Salty Sardines

Branka ValcicMy Journey2 Comments

By now it is likely more than clear to all of you reading my blog that I have a conflicting relationship with my home country, Croatia. I hope some day something good will at last come out of it. According to a movie I recently saw in which a senior writer shared a nugget of his wisdom with a budding writer, one of the most important ingredients for writing well and with richness was a conflicting relationship with the writer’s homeland! This makes me hopeful.

Having a conflicting relationship with my home country and living in it makes the two of us get along like a house on fire. The first couple of months I have been back in Croatia, I used a single mantra to deal with everything that annoyed me here:

A salty sardine! It is just a salty sardine.

(In the Croatian part of the Adriatic, salty sardines are typically used as bait and as such, even though they play an important role, are considered rather worthless.)

When my family and I left Scotland this June, Scotland said good-bye to us in style. After watching all our things grow a greenish patina and ourselves almost growing gills over the three years we lived there, the day of our departure dawned dazzlingly sunny. Baby blue sky was adorned with perfectly white puffy clouds. Only the tears in my eyes obscured the view of the sheep that grazed lazily upon the green hills of Scotland.

What awaits?

As the plane took off, I felt unleashed into the void of boundless opportunities. I wrote about this in my earlier posts. I am off the hamster wheel! What wonderful, precious time. But as we got closer to Croatia, I also felt something like an itch spread through my mind. Images of people fighting to get ahead in the customs line, drivers cutting each other off as they rush to drive out of the airport parking lot and a million others like these zoomed through my head.

Salty sardines! They are all just salty sardines, I said to myself quickly and out of a blue. I felt instantaneously better and for a while I enjoyed my home country without being driven nuts simply by using this mantra every time I encountered something frustrating.

But Croatia is under my skin and it does not let me rest. After a while, I became irritable; I started to judge; I grew a grudge against one thing or another. And I forgot about my salty sardine mantra. A constant chatter of my monkey mind replaced clarity of mind that I felt upon unleashing myself into the void of boundless opportunities. This didn’t happen because the moment of boundless potential has peaked and it was time to look this new Life of mine squarely in the eye. It happened because Croatia always did this to me.

I guess it should have happened this way. How to live in a country where I distance myself from all the annoying things? But then again, how to live with them without losing my mind?

The answer, as always, is in careful balance. The other day, during my by now almost traditional morning walk around the island village I live at, I experienced both the power of the moment and a certain lightness of being. It just might be possible to achieve that precious balance.

At the village boatyard for small boats, a boat was ready to go back into the sea. Its owner and his friend have been busy arranging beams and other assorted wood across which the boat would slide back home. A couple of other villagers stood around the boat watching them work. One of them said,

“This will not work. There is too few of us. When we used to do this before, there were always many more of us.”

“Eh,” said the other one.

The boat owner said nothing. He continued to arrange the wood.

Soon, another man came strolling by and was corralled into helping with the boat launch by the man worried that there were too few of them to launch the boat. Now the three of them stood around the boat prophesizing how the boat would never be launched. After a while the owner seemed to have finished all the necessary preparations and at the same time another local person approached the boatyard and he too became a part of the launch.

It was time to push her in. As they all pushed, each in a way they thought was best, the boat went askew and leaned precariously to one side. Swearwords and not particularly flattering comments towards the boat owner filled the air. I watched bemused and slightly uncomfortable. To top it off, at that moment another man appeared almost out of nowhere and shouted,

“No, no, that’s not where you put that board. Put it over there. The boat needs to be higher!”

And just as I thought that he should move the board himself given that he apparently knew exactly how, he said,

“I would help but I can’t because of my lumbago, you know.”

What to say?

“This will never work,” the first guy started again.

“Eh,” others muttered in some vague agreement.

Eventually, all seemed ready for the final push. With more comments, the men gathered to push the little boat into the water. Then instead of a happy resolution, that big moment in which the boat would finally float in the sea, she got stuck! Half in the sea, half out of it she looked pitiful. But the really incredible thing happened just after that.

“What a joke!” said one of the men. He waved his hands around a few times and left the pathetic scene.

“Yeah, you are going to have to go into the sea to get her unstuck,” offered another as he too left the boatyard.

“Nothing will come out of this,” said the third man shaking his head and walking away.

“I said this wasn’t going to work,” repeated the first guy as he too left the scene.

I sat on a little wall opposite the boatyard watching in disbelief as they left one by one leaving the work unfinished, the boat useless and the owner alone. The sea gurgled around the boat’s freshly painted keel. I relaxed and felt the warmth of the morning sun. I then spent some time musing over the many projects in Croatia that met a similar destiny to this morning’s boat launch. And then I caught a whiff of something familiar. A man walked by carrying a bag of salty sardines.

“It’ll be good fishing with these,” I say to him.

He nods.

Ah yes, salty sardines!

My salty sardine mantra doesn’t make everything right about my home country. Nor should it. But what it does is make difficult situations just that one tiny bit better so I can keep living here, keep finding that hidden gem of love for my homeland buried somewhere deep underneath the many layers of contempt. As I left my spectator’s seat, I looked over to the boatyard just in time to see the boat owner and his friend roll up their pants and wade into the water to save the little boat.

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