I moved slowly through the forest, savoring the winter sounds and smells. The winter quiet—deeper and more mysterious than summer quiet—elicits for me a certain pensiveness. This is a personal birthday tradition—a walk in the woods to reflect, remember, and think about my coming year.
I stepped out of the woods to see the intersection of the mighty Danube and the Drava rivers, a place where water dominates the landscape. I stopped for a respite, drinking some hot chocolate out of my thermos. The ducks and herons, undeterred by the cold, swam their communal circles as the winter sun teasingly touched the dark waters. A solitary fisherman, standing on the bow of his rickety boat, paddled past me.
“Looking for a good place to fish,” he called to me.
I smiled and called back, “It’s a beautiful day!”
“It’s not too cold,” he agreed. As he said this, I suddenly became aware of the growing numbness in my legs and hands, so I decided to see if the rumors of a cafe in this locale were true.
I meandered through the row of eccentrically jumbled weekend houses and came upon a group of men in their 50’s and 60’s, boisterously engaged in a roštilj (BBQ of primarily meat).
They spotted me immediately.
“Hey, come here, come over here!”
“Is there an open cafe near here?” I called to them.
“Why do you ask that from such a distance? Come closer to ask!”
I could see the men had been drinking, and the big grins on their faces divulged their excitement at having a stranger walk up to their party—an excitement that only grew when they found out I was a foreigner who could speak a little Croatian.
One man ran to get me a shot glass filled with some kind of drink that tasted like plants. “Živeli!” They yelled, clanking my glass with theirs. “It’s healthy!” one man confided to me conspiratorially. All of a sudden, I noticed the small black pig rooting around the grill, and after I pointed to it, its owner formally introduced me to Pepé the pig, Tina the dog, and Garfield the cat, who, I was informed, was actually the “real” Garfield.
“Do you know what that is?” one man asked, pointing to the meat on the grill.
“Yes, that is ćevapi!”
“Ohhhhhhhhh!” the man roared, throwing up his hands up in the air. “She knows ćevapi! Listen you guys, she knows ćevapi!”
Another man plucked a ćevapi off the grill and handed it to me. I quickly saw that there was nothing to do but eat the ćevapi and drink the “planty” drink.
“Do you know I took my little boat all the way to the Black Sea?” the owner of the home asked me. I looked at the tired and weathered fishing boat down at the dock.
Because I seemed skeptical, he took me to his computer and pulled up his 8000 pictures of his 25 day voyage to the Black Sea. I giggled at the picture of him sitting on the beach of the Sea under the shade of a large Croatian flag. Meanwhile, another man brought me another glass of “plant juice” and kept stuffing more ćevapi and bread in my hands. I carefully placed the glass of plant juice to the side, not sure if I wanted a second helping.
“You like theology?” the home owner asked when I mentioned I was a part of a Seminary in Osijek. He took me to his bookshelves and showed me his book collection, encompassing the Bible, Qur’an, Greek mythology, and Zoroastrianism.
All of a sudden another group of men entered the tiny vacation home and I was hailed as an honored guest, introduced to everyone as “Mary from Oregon.” I started to feel a bit strange being in a small room bursting with 60 year old men, so I decided to make my exit. The men, however, were horrified that I was leaving so soon. “Mary, Mary, sit sit, please! We are normal, there is nothing strange about us.” I picked up Garfield from a chair and sat down. Pepé the pig had followed us inside and was stationed near the stove, while Tina the dog was perched on the sofa like a queen. Unfortunately, someone had found my glass of plant juice and put it in front of me.
The man next to me showed me a huge burn blister on his hand. “This is nothing,” he said. “I was in the war and was cut all over my body, but I won’t show you the scars because it is in a….” he vaguely gestured around his pelvis.
“Yes, I don’t need to see that,” I reassured him.
Eventually, the new group of men, who had just stopped in to say goodbye, made their exit, and after short time, I also insisted that I must go. The three remaining men seemed crestfallen, and then one asked, “Wait, Mary, how did you get here again?”
When I told them (once again) that I had parked in the nearby town and walked the mile or so in, the men looked at me in horror. “No, no, no,” the house owner said and got up to get his coat on, not even bothering to discuss the situation. “I will take you back in my little boat.” After his friend asked him to pick up something from the market, he went first to a vase on a high shelf and shook it into his palm, a random jangle of Romanian,Euro and Serbian coins—but found no Croatian Kuna. Next, he went to an antique iron, opened up the back, and smiled triumphantly when bills were revealed in the secret hiding place.
As the little boat chugged its way up the Danube, I took a deep breath of enjoyment. The winter evening sky reached down and touched a soft pink hue upon the water, and we stopped to watch a heron drift idly along the water and then with a burst of energy take off into the beginnings of the sunset.
“Slowly, slowly, ” he said as he cut the motor and we drifted a few minutes. “You know, that man back there is a Muslim, I am a Catholic, and the other one is Orthodox. We can all be together because all religions are the same. There is no real difference.”
“Well, there are many similarities, but there are also some significant differences,” I answered. And so began a theological conversation as we drifted on the Danube, the sky going deeper pink by the moment, and the sounds of evening beginning to roll out over the waters.
Eventually, we were getting to close to the shore, so he started the motor again and drove me the rest of the way to the town. As I hopped out of the boat, I began to say my thank-you’s and head towards my car.
“No, no, wait,” he said and walked with me up the incline. “Let’s go here for a coffee!” he said, propelling me to the sad-looking cafe in the middle of the town.
I sipped my hot coffee and he nursed another beer. “Back when Jesus walked the earth, the Congo was a savannah, not a desert,” he began, carrying on to tell me his theories of global warming.
He called himself Catholic because that was his birth identity and heritage, but he was an atheist, although he told me his god could be found in his animals and nature. We argued for a bit about how the Bible was put together and he told me that Zoroastrianism made the most sense to him.
“You know Jesus was not a Christian, but a Jew?” he asked me smugly. “Come back to my house sometime, and I will teach you. You can learn from me.”
I finally insisted that I needed to go and got up to leave. By this time, night had fallen, and he stood outside the cafe watching to make sure I got to my car. I drove off in silence, musing at the unique turn of events that changed my simple woodland walk. Could it be a foreshadowing metaphor of my coming year?