Sun, sea, and carbon monoxide: avoiding smoke in Croatia


Not Porto, just FYI. But they do play good classic rock here. (It’s called Sveti Martin.)

Croatia is glorious. Too hot for me, you understand, but that’s probably because I didn’t inherit many of the Portuguese genes from the Brazil side of the family, so I’m about as Anglo-Saxon-looking as a person could possibly be without also having blue eyes. I burn and peel rather than tanning, tend to get very woozy in high heat, spend most of the summers in Croatia asking for glasses of ice in restaurants to hold against my chest and neck, and my position on sun exposure is “skin damage” rather than “much-needed vitamin D”. This is probably why I chose to live in England (not that it stops me from constantly complaining during the Very Dark And Cold Months of October to April). Being about seven months pregnant also means that I find the heat here utterly unbearable, and can’t stand up for very long. 
IMG_4013Nevertheless: I do love to swim. The sea here, ringed by rocks (not sand) and sweet-smelling pine trees, is great, almost surreal – clear as glass, mostly calm, and warm enough to dive into every day – and the evenings here are beautiful. The best time is the hour or two spent outside just as the sun is setting, writing in an unjustly half-empty restaurant called Porto (where Renato and Lorena make probably the best food I’ve ever eaten in my life, right down to the very newest dish, clam carpaccio), on the harbour here in Losinj, the island where my in-laws live. I’m very lucky to be here on holiday, the last time I’ll be allowed to fly before baby C-B makes an appearance at the end of September. And though I can’t think straight enough to write new words in the intense heat of most of the day, those cool evenings – what would be called “very warm evenings” in England – have been a vastly productive time. The second draft of the Witchy Book is coming along very nicely.
The people here are beautiful too – quite literally beautiful, all tall and tanned and slender and gorgeous, and the little kids swim naked and fearless in the sea from an exceptionally young age, leaping off the rocks and shouting to each other happily in the water. Nobody ever seems to get hurt or upset (even a little girl who stepped on a sea urchin the other day was calmed pretty quickly by her parents), and everyone’s terribly social and generous. It’s not exactly a culture that’s kind to introverts, mind you. There’s been a significant culture drain; the public transport is horribly disorganised; and there’s still a lot of corruption here; but the atmosphere is one of a relaxed, gentle lifestyle where most of the summer is spent drinking coffee, swimming, eating, and gossiping. People are fiercely loyalty to their families, and they enjoy food and wine and good company in the most genial way. There’s no rushing about. Everyone laughs a lot. It’s lovely to be a part of it, albeit as an adopted daughter-in-law, someone who sits around trying desperately to understand what’s going on because her Croatian isn’t very good. People are patient with me, and I’m learning the language slowly, a little more every summer. It’s nice. 
The one big, ugly fly in the ointment? Everyone smokes.
Everyone. As in – EVERYONE. It’s like Beijing in 1991. 
Smoking is unequivocally a bad thing to do to yourself, right? It’s even worse to constantly subject everyone else to its products – including one’s own tiny children on a crowded beach, and pregnant women sitting nearby. Passive smoke is more toxic than smoke inhaled directly by the smoker. This is a well-established fact.
And now I have to apologise for the torrent of rage that’s about to pour forth. But it’s been eating at me for days, and I can’t keep it in any longer.
There is apparently no escape; no matter where I go – open-air restaurants, the beach, cafes, bars by the sea, my in-laws’ garden – I get smoke blown in my face by strangers and relatives alike. I’ve put up with this for years, feebly making excuses about being a singer, laughing self-deprecatingly as I leave the room or go for a quick walk or wave the smoke away, trying not to think about or mention my grandmother, Gabriella Brazil, who died horribly and slowly of emphysema after a lifetime of chain-smoking, but I’ve suddenly reached the end of my tether. It’s probably something to do with being overheated all the time – it IS summer in Croatia, and patience is running thin in my overheated body. 
The trouble is, politely asking supposedly sane adults to stop (adults whose unborn grandchild’s health depends on not being exposed to toxic chemicals through my bloodstream) only elicits looks of disbelief, and protests that “Hey, it’s open-air, it’s fine!” When B gets cross with them and pointedly walks away with me, or insists that really, they need to stop, they’re just baffled. Apparently we’re overreacting.
We’re not. I’m so angry.
Exposure to cigarette smoke in pregnant women leads to pre-term labour, dangerously low birth weight, and stillbirth, and its effects on small children are disastrous, much worse than its effects on adults. A quick google search brings up the contents of secondhand smoke from the Cancer Research website – horrifying stuff, even worse than my prim American non-smokers’ brain thought it was. 
The culture here is wonderful. I love it. But it needs to evolve past its current state, which is one of total disregard for public health.
Until it does, I’ll keep enjoying the brilliant grilled fish and the lovely atmosphere, and I’ll keep swimming (though I won’t linger on the rocks among the smokers). But I’ll think twice about being so polite about secondhand smoke next summer when I bring the baby with us, in (I’m not going to lie – I’m excited about this) a cute little sun hat and (gasp) adorable baby water wings. I can’t wait to play with it in the shallow rock-pool bit of the seaside and dip its toes in the deeper water to remind it of its ancestry and the sea I swam in while I was pregnant with it. But then we’ll leave the beach and go home and read indoors, away from the sun, exactly as we did this summer, before we met. I expect it’ll burn just as easily as I do if we stay out there for too long. And I won’t have anyone smoking around my baby.

Ludicrously delicious fish and blitva (potatoes and spinach) on the island of Unije, a few days ago. And still, in the restaurant, everybody was smoking. I give up.