Dubrovnik Diaries – Plate Half Full

Lunch

They serve the sea on a platter, in glass bowls, on pizza, between bread. They serve it along the waterfront, in tiny lanes and along the steps. The catch, it goes without saying, is fresh, caught between the dark night and dawn; maybe this explains the lurking cats around the town.

The ‘but’ comes before and after the meal. It starts with over eager waiters accosting passing visitors, waving menus, almost forcing them in, promising the best authentic Dalmatian meal. The trite posters along the wall may tell a different story.

Even when the food is great, and the service not so bad, the bruise comes with the hefty bill. What goes by as a meal in Dubrovnik could get you three elsewhere in the country. The one good thing is that you’re never in the mood for seconds; you don’t (further) overspend; you don’t (really) get fat.

 

Dubrovnik Dairies – The Laundry Line

Laundry

I have the city to one side and the sea on another, but my eyes are locked on to this window. It opens out to the walkway on the wall, unwittingly inviting a stream of tourists in. I can’t imagine living with this kind of pressure, let alone drying out my laundry for the world to see.

Three rope strings hold half a wardrobe, white sheets and vests hide the intimates ever so slightly. Multicoloured clips stand in a crooked line, their uneven teeth clamped tightly over the cloth.

When the sea pushes a slight breeze inwards, the line sways and so do the clean clothes. Maybe it’s just in my head but I catch a whiff of aromatic detergent.

A butterfly of guilt flits about but I can’t move away before taking a picture. A few feet below me a black cat scurries over sprigs of lavender and past ancient stones, the very things that make this city special, and yet it is this seemingly mundane shot that I can’t tear away from.

Dubrovnik Diaries – The Rooftops

Roof

From the walls I look down at an orange sea; the geometric ripples are broken by stained glass windows and bored pigeons. I follow the trail to the end, but when I get there, the rooftops of Dubrovnik just spread out further.

From the walls I look down at an orange sea; the geometric ripples are broken by stained glass windows and bored pigeons. I follow the trail to the end, but when I get there, the rooftops of Dubrovnik just spread out further.

Dubrovnik Dairies – On the Walls

Walls

I can see the city from here. Not just the fresh paint and the spruced up cafes along Stradun, but the building behind the building behind the building on the main street; the forgotten corner behind the cathedral and market; the rotting wall with a wild garden bursting through – the lavender springs swaying in the breeze; the white underwear drying on the laundry line. I can see the city from up here.

On the streets they sell souvenirs and coax you to step into their restaurants. From the walls I watch them cook and clean, and study through far away windows that aren’t that far.

Between the walls a card game is in session. The men sitting on garden chairs, their tools taking a break – the half finished roof is wet. On an old terrace, three bakas sit with their backs to broken pots and boxes, weaving intricate patterns that their daughters will later sell at the market. They laugh loudly at a joke I don’t understand.

Along the back alleys, I can see the remains of leftover food put out for the cats. The cats are fat, almost scary. They amble along with pregnant tummies past the boys in baggy jeans. These boys, barely thirteen, have obnoxious laughs. They smirk and heckle at the steam of tourists; misplaced adult bravado fueled by the cigarettes they’ve sneaked out. Nobody understands a word they say.

From the wall I see the gaps, the corners and the cracks of Dubrovnik. They are beautiful.

Dubrovnik Dairies – Versatile Stairways

Arch

The stairs are endless, one after the other after the other, rising in steady, disciplined movements; they aren’t uniform, jutting out here, dipping a little there, and chipped in places, but this shouldn’t be confused for chaos. It’s character.

They pop up everywhere: in tight alleys, managing to squeeze in the entire set where there isn’t room for a full breath; unfurling in front of white stoned churches; up along the walls, opening up a world of terracotta roofs and spires that touch both sea and sky; catching the waves by the water, chubby and pensive.

They are everywhere, climbing into structures – into souvenir stores and apartments, and past kitchens– latching to the sides, sagging slightly under the weight of tourists and their easy-wheel bags. They run all around the old town, in every direction, veins pumping in life-sustaining tourists.

But the stairs of Dubrovnik aren’t just one-trick ponies. They are stairs. They are restaurants. They are cafes. They are souvenir stores. They are adverts. They are kitchen gardens. They are direction boards. They are playgrounds. They are rest stops. They are break rooms. They are many things, and then some.

If you let them lead, they’ll show you, one foot after the other. One foot after the other.

Dubrovnik Diaries: Through the Gate

Dubrovnik

I’m not giving in to the hype. I’ve seen white stone before. I’ve seen the orange rooftops. I’ve seen walls. I’ve seen the Adriatic. I won’t be swayed by Dubrovnik. I’ll be objective – see all her short comings, and call her out on every single one. I won’t be swayed by Dubrovnik.

From my first glimpse of the town through the airport shuttle – the old walls gently draped around the town’s shoulder, the boats, looking like playthings from that distance, sitting in neat rows in the marina, and the water, a sharp blue expanse that met the sky somewhere along the way – to the minute I walked through the Pile Gate, past the street artists sitting at the corner selling local silhouettes, and the UNESCO board with a map pinpointing shrapnel damage suffered during the war, into the old town, I knew being ‘objective’ was out of the question. These white stones were different.

The Headless Statue in the Alley

Statue

The door and the step are plain. They open right onto the lane. Unlike the other addresses on this street, this one is off-limits to the public. Even the windows are latched in, the curtains drawn; it’s a warm day and I wonder if the room has air-conditioning.

The door is a dark brown wood except for the fixtures. Despite a few scratches, it  wears a shine that comes from weekly detergent scrub downs. Beside the cement step stands a leafy potted plant and a couple of shrubs. It lends a hint of softness to the otherwise rigid front. And between the plant and the step stands a seemingly content headless statue.

He is bare-chested and sticks out his pot belly without apology – in his defence it is very well sculpted. The cloth around his waist is held together in a tight knot; the pleats hold together in a stiff, disciplined flow. He has a portly and lively disposition, and I think if he had his head about him, it would be cheerful.

I wonder where it is and what happened. Maybe it was an accident – an exuberant bicycle, the training wheels tearing away the cherubic face; or a bag of groceries, cartons of milk and bottles of cola, smashing into the little man; or a tipsy party bumping into him, his head smashing on impact or ripping off in one clean break. Or maybe this is an artist´s vision, leaving him incomplete and forever fascinating.

The Sound of Paris

Paris_sounds

Paris sounds like trouble. There’s always a piercing siren call about. I can’t tell whether it’s the cops or the ambulance till they pass me by, the little blue light swirling around in manic urgency.

My first few hours in the city were punctured with bouts of anxiety. I’d look away from my guidebook (or my pastry) and wait for the sirens to get closer: cop or not? I wondered who was hurt, who was in trouble, and if it would all work out in the end.

But one learns quickly to adapt to place and to accept the background tapestry. Over the following days, these sirens blended into one another, fading, becoming familiar and less distinct. Now, I could sip on white wine at a snooty cafe, and not be bothered by that incessant noise. It was all very Parisian.

On our way out of Paris, we were held up by slow moving traffic in one of the city tunnels. Around us two wheelers used the gaps between lanes to speed away. One such bike came rushing at us and violently knocked (and cracked) the side mirror on my side out of its hold. The thud was pretty loud; I wouldn’t want to be the hand that caused it. On either count, there was no siren to be heard.

The Classroom in Czechoslovakia

Cz

It’s a classroom, almost.

Three wooden school benches stand one behind the other, empty but holding the weight of their own history. The desks, old and tired, and yet free of adolescent engravings, hold open textbooks with lessons I don’t understand. The pages are yellowing, the print on the cover is relatively fresh, a blue base with yellow writing.

I am fascinated. These are the pages from cold war thrillers from my teens. These spaces have existed in my mind as narratives and fast paced prose – spies, jumping from pages in novels to blockbuster film scripts, Bourne style. And now, here they stands in front of me, real, raw.

I follow the invisible chalk trail from the blackboard to the ground, but the dust has been swept out. Charts are tacked on to the wall with bits of tape. But what catches my attention is a little above eye level, next to a propaganda poster: A grime coloured gas mask; hollow eyes and an alien snout. It looks down with a sinister expression, flushing the room with something cold and terrifying, these Dementors of the Iron Curtain.

“I remember the gas drills,” she says. Her curls are as steady as her voice, both anomalies. “We had to wear the masks and run out to the open ground. The mask was so heavy. It was really hard to run.”

Something shifts. It becomes real. Not a novel anymore, but harsh and difficult. We keep standing there, behind the exhibit ropes, lost in versions of that time.

Pav Bhaji on the Beach

 

PavBhaji

He stands on a platform. The smoke from the large tava shapes a spiced cloud around him. He doesn’t seem to notice it. I wait on the sidelines; wait for him to prepare my plate of pav-bhaji (bhaji being the curried mashed vegetables and pav the buttered buns), with extra pav.

I pull back my drenched hair and mop my face. Mumbai is living through a heat wave, and standing in a lane crammed with food stalls and sizzling woks doesn’t help.  A few feet away, the beach is busy.  At some point today all those people will stop by these food stalls too -the beach in Mumbai is known for its food rather than the grey, plastic crusted waters.

His spatula pounds the tava, mashing the already mashed vegetables. Between each pounding, he adds generous dollops of Amul butter; each addition is announced with a high-tone sizzle. I feel the calories gently pushing against my belt.

Once the bhaji, already partly prepared, is ready, he pushes it to the edge of the tava, freeing up the centre for the stack of pav – a set of four buns. He picks up the lot, sliced in between, and presses them onto a glob of melting butter.

When the bread, shiny with the additional weight and slightly crispy, is done, he scoops the bhaji, finely chopped onions, coriander and lemon quarters, as well as the toasted buns into the sectioned plate, and hands it over.

My hands are greedy as they stretch out for the plate.

I hurriedly sprinkle the chopped onions onto the bhaji and squeeze the bits of lemon. I mix the lot with a spoon – bits of orange-red specks fly about – I still have faded stains on my pink kurta. I tear the pav, small pieces, pile them with bhaji and gobble. There is no place for elegance here, just a good hearty meal.