Monday, May 10, 2010

Social Climbers

"I want to find that bar," said my husband Ron, soon after we landed on the Croatian island of Korcula.  We had read about a place perched on an ancient tower, with 360-degree views of the city and the Adriatic Sea.

I was standing in our room with my backpack on, ready to settle in. But the lure of the tower was strong; I dropped my pack and followed him out the door.

Korcula expands by thousands in the summer, but in May it was quiet, with hardly any tourists. Ron and I wandered through narrow cobblestone streets set in a herringbone pattern, designed in the 15th century to circulate air among buildings while protecting the city from strong ocean winds.

We emerged from an alley to see a harbor off to the left, where sailboats and small cruise ships floated in the sunlit water. Turning right, we walked below the old town wall, taking in the afternoon sun and the scent of sea air.

“Look,” I said, spotting a sign with a picture of a tower. “That must be the place.”

We went up an outside staircase and entered a small room with bare stone walls and one tiny window. Several people sat in nooks against the round walls. We took more stairs to a second level, where half a dozen men were drinking beer and speaking Croatian.

One of them pointed to a ladder. I walked over, looked up and saw a hole in the ceiling and a circle of blue sky. The men stopped talking and watched.

Ron scampered up the 12-foot ladder to the roof. I followed, climbing hand-over-hand, with my purse looped over my arm. My coat was tied around my waist, and halfway up it slipped down to my ankles, entangling me so I couldn’t go up or down.

My husband peered through the hole. “C’mon, you can do it,” he said. What’s taking you so long?”

I clung to a rung with one hand, grabbed my coat with the other and kept on climbing. When I finally emerged, dragging my coat and purse, the drinkers on the roof looked relieved. Perhaps they had pictured a very old woman struggling up the ladder.

"This is not the grand entrance I had pictured," Ron declared.

A ripple of laughter went around the dozen or so people sitting at tables, bundled up against the wind. They went back to conversing in four or five languages.

We sat at an empty table. A waiter came over and took our order, then clipped it to a basket with a clothespin and sent it over the wall. Ten minutes later the same basket brought up our cocktails without spilling a drop.

We relaxed with our drinks and watched others emerge through the hole in various states of relief and wonder. I tried not to think about going back down the ladder.

A young couple plopped down at our table and introduced themselves as Simon and Naomi from Australia. They were on their way to a family wedding in Scotland and bubbled over with stories about their trip.

Next Corbin and David popped out of the hole. They looked so lively that Simon invited them to join us. We spent hours trading swizzle sticks and travel stories, along with details of our lives back home.

David looked in his forties, Corbin ten years younger. They lived in the suburbs of Dallas, and I was captivated to learn that every fall, they planted over 2000 tulip bulbs, then threw a party for 150 when the flowers appeared in the spring.

Ron said we were retired and spent every spring in Europe. We planned to explore Montenegro before returning to Seattle.

“Montenegro? Really?” said Naomi. “What’s that supposed to be like?”

"Mountains, beaches.... We'll find out more and let you know," I replied.

David calmly described how he organized their trips. Meanwhile, Corbin ran around the roof introducing himself to the waiter and all the other customers.

With every round of drinks, our voices and raucous laughter got louder. Couples looking for a quiet evening left, and soon we were the only ones on the roof.

The group grew calmer as we watched the sun go down, painting the sky in shades of rose and orange. Through gaps in the tower’s crenellated wall, I saw a small boat chugging from the harbor to a cruise ship several miles offshore. The last rays of sun were reflected in its wake.

We lingered over our drinks. None of us seemed ready to leave the crossroads that had brought us together. But by eight o’clock the wind had picked up and our group began to disperse. We hugged each other, Corbin hugged the waiter, and our new friends disappeared through the hole.

Ron and I were the last to leave. When I made it down, the locals I'd seen before glanced over and laughed. It was then I realized that we were the entertainment. Watching tourists climb up to the roof and down again was the highlight of their day.

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