I watched a lightning storm over Croatia last week — that’s a sentence I never imagined I’d write. From our cabin on the outskirts of Slovenska Bistrica, we stood on the balcony, shoulder to shoulder, and watched the clouds roll in ominously, with thunder and lightning clambering in thickly behind.
At first, it was silent — just a noiseless performance put on in the clouds while the rest of the world was asleep. The clouds seemed to change every time the lightning struck and revealed them to us in jolts of light and cracking flashes, so far away.
“To our right is Italy; our left, Hungary. Ahead of us is Croatia, and behind us is Austria,” my stepfather said.
“And Slovenia,” I thought to myself, “right below our feet.”
Still battling jetlag, my stepbrother slept through the whole thing. “We don’t get storms like that in the Bay,” my stepfather told him the next morning, and he was right. The storm had passed, but its gentle rain and the house’s soft creaks seemed amplified in the sudden cozy quiet.
For breakfast, we ate thick, soft, chewy bread, with butter and prosciutto as translucent and beautiful as glass — or with homemade apricot jam, gloopy and tangy with the occasional whole apricot preserved inside. The best tomatoes I’d ever eaten were here, too — grown in Mateja’s garden, they tasted like sun and sweetly burst from their skins in our mouths — soaked in their juices and homemade olive oil, piled high on country loaves or dense walnut bread with feta and kalamata olives. Early in the morning (at least by my concert-going seminocturnal standards), these long, lazy breakfasts were peaceful and full of food and family I love — all the reasons I signed up for this holiday in the first place, I was reminded, as I looked around the table. Ending with strong Turkish coffee in tiny cups and rum-soaked sponge cake with apricot jam filling and chocolate icing on tiny plates, we decided to escape the Slovenian rain and head to Austria.
After having nearly left my stepbrother in a petrol station bathroom at the Austrian border, we made our way to Graz. Conchita Wurst, winner of 2014’s Eurovision, graced billboard advertisements, and even halfway around the world, minions were everywhere. We might all have different gods, nationalities and cultural priorities, but we all still have to deal with minions.
Arriving at the climbing gym that my family had crossed national borders to get to, they unloaded themselves out of the car and into climbing gear. Watching my uncle scale a 5.8 climb, I thought of the conversation I’d had with Mateja a few days prior.
“My family are very into rock climbing,” I’d said to her in her kitchen — although, considering her husband and my stepfather had met climbing Huascarán in Peru, it really didn’t need to be said. “They are very into rock,” I continued, doing a vague impression of someone climbing a ladder with my hands (which alone should make clear how much I’m into rock climbing). “Me? I’m more into other rock,” I said, gesturing at MTV blaring out Florence and the Machine’s “Ship to Wreck” in the living room behind us.
She laughed and understood — after all, it was just the two of us drinking coffee in the kitchen while the rest of our families were out pulling themselves up large pieces of stone with their bare hands. Unsurprisingly, both our families’ desire to do so persisted, along with the Slovenian rain, so the next day we took off again, bound for the coast of Croatia.
Gently curving highways surrounded by forest-covered hillsides took us to the sea, where we drove past leathery men playing cards and smoking against pale pink walls in small seaside towns. I briefly dozed off, and when I woke, suddenly the Adriatic Sea was right there at my window, stretching out far before me. I was seeing it for the very first time — all glassy greens, glittering blues and sun-soaked shallows. Songs of Leonard Cohen played through my headphones as I stared out in wonder at this ocean and thought about how much had happened here. Stepping out of the car, Mateja handed me a bonboni, or a green fig — they grow in every yard here. I’d never seen anything like it. I pulled it open: It was beautiful. She watched, perplexed, as I took a bite.
“We do not usually eat the skin,” she said, laughing.
“Oh,” I said, shrugging. “In America, we eat everything.”
Image source: Lorenzo Magnis under Creative Commons
Contact Tyler Allen at [email protected].
A previous version of this post stated that Slovenia and Croatia are part of Eastern Europe. In fact, they are in Central Europe.