Be not afeared; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Shakespeare, The Tempest
A few weeks ago, I was invited to go to Croatia by a friend who would be spending about a month there, on the island of Mljet. It’s a small island off the coast near Dubrovnik, largely composed of national parks and a few tiny villages. He’s been working on a book of “shadow plays” and poetry for Scarlet Imprint press and was hoping to finish up work on it while he’s there. Both of us have previously been published in their anthologies of esoteric poesis, edited by Ruby Sara.
I met Geordie, a Vancouver BC poet and hip hop musician who writes and performs as Slippery Elm, a few years back, when he was 18 or 19. He’s 23 now. I could have sworn we’d known each other longer, but it really only feels like a long time. He’d contacted me by email, because he’d read some of my work and really liked it, and we have some mutual friends, as well. We talked, I invited him to come down to Everett for a visit to talk more, and the rest is a still evolving and really rather exciting history.
Dubrovnik, where the ferry for Mljet departs, is a 15-hour bus trip away from me, and buses only leave from Trieste twice a week, so that was a constraint for our time. I had to be able to get there and back between the periods when he would have other guests staying. The long haul buses aren’t that bad. They’re actually more comfortable than the short hop planes used by Ryan Air, for instance, but that wouldn’t be hard. My journey took me through Slovenia, the northern section of Croatia, a ten-kilometer strip of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and then back into the southern fragment of Croatia, tucked between Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the country of Montenegro.
The bus arrived in Dubrovnik at about 8 in the morning, and the ferry Nona Ana doesn’t depart for the islands until 5pm, so I had several hours. I was, however, too tired to do much of anything at that point. I walked along the waterfront, then had a little lunch and some tea. There are a lot of small tour ships, including some lovely sailing ships, in the harbor that will take people out around the bay or to the islands for the afternoon. There were also bakeries everywhere, though I didn’t sample anything. That’s an error I shall have to rectify next time I go to the city. One thing I found odd about the place was that at the little coffee houses, they only served drinks. I didn’t see one that served any food. Perhaps I was just too tired to get it right, but that seemed awfully odd to me. Who wouldn’t want some of that wonderful looking pastry with their coffee?
The day was pleasant and fairly sunny, if a bit windy, so I spent the rest of the wait sitting on a bench on the dock. While I waited, I met a couple of young women from Quebec who were going out to Mljet to backpack in the forest there. We talked for a while about Canada and Seattle, and about traveling, and language, and places we’d been.
There was enough wind that the sea was slightly rough, but it wasn’t at all problematic. The crossing took maybe 90 minutes or two hours, with a stop between Dubrovnik and the port of Sobra. Geordie greeted me on the dock at the port of Sobra; Vera, the woman who runs the place where we stayed, had driven him down to pick me up. The island is tiny, with only one main road through. The largest town only has a couple of hundred people in it, and Okuklje, where we stayed, has 32 residents. It’s located on a tiny, isolated bay with gloriously clear water. We stopped on the way in at the grocery store to pick up supplies for the next few days. The Croatian currency is the Kuna. When I was there, the exchange rate was about 7 Kuna to the Euro, so I was constantly having to remind myself that things were not as expensive as they seemed just based on numbers.
Mljet has a submarine. It’s a miniscule red sub with a glass bottom, moored in Okuklje’s harbor. It’s used during the tourist season for viewing marine life, and apparently owned by the national park. I found myself rather wishing we’d been there in June, but it was nice to be there while it was so quiet. There is also a tiny St. Nicholas church up on the hill above the town, only opened once a year, presumably for the saint’s day. The view from there is incredible.
Because there is no real public transportation on Mljet, I didn’t get to go to the park or see the lakes. It would have been too long a walk for me, in the heat, and on the hills. Geordie and one of his friends, who had visited the previous week, climbed the hill above the town, only to discover there were no trails, and that it was considerably steeper and taller than it looked. It took them several hours, but he said they’d had fun. They came back all scratched up from thorns and branches, but quite satisfied with themselves. There are wild boars on the island, but the only time Geordie saw one was down in Okuklje, while he was taking a walk late at night; it was a young piglet, at the edge of the road.
We both spent time every day writing, and walking along the little waterfront. One of the women in town had a little stand where she sold local cheese, olive oil, wine, and liqueurs. We bought some of the goat cheese in oil, and some myrtle liqueur, which tasted somewhat like blueberry. It was quite good. The plum, however, tasted more like banana for some reason neither of us could fathom. We got a second bottle of myrtle to make up for it.
Geordie is, among other things, a flamenco dancer, so we listened to a lot of flamenco music every day while he practiced. The rest of the time, it was mostly Arabic music from Egypt and Tunisia; he’d been visiting Tunisia a month or two previous, working on his Arabic and writing poetry.
Most days, Vera made a little food for us. One day it was some local fish, battered and fried. Another day it was a sort of sponge cake with apple in the middle, which I couldn’t eat because of an apple allergy. (It smelled amazing.) There were tiny fried dough balls kind of like doughnut holes, and also a cheesecake sort of thing with berries. It was all wonderfully tasty. She would show up at the door or on the porch with a plate in hand for us. If you want to go visit Mljet, I highly recommend staying at her place. She is just fantastic, friendly, and very accommodating.
She really did go above and beyond, because the ferry back to Dubrovnik leaves at a very early hour in the morning, and we got up at 4:30am so that she could drive me back down to Sobra to catch the boat. I have no idea how I would have got there without her help.
My last day in Croatia was spent wandering around Dubrovnik. I left my pack at a tourist luggage drop, and got a suggestion for lunch from the woman working there, then walked from the port down to the Old Town and the castle. I am not much of a tv watcher, but apparently they film parts of Game of Thrones there, as there were Game of Thrones walking tours, and several shops advertising official merchandise. The city was, for a time, a Venetian territory, and the old town felt rather like Venice in some ways. The tiny pedestrian alleys and streets looked similar, but the view from the hill down into the main part of the Old Town was quite spectacular. Venice, of course, has no hills. It rained a bit that day, but it was warm, and the rain was more drizzle than a downpour. I stopped in a bookshop and got an English-language cookbook of Dubrovnik recipes before having lunch and walking back down to the port to catch my bus.
When I arrived back in Trieste, I had to get ready for a poetry reading at the American library. One of my friends, Anna, has translated several of my poems into Italian, so the reading was in both English and Italian. I wasn’t expecting much turn out, but about twenty people showed up, including three of the teachers from my Italian language class at the library, and a couple of the other students. It went well, and I was pretty pleased by the whole thing, though I always do get stressed out before I do any public speaking. Poetry readings are no exception.
A couple of days ago, I went up to a friend’s house with Anna and Bianca. The apartment is beautiful, and the view is spectacular, up above the Adriatic. I had only anticipated staying a couple of hours, but we were there until fairly late in the evening, talking, having prosecco and snacks, and then pizza for dinner. I have an invitation to go up there in the fall for the Barcolana; they can see everything from there. If that works out, it’ll be really amazing.
And, finally, I got an invitation to speak on a panel at the Parliament of World Religions in October. This year it will be in Salt Lake City. I’ve registered for the conference, but now I have to deal with flights and lodgings. I have a couple of potential places, to stay, but all that has to be firmed up in the next month or so, and plane tickets bought. On top of that, I’d like to go to Klagenfurt, Austria for a weekend and visit a friend there.
It’s going to be a busy year.
it is said that Odysseus spent seven years here
on these pine-scented shores
amid olive and oak and fig
walking this greenest of Adriatic isles
I blew in with the impending storm
over the steel-jade sea as it rolled
a wind at my back and the branches dancing
like mad things
we made lentil soup, with tomato
and the roasted flesh of paprika
red onions, garlic, and rosemary from outside the door
secure in our small rooms
with the wind rushing, wild
through the open windows
singing its hollow song
two poets speak
long into the night
of writing and books and our art
and of Odysseus, his feet upon these shores
of Geordie and his pressing through the thick brush
as he climbed the hills nearby
of bread and honey and coffee, dark as starry night
there is cheap red wine
there are oranges
there are branches, tossed and flailing
there are books shared through a haze of exhaustion
fifteen hours on a bus
two hours on a ferry
the sailboats and the grey stone houses
the subtly moving dock in Dubrovnik
in the hours while I waited
we speak of our travels
of Spain and of Tunis
of London and Ljubljana
we speak of dates and honey and grappa
we speak of the bookbinder’s art and of grimoires
and the calling up of daemones
and there is tea
and there are stars
and pine needles
and curtains fluttering in the wind