I have a dear friend in Melbourne who is an islomaniac. I had heard of the term before, but I didn’t know what it really meant, until I came to the fishing village of Šepurine, on the island of Prvić, in the Adriatic Sea.
Places always seem to float in my imagination until they are moored by a small detail. Even staying in them does not always produce this result. London, where I was taken quite often as a child, has never really happened for me. It evokes fleeting memories of Harrods, of the floating bridge that nearly fell down in front of the Tate Modern, and of the Tate Modern itself . . . London is bits of London, but as a whole, it remains elusive.
I am not a real traveller. Not one of your adventurers who shakes the sand from their sandals and sets off without a backward glance. Nostalgia is a kind of fever I cannot shake off and each departure is made complex by a web of Lilliputian strings pulling me this way and that. The first time I came to Šepurine, I felt something dark and still. I didn’t want to stay. But my partner, a poet, was beside himself the instant he clapped eyes on the place. Like Poseidon in his secret soul, his enthusiasms are ocean-like and build up in towering waves. He heaves himself backward and, from his great height, lets out a sigh, a cry and a deep chuckle all in one. Šepurine hit him full in the face, made him drop his trident to embrace the Šepurine sky with an inarticulate WTF of disbelief.
This small Croatian fishing village lies just off the Dalmatian Coast. It has a church with a bulbous steeple, crowded by red roofs and stone houses kneeling gently before the sea, the sea, the sea . . . Its narrow village lanes are paved with the same beautiful white silky stone as Dubrovnik, breaking up into a tapestry underfoot. (Obviously, a poor fishing village had to make do with the off cuts). There are no cars, even bikes are frowned upon, the only noises are the church bells, the chug-chug of tractors with tiny, decrepit, breathless motors, and the silence of cats— that’s it. The church bells ring at the drop of a hat, for more reasons than the time, but instead of making you jump out of your skin, they feel like the beating heart of the place. The cats, disdainful, philosophical, spiritual masters of the land, are everywhere.
Beautiful as it was, I was still wary. Of course I admired Šepurine’s bulbous steeple, its church bells, its cats, its shop with hardly anything in it, its ferry you have to take to get your food in exquisite Šibenik, or Vodice, which are the closest towns on the coast, its heavenly walks on scraggy hills, terraced by wandering stone walls. Of course I admired its uninhabited islands in the distance that seem to detach themselves from the sea to float across the horizon, and the Adriatic blue waters skimmed by pure white sails and sturdy fishing boats. But there was something dark too.
As we strolled through the village, we asked around for somewhere to rent. A guy proposed to take us to his friend’s home, but it was too far from the heart of Šepurine, where we wanted to be. As we came down the hill, I noticed a tiny blue rental sign on a very small stone house near the church. Ah, said the man, a sailor who came back once a year to Šepurine, that’s her house, pointing to a young woman sitting on the steps below the church with her two small children. She had a strange face, where beauty sat crookedly, as if not really meaning to be there, but still occupying the whole territory of her being. A beauty that was nonchalant, lackadaisical, inopportune. She had almond shaped eyes and lived and worked in Zagreb. She would be going back there in a few days and, yes, we could see her house.
It was a dark, tiny village home, more like a cave in my opinion and I thought Oh no! It was all in stone and full of a poignant character, but the next house was a metre away. The only vistas were the stone walls of the neighbours’ houses. Although they were beautiful, they were also unremittingly prison-like, or so they seemed to me (I am slightly claustrophobic). Up the stairs was a bedroom with two wooden boat-like beds. On one side stood a majestic ironing board, on the other – a shrine with a statue of the Virgin Mary. I slept on her side because I thought Paul would be too much of a handful, even for her. I kept my fear coiled up and worked outside on a plastic table set up for me by the owner on the tiny stone street. There I could see a patch of sky. The rent was generously affordable, and so we decided to ditch all other travel plans and settle for two months in magical Šepurine.
As the days went by I met a black dog who looked like an old English colonel about to trot off to his club in London. He was skinny, with very white whiskers and a desolate, humorous gaze. We befriended him and he made room for us in his independent life, descending on our cave for visits and following us on our walks. Like an inverted Cerberus, he started converting me. My sense of the place was being patched up, like the white stones in the village lanes.
I was also looking for a healer. There are plenty in the small villages of the South of France and I was used to them. They cured my dog, they had warts disappear off my hand. If you give them a lock of hair, they can help someone from a distance. Like water diviners, they are commonplace in Old Europe. But there were none in Šepurine. I asked several times and gave up. Then a man came to me and gave me some rubbery plant heads. ‘They are good for warts,’ he said. My partner Paul has a wart on his index finger. I began rubbing it with the plant heads three times a day. He humorously submitted.
I entered into a correspondence with the owner of the house, who happens to be a writer. She lunged into English without a backward glance and her letters were like seeing the view out of an open window, completely fresh for my eyes, as if I had never seen it before. She made Šepurine whole, once and for all. She had experienced her first love here. Her father and her childhood friend had died here. The diffident way she wrote to me about this, and her description of her father’s funeral, were lessons in the beauty of the village. Her relationship to Šepurine took away my last shreds of fear—even if she confirmed my first impression by having me understand its link to death. Šepurine was getting its claws deep into me.
We stayed in the cave house for two weeks and then, at the approach of autumn, which they call the grandmother summer, she offered her sister’s house to us. It was right by the harbour and would cost the same rent. I was nearly sad to leave the cave, but we moved all the same to this house gorged with light and sea.
One day I was working outside on a little table when two men in coloured, festooned traditional vests and black trousers sat down in front of me. They explained they were going to sing for a funeral. I hadn’t noticed anything brewing on the street. I got up in a hurry to clear the decks and Paul and I both stood at the door to watch the procession. The coffin was brought by a small ferry weighed down, ripe with people. They all filed out in total silence, bleeding black clothes onto the stone pier. One man was sobbing on a woman’s shoulder. The priest came in his robes and everyone stood there without a word until the singing started: a haunting, mournful cry, unmelodic but pure, strangely beautiful, rising like a wild bird cry. As soon as it was over they all walked to the church and disappeared as the echo of the waves returned.
The next day, hanging around outside the church and wondering how we might see inside —it was always locked—I noticed a burly guy with a crew cut walk into the adjoining house. He looked like a fisherman—tough, browned by the sun, and fit. He would know. They are mostly Catholics here, except when they are lapsed Communists. I mouthed two Croatian words I knew for Hello and Sorry: Dobodan and Žao mi je. He turned round and said: ‘Sure mate,’ in the purest Australian accent I had ever heard in my life. I had a double take and blinked at him. When I asked he explained that he was born in Australia, but that his parents had come back here. As the days went past, we realised there were a lot of similar Australian echoes about. Šepurine has a bond with Perth. People from this village travelled there in the 1930’s, and others followed, especially in the 60’s—but they nearly always returned to Šepurine. Sometimes to visit, sometimes to live, but sometimes to die … Everyone who leaves here is compelled to return, as if the stillness at the core of the place calls out to them. Every person you meet— the shopkeeper, the old fisherman, the young girl who has come for the weekend— has a similar story of return, a compulsive need, as if the place is tugging at them, as if loving Šepurine made you into a kind of ghost wanting to haunt it, to become one with the memories entrapped here. It will be strange to leave ourselves.
But all is not dark. The water is so clear you can see an octopus coming from miles away. One of them, a small one luckily, and a female no doubt, embraced Paul’s foot with its tentacles as he was munching biscuits in the sea. He shook his leg and it darted off, in search of someone more congenial. The Croatians’ attitude to them is comparable to the Australians’ to sharks—no worries. But we have no wish to meet another octopus. They have beaks and drag their prey into dark holes. Ten Thousand Leagues Under the Sea springs to mind. You can be sure they are plotting some poor creature’s demise as they float around so dreamily. As for the gulls, they are gigantic, and stand guard on the rooftops by the mouth of the harbour, on the lookout for the fishing boats returning to the marina that toss their rejects overboard.
It is so peaceful and beautiful here. Every breath is like a prayer. Yet at any time a storm may come rushing at you, riding roughshod over the uninhabited islands, thundering closer and closer until it seizes Šepurine completely.
One late afternoon, after a storm, I went for a walk and passed in front of a church in the only other village on the island: Prvić Luka. The door was wide open, it was brilliantly lit in the dusk. I walked in. Fifteen elderly people were in prayer, with no priest in sight. They seemed to be half chanting, half reciting the rosary. I sat at the back, near an exquisite silver icon of the Virgin. I sat there, a lapsed Catholic, even a lapsed Christian, and who feels more Pagan than anything else, and let the unknown language wash over me like the sea, the sea, the sea . . .
Catherine de Saint Phalle is the author of Poum and Alexandre (Transit Lounge), which was shortlisted for The Stella Prize 2017.