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.

Carrying traditions on: learning how to bake my mother’s orahnjańća (walnut roll)

Growing up, I remember waking up to the sweet smell of my mother’s orahnjańća (walnut roll).¬† At bridal showers, I always gravitated towards the orahnjańća on the desert table as it’s not too sweet, nor too heavy and it always goes nicely with a cup of coffee.¬† However, my mother’s recipe is my all-time favourite.

My mother always insists on baking it first thing in the morning to let it rise properly.¬† Whether or not that’s an old Croatian wives’ tale, or if my mother made that up, I can say with confidence that I baked this recipe in an afternoon with no issues.¬† It didn’t turn out perfect and again (as noted in my previous post about sirnica/Easter bread,) I had to decipher my mother’s recipe as she only provided me with approximate steps and “about” increments.¬† With some investigative work, a few FaceTime calls and a million questions to my mom, I was able to figure out her orahnjańća recipe!

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Ingredients:

Part 1:

  • 4-5 cups of bread flour (start with 4 cups and add more as needed)
  • 1 cup of granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup of unsalted butter
  • 2 tbsp of active dry yeast + 1 tbsp of sugar in 1 cup of warm water
  • pinch of salt
  • 5 yolks (separate egg whites and place in fridge for part 2)
  • 1 whole egg
  • 1 cup of warm milk
  • 1 shot of Jamaican rum
  • grated lemon zest and juice of 1 lemon

Part 2 (filling):

  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • egg whites from previous part
  • 3/4 of a pound of ground walnuts
  • 1 shot of espresso

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Directions:

  1. Using the paddle attachment of your stand-up mixer, cream the sugar and unsalted butter together on a low speed.
  2. Add egg yolks, one by one, while mixing.
  3. Add the whole egg.
  4. Slowly add your flour on a low speed (I use speed 1 on my Cuisanart mixer).
  5. Slowly pour the warm milk in while mixing.
  6. Slowly add your yeast mixture in.
  7. Add the rum and lemon zest and juice to the mixture.
  8. Once thoroughly mixed, switch the paddle attachment and insert your dough hook and continue on a low speed (at this point I turn the dial to speed 2) until the mixture becomes a little tacky (you don’t want it to be too sticky or too firm; so add more flour or warm milk as needed).
  9. Once the dough has thoroughly mixed, take the dough and knead it on a floured surface for about 10-15 minutes into a ball.
  10. Place the dough ball into a large bowl, cover with a wash cloth and let rest in a warm oven for about 2 hours.
  11. Remove dough from oven and on a floured surface, take your dough and cut into two halves.  Take both parts and roll into two separate dough balls.  Then place the dough balls into two separate bowls, cover each bowl with wash cloths and place in warm oven again to rise for about 30 minutes.
  12. While dough is rising for the second time; take your ingredients from part two (sugar, egg whites, ground walnuts and espresso) into a medium-size bowl and mix with a spatula.
  13. Remove dough from oven after it has risen for a second time.
  14. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees C.
  15. Roll each dough ball into a long flat oval or rectangle (does not have to be a perfect shape)
  16. Then with a spatula, spread the walnut mixture on your flattened dough.
  17. Gently take the edge of the dough and roll (you can also place the dough on a table cloth and pull the table cloth to roll it).
  18. Repeat steps 16-17 on the second dough ball.
  19. Place each roll into a bread pan OR you can place each roll on a cookie sheet.
  20. Cover your bread pans or cookie sheet with tin foil and place in the oven and bake covered for 30 minutes.
  21. After 30 minutes, remove the foil and continue baking until the top is golden brown (use a toothpick test to determine if it is done baking), for an additional 25-35 minutes.
  22. Remove from oven and let rest for on a cooling rack about 30 minutes to an hour as the mixture is hot and can leak if you cut right away.
  23. Enjoy and serve with coffee!  Dobar tek!

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A Croatian Christmas in Canada

To me, Christmas is more than opening presents and decorating a tree.¬† For me, it has, and forever always will¬†be about tradition.¬† Being Croatian, it was important for my parents to pass down their traditions from their homeland to my brother and I.¬† It’s about getting together with friends and family.¬† It’s about faith,¬†charity and spreading love.¬† It’s no joke when they say that Christmas is the most wonderful time of year because it truly is.¬† Christmas is a very special time of year, not just for Croatians but for Catholics and Christians worldwide.
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As I child, I was always amazed by my parents’ stories of¬†¬†their Christmas celebrations in Croatia.¬†¬†My parents grew up in the inlands of Dalmatia, in a small village called Ruda in the municipality of Otok, located by nearby Sinj.¬† The Christmas my parents experienced was very different than the one I had:¬† there was no tree, there were no presents, but there was a home full of family, faith, food and love.¬†¬†¬†During the Christmas season, hay would be laid throughout the house and children would receive special treats such as oranges, figs and if they were very lucky, chocolates.¬†¬† Certainly this was a humbling experience!

Advent
The Christmas season officially begins four Sundays before Christmas, called Advent.  Most Croatians will place a wreath in their homes with four candles which symbolize hope, faith, joy and peace.

Feast of Saint Nicholas – December 6
On the Eve of Saint Nicholas day, children will leave boots by their front doors in hopes that Saint Nicholas will visit them and bring them a treat.  However, if the child was naughty, then they will receive a lump of coal from Krampus instead!

In the Croatian diaspora, it is common for local Croatian Catholic parishes to present¬†a Saint Nicholas luncheon or banquet, with children performing a special Christmas recital for their loved ones.¬† Other traditions ¬†include the sale of ornaments, baked goods and pŇ°enica bowls during these events.

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Baking
It is quite common for Croatians to bake traditional bake goods during the holidays, specifically Ň°trudla od jabuka (apple strudel), breskvice (peaches), MańĎarica¬† (Hungarian lady) and orahnjańća (walnut roll).¬† My mom’s orahnjańća is my absolute favourite (and I promise to share her recipe and test it out again!) and is great with coffee in the morning.
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The Feast of Saint Lucy – Blagdan Svete Lucije
Another special ¬†Croatian tradition is the planting of wheat (pŇ°enica) in commemoration of the feast of Saint Lucy.¬† The planting of wheat during the Christmas season symbolizes new life.¬†¬† Once the wheat has grown, most Croatians will tie it together with a red, white and blue ribbon (the colours of the Croatian flag) and/or place a candle in the middle.¬† Typically, this plant is then the main centrepiece for the dinner table on Christmas day.

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Christmas Eve – “Badnjak”
I remember the sight of a bakalar (cod fish) ¬†hanging in my parents’ fruit cellar.¬† Its basically a dried-up cod fish used to make a bakalar stu with potatoes.¬† This tradition is specific to Dalmatia as well as parts of Istria.¬† Croatians, like most Catholics in Europe will enjoy a special fish dinner on Christmas Eve.¬† Although fasting on Christmas Eve is not mandated by the Catholic Church, it is a tradition Croatians, and other Europeans, share.¬†¬† One of my fondest memories growing up is my mother and my late uncle cooking this wonderful bakalar stu together.¬†¬† We would then attend midnight mass (polnońáka) together and enjoy Croatian Christmas carols.¬† Following this, we would come home to the smell of sarma (cabbage rolls) and fresh figs.¬†¬† Sometimes, people will get together after midnight mass to celebrate over drinks and music.¬†

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Photo by Giftpundits.com on Pexels.com

Christmas Day – “BoŇĺińá “
The big day arrived, it is Christmas day or BoŇĺińá!¬† It is the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.¬†¬† If you did not make it to midnight mass, then most Croatians will attend mass on Christmas day.¬† For most Croatians, Christmas day is the day when we get together with close family and friends over¬†a big feast of cabbage rolls, schnitzels and much, much more.¬†¬†¬†On Christmas day, presents are exchanged with loved ones and stories are shared with young ones.

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Photo by Todd Trapani on Pexels.com

The days following Christmas…
The Christmas season does not just end on Christmas.¬† For many Croatians, the Feast of Saint Stephen the Martyr (Blagdan Sv. Stjepana Prvomuńćenika) and the Feast of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist (Blagdan Sveti Ivan Apostol i EvanńĎelist) is celebrated on December 26th and December 27th, respectively.¬† If your name is a variant of Stephen or John, traditionally, a celebration would be held in your honour of your name-sake day (or imendan).¬† I like to call it Christmas day parts 2 and 3.

The Christmas season traditionally ends on January 6th – the feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings Day, to commemorate the day when the Three Wise Kings visited baby Jesus.

Travelling with children: survival or enjoyment? One mom’s thoughts

We always receive a mixed response when we tell friends and family that we are going to Croatia with our boys. ¬†Some people respond by saying “that’s awesome” and others say that we’re “brave.” ¬†More often than not, you hear that travelling with children is more of a trip than a vacation. ¬†I can see how that is, especially if your children are challenging (or lively) like mine. ¬†But on the other hand, knowing that it’s not easy, is simply half the battle. ¬† What I can tell you for sure is that even the most uptight of parents, with the most spirited children, can still enjoy a vacation abroad.

We’ve travelled in the past with the kids before, where some trips went off without a hitch and others have been so bad to the point where we say “we are never doing this again!” ¬†However, my husband and I both have that travel bug in us and we so badly want to instil that same love of travelling in our kids. ¬† In January we decided to give it a try again and booked a trip to Croatia for the end of June.

We spent three glorious (well depends on who you ask…) weeks in Croatia. ¬†The first week went without a hitch. ¬†The kids loved staying in Zagreb and at Hotel Dubrovnik. ¬†They were overall, very well-behaved. ¬†They climatized to the time change and to the food well. ¬†Heck, they loved the food. ¬†With that being said, we weren’t strict at all when it came to diet because we knew that this was the time to indulge. ¬†We all deserved it! They really enjoyed the sights and sounds of Zagreb and were amazed at all it’s lovely buildings and landmarks. ¬† Our kids enjoyed the three-hour car ride to our family home in Vodice, where they were enamoured of the mountains along the way. ¬† They were so excited to arrive at¬†dida’s house and to go swimming on the beach.

Week two is when things started to become tough. ¬†The older child wanted to go home to his bed and the younger one refused to sleep at night. ¬†This resulted in some cranky kids. ¬†Perhaps they were overstimulated by all the sounds and sights of the beach. ¬†Perhaps it was from all the sugar they were intaking. ¬†Who knows? ¬†Some days they were upset that the water was too cold or that their ice cream was melting funny. ¬† It was hard as parents to not get frustrated, but that’s kids though. ¬†They have their moments; some days they weren’t too into things and other days they were great.

Our oldest is a screamer and it’s been challenging with him, and when he would scream, I just step away and remind myself, he’s just a kid and I just need to shake it off, I want to enjoy this vacation. ¬†I spent a lot of time reading “Raising Your Spirited Child” by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka over this trip and boy, did it really help me get through those tough moments. ¬†During those moments when he would get upset at the beach, I would take him to a quiet area and say “I know you are angry, what is it that you need?”

There were some days that we just didn’t go anywhere, and that was okay, because little kids get tired and sometimes you just have to roll with it. ¬†Does that mean I did not enjoy myself? ¬†Absolutely not. ¬†I enjoyed not having to do chores and errands, or going to work everyday. ¬†While they watched a show, I would read a book in one hand, and drink a cup of coffee (or a glass of wine) in the other.

You see, it’s all about perspective. ¬† Going into a vacation and knowing there will be obstacles makes you better prepared for how to handle them. ¬† This is where we failed during our last trip. ¬†Some children have a calmer temperament and others are more challenging. ¬†Ours happen to be more challenging so we decided to just roll with it this time around, and in the end, we did find a way to enjoy this vacation.

This is not to say that the whole trip was full of tantrums and meltdowns, there were lots of good parts as well, such as: going on mini road-trips and visiting family; going to the children’s waterpark at the Solaris Resort, and so on. ¬†We got to spend a lot of quality time with family and friends, be it on the beach or at a restaurant. ¬†My husband and I managed to get some alone time over dinner or coffee, which was a nice treat. ¬†On our last night, my husband and I went out for dinner and got to enjoy some tamburica at a local restaurant. ¬† The point is, that is what a vacation is about: ¬†it’s about making memories and making the most of that special time together.

Yesterday, someone at soccer practice asked me how the trip went. ¬†I smiled and replied: ¬†“as good as you can get with kids.”

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An evening in Trogir; we somehow survived