“In the mornings, we do not do the cold coffee,” Mateja explains to me in the tiny kitchen as I pour an inch of hot water over the instant coffee and sugar in my mug, add cold milk to it and then push it to the back of the fridge for 15 minutes.
It’s true: Iced coffee as Americans know it is not a thing in Slovenia. Here, kava comes in one of two ways: hot or ledena, which translates directly to “iced” but really means more like “a finger of coffee and then chocolate syrup, three scoops of ice cream and whipped cream, in a glass so big it sort of scares you as the waiter approaches and you realize that drink is destined for you.”
During our stay by the sea in Croatia, it is hot: By 7 a.m., it’s already pushing 80 degrees Fahrenheit. I briefly entertain the terribly illogical notion of making my own cold brew here, before realizing that if this town is too small for me to find a full-size notebook or even printer paper to write on, then finding condensed milk might be too much to ask. Besides, what my mother calls my “freezer coffee” is really rather good. A week later in Trieste, I’ll be charged 2 euros for the same thing, only the Italian woman behind the counter will call it an Illy Crema.
Combined with a lack of iced coffee, the heat and humidity make cranky devils of us all. And to relieve ourselves from it, we strip down and dive in, soothing our bruised egos and burning feet in the cool, clear Adriatic Sea.
We eat garlic spinach with boiled potatoes by the sea from a styrofoam container, standing in the sun on a pebble beach. My uncle hands me a fig from the tree that grows by the shore, and I bite into it, tasting its sweetness and the dried salt from the sea on my fingers.
As the sun wanes, we walk the 100 meters home to the villa we are renting half of, the salt drying in white ribbons on my skin.
The mothers are slicing onions, tomatoes and creamy, sharp feta in the southeast-facing kitchen, and so they hear it first. On the balcony, my cousin shouts. In my room, I feel roaring, rumbling. As I race out into the corridor, I hear the glasses jingling. The metal crucifix nailed to the wall shakes.
But this is not California: This is Croatia. And so, this is not an earthquake. It’s a Russian M6 helicopter, and it’s right over our house.
Heading from the mountains to the west, it hovers above our yard so close we can almost make out the faces of the two men hanging from a line 100 feet below it. One was unconscious on a stretcher, the other dressed in the search-and-rescue uniform of all red that is logical in the wilderness but perhaps poorly chosen considering the politics here. The helicopter lands in a field just beyond our yard, and four more red suits pour out.
In the midst of it all, I hear the sound of something breaking from the white bougainvillea-vined villa we are staying in. I find our landlady in her kitchen, surrounded by ceramic debris in the fading light. Two old photos of the sea hang on the wall, along with two crucifixes: one of straw and flowers, and one of iron.
She has broken a white mug that was decorated with red hearts and writing that, by the time I get to it, is far too shattered for me to read. She holds it up to me, hands cupped and shaking: She speaks no English, and I don’t speak nearly enough Croatian to be able to tell her that this is something that can’t be fixed with glue.
Later, Mateja and my stepfather go down to talk with her. During the Yugoslavian war, Croatian forces were landing in her front yard to resupply troops in the mountains, he tells us when he returns upstairs. They took over her house as a base, even when she was still living there. Eventually, she was forcibly displaced to Rab for six months, a small island off the coast of Croatia only accessible by boat.
“The helicopter scared her — it reminded her of the war,” he says. “Her three sons fought in the war, and now she only has two.”
“Everybody went to live under stone, too, she told me,” Mateja says. “They took some belongings and some cats, because there were lots of big rats — big.” She gestures with her hands, expanding them to the length of my forearm.
“I asked her if she meant a bunker, and she said, ‘not exactly a bunker, more like a cave,’ ” my stepfather continues. “She’s 86 now.”
“She’s seen two wars, then,” my mother says grimly. Around the dinner table, we fall silent.
Frankly, I hadn’t meant to write about the war, apart from a quick explanation of how Slovenia was only 24 years old as a country. I’d meant to write about being here, at a time when this country wasn’t at war. But the thing about war — this war, a war, any war — is that it’s rather difficult to avoid.
Especially when you drive past abandoned houses, blackened inside from being set alight, left deserted by families who I hope made it out to Bosnia or Slovenia or anywhere safer — I know very well it could be somewhere else completely.
Especially when your family takes you to a beautiful canyon to admire the natural beauty of Croatia, and facing the view is an abandoned concrete bunker, “from the last war and the war before that, and, you know,” says Danny softly.
Not when the elderly lady who owns the idyllic white-walled house you’re renting breaks a mug because the Russian chopper hits, literally, too close to home.
Selfishly, when the helicopter first appeared I had wanted to ask her about the war, well aware that these are the kinds of things that make good stories. But sweeping the broken porcelain in her kitchen, I realize that these are not questions strangers ask of each other. Not today.
Image source: enjosmith under Creative Commons