travelers-tales

By Alenka Vrecek

Seventeenth Annual Solas Award Gold Winner in the Destination Story category

(this essay was originally published on AlenkaVrecek.com)

I am standing on the starboard side of the ferry, just behind the bridge, stretching my neck and entire upper half of my body as far over the railing as possible. On the verge of plummeting into the emerald-green sea below, I am scanning the shore for my parents. Returning to the island of Šipan in Croatia, where I spent endless summers in my youth, simultaneously fills me with excitement and trepidation.

Over thirty years have passed since I moved to California. I have tried to return to the island as often as my work and family life permitted, but the pandemic has delayed my current visit by nearly two years, which for my parents, who are nearly ninety years old, must have seemed like an eternity.

At last, fully vaccinated, I was able to book the flight. I rang my mother to inform her of the details of my arrival. Surely, they are both waiting for me at the dock. They always do.

I imagine mother has already cooked my favorite meal: grilled fish on a bed of steamed kale and potatoes drenched in garlic and olive oil. My father has his best bottle of wine ready to be opened and poured, and for dessert, there is goat cheese and grapes. But first, as is customary, we will toast our reunion with a shot of Loza. Taking a sip of this brandy fermented from crushed grapes is like drinking hot lava. The brandy running down your throat kills all the germs in its path, and immediately shocks you into the present.

When I was a child, a ferry named Perast arrived at the island three times a week. Only in later years, after the road connecting the two villages on the opposite sides of the island was paved, another larger ferry called Mate Balota would arrive every other day in the afternoon, transporting cars. That was progress. My father didn’t like that progress. He said the island was doomed.

At first, there were only two cars on Šipan. Both were white-colored Fiat 500s, the smallest car ever made. The Fiat 500 is basically a lawn mower on wheels, and moves at the speed of, well, a lawn mower. One of these cars was owned by the priest, the other by the doctor.

There is only one turn on the road at the almost exact geographical midpoint between the villages of Šipanska Luka and Sudjuradj. Right at that turn, there is a chapel. The two cars met their fate at that one blind corner by the chapel. Thanks to the vehicles’ slow speed, the priest and the doctor suffered only minor scrapes and bruises. The two cars were not so lucky, however. One had to be completely salvaged; the other one eventually had the roof cut off and was made into a convertible.

Nowadays, abandoned rusted cars with missing wheels scatter in fertile fields and olive groves. In my father’s opinion, this is a shame. I agree with him. Most people on the island, especially those in the younger generation, don’t care. It costs money to get rid of a car which no longer runs, so leaving it is the preferred option.

My father predicted many things the so-called progress would bring. Most of them happened.

“They will be sorry about building hotels. Too many tourists will come. Women will get work cleaning hotel rooms, cooking, and serving in the restaurants, and then who will stay home and raise babies? The island will slowly die. No one will know how to fish anymore, no one will work the fields, pick grapes to make wine, and pick olives to press olive oil. Everyone will eat store-bought and prepackaged food. People will become fat and lazy and money-hungry.”

My father would say these things to me when I would visit over the years. Every time I’d return, I would notice more and more fields were overgrown with olive trees heavy with fruit. Picking olives by hand from the ancient trees is hard work. Trimming branches is exhausting. The young people don’t want to do it. It is easier to sell pizza and beer to the tourists in the bars and restaurants, which they built in the homes of their parents, grandparents, and grandparents’ parents.

The old way of life was vanishing. Things were changing and my father didn’t like it. He would tell me the fishing hasn’t been good.

“The fishermen are returning with empty nets,” he would complain. “And whatever good fish they do catch, they sell to the restaurants in Dubrovnik for big money. We only get the small sardines if we are lucky, sometimes squid, seldom an octopus. Things are just not the same anymore.”

My father would shake his head and take another drag from his pipe, puffing circles of smoke into the blue sky above. The air would smell of earth, apples, and cinnamon.During these years, when I was far from the island in my new California hometown, I would sometimes pass a smoke shop, and I would tear up. It made me want to crawl into my father’s lap like I did when I was his little girl. He would read his favorite Agatha Christie detective novels to me out loud and puff on his pipe.

I would try to comfort him during my visits. “Things never stay the same, Tati (that is how I call my father), but it is still so beautiful here, so peaceful.”

“Easy for you to say,” he’d reply. “You left! You don’t live here anymore.”

His words stung, but deep down, I knew he was right. I tried not to look hurt. He was the one who had encouraged me to study abroad. Neither one of us thought back then that I would marry, have children, and live in a different country. Neither one of us could predict how much and how quickly the ways of life would be changing.

We would talk for hours about politics, art, and history while we drank red wine, ate goat cheese, prosciutto, and olives. “Food and wine for the gods!” he would exclaim, licking his fingers, smacking his lips, his eyes half closed. We would sit on our terrace shaded by grapevines and just watch the few remaining fishing boats putting in and out of the bay. My father was an educated, well-read person. He was a wise man who understood the ways of the world, and could sit for hours, staring into the distance across the ocean, puffing on his pipe, saying nothing, knowing everything.

As Mate Balota ferry rounds the lighthouse point and enters the bay, my parents can hear it approaching from their house on the hill overlooking the harbor, and I imagine them hurrying down the many steps to meet it at this very moment. I know my mother’s hands are trembling. I know my father has been pacing back and forth on the ancient marble-stone dock, his hands folded behind his back, which now bends like the bow of an old fishing boat.

But something is wrong. I don’t see my parents. The expectation causes my heart to thump in my tightening throat, and droplets of cold sweat like tiny pearls collect on my upper lip. Did my father trip and fall on the steep stairs leading toward the harbor? Perhaps my mother suffered another nervous breakdown. When covid insinuated itself into our lives, my parents lived in fear and complete isolation for months. It took a toll on my mother, and now any kind of stress can plunge her into a deep and debilitating depression. Maybe my father had another stroke? I am too late, too late, too late… The words reverberate through my entire body like the rumbling of the ferry’s old diesel engine.

My parents always wait for the ship, even if they are not expecting anyone. The arrival and departure of the ferry is the pulse of the island. It is how one measures time and learns about the events of the day.  Every person stepping off the ship has a story to tell. My mother, always a social butterfly, likes to keep up with the gossip.

Mate Balota is making the final approach. The turbine engine revs up and lurches into reverse; the captain expertly aligns the stern of the ferry with the shore. I feel acid rising in my throat. I want to jump off the ferry before it is even docked. The deckhand throws the thick line to the outstretched arms of a man on the dock, who loops it to the cast iron bollard. The mouth of the car ferry finally opens, and I grab my bag and run, dodging passengers disembarking ahead of me.

The moment my feet touch the ground, I feel the passing of the time through the eyes of the people. Some recognize me but don’t acknowledge me; most don’t notice me at all. To them, I am just a stranger, just another tourist. I see Joško loading a sack of potatoes into the convertible Fiat that’s still miraculously running. He traded a bottle of Loza for the car years ago and cut off the mangled roof. As I pass, he lifts his pointer finger to his temple in a half salute. I greet him with a smile, happy that at last, a person has acknowledged me.

I was twenty years old when I moved to California, into a self-imposed exile. I couldn’t wait to get away from the small fishing village, away from my parents and all my familiar life. Hungry for adventure, I wanted to spread my wings, live in a big, wide world, see and experience new things. All I want now is to come home. I yearn to hug my parents, old and shriveled up like two dried figs.

I practically run, my travel bag bouncing behind me on its small wheels across the shiny marble stones. The sea is to my right. Blue and white painted fishing boats are tied up, rust-colored fishing nets piled in their bows. The walls of tall houses, built centuries ago, line the narrow road to my left. I run past the 16th-century Renaissance castle in the village center. I run past the church where I once, dressed in a white starched linen dress, danced carelessly, unaware of how quickly my youth would pass me by.

The narrow stone path leads me up the hill. I am dragging my bag over the uneven stones, wondering how my father still manages to walk up and down the trail every day. Bougainvillea branches thick with magenta blossoms hang off the walls on both sides of the path. I take the right turn onto an even smaller and narrower path winding among the olive trees — and stop.

Before me stands a small white marble stone house with a red terracotta roof. The green shutters of the two tiny windows on the east side of the house are closed. Apart from cicadas singing their evening serenade, I am met with a wall of silence. It appears as if no one lives here anymore. I let go of the handle of the travel bag and wrap my arms around my trembling body.

The house used to look so much bigger to me when I was a child. There are several olive trees surrounding the house. Some of the larger branches hang over the roof, threatening to swallow it up. They need to be cut. The grape vines, loaded with dark purple grapes that hang off it like oversized jewels, are shading the terrace. Bright red, yellow, and purple flowers line the remaining part of the path leading up to this tiny house my parents built, stone by stone, more than half a century ago.

With my feet planted firmly on the stone path, I just stand there, remembering. My mother tends to her flowers as if they were her little children. She waters them by hand every morning and every night, recycling every drop of precious water she uses in the kitchen and the bathroom. I used to help my mother water the flowers with my very own green watering can, wearing a bright yellow dress, my hair tied into two blond pigtails, my feet always bare.

My memory is interrupted by Mother rounding the corner of the house, carrying my old green watering can. She stops and looks startled. Then she presses her left hand tightly against her mouth and drops the can. The water spills onto the stone path and disappears through the cracks. I hold my breath and wait for her words to come out, uncertain what I should expect.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” The unnatural shriek fills the silence and my father, all bent over, comes shuffling from the terrace in fear that something terrible has happened. He looks frightened, like a little bird. They both stand there, holding hands, staring at me as if I were an apparition.

My father turns to my mother and asks, “Who is this?” My breath leaves me when he adds, “What is she doing here?” His raspy voice fills the air like shattered glass.

My legs are wobbly, and I desperately need to sit down. I lower myself slowly onto the stone wall separating our house from our neighbors.

My mother gently touches his arm. “It is her; she is our daughter,” she pauses. “Your daughter,” she whispers into his ear. He steps back, looking confused. The air is thick with pain. My throat tightens even more.

“Don’t you remember I was coming today, Mother?” I ask her, bewildered. “I told you weeks ago I was coming. We spoke just a couple of days ago and I told you I was arriving on Monday. Today is Monday.” The last words trail off and I can barely hear my own voice. I am desperately trying to hide my shock at seeing both of my parents so frail.

“We weren’t expecting you until tomorrow! I get my days all mixed up lately. I told your father, but he also forgets everything. Oh, my poor child, I am so sorry!”

The tears well up in the corners of her eyes and she looks so vulnerable, fragile, sorry she mixed up the days of my arrival, but at this moment, as I sit on the wall, trying to find my breath and my words, no one is sorrier than me. Sorry for all the years of my absence, sorry for the lost time never to be retrieved.

Raising my eyes toward my parents, I smile and say as if it is no big deal at all, “Don’t worry, I mix up the days all the time.” I stand up and make a convincing step in their direction in order to erase the distance, erase the years since we last hugged. I embrace my mother and she leans into me with all her weight. I melt into her and glance at my father. “Here I am, Tati! I’ll help you cut the olive branches. We’ll pick the grapes together. It looks like I have arrived just in time. It will be a good harvest and we should have some fine bottles of wine; we’ll pick the olives too. I see Joško’s Fiat still runs!”

The words keep tumbling out of my mouth as I slowly make steps toward my frail father, afraid that if I move too fast, he’ll topple backwards or fly away. I stand before him and he, bent over like a weeping willow, leans over to stroke my cheek. His milky blue eyes stare into mine for infinite moments. His bony fingers trail down my cheek, then pause at my lips, as if a blind man was reading my face by Braille. Finally, my father whispers my name, and it floats in my direction on the soft evening breeze rising from the sea.

In the morning, the rumble of the diesel engine wakes up the village yet again. I find solace sitting next to my father and mother on the terrace drinking coffee, and together we watch the sun rising across the bay. Not all is lost, not yet. Today I will let the time do its passing, because today, I found my way home.

~~~

Alenka Vrecek was born in Slovenia when it was still a part of Yugoslavia. She lives in Lake Tahoe, California, with her second husband, four children, two grandchildren and a golden retriever named Monty. Her memoir She Rides for Life: A healing journey from the mountains to the sea is scheduled to be published this month by She Writes Press. Read more about her at www.alenkavrecek.com