Croatia, Beloved Country

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"My connection to Croatia is unbreakable. I feel it as a cord of turquoise and rosemary and cicadas and curry plants, from my heart to that island. I feel blessed every single day to have Croatia in my heart." It is often difficult to explain to outsiders the strong emotions Croatia arouses in so many people, who feel a love for the country which goes beyond the simple confines of patriotism and nationalism. This is Ninoslava Shah's moving account of her personal experiences in the 'Beautiful Homeland'.  

View of Veli Lošinj (above) from Sveti Ivan (pictured below) View of Veli Lošinj (above) from Sveti Ivan (pictured below) © Ninoslava Shah

"I am half Croatian, half British. I come from a family of strong and individual people on both sides.

My British family has mostly been anti-establishment, fighting for the workers, wonderfully creative, though most with not so much capacity to make money from their exceptional minds, veering towards socialism. My dad is atheist, and so I was surprised to hear that some of his ancestors were interested in spiritualism of the clairvoyant kind, and an amazing aunt of my dad’s was a keen yogini and healer (until her death at 96). I tell you this, so you can see the hotchpotch family I come from.

Baka and Dedek. Photo Family archive

My Croatian family were determinedly anti-Communist. I have snippets of stories from childhood about my family. My mama says her parents lost their jobs as teachers in 1945 and were moved around after that. Her uncle was a priest and had a small school for religious study in his home, as such studies weren’t allowed in regular schools. In Krapina, my mama’s parents weren’t allowed to go to Mass and there were ‘bouncers’ on the door to stop certain people attending. Her father, my dedek, used to sit for an hour at church before and after Mass, up in the shadows, so he wouldn’t be seen entering or leaving the building. As a child, I knew my mama hated the smell of jasmine, because, she told me, when she was seven she visited a dead man with a bullet through his head and the room was full of jasmine flowers. When I was a child, she wore her Croatian emblem and cross inside her clothes, as these were viewed as inappropriate items. These are memories of what I learned about Croatia before it was Croatia.

Mama (left) with her older sister (RIP). Photo: Family archive

I have my own memories too. My baka died when I was six, and the last time I saw her I was four and a half, the age my daughter is now. I remember peering over the dining table in our flat in Veli Lošinj, watching her sort the rice, separating out the husks and stones. She let me help her and I felt so special. Her feet were tiny. She was small. She was kind. She had warm eyes. I barely remember her.

Joint wedding day, Mama and her older sister (RIP). Mama in front row, Dad behind. Photo: Family Archive

I have a handful of hazy memories of Krapina. I guess we didn’t go much after baka died. There was a stream that didn’t seem very full right next to the flat. A living room with two sofas and just one proper bedroom. I remember being surprised that a lot of people in my Croatian family slept on pull-out sofas in the living room. In England this is less common.

I also remember being up in the mountains somewhere, visiting a house on top of a hill, a university friend of my mama’s who wore her brown hair in two bunches. She seemed a free spirit. I liked her. Her name was Dušanka. I remember she had vines and a beautiful view.

Dad in a Zagreb park, 2009. Photo:© Ninoslava Shah

I remember my grandparents had a house in Rogaška Slatina in Slovenia, huge, a roof terrace, and another balcony off a small bedroom. I don’t remember where we slept. I remember an attic with skis in. I remember scrambled eggs. We were told we could eat in the kitchen with the spiders, or we could eat outside where mama had just been bitten by a horsefly. I chose the spiders. I must have been around four. We still have old cine film of the place from when my older brothers were small. I think it went to my uncle when my grandparents died, and was then sold on. I wish I could go back.

Nina in Veli Lošinj, 1981, aged c.4. Photo: Family Archive

I remember also that in those days the roads to Veli were rough, stony tracks, difficult for our family VW Campervan to navigate. Everything was cheap, for us. I also remember when we used Dinars, we never changed our money in advance, because it became worthless the next day. The price of bread, in my six-year-old mind, was something like 50,000,000 Dinars. Possibly it wasn’t that much, but there were lots of noughts on the prices of everything. There was no European-branded chocolate (not a bad thing I realise now, being a Kraš chocolate lover). There were no salt and vinegar crisps, just kiki riki flavour (a massive oddity to anyone from England). The milk tasted funny and only came in cartons. Over the years, Veli Lošinj finally started to receive deliveries of fresh milk in plastic pillows. I remember putting the pillows in a jug and snipping a corner. There were always spillages!

The wiring was interesting in the flat. We knew never to touch the fridge without wearing rubber shoes, and never to touch the washing machine when it was on, especially on the exposed metal part, where the white covering had chipped away, just about touchable while sitting on the toilet (which I think safe-ish). The electricity went whenever we had a thunderstorm, and we had blankets to cover the freezer. After baka died, but before dedek died, he slept on a bed in the living room, an old green blanket thrown over the bed. Always the same one. The memories of baka were ever present, her tiny shoes and dresses hanging in the wardrobes still, some used by my mama, then by my sister and I as we grew bigger. Now, we have his memories too, his old trilby hat and walking stick hanging on the wall. He was a man who loved nature and spent hours walking the hills. I wish he were still alive. I would appreciate the silence and peace of his walks – my six-year-old son would probably love walking with him too.

My memories of those holidays were wonderful and loud. Six weeks with dedek, various aunties and uncles, umpteen cousins, and one or more of my four siblings. Shared space, shared arguments, shared love. Above our flat was a family my grandparents had known for decades. Their grandchildren and great grandchildren still visit the same flat and say hello and chat when we bump into one another. My mama’s cousin has a house up the hill. We see her daughter and her family from time to time too. I like that we bump into people we know.

I never remember being bored, except when it rained. The house was full of books we’d brought over from England, so I quickly became a book lover. Sunny days were spent swimming in the beautiful turquoise Adriatic, walking around the winding paths of the island, or playing in the dilapidated hospital playground. Sometimes we stayed in the flat, and I played with the lumps of dried resin from the plum tree in our garden, pretending they were jewels. Or I went to see family, and had my hair plaited, or the girl in the flat above made me homemade French fries and lemonade…or we visited the nuns who were desperate to make us all fat, and fed us cake and elderflower cordial.

"We don't swear"! Photo: Ninoslava Shah

Speaking of nuns and religion, I also remember the house being full of religious photos, crucifixes hanging on the walls, stickers to remind us how to behave. Many of those items are still there. The phrase U ovoj kući se ne psuje is engrained in my brain forever. Although I am not religious myself, I like the continuity of what is around me when I return

I learned early on from my history-loving father that Lošinj had long been an island of health, for centuries used as a place to rejuvenate and recover, mentally and physically, from all sorts of conditions. Parts of the old hospital are still used today to help kids with respiratory allergies to clear their lungs over summer.

My husband with children and friends in the Veli Lošinj hospital playground, 2018. Photo: © Ninoslava Shah

I have wonderful memories from my childhood, but they’re not all positive. As with many families, everyone was loud, there were rifts and splits, and rejoining and coming back together again. Once, I remember, the difficult experience came not from family, but from some local kids, when they threw old tomatoes at my sister and I, for just walking down the road. I never knew why, but it distressed me greatly. It was the first time I felt that I didn’t really belong in Croatia – and I already knew I didn’t fully belong in the UK.

Then, when I was 13, my mama decided that the last two of her five children should learn Croatian, so she and my father took us to live in (what was then) Yugoslavia for a year. We had a blissful summer, as always, in Veli Lošinj, before heading to Pula to start school there in the late summer of 1990.

We rented a flat on Ulica Vladimira Gortana, with a massive crack up the side of my balcony. The story goes that the architect committed suicide when this happened, his new creation flawed forever. A cheery tale to settle us in.

View from the flat in Pula. Photo: © Ninoslava Shah

I had a view of the docks and, if I craned my neck, of the beautiful amphitheatre behind the flat. The building was positioned on a large crossroads, and the rattling of the blinds kept me awake the first night. It took me a while to get used to this noise, especially not having had blinds before, but I eventually found it comforting, to know that other people were awake all around me in the depths of the dark night.

Our family made friends with an old man who lived a floor or two down, Dr Ivo Borovečki. He spoke more languages than any person I have ever met. He was kind and always had time for us to pop in. I was very sad when I learned he had died a few years later, but grateful we’d known him.

We started school, my sister and I, and it was very odd to attend somewhere so large. The school operated on a shift system, where half the children attended in the morning, and half in the afternoon. We were a curiosity, two English kids at school. Everyone wanted to practice their English with us, apart from the English teacher, who seemed intimidated by our perfect pronunciation. The maths teacher reeked of alcohol, and rapped the knuckles of the naughty kids with his metre long wooden ruler. It was strict. The history books seemed strange, out of sync with what I knew from my mama. The churches were beautiful, but strange for me. I loved church there. I used to attend church in England on Sundays with my mama, but it was different. It seemed stuffier, less free in England, and our church was modern. In Croatia there was more joy in the singing, spontaneous harmonies, the people seemed more in touch with their God, bikers stood at the back in their leathers, kids laughed and sang, the churches were old, cool stone. Everything felt beautiful and alive. In England things had felt more controlled somehow. I have often said if I’d been brought up in Croatia, perhaps I’d still be Catholic.

I finally made friends and I used to go for long walks along the beaches and shoreline, climbing rocks, wading through the water with my shoes on to reach another rock. It was beautiful. I felt more in tune with nature than in England, despite the fact that we were often out in nature in England too. Something about Croatian outdoors resonated more strongly within my soul – the smells by the sea, pine, salty air, the sounds of the seagulls, the pigeons (or doves) that cooed me awake in the mornings. Even thinking about it now brings me great peace.

I loved going for walks with my parents and getting sladoled or burek or, my favourite, krempita. We walked in the cemetery a lot, a long time favourite haunt of my family. I still like to read about people who have gone before and imagine what their lives might have been. There is peace and beauty in a cemetery. I remember being curious about all the red stars on the gravestones. I wonder now if they’re still there.

I discovered the museum of archaeology and I loved to walk and read about the history. I explored the Venetian fort when it was open, and sat around its edges when it was closed, drinking bambus with my new friends. I walked and sat and chatted, and spent my time peacefully.

Of course, Pula has an army base, so towards the end of our year there, things changed. The air changed. The mood changed. People closed down a little. A Serbian girl in our class didn’t come to school one day and we realised she’d left. Tanks started to roam the streets outside my balcony. The army men whistled and waved as I walked past on my way to school, and I realised I must’ve grown up a little, must’ve looked older than my 14 years. Eventually we could hear snipers in the distance and I was aware that our time was coming to an end.

We left, in the end, in the June of 1991, I think. We didn’t return to Veli Lošinj that summer. I missed the peace of the island town, the scent of the curry plants, the rosemary outside our front door, the pine trees, the clean turquoise sea. I missed our summer holiday, but although that year had been a difficult and somewhat lonely one, I felt filled with a new identity and a true appreciation for filling my heart with what was soon to become Croatia in name as well as soul.

The years that followed brought a lot of heartache for our family, but I was so glad I’d been able to experience a Croatian life. I tried to look up some of the road names I walked along in Pula, but of course everything has now been renamed. The street we lived on, the school we attended. It makes looking for things more difficult, but I understand the need to return a country to what it should be, to what it should have been.

I see the difference to Croats between then and now, and I am forever grateful for that experience…and forever grateful for Croatian independence.

Dad's painting of Zagreb hangs in the Veli Lošinj flat. Photo: Ninoslava Shah

I have returned to Croatia every summer since then, and spent a few months in Zagreb and Veli Lošinj when I’ve been able to. There is something about the Island of Lošinj – and not even just Lošinj, it hits me when I arrive on Krk or Cres – the air is different. I feel as if I’ve passed through a magical portal into a little piece of Heaven. The air feels brighter and sparklier, I can smell rosemary, curry plants, pine, the salty sea; I can hear cicadas, wind in the pine needles, the occasional sheep or goat, and, more rarely, a donkey braying in the distance. Something within me lifts and expands when I first breathe the sea air on a Croatian shoreline.

Some of my favourite memories are when the family came together – and by family, I include friends of the family going way back, and extended family, including a random English speaking woman we met on the beach, who’s baka, it turned out, was cousins with my baka. I remember many evenings when my dad or my brothers would get their guitars out in the evenings, along with printed words, and we’d sing Croatian songs like Spavaj mi Ančice or Na Brigu Kuću Mala, some Beatles songs, and old British songs like Clementine or My Grandfather’s Clock, many songs I still sing to my own kids to calm them or to help them fall asleep. We went for feasts to my uncle’s house in Mali Lošinj where he and his family would host, and he would cook delicious fresh fish and meat, salads, spaghetti (Italian style), cake and, of course, rakija (when I was older!). The language spoken was a mixture of Italian (my uncle moved to Italy during Communism, I was never sure why), English and a range of Croatian styles, Kajkavski for the older generation, and Croatian-of-sorts spoken with an English or Italian accent for those of us cousins that didn’t live in Zagreb or Krapina.

'Baka's church', Veli Lošinj. Photo: © Ninoslava Shah

There were lots of arguments, with so many living in close proximity for six weeks, but I loved it. I still love a lot of people in my home. For my birthday this year, I had an “open house” and friends came and went between around 10am and 7pm, a handful coming after the kids were in bed. My mama told me afterwards that when she was a child, for my baka’s and dedek’s birthdays, this is what would always happen. I love thinking that I am carrying on their tradition.

Holidays for me have always been spent swimming in the clear Adriatic, reading (less so, now I have my own kids), running, doing some yoga, eating delicious food (a lot of polenta, a habit my kids have taken on too), and eating lots of chocolate. The treat has always been sladoled in the harbour.

Nearly at Veli Lošinj, and our children rush to the sea, 2018. Photo © Ninoslava Shah

When I was small, Croatia always seemed the Heaven I longed for during the rest of the year, so far away and unattainable. I wished we had a magic painting of the living room in Veli that I could step through and be there in an instant. I still wish this and have passed this wish onto my kids. The year we lived in Pula we visited Veli for a weekend. It seemed so magical to be there for just a weekend! From England it’s really not worth it for less than a week, mostly because of travel time from Zagreb to Lošinj. When we were small, it took a week to arrive from England in our Campervan, stopping at various campsites throughout Europe on the way. Not a place for a quick trip!

Sveti Ivan, a special place. Photo:© Ninoslava Shah

As an adult I have found my special places on the island, hiking up to Sveti Ivan behind the flat, finding a flat bit of concrete off the path up there (the old floor of a ruined house…?), that I found by climbing over a wall. I used to do my yoga there, a wonderful view of Veli, and cicadas and peace. I remember I once found one of my three brothers there, and he asked what I was doing in his special place! I love being up near Sveta Ana too, and preferably over the hill and down the other side to Javorna, the nudist beach area – somewhere I have barely been since having kids. A longer beach trek for when they are bigger. I know those rocks like the back of my hand – where to jump in, where to walk in, how to get out when the waves are big, where to sit for the best shade and greatest comfort, where to avoid eating because the ants come out…

Rovenska harbour, Veli Lošinj, 2018. Photo: © Ninoslava Shah

In 2014, when my son was just 10 months old, I met a woman on the beach in Veli, her daughter a similar age. We met and connected because our children were both in cloth nappies. It turns out they were only a few weeks apart in age! We chatted, we became friends and we have remained friends since. We’ve seen each other most summers, with a few days together when we’ve been lucky, though mostly just a few hours overlap in Zagreb and we go to a playground together. She is like family to me and we hope (coronavirus permitting) to have our first full holiday together in Veli Lošinj this year.

Running to the sea in Veli Lošinj, 2018! Photo: © Ninoslava Shah

I can close my eyes and just feel the clear air. The peace. The smell of pine. The whooooo of the wind through pine needles. The gentle lapping of the sea. The wild garlic smell, sometimes. The scent of the curry plants. The sound of the cicadas. And silence, beyond all those sounds. Croatia gives me a sensory experience that is more peaceful than anything I have attained in the rest of Europe – beyond the tops of the Welsh mountains near where I grew up, beyond a stretch of empty shoreline in winter, beyond a snowy mountain in France. There is something quite magical about Croatia for me that I truly hope will never leave me. As I create a greater network of friends and strengthen my family bonds, I feel more strongly connected.

In 2010 I spent a month in Zagreb attending a Croatian language course for halflings or Croats born outside of Croatia, like myself. I stayed with my mama and spent most evenings with her. I visited my favourite aunt in the flat across the corridor, who was then already very unwell. I saw my cousins in that flat and in a flat on the top floor. It was wonderful to be a part of their lives for a short while.

I found my identity for the first time and realised what I’d been missing all my life. I still want to speak fluently one day. To think in Croatian, to speak and not stumble. My voice, the way I carry myself, the way I look – all this is British; but my heart, my blood and my soul – this is Croatian. While I realise that I will never fully belong to any country, because I am half and half, that doesn’t make me feel as if I lack. I feel enriched by being of two worlds.

Being able to share Croatia with my kids is magical. My husband loves the island, but they feel it in a way he does not. They have Croatian blood running through their veins, and I am sure this makes the difference. They love being there – being outdoors, walking the little twisty paths around the island, playing in the clear turquoise sea, spending time with my cousins and their kids, hanging out with my friend and her kids. They get the longing as I do, that seems to start around March time!

In Zagreb with Mama, the kids' Baka, before taking our leave, 2019. Photo: © Siy Shah

I intend to continue to visit as often and for as long as I am able to. My connection to Croatia is unbreakable. I feel it as a cord of turquoise and rosemary and cicadas and curry plants, from my heart to that island. I feel blessed every single day to have Croatia in my heart."

© Ninoslava Shah 2020.

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