2017 Grateful 12

I’m generally quite positive, upbeat even. Except when I’m tired. Or hungry. Or feeling ill. Then I can’t stand to be with myself let alone socialise with others. I retreat inwards. Any attempt to boost my mood or chivvy me back to normalcy is met with an almost childlike churlishness that borders on embarrassing. My usually low tolerance level sinks even further to the point where I’m better off left alone. I’ve been around myself long enough to see the signs and know when to hole up, recognising the valour in a strategic retreat to my world, population of one. But sometimes, such a retreat isn’t possible.

In Croatia a few weeks back (where has the time gone?) I’d spent a lovely morning and early afternoon on the olive oil trail. But as time went on, I realised, albeit too late, that tasting olive oil on an empty stomach was just asking for trouble. I was driving. I was hungry. And had I anything at all in my stomach, I would have welcomed a good throw-up. As I battled with my dry heaves all I could think about was food.

We made a beeline for Rovinj, a fishing port on the west coast of the Istrian peninsula. We arrived. We ate. And I returned to the land of civility and something approaching niceness.

I knew nothing of where we were. Himself had heard vague rumblings from friends about how beautiful it was. On leaving Vodnjan he’d done his map thing and discovered that it wasn’t all that far away. It’s a lovely old town, everything packed in around the port, narrowing upwards, pyramid style, to the top of a hill where the Church of St Euphemia stands sentry. Fourteen islands lie off the coast, making me think wistfully of winning the lottery so I could buy one as a permanent retreat.

The church was built on the remains of earlier churches back in 1736. It is home to the relics of St Euphemia preserved in a sarcophagus that dates back to the sixth century but apparently remodelled in the 1400s. There’s a story behind it:

[St Euphemia] died on September 16, 304. Christians from Chalcedon [a town in Asia Minor] preserved the body of the martyr until 620 when the town was captured by the Persians. The sarcophagus with the body of St. Euphemia was then transferred to Constantinople, and placed in a magnificent church which was built in her honour by Tsar Constantine. In 800 the Iconoclasts (icon-slashers) came to power, and the Christians were forced to remove the relics of St. Euphemia. […] People say that a marble sarcophagus came floating in the sea to the coast of Rovinj after a big storm at dawn of July 13, 800. It is said that many people of Rovinj tried to haul the sarcophagus to the Church of Saint George, but no one succeeded. Finally, answering to St. Euphemia’s call, a small boy with two little cows managed to haul the sarcophagus up the hill.

Some of the works of art inside date back as far as the fifteenth century with the bell tower modelled on that of St Mark’s in Venice dating to the mid-1600s. It’s a lovely piece of architecture and a beautiful church. What makes it special though, is not St Euphemia but the welcome that is posted in seven languages inside.

You have set aside your usual work. You have left your homes and have set off on a journey filled with the desire to get close to nature, to enjoy your holiday and to relax. We hope that your stay in our country will be serene and restful and do you good.

It continues but gets a little tangled in translation. But what a welcome! A far cry from the closed doors of some churches. And given the furore that broke out in a village in Hungary earlier this week on the subject of welcoming visitors, it is worth thinking about.

As we wandered back down through the cobbled streets, we came across a plethora of artisan workshops, one more interesting than the next. Oh to win that lottery. I could have done serious damage to a bank account, if I had one worth damaging. The place was awash with tourists and the locals were capitalising on the trade. Fair play to them.

We didn’t do much other than wander around. I was enjoying being human again. When we go back – and we will – I’d like to see the Brijuni Islands from the Monkodonja Hill Fort. Isn’t it great to have the option, to have Croatia so close that I could take a notion to get into the car and drive over. And just do it, without have to worry about travel bans or border control, or whether I’d be welcome. For that sort of freedom to travel, I am truly grateful.

 

 

On the olive oil trail in Istria

Years ago, when I was of drinking age, we’d go out on the town for the night. Invariably, the drink would hit someone harder than the others. The rest would smugly ask: Surely you ate before you came out? ‘Tis only asking for trouble to drink on an empty stomach. Fast forward a few decades and I can say, with certainty, that one thing worse than drinking on an empty stomach is tasting olive oil on an empty stomach.

The olive oil trail has been on my bucket list for a while, ever since the S family brought me back a bottle of olive oil from Istria for my birthday. It actually had taste. I’d always been reluctant to spend money on the good stuff, knowing it would eventually end up in a frying pan, making little or no difference to my bacon and eggs. But this stuff was really tasty. So, in Croatia recently, and in Istria to boot, the olive trail beckoned.

We headed towards the town of Vodnjan, the hub of the Istrian olive oil region. On our way in, we spotted a sign for Oio Vivo. Curious as to what these olives were vergin’ on, we stopped for a look. Inside the tasting house, the lovely Branca (she who  learned her excellent English from watching American TV programmes) told us everything we never knew we needed to know about the process.

I didn’t know, for instance, that olive trees grow better in rocky ground. Or that they take 3-4 years to bear fruit. Or that they come in male and female form. Or that machines are rapidly taking the place of people when it comes to picking. Okay, that one was obvious but what I’d never factored in to the cost of the oil was the money it takes to feed all these labourers. In this 56-hectare grove, the company Oleum Maris has carefully planted some 15,000 trees on land that was once devastated by fire. Operating since 2005, it is the largest olive grove in southern Istria. Olive trees come in many varieties, just grapevines: Busa, Istrian bjelica, Rosignola, Zizolera, Busa Puntosa (all native) and Leccino, and Pendolino (from Italy) – not that I could tell one from the other on the day that was in it, but I’m sure I could, with practice.

Branca gave us thimble-sized tastes of their five oils, explaining the various tastes and textures. She used words like bitter, spicy, and fruity and spoke with authority about blends and purities. When I recovered from the shock of actually being able to taste the difference in the oils (what a philistine I am), I was hooked. I was disappointed that we didn’t get the home-baked bread and prosciutto but then again, this was my first olive tasting and I could be forgiven for not knowing any better.

I was very impressed that Oio Vivo uses colour to differentiate the different properties of their oils (greens for fruity, pinks for spicy and browns for bitter) and that their labels are also in braille. That’s progressive. And of course we bought, or rather the lovely Gs bought for me. And if you can read Croatian or Italian, you can download their catalogue for some helpful tips about what oils enhance which foods. Me, I’ll have to go from memory.

Very pleased with ourselves for this little discovery, we headed on to Vodnjan. The town square is surrounded by some pretty impressive buildings including the Bradamante Palace with its decorated façade.

We wandered through the cobblestone streets and narrow passageways, heading towards the church of St Blaise, reportedly the biggest church in Istria. Weirdly,

[it] keeps 370 relics belonging to 250 different saints. In addition to one of the thorns from Jesus’ crown, fragment of the Holy Virgin’s veil, particle of Jesus’ Cross and many others, a special attraction are the desiccated remains of saints whose bodies or body parts have been completely preserved: St. Sebastian, St. Barbara, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Leon Bembo, St. Giovanni Olini and St. Nicolosa Bursa.

I did some work a while back on a book by the wonderful Rosikon Press Publishing House in Warsaw which told me all I ever needed to know, and more, about Christ’s Relics. [It’s a lovely book, if you have anyone with a religious bent on your Christmas Shopping list.]  I wasn’t that pushed about paying to see mummified bodies. Anyway, the chap in charge of admission wasn’t the most welcoming of souls, so we left him to guard his secrets.

Strolling through the town, I was quite taken by the graffiti – partial as I am to some wall paintings. Were I ever to go back, I’d take the time to check out the frescoes in the many other churches in the town: St Margaret’s (12th century), Our Lady of Traversa  (13th century), St Kirin’s (6th century) or St Fosca’s (8-9th century). But that particular day, I had olives on my mind.

Vodnjan has many tasting rooms that see a steady trade in tourists but that wasn’t quite the experience we were after. We wanted to see the trees, to walk the grove, to hear how the oil gets into the bottle from the people who put it there. So we drove on, stopping when we saw the next billboard pointing to yet another grove – this time San Antonio.

Milenko Marjanović has been running San Antonio since 2009. He was there himself and talked us through the process. His is a much smaller and newer grove covering 14 hectares with 7,500 young trees. His oils have won all sorts of awards in international competitions in Tokyo, Milan, and New York, awards that he is rightly proud of. I was curious, so I read a review in which his oils are thus described:

…an intense limpid golden yellow colour with slight green hues. Its aroma is elegant and ample, rich in fruity hints of unripe tomato, banana and white apple, together with fragrant hints of basil and field balm. Its taste is rotund and strong, with a vegetal flavour of chicory and fresh broad beans, lettuce and celery. Bitterness and pungency are present and balanced, with evident sweetness. It would be ideal on mayonnaise, chickpea appetizers, sea bream carpaccio, ovoli mushroom salads, marinated trout, broad bean purée, fish cous cous, fried vegetables, steamed fish, soft fresh cheese, oven cookies.

Who knew that olive oil was so complicated.

He’s built a kažun in his yard – a traditional shelter used by olive pickers. He had to do something with the stones he’d cleared from the land. He told us how the walls in the region are protected by UNESCO so he had to jump through all sorts of hoops when he bought the land and decided to plant his trees. The land he bought was originally 650 parcels with some 300 km of stone walls. It’s great to see UNESCO on the ball, protecting our heritage and tradition, but as the tractor has more or less replaced the horse and ox, might  there not be a need to widen the paths and roads? One wonders.

Marjanović’s kažun

 

An original kažun on the road to Rovinj

And again, we tasted the five oils he had on offer. And I bought. But I was starting to get a little queasy. My empty stomach was started to rebel. And while I was delighted to have crossed olive oil tasting in Istria off my bucket list, I wish I’d taken the time to eat a breakfast. Be warned. Don’t go tasting on an empty stomach.

 

Powdered wigs and sunsets

Poreč, a lovely town Istrian coast of Croatia is a great spot for festivals. If you’re into electronic music, it’s the place to be. MTV Summerblast is high on the calendar for enthusiasts. There’s the Open Air festival of life with its offshore tuna fishing challenge. And Rise up Poreč, another music festival. The day we were there, we tripped across the historic festival, Giostra. Perhaps it was the weather – a balmy summer’s evening. Or maybe it was the medieval waterfront setting? Or even the glorious sunset. But to see people walking the streets in their crinoline dresses, powdered wigs, and ruffled shirts was quite surreal.

Kids were dressed as drummer boys and young ladies in waiting. The peasantry walked alongside the lords and ladies, and whole families were decked out in style. Period musicians led the way with jugglers and court jesters doing their bit to entertain the gawking masses. The long line of finery wound its way through the town square and then back down to the harbour where a makeshift amphitheatre lent seating to the masses. What followed was a 90-minute show of period drama, music, and dancing, complete with some dancing horses from Zagreb, something so impressive that it prompted me to add seeing the Lippizzaner Stallions dance the white horse ballet in the Spanish Riding School in Vienna to my bucket list. The players came from all over Croatia with some travelling from Italy, too. Their enthusiasm was infectious.

It was all rather lovely, with the evening’s entertainment ending in a rather nifty fireworks display.

Back up in the main square, the stalls were out and the locals were selling their wares. Lots of blown glass on display alongside local wines and meades, pastries and meats. The dunking booth was getting a fair whack with a line of Asian tourists waiting impatiently to try their hand at dunking the village fool.

The town has an impressive food offer with plenty of cafés and restaurants catering to all sorts of tastes and inclinations. Wandering the back streets, we happened across three bunched together and himself made a beeline for the middle one. The chairs, he said, were more inviting. Whatever the reason, we struck lucky. We only wanted to sample some of the local wine but the brothers, with their inimitable charm and excellent table-side manner said they’d knock together a couple of plates of local hams and cheeses. They really get customer service in this part of the world. They kept up the banter as they passed the table, deftly handling the newcomers while attending to those who’d been sat awhile. It was their first season. Their dad, they said, didn’t do social media. No Facebook. No wifi. No website. No advertising at all really – just word of mouth. The food was excellent, the olive oil the best I would taste in the few days we were in country, and the wines weren’t bad either. If you’re in the vicinity, it’s a restaurant well worth checking out. Tradizione, Ul. Bože Milanovića, 52440, Poreč, Croatia.

And oops, I nearly forgot the sunset.

Standing the test of time

I had Poreč on the brain. But unlike Pula, I knew why. When I was in Israel, I’d heard about the famous mosaic tiles that dated back to the Byzantine era and they’ve been on my list since. What I wasn’t prepared for was the town itself, its narrow Roman streets, its Venetian-style houses, and its lovely waterfront. The Adriatic coast is rather lovely and, dotted as it is with myriad islands, it creates (or in my case, reignites) a fancy to live in seclusion in the midst of the sea but within sight of land. The best of everything.

The town’s main attraction is the Euphrasian Basilica, home to the world-famous mosaic floors. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and listed as one of Europe’s ‘finest intact examples of Byzantine art’. It’s massive, so be ready to spend a couple of hours navigating the church, the atrium, and the baptistery. Climbing the 122 steps of the bell tower is worth the effort. The panoramic views of the town and the sea are spectacular.

The first church on the site, a bit of which is still to be seen, dates back to the fourth century. But back to the floors. The detail is incredible. To think that these tiny pieces of stone were pieced together hundreds of years ago and are still there, still together, still weathering the tests of time.

While I was walking through the place, I was thinking wow, wow, wow, it’s still standing! And they did all this without electricity. The Bishop’s Palace is now home to a museum of religious artefacts, all of them older than old, too. It’s hard in a way to get your head around the age of everything because it all looks so well.

The church itself is the last stop on what was already a tour that I can see repeating. Coming in at the top to the side of the altar, you don’t get the immediate full wow effect. For that you need to walk down the aisle and look back. Some of the original murals are still visible. The floor has been raised with the original still visible underneath. The sixth century. 1700 years ago. All without electricity or drills or every other modern convenience we have today. Mad, isn’t it?

 

I finally made it to Pula

Back when Croatia was still part of old Yugoslavia, I was inter-railing around Europe on my tod. Yugoslavia was high on my list. I took the train from France into Italy and headed to Trieste where I crossed over into Yugoslavia heading towards Ljubljana. Soldiers with guns got on the train as we crossed the border. My fellow passengers, obviously used to the commotion, started to open their suitcases and bags for inspection. The chap in the seat opposite me told me they were customs guys. I was a nervous wreck. I was young, impressionable, and completely on my own. And they had guns. Big guns. When my turn came, I was so nervous I dropped my passport. A Padre Pio relic fell out. The soldier bent to pick it up and looked at it.

Irish, he asked, with a nod to my passport.
Yes, I said.
Catholic, he asked, with a nod to the Padre.
Yes, I said, not sure whether this was good or bad as I didn’t know much about the country I’d just entered.
Good, he said. Protestants … they bring bombs.

It was the 1980s and the IRA were in the news. Something had definitely gotten lost in translation but I wasn’t about to point that out. It wouldn’t be the only time in the next few days that I’d hear similar sentiments.

I wanted to get to Pula but never made it. I was waylaid and ended up at the Yugoslav equivalent of Spring Break in a village on a lake somewhere I’ve never been able to find since. It was all a little surreal.

Last week, though, that long reckoning came at last and I got to see Pula. But I couldn’t for the life of me remember why I wanted to see it. I knew sod all about it and was really surprised to hear that it boasted a magnificent (if smaller) first-century amphitheater, a smaller version of the Colosseum in Rome. To see so much of the Roman era still intact in the midst of twenty-first century concrete was quite something. Did they know how to build stuff that lasts! Unfortunately, the day we were there, some film crew had it booked out so we didn’t get to see inside. I didn’t recognise the actors (quelle surprise!)  so it may well have been a scene from Game of Thrones, as Croatia is a hub for that set, apparently.

There’s other stuff in the city, too. Cobblestone streets. Interesting shopfronts. Old churches. There’s a walking tour we could have taken, which would have guided us to Roman Pula, but I’m not that into tours. I prefer to ramble and for that I need time. I wasn’t overly pushed about seeing everything in one morning as it’s a very doable drive from the new gaff and I knew I’d be back. Next time, I want to have a coffee at Cvajner, a café in what was once a bank, furnished by Tito-era furniture and decorated with local art. And in the evening, I want to see the light show from the still-operational nineteenth-century Uljanik shipyard. Designed by lighting designer (I want that job) Dean Skira, the cranes are lit in 16 000 different color schemes and light up four times each evening for about 15 minutes a go. I might even take a stroll through the series of pre-WWI tunnels (Zerostrasse) excavated to store guns and ammo. We passed signs to Banjole along the way and next time, I want to eat at Konoba Batelina  – apparently the best seafood in the ‘hood. So much to look forward to.

 

Comments and their consequences

Dining out alone one evening lately, I got into conversation with a couple of Canadian tourists who were on a driving holiday through the region. They seemed very impressed with Budapest, so I didn’t feel the need to switch into ambassadorial gear and sing its praises. We agreed that Prague, while interesting, was simply too full of tourists to be enjoyable. And we shared similar impressions of Vienna as an aging dowager who had lost some of her joie de vivre.

They still had two weeks left of their tour and were in the process of planning their route to Zagreb. I’m a pathetic poker player. If a thought registers in my head, it’s clearly visible on my face. I have learned to immediately shift into self-correction mode, and I am getting faster at adjusting the image presented, but if you’re looking at me and paying attention, I’m like an open book. They were looking at me and they were paying attention; they registered and correctly interpreted my ‘Zagreb? Are you mad?’ look.

I had hoped to be let off lightly with a blasé ‘as a city, it just doesn’t do it for me’ but they were obviously looking forward to their visit and my careless reaction had thrown a big wet blanket on their enthusiasm. I had been introduced to them by the restaurant manager as someone who travels extensively and they wanted details.

IMG_1447 (800x600)Zagreb really doesn’t do it for me. I thought it tired, listless, and somewhat jaded. No matter how much I tried to conjure up some of the magic that must have been there back in the days of the Orient Express, I failed miserably. Even saying in the fantastic Esplanade Hotel wasn’t enough to fill the void. I tried to find some contemporary Croatian writers in translation to see what I was missing, but sadly, what I found was far from inspiring. We did walk about, we did explore, and apart from its wonderful cemetery, I can’t remember anything else of note. I’m glad I visited, but I’m in no hurry back.

My Canadian travellers decided that as they’d already booked and paid for their accommodation, they’d press on regardless of the fact that to my mind, a couple of days in Subotica and then on to Belgrade would have been far more interesting and rewarding.

Later that evening, I stopped to reflect on how easily I offer up my unsolicited opinion. Some might find this charming and even a little engaging. But not everyone really needs to know what I think. At least with blogging (and indeed, this column) people can choose whether or not to read what I have to write. But when we’re in conversation – short of telling me to shut up – there’s little you can do but listen or walk away.

I think I might need to revisit the carelessness with which I sometimes venture forth and perhaps take a second or two to give some thought to the consequences of my comments. So, Zagreb mightn’t be up there on my list of places to visit, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy it. And while Budapest has its drawbacks, if you caught me on a bad day when nothing was going right and life in Outer Mongolia was looking positively attractive in comparison to yet another day in this city, I’d hate to think that my opinion on a given Tuesday might put you off coming to see it for yourself.

This week, I’m left wondering what sort of menu my comments would make if, as Robert Louis Stevenson once said: ‘Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences.’

First published in the Budapest Times 26 September 2014

The calmness explained

In 1963 this drug was released and became astonishingly popular: between 1969 and 1982 it was the most prescribed drug in America, with over 2.3 billion tablets sold in peak year of 1978 … and  Leo Sternbach, the man who discovered Valium, was born in Opatija to Hungarian parents. Now, that might certainly explain the air of relaxation about the town, were I to completely discount the fact that it was off-season and what few tourists that were left (with the exception of my good self) were well into their dotage.

Harboured as I was just beside the lungomare, I had ample time each evening to wander the promenade and get a feel for the town. I decided that I would never want to visit at the height of summer. There were just enough tourists around for it to be bearable. I can well imagine that trying to navigate the 12-km stretch of sea-frontage would be nigh on impossible in the summer months. As it was, I had to step aside occasionally to avoid a tour group, but for the most part, it was pleasantly populated. Just enough to make it alive, and not too many to make it uncomfortable.

IMG_7473 (597x800)IMG_7477 (600x800)Like Copenhagen and the little mermaid, or Budapest and the little princess, or Brussels and the mannequin pis, Opatija, too, has its statue – the maiden and the seagull. As the story goes, back in 1891, a certain count Arthur Kesselstadt and his wife drowned at sea. His family erected a statue of Madonna Del Mare on the reef to guard his soul. The original Madonna Del Mare was moved to the Croatian Museum of Tourism in the Villa Angiolina (some say by the Communists, but what would I know…) and a replica placed outside St James´s Church. The Maiden was erected in its place in 1956 (and, to my mind, is a definite improvement) and only recently did people discover who had modelled for sculptor Zvonko Car – a secret that had been kept for 55 years.

IMG_7487 (800x600)IMG_7484 (600x800)Just around the corner, more or less, in one of the many parks to be found in the town, I came across an interesting mural referred to by the guide herding the group in front of me as the town’s pop-art exhibition. It was an odd mix of characters, many of whom I didn’t recognise, either by face or by name, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a likeness to James Joyce amidst them all. Apparently he regularly took tea on the terrace of the Hotel Imperial. That man certainly got around. Other famous guests included  Chekhov, Puccini, and a post-tonsillitic Gustav Mahler.

I can see the attraction – the grandeur of the hotels and villas, the fresh seafood, the temperate climate, and the floral-tinged sea air. And while I didn’t see anyone famous during my sojourn, and doubt very much that modern-day Optaija is a refuge for the rich and famous, I thoroughly enjoyed my few days by the sea.

When the wheel stops turning

What if I were to build a house in the middle of nowhere … would people come and be my neighbours? How long would it take before there was a hamlet? Weaned on the Little House on the Prairie, I’ve long had a fascination with the origins of places, how they started, and who was the first person ever to build in what now might be a sizeable metropolis. The one who began the begun…

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In Opatija, a town in western Croatia, that man was Iginio Scarpa. A man of means from the neigbouring Rijeka, Scarpa built Villa Angiolina in the mid-1800s. In 1872 the railway came and some ten years later,  Friedrich Julius Schüler, the boss man at Southern Railways, started building the grand hotels and villas that are still there today.

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Walking up and down the promenade that separates the Adriatic from the town itself, these once single-family homes are a reminder of what life was like back when the Opatija was a holiday destination for the rich and famous (Austrian Emperor Franz Jozsef was a frequent visitor apparently.) All boast a clear view of the water and it doesn’t take much imagination to add some parasols and posh-frocked ladies to complete the picture. It’s like stepping back in time.

 

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The first thing that hit me was the smell – salted air tinged with laurel. It’s beautiful. Its beaches might be concrete slabs laden with sun lounges and umbrellas, a tad reminiscent of Malta, but the water is clear and fresh and the fish swim right in to the shore. The prom is lined with cafés and restaurants and the tourists (from what I can gather) are mainly German-speaking. With an above-average Cosmopolitan hitting my glass for just under €5, you’ll not find me complaining about prices.

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Situated as it is within easy reach of other towns along the Adriatic, Opatija’s promenade is part of the 12 km lungomare that connects the town of Volosko and Lovran. It’s less than 100 km from Trieste in Italy, and Ljubljana in Slovenia isn’t that far either. The possibilities loom large.

Opatija has a tameness about it that might be more to do with it being slightly off-season than anything else. Yet this is what I came for: the feeling that time has stopped, that the wheel has stopped turning long enough for me to catch my breath… that and the seafood!

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Walking amongst the dead in Zagreb

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

I have what some might call a morbid fascination with cemeteries. And prisons.  I often wonder if I somehow see the two related. While others wander through the art galleries and museums of this world, I spend my time in graveyards reading epitaphs wondering about the lives of those who’ve gone before me and those they’ve left behind. Dean Martin’s tombstone reads: Everybody loves somebody sometime. Bette Davis’s: She did it the hard way. But my favourite has to be Spike Milligan’s: Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite (I told you I was ill). Way back in the good old days of the Wild West, when death was completely random and a sense of humour prevailed to the last, some classic epitaphs can still be found. Lawyer John E. Goembel: The defense rests. Auctioneer Jedediah Goodwin : Going, going, gone.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

I’ve often wondered at a particular choice of gravestone and have given some consideration to what I’d like mine to be and what I’d like it to say – if I’m not cremated. I’m undecided.

It was in Macugnaga, in the Italian Alps, that  I first saw a photograph encased in glass on a gravestone. I thought it rather strange that someone would want their photo displayed, but as I walked around the small cemetery, the idea grew on me. It was like visiting a place where people, though dead, were still very much alive in spirit…you could put a face to the bones buried beneath.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

In Warsaw some years later, in the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, I was struck by the notion of adding a person’s occupation the gravestone – but is this so strange? In life, some of us become our profession and lose sight of who we are as people, so why not carry this identity with us and go the grave proclaiming what we were.

In a Russian Orthodox graveyard in Eklutna, Alaska, each grave has a spirit house, built as a new home for the soul of the deceased. In Manchester, UK, some Irish traveller families have erected huge, gigantic marble monstrosities that seem be in some strange posthumous competition with each other – keeping up with the Joneses well after all the Joneses are dead.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

Until a recent visit to Zagreb, I’d never been to a non-denominational cemetery  – or at least, I am not aware of ever having been in one. The cemeteries with which I am familiar tend to be strictly segregated – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Russian Orthodox. The idea of mixing religions in death strikes me as ironic considering the trouble various religions have living side by side.  Mirogoj cemetry has been very much inclusive since it first opened its gates in 1876. The work of Hermann Bollé, it’s a beautiful spot, with a series of ivy-clad cupola’d arcades running along the inside walls. It’s home to Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, communist Partisans and the German dead from WW2. Crescent moons, Jewish stars, and RC crosses adorn the gravestones. Rows and rows of grave-lined paths diverge from the main gate. There’s a computer kiosk where you can key in the name of the person you are looking for and it’ll tell you where go to. Without this, it would be practically impossible, or, take days to find it for yourself.A couple of years go, on Achill Island off the west coast of Ireland, I visited a famine graveyard. Simple, overgrown, and wild, it was a stark reminder of an Ireland that is in danger of being forgotten.  A story book of life and death, a living testimonyof times gone by. In South Africa earlier this year, I stumbled across a cemetry from the Boer War. I’d never realised how many nations were involved in this particular fight. But it too, like the famine, seems so very long ago. Mirogoj cemetery is different. It is home to row after row of men my age who died in the Yugoslav wars. My age. My age. In another life they might have been my brother, my husband, my best friend. And while they were dying for the promise of a better tomorrow, I was living in Alaska, in my own little world, completely unaware of what was going on Europe. We speak of living in a global village but in truth, we are worlds apart. Einstein nailed it when he said: the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know.