Croatia Chronicle: Part One
I have been issued a mandate that is as tall as it is broad: to teach Carnatic music and Bharata Natyam to a group of musicians and music students in Groznjan, Croatia. The only other things I have fleshing out this directive are the dates I am to arrive, and depart. That’s it. There is a vague mention of a "theme", taller and broader than the order itself (the stars and air), which I put aside right away. There’s a lot else to worry about.
Like, how to get there. Peering closely at a map of Croatia, my aging eyes not helping matters, I finally spot Groznjan – a tiny dot in the northern part of the tiny Istrian peninsula of Croatia. There are many ways of getting there, and all of them have only one thing in common – nothing is straightforward, or direct. The route that is finally decided on is from New York to London’s Heathrow Airport; then the National Express bus to Gatwick Airport, from where I will take a Croatia Airways flight to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, then another Croatia Airways flight to Pula, in southern Istria, then somehow find my way to a town, only slightly bigger than Groznjan judging from the size of the dot on the map, called Buje, where, I have been assured, someone from the music school would meet me and bring me to Groznjan, a mere half an hour drive away.
Map of Croatia: Groznjan is to the north and east of Rovinj. Source: Lonely Planet
My family marvels at my calm and collected manner, but in reality, I’m roiled by all sorts of emotions – excitement, anticipation, nervousness, apprehension, curiosity, self-doubt, inadequacy….. Curiously for me, I keep my normally obsessive reading up about a place to a minimum. Thus, I learn only a few things before I set out: that Groznjan is a little hilltop village, medieval in character, which once belonged to Venice. Cobble-stoned streets, art galleries, a music school, a church – these are some of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which float around in my mind’s eye, forming a kaleidoscope of patterns and images.
I will not bore you with my travel details. After many hours in planes and buses and cars, I arrive in Groznjan in the middle of a heavy downpour, and my first hour is spent scuttling from the shelter of a tree to the church to the music school to – finally – the blessed sanctuary of my room, which is spare, but clean and spacious.
The street where I lived
I wait patiently for the rain to subside, and spend my time, not unpacking, as I should be doing, but reading. The book is Salman Rushdie’s latest, The Enchantress of Florence. I LOVE this book. I love how he writes. I love how he thinks. I love his sense of humor and his imagination. He is simply brilliant. I wish I could write like that.
Eventually, a pale sun comes out from behind the rain clouds, and it is time to explore. This is such a beautiful place. I feel as if I am in a fairytale. In an exquisite magical land with blue, blue skies and warm sunshine and vistas fit for the gods. There are gently rolling hills all around, some thickly forested, some terraced with olive trees and grapevines. There are trees with raw green apples, pears, figs, walnuts, almonds and other fruits or nuts I do not recognize. They soak up the sun, swaying gently in the wind, growing, ripening, for the summer months ahead. The air is crisp, clean and clear, and birds chirp and trill, tweet and twitter, call, whoop and sing, and fill the skies with their arboreal melodies. The streets are narrow, unevenly and haphazardly paved with cobblestones, the houses are of old, warm stone - aged, tranquil beauties that put shiny new modern buildings to shame. The shuttered windows are all open, welcoming in the sunshine, clean air and sounds of birds and people chattering. Pots bursting with colorful flowers adorn many of the windowsills, each a vibrantly multihued celebration of the summer season. Soon, the streets will echo with the sounds of music – our music, made with joy and brio by our group. That comes later. For now, my camera is busy.
The green, green hills of Istria
I walk around, drinking in the beauty all around me. I am reminded of some of the Disney movies I have watched. The movie opens with a beautifully illustrated book, laid open. It depicts a delightfully picturesque landscape, with gently rolling green hills, and little houses with wisps of smoke curling out of their chimneys, happy little birds and butterflies flitting among the brightly colored flowers, a fat, benevolent sun shining down on the cheery little scene below. And then the page turns, and a honeyed voice intones in dulcet tones:
“Once upon a time, there was a princess….”
And then the scene comes to life. I feel as if I am that princess in that picture.
There is no sign of anybody from the music program. Nobody at the music school seems to know much, nor do they appear concerned. So I decide not to be concerned, either. Everything is very laidback here, and it is easy to slip into that state of mind. Already, from wandering around, I realize that Groznjan is tiny, that everywhere leads to everywhere else, and that sooner or later, we are bound to meet up.
Sure enough, a couple of text messages later, I meet Jane, the director of the program, in front of the church. We are both relieved to see each other, and it is wonderful to talk to her. I have a good deal of admiration and appreciation for Jane, which grow by leaps and bounds during the course of the program. We walk around Groznjan – she points out some of the sights – the church, the music school, the Kastel, the taverna/konoba Bastia, the music and dance studio. There are art galleries everywhere and she introduces me to their owners. There is some lovely stuff displayed in some of them - woven scarves, paintings, pottery, jewelry. It is siesta time, and the streets are quite empty. This place is tiny, but absolutely, utterly, charming. As different, in every way one can think of, from New York, as can be possible. But there is excellent cell phone service, so it is not entirely primitive. However, although my laptop picks up a wireless network named “make tea not war” I am not able to connect to the Internet. Oddly, this does not bother me.
A little later, Jane and I go to the music studio where some of the students have already gathered. They are all young, in their twenties, bubbling over with life and enthusiasm. My spirits soar as I talk to them and I know that I am going to have the time of my life here. A beautiful place, eager and gifted students, and music and dance, day and night. This is the life!
Musically we do not do much today, just some warm-up exercises. Everyone is eager to learn new songs and in minutes, the studio is a mess of sheets of music strewn everywhere. I am struck by how musically strong every one in the group is, how confident of their abilities, and how willing they are to share their talent with everyone, to try new things without feeling bashful or being crippled by the fear of making mistakes, of sounding silly. Criticism is handed out thoughtfully and constructively; individuality is not stamped out, but allowed to shine within the spaces of what is harmonious, melodious and pleasing to the ear. How liberating this is.
All of us – the group thus far – sit down to dinner in Bastia, where we are served quite a hearty meal – freshly-baked bread, a very fresh salad, and – this caused some initial confusion – a vegetarian meal for me, which today, produced at no notice, was an sizable omelet. No question of starving here! I liked everyone at the table, a bright, energetic, fun group. Jane has a marvelous talent to attract all sorts of people, make them feel welcome and incorporate them into her plans and vision. That is quite a talent, which requires foresight, sagacity, patience, and tremendous open-mindedness.
More students and faculty are due to arrive over the next couple of days. From Jane’s description of them, there is a lot to look forward to!
The next morning we gather at Bastia, from where, after a lively breakfast – early morning does not seem to faze these kids – we set out for a walk.
We stroll up a steep road past a bank of tall and majestic cypress trees into the local cemetery, filled with graves with a mix of Italian and Croatian names (much more the former). We then walk on, up a gravel road, the view getting ever more scenic, up, up and away from Groznjan which now looks like a storybook village with its tall church spire, its old stone houses, their terracotta roofs huddled close together like a band of ruddy conspirators, the whole hugged by a low-slung wall.
All around are the green, green hills of Istria. On either side, neat rows of grapevines, the tender leaves a light spring green, and the fruit, barely born. There are also lines of olive trees, full of the flowers that will turn into olives, to be harvested for their golden-green oil late in the fall. Here and there, there are orderly files of young corn plants and bright green lettuces ready to be picked and eaten. As we continue walking up, apple trees appear, and pear trees as well, their fruit raw and hard now, too young yet to bloom into sweet, juicy ripeness. It is all so idyllic, so perfectly beautiful. The Adriatic Sea is a hint of gray-blue on the faraway horizon, blending seamlessly with the vast sky.
There is a lot of laughter, and silly jokes. I don’t get enough of this in New York– I need it, to nourish my soul, which has a large “silly chamber” which has been turning hollow and dark lately. I’m afraid I fit right in with these young people. I cannot sniff disdainfully at their humor and I cannot smile indulgently at them, either, and say with a touch of condescension that oh, they will grow up and learn that the world is an evil place which does not reward childish silliness and impracticality. Juvenile jokes and humor provide their own rewards – a young heart and a sunny outlook and a soul that throbs with the joy of life. Do not ever let your silly chamber wither away and die, because then your soul will turn rigid and cold, curled up at the edges, encrusted with layers of bitterness and cynicism, becoming ever smaller, colder and harder with the years.
Up the winding road we walk, Groznjan disappearing and reappearing around the corners, looking suddenly smaller and more far-away although we have not covered a great distance. We arrive at the top of the road, to a knot of houses, larger and newer than any in Groznjan, all with lovingly tended gardens blooming with roses. One house has a deer in a little fenced-off area; he approaches us cautiously, nose all a-quiver, ready to flee at the slightest provocation.
We are supposed to meet Jane in the music studio at 11 o’clock, and it is already 10.30, so we turn around and retrace our steps, the views and scenery as breathtakingly beautiful as ever. These are sights I will never tire of – it is a beauty that will never fade, that will only get better with age.
We have our first full lesson in the studio. I am amazed at everyone’s musicality, their ability to grasp a tune, an idea, a vision, to sight-read anything that’s placed before them, to sing harmonies just like that, reading the music straight off the pages with as much fluency as an adult reading a child’s book. We learn an old Sephardic song, Adios Kerida, a bitter, sad farewell to a beloved lover whose mother brought him into the world without a heart to love another. Farewell, oh beloved, go look for another love, knock on other doors, wait for another flame, you are dead for me…..farewell. The language is what was spoken by the Jews of Spain before they were forced to leave by the Spanish Inquisition of the late 1400s. It is an exquisitely haunting song and the harmonies suffuse the air with such melancholy, and convey the singer’s sorrow, the bitterness, the disgust, with poignant perfection.
I am to sing the tenor part, and it is not easy. I am not trained to sing harmonies, and, attuned to a system of music where the melody reigns, my ears automatically pick up the dominant soprano melody, which is too high for my voice. I have to practice hard at mastering this, it will be a challenge, but worth it.
To be continued.