You can forget a whole section of your life then you hear a song, smell a fragrance or taste a food that teleports you back so fast you sometimes land on your butt.
Coming into Koper, our hometown was like that.
This is where I was born and there are few memories not associated with this beautiful medieval town.
We left Koper over 40 years ago when we emigrated to Canada. I would be back for one day in 1972 with my father and uncle. We had returned to visit my ailing grandfather. It was a quick visit marred with sadness. This was different. We were back to reclaim our old home, and connect with our best friends.
These cobble-stoned streets had been our playground as we scrambled over ancient Roman aqua-ducts, sprawled inside Venetian fountains and swam in the ocean. In this Italian city gelato was considered its own food group.
Walking after dinner was a daily ritual. The adults would hail each other while we dared each other to stick our hands into the mouths of stone gargoyles. I still recall the terror as I plunged my small hand down that dark hole, convinced the gargoyle would snap it off with sharp bloody fangs.
It was normal that my best friend growing up was Nives, her parents being my mom and dad’s best-friends. Adriane found her on FaceBook a year ago, and then just a few months before we came to Slovenia, Nives found Tamara, my sister’s best friend.
And here we were sitting together, with more than half a lifetime passed, looking at each other through the gulf of years — familiar but strange, connected by family, pulled apart by time.
It was wonderful hearing stories about our parents, and meeting their husbands. Bojan, married to Nives, is a history buff who showed us historic photos of Koper.
I was tourist and archaeologist digging up memories. As we walked down the streets we laughed as we called out memories: “This is where we took ballet! Isn’t this the old ice cream shop where the owners would give us free treats? I know this place! Here is where I had shoplifted a chocolate when I was five!” My criminal career ended quickly. I confessed to my mom and then had to apologize to the merchant as I handed back the small bar. Crime, I decide, wasn’t worth it.
Larger than life, in the heart of my memories is the tall Tomos apartment building. Home was the corner unit, second floor. That balcony was my toddler’s universe. The building is vacant now and for $2 million euros it could be had. Sadly, we couldn’t get inside to visit the bachelor unit we lived in. At night a curtain would separate our parents bedroom from the sofa (where my sister slept). So much for privacy. No wonder they sent us to our grandparents every summer.
There was a small bar sized fridge, a kitchen table, the sofa/bed and my parents bed. It was sparse but it had bookshelves crammed with the great classics, a gramophone belted out the latest Italian hits – Rita Pavone, my favorite. We’d sit and watch as my dad blew out a Glen Miller tune or two on his trumpet. I bet the neighbors loved that!
Tomas apartments is located two blocks from the swimming beach and it has a rooftop patio. At night my parents would point out the stars above and the lights of Venice simmering on the horizon. We imagined Koper in the 12th century and what it was like for Marco Polo growing up in a family of merchants in Venice — just over the water.
Most of my formative years were spent around that apartment block. But its influence on our family was much greater than we knew.
My father worked as an engineer for Tomas and was next on a wait list for a larger unit. When the company officials passed him by, he knew he would always had an uphill battle. Opportunities would be few in a country that was state run – things worked better if you were a “good” member of the Communist party. My dad had spent three years in prison after Adriane was born for criticizing the government. Life is funny. If we had got the larger unit we probably wouldn’t be in Canada now.
Koper is even more beautiful then the child in me remembers. The narrow streets are clean and shops and cafes welcome you inside. In the centre of town is Titov Trg named after Marshall Tito, the benevolent dictator who kept the country of Yugoslavia together for so many years.
As I drift to sleep in my friend’s home in the heart of Koper, my last memory before I fall asleep is the secure grip of my parents hands holding mine as we walked in the dark evenings along these cobble-stoned streets. Their firm grip made sure that if I stumbled they’d catch me.
My parents are gone now but somehow they are still catching my falls.