Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Road to Istria, Part II

Piran, in Slovenian Istria, where I stayed, is a charming little town. The architecture is almost purely Venetian, fifteenth- through nineteenth-century. The town itself is a small, hilly promontory jutting out from the northwestern coast of the Istrian peninsula. No part of the town is far from the water, so it has a small island feel. The narrow, winding streets, leading to many small, enclosed squares, are a delight to walk through. When I was there in 1990 it was still part of Yugoslavia, but Tito was already gone, and you could tell that change was immanent. On the town hall the word for "Socialist" in "Socialist Republic of Slovenia" had been painted over.

The nearby beach and casino resort of Portoroz, several kilometers away, was considerably less charming, though it does have a wonderful fin de siecle hotel called, I believe, The Palace, which reminds one of something out of "Death in Venice."

Further south, the old town of Porec, in Croatia, has become the center of a commercialized resort area especially popular with British package tours. The streets of Porec were clogged with old English couples–Margaret Rutherford lookalikes with reluctant husbands in tow. In front of all the restaurants were touts shouting, "English menu! Fish and chips! Roast beef!" Porec does boast a marvelous sixth-century Byzantine basilica with spectacular mosaics.

I did not get to Labin/Albona, and the food in Istria (outside of some spectacular fresh grilled scampi, simply prepared) in no way rivaled that of Bruno's restaurant in San Francisco or the place I dined at in Trieste, but I was glad I got there. A year or so later Yugoslavia was falling apart, and there was trouble in Istria.

The first time I went back to Albona, after visiting Istria, Bruno was not there. I was told that he had gone back to Croatia, for a visit. The next time I dined at Albona, the following year, I did see Bruno. He told me that he had been unable to get to his home town of Labin because of the fighting, but that things had eventually quieted down, and he planned to give it another try soon (I believe he eventually succeeded). I mentioned that I had been to Istria since I had last seen him, thanks to his inspiration, and that I had found it very beautiful. But the food, I told him, was rather disappointing. "Yes, I'm sure it was," he said. "But I'm so glad you got to see Istria."

A couple of years later we were having the windows replaced in my co-op. The workers were clearly Eastern European. I always like to chat up people doing work in my apartment, so I asked the man who was removing my old windows where he was from. "Yugoslavia," he said.

"Which part?" I asked. "Which republic?"

"Montenegro. Albanian!" he replied.

I was a little confused. "Are you originally from Montenegro or Albania?" I asked.

"Montenegro. Albanian! Sorry, not speak English."

I learned later, from one of the workers who did speak English, that they were all brothers and cousins from an area of Montenegro that had been annexed from Albania by Yugoslavia. They were Albanians, and did not recognize the sovereignty of Yugoslavia.

In spite of the language barrier, I had the urge to communicate. It's a thing with me, communication. I remembered that I had a Berlitz pocket guide to Istria, and that there was a section of Serbo-Croatian phrases in the back. I found the book, turned to the phrases, went over to the window man, and pointed at the Serbo-Croatian for "How long will it take?"

The man looked at the phrase, smiled broadly, and said, "About one hour." Then he turned to the front of the book.

"Ah, Istra!" he said.


Post a Comment

<< Home