As the midnight train bound for St. Petersburg rumbled through the pitch-black Moldovan countryside, I tried valiantly to remain asleep, but my attempts were futile. The cabin was cozier than expected. We had plenty of room to stretch out and we were given care packages filled with comfortable bedding. However, the atmosphere was sweltering hot and unfamiliar. Romanian-Moldovan and Russian filled the air, and even though the train was nowhere near capacity, the cacophony of noise made it hard to drift into a deep slumber.
Walking through the ancient Roman city of Salona, a swathe of land dotted with 2,000-year-old stone ruins near seaside Split, Croatia, we felt a bit like Indiana Jones. We playfully feigned jubilation that we had just chanced upon an undiscovered ancient place, as we explored the remnants of the city, which was once home to more than 40,000 inhabitants.
Salona is undoubtedly an archaeological gem, deserving of such praise, however, on this February day, there were only a handful of local residents at the site. We were likely the only travelers there.
One pair of locals enjoyed a picnic on the lawn, surrounded by the old city walls; a woman hung laundry in her backyard which overlooks the ancient amphitheater; and another couple tended to their olive trees, on a plot of land overlooked by the mighty Klis Fortress (a site that has recently gained notoriety as a Game of Thrones filming location). When the gardening couple heard that we fancied Croatia’s delicious wild asparagus, which was in season at the time, they hunted for some in their garden. Plucking a few stalks out of the earth, they generously insisted that we take them as a souvenir to be enjoyed at dinner.
In a black and white image, bordered in a simple silver frame on my piano, she is seated behind the wheel of a classic roadster. Coyly sporting a riding cap, cream-colored driving gloves, and her trademark smile is a woman who not only taught me arpeggios, flats and sharps, but about life, its remarkable coincidences and values that we should hold dear.
We first met in March 1987. I was nearly ten, and my piano-teacher to-be, Mrs. Erna Blonek, was 86. I remember thinking that the diminutive elderly woman, with wavy hair as white as snow, spoke with a funny accent. My mother later explained that Mrs. Blonek was originally from Czechoslovakia. Over time, I learned that she had been widowed in the 1960s and that she and her radiologist husband, František, had immigrated to the United States in the late 1930’s.