Meridijani, May, 2011

DAY ONE. 

The evening of a long summer’s day. The island and its town Sali. The Riva promenade along the bay. The village has the sea at its lap, but today this sea is hardly visible from so many boats. Seventy berths aren’t enough, so as the boats arrive, they are tied to one another, until they completely cover the harbor. It could be said that Sali is a quiet place, but tonight the hum of the crowd prevails. There are a lot more people on the seaside promenade than could fit in the homes of this little village. They walk up-down, stopping occasionally for a drink or ice-cream, then they continue walking up-down along the promenade. With so many boats squeezed into the harbor, people could easily cross the bay just by stepping from one boat to the next. Behind the bay, atop the hill, is the parish church and old town center. An unusual sound is heard from there. The bay quiets and all eyes are on the street that descends from the hill to the sea. An apparently familiar melody camouflaged by a bizarre thundering ceases every now and then for a breath, and then continues once again, more loudly, more closely. The crowd keeps quiet in a ceremonial expectation. A year has passed since they had last heard this unusual sound, and each time it does return, it is welcomed with joy, for this sound takes people to unfathomable depths. Finally, down the street and onto the promenade arrives the bizarre ensemble that is creating this ruckus. A procession of Sali’s youths begins weaving a thread through the crowd. At the head of the line, the chapel master in a tail-coat whimsically jumps around while directing the procession with his cane. The drummers’ section faithfully keeps the beat, as well as about a dozen young men in black and white suits holding an ox horn in one hand and an antique iron in the other that is used to create a rhythmic rattling. Girls in traditional folk dresses follow, and then children in fuštanići and škrpinići1 like the ones that their nonnas had once worn.

Every so often the Tovareća Mužika, or Donkeys’ Music, comes to a stop and a jug or demijohn of wine appears from somewhere. The chapel master would drink it down while the others wait with ceremonial silence. Then when he would give the sign, they would get going once again. The melody blown through the horn sounds like “Šjora mare, štrambacera, široka si ko bracera,” a local verse that compares a woman’s figure with a shallow and wide wooden boat known as a bracera. Salians measure social status by how well they can tease one another and how well they take being teased themselves. The guys are as serious as a good comedian that never laughs at his own jokes. This isn’t a tradition inherited from ancestors of long ago – rather this is a tradition that is just half a century old, born from teasing. But every Salian would agree that the muffled drone from the ox horns brings their primordial roots to surface from their sea’s depths. That’s why every Salian is quiet when the procession reaches the promenade the first night of the Užance festival. When the young men march in unison, not like an army, but like brothers. The girls then push forward to the front and watch the merry boys whose goal is to drink a lot yet not totter. The parade weaves through the crowd like a dragon that is spinning an invisible thread. This evening, Sali is reminiscent of a dream. Its picture is bizarre and chaotic, its rhythm hypnotic and intoxicating, and its silence is filled with the resonant drone that arises from some unfathomable depths.


THE FIRST CHARACTER. 

Jerolim Armanini loves his village so much, that his eyes twinkle with pride while he talks about it. He is eighty three years old and older than most Salians. Back in 1959, he was older than the youths that had returned from their studies in Zagreb, who formed the Tovareća Mužika and organized the donkey race. Fishermen had once used the horns for communication while at sea long ago, before sirens, Jerolim explains. The first year that the festival was held, the horns had already been out of use by those at sea. Salians were using them, however, to tease couples who married late in life. In those days, each household had a donkey, so the prankish young men added a donkey race to the festival. They also included a lot of music and traditional food, and created a festival unique to this small place. Jerolim wasn’t an active participant in the festivities of his hometown as much as he was a faithful observer. Even more, he has dedicated his life to studying his hometown and digging up its history.

Sali is a small village without many attractions. There’s a store, a few cafes and restaurants, a pastry shop, bakery, post office, library, and a sailing club. In Sali there is also an abandoned fish factory, and a linčarnica, or spot for laziness. Once it was a resting area for fish, and nowadays for passers by. Sali is also home to Grandma Arizona. She wears a traditional dress and sits in front of her house or parish church whose bell rings for funerals more than for baptisms. Salians don’t need street addresses. There are so few of people in Sali, that the postman knows them all by name. The first row of homes along the promenade are built from stone, while in the next rows are new houses whose sizes are an example of how keeping up with the Joneses is common here as well. Basements in the old homes carry scents of salt. Back in the old days, the smell of fish flooded through the entire town, so Salians thought up the saying, “when fish smells, Sali lives.” Today this scent is present only during the time of the Užance festival.

Sali is a place without many attractions, but with a long history. Jerolim loves retelling it to whomever possible. While he speaks, his chin trembles with age, but his mind is sharp and his memory clear. Jerolim is a regular in Sali. His whole life he has been digging through parish and municipal archives, creating a huge mosaic of his place in time. So much information is stored in his head that not even all of it fits in the nine books that he had written. He doesn’t know where to begin and jumps from topic to topic, from century to century. He speaks a little about the time of the Venetian rule, when Sali was the largest town in the Zadar archipelago and prospered from fishing, then a little about how Illyrians built burial mounds so that each time someone would pass by, they would add a stone to the mound. He speaks a little about the neighboring cove Telaščica where Salians had found better shelter from the pirates than in their own town, a little about the Turks that used to take young men from there to serve as rowers in the galleys. A little about the people from prehistoric eras that had left their bones there, a little about the Romans that had built their villas there. He mentioned a little bit about how the passage between the islands Dugi Otok and Kornat was dug just in the 20th century, and a little bit about the wanderers-hermits that had lived in this region during the first centuries of Christianity, and a little about how Sali got its name, from the word for salt.

“Salians hadn’t always been fishermen,” old Jerolim lucidly said while his chin trembled with age. “People started fishing here towards the end of the 16th century, after candle-light fishing was invented. Merchants would come to Sali from all over, from Italy as well as from Zadar. And that’s why they preserved fish in salt here. Each household kept salt in the basement, whose smell lingers till today. Sali had a great fish preservation tradition, so it’s no wonder that in 1907 the first factory was founded here.”

Most Salians worked in that factory, so Jerolim did as well. “In the sixties, 150 people worked as fishermen, and three hundred in processing. In those days, there were more than 1200 people living in Sali. Today, there are 668 people living in Sali, and none of them are fishing professionals. There are another 770 Salians scattered throughout the world, in all the continents except Asia. That’s how many people had lived in Sali five hundred years ago…” Jerolim then wanders to the sixteenth century, then the fourth, and so on.

But when he writes books, he is systematic and thorough. Ante Beverin helps him with that. Jerolim and Ante share the same place and year of birth, the same stories from the time of the Partisans, and the same stories from the same accounting office in the fish factory. Together they gather materials and write the history of their home town. They put together a genealogy that follows 300 Salian last names and goes back 500 years. They have written nine books, and want to write one more, “If time doesn’t cheat us,” Jerolim adds, joking about his own old age.

Most elder Salians spend time on the benches in front of their homes, watching the world pass by. Jerolim spends most of his time reading and writing. Only during the time of the Užance festival does Jerolim take a break and sit on a bench to watch the world. Because then the whole world comes to Sali. Salians that live in Zadar, Zagreb, and in all the continents except for Asia.


THE SECOND DAY.

With the dark blue hue of dusk, there are fewer people on the promenade the second evening of the Užance festival. They walk up-down, stop at the cafe or pastry shop, but also look to the sea every so often. Suddenly, in the sea, the first boat decorated with lanterns appears. Following it are other small boats, motorboats, leuts, and gaetas. All of these vessels are overloaded with cheerful yet ceremoniously quiet Salians. The illuminated convoy of boats quietly weaves through the bay like a dragon weaving an invisible thread. Free from this common thread, swift with dignity, the large boat where the donkey’s music is playing weaves its way around the dragon. As if in an unusual dream, barefooted young men in sailor shirts blow into horns, creating a resonant primeval sound. Following this boat, like a faithful wife, is another boat free from the common thread. Aboard it are young women in traditional dresses and children wearing fuštanići and škrpinići like the ones their nonnas had once wore. When everyone sails in to Sali’s bay, some light flare torches and illuminate the young night sky with a strong red glow. A tugboat anchored along the sideline begins spraying waterfalls of sea water all around the bay, and sends fireworks to burst in the young night sky. The men adamantly blow into their horns, and the crowd along the promenade is overcome with a constant state of goose bumps. The scents of fish stew, brudet, also forcefully spreads throughout the promenade.

Set along a breakwater are campfires that Ivo Francheschini watches over. In his free time he is the best fisherman and cook in Sali, and in his non-free time, he is the postman that knows all Salians by heart, so Sali still does not need street addresses. Sizzling and cooking in clay pots above the fires are pieces of red fish, cog fish, sea eel, shrimp, crabs, tuna heads, shellfish, onions, tomatoes, parsley, olive oil, and bay leaves. Some grandma yells out to him, “add some vinegar so the fish doesn’t fall apart!” Fishermen have been cooking like this forever. The living conditions made it impossible to prepare roux and fry in oil. So they would throw everything that was available into a clay pot and cook it for an hour and a half. Today there aren’t any professional fishermen left, so this kind of cooking is done only during the Užance festival. That’s when the smell of fish floods over Sali, just like long ago – when the fish smell, then Sali lives.


THE SECOND CHARACTER
.

Ante Mihić loves his hometown so much that his chest bursts with pride while he talks about it. He is fifty one years old and has done all sorts of things in his lifetime. He had sold bread, worked as a receptionist, a waiter, a catechism teacher, a reporter, and a librarian. A lot of people say he is the good spirit of Sali, because he has a unique way of running the library which is right at the promenade. He is proud that such a small town like Sali has a library with over twenty thousand books and registered members from one hundred and five cities around the world. That the library has music and journalism workshops, a telescope and internet, and is always bustling with a lot of children. He is proud that Salians read, especially during the winter. He says that they, like all other islanders, withdraw into themselves during the winter, and during the summer are open to the world. “My dream is to see people in Sali with bread in one hand, and a book in the other.” Ante says. “When I used to work selling bread, I loved to see people that, instead of wasting their time, spent their time waiting in line reading a book.”

One winter, while in retrospection, Anti Mihić thought up the seven reasons why he loves Sali: Singing the song “Puče moj” on Good Friday in the parish church. The raised leg of a woman dancing a Salian folkdance. The scent of weaver’s broom towards the end of May and basil growing by the windows. The few stone homes in the first row along the promenade, and the stonewall architecture with Mediterranean harmony. The sound of the wooden hammer at the kalafat (shipyard). Watching Felini’s film at Sali’s promenade in front of the library. The smell of books.

During summertime, Ante Mihić always speaks with rapture. Most often, he speaks soliloquies. Because of the nature of his rhythm, he would often stop with his soliloquies to address a stranger passing by on the promenade. He would then wave and say a word or two. Or when a small child would come to the library looking for a book or an answer. But he always faithfully starts again from where he had left off.  His thoughts travel faster than his words. When they are positive, they are victorious, but when they are negative, then they are encouraging. “I love hearing the drum of the Tovareča Mužika that sounds as if it wakes the primordial, the aboriginal in you, it moves you, returns you to Mother Earth, but then what, how can you feed that dragon? There’s no way, you can only get it drunk! The food is great, but it’s monotonous. You can’t eat only prosciutto ham. A little polyphony is missing here!”

“Sali is a place of unfulfilled possibilities,” Ante continues his energetic monolog, “it’s a challenge to live in a place like this. Sali is a good starting point that you should leave behind often, but always return to. Unfortunately, too few Salians go on journeys. Navigare necesse est, vivat not – Traveling is a necessity – living isn’t! That’s important because journeys give life to the possibilities in you. Sali has a tendency to swallow you because of your lack of mobility. Arguments are outshouts. What is on the island, is proclaimed a law. People stop looking left and right, and only look straight ahead. It is in the nature of the island to poke into individuality and character. It pulls you to become part of the horde. But when you persistently insist on your own, it proves to be a multiple gain. Except for that you need a little bravery and arrogance. With that you create new values – you become an individual, and only like that can you be a true part of the community. We need more “I” and less “we”. “We Salians, We Croats…” That “we” is dangerous. I am for my own space, for the man that stays shy from the horde.”

“I love to hear the drum of the Tovareća Mužika that is complimented with the drone of the ox horns. I love seeing the children that follow them. The little girls and boys in their fuštanići and škrpinići the way their nonnas had once worn. As the music passes through the town, people gather in bunches. They are silent as the music passes. That silence is the Salian dream. Listening to it means waking the wild, primordial Sali, which breaks out from the listener’s silence and Mužika’s thundering. As the dragon passes through the crowd, it weaves a thread, our common denominator that becomes our bond. When the donkey’s music passes by the library, I shut my eyes and imagine that nice Sali, that wonderful dream that actually says, “Oh how nice it would be to break free from indifference!”


THE THIRD DAY.

Once again, the Tovareća Mužika are wearing ceremonial costumes and descend to the promenade for the last time this year. The men had been exhausted all until they blew into their horns and began marching like brothers.

They had had a long night. For after the festivities, when everyone had already gone home to sleep, each of them grabbed a chalk and began writing whatever came to mind in front of each of the locals’ homes. They especially teased couples that had married late in life. Then they formed a procession and made a round, playing their horns and waking all that had just fallen deep asleep. And now, once again they march like brothers, blowing through their horns for the last time this year, forgetting about their weariness.

The crowd along the sea promenade walks up-down, reading the rude remarks written on the stone floor, but they don’t understand them. Only the locals understand, because this is a Salian thing, and now they are eyeing one another, trying to see who did not take well the bitter jokes that are full of truth. In the cafe sits one of the guys that can’t be taken off guard by even the meanest of jokes. He is showing off to his friends the diploma that he had earned a few hours ago with his donkey in the race of backward goals. There had only been three participants, since there aren’t many donkeys in Sali anymore. Nevertheless, he and his donkey succeeded in coming in last and winning the prize.

Towards the end of the parade in which the dragon with its invisible thread knits a bond among the Salians, the chapel master in his tail coat leads the army of brethren. They march across the shallow waters of the bay at Sali’s lap, and blow through their horns. They go deeper and deeper, until the water reaches their throats. They faithfully blow into their horns that familiar strident melody. Watching from the beach are girls in traditional folk dresses, and children wearing fuštanići and škrpinići just as their nonnas had once worn. And all the people of Sali are watching from the shore. By now, that dull melody has engraved itself well into the people’s ears, yet it still takes them to some unclear depths. They are sure it will ring in their ears until the next Užance festival in a year’s time. “Šjore mare, štrambacera, široka si ka bracera.”

From the bay’s waters sound the tooting from the horns of the Tovareća Mužika. The chapel master in a tail coat frolics and splashes in the shallow waters while directing this unusual orchestra. At one moment he becomes serious, takes off his hat, gulps, and then bows to his brethren. “It was my honor to have served you this year,” he says just loud enough for only them to hear. They spontaneously blow more forcefully into their horns. Then the chapel master leads them out of the water and they begin pouring, splashing and wetting the crowd along the promenade. The excited crowd shrieks and laughs in the commotion. For the last time this year, the Tovareća Mužika forms a procession and marches with a determined step through the crowd and exits from the scene.

People quickly form a circle, or kolo, at the promenade’s center. About a dozen women and girls in traditional folk dresses dance old dances and sing old songs. The crowd gathers around them and watches the dancers’ mouths singing the songs. The librarian Ante Mihić is in the crowd, but his eyes are to the floor, watching their steps.


THE THIRD CHARACTER.

David Frka loves his place so much, that his mouth spreads into a wide smile while he talks about it. He is 28 years old and enjoys wearing a tail coat. For six years he has served the function of the chapel master, and this year is his last. Like a true leader, he willingly stepped down from the throne and handed the director’s baton to one of his brothers.  At times, however, when he thinks about it, he gulps. It is late at night of the last day of the Užance festival, and he is walking down the promenade surrounded by numerous friends. They have already drunk a lot, but aren’t tottering. He has taken his tail coat off, and knows well that if he ever puts it on again for some other opportunity, it won’t be the same feeling. Sali still smells of fish stew, brudet, and on the stage is a famous band playing a new song that keeps repeating the refrain ajme meni nije mi dobro, ajme meni ovo je san, “Oh my goodness, I don’t feel good, oh my goodness, this is a dream.”

David Frka feels as if he is in some unusual dream, but he’s okay because his brethren are with him. He says there are more and more young people staying in Sali, so during the winter it’s easy to gather a crowd for a game of soccer. He says that he is “proud like crazy”. He is proud that he is continuing with the tradition of his place and that he’s got great company. He says you don’t need more than that in life. And when he talks about it, his mouth spreads into a smile.


THE SEVENTH DAY.

Morning. A few days after the Užance festival. Sali is still quite a lively place. There are more people than in the winter, and on the outside, the people are still outgoing. Salians that had come from all the continents except Asia have now returned home. That resonant melody that takes them to some unclear depths still rings in their ears. The donkey that had won the race is standing motionless in front of its owner’s home. Fuštanići and škrpinići are folded in wardrobes. A child reads a book while waiting in line for bread at the bakery. The old fishery isn’t in use anymore, so when the Užance festival isn’t happening, the smell of fish doesn’t spread throughout Sali. In front of a house whose cellar still smells of salt, sits grandma Arizona in her traditional folk dress. Jerolim Armanini sits at his desk and works on putting together the final pieces of the huge mosaic of his place in time. The Tovareća Mužika brethren are still catching up with their sleep. David Frka is the first of them to wake. He recalls how his užance are over, gulps, and heads resolutely into the day. The first row of homes along the sea promenade are built from stone. The rude remarks written along the promenade have faded under the steps of the crowds walking up-down. This year’s winner of the unofficial contest for taking criticism is a couple that had married in their later years. And this morning they continue floating in their balloon of happiness.

The town has the sea at its lap, and in it a few small boats are rocking. A kalafat, boat-maker, is hammering with his wooden hammer, a priest in the parish church atop the hill is announcing a baptism, a few people at a café are talking, but you can say Sali is a quiet place. Ante Mihić opens the library door and lets the smell of books spread out to Sali’s promenade. He takes a deep breath, his chest expands, and for the umpteenth time, he notices how that silence is the thread that weaves Sali’s dream.

1Fuštanići is the diminutive plural for fuštan, a traditional dress worn by women, and škrpinići is the diminutive for škrpini, traditional linen shoes with leather soles worn by women. Nonna, or nona, is a child’s word for grandmother, borrowed from the Italian language.