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 Baška 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 Baško 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.