Monthly Archives: April 2007
We arrived in Bucharest after a LONG train journey of over 24 hours. Sleeping in a couchette was surprisingly comfy, but we were still very happy to get off the train in Romania, not to mention very curious. I’ve never visited this part of Europe so I had very few expectations.
Catalin and Ira met us on the platform with big smiles and a bouquet of wild lacrimiore (lilly of the valley). I remembered in this moment one of the most wonderful things about the global tango community, that although we don’t always think about it, we tango dancers have friends everywhere. The Romanians immediately made us feel like family. We arrived at 8:30 in the morning and headed for the nearest cup of espresso – Catalin and Ira, however, ordered a couple of beers (we would soon discover that beer in the morning is not unusual here, perhaps explaining the relaxed and happy nature of the people!). We gratefully sipped our coffee and stared in disbelief at the large cans of Becks brought to the table.
So began our first day in Romania. A few hours later, after a shower and a perfect breakfast of scrambled eggs and ham, we headed out with Ira to explore downtown. She took us past several of Bucharest’s most impressive buildings (national library, national bank, several academies, and the massive parliament building) and through the old part of town where we sampled hot pretzels, the official street food of Bucharest. The best ones, she explained, are crusted with sesame and poppy seeds and have golden raisins inside them.
As the week continued we were surprised at the relaxed atmosphere of Bucharest, a good-sized city with public parks, good public transportation, and pharmacies on every corner. On Wednesday we spent the afternoon in the largest city park with Catalin and his 10-year-old son Mihnea, who was a little too proud of his victory over Isaac on the go-cart track! For dinner we had the pleasure of a home-cooked meal by Catalin’s mother, traditional Balkan soup of vegetable broth and dumplings accompanied by plum brandy.
Our intensive tango schedule of classes, practicas, and milongas did nothing to diminish the enthusiasm of the local tango group, many of whom arrived at the cafe where we taught with small gifts of chocolate, strawberries, and CDs of their favorite music throughout the week. Catalin made sure that we had the opportunity to sample several traditional Balkan dishes, including my personal favorite, cabbage rolls stuffed with spicy meat and served with polenta. Though small, this community truly impressed us with their joy and delight in dancing tango together.
One of our classes in Split took place upstairs in a cafe bar looking out on one of the most charming squares in the city, bordered by the Dioclesian Palace with its beautiful 1700-year-old, white stone archways. Its towers are beautiful but not at all imposing and perhaps for that reason it fits nicely along one side of the square and creates a cozy, inviting feeling, like a wise grandfather smoking in the corner. I like it better than the grander squares in larger European cities.
On the way to class, Saska explained that the weather, in particular the wind, is very important to daily life here. The four winds have special names in Croatian, and the locals are always attentive to which wind is blowing. Burrah is a cool wind that is usually accompanied by sun. Hugo is a rainy wind which brings a sharp change in barometric pressure which can make you feel tired or depressed or even a little bit crazy. So sensitive are the Dalmations (people of the Croatian coast) to this wind that the local police are more lenient in small civil disputes when Hugo is blowing, and people tend to blame everything on the wind.
Toward the end of our first week in Croatia, Saska gave us the key to her motor bike, which made for a very bouncy and excited Isaac. With our new-found freedom, we headed out to visit a special church on the other side of the island, carved into the side of a cliff and overlooking the clear blue waters of the sea below. If you ever find yourself on a quiet island on the sea, I recommend touring by scooter – it was a most excellent way to spend the afternoon and feel connected to the natural elements.
On the way home we stopped at one of the many tiny fishing piers along the road and watched the sunset. Across the street was a similarly tiny market, where we bought some Croatian wine before hopping back onto the motor bike and heading home. We waved goodbye to the gentle sea, realizing that after over two months of being near water, we were now heading inland for the remainder of our tour.
Whether due to the calming effect of the sea or the relaxed pace of village life, we found ourselves spending a lot of time editing photographs, reading, writing (check out the updated http://www.neotango.com, including a few new songs from our friends in Naples), and having a series of reflective conversations. After one such day, I had a vivid dream about being chased by a clan of black-cloaked inquisitors through a house full of staircases and ramps that went up and down and up and down. At the top there was a black stairwell with no stairs, with nothing, in fact, but total blackness. I stood on the edge and yelled to Isaac to jump. We fell together through the blackness saying over and over again “San Francisco,” certain that we would somehow land there. Not to worry, we still plan to return to DC in June! I take SF to symbolize an optimistic future. We need not see the path that leads there, but only the goal which we confidently wish into existence….
Our first day in this calm seaport, Saska explained, “when you look at the sea, thinking stops.” She moved back here after fifteen years in Berlin, choosing to live a simpler life in a village of 300 people on a small island called Ciovo, off the coast of Split. Here you can eat whole grilled fish that was caught a few hours earlier, and the neighbors make their own wine and olive oil and grow their own potatoes. Work takes place mostly in the summer, during tourist season, and the rest of the year is spent relaxing or planning for the following year. The aforementioned, fish, by the way, is indeed excellent, and finally provided sufficient motivation for me to learn how to eat a whole fish by myself (several different varieties), separating flesh from bones, in a reasonable amount of time.
Other food produced here is similarly exceptional, including Croatian prosciutto, which we must admit rivals the Italian prosciutto di parma we ate voraciously in Napoli just a week earlier. And for breakfast we have become addicted to sipak (rose hip) jam. The people here are very proud of their land, and in addition to boasting about the superior quality of local food, at least four people we met pointed out that the stone used to build the White House came from one of Croatia’s islands.
Despite the slow pace of life, the locals seem to drink even more coffee than the Italians, which is no small feat! We get up in the morning, have coffee, then go down the street to a cafe near the water, have another coffee, drive into town, get a coffee… A day in Slatine (our village) progresses like this, a series of small errands separated by ample time to relax in between.
For me it took considerable effort to let go of all plans until the moment they happened. One afternoon our tango class was scheduled, cancelled, and rescheduled over the course of several hours. On another day the class location was moved an hour before it took place. Often it seems truly counter-productive to plan at all, since whatever the plan is, it will most certainly change (at least once) in the act of executing it. I’ve tried to take this experience as a life lesson during the time we have been here, and, as in the tango of course, remain open to calmly accept whatever life might bring into the present moment, whether it be an unexpected delay at the bus station or a warm apple strudel at midnight.