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Diary of Dubrovnik

Table of Contents › Essays & Plays ›

Olivia Morgan

I remember being ten.

And how it felt being blissfully suspended within the throws of that great, good city. Her polished stone walls anchored to the earth like her guardians, her grey-cobbled alleyways shining by the warm-yellow light of her lanterns, her flame-roofed houses dancing beneath the shadow of the clouds. I remember how the harbor always smelled of sea-salt and fresh fish, how old women with scarves on their heads would sit by the water’s edge crocheting baby’s blankets, how every night young lovers would cross into the old district to buy ice cream and foreign wines. It was a place of magic, first for my parents as a young married couple and then for myself as their child.

How I loved you, Dubrovnik, how I still.

But it seems so strange; every day these memories feel as though they are flickering out of focus, transforming into the random shapes of old ghosts and vague dreams. How can I return to that place so far from me, to those moments so long ago? What can I remember that touches something deeper than mere descriptions?

The war, of course…

…the Yugoslavian Civil War was over and done with by the time my parents traveled to Croatia again and took me with them for a family trip, but the residual pain and despair of its people still echoed clearly throughout the country. It seemed wherever we went some small tickle of the war’s devastation would follow us. It was so strange at times. I particularly remember our drive to Dubrovnik from Germany and, as we drove, viewing all the small villages and farm towns that speckled our road. Many of their houses stood as severely crippled shells: large bullet holes in their walls, chunks missing from their foundations, and gaping holes blown into their roofs. Some towns seemed abandoned. In others all that could be seen of humanity was the small, hunched forms of old ladies, draped in dark cottons and knitted shawls, hobbling along the pebbled roads towards the memorial shrines of their families.

That was not all. That was not everything.

Even in Dubrovnik, even in a place where one is so completely surrounded by beauty, the sharp edges of a past tragedy will find a way to jab at your heart. I remember feeling that way while touring the Sponza Palace with my family, one of the main attractions in the old district of the ancient city. From our photographs I know the palace was extraordinary, a true sight and stage for ancient magnificence, but on my own I remember very little. Only the Dubrovnik Memorial room, the room dedicated to the victims of the 1991 Serbian shelling, remains glued within my mind. Not for its beauty or exquisite design, but for a truly heartbreaking display. Imagine a room, a long, rectangular room that is completely white-washed, even whose floorboards and ceiling are pale. The only marks of color are the red and blue Croatian flags that drape from the ceiling and the groups of flowers that lie limply across the floor. Now imagine from the walls, a hundred black-and-white faces are staring out at you. A hundred men, frozen in their photographs, lost to their mothers, are watching you, are saying goodbye.

I didn’t know how to feel. I still don’t know how to say it.

But it wasn’t until the last day, the last dawn of our vacation, that I was able to fully understand the ever-present grief of this war and how close it still was to the residents. I recall that I had somehow managed to escape from my parents’ watchful eyes and wandered, with mischievous ambition, into the streets of Dubrovnik. I was a lone soldier; I had no plans or definite purpose of direction. I just wanted to explore.

As I walked, I noticed a shop with its door slightly ajar. Moving towards the window, I was instantly intrigued by what I saw there—exquisite silver jewelry, ropes, and weaves of metal arranged artistically beneath the glass. I felt a wanting rise up from the pit of my stomach. “How beautiful,” I whispered.

I walked timidly into the tiny silver shop. Peering around at the merchandise, I was immediately struck by how the shop within delivered just as the display window had promised. For everywhere I looked cried the magic of the craft: braided silver chains, pendants, earrings, rings, and exquisite bracelets, all gleaming brightly from the confines of their display. The room itself was small but fine: its outlines framed in carved oak, plaster, and glass, from its rafters hung deep blue and lavender silks.

I peered at the clerk again, feeling his gaze locked upon my tiny frame. From the corner of my eye, I began absorbing the planes of his aged complexion, and I felt a little afraid of him. He smiled at me, “Dobro jutro malen ptica, kako ste vi?”

I stared at him for a moment. “Uh…I only speak English,” I squeaked. “I can’t understand you.”

He laughed, “It is alright little one; welcome to my shop.” He beckoned me over to the counter, spreading his arms wide as if he would hug me.

“Thanks…thank you,” I replied, “It’s really nice in here. Do you make all of these?”

“Oh yes! Me and my sons have for the last thirty years, before the war too.” He looked at his hands briefly, stretching his fingers. “Are you looking for something in particular? A nice ring maybe?” He wiped his nose on a ragged sleeve. I could swear his dark brown eyes twinkled a little.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I really like your bracelets.” I pointed to one partially hidden below his hand, “that one especially.”

He smiled again, “A very lovely choice…and it’s quite old, too.”

I felt curiosity rise up from my belly. “Do you mean…before the war old?” He nodded.

“Can you tell me what it was like then?”

He looked at me thoughtfully for a moment, as though I had asked a question to which he did not know the answer or at least one to which he did not know the right words to explain. “Ah, yes I remember, yes. They were happy times, very happy. With so much dancing, and music, laughing and singing in the streets, I miss that. My eldest boy, he loved to dance and sing, yes. I miss him, too. And this time feels strange now after that, after war,” he sighed, shaking his head, “but listen to me…you want this one, no? And you want to wear it out?” I nodded, wide-eyed.

“I’m sorry about your son. Was he a soldier?” I said, handing him my entire wealth, unsure of the numbers and coins.

“No, sweet little bird, no. It was a bombing,” he said, placing the money into an old register and then turning to fasten the bracelet around my wrist. He smiled widely, but for a moment he struggled and failed to hide his grief. “Ah meh, ah meh child. Now go, go little bird, go play.” He waved towards the door. “I will say goodbye now little girl. Thank you for your business.”

“It was nice to meet you, sir,” I waved farewell, “and thank you for this bracelet. It’s really, really pretty.”

As I closed the door behind me, I thought about how strange our exchange had been, how rushed, how odd it felt to be back on the street again. I remember looking down at my wrist and watching the intricate design of my silver bracelet dance under the sunlight. Beneath its beauty, beneath its art, I think I saw something of a promise, some small fleck of what the Croatian spirit would be again.

To this day I imagine the face and spirit of that war staring up at me with poised regret. I imagine that the old village ladies have started dressing themselves in pastels, shooing away young children as they walk to their kitchens; that the young boys in the memorial photographs now smile from within a contented silence; that somewhere deep within the old district of Dubrovnik, down some small alleyway where no tourist ever goes, the locals are dancing again, laughing with the full exuberance of a mended heart.