Aug 272012

Branzino from

The road from my Aunt’s and Uncle’s house in Montenegro to the beach spiraled around the hills sparsely covered with yellowed weed and resilient and hardened Mediterranean bushes. The heat radiated from the asphalt and the crickets kept me in rhythm as I became aware of the smell I missed for years: the smell of the Adriatic. I live a short walk away from the Pacific and every time I leave the apartment, I take time to breathe in the briny ocean air, but there is something different and seductive about the Adriatic.

When I entered its turquoise blue water for the first time after a few years, it felt as if I were hit by a bullet train full of memories. In an instant, I re-lived my childhood and adolescence; a pink balloon shaped as a rabbit, almost bigger than I was at age four in Budva; a creamy bite of pistachio gelato from BaÅ¡ka Voda; the lavender smell of pillows and blankets in our room in Dubrovnik; grilled squid from Brela; the bold and energizing tang of the pine branches that protected our tents at the beach on the island of Pag; the electrifying touch of my boyfriend’s hand while we walked in the surf in Biograd; a glass jar of strong home-made red wine I shared with my sister in Igalo; the still too-hot-to-touch paper cones filled with fried smelt in BaÅ¡ko Polje; sharing the elevator with a beautiful blond German boy when I was thirteen in Srebreno; the feel of cobble-stones underneath my bare feet in Hvar; a crumbly, dry, salty cheese we tried to cut into in Makarska; the excitement of sneaking away from my senior class on a field trip in Portorož; and the precise moment when I was convinced that a guitar cannot sound better anywhere else in the world than at midnight on an Adriatic beach.

Adriatic from

I could not get enough of that briny high, helplessly lost in the magical world of remembrances, inebriated from the feel-good warmth that cocooned me as I swam, and dove, and jumped, and floated, pretending to follow the girls around in their silliness. While I was in the water, nothing else mattered. Nothing could come between me and the beauty that surrounded me, real or resurrected. I was riding the wave of endorphins even on my trek back home, up the hill, under the merciless southern sun, accompanied only by the unstoppable crickets and the gut-wrenching whining coming from the three girls who dragged their feet and begged me to send for the car.

As I turned the water on in the shower, I licked the salt off my still warm shoulder and savored the intensity of the sea, trying to delay the inevitable sobering up. The water washed the salt off my body and the sand from my hair, but the minute remains on my tongue kept me smiling for another few moments, just in time for the gaggle of girls to burst through the door kicking and shoving, racing each other to the shower stall.

Branzino from

I could not feel even a whisper of a breeze as I made my way to the stone-covered patio. Parsley and rosemary edged the garden and shimmered in the heat haze and the whole world seemed to move in slow motion. Father had retreated to his room for a siesta. Uncle slowly rose from his chair behind the wooden picnic table and, toting his ice-cold beer, brought out of the fridge a metal bowl full of silver and rosy fish, their eyes bright and shiny, the scales reflecting the harsh noon sun. He had bought a dozen branzini at a near-by fishing village that morning, sending the money down on a rope pulley and receiving a bag of just caught fish in return.

Branzino from

When I was a child, I could not run far enough away when Mother scaled and gutted the fish, afraid that I would be summoned to help somehow, feeling disgusted and well above those tedious and odious chores. But now I stood mesmerized as I watched my Uncle clean one branzino after the other, laying them back gently into their bowl, and then placing a sprig of rosemary and a sprinkle of coarse salt between the sides. They rested on a board, aligned like soldiers and covered with a netted screen for an hour to dry out. In the meantime, he made the fire in the vast outside oven, layering the wood coals, crumpled newspapers, and pine cones in a metal trough big enough to grill a meal for a squadron.

Branzino from

Once the fire subsided, he dragged the fish through olive oil and placed them on the hot grates, brushing them with more oil as they cooked. After ten minutes, he turned them, anointed them again, sprinkled some salt on top, and let them finish grilling until their skin was golden and crackling, their eyes opaque, and fins and tails deliciously crispy. When he laid the platter on the table, it looked like the food of gods, flanked by a simple Serbian potato salad, fresh home-made bread, hearty Montenegrin red wine, lemon slices, and the “marinade” -  fragrant mix of olive oil, parsley, and garlic.

The first flaky and sweet bite sent me on another high wave. Looking at the girls in summer dresses, with their faces kissed by sun, their long fingers greasy from the fish, their eyes glistening with content, I felt immensely happy, grateful for this day filled with simple gifts that touched all my senses and awoke the sentiments of excitement and peace at the same time.

Branzino from

Aug 132012

Radovici, Montenegro from

I missed the opening ceremonies of the London Olympic Games. Just a few hours before the eternal flame was placed in its temporary hold, I loaded our bags into the seemingly insatiable innards of an air-conditioned bus, and we set off to a ten-hour ride to the Adriatic coast of Montenegro. Father, my two younger girls, my niece, and I were ready to separate ourselves from the house and the town that still held so many memories of Mother, new and old.

As the road meandered, following the curves of the river Morava, Father fell asleep, and the girls attacked the snacks I packed with ferociousness equal only to the bunch of high school seniors with buzz cuts who sat behind us.  There was soft, 80s ex-Yugo music in the background and I traveled back in time when there were no limits, no worries, and only wide-opened roads leading to some glorious future.

The bus driver skillfully negotiated serpentine roads as we climbed up and down several mountains that separate my town from the sea. We stopped twice, and chilly air perked us up and made sleeping impossible. I tried to convince the girls to take a small nap, but the excitement about the trip and days to come was too much for them. We crossed the border between Serbia and Montenegro uneventfully, with only a few really funny cracks from the substitute driver meant to make everyone relax.

The sun was barely peeking behind the mountains when we arrived at the bus station of Tivat. Exhausted, but excited, we packed like sardines in Uncle-Minja’s Mercedes and drove away, first along the coast, and then up to their house in Radovići, a small village perched at the top of a hill. Aunt-Sonja greeted us at the wrought-iron gate and ushered us in, and after squeezing us all one by one into a warm hug, lead us upstairs to our rooms covered in stripes from the sun reaching through the slats in dark wooden shutters.

Radovici from

The girls were amped up, racing to their coveted beds like a horde of college freshmen lose in the dorm for the first time. I had a room all to myself and I felt pampered and special as I stretched luxuriously on my big bed with cool sheets and a light terrycloth cover. The sun was trying to lure us, but we finally succumbed to sleep, exhausted and grateful to be prone after the night on the bus.

But the heat of that July day was fierce and unrelenting and our slumber did not last long. I rose about noon and put all our clothes in the closets and drawers, finally ready to climb down three flights of terazzo stairs for a cup of strong Turkish coffee. The crickets were out in full force, singing their summer song, glorifying the power of sun’s fiery reach. Nothing else stirred, as if the whole world retreated on command, allowing the heat to spread its fingers all over the hills surrounding us.

Lunch Alfresco in Montenegro from

The girls emerged a couple of hours later already dressed in their bathing suits, going for the glamour look with their colorful wraps, floppy hats, and sunglasses. We sat at the big table situated on the patio, just off the kitchen door, and ate our lunch, which is the main meal of the day in our parts of the world. Soon after, we gathered our beach towels, mats, bags, lotions, balls, snacks, and water bottles, divided the burden between the four of us, and started our descent towards the sandy beach called Plavi Horizonti (Blue Horizons).

The late afternoon sun took some pity on us and the clear blue water welcomed us without hesitation. Oh, the girls whined about the salt in their eyes and held their noses when they dove under the surface, but their squeals of delight were enough to make me smile. I let them  frolic in the sea, as I stretched on the mat drunk on the smell of the sea, content to wiggle my toes in warm sand and watch good-looking people stroll up and down in the sea foam.

As the daily routine set in, the heaviness I felt before we left disappeared. I felt comforted and cuddled by cloudless Montenegrin skies, the indescribable shade of blue Montenegrin waters, and familiar and friendly taste of Montenegrin red wine. My heart started to heal as I listened to the girls snickering, old tunes on the radio, my Aunt’s witty stories, and my Uncle’s culinary advice.

I still miss Mother and that will never change. But I know that I can wake up in the morning and smile as I greet the new day with enthusiasm and excitement, just like she taught me. She did not want us to cry and grieve, but to rejoice in life and carry on her legacy. As for the Olympic games, I managed to catch a scene or two from the closing ceremonies, and I promised myself to try to make it to Rio in four years.

Radovici from