. And don’t forget the dill, or lacking that, parsley!

But that’s not to say Vlad was a potato snob. Although he had his favorites, he loved them all. Mashed. Baked. Fried. I used to love to watch him at restaurants, when the server would offer a choice of starch: Rice or fries?

“Hmm…” he’d say, thoughtfully, appearing to consider all options. Inside, I was already chuckling, because I knew what would come next: “I’ll have the fries, please!” he’d say, as if it were were the outcome of long deliberation, rather than a foregone conclusion.

Although I knew Vlad loved potatoes, and I knew he was Czech, and that Czechs are Slavs, I didn’t entirely put the pieces together until I was in Croatia this past fall. Croatians are also Slavs—and they love their potatoes, with a love that’s delightfully reminiscent of Vlad’s own.

Even more delightful is the respect with which Croatians treat their potatoes. Walking into Dubrovnik in a torrential rain, I saw a bag of potatoes carefully protected from the elements, wrapped in a plastic bag. No rot would come to these cherished spuds!

And a few days later, in a city square, there was another bag of potatoes—carefully resting on a pallet, safe against any morning dampness.

Hail the humble yet glorious potato!

The potato pallet (Dubrovnik, Croatia)


Shoes on cement wall

By Johna Till Johnson

“Where did these come from?” I held the tattered leather shoes up to my mother. They had curved toes vaguely reminiscent of Scandinavia, but also of Native cultures. Were they Sami, perhaps? After all, we had lived in Norway for a few years…

The answer surprised me: “Oh, I got those in Sarajevo. When I went there in…let’s see… that would have been… the summer of 1953.”

My mother had spent the early 1950s (her mid-to-late 20s) teaching in Germany and traveling through Europe.

I’d known that, but I’d somehow forgotten, or possibly never known, that she’d paid a visit to the then-country of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia in the 1950s

As she tells the story, her visit was in direct opposition to U.S. government orders. The iron curtain was beginning to fall over Eastern Europe, and the newly created “Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”, along with the other Eastern European countries, had initially aligned themselves with the Stalin-era Soviet Union.

By 1947 (just five years before my mother’s visit), that had changed: Yugoslavia, under Tito’s control, had opted to break from the Soviet Union and was accepting a limited amount of American aid. However, Tito remained a vocal critic of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and the American government was concerned about the stability of the uneasy peace in the region, sandwiched as it was between Western Europe and the Soviet Union.

So the U.S. issued a warning that Americans were not to travel there. Undeterred, my mother nevertheless obtained a visa. With just a backpack and a change of clothes, she hopped on the train from Venice, where she had been visiting her future husband (my father), a naval officer whose destroyer had docked there briefly.

As it does today, the train wound around the northern Adriatic coastline before plunging inland to Sarajevo. My mother had colleagues in Sarajevo from the Experiment in International Living. So she was able to stay in a youth hostel there.  And she was confident in her ability to navigate a foreign country, government warnings or no.

So when she arrived in Sarajevo, she immediately went out to explore.

“What made you want to buy the shoes?” I asked, expecting to hear that she wanted a souvenir of her adventures.

“Oh, I liked them and needed a pair of shoes,” she replied cheerfully.

She wore them? Sure enough, when I inspected them closely I could see the soles were well worn. I slipped my feet inside and discovered they fit me almost perfectly. And they were surprisingly comfortable.

More comfortable than you’d think…

“And you know what the Yugoslavian college students told me about the curved toes?” she asked me mischievously.

No, what?

Apparently toilets in Yugoslavia at that time were often… primitive. (Think hole-in-the-ground.) So the curved toes were useful to..ahem…hang on to while squatting.

That was the story, anyway. Not that my mother ever had need of them for that purpose, she hastened to clarify.

But she did wear them as she traipsed happily around Sarajevo… until the evening she was comparing visas with the Experiment in International Living team.

“Let me see that, ” demanded one of the students, who could read Serbo-Croatian. “How long did you say you were staying in Sarajevo?”

“I have another week here,” she replied.

Except apparently she didn’t—the visa expired the very next day. And you didn’t fool around with expired visas in Eastern European countries, at least not at that point in history.

So that was the end of my mother’s Yugoslavian adventure… but she brought the shoes home, for me to discover 64 years later.

Closeup of shoes