When I studied abroad in Spain, my host parents, Marga and Luis, always talked about Croatia. Before then, I never thought Croatia would be somewhere that I’d want to go.
It is the gem of Europe, where Europeans go on vacation, Marga told me, her eyes sparkling. She pointed to the photos on their wall of their adventures on the Adriatic Sea.
Four years later, Croatia was on the top of my list for my backpacking trip. It was partly because other travelers raved of its beauty. But mainly, it was for Luis.
I expected far more to bond with the mom, Marga, and we did. She cared for me like I was her own. But Luis and I had a special friendship.
Luis was sick. And while I lived in Spain, I never knew. When I returned to our flat from class every afternoon, I wondered why Luis was always home, and only Marga worked. But I figured they were older, and retired, or maybe Marga just enjoyed working to keep her occupied. She bustled around everywhere, a woman with a mission.
Half of me wishes I knew that Luis was sick, but the other half of me is glad I didn’t. Without knowing, I treated him the way he wanted to be treated, without pity.
Whenever I came home, it was Luis who greated me at the door, English-to-Spanish dictionary in hand. He always choose a word of the day that he wanted me to translate. At the time, I didn’t speak Spanish well at all, and he didn’t speak English. Somehow, we cobbled together a mixed language. I talked with my hands.
One morning on my way out of the house, I asked where I could find coffee. As I breezed out the door, Luis replied that he didn’t know, so I didn’t dwell on it. When I arrived home later that day, Luis was beaming, out of breath.
His dictionary was in hand, as usual. He pointed to his new word of the day, “quest”. All day, he ran around town on a quest to find the perfect cup coffee for me.
Then there’s the story of how Luis and Marga met. We were enjoying lunch in their tiny kitchen, when they told me how they met on a ski trip. Marga hated skiing, and didn’t care much for Luis either.
There were two buses to the ski trip, and Luis and Marga were on different buses. Luis switched buses to sit by Marga. When she gave up on skiing that day, and needed company, Luis was there. And the rest is history.
Being in Croatia reminds me so much of Luis. He passed away shortly after I left Spain. I didn’t even know that he was sick, much less dying. I’m still sad that I never said goodbye.
Luis traveled to Croatia on his sailboat. He took to the rivers for a month in August, where he was happiest. I wish I knew more of his adventures, so I could follow his route more closely.
Last night, my sister and I ate at a local restaurant in Dubrovnik. We don’t speak or read Croatian. Even my Spanish doesn’t help here- it’s all Italian, Croatian, or English.
I have no clue what we ordered, but our waitress brought us a delicious meat and vegetable dish, local food. Perhaps it was the magic of the moment, but it was one of the best meals of my life.
Our waitress took such good care of us. She introduced us to her son, who was quietly helping her prepare and serve meals. We told her how she reminded us of our mother.
She must have known how amazing our mom is. She absolutely glowed with delight. A few moments later, her son shyly brought us over two glasses of wine, on the house.
The people of Croatia remind me of Luis. They give, they smile, they enjoy. Our waitress and her son worked together as a family. Another lady took the time to sketch out directions to her favorite restaruant for us. Another local helped us interpret the bus route, and we understood without a common language. We talked with our hands.
Maybe, Luis is here with me.