On July 22nd we hopped in a car with Nataša, her husband, and their two-year-old daughter. We headed east to the idyllic island of Brijuni–on which Tito frequently summered and entertained—where we would spend three days in the company of Croatian university students and faculty, sunbathing and swimming, reflecting on the past month and plotting things to come.
Not many people get to see Brijuni the way we did. Which is to say, the only people who get the real Brijuni experience are theatre people. Kazalište Ulysses (Ulysses Festival) is an annual program that takes place in and around a 19th-century military fortress on the tiny neighbor island called “Little Brijuni.” In the summer, this island is reserved for live performances. Each night, a small wooden boat taxis audiences from Big Brijuni over to Little Brijuni for site-specific plays that lead them all around—and eventually inside—the open-air theatre on this remote spot of land in the Adriatic Sea.
Simply titled “Shakespeare Summer Nights,” this devised piece showcased chopped-and-screwed fragments ripped from Shakespeare’s oeuvre, interwoven into a three-and-a-half-hour-long trilogy that ambitiously tackles such topics as the Syrian refugee crisis, the Yugoslav Wars, and the general existential noise of the digital age. Conceived and directed by the festival’s Artistic Director, Lenka Udovicki, the production featured performances by a mix of professional and student actors, with music composed by the illustrious artist and activist Nigel Osborne.
In August, they’re doing Lear. Not your typical summer-stock fluff.
After the performance, we rode the little wooden boat back to Big Brijuni and marveled at the stars–unlike any I had ever seen–and listened to the waves lap against the hull. The next two days can only be described as an ongoing socialist experiment that, at least for these proud denizens, seems to be working pretty well. We stayed in decades-old hotel rooms with no air-conditioning and scrappy wifi, but that didn’t matter, because all-you-can-eat meals were included and the beach was all around us. On Brijuni, clothing is an option and drinking is a constant. The folks running the festival are hard workers, yes; but that’s not to say their summer is all work and no play. It’s hard not to relax when most sunsets looks like this one:
Oh, and there’s also a safari on the island—with donkeys, ostriches and even zebras—not to mention one very sad-looking elephant. The deer roam free, as do the hares, goats, and peacocks. The history goes that, after Tito declared the island a National Park, world leaders from several African nations gave him these animals and more as tokens of deep respect. As Nataša’s husband put it, “the dinosaurs of socialism are still living on Brijuni.”
OK, yes, in retrospect, Brijuni is a strange place. But it’s also full of magic. After WRECKED ended, we needed some time to chill out and process what the hell happened. Thanks to the amazing friends we made in Rijeka, we were able to unwind in this modern-day Eden. On our last night there we stayed out on the terrace until 3 a.m., drinking Croatian beer and brandy, laughing and philosophizing, while nearby students played music and danced, raucous and wild.
The whole weekend, Kim and I kept saying to each other “I feel like we’ve crossed some threshold to an alternate dimension.” When we touched back down in Fažana, we could feel the spell wear off; but we were also just beginning the next line of the last chapter. At the airport in Pula, we bid a bittersweet goodbye to Nataša and her beautiful family. Then we picked up a rental car and headed for town.
This is Elizabeth. She’s pictured here in the red dress, sitting on the steps of the Ancient Theatre at Epidaurus. Elizabeth Gross is a brilliant poet, teacher, and force for all things witchy and good. She was just working in Thessaloniki for several months teaching English to refugees. When the Greek government shut down her camp in July, she suddenly had a lot of free time, and so hopped a few borders just in time to see WRECKED in Rijeka. (What a great friend, huh?) After Brijuni, we met her in Pula, grabbed some lunch, and drove for six hours straight down the coast of Dalmatia.
Since then, we’ve seen some jaw-dropping sites, explored beaches and castles, eaten the freshest of local fish, driven through epic thunderstorms, bathed in waterfalls, plowed through crowded city streets, and enjoyed many moments of blissful quiet. We only got lost a couple of times, and always on purpose.
Elizabeth is now trekking across Montenegro and Albania on her way back to Greece. Kim’s friend Michael met us in Zagreb two days ago, and from there, they’ll drive across Hungary and Romania together to visit Budapest, Transylvania (spooooky!), and Bucharest.
I, meanwhile, am back where I began, writing from an airport in Germany, waiting out another excruciatingly long layover. There aren’t any obnoxious university blokes this time. Nor does our company manager, Ana, need to worry about me now, but I know she probably will anyway–not as a manager, but as a friend. Kim still has all of his limbs (fingers crossed he’ll still have them after Dracula’s Castle).
Now that it’s all over–all the worry and fuss, the trial and error, the winning and reckoning–I am beginning to see that, despite the odds, WRECKED was not, by any means, a disaster.
Not even close.