In Search of the Perfect Former Communist Beach Town
by David A. Ross
Stalking kismet through hot fog along the wharf at Trieste, I touch the Saint Christopher medal around my neck and smile at the irony. It is midnight. I am a traveler. The police have suggested that I kindly not loiter in front of the station. I have little money. I have no place to go. I crouch in shadows inside the alcove of a doorway, out of sight. It is a long night with little sleep.
The sun rises before six, spreading magenta light over a hazy seascape. Dogs roam the streets, searching for morsels of food. I have two biscotti in a plastic bag, but I’m not hungry. I toss the cookies to a mongrel and he devours the donation without so much as a glance my way. If he were hungry enough, he might eat his own kind.
Trieste is ancient and sweltering. Breathing, it seems, is not really breathing at all: it’s more like drowning. The stench of uncollected garbage is pervasive. It is the former home of James Joyce and Graham Greene. Northern weather not withstanding, why did they choose this place?
I wander into a piazza dominated by a cockeyed cathedral. I observe Catholic families, each step-stone member groomed impeccably and dressed in his or her best clothes, marching to mass. It must be Sunday. I do not go inside the church; instead I sit nearby, passing time. I hear the bells. I hear organ music. I hear singing voices. Latin devotions cut through the hazy air, heavy as a wrecking ball. An hour later, the parishioners pour out of the sixteenth century church, drenched in sweat and full of salvation. I feel a little sick. And I feel a bit envious. These families are at home here; I am a stranger.
I am a lemming drawn to the sea. I own little: a change of clothes; a bedroll; toiletries; a small radio, a blank journal for writing. Long ago I gave up the pursuit of acquisition. I do not measure my worth in terms of possessions. That meter stick is for others. Instead, I search out environments—places that somehow seem to stimulate dreams. Perhaps a crazy pursuit in a secular world motivated by avarice, but my tendency is my personal cross, and I bear it well!
I wait on a bench at the bus station. Dehydration is a concern. I drink and drink and can’t get enough liquid. Just after noon, the bus driver dashes out his cigarette and loads the baggage compartment. On board he punches tickets, and then pulls out of the garage. The heat and humidity are dealing out bad temper, but the breeze from the open windows seems to soothe the urge for savagery. Motorbikes speed around us as if we are standing still, (which is the case at least half the time), and the bus’s gears grind in protest as we climb the layered hillsides through town. Sun-washed, stone houses—each one built in a previous century—line the twisting streets. Peasants with dark complexions and abundant mystery, (those somehow left behind by the emerging system of credits and debits), tend vines with trunks as thick as small trees. Sunflowers reach for the sky behind a crumbling wall of stone, and each terrace is resplendent with colorful blooms. Finally we are away from the city and headed into the parched rural mountains.
I have taken numerous bus trips in southern Europe—harrowing rides through the mountains of Greece and Portugal and Spain. The Istrian peninsula in Croatia is no different. I hold tightly to my seat as the driver speeds through unguarded curves. We pass a horse-drawn hay wagon at breakneck speed. The roads are rutted as a washboard. Through it all, the indigenous passengers maintain only a passing interest.
Near the Italian-Croatian frontier we reach the outskirts of a small mountain village that is holding a festival. Pedestrians march up one side of the road, while hundreds of cars parked in haphazard fashion line the other side. Navigation is all but impossible. An elderly Italian man begins scolding the driver for steering us into the miasma, and the driver warns the old man to take his seat and be patient. A flurry of insults is exchanged. In the end, it takes three other passengers to restrain the tomato-faced old man, and the driver warns that one more outburst will result in an aborted journey. One of the assisting passengers vows to bind and gag the menace if necessary.
So inch-by-inch the bus makes its way through the throng of celebrants. Without a breeze the heat is almost unbearable, but after twenty minutes we are back at highway speed, heading for the border.
An hour later, we descend on a series of dizzying switchbacks from the mountains into the seaside town of Opatija, a once popular but now faded resort town on the Croatian Riviera. Stepping off the bus, I collect my bag and look around. I could not be more pleased. I am a confessed lover of beach towns, and this one appears beautiful and exotic. Palm trees, flowers, and succulents decorate the public gardens at the center of town, and there seems to be plenty of activity along the boardwalk. The sea is tranquil and clear, and the hazy atmosphere suggests an attitude that is lazy and carefree. The majestic, nineteenth century hotels that face the Adriatic—now a bit timeworn and needing a fresh coat of paint—are representative of a gracious style no longer relevant. Communism was utilitarian if nothing else. Yet the bathers on the beach, as well as the tourists milling along the promenade, seem to suggest a sense of wellness.
I walk along Opatija’s main boulevard, (named for Marshall Tito), until I come to a fork in the road. I turn uphill along Ulica Marsala Tita. Houses and small villas climb the lush hillsides, each covered by vines and adorned with colorful flowers. A rather dense haze hovers over the sea, but through it I can discern the outlines of various jetties and peninsulas with their rocky shores and tree-covered slopes. Stucco buildings with red tile roofs peek out from between the pines and palms.
At last I come upon a large ochre-colored house with a sign outside advertising. ‘Rooms to let.’ I knock on the door, and a large woman with a snaggled-tooth smile answers.
“I need a room,” I tell her.
“Ja, ja…” Apparently, German is her second language.
“How much?” I ask.
She waves her hands and chatters in her native tongue. But the price she eventually quotes me is satisfactory, ridiculously cheap in fact.
After showing me the room, Tomic, Maria (they say the family name first) leads me onto a terrace that is sheltered by an arbor of grape vines. She invites me to sit at her table and offers me an orange soda.
“What is your name?” she asks me.
“Sean,” I tell her.
She nods. “Like the Baptist.”
I disregard the allusion, because I suspect that she is trying to learn something of my religion. To change the subject, I ask, “Do you make wine from the grapes?”
“My husband makes the wine,” she confirms.
“You have a beautiful home,” I say.
“Where is your home?” she asks.
It is an odd question, for I have many homes. “Ulster,” I say for the sake of simplicity.
Maria stands upon one of the chairs and picks several clusters of grapes off the vine. She puts them into a bowl and, smiling, encourages me to take them to my room.
My room is located on the second floor of Maria’s house and is accessible by a private entrance. It has a double bed, a parquet floor covered with a locally woven rug, and a large picture window that looks out at the sea. It has a sink and a shower, but the toilet is down the hall.
I take an hour to settle and unpack. Downstairs, I tell Maria that I want to further explore the town, and she suggests that I take the walkway that follows the coast about twenty-five feet above the rocky shoreline. It is perhaps a mile to the center of town, and lush vegetation shades the way as the seaside path leads me past several hotels, each with an open-air restaurant overlooking the Adriatic. I walk past the harbor where cruisers, sailboats, skiffs, and rowboats are moored, and finally into the center of Opatija.
Near the main beach area there is a bevy of activity. There are street artists, newsstands complete with German-style erotica and Louis L’amour novels translated into Serbo-Croatian, various bars and shops, and vendors selling everything from leather goods to Italian ice cream. It is already late afternoon, and I am ready for my poor man’s feast. I choose a waterfront grill and take a seat. The young, properly dressed waiter speaks perfect English, but he seems a bit impatient as he explains each entrée on the menu. He is reluctant when asked to offer a personal opinion, so I order grilled shrimps with rice and vegetables.
The beer is a local brew—pale, not very good really. But it’s a warm afternoon and I’m dining seaside. I take my time. I have no place to go. I eat and drink my fill, and the bill comes to nearly nothing.
Morning dawns on the Istrian Peninsula with a bit of contradiction. From my window I look out upon an unobstructed panorama. In the street, Zastava cars race toward the center of town along Ulica Marsala Tita; while old women in plain black dresses and open-toed shoes sweep the sidewalk with their newly-made brooms, green leaves still clinging on the faggot of twigs laced to the broom handle.
On Tomic, Maria’s patio, I breakfast on Vienna-style bread, orange marmalade, cheese, a three-minute egg, and Turkish coffee. After breakfast, I walk to the sea and find a sunny spot on a rocky outcropping. It is only ten o’clock, but already the coves and jetties are well populated by sun worshippers. The saffron colored sea is as smooth as a dish of honey, and the water is clear enough to make out details on the bottom at a depth of seven or eight feet. Motorboat taxis cruise the shoreline, many of the drivers singing like Venetian gondoliers. Here life seems as simple and unpretentious as the happy folk music coming from the café just up the hill. It echoes through the tiny inlets then disappears over the silvery horizon. My well-practiced tension fades away with the morning haze. My skin turns enviably brown. I lie there, wasting time, until mid-afternoon then wander down to a pierside tavern for beer and crabs. I am almost giddy with the sensation of being suddenly thrust into a lifestyle of the idle rich.
Yet, the more I see, the less I understand. At a small grocery store on the Ulica Marsala Tita, conditions are noticeably bleak. The produce is sparse and of poor quality. Dairy products, also, are in short supply. There is no refrigeration, and the recently butchered meat hangs on hooks in the open air, covered with flies. Tourists carrying hard currency spend hundreds of thousands in local money, while housewives are returning glass bottles in order to pay for staples like bread, coffee, pasta and powdered milk. A poor itinerant by Western standards, I’m living in comparative elegance. The simple act of standing in a queue at the till with a bottle of Coca-cola becomes a humbling experience; I might as well be clutching a bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild.
After a day of sybaritic pleasure, I return to the Tomic home. Maria, it seems, is eager for me to meet her son Igor, who is at work fitting out a small apartment on the second floor of his parents’ home. With Igor is his fiancé, Anica. Maria takes a moment to dote over her.
Both Igor and Anica speak fluent English, as well as fluent German. They welcome me warmly. “Where is your home?” Igor asks me.
“Ulster,” I tell him.
Igor is thirty-seven. Anica, I learn, is twenty-eight. Both are well educated. Igor holds a job as a professor of Electro-teknik, which I determine to be some sort of teaching position with the local utility company. Anica is presently unemployed—a condition, I’m told, which is not uncommon at any strata of the Croatian economy. Presently, she lives with her mother, but she spent two years studying in London. We share a bottle of wine and some chocolates. We spend several hours talking, comparing various aspects of our native cultures—especially economic and social issues.
Anica says to me: “Here anyone who has children is cast into prison!” Of course she means economic prison. Igor disagrees. I conclude that he is probably only vaguely aware of the disparity that actually exists between the capitalist economies of Western Europe and the former communist states of Eastern Europe. Yet he is rightly proud of his country and his culture. I doubt he would emigrate even if the opportunity presented itself. He loves to sail the islands of the Adriatic, just as his father did. He is very proud of the boat they built together in 1968. Personally, we all seem to like one another well enough. And given different circumstances of geography, we might even become good friends. But they are tethered to their locality by social and economic constraints. I am consigned to a very different sort of detention.
As morning comes again, I look out my window at a steady rain. For a moment, a feeling of panic overtakes me. The obvious question arises: What does one do on a rainy day in a former communist beach town?
The tourists seem incredibly bored. Though they walk up and down the ulica trying not to show their disappointment, the truth comes through nevertheless. They haggle with the street vendors, having no real intention of buying their junk. The waiters hate it when the sun does not shine; everybody is in the restaurants eating away their restlessness.
Around mid-afternoon, Maria comes to my room and invites me to a small dinner party that she and her husband Ciro are giving for a few close friends. I am a bit surprised by the invitation, but I eagerly accept it. “Nothing special,” she says with obvious humility. “Only mixed grill. Come at seven.”
It is evening and it has stopped raining. At the dinner table, under the Tomic family’s grape arbor, a rather loud but friendly German, Adolph from Munich, tells me that he and his wife have been coming to Opatija on holiday for thirty-five years. They know Ciro and Maria as friends now. And between jokes and stories, he leans his head close to mine and says in English, “I have worked thirty-five years in Germany, and because of post-war reconstruction and a resulting good economy, I am very comfortable. My friend Ciro, on the other hand, has virtually nothing. If the sun does not shine, he does not eat.”
The conversation ebbs for a time as the guests devour their pork cutlets, potato salad, and cabbage slaw. Ciro pours glassful after glassful of wine for each guest. As the plates are cleared away, the party breaks spontaneously into song, capably led by Adolph. An Italian man with a beautiful tenor voice unhesitatingly joins in the song. “O solo mio,” they croon together. Everybody is drinking far too much. One man is imitating Quasimoto; still another is making fun of American Indians. Ciro sits by in silence, watching and smiling. One gathers that he has been soberly observing life’s pageantry for many years. He is a contemplative man, slow to act. He makes wine. He drinks his share, too. Occasionally he nods as if he understands what is being said, though he speaks neither German nor English nor Italian. Perhaps he is wondering just what everyone has found to be merry about. After all, the sun did not shine today in Opatija.
But everything grows here—everything! Palms, huge aloe plants, figs, lemon trees, Mandarin oranges: flowering this; flowering that. The foothills slide graciously toward the sea, inclined just enough so that each window can boast a view. The stone steps that lead down the hillsides, all the way to the sea, were built over a hundred years ago; and stones do not crumble even if the value of the currency does. The Germans love this place. They know a bargain when they see one. “If you want a cheap holiday,” Adolph tells me, “just follow a German south on the Autobahn.”
And the stately, cream-colored, one-hundred-year-old hotels reflect a splendor that, I’m now certain, is but a mirage. Each one has a restaurant serving exactly the same food and drink. The very proper waiters in black pants and starched white shirts race frantically from table to table trying to satisfy these four-day visitors. They are working for pennies. And if you try to tell them that you understand how unfair it is, they don’t seem to know what the hell you’re talking about. Their pitiful response is to apologize for not serving you faster!
Now Adolph abruptly slams down his empty wine cup and bellows out, “Freedom!” Adolph tells me that he was a POW in America during World War II. “In the state of New Mexico!” Adolph was a Nazi soldier stationed in Greece. Just how he got to a POW camp in America remains unclear.
I am beginning to understand that though the environment is certainly beautiful, and cheap as sin for a holidaymaker, something undefined seems rotten. Each day one feels it, though he can never quite put his finger on it. To me, it seems as if everyone living here is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It’s way beyond politics. It’s even beyond economics. It’s something much deeper, even tribal. It’s as if the entire society is suffering from a bad bellyache and desperately needs to purge.
Adolph tells me: “Some of the locals are a bit surly, Sean, but let’s try to overlook ungracious behavior. After all, today they’re paying 45,000 dinars per Deutsche Mark! Just enjoy the shore, the rich red wine, and the paprika.”
Ciro lifts his glass in yet another toast. “Istria!” he salutes. As if everything is okay.
“Istria!” the celebrants echo, glasses raised.
Well, perhaps the sun will come out in Opatija tomorrow. As for me, I’m leaving for Varna, on the Black Sea; because I’m a sucker for cheap beach towns, and because I collect localities.