Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Village Life

"No, not those ones", he pointed to a box of cigarettes with the warning label (loosely translated), "May inhibit your potential and affect your growth".
"The other ones...the ones with the "Proven by Science to kill you" label."
I was standing next in line, waiting to buy a paper and 3 liters of 2.8% milk. He threw down some money and ripped off the cellophane from the box with his deeply-tanned spidery fingers.
While waiting for his change, he thumped the box hard on the counter.
"Gets all that cancer down toward the tip of the cigarette", he offered as reason and advice.
He proffered a cigarette. I delicately refused. He gave me that rueful look only a smoker can come up with when dealing with a non-smoker. That look that carried a "Think you’re living longer than me?!" tone to it. Fire somehow appeared in his cupped left hand and he lit the butt he'd slipped into his mouth. He blew me the balance of his first drag. He gives me the once-over, bushy brown-blonde brow, a ledge over his piercing blue eyes.
"Milk?" As in, "What else could you expect of a non-smoker but the juice of a cow?". He excused himself. We didn't know each other but we knew we'd be seeing each other again and that would be shortly in this village.

It's a small place. You buy a cone with two balls of gelato (winter berry and stratiacella) at one end of town and you're finished and yearning for balls of tiramisu and hazelnut gelato before you're ¾ of the way through the village. Since your car hasn't moved since you'd arrived and walking is the most efficient way to get around and you are burning calories with your walking, well... a short bout of self-deception and you simply turn back to reload on the ice cream.

The village sits on the Adriatic at the bottom of a precipitous drop of the Biokovo mountain range. A tiny harbor runs the length of the village; some smaller fishing boats are anchored in chest-high waters. The water is clear and ranges from a hint of blue at beach's edge to a shimmery turquoise and finally to a dark blue where the depth drops off to 70 meters. There used to be a winding dirt road running down from the main highway. More like a trail, as it wasn't wide enough for two cars. Rather than setting an alternate and more logical course, the modernization of the road is evidenced simply by an asphalt coating of the trail. Some houses are right on the road. On the road. Evidence of late-night inebriated drives down to the village are seen in the missing chunks of the houses' wall corners. Sleeping in some of these bedrooms must require an absolute faith in your fellow man's reactions and their vehicles' turning radius. That or a few belts of rakija before you retire for the night.

The villagers and the tourists generally seem to know each other, like Alaskan grizzlies are acquainted with returning salmon. There's no biting, well at least not of the physical sort. You'll hear an occasional "Joj" or "Achhh", from the konobas (restaurants) parked on the beaches, as newly minted arrivals gape at the menus and take in the summer prices. So economic bites are being taken, at least from mid-June to late August. However, for most of the tourists there, surprises are minimal. They've been coming to this place for the past 10-15 years, so the uncalled for surliness of some of the villagers is not a surprise, simply an expected character flaw of this village. They shrug at the unkindness shown them and gaze out over the beach to the water and breath in the salty air sighing that it's all worth it, even with the lack of politeness. The villagers know their livelihood depends on these folks coming back. They jack up the prices for three months, counting on this one quarter's worth of income to carry them through the balance of the year. If it's possible to switch ambition on and off, it's proven here each summer. And yet, this sometimes uncivil behaviour toward your bread ticket strikes me as truly bizarre. The year-long residents act as if they're superior to their guests who are leagues away richer and more educated than them. In some ways, the villagers are having their cake and eating it too. And the tourists aren't complaining, well at least not loudly.

An aunt of mine has been coming here for well over 40 years. She has a house there, deliberately built by her husband with only village labor. Buying her food from the over-priced market, doing favors for the villagers, assisting them in their forays with the government, and having paid various villagers more than was honestly necessary to build the house would seem to qualify her for a full embrace into this village. And yet, she's still considered an outsider, although grudgingly approached when a favor is needed. Conditional inclusion.

It's an early weekday morning. The sun's been heating the house since about 5:30, waking us from a moonlit sleep. My cousin and his visiting friend invite me to their "office" for a morning cocktail. We slip on bathing suits, slap on some SPF 15 and scrape ourselves down to the village.
A couple has already toweled off a prime location on the beach. He's on his cell phone announcing his beach claim. His wife is lying face down, top off, feet barely touching the lapping water. Off the phone, he yells at his wife to "get me some tan." Her arm floats around the small rocks searching and finding the Nivea bottle, which she throws in his general direction. He picks up the bottle, takes five steps up the beach and parks himself in a café chair. A cappocinno’s in order.
The three of us slip by his table and make the short trip on the rocks shielding the road out of town. About 100 meters and we're at my cousin's "office", The Sahara Bar. Music's playing, softly at first, then escalating. Afro-Cuban All-Stars. "Amor Verdadero", Puntillita on lead vocals. Croatian beach. Belgian beer. Cuban music. It’s a sumptious fit.

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