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When Odysseus Couldn't Return Home by L.M. Jorden


www.memoirist.org
Dawn at Rovinji

Lace one, chain two, cross over, slip, pull through. The silks danced and spun like two figures waltzing between my grandmother’s practiced fingers. I tried to copy her, but a thread caught the other around the knees instead of the waist, and they spun out of control. “Never mind,” Vida said, and the silky white threads continued to cascade from her hands, leaving a trail of delicate motifs: waterfall ripples, lacy petals, starfish in the ocean.

Her fingers worked much faster than mine; they seemed like fluttering butterflies.

“These are bellflowers from the slopes of Uka mountain. We call them zvoni. When they appear, we say spring has come.”

“Uka, zvoni,” I repeated, stumbling over the soft and hard “ch’s”.

Vida often let slip small mentions of her homeland, Istria, a peninsula jutting into the northern Adriatic Sea embracing the bays of Venice, Kvarner and Trieste. The area was a tangle of borders where Italy, Austria, Croatia and Slovenia vied to fit in place like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

I put down my hook and went to a 1940’s map on the wall. My fingers traced Istria’s heart-shaped outline, which reminded me of a locket. What secrets were hidden inside?

Vida shook her lace-making hook free from the silks, and used it to point to a speck on the map. “That’s my village.” Its name was marked in two languages, Italian and Croatian.

Without even looking, she stuck the hook back in, picking up where she’d left off. I rarely saw her drop a stitch.

On the map were crested ^^^’s indicating the peaks of Uka. And there were many XX’s criss-crossing, cutting the region into jagged patterns.

“It looks like a border runs through your village,” I said.

She nodded. “Mussolini put up a fence right through the marketplace. Now it’s the Iron Curtain.”

“Which side were you on?”

“The wrong side.”

I looked at the map again. To the west of the X’s, lay the port of Trieste/Trst in Italy. To the east, the ports of Rijeka/Fiume, and Pula/Pola in Croatia. There were little ships painted on the map, sailing to and fro. I knew that my forefathers had sailed around the world from those ports.

“Near Opatija/Abbazia?” I asked, pronouncing the dual-named resort town. “Is that in Italy or Austria?”

“Neither, but it used to be in both.”

“Both? Is it now Croatia?”

“Not exactly—that’s Yugoslavia now.” Vida had lived in one village, but four countries during her lifetime. “I know, it’s confusing,” she shrugged. “Everyone wanted a piece of Istria’s seacoast.”

I remembered seeing photographs of a beautiful lungomare, a crescent-shaped promenade made for strolling along the waterfront. The photographs showed early 1900’s people: men in tailcoats and bowler hats, carrying walking sticks, and women in puffed gowns, upswept hair and enormous hats with ostrich feathers. Facing the water stood proud Austrian wedding cake-styled villas. The photographer had caught the rocky coastline with a spray of waves. It looked beautiful, even in black and white, even on the darker side of history.

Vida said the villas had been divided into small apartments housing refugees without passports, those still stuck there after the Second World War. “My cousin tells me it’s very sad.”

It seemed frozen in time. “You mean they couldn’t choose for themselves?”

“It’s complicated. In one family, the parents could be Mussolini fascists and the children Tito partisans.”

She stopped crocheting for a moment, holding up her handiwork to examine it. Licking her fingers, she twisted and teased more silk threads into knots to embellish her flowers.

Flicking multiple silks around her fluttering fingers, Vida continued lace-making at warp speed. Myriad white bellflowers began tumbling forth like snowflakes in a storm. The table, chairs and carpet were soon blanketed with snowy mountain flowers, asters, roses and star lilies, too.

I was put in charge of tulips. A three pronged form somewhat resembling a bulb began dropping from my fingertips. I pulled more silk out of the skein, and wove the tail over my index finger and between my third and fourth fingers.

Vida looked on with approval. “Buonissimo,” she said in Italian. “Very good.” Reflexively, she added “sehr gut”. German had been the first language she’d learned in school.

Then she added the Croatian “vrlo dobro”. More of her native tongue. It stood out for those soft shushes in a mass of consonants like alphabet soup.

Prilino/bello/Hübsch, pretty,” I replied, having picked up a few words here and there. Unfortunately, most were bad words I’d overheard from my grandmother admonishing my grandfather for drinking Šljivovica/grappa, a fiery liquor. They spoke a mashup of all the languages they’d been forced to learn from each invader. Even their names had been changed many times, along with town names and street signs.

“Don’t waste your time with our dialect—it’s a smorgasbord. Hardly anyone can speak it well,” Vida said. “One day, the Iron Curtain will fall, too, and it won’t matter so much.”

“You’d get a new passport.”

She laughed. “I’ve had too many passports in my lifetime. Istria was invaded by the Romans and the Venetians. The Turks came to the doorstep, too. When I was born, it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We were Austrian. Then that crazy D’Annunzio, a poet, parachuted in and declared his own country! Then Mussolini marched in, and we were forced to become Italian fascists. Those days were the worst. Blackshirts tortured and killed our schoolteacher just for speaking Croatian. All of us children spat on their boots.” Vida shook her head angrily. “After the next war, Istria was divided into zones by the Allies, who’d each grabbed a port. But Tito won most of Istria, except for Trieste, as if it was a card game. People got caught in the middle, and many were executed. If we’d not left before all that conflict, who knows?” She reached for a new skein of silk. “Well, Tito stopped Stalin from taking over, so I suppose that’s something.”

Vida placed her crochet hook on the table. “Let’s take a break. I need some refreshment.” She went to the sink and filled a small lipped copper beaker with water, holding it by its stem-like handle, then placed it on the gas range to boil. When it was bubbling, she added heaping teaspoons of black coffee and a couple of teaspoons of sugar, and let it froth. She left the ooze simmering on the stove. “Turkish coffee, turska kava. It needs to brew. We’ll wait in there.”

Surprisingly, she motioned to the forbidden room. My friends’ families had an off-limits room for formal entertaining, with expensive sofas often covered in plastic, plush red carpet, dark green walls with landscape paintings, and glass door curio cabinets filled with silver and breakable china. Children weren’t allowed to play there.

But Vida’s forbidden room was very different—it was like an antiques shop bursting with the exotic and bizarre. A mother-of-pearl inlaid sitar from India leaned against a Greek marble topped table with a painted amphora, two Egyptian crocodile nut-crackers faced each other as if in battle, and a stuffed rhinoceros hide with its sharp horn peered out from the corner with scary jaws that opened on a wire to bare its teeth. On the side tables stood Baltic amber leaping horses, an African ebony carved life-sized head of a girl with braided hair, and two large wooden elephant stools with ivory tusks. A sterling silver samovar rested on a Japanese painted chest of drawers. Two taxidermy Hawksbill turtles swam on the walls. The curio cabinet held myriad other fossils and figurines. Some of these objets d’art would fall under CITES violations now, but Vida had inherited her father’s finds from his expeditions of long ago.

I climbed into a huge peacock throne chair, staring wide-eyed at the rhinoceros, and waited for my grandmother. The English grandfather clock chimed. The elephant stools seemed to take plodding strides, the many heads seemed to whisper. The rhino’s jaw lurched open with a growl.

Vida returned, carrying an Arabic engraved copper tray with the coffee beaker, and two doll-sized copper covered porcelain cups.

“Aren’t I too young for coffee?”

“Nonsense. I’ll pour.” She told me to wait for the coffee grounds to settle to the bottom, but I was thirsty and took a sip. It tasted like sludge, and I spat it out.

Vida smiled. “You must learn patience. Coffee time is a time to savor life. In Trieste (she’d not given the Croatian word Trst, as I’d read on the map), we’d sit at the Viennese Kaffeehaus, watch the people and eat delicious treats, like presnitz, made for the Empress Sissi, or involtino di noci/gubana/ohrenjaa, a nut roll pastry.”

I imagined a city filled with Austrians, Croatians, Slovenians and Italians, a cosmopolitan blend of different cultures. The sweets, to me, sounded better in several languages.

I put my tiny cup down and followed my grandmother as she fondly touched and described her collections in this museum of a room. Like some long-lost Brigadoon, Istria appeared in the mists of our imagination, visible at my grandmother’s beckoning.

Vida pointed to an oil painting on the wall. A stalwart limestone castle with crenelated towers, perched on a promontory, the blue sea thrashing at its walls. “That’s Miramare. Emperor Maximillian built it. I can still smell the roses in the gardens.”

Then she opened a photo album. I saw a swirling nautilus town on a rocky outcrop over the sea. “That’s Rovinj/Rovigno. The waterfront turns a magical gold at sunset. Look here, we used to take the hydrofoil over to Venice.” There were photos of happy people at the dock. “Some of them became fascists. After the war, they left for Italy and never returned.”

A Byzantine basilica in Pore/Parenzo. A Roman arena in Pola/Pula. Waterfalls in the lower Justinian Alps, pine forests in the Karst, gardens bursting with purple irises, pink oleander, fig and cherry trees.

The most remarkable element was the blue sea. Not grey blue, nor sky blue, nor indigo. An Adriatic blue—a cobalt phosphorescence that plunged one to its very depths. Immersive. I felt as though I were there.

Cream-colored stone houses with curling red tiled roofs appeared, surrounded by vineyards. Rosemary and thyme bushes cleaved to the rocks along the bays. Crosses on churches with towering Venetian bell towers looked to me to be as tall as skyscrapers. I could hear the tolling of the bronze bells and the symphony the sea played as it tugged and released pebbles with the waves. I saw fishing boats, and ocean liners and people fleeing war-torn Istria. Ancient mariners rowing with the invasions of empires. Traders at the ports, like my great-grandfather, unloading goods from the four corners of the globe.

Vida went to the curio cabinet and pulled out a collection of tiny Roman frosted glass vials: conical, tubular or heart shaped. She said the women wore these around their necks to collect their tears when their husbands went off to sea.”If it wasn’t full when they came back, you were in trouble,” she joked.

“Sounds like the men were the ones getting into trouble,” I retorted. “Istria looks beautiful, but it was constantly being attacked. Is that why you left?”

“My father left first—a tragic opportunity.”

“What do you mean?”

“The Titanic.”

Even children had heard of the sinking. “Was he on it?”

“No, he was on the Carpathia—the ship that rescued the survivors.”

“Great-grandfather was a Titanic hero?”

“He put on an old survival suit and dove right in like a polar bear. Some passengers fell out of the lifeboats, and he had to carry them up the rope ladders. After the Titanic rescue, he was awarded American and British citizenship.”

“He chose America, didn’t he?”

“He was thinking about jumping ship when it reached New York anyway. The rest of us followed many years later, when we couldn’t live under the fascists or the communists anymore.”

“So the sea was your escape route?”

“Yes. It was the only border they couldn’t control.”

The Iron Curtain, ironically, was not impervious to saltwater.

Istria split apart and became a no man's land. Istrians without allegiances were able to uproot themselves and emigrate, crossing the fluid border of the Adriatic. My grandmother had transported her seafaring culture and its cargo across the waters, like a Hawksbill turtle carried its multi-hued shell.

We finished our tiny coffees, and headed back to the sewing room to continue lace-making. Vida’s hands couldn’t remain idle for long.

I continued laboring over the tulips. Vida worked fast, finishing the lace tablecloth, then a sweater and a few needlepoint pillow covers.

Where had she learned such dexterity and such intricate designs? I knew the answer. These were patterns passed down by generations of Istrian women—those who waited for their loved ones’ safe return, and those who left but never forgot their homeland. They were patterns of longing.


*****

Vida didn’t live long enough to return to Istria. If she visited today, she probably wouldn’t recognize it. After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the horrific Balkan wars, Istria became part of an independent Croatia, which is now part of the European Union. My grandmother’s tales piqued my curiosity, and I visited Istria several times as a journalist and on a humanitarian mission, experiencing its resurgence into a modernized and prosperous seaside region.


 

L.M. Jorden is an award-winning journalist and retired professor who lives between France and the US with her family, furry friends and an atrium full of rare live plants. She writes fiction and non-fiction, and is the author of the Dr. Josephine Plantæ Paradoxes, a historical series about a Brooklyn first woman doctor whose remedies are being used to commit crimes. She’s currently working on a historical novel about Croatia. L.M. Jorden holds a Master of Science from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and received the New York Press Association Award and other awards.

Her company, World 3i, offers global multilingual research and fact-checking.


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