It’s my last evening in Croatia, and I’m dedicating it to the humungous portion of pašticada that’s sitting in front of me: two thumping great slices of beef, marinaded for two days in red wine, served in a deliciously thick gravy with a small mountain of gnocchi-like dumplings. Delicious!
After 20 minutes of committed chomping, I’ve barely scratched the surface of Dumpling Mountain, so I admit defeat and ask the waitress for a glass of šljivovica, the local firewater.
It’s doing its digestional stuff quite nicely, when the she returns with another glass. I look at her quizzically; her expression is halfway between amusement and embarrassment.
“The gentleman in the corner sent this for you.”
My eyebrows disappear into my hairline, and I’m not sure what to do. I’ve seen this sort of thing in films, but it’s never happened to me in real life. If I accept the drink, what else am I accepting? Croatians seem like reasonable people, but I’ve lived in Sicily, where saying hello to an unknown man could give him the impression that you’re desperate to have his babies. So naturally, I’m a bit wary.
We look at each other for a few moments as she holds the glass out to me.
“I… er… well… ummm… thank you,” I say, finally taking the glass.
Of course, the acceptance of the drink is swiftly followed by the arrival of my admirer … if I can call him that. Surely there’s scant little to admire: I’m dressed in hiking boots and a waterproof, and I’ve not seen a hairbrush for a week or more. Still, each to his own.
Anyway, I’m thankful that Ivo – for that is my admirer’s name – has a greater command of English than I do of Croatian. He tells me that he’s an engineer of “ship things” and that although he’s always lived in Split, he’s visited Ramsgate for work, and found it very similar to Split. (“Apart from the sun,” I’m tempted to say, but I hold my tongue.)
He smokes more than anybody I’ve ever met, and I tell him so. He shrugs.
“I don’t smoke a lot in the day,” he claims, unconvincingly. “Just at night, with a drink… you know.”
I remind him of this as he pulls out a second packet of cigarettes. He just smiles and empties his pockets onto the table: ‘normal’ ciggies, menthol, and cigarillos. Plus a spare packet of the standard smokes, just in case.
We chat about this and that, and he insists on ordering more šljivovica, which I am mindful to drink very little of. Although he seems like a nice guy, a girl on her own can never be too careful. But the evening passes very pleasantly, and we’re both surprised when the waitress tells us that we’re welcome to sit for as long as we like, but her shift is finished and would we mind paying the bill?
There’s a brief, awkward moment where he attempts to pay for my dinner as well as the drinks, but I insist and press the money on him. He eventually accepts it, shrugging his shoulders in incomprehension.
It’s almost 1am, so he insists on walking me home. If I’m honest, my antennae are on red alert, as experience tells me that many a reasonable gentleman has turned unreasonable at the moment of saying goodnight.
But Ivo is the perfect gentleman. He walks me to the end of the street, and wishes me a good night.
“Maybe,” he says, “we could exchange emails. If you would like. But only if you would like.”
So we do, then we shake hands politely and he’s gone.
Although I could never be with a guy who smokes like a kipper, Ivo scores pretty highly on the gentleman scale. Plus he’s over 25 and below 55.
For once, I’m completely and utterly lost for words.