Dubrovnik, Croatia: Café on the Rocks

Dubrovnik, Croatia is a very beautiful place to spend a few days. In October the weather is just perfect for almost everything: walking, swimming, sunbathing, sightseeing. The old city center is very clean and well maintained. On our first day we walked around the city walls and enjoyed the view from the every point of the wall.

On our second day my daughter got sick and we had to take a more relaxed approach to sightseeing. Thus, the only thing we did was to sit and have coffee and sandwiches at a small café on the rocks. We saw this café the day before from the city walls and decided that it was one of the most relaxing (and beautiful) places in the world.

I got a thin book about Dubrovnik’s history, art and culture and read it while having coffees and looking at the Adriatic sea with my daughter.  To my surprise, I think, I learned more about the city from reading this book in that remote café on the rocks, than if I would have devoted the day to regular tourism.

We did not visit any church, any museum or any gallery. We did not stop and admire beautiful plazas. As a matter of fact we only stopped on them when we got lost, and needed to figure out what plaza we were on, mainly by it’s shape and presence of some church on one of the sides, but that was about it.

All we did was to sit at the café, read the book about the city’s history, watch people jump off the rocks and swim, salute to the small tourist boats and try to see what fishermen in the skiffs fished from the sea.

There were mainly locals; bathing, smoking, playing cards and reading. Two women with a small dog, four old men playing cards, young people jumping off the rocks, couple of men sleeping in the cafe chairs, two grey cats and some more men smoking and discussing something in Croatian.

The history of Dubrovnik is all about the city fortress, towers and how many other nations tried to attack it from the sea dating back to the 7th century. And from where we sat it was obvious why others attacked the city.

Once you’ve enjoyed the warm sea breeze and the sunshine you also want to conquer this place and live here. I do not think we would have gotten this conqueror spirit by just doing the touristy walk through the city and its history.

If you ever visit Dubrovnik, skip all the touristy places, guided tours and museums. Just find this small café on the rocks by the city walls and spend all your time there reading, swimming and listening to the beautiful Croatian language.  By the time the water becomes golden from the sunlight, you will know where the history of this place takes its roots.

Dubrovnik, October 19th, 2012

Twelve Roasted Chestnuts

La Castanyera is here. It is fall,” said Anton.

Gregori nodded and looked towards where Anton pointed with his chin. When he first heard La Castanyera, for some reason, he thought of a dancer with castanets. But following Anton’s look he quickly realized that the other referred to the woman who was roasting and selling chestnuts on the street. “So, this is how they call them here,” he thought to himself. And he looked at La Castanyera for a while, following her hands, not losing any detail on how she kept the coals burning and how she made the paper cones out of an old newspaper, and how she stacked them one inside the other on one side of the booth, waiting for the rare customers. “Must be a lonely job to be staying like that all day long,” thought Gregori. Couple of school-age boys stopped in front of the coal burner and got a bag of chestnuts. Laughing, they run away.

It was late night and Gregori was sitting in his living room and writing emails. Then it started to rain. First a few heavy drops, and then the rain formed a wall between his window and the rest of the world and absorbed all the sounds that ever existed outside of his living room. He paused his typing and listened. Then he thought about the woman who was selling chestnuts on the plaza. “What did she do when it started to rain like that?” he looked outside of the window, but he could not see the corner of the plaza where he knew the woman would be staying. “La Castanyera,” he slowly pronounced the new word.

Gregori took his umbrella and went down the stairs. It was not cold outside. Just dark and rainy. The raindrops glistered under the traffic lights. He crossed the street and walked around the plaza. La Castanyera was not there. He felt some kind of relief knowing that the old woman was not getting wet under the rain. The clock on the church struck quarter past eleven. “It is probably too late for her,” it occurred to him. Gregori had not realized the hour it was till the moment he heard the church clock strike. He stood for couple of more minutes on the plaza, spinning slowly on one foot for no reason.  He was alone. He touched the puddle with the tip of his shoe and smiled at the ripples his shoe made. Then he slowly went home. Moving his feet carefully, from the heel to the tip, as if he was walking on a wave. It was raining.

And then he knew what he really wanted: to be sitting with Amanda back-to-back and eating roasted chestnuts. They would just sit like that and laugh and eat chestnuts. And the chestnuts, the dark, almost black chestnuts with the cut in the center, would be slightly burning their fingertips.  He imagined that they would sit in some autumn field, with the high wheat around them and it would be about to rain and the sky would be dark blue and the wheat very yellow. And they would sit in the middle of this field and just eat chestnuts, talk and laugh.  Amanda would probably wear one of her long-sleeved wool sweaters and she would hide her fingers in the sleeves and take the chestnuts through the thick wool, so as to not burn herself. And they would make jokes about it. And the words would have no weight at all and the sounds would fly, caught in the wind, as soon as they would pronounce them. The words would barely have enough time to touch their ears and disappear, like the bells disappear from the laughter way before the person stops laughing. And he knew that this would make him happy. And he went to bed. He was laying on his pillow and imagining chestnuts and Amanda, and listening to the raindrops’ heaviness.

When he woke up the next morning it was still raining. At short intervals the rain would stop and the sun would come out. And all the streets would look new and inviting in the sunlight of the morning rush. Walking to his office, Gregori gazed at the elegant silver pattern on the pavements. And with the rhythm of his own steps, through that morning mist, came the memory of his dreams about the roasted chestnuts and Amanda.

Then later on he called her from the office and asked if she wanted to get out for dinner that evening. But she was busy at work, and besides her family had some kids’ birthday party in the afternoon that they needed to go to and then it would be too late anyway. May be some other time.  Gregori was fine with that.  “If she could get out, she would,” he thought to himself.  His back rested on his chair. He bit his lip and threw his head back. He did not think of anything. It was raining heavily and he listened.  Then he smiled with the corner of his lips, and started to bite on his fingernail. Then he stopped. A nasty habit he was getting rid of.  “Ok, she is busy. I need to move on with my work too,” he glanced at the window one more time and turned his head towards his laptop.

His fingers started typing slowly. He wrote one more sentence. It was the new client’s contract that he was working on when he called Amanda. Gregori stopped, deleted the last line he wrote. Then reread what he had so far and deleted it all. “I will start it all anew, it will be better that way,” and Gregori started typing the contract details again.

Later that evening, when he was walking home, Gregori caught the sight of La Castanyera, who was selling the roasted chestnuts on the plaza. He paused his steps for a moment, and then playing with a couple of heavy coins in his pocket approached the coal burner.

“One bag of chestnuts, please” said Gregori and peeked inside the booth with almost a childish curiosity.

The lady smiled at him and started making a new paper bag.

“You have lots of them pre-made,” noted Gregori without thinking.

“I know,” answered La Castanyera, “there are not much people now, thus I will save those for later when the children come.”

“Is that mostly children who buy the chestnuts here?” asked Gregori

“Well, you never know. But yes, mostly, children. Sometimes tourists. Sometimes couples. Sometimes just people like you. Hay de todo,” said La Castanyera

Gregori wanted to ask her what would she do if it started to rain again like the last night, and if the coal would keep burning under the rain or if she had to cover it with a lid, but instead, to his own surprise he suddenly said, “Do you want me to get you a cup of coffee? You must be cold standing here all day long.”

“Thank you. No. I am fine. I am used to it, besides, the coals keep me warm,” and the lady pointed to the coal burner.

Gregori did not know what else to say but he wanted to say something nice. He looked around, at the church behind them, at the people passing by and then said, “I like how the chestnuts smell.”

“Me too,” nodded La Castanyera, ”it is the fire that makes them smell so well,” and she smiled and there was nothing else to say and this was the end of the conversation. Gregori took his paper cone with warm chestnuts, paid the lady three euros, thanked her and slowly walked away.

He did not go home. He just strolled down the street with the warm paper cone in his hands and the smell of roasted chestnuts on his skin. He breathed the smell. It occurred to him that this smell had not changed at all with years. These chestnuts smelled exactly the same as the ones his dad used to buy him in fall in Paris.  “How come the smell does not change at all,” he mindlessly asked himself without really asking. “So in twenty years from now the people will buy a dozen of chestnuts and the smell will be exactly the same as the one that enchants me now. And the same that enchanted me as a kid on the streets of Paris. And they will like it the same way and think about the moments from their childhood, and how they were in love and how they were laughing and kissing when it was raining. And then, later on, they will remember all that and just smile and stroll down the street with the paper cone filled with the twelve chestnuts. And the smell will be always the same. Every year buying the same roasted chestnuts and thinking of all the good memories they bring. And then it does not make any sense that the roasted chestnuts smell the same when you are in love and when you are just walking silently on your own. Even if you smile or sing,“ Gregori was thinking to himself, “and so, this is all there is to it.”

Once at home Gregori opened a bottle of red and ate the chestnuts on the small coffee table in the living room. He worked carefully on the first one to make sure that he peels it right, he bit into it and chewed a small piece and drank some wine. “Well, it is just a chestnut. It is a good one though,” and he finished it. Then he opened his laptop and automatically checked his mail and started writing his agenda for the next day.  He peeled and ate some more chestnuts, not paying any more attention to them, as he was already absorbed by a conversation with somebody from Nebraska, somebody who could give him a few good tips on his business.

Amanda called on Sunday and said they could meet on Monday if he did not have any other plans for that day. Gregori said that he did not have any and asked where they should meet. Finally they agreed that he would pick her up on the corner of her office in the downtown at six. That worked fine for both of them and they talked for a little while about life and small things that were going on. They joked in between of the daily routine questions and light smiles tapped on his cheeks. It was good talking to her. As good as when they just started seeing each other. Gregori was in a very good mood and he sat down on his sofa and typed the metrics report that was long overdue.  This time the work went smooth and easy and his fingers moved on the keyboard like that of a pianist preforming his favorite piece.  “What an amazing woman Amanda is. It will be nice to see her tomorrow,” Gregori thought to himself once the work has been done and he was able to relax. But then it was too late and he was too tired to think of anything else, and he felt the urge to lay down and sleep right there on the leather sofa in his living room. He opened the window, turned off the lights, took his clothes off and lay on the sofa pulling the plaid to his chest. He heard the vespas roaring on the street, and people talking on one of the balconies. Somebody was having a late barbeque on a Sunday night, and then the window flapped, and the voices of two young men were discussing something arduously. Somebody opened a cava bottle and all the exclamations were shisshed and everybody said “brindis” and there was silence. Amanda’s smile flew in front of his eyes and he could not remember how the chestnuts smell. He tired hard to imagine the smell, to recall it from his childhood, but he could not. Amanda smiled to him, the window flapped once again and he dreamt of the waves his fingers produced when he typed. He was sleeping.

He picked up Amanda at six, as they have agreed. He was couple of minutes late and she was already waiting for him on the corner. He apologized and she said it was fine. She never made any trouble out of anything.  It was that easy with her. He touched her hand and she did not pull it away. And they walked like that, holding hands a little bit and talking nonsense and laughing lightly.

“How was your day?” he asked

“Mine was good. Yours?” asked Amanda

“Mine was good too. Was looking forward to see you today.”

“This is nice. It is fun to see each other sometimes, is not it?” said Amanda

And he said that it was and they walked side by side down the street.

“Where are we going?” Amanda asked finally

“I do not know, any place you like. Are you hungry?”

“I am starving,” said Amanda. “Let’s eat anywhere you like and then we will go have coffee.”

“Good,” nodded Gregori.

They went to a small restaurant on one of the side streets and ordered their food and ate. They talked all the time, and his knee touched hers and they laughed and said all the unimportant words, and her crossed legs under the table were along his and it was good to be just sitting like that with her.

“You know what I was dreaming the other day?” said Gregori

“What?”

“Chestnuts. Roasted chestnuts and you. And I thought we just got some roasted chestnuts and we ate them together and laughed. And you were very pretty eating chestnuts.”

“This is a nice dream,” Amanda smiled. “Let’s get some chestnuts once we are done with the dinner. Shall we?”

“Sure,” Gregori nodded

They walked for a while till they saw the chestnut stand on the street. It was getting cold and windy. He could see that Amanda was cold, even though she said she was fine. He put his jacket over her shoulders and passed his arm under the jacket.

“We would like some chestnuts,” Gregori said to an almost angry looking chestnut vendor.

“Three euros a dozen,” said the woman and turned her back towards them, checking something in her booth.

“Ok, we will get one,” and Gregori gave her the coins.

The woman put twelve chestnuts into a paper cone and handed it to Gregori.

“Thank you,” said Gregori. The woman did not reply or smile back. She turned her back to them again and concentrated on something inside the booth.

“Well, this lady was not nice,” Gregori told Amanda when they turned the street corner.

“She might be tired or upset. You never know what is going on in her life,” replied Amanda.

“Yeah, I know.”

“By the way, they are called La Castanyera, did you know?” asked Amanda

“Yes, just was told so couple of days ago. But this was not even La Castanyera, it was just an upset woman selling chestnuts. She did not have La Castanyera spirit. Anyway.”

Amanda smiled. And they stopped to open the paper cone package and Amanda touched his face and kissed him. Gently and almost intangibly, like only she knew how. They stood for couple of minutes on the street kissing, with the warm chestnut package in his hand. Sometimes the wind would blow her hair over his face and he would hold it back with his free hand. Quietly. He liked its touch.

They walked a little bit more, eating warm chestnuts, one by one, together. Talking lightly about what was going on in their lives. Sometimes they laughed, sometimes he kissed her on the forehead, and all the words were weightless and not prone to gravity.  And the wind occasionally blew her hair over his chin and he did not think of anything at all, except that he knew he was happy.

He left Amanda close to her house and took a taxi to his place. It started to rain lightly. His hands were still holding the paper cone with the leftover chestnuts, his face was smiling emotionlessly, and his eyes were not noticing the streets they drove through.  The driver made a comment about the weather, but Gregori only nodded and said, “yeah”. For a while he sat quietly on the back seat of the yellow and black taxicab, his tired back resting on the brown leather of the cushion, his hand touching his chin. Then he slowly closed his eyes and took a deep breath. With the breath came the smell of the roasted chestnuts.

Barcelona, October 11th 2012

With 6 Others

“The usual?” The question is done mostly with the eyes and a slight informal moving of the lips. I nod. I smile and instead of saying “yes”, I ask “Como va todo?”. “Todo bien” says the café owner.  He looks at the counter. He is busy pouring a cappuccino. I move on.

9:10am. I have dropped the kids at school. Now working from the café. I open my laptop.  Emails. I read the important ones,  check the news, and start with my agenda for the day. Xavier brings my coffee.  I thank him. I take a new breath and look around. The music is playing. And I smile.

The same people are around the café. The same people I see every morning at 9:10am. Men in suits, men in polos and women.

Back to my plan. Writing. Writing and humming the song that is playing. Sounds familiar. I probably have been humming it for a while now. Another sip of coffee. Somebody else is humming too.  The dark blue barn jacket is folded on the chair next to me. The man is reading the newspaper and humming the same song. He is here every morning.

Two men in suits discuss something over their iphones. They laugh and joke with the café owner. He jokes back. His joke is not directed towards anybody in particular, it is for all of us. To share.  And some people look up and smile lightly.

The girl with a bluish nail polish is reading a book. She is done with her breakfast; the croissant crust crumbs look messy on her plate. She is wearing a beige cardigan.  Skinny girl with long hair.

All our feet are reflected in the mirror in front. From left to right: a pair of white snickers, moccasins, wedges, ballerina shoes, two black business pairs and one brown.

Seven of us at the café. Every day the same people spend with me the first thirty minutes of the day.  If I ever decide to tweet about my 9:10am experience, I will say “at Doctor Coffee with 6 others”.

I get out of the door. The music is left behind. The morning air is fresh. The touch of sunlight is weightless.  And the next 15 busy hours of the day do not seem hard.

Barcelona, October 8th, 2012

Spain: Enjoying It Together

This is the second time that we were fortunate to see Trobada de Gegants (Gathering of the Giants) in Esplugues de Llobregat, Barcelona. And this year the event was as good as the last year.  First of all you see a lot of happy faces. And there are just enough people to feel the spirit of the fiesta and not to be overwhelmed by the crowd. You can move freely, touch the giants, and talk to people who will carry them and to the orchestras accompanying the giants. Each set of giant dolls represents different regions of the Barcelona area and is accompanied by orchestras and helpers. The kids are welcomed to try on the papier-mâché heads, to play the drums and to take tons of pictures.

The event is very well organized and thought through, but what makes it truly unforgettable are the kind and welcoming people. Everybody is smiling, dancing, and following the rhythm of the fiesta. Nobody gets upset, not even when some of the giants sprinkle water all over the crowd.  There are lots of people and the procession of dancing giants spreads out along the entire street, however people do not work with their elbows to get a better place for themselves and their kids. On the contrary, they constantly look around to make sure they are not obstructing the view of others or are not in the way of a stroller or a wheelchair.  If you close your eyes, relax and open them again all you see are happy kids in a middle of their favorite game. The enjoy it!  But what makes those smiles and laughs really priceless and beautiful is people’s thoughtfulness of others. It is the fact that we enjoy it because we enjoy it all together. And that if the person next to you is happy, you enjoy it even more.

Barcelona, October 7th, 2012

Two Different Stories

The First Story:

The first day we moved into our new apartment in Barcelona I got all our family locked out of it. It was September 4th, the first school day for my daughter, and my parents had come to pick her up from school. On our way to the restaurant to celebrate the date we stopped by our newly rented apartment to show it to my parents. Everybody was already on the street waiting for me, and after doing some latest touchups, I thoughtlessly slammed the door behind me, leaving the key in the keyhole. 6pm. Everybody tired and hungry. Great! My dad came to check why I was not coming and I told him what happened. He suggested we call the locksmith. Well, to tell the truth we just had that experience a week before when my two-year-old son locked himself in the bathroom and it took us two hours and 160 Euros to get him out of it.  And as the locksmith had to cut the door to get my son out we also had to replace it.

I got a better plan in my head,  I knew that we had left the office window open, because it overlooked the inside “patio” and it was relatively safe. Our neighbors must have a window overlooking this space too.  The next thing I did was to call the doorbell of the door in front of us. Yes, for a split of a second I thought of the possibility of them getting scared and calling the police or not trusting me to get inside their house in order to get into my own house. We just had moved in that same morning, they did not know us. A friendly lady in her mid sixties opened door and I explained her the issue as clearly as I could in one minute. Yes, I wanted to do it fast, so that I do not get my husband and the kids involved and make everybody nervous. Once the lady got my plan she was ready and willing to help. She called her husband and they both showed me the way to their small room and opened the window for me. Her husband helped me to get from their window to mine. It was not too high, we live on entresuelo (which is a second floor in Spain), but still I was in a short dress and wedges and their help was very much appreciated. I got to my apartment, pulled the key out of the door and successfully met the whole party at the elevator.  We thanked the neighbors for their help and headed to the restaurant for dinner.

Later on we met this couple many times on the street, at the local toy store or talked to them when both of us were doing our laundry on the back balcony.  They turned out to be extremely nice people. They offered to babysit out kids if we needed to run an errand or just wanted a couple of free hours. They brought our kids toys that their grandchildren overgrew; they offered us to use their library whenever we wanted, gave us advice about music schools, invited us for coffee and told us to call their doorbell anytime there is an emergency.  It is the beginning of an amazing story of human kindness and openness to strangers. And we barely have been living in this apartment for a month.

The Second Story:

In August I got an email from a mother of our close friend saying that a friend of her friend got accepted to the Stanford PhD program and will be moving to Stanford, Bay Area this September. She also told us that he will be looking to rent some place to live and if we could help him with advice on housing.  I emailed her back asking her to share my email with her friend and ask him to email me. I also mentioned that I do not live in the Bay Area now, but still will be glad to help in any possible way.

A week ago I got an email from this friend of my friend who got accepted to the Stanford PhD program and was looking for housing in the area. I told him I will ask my friends from the Bay Area and may be they could help. I also sent him couple of emails with the links to sites like craigslist and others where he could look for housing, as well as told him what places to avoid, how to get around and which was the best coffee place in Palo Alto.  I mentioned to him that I emailed almost all of my friends in the Bay Area asking about housing and I would let him know as soon as I hear back from them.

Half of the friends I emailed about housing did not reply. The second half replied directing me to the craigslist.

This story is short and it ends here. Nobody asked to pass his or her email or phone to him in case he had a question. Nobody showed any kind of interest in this new person coming to a new place, to a new country.  Nobody really cared about being open to a stranger.  Or even not so much a stranger.

Barcelona, October 6th 2012