My kayaking trip to Croatia in 2005 got off to a rough start. During the first day, crossing swell on the Adriatic made for seas so steep and confused that seasickness slowed me to a crawl, and that night a storm brought lightning ground strikes and winds of 40 knots, flattening my guide’s tent and forcing us to retreat from the open ground where we’d camped to find shelter. It made for a good story, the kind I was used to writing about: facing challenges. The trip ended well, and in a way that I grew to appreciate the more I traveled in small boats: chance meetings with remarkable strangers.
My guide Radovan and I were on our final day, paddling along the north coast of Mljet, a slender 19-mile-long island, 4 miles off the Croatian coast and 15 miles northwest of the city of Dubrovnik. We stopped at Kozarica, a village of only a dozen buildings nestled between its harbor and the steep wooded slope of the ridge that runs the length of the island. We landed on a gravelly beach tucked in the inner corner of the harbor and pulled the kayaks ashore between the handful of open fishing boats hauled out there.
The village was quiet, and Radovan and I were alone for several minutes, before a man wearing a blue coat and a yellow baseball cap emerged from a passageway between the harborside buildings. He walked up to us; I said Dobar dan—good afternoon—one of the few bits of Croatian I’d picked up. He nodded. Radovan spoke with him in Croatian and translated for me. His name was Pero, but he was called Brko, the mustached guy. He had a weather-creased face, deep-set brown eyes, and a short black beard showing the first signs of turning gray. Beneath his coat, showing below his throat, he had on a white sweatshirt, a green plaid shirt, and a T-shirt.
It was early in the morning and Brko invited us for breakfast, so we followed him to a 4′-wide alley that led to his kitchen, a single room with just the one door from the outside—he slept in a room in another building. The kitchen’s two windows were darkened by shutters and the room was lit by a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, casting sharp-edged shadows on the walls. The floor was a foot deep with juniper boughs. Brko motioned for me to sit at the table in the seat where he had been eating breakfast. I sat down to a white enamel bowl and the jaw of a pig, leathery brown with a row of teeth facing me and half of a lip curled back over a bed of dark boiled greens. Brko, talking to Radovan, pointed to a picture on the wall. It was of Croatia’s president on a visit to Kozarica and behind him stood a beaming Brko. Taped to the opposite wall was a year-old poster-sized calendar with a photograph of a woman leaning against shelves of wine bottles and wearing tight white shorts and a pair of silver stars. Hung from a cupboard knob by a piece of blue plastic twine was a leg of ham, which Brko had been slicing away at.
He set a frying pan on the stove, poured in 1/2″ of green olive oil, and picked two eggs out of a box on the floor—one white, the other brown, its shell as lumpy as alligator skin. While the eggs were bubbling in the hot oil, Pero pulled a block of cheese out of a bucket, scraped off a gummy gray outer layer and sliced thin shavings onto our plates. He served the eggs, sunny side up, glistening with a sheen of oil.
I asked Brko about the boughs lying on the floor. They were for making lobster traps. I had seen several of the traps at the edge of the harbor. They were about 5′ long and the diameter of a basketball hoop. Split boughs were woven in a tight pattern of triangles on the cylinder walls and in opposing spirals at the ends, like the pattern of a sunflower’s seed head.
Brko said it took him two days to make a trap. As intricate as they were, I would have thought they would take much longer. They were as much works of art as utilitarian objects. The outer shell came to a domed end and two funnels of woven withies inside the cylinder would lead the lobsters in and keep them in. The layers of juniper withies, bent in spirals and circles and bound with thin galvanized wire, created mesmerizing patterns in an elegant form that I would be happy to have in my living room.
Hanging on the wall by the kitchen door was a hooked tool for harvesting the boughs. Next to it was an adze, a small and simple tool with a blackened steel blade. If there had been a hardware store in town that carried them, I would have bought one. I asked Radovan if it would be inappropriate to ask Brko if I could buy his. Radovan translated for me and Brko, answered, “No, I need that. It’s a good one that I bought on a market day in Dubrovnik on the Day of Saint Blaise, the town’s patron saint.” It was just the kind of answer I’d give to anyone who might ask to buy any of my tools. A tool that’s useful, feels good in the hand, and has history can’t be replaced at any price.
As Radovan and I ate, a black cat, its right eye swollen closed, came into the kitchen and leaned up against Brko’s leg. He stooped down and cupped his hand over its head and spoke to it in a high, sweet voice.
After breakfast, Brko took us back to the harbor to check on one of the traps he’d set there. His boat, built by his brother, had a white hull and a light blue sheerstrake and deck. He pointed to a boat just like it, resting on the beach by our kayaks, built by his brother for his own use. The trap Brko pulled up had been sitting right under his boat where it was tied to the dock. It had a dozen lobsters in it—it was clearly as effective as it was beautiful. Brko had wrapped it in green fish net when he’d returned to the harbor to keep the day’s catch securely stored.
Radovan and I had to get underway again to meet our rendezvous at the west end of Mljet. As Brko walked us back to our kayaks, a little girl with short blonde hair and dark sullen eyes ran up to Pero and wrapped her arms around his knees. He put his hand on her shoulder and spoke to her in the same sweet voice he’d spoken to the cat. I said goodbye—Dovidenja—and shook his hand. His grip was gentle and his hands surprisingly soft for all the work he does with them. Brko said goodbye to us, and bowed his head toward the girl as the two held hands and walked away along the stone-paved street, deep in conversation.