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Sat Jul 19 2014: How Warm Blankets Talk To Me

I've been in Croatia for nearly three weeks now, Neda for over a month. We've really settled into some semblance of stability, all centred around Neda's daily visit to her mom. She is still waiting for a surgery date, and the family is getting anxious for her because she can't move at all in the hospital bed.

We've cocooned ourselves in the company of the extended family and friends. They've all rallied around us, spending almost every day with us, giving Neda the love and support to help her cope with the situation.


Goga, Neda's sister, serves us lunch. We are at her husband Mladen's parent's place

Mladen's parents are really taking good care of us, having us over often so the sisters can be together. They don't speak English, so I spend most of my time playing with our niece, Tea. I've noticed that most people in Pula under 40 know English, it's the older generation that only speaks Croatian and Italian, which is the de facto second language in Istra. Having been away from English-speaking countries for over a year and half now made me really reflect on the nature of new languages, especially now that I could see people trying to communicate with me in English, which may be their third or fourth language.


Tea shows me the pet turtles in her grandparent's house

Tea is growing up in a multi-lingual household. Living in Italy, her native language is Italian, but her parents and all her relatives speak Croatian to her. It's so interesting seeing how she relates to her English-speaking uncle. She calls Neda, "Teta Neda", using the Croatian word for Aunt but calls me "Zio Gene", the Italian word for Uncle, instinctively applying the non-Croatian term for me. I find it so familiar how she prioritizes her languages, similar to how Spanish is now my default whenever I try to speak non-English.

She is super-smart and quick as a whip in remembering things. She asked if I knew any Chinese words, so I recited the only thing I knew: counting from 1 to 10 in Cantonese. Chinese is a really difficult language to master because you have to not only get the pronunciation right, but also the intonation, otherwise the meaning changes completely. To all our astonishment, Tea recited all the numbers back to me perfectly, including the intonation, on her first try! She is going to be a natural with languages, just like her Teta Neda.


Tea is getting fed up with me and my Andre Agassi forehand roofing all the shuttlecocks...

After the hospital visits, we frequently go to the beach together

The pebbly beaches of Pula are a popular draw for tourists all over Europe. We have to search awhile to find an empty spot to lay our towels down.


Briscola is the name of the game, table talk is how you play the game...

Briscola is a popular Mediterranean card game, very similar to Euchre. However, unlike Euchre, table talk is totally allowed! IwuzlikeWHA?!? Each team can develop their own signals (like tugging your left ear, or scratching your chin) to communicate to each other how many trump cards they have and what kind of card to put down next. Just like Spanish and Croatian, I wasn't learning the signals fast enough and once again found myself Euchred in the communications game... :(


I'm good at this.

And I like taking pictures.

Neda welcomes Nera into her new home with a brand new toy

Oh yeah, almost forgot: we got a dog!

Finally after months of Neda trying to kidnap every single canine we've met on the road, we have a four-legged buddy we can call our own - if only temporarily. Neda has joined a volunteer organization called Ruka Sapi. They rescue stray dogs and cats from the streets of Pula. Since they don't have an official shelter, they house all the animals themselves in their own homes until they can find a new family for them.


My first little doggie ever!

Nera is a beautiful Croatian Sheepdog. She was found in the streets a few months ago with a broken leg after being hit by a car. The organization patched her up, and was keeping her in a homeless shelter (for people) but she had to be moved out to make space for other animals that required more medical attention. So we've offered to put Nera up with us until she can find a permanent home.

This is the first dog I've ever owned. Neda's had a few when she was living here. Nera came to us already housebroken, she was obviously abandoned by a previous owner. Very friendly, but a bit timid because she hasn't felt like she belonged anywhere for a while. It didn't take long for her to make herself at home with us. I was blown away by Nera's ability to communicate what she wanted whether she needed to go out for a pee (very important), hungry, or was itching to go for a walk. Such a smart girl! Even a dog can communicate better than I can and she can't even talk! :(


Finally, Neda has a little buddy!

Statistics indicate that black dogs are the least adopted dogs. They say that there is a stigma with black dogs, that they're perceived to be more aggressive and they point to the "evil black dog" stereotype in movies and TV shows. This is so far from the truth, Nera is such a gentle and affectionate girl! They also say that black dogs are difficult to photograph, so they don't look good in adoption ads. This is very true. Looking through all the pictures I've taken of Nera, the camera always seems to focus on a table or a nearby foot, anything but the evil black dog...


The post office where we pick up our parcels. Funky looking building!

We're really taking advantage of having a shipping address that we can send stuff to. Being on the road for so long, there are a lot of things that have piled up in my parent's mailbox in Canada that can't be faxed, scanned or sent electronically. I've got about 2 years of Loblaws flyers to catch up on! We also take the opportunity to refresh some of the motorcycle gear that has worn down or needs replacing.


Nona and Neda

This is Neda's mom's mom. Everytime we visit Croatia, we pay a visit to nona and then she feeds us. She loves feeding people! She doesn't speak any English at all, but that doesn't stop her from talking to me in Croatian non-stop as if I understood every single word. That was refreshing because normally when people try to communicate with me here, they do it through Neda, only turning to look at me once Neda starts translating. Nona doesn't even ask Neda to translate, she just looks me in the eye, gives me some sage advice (or compliments me on my full head of hair, or tells me what her secret ingredient in her Burek is, I don't really know), and then flashes me a knowing smile. I like the feeling of being part of a natural conversation, instead of waiting for the UN interpreter's delayed translation.

Earlier on, there was a big cultural misunderstanding between nona and I. You see, in the Asian culture, when someone puts a plate of food in front of you, it's considered a sign of respect to finish every last morsel on that plate. However, to nona, that was a signal that you wanted more food. I kept cleaning the plate and she kept piling it on, no matter how much I objected that I was already full! It was like a race to see how much food she could move from the stove to my belly.

I suspect that I am one of nona's favorite visitors. There is no higher compliment you can pay to a Croatian grandmother than to clean out her fridge and pantry. In fact, I'm going back there again tonight, whether she's there or not.


Spy King.

Every Wednesday, Neda's group of friends rents a volleyball court for a couple of hours down by the beaches. They're all ex-jocks from high school so the level of play is competitive. Unfortunately, one week during a game, Neda slipped a disc, and not in the fun-frisbee kind of way. I make fun of her because during this trip, the only time she gets injured is at home and when she is off the bike. While in Toronto, last year she almost severed a tendon in her finger while wrestling a can opener. Couldn't ride for two months. And now here she can't ride for another few weeks because of her lower back.

Volleyball is kind of a special sport for Neda and I. 19 years ago (almost to the day actually), a pretty, young girl showed up to the YMCA where I regularly played recreational volleyball. She went around to every person in the gym before we started, shook their hand and introduced herself very formally. That was quite unusual, because in Toronto, a brief, cold look and then avoiding eye contact is fairly standard when meeting strangers.

She spoke virtually no English. My chances at impressing HotImmigrantGirl shot up exponentially...

I met Neda shortly thereafter.


Neda and Iva after volleyball

Iva is one of Neda's few non-jock friends. While the rest of her crew are all ex-handball or volleyball players, Iva likes art instead. She jokingly tells me how Neda and her jock friends used to tease her about her pink unitards in gym class, since the standard uniform was all black. I'm learning all sorts of new things about my bride. I asked Iva if Neda also threw slushies in every one's faces in the hallways at school...

Iva and I would have gotten along well in high school. Because Neda would have pushed both of us into a locker and locked us inside!


Karin is one of Neda's oldest and closest friends

In between work, Karin still finds time to regularly pack up her two little kids into her car, drive in from out of town just to give Neda some GirlCompany. I really admire that. She must have super powers or something. On this particular visit, I asked how she was and she replied, "I was a little bit sick yesterday, was throwing up and felt really bad, but I'm feeling a little better today". Yeah, I guess Kryptonite will do that to you...

We regularly get together with all of Neda's friends at each others houses and have pot luck dinners. Eating out in restaurants is super-expensive because all the businesses have jacked up their prices for the tourists, and Croatia is an expensive country to live in to begin with. Besides, everyone here says the tourist restaurants serve crap anyway. The homecooked food tastes much better! So if you're visiting Pula, make friends with a local and invite yourself over. I'll give you nona's address.


Oh, Tajo!

Tajana (pronounced Tie-Anna) is one of our social co-ordinators in Pula. She organizes all of our social gatherings as well as extra-curricular activities like visits to the neighbouring villages and towns. She works for a historical society, so she knows everything there is to know about Istria. Tajana's English is not as good, but it's waaay better than my non-existent Croatian. When Neda translates what Tajo is saying, I'm bowled over as to how funny she is, something that doesn't come across when she's trying to speak English to me. That struck such a chord in me, because I know *EXACTLY* how it feels to not have your true personality come across in the words you speak.

Tajo also told Neda, "I'd like to speak to Gene more, but my ego prevents me from sounding like a 5-year-old". OMG. That one line totally articulates the way I felt the last 18 months about my hesitancy to even try speaking Spanish. She totally hit the nail on the head.


"beep beeep beeeeep beep beeep!"

Tina is Tajana's niece. Even at 3-years old, she's picked up on the fact that I don't speak or understand Croatian, so she communicates by beep-ing to me. I think that's the way English sounds to her, at least the way I speak it... After a bit of time, I've begun to understand her new language. For instance in the picture above, she's saying:


"I'm going to strangle you when the grown-ups aren't looking!"

We are in Pula, Croatia, and it looks like we're going to be here for awhile. But we're surrounded by lots of good people that are itching to take care of Neda and I. They wrap around us like a warm blanket and I'm so very grateful for that. Hvala vam!

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