Wanderlust, discovery and a sense of identity: my thoughts on travelling to Croatia during the pandemic

Hans Christian Anderson once said that “to travel is to live.” I‚Äôve been very fortunate to travel to many different places around the world since early childhood. The anticipation prior to boarding a flight is something that never gets old for me. But there is something special to be said when I go to Croatia where my family is from. There are no words that can fully describe the feeling I have for the country that I love so much. Croatia, a small country of just over 4 million people, lies at the crossroads of Central and Southeastern Europe and boasts a beautiful coastline, national parks and is home to many historical monuments.

Last year, our travel plans were placed on hold due to the pandemic. A part of me died that day in 2020 when we had to cancel our trip to Croatia. We actually had three trips planned for 2020 which all had to be cancelled. I didn’t think anything would be worse than my personal 2019 ‚Äúannus horribilis‚ÄĚ but 2020 ended up taking the cake.

Although travelling with small children can be rather difficult, we still wanted to continue to this beloved tradition to our homeland. We wanted to show our kids where their ancestors are from and to show them an appreciation for the world itself. Fast forward into 2021: my husband and I are next to one another and are staring at Google Flights. We went back and fourth for a few days whether or not to book and then just one day…..

….he hit enter.

We did it! Now what?

Was this the right choice to make?

Too late by this point because we just booked it and there was no looking back.

The following days went by quick. Asides from the usual packing, we also had to organize all our travel documents and COVID-19 requirements to enter Croatia. At the time, either proof of full vaccination or negative antigen test was required to enter the country. Fortunately, in many places in Europe, children under the age of 12 were exempt from such requirements.

We had a connecting flight into Amsterdam and immediately it felt much more relaxed than Ontario. Even in the best of times, the European lifestyle is way more relaxed than North American culture. We had a few hours layover and then we made our way to Split, Croatia and I immediately felt a sense of “coming home.”

Being Croatian-Canadian, I’ve always had a sense of a dual identity. Essentially, my heart has always been split into two: the person born and raised in Canada and the person whose heart belongs in Croatia. Almost a dichotomy in of itself, this is who I am and this is something I fully embrace.

Going to Croatia this year was very important for us. Many of our cultural events here in Canada have been to a halt for most of the pandemic. Croatian folklore was paused (it has since resumed but with COVID protocols); Croatian school was done virtually and a lot of our cultural events were either postponed or conducted over YouTube. The days of 600 people at weddings have downsized considerably due to pandemic restrictions (and I don’t see them coming back anytime soon). Although I can appreciate everyone’s efforts putting together virtual events for the sake of keeping things together, it’s not organic in a sense where you can properly learn and retain language for example. As a result, I started to feel isolated, sad and alone. For that reason, this trip was so important for us and quite frankly for me because I missed so much of this. In 2019 I had a close relative pass away and that sense of grieving lingered around for most of 2020. I didn’t realize how much I missed being around people until we were in Croatia.

With that being said, we spent the majority of our time at our family home in Vodice, Croatia, which is just north of ҆ibenik, approximately 45 minutes to one hour away from the Split Airport. We spent most days on the beach; the children happily playing with their beach toys and swimming in the waves. We had our routine everyday; breakfast, beach, lunch, dinner and repeat. This was as good as it can get with travelling with kids and this was by far the best trip with them. They loved the beach and they had their spot by the same cafe we went to. They knew which crepe (palańćinke) stand to go to.

I developed a new-found appreciation for Debit and Dingańć during this trip. We were fortunate to check out some restaurants, both new and old. Some of the restaurants we really enjoyed around Vodice were Strikoman’s Bistro and Karmelski Dvori – Konoba Okit. My husband and I also went back to Pelegrini again in ҆ibenik for a date night. Following a day trip to PrimoŇ°ten, we took the magistrala all the way up to Konoba Vinko, which is a Michelin Star recognized restaurant in Lozovac, just 15 kilometers away in ҆ibenik. My youngest son said that was “the best meal he ever had” and he was not kidding! We also had a chance to meet up with a good friend of mine at a newer restaurant called 4 Kantuna in Zadar. We also spent time with our families, did some day trips with the children and I was able to visit my late-uncle’s grave and pay my respects.

Overall, it was so worth it and fortunately we didn’t experience any issues. I don’t think things will change with the pandemic anytime soon and life is way to short to continue putting things on hold. I do not regret going at all; it was the best decision we made for our mental health, especially for the kids who have already given up so much. Travel in of itself is a very valuable education, one that I will always appreciate.

Was it really a cruel summer? My recap of summer 2020

A parallel universe

The summer of 2020 will go down in history as one of the most difficult summers our generation has ever had to endure. Typically, my family and I spend our summers in Croatia, however, we (regrettably) decided not to go due to the pandemic. As you may recall in earlier blog posts, 2019 was a very difficult year for me after my uncle’s sudden passing and 2020 was supposed to be a breath of fresh air. Like many of you, I experienced both emotional highs and lows, but at some point I told myself to not give in to negative feelings and try to make the most of this summer.

Was this the worst summer to date? Looking back, it wasn’t really that bad at all. It was very strange in the sense where we did some “normal” things but within the realm of social distancing. In other words, I felt as if we were living in a parallel universe. But for the sake of our kids, we tried to keep things as “normal” as possible: attending Sunday misa (church) at our parish in Oakville, weekly soccer practice in Hamilton, getting together with friends at the park on play dates, going to the zoo, visiting my parents in Windsor and so on. M. and I went out for a few dinner dates as well. As strange as this summer was, we found things to do and made the most out of it the best way we know how: through good food, wine and company.

The holy trinity of food- steak, pizza and fish

In our household, we are definitely foodies and no one can describe it better than my oldest son, T. At his annual check-up at the doctor’s office recently, the doctor asked T. what his favourite food was and he proudly replied “steak!” The doctor was delightfully surprised and sort of taken aback that a six-year-old’s favourite food is steak done rare. Fortunately, our kids like everything we make, from mahune to fish. Growing up in a Dalmatian household, my mother would always ask what we would eat the next day; my aunt used to own a restaurant in Germany, so food is definitely in our genes.

When the lockdown started, my husband made it his life’s mission to re-create the perfect pizza Napolitana as pizza is his all-time favourite food. He spent hours researching the best outdoor pizza oven for it’s value, so low and behold he purchased an Ooni Koda Gas-Powered Outdoor pizza oven. He justified the expense by stating that within 6 months the oven will pay itself off and so far it definitely has (nb: we used to order Pizza Nova like every Friday). During the first few weeks of lockdown, my husband would spend his spare time visiting various local Italian bakeries to find the gold standard of pizza flour- Caputo 00. We even planted Roma, cherry and hothouse tomatoes as well as basil for our pizza in our garden this year. Gardening in of itself was a very worthwhile and memorable experience. We got so into pizza making that we spent hours watching different dough recipes on YouTube. After testing a few different recipes, we decided that the one from Vito Iacopelli’s YouTube channel was best for us. How it works is that I make the dough and M. makes the pizza. This recipe from Vito makes approximately nine 12-inch dough balls; we make about 3 pizzas a week so the rest I just store in the freezer. Weekly pizza making is definitely a family affair as our kids get involved too. Overall, pizza making has become a newfound family tradition for years to come.

Another tradition we started in our home was fish Sundays. We decided to bring the shores of Dalmatia closer to home by making seafood and blitva on Sundays after church. If we remember, we order brancin from the local market and M. grills it on the barbeque; but if we don’t get an order in on time, then its either salmon or scallops. Definitely a nice, light lunch to end the weekend paired of course with my favouriite PoŇ°ip from Saint Hills.

good things grow in ontario

The pandemic sort of forced us to “think outside of the box” without really going too far. Being a little bit of a wine snob (Brunello being my all-time favourite,) I must say that Ontario wines really surprised me this year. There truly is a pleortha of wineries, markets and restaurants to discover in the Niagara Escarpement and Niagara-on-the-Lake regions. In July, a few of us embarked on a small wine tour with dinner at Treadwell to end the day. Simply put, just being out on the property brings a sense of peace and tranquility. In a COVID world, many of the wineries and restaurants that I have visited have taken the proper steps to ensure safety but still provide an enjoyable experience. Some notable wines/wineries that really stood out to me and worth checking out are Five Rows, Domaine Queylus, Westcott Vineyards, Kabaca, Leaning Post and Pearl Morissette.

Pjesma i vino

Croatia has a long-standing history of producing wines dating back to Ancient Grecian times. In today’s world, Croatia is home to many world-class and unique wineries. Although Zlatan Plavac Sveta Nedelja Plavac Mali will always be my favourite Croatian wine, some notable favourites of mine that were imported from Croatia Unpacked are Korta Katerina’s Ros√© and Plavac Mali, Saint Hills “Sv. Roko” Plavac Mali and “Posh” PoŇ°ip and finally Stina’s Plavac Mali. Try one of them and you may be pleasantly surprised!

krv nije voda – keeping it in the family

My parents always told me, friends may come and go, but in tough times, we always can rely on family. Although the last six months have been very difficult, there have been moments of complete joy. No one can ever take away that precious extra time I got to spend with my two little boys. This summer was definitely a memorable one, where we became closer as a family and got to explore a bit of Ontario and try some new things out. We visited my family in Windsor a few times and explored Windsor’s Via Italia. Daytrips to zoos were worthwhile, but I found with kids, sometimes the most simplest of activities are the most enjoyable. Walks throughout downtown Burlington over ice cream and exploring new splash pads and parks were probably the most memorable for us.

In summary, although this is a strange and albeit difficult time, the key to making memories are the ones with the people that matter most to you – your loved ones.