Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sometimes I Just Get Krompir-ed Out: A Weekend of Lika-style Hospitality

We are visiting my husband's ancestral lands in Lika (pronounced "leeka") a long thin area that lies just behind the sharp hills of the Dalmatian and Kvarner coast. It reminds me of Vermont more than anything. Maple trees, pines, cows, sheep, and a few little ski resorts, all less than an hour from the Riviera-style coast. The leaves have just begun to turn, but no tourists come for the fall show.

Except us. The people who live in this area -- or rather I should say "still live in this area" because it's been significantly depopulated by the past century's wars and economic diasporas -- are happy to welcome us when we drop in uninvited to visit them in their kitchens.

At first, this act of dropping in makes me feel intensely uncomfortable, because it's against the rules of good manners my mother raised me with. But my husband persists. We must stop to say hello to this cousin, that neighbor, the uncle's widow, and you can't forget that family... it would be extremely rude not to. A slap in the face. You can't visit one without visiting them all. Call first? What on earth for? The split second our American SUV rolled into town everyone for miles and miles knew we were here.

So, from mid-morning 'til late-night we spend an entire day making the rounds. Each time we park and walk straight into the kitchen, where people are already gathered. If the family owns two kitchens -- newly-flush families often build a new house just a few yards away from the old one -- you automatically go to the old kitchen. I get the feeling the new kitchen is a bit like a fancy new front parlor. You're proud of it but you don't touch it except for special occasions. And for god's sake don't go in there with your shoes on! Who knows what's on them from walking in the farmyard?

The old kitchen inevitably has at least two stoves. The first is an ancient wood-burning Susler. This is the main stove in continual use, merrily keeping the room warm all fall and winter along with being handy for cooking. The second stove might be gas or electric, or a combination. It's there for overflow capabilities, when you need a few extra burners.

The host and the men present sit around the table and often do a shot or two of homemade liquor to break the ice. Any women present may sit (if they are not cooking) but a bit further away, at the end of the table or perhaps in a chair across the room. It's as though they are spectators rather than main participants. They may occasionally toss interjections into the conversation, and they clearly listen keenly to everything, but nothing centers on them. I sit at the table, but don't speak enough of the language to say much of anything. And anyway, I am an Amerikanka stranger so all rules are off for me.

Meanwhile, the hostess busies herself getting a snack ready. First she slices a bunch of krompiri (potatoes), from her own garden, in half lengthwise, dusts the open sides with salt, and bakes them in or on the stove. You eat these with your fingers, peeling off the skin and popping them in your mouth. (My husband was startled when he learned people ate potato skins in America.)

The hostess also creates two platters of accompanyments, one of cheese (which if it's not homemade, she apologizes about) and one of slices of cold bacon and sometimes prosciutto. Then, she offers everyone fresh coffee, as well as plunking down (an unasked-for) bottle of cola for the Amerikanka.

This was a delicious snack... at the first two kitchens. By the time we hit house number three, I begin to yearn for something green and/or crunchy. By house number five, I ask for a glass of water and ate nothing at all, hoping it would not be construed as an insult. Thankfully my husband chowed down enough krompiri for both of us, and then went on to one final kitchen visit after that while I crashed for the night.

As we are leaving town the next morning, my husband's aunt comes tearing out of her house with a warm bag she thrusts into my arms. She's gotten up early to cook a dozen or so krompiri for our journey. I desperately master control of my facial muscles to appear grateful. My husband says, "What's that?" And then, god love his Likan stomach, he is absolutely delighted with the answer.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Fabulous Partisan Statues Littering the Kvarner Coast

Although I've toured Croatia's Dalmatian coast extensively from Dubrovnik to Senj, until this fall, I'd never been further up to the Kvarner Coast. I figured it would be pretty much like Dalmatia. Rocky, lovely, empty in parts and overrun by tourists in parts (with nothing in-between), and a little too windy for comfort now that Fall is here.

I was right. What I wasn't expecting were all the WWII partisan statues. Maybe there are partisan statues in Dalmatia, but I've never seen them. Here, though, every town and village seems to have their own version. Each is slightly different but most appear to be done by the same artist using the same model, only in a variety of poses, such as:

- Striding forth
- About to throw a hand grenade
- Just after throwing a hand grenade
- Being shot in battle
- Holding a wounded buddy who has just been shot in battle
- Arms raised in victory

All of the statues have the same Partisan-style which is ... a little homoerotic if you ask me, but I'm sure Tito didn't see it that way. They have ripped clothing, with shirts unbuttoned so you can see their fabulous chest muscles, and despite apparently living for years in the forest, they all have absolutely perfect haircuts and clean shaves.

They also all have what I used to call 'WPA-style' hands. These are enormous, squarish hands you see on Depression-era statues in Washington DC that I always thought were inspired by stylized Russian art of the period. Until I met my husband I didn't know hands like this could be found in nature -- on him and many other Serb men.

My husband was much struck by this wealth of partisan statues. He said he thought they used to be in towns all over Croatia, but many were toppled and destroyed during the civil war, in part because so many of the partisans themselves had been of Serb ethnicity. (Which is what the Austrian/Hapsburg empire, who settled these Serb warrior-farmers on the land hundreds of years ago, had in mind, although they were thinking about repelling Turks instead of Nazis.) For my husband, seeing partisan statues still in situ had a great deal of significance. He hoped it meant "We don't hate Serbs so much here."

Compared to the area around Zadar and Gospic where many former Serb lands are still coated in land mines in part so people can't return safely, you can see what a difference a partisan statue's presence might indicate. We hope so anyway, because we plan to return.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Cafe Society in Sombor

When my husband leaves the house, he always gives a time estimate. As in "I'll be back in an hour." In America, he'll match that ETA. But, in Sombor Serbia, he's on Balkan time. It's the cafes he blames. He meant to get home when he said he would. He really really did. There was just this cafe on the way, no matter where he was coming from, where it so happened an old friend was sitting. So he joined him for just one quick coffee, which completely unexpectedly turned into two coffees. Then someone else came along and it would be rude to leave without talking for bit to him too! And somehow one hour turned to two... sometimes even three.

He always looks so hangdog when he gets back. As though he's expecting to be in trouble. He shuffles his feet and apologizes. Which in itself is heroic, because Serbs rarely apologize for anything. The whole routine makes me smile. He has no idea how happy I am to have him out for hours at his cafes, getting his Balkan on.

I feel so guilty in America where he doesn't have that outlet. That casual dropping into the cafe man-time. Because no matter how much you love your wife, shooting the shit with her at home just doesn't feel the same.