Finding a Croatian tutor was a challenge. Unlike more popular languages like Spanish, French or Mandarin, there are no language schools for Croatian in San Francisco. There is no Alliance Française de San Francisco or Casa Hispana were lessons and tutors abound. Rosetta Stone and Duolingo do not have a Croatian course. I look through all of the Meet Ups and cannot find one for Croatian Language Lovers. Finally, I stumble on a website, UniversityTutor.com. I fill out a questionnaire, enter my contact information and wait. In less than two days, I am contacted by Branka.
Branka and I speak on the phone and she agrees to tutor me once a week. She also graciously agrees to come to my office. At the first meeting, she arrives early. Branka is smartly dressed in a rose colored twin set and pearls, her dark hair cut short and stylish. I soon realize that Branka is brilliant. Each lesson is a mini cultural lesson filled with wonderful advice and tips for my upcoming trip to Croatia. Her zest for life and her fiery spirit make me feel like I have found a kindred spirit. Each lesson, I make notes for my upcoming trip. I have put together a list of her advice. Here are Branka’s top nine travel tips for a visit to Croatia.
- When in Croatia Toast to Life
Branka’s tells me that when I am in a bar or a restaurant in Croatia, I must lift my glass high and toast “Živjeli” which, roughly translated, means “to life.” Branka explains that many people in Croatia used to make home-made brandy from plums. This alcohol was very strong and widely used for medicinal purposes. When the Croatian people toast to life or to health (nazdravlje) it is in reference to this early practice of using alcohol as medicine. Branka said that if I do this, I should look squarely into the eyes of the bartender who will immediately raise his glass and respond in kind.
2. Visit Nikola Tesla’s Childhood Home
In the small town of Smiljan in a simple white house, the inventor genius Nikola Tesla was born and raised. Branka folds her hands smartly in her lap as she tells me, “Many Americans think that Thomas Edison invented electricity. However, Edison stole many of Tesla’s ideas. Tesla was a true gentleman.”
As it turns out, Tesla and Edison were fierce rivals. Tesla did work for Edison. Tesla originally came to the United States because he was offered a job by Edison. Edison promised Tesla $50,000 if Tesla could increase the efficiency of Edison’s prototypical dynamos. When Tesla succeeded and returned for his reward, Edison responded, “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke.” Tesla quit. At this point Tesla and Edison became embroiled in a competition for domination of the electric world. This conflict was called the “War of the Currents.” Ultimately, Tesla’s invention of alternating currents (AC) won the day over Edison’s direct current (DC) as the standard for the delivery of electricity in modern electric companies.
Branka loves Tesla. She has read everything she can get her hands on about this brilliant inventor. Branka suggests I wander in the fields near Tesla’s home so I can feel the environment that fueled Tesla’s inspiration. Branka tells me that when Tesla was a boy, he could sense magnetic fields in the area surrounding his home. Branka herself braved warnings of hidden land mines in order to walk bare foot in the grass near Tesla’s home. “Obviously, I survived,” she chuckles as she finishes telling me her story.
3. Buy Lavender Oil in Hvar
Hvar is a beautiful island surrounded by the clear turquoise waters of the Adriatic. Hvar will be the third stop on our trip. In June and July, the island is filled with the color and aroma of lavender (lavanda). In the end of June, the island of Hvar celebrates this flower with the Lavender Festival held in the town of Velo Grablje. This year, the Lavender Festival is scheduled for June 24 and 25, 2016. We will arrive in Hvar at the tail end of the festival. Branka recommends buying the lavender oil as a lovely scented souvenir.
4. Visit James Joyce Café in Pula
Although James Joyce was an Irishman from Dublin, he has his own café in Pula, a town in the Istria region in Croatia. Joyce eloped from Ireland to the mainland of Europe when he was 22 years old with his girlfriend, Nora Barnacle. When Joyce got a job with the Berlitz English-language schools, the organization sent him to Pula to teach the English language to naval officers. Sadly, Joyce hated Pula. However, Joyce wrote much of A Potrait of the Artist as a Young Man in Pula. Now, you can sit on the terrace of the café and have coffee with a life size sculpture of Joyce. The café is called Uliks, or Ulysses in Croatian.
5. Tour the Viennese Opera House in Zagreb
The Croatian National Theater in Zagreb is known as HNK (Hrvatsko narodno kazalište u Zagrebu). The theater was designed and built by famed Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner and Herman Helmer whose firm had built several theaters in Vienna. The theater was officially opened in 1895 in a ceremony where Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph I symbolically performed the final blow with a silver hammer that was sculpted for that occasion by Robert Franges Mihanovic. The hammer is still on display in the theater.
Today, the theater provides a venue for opera, theater and ballet. Branka recommends that we not only tour the theater, but also attend a performance. I am thrilled to discover that on July 4, 2016, the day we arrive in Zagreb, the Zagreb ballet ensemble will be performing Petar Pan, a new ballet by Italian choreographer Georgio Madia. I immediately purchase tickets on-line.
6. Eat Lignje na žaru
This Croatian seafood delicacy consists of an entire squid grilled to perfection. You can order it with French fries (pomfrit) or chard and potatoes (blitva). Branka says that blitva as a side dish is fantastic.
7. Buy Candy at Kraš
Kraš is a sweet shop that can trace its beginnings to the first chocolate shop in Zagreb founded in 1911. Today, according to Branka, it is the high quality sweet that Croats give each other on special occasions. Branka recommends buying a box of bajaderas or a bar of rum pločice. Bajaderas are nugget desserts made with almonds and hazelnuts. The name bajadera comes from the word Bayadera, the elegant temple dancers in India. La Bayadère, the ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa, is named for these same beautiful dancers. The other famous confection from Kraš is the rum pločice, a chocolate rum candy bar.
8. Eat Palačinke for Dessert
A palačinke is the Croatian version of a crêpe. They can be sweet or savory. You can ask for them with sweet cheese, chocolate or frui, whatever your pleasure. Branka says that the best palačinke is filled with walnuts. Branka also recommends eating cherry strudel (štrudla za trešnja) for dessert. This dessert is made from the Marasca cherry, a small sour cherry that grows in coastal Croatia.
9. Swim Naked
“You will rent a car so you can drive along the coast?” Branka looks at me. I can see mischief in her eyes, “Yes,” I respond. “Let me explain something.” She smooths her pants with her elegant hands. “In Croatia, it is perfectly legal to swim naked.” My eyes go wide with surprise. I laugh with delight. I am not expecting this pronouncement, but I love this woman’s spirit. Branka explains that I should drive along the coast until I find a beautiful, secluded spot. Then I should strip down and swim naked. “It is a wonderful way to commune with nature.” I love the idea. Let’s see if I can work up the nerve. I will have to channel Branka’s fearless spirit. However, I am definitely not going to be posting any selfies of that experience!
Life is an adventure, not a destination. Live it with the insight of a local and the fearless spirit of Branka.