Holiday Shopping in Croatia – What’s The Hurry?


There is always a nearby coffee bar.  Radoslav chats with a friend where we had coffee together.

There is always a nearby coffee bar. Radoslav chats with a friend where we had coffee together.

Each week Florence and I stroll to the local market to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables.  A vendor named Radoslav has noticed us shopping every week, so one day he asks us, “Do you live here?”  We tell him, “Yes, we live here in Šibenik.”  Florence gives him our business card with our photos and the caption, The 6 Monthers, which we explain means we move to a different country every six months. 

Rado and his wife at their fresh produce stand

Rado and his wife at their fresh produce stand

That wins us a big smile.  However, he is curious.  He seems surprised like so many people when we tell them Šibenik is currently our home.  Šibenik is not as well known as Split and Dubrovnik, the big cities on the Dalmatian Coast, and people are always curious why we chose to live here.  The people are so proud of their city that it warms their hearts to learn someone from the United States would choose Šibenik in which to live.

Last week, Rado as we call him, invited us to join him for coffee so we could sit and visit the next time we come to the market.  His wife tended to their vegetable booth while Florence and I accompanied Rado to a nearby coffee bar.  There is always a nearby coffee bar.  Rado had not practiced his English for a long time.  Because his English is so much better than my Croatian, we managed to understand one another. 

The variety is amazing at the open market.

The variety is amazing at the open market.

He told us about his family farm 10 miles up the coast.  He told us he gets up every morning except Sundays at 4:00 a.m. to drive his farm fresh vegetables to our market.  He beams with pride when he tells us he has two sons and five grandchildren.  We learned his farm has 1,200 vines for growing grapes and enough olive trees to produce about 70 liters of olive oil for his family and the families of his four siblings.  His grapes are for selling at the market except for enough to make a personal store of white wine to serve with dinner.  When I asked if he also made rakija (ROCK ee ya), the popular Croatian brandy he said, “Of course!  You come back tomorrow and I will give you some.”  These Croatians – they are always so generous!

Christmas decorations going up around the town will be lit up ten days before Christmas.

Christmas decorations going up around the town will be lit up ten days before Christmas.

Rado used to work at a produce distribution center in the capital city of Zagreb.  He lost that job last summer when the big retailers came in with their own distribution system.  It is challenging enough to find good paying work in Croatia.  Big corporations have pushed out the little guys which makes it harder.  I asked why we do not see more young people at the market.  He said, “Young people go to the supermarkets to shop so they can charge everything on their debit or credit cards.  They do not have enough cash.”

Decorations are up at Šibenik City Hall.

Decorations are up at Šibenik City Hall.

That tells us something about Croatia.  There is not enough work for the young people.  About 4.5 million citizens remain in Croatia while over a million have left their country to find work in Western Europe, particularly in Germany, and another million Croatians have moved wherever there are jobs like Canada, United States, Chile, New Zealand and Australia.  Having found better lives elsewhere, these Croatians are not coming back.  That is Croatia’s loss and the other countries’ gain because Croatians are not only wonderful people, but also hardworking. 

One thing I have learned from our time in Croatia is how to enjoy living at a comfortable pace.  We made time to enjoy coffee with a friend.  We sipped instead of gulped.  We relaxed without looking at the clock.  We made a memory out of a routine shopping trip, a timely reminder this holiday season that the little things are often the greatest gifts. 



Top 10 Things I Love About Mexico

Art and culture are on display everywhere in Mexico.

Art and culture are on display everywhere in Mexico.

Our stay in Mexico is approaching the end, and it is appropriate to reflect on our experiences. We still have another month and a half before our final departure. However, I will be on assignment in the U.S. for four weeks. So before our stay draws to a close I want to share my Top 10 list for Mexico:

Ancient civilizations left their mark.

Ancient civilizations left their mark.

1. Restaurant Food – There are fabulous restaurants in Mexico. Our host, Jim Horn, has introduced us to the finest eateries in Cuernavaca.
2. Fresh Fruit – The variety and abundance of fresh fruit is the best in the Western Hemisphere. Everything grows here.
3. Hospitality – The people are friendly and helpful. They want visitors to feel welcome, and we do!
4. Health Care – On the few occasions when we needed care, we found world class health care at reasonable prices on our “pay-as-you-go” plan.
5. Climate – While it was snowing in places in the U.S., I was getting a tan. Enough said.
6. Cheese – Before arriving in Mexico, I was craving good cheese. We found great cheeses in Mexico!
7. History – The remains of civilization in Mexico rivals the relics of the Old World dating back thousands of years.
8. Butterflies and Hummingbirds – We have never seen so many of these beautiful creatures in one place.
9. Diversity of Culture – Movies, art, theater, music, indigenous culture, it is all here.
10. Infrastructure for Tourism – There is an excellent transportation system and the roads are well maintained.

Honorable Mention

Artisans and food vendors abound.

Artisans and food vendors abound.

Safety – The bad rap Mexico gets in the American media is simply unfair. We have felt as secure in Mexico as anyplace we have been in the U.S. or any other country we have visited.
Tranquility – Our recent visit to the town square on a Sunday was typical. Families were out with their children. Young people strolled while holding hands. Elderly folks sat with friends in sidewalk cafes sipping coffee.
Shopping – We frequently stroll among shops and stalls to see what is for sale. Most recently we bought a brightly painted ceramic crucifix for 40 pesos ($3.40) and a nicely crafted carry-on backpack for 180 pesos ($16.50).

Did we miss anything?

Birds and butterflies visit me often in my "office."

Birds and butterflies visit me often in my “office.”

Mexico is a big country, and we missed seeing a lot of it. Neither of us are what you would call “beach people,” so we did not visit the coast. Nor did we make it to Puebla, Yucatan or the lush southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. There is simply too much of Mexico to take in over a short span of time. Some might say, “But you had six months! That is plenty of time to see so much of Mexico.” That may seem true. However, we are not on vacation. Vacation living is often expensive and exhausting.

Mexico is a big and scenic country.

Mexico is a big and scenic country.

We adopted our Six Monther lifestyle to take life at a normal pace. We attended some expat meetings. We saw a couple of first-run movies. We found local shops for food and services. We adopted exercise routines. We even published a book. In order to take in more of the things worth seeing, we will need to return someday and perhaps we will. However, there is much of the world yet to see.

Our home for the second half of 2013 will be Scotland. Have you visited Scotland? What do you think is a must-see destination?

living in Mexico

A Panama Christmas

The town square is festively decorated for Christmas.

The town square is festively decorated for Christmas.
Photo credit: Lee Zeltzer,

Amid the cheerful holiday trappings of Christmas are the aromas wafting from our kitchen as Florence bakes traditional holiday breads as gifts for our wonderful friends – cranberry orange bread, carrot bread, zucchini bread, pumpkin bread, and her classic banana bread with chocolate chips. I have performed my solemnly sworn duty of quality control, making sure each variety of sweet bread is good enough to share with others. I am pleased to report that all varieties passed with flying colors again this season.

Decorations adorn most shops and businesses. Holiday breads are sold by street vendors. The town square in Boquete has a two-story tall Christmas tree with lights and stars and bright red ribbons adorning it. A Christmas party was held for the local children last weekend, and I saw smiling faces as bright colored balloons and toys were handed out by generously supportive organizations. Miniature ponies were saddled to provide horseback rides for the youngest children.

As you would expect in a country that is 90 percent Catholic, the Christmas season is especially meaningful in Panama. Attending midnight mass is common, and gifts are exchanged on Christmas Day. It is a family time, and relatives come from all around in order to spend time together.

There is a local custom I learned about related to Christmas. If you have a friend or family member who does not own their own home, you give them a gift of a manger which includes the Nativity scene of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. However, the manger is not complete. Once that person moves into his or her own house, custom dictates they obtain additional figurines or toy animals that help complete the manger scene.

A model nativity scene is given in hopes the recipients will find a home of their own.

A model nativity scene is given in hopes the recipients will find a home of their own.

If the manger gift recipient knows someone else who needs a house of their own, then prior to the next Christmas they pass the gift forward to the new recipient after removing all but the human figures. These gifts are passed on and on among family and friends in the form of a Christmas wish for the recipient to find a home of their own. Each time this nativity gift is given, the giver replaces it with one to keep for the holidays.

In a country where gifts are not elaborate, these nativity scenes are given to spread the joy and cheer that comes from deep religious conviction and Christian love. However you choose to celebrate Christmas, may the gifts you give and receive bring joy to you and those you love.

Back Home in Panama

We are on the turbo-prop commuter flight from San Jose, Costa Rica, and through the clouds I recognize the Pacific coastline of Panama coming into view. We’ve been traveling for over three weeks, and the now familiar landscape surrounding the city of Davíd below us evokes a visceral sense of contentment that comes with knowing we are almost home.

It seems remarkable to experience this sense of pleasure when I reflect on the fact that we lived in Panama for only three months prior to this trip. I compare living here to falling in love. Panama is like an attractive woman with a personality and charm that is irresistible. When you are with her you are immersed in a sensation of heightened pleasure. Food tastes better. Colors seem brighter. We have all experienced something like that. Likewise, when you are apart you can’t wait to see her again. It’s like that. And so I am comforted to be back in Panama.

From The Big Apple to The Big Easy

I’m cruisin’, Mon!

We flew to New York City October 20th from Tocumen Airport in Panama City to board the Norwegian Star for a repositioning cruise that ended in New Orleans two weeks later, our objective being to complete the International Guide Academy’s Certified Tour Manager Training. The seven days at sea were our classroom days. There were twenty-two of us in the class from five countries. Many had no prior group-leading experience. Ultimately, we learned a great deal and we all passed the course.

We were just a couple days ahead of Hurricane Sandy, which impacted a number of the guests on the cruise who didn’t know for several days if they had intact homes to return to back in The Big Apple. Nevertheless, spirits were high and we lucked out with great weather the entire cruise.

Our cruise ended in New Orleans. This was my first visit to The Big Easy, and it is like no other city I have ever visited. Total strangers walked up to us tourists (the camera hung from the neck is an obvious tell) to ask where we were from and if we needed help finding anything. The beignets were so good in the morning that I went back for more at lunchtime. Standing on the banks of the Mississippi River evoked recollections of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. Incredible music wafted from every direction. If ever there were a city I would want to revisit it would be New Orleans.

Florence brings a gift to Marie Laveau, The Voodoo Queen.

We had one last duty to perform before our departure. It so happens that my wife, Florence, had visited the grave of Marie Laveau, The Voodoo Queen, back in 2005 before we met, and wished for a husband. As this wish was obviously granted, Florence was obligated to return to Marie Laveau’s gravesite with a thank-you offering (because you don’t mess with voodoo). Florence had picked out a ring of beads to honor her pact, which she dutifully placed on the tomb with a blessing of thanks. We were immediately engaged in a conversation with a local visitor to this famous site, after which we turned our attention back to the tomb. The ring had disappeared. It had not fallen to the ground, and no one else had approached the site during this brief encounter. We are at a loss to explain this event other than to say that perhaps The Voodoo Queen recognized the gift as genuine and took it with her to wherever she now resides.

Now we can head for home.

Have a cigar!

Today I learned more about cigars than I ever thought mattered. Apparently it did matter because, even though neither my wife nor I smoke, we both bought cigars to try. Talking with the owner of Panama Caribbean Tobacco, David Reynaga, we learned how tobacco is grown, dried, prepped, sorted, rolled, shaped, finished, labeled, packaged, and ultimately marketed and sold. We were told the gift cigars we bought for $4.00 would retail in Panama City for at least $7.00, and in the U. S. they could sell for $15 or more.

The pipe-shaped cigar in the pipe-shaped box is a quality cigar and a novelty.

There were a few surprises in store, like cigars in shapes like a pipe, a hockey stick, and pencil-thin miniature cigars. There was even a monster cigar, and no serious cigar lover would attempt to light up such a manly smoke without a couple hours to kick back and contemplate life’s simple pleasures.

I was told you don’t inhale cigar smoke. The pleasure is in tobacco’s earthy aroma and the fragrances released in the smoke, not unlike incense. A major difference between cigars and other forms of tobacco like cigarettes is that you don’t light a cigar unless you have 30-60 minutes to relax and enjoy the experience. Cigar smoking is a social activity; like drinking fine wine, it is seldom done alone. Another difference is that cigars are not habit forming. When I asked about nicotine cravings, I was told nicotine isn’t what gets you hooked on cigarettes. It’s the other chemicals, the ones the tobacco industry won’t talk about, that make you chemically dependent on cigarettes.

Owner, David Reynaga (on right), loves sharing his knowledge. His company produces the only 100% Panamanian cigar, a great choice for the connoisseur.

Whether or not you have the urge to light up a cigar, the tour of Panama Caribbean Tobacco in Concepción, Chiriqui, Panama, is well worth the trip. Entry is free of charge. To find the place, leave the Pan American Highway in Concepción on the road to Volcán, about 19 km. west of David. The turn is well-marked driving west. Drive 3-5 minutes and look for the green building next door to and just before the Terpel Gas Station on your left. Say “hi” to David for me.

This monster cigar is the largest custom made cigar I have ever seen.

Cigars made petite and mild are designed for women. Florence hasn’t tried one yet.

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