When I was sixteen, I spent my first Christmas away from home. It was dreadful. – It was dreadful despite the fact that I was being spoiled and pampered by a wonderful family in Arkansas (no - not the Clintons; their close friends, though – which made the experience all the more interesting, but I was a sulking teenager away from home, so I barely noticed the blessings of the fantastic privilege). I couldn’t help it: in the midst of the cheerful, pompous, lavish and rushed manner of American Christmas, I wept after the tenderness, the quiet and the romantic snow-powdered skyline of Prague, my grandmother’s cookies and the sugar-glazed embrace of my harmonic home.
In twenty years, things have changed. My grandmother died. My parents divorced. The Czech way of celebrating Christmas made a huge leap in development, being now almost on par with the rush and opulence of American annual holiday variety show. Hillary Clinton lost the election. And most importantly, I became a mother of two adorable kids, so the location of Christmas became vastly irrelevant to me – as long as the two little girls are happy. Oh: and my husband, of course.
Now, the difference between my husband and me is that he didn’t spend his first Christmas away from home at sixteen, but at thirty-six. I have rarely seen anyone suffer as much as Tonći during his first Christmas in Prague. At the time I thought he was overdoing it a bit: like, crying after some outdated Christmas traditions of a place called Župa Dubrovačka? What traditions do you have in mind? He couldn’t tell. It felt as if he still believed that it was baby Jesus who left presents under the Christmas tree, and I was the lucky one to tell him the truth.
The truth about the location of Christmas, however, exists. And it’s this: if you had to choose between Arkansas, Prague and Dubrovnik, choose Dubrovnik – at least once in a lifetime. Relocate your family over here for the few days. It is incredibly worth it. It is worth it even if at 1 am on Christmas Eve, there is an earthquake that scares the hell out of you and you must tell your mother (who came all the way from Prague to experience Dalmatia at Christmas) that it was only a huge truck that just passed under your windows. It is worth it even if the bura blows your hat off and makes your hairdo look like Bridget Jones’ after she lost her scarf in the convertible. It is worth it even if you will most likely be up all night – and the following night, too. (Unless you are like me and will spend the two cherished hours of sleep stealing left-over advent calendar chocolates, watching your family sleep and, well - watching Love, actually.)
There are three conditions that will make your Christmas in Dubrovnik especially memorable:
1) Being married to a local accordionist, who is required to spend Christmas Eve day dragging all his family and about two dozen other people from house to house and singing Dalmatian carols. By the fifth stop, you will have inevitably memorized the text of Dobra večer, mi kucamo and developed a sophisticated palate for tasting prikle, the fried raisin dough balls. You will be invited in by another charming housewife, who doesn’t mind she had to stay at home all day: the world comes to her. Every hour, there is another gang of kolendari – carol singers – her doorstep. They have a drink, two quick spoonfuls of Christmas delicacies, sing three more songs, and off they go – to another destination, where they need to hear Dobra večer, mi kucamo. As midnight approaches, the apartments and houses get more and more crammed, noisy, chaotic and jolly, in order to jump in cars and hurry to the midnight mass, shush!, sink (or nap) in the holy quiet for an hour, and then get back home and start the true festivities – the fasting is over, youpee!, it is the time of sarme – delicious minced meat wrapped in leafs of sour cabbage, baked pork and lamb and veal, and cakes.
2) Knowing the best cooks in the region, such as teta Evica of Donji Brgat or teta Zdenka of Mandaljena. Tasting their bakalar na bijelo (codfish in mashed potatoes) or octopus salad will make you wonder where in the hell have you been on all your previous Christmases. What were you thinking you were eating. Humph. The cooking housewives of Župa Dubrovačka are a well preserved jewel, which, if you are the lucky eater, sparkles best during Christmas.
3) Being blessed with sunshine, warmth and tranquil air, the rare winter combination in Dubrovnik. At daytime you may stroll around Stradun in your short sleeves (laughing at all the local people who boil in fur coats and hats, because nothing will stop them to wear the best of their winter wardrobe on the one occasion of the year when they are likely to meet everyone they know at one place!). In the evening, though, you will thankfully put on every clothes you own, plus those you got to borrow, and you might still be cold. Remedy: drink rakija and lean to whatever heating appliance you find. (Before they realized I was just trying to get warm, my family thought I was some strange kind of a dancing worshiper – as I hopped with my arms raised towards the air-conditioner turned on “heat”).
Even if you don’t fulfil the above conditions, don’t worry. There is more: Dubrovnik is just the right size to stroll around the entire town on foot and explore the (surprising) wealth of events and activities of the Winter Festival (you can ice-skate at an empty ring!). Also, there are very few tourists, so you can easily rent apartments that would otherwise be booked out, and even get a reasonable price. Plus, you can walk around the city-walls and not meet a soul (or, similar, swim in the sea).
Happy 2017! (You can make Christmas in Dubrovnik one of your New Year’s resolutions.)
Blanka Pavlovic a.k.a. the Adriatic Bride is a Czech writer. She studied law (Prague) and creative writing (Oxford). As a lawyer, she specialized in international human rights law, first working for the European Court of Human Rights, then for a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. She wrote five books, among them Total Balkans, The Handbook of the Adriatic Bride or The Return of the Adriatic Bride. She now lives with her family between Dubrovnik and Donji Brgat. More information and English translations of her work are available through www.blankacechova.com.