Summer vacations were always a source of excitement for me, not only because school was out and we were free to play at will every evening, have friends over all the time and generally just be kids, but also because we usually went to America for a few weeks to visit family.
For several years running, we went to Massachusetts, to Nantucket Island where we shared a beach house with an old college friend of my father's and his family, including sons Billy and Jed, who were the same age as myself and my brother Tom.
We also often visited my mother's parents in Connecticut when I was younger, but after my uncle died in 1979, my grandparents' marriage fractured and they got a divorce. Visits to my father's family were much rarer. My uncle Paul and his family came to visit us once at Easter, but otherwise contact with family was limited to Christmas Cards and letters.
My mother's mother was the one who seemed to write to us most often. In fact, she was a frequent Christmas visitor, arriving with suitcases full of gifts and lots of Christmas cheer.
But summers were usually reserved for trips to the USA. In 1984, my parents did things a little bit differently though, as they had once before, in 1981. 1981 saw us packing up the whole kit and caboodle to spend three weeks in a farmhouse on a remote piece of moorland and Ireland. 1984 brought us via car train to Yugoslavia.
We packed up our car on the train and took the overnight from Brussels to Milan, then unloaded the car and drove down the length of Italy, through Florence and Rome to Bari. We spent three days each in Florence and Rome, then took the ferry across to the coast of Yugoslavia (now Croatia).
From there we drove to a different port city and took a smaller ferry to the island of Korcula where we spent two weeks in a small resort on the island, two or three miles from the beach.
During our stay, we spent most mornings at the beach and afternoons exploring the area. We saw traditional dancing at a medival castle, perused the street markets and spent one entire glorious day discovering the city of Dubrovnik.
The Dubrovnik day trip was a special treat for me, because Tom and Ted stayed behind at the hotel with Mary and Ginny. Mary was our neighbor in Providence and she'd been coming over in the summer to help out my Mom ever since she was fifteen. She babysat for me in Providence, looked after Tom and me in Paris and accompanied us to Nantucket as well. I looked up to Mary and her siblings throughout my childhod. Ginny was a friend of hers and as our family grew, Mom needed more help, so Ginny started coming along as well.
I had Mom and Dad all to myself for entire day. We walked all over the city and I was struck by the beauty of the medieval construction, the massiveness of the walls of the fortified city and the views of the ocean. We had lunch together and I got to order wine like a grown-up. My mother has a series of pictures of me at that lunch. My pale face is alive with freckles from the sun, I'm dressed in a periwinle blue sundress with a sprinkling of white stars and a blue sunshade that makes my eyes stand out vividly. My hair is a windblown mess, though done up in one long braid down my back and I've got on the watch that I was so proud of.
My own pictures of that day, taken with my small instant camera show the city itself in all its glory, a blend of modern and ancient, sun-drenched and bustling with tourists and locals.
Judging from recent footage on T.V. all of that is gone now ...
The beach stands out in my mind as a sunny expanse of rocky sand, leading up water so clear that you could just float in place with snorkeling gear and look out for miles with an unobstructed view of the occasional coral formations, swarming with schools of fish. The water was shallow too, my dad and I swam a mile off-shore in water that was no deeper than my chin to a sand bar where the water was only inches deep. But if you floated just on the edge of the bar, there was a sudden drop of dizzying proportions beyond which deep blue water rife with foot-long sharks stretched out into darkness.
The food, for the most part, was terrible. Especially at the hotel. We learned quickly that if we wanted to get a good meal that we needed to go down to the local kabob joints or to the slasticarnika for sandwiches, booze and ice cream. My mom also was forced to rely on the two jars of peanut butter that she'd brought with her to feed us lunch, because more often than not all that she could find to feed us at the market was bread, apricots and apricot juice.
I developed a marked fondness for apricot juice during that trip. I just couldn't get enough of it.
In the hotel lobby, Tom and I saw our first lizard one day. A little green fellow whose scales rainbowed to purple at the tip of his tail. Fascinated, we tried to catch him. I managed to slap my key chain right down on his tail and exulted, thinking that we'd gotten him. I was amazed when the lizard just gave a little wiggle and left his tail behind, running for all he was worth into a crack beneath the stairs.
There were parties at night out on the concrete stage in the hotel courtyard. During the day Tom and Ted and I would play there, skipping back and forth, dancing and jumping off and onto the stage. The concrete block was covered with the squashed remains of cassis, small round black berries with purple juice that fell from the trees around the courtyard, emitting a sickly-sweet odor that attracted scores of wasps and bees. It's a miracle that neither Tom or I got stung while we played there, though Ted was not as fortunate.
Tom and I would stand on our balcony at night and listen to the music playing down below, catch vague glimpses of the adults dancing, gyrating to the strains of 80s pop and disco. Not for the last time, I would hear a tune that grabbed me and me totally obssessed with it for days on end. When we got back home, I sat down at the piano and figured out the notes for all of the ones that I remembered so that I could play them over and over again.
At last we had to leave, this time we took the ferry to Trieste and drove over the border into Austria. We spent a night in Salzburg and drove on into the mountains. We got lost up there and spent a night in a ski resort town, sleepy now in the summer, but with wonderful duvet covers on the beds and excellent hot chocolate and pastries in the morning.
We drove back to Brussels through Germany and the Ardennes, the miles stretching on before and behind us in a parade of orange stree-lamps, hanging high overhead. I remember falling asleep in the car a few hours from home to the rhythm of the wheels turning and the strains of the radio, my parents talking quietly, Ted squished up against me on one side, Mary on the other and pine trees flying by on the roadside in the darkness.