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Englishman in Dubrovnik Englishman in Dubrovnik

Reliving Christmas past with the priest, the dodgy lingo and the burning ball of disaster

Written by  Dec 19, 2020

The decorations are up, Christmas trees are springing up like mushrooms after the rain and Chris Rhea is yet again driving home for Christmas.

It’s a time to be with families (sorry, not this year), a time to have a festive drink with friends in the pub (again cross that one off the list), a time to kiss and hug (well off the list) and a time to sing carols together (only over Zoom, sorry). It’s a Covid Christmas!

But at least we have 2021 to look forward to. The year of the vaccine! My countrymen have already started injecting the population. And you know the name of the second person to get vaccinated, and this is 100 percent true, his name was William Shakespeare. You just know that when they had the list of names for the vaccination that they pushed his to the top on purpose.

And of course the media loved this. We had headlines like “the Taming of the Flu.” And as a 90-year-old lady, Margaret Keenan, was the first person to get vaccinated, or patient 1A. There was also the joke that “If Margaret Keenan is patient 1A for the vaccine, would William Shakespeare be 2B, or not 2B ..." I’m just loving this humour, just what we need after a frankly awful year.

So to raise spirits I’m reminiscing of Christmas pasts in Dubrovnik. It all starts with incense. For me there is no fouler smell than incense. And I found this out the hard way.

Our very first Christmas here, 22 years ago, I was curious to observe all the traditions and customs. Christmas is a big thing in England and the festive spirit was in my DNA. So on Christmas Eve I followed the crowds to one of the churches inside the city walls. It was packed. Sardines in a tin have more room. I was left with no space to sit so stood on the end of a row.

During the mass a smoky ball of incense was waved around, like a matador goading a bull. As the smoke wafted closer I felt all the blood in my head start to head south. “Are you ok? You look a little green,” said the friend standing next to me. I was far from ok! Clearly my mother was right when she called me “her little devil.” The incense flushed me right out of the mass and into the fresh air.

And then a few weeks later there was a knock at the door. My Croatian at that time consisted of “pivo” (beer) – “hvala” (thanks) and “jebote” (f*@k). So not really conversational.

I was home alone and opened the door to see a priest with a young boy behind me waving burning incense. He said something, although I had no idea what. I could only conclude that he wanted to come in, but for what reason I wasn’t sure. I used the second word in Croatian I had learned, or hvala, and just put a “ne” (no) in front of it as I closed the door. It was probably better I hadn’t used the third word on my list, although I was tempted.

Now at that we lived near the Old City in one of those typical stone homes that looked right out of a Harry Potter movie. And we had two front doors, one upstairs and one downstairs, presumably designed so that in case of fire you could escape quickly. Or maybe so that you could make a breeze?

Within a few minutes of my dodging the incense there was a knock on the upper door. I sprang up the stairs (yes, I was younger then) flew open the door and was greeted by the same priest and his burning friend. The look on his face was priceless. I almost used that third word again! Instead I used another phrase I had remembered “Opet ti!” - (You again!).

Again another priceless look from the priest, this time mixed with confusion and maybe a little horror. I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, I was simply linguistically challenged.

He tried to ask something. I didn’t understand one word, but guessed he was saying “why can’t I come in?” So I pointed to the swinging, burning ball and made an exaggerated movement of holding my nose with a facial expression like a dog had just farted. This of course led to priceless facial expression number three!

Of course “Opet ti” soon became one of my wife’s favourite stories. It was over 20 years ago and I heard her retelling it to a friend just the other day. Firstly, if the “opet ti” priest is reading this can I just say publically that I’m sorry. And to quote the namesake of the second person to be vaccinated “No legacy is so rich as honesty.”

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