WINTER ON BIŠEVO ISLAND
Meridijani, December 2012
Biševo is our furthest officially settled island. It is also an island where all the wonders and horrors of life on the open seas of the Adriatic can be best felt. In the summer, about two hundred people live here, while the Blue Cave attracts tourists in the tens of thousands. In the winter, however, tourists are nowhere to be found, and even the locals are difficult to encounter. Only about fifteen inhabitants – the true, genuine, unyielding islanders – remain on the island, almost cut off from the rest of the world. It is through their stories that we will attempt to depict life on this remote island.
Every story of Biševo begins and ends in Komiža on the island of Vis. Those who spend their life on Biševo, either to a greater or lesser extent, is first born and then dies in Komiža. Although separated by several miles of oftentimes rough seas, Biševo and Komiža share an unbreakable bond. Standing on the Komiža seafront, one can get a wonderful view of Biševo in the distance, in the exact place where the sun sets on the horizon. From this spot, however, there are two different ways in which Biševo is observed. Those who have a connection to Biševo, who have worked there or are tied by way of an inheritance, long for the place and see it as a Promised Land to which they will once return. To those who have nothing to do with it, Biševo is a parochial place – an island even smaller, even further away from the mainland, and even less important than their own.
“We are born and die in Komiža – we live on Biševo,” an old Biševian told me. Although Biševo is mainly inhabited by older people, it is a wonder that hardly anyone dies there. Those who become terminally ill return to Komiža for medical care. That is, if the sea lets them. The one narrow line which connects Biševo and Komiža is called The Line (or rail, “Pruga”). It is a small boat, which runs between the two islands every day in the summer and three times a week in the winter, sea allowing. Occasionally, however, the sea will not allow passage, sometimes for as long as a ten-day stretch. Then these few rock-hard islanders are completely cut off from the world.
Everything has landed on Biševo via the Line – people, animals, building material, food, cars, agricultural equipment, tourists, ideas… In the historical beginning of the story of Biševo, the situation was reversed. Christianity first arrived to the East Adriatic along with Benedictine monks from Italy, and landed on the outlying islands of Palagruža, Svetac and Biševo. From there, it spread to the islands of Vis and Hvar, and only then to the mainland. Early Christian churches probably existed on Biševo and Svetac as early as 6th century CE, and it was on these foundations that the centers of Christian expansion were built several centuries later.
The Line also brought me to Biševo, on a sunny but cold December day. I disembarked at Mezoporat, the main Biševo pier. The Line continues to circumambulate the island from there until it reaches the hamlet of Porat, situated in a deep and narrow bay, which offers some protection from the ruthless high seas. There is a similar bay in the vicinity of Porat, with an even smaller hamlet of Salbunara. These are the only three hamlets along the island’s shoreline. On the hill at the center of the island there are several tiny hamlets – Polje, Potok, Vela Gora and Nevaja – the largest and most important of which is Polje. The few winter inhabitants of the island live scattered among the hamlets so that there is at least one person in each one, but rarely many more. Large barren patches, filled only with silence, stretch between the people and hamlets.
When the oldest islanders were still children, there was a custom for any foreigner who disembarked at Mezoporat to bring on their back a sack of sand to Polje. Today, of course, the custom is hardly remembered, let alone requested of anyone. I therefore had a peaceful half-hour walk to the top. Everything on Biševo is within a half-hour walk. The paths, which had first been trampled down by human feet and donkey hoofs, were partly widened by prisoners of war in World War 2 on involuntary basis. On voluntary basis, it was more recently carried out by fire fighters after the disastrous fire of 2003, when 80% of the island was destroyed. The stretch between Mezoporat and Polje has even been paved, so that the last decade has seen the arrival of the first cars to the island. Filling these old unregistered clunkers is possible only with canisters brought on the Line, because far from having a gas pump, Biševo does not even have a grocery store. When they needed first aid or other emergency intervention from Komiža, Biševians would light a signal fire on the top of the hill. The mobile network is highly efficient today, and Biševo has had electricity for 30 years. There is, however, no water supply or sewage. People use water from their cisterns (“gušterne”).
In Polje, which used to be the main island village, the winter atmosphere is a bit eerie. Several houses have not been repaired after the fire, and the sound of wind through the window holes is sinister. Wind is the only inhabitant of the abandoned school. Barely half a century ago, about forty children would laugh here every day, and it seems the abandoned walls still echo with their laughter. The classroom ceiling has crashed and buried the school inventory with rubble. Nevertheless, several desks, books, and even a periodic table remain. The only church on the island – the ancient, historical church of Saint Sylvester – is governed not by wind but by calm, as it has recently been renovated. The calm vanishes, however, when you lift the floorboards and find a human skeleton below. If you decide to snoop around the abandoned houses behind the church, you can find even more human bones.
Religious services are held here only once a year, on the day of Saint Sylvester, which is 31st December – and only if the sea is calm that day, and the vicar from Komiža feels like traversing it back and forth. Regardless of their spiritual pastor, the Biševians will gather in front of the church, where, according to custom, every year the oldest inhabitant of Biševo lights a large bonfire. If there were not for these good men, the island would be like an abandoned, stranded ship. They give it warmth, purpose and disperse the eeriness. These are tough and hard-working people, who still live mostly off their land. Although some are well into their seventies, they work every day from dawn to dusk, through wind and rain. “If you don’t move, you’re doomed!” I was told by nearly everyone, as if it were a motto of the island; a formula to survive.
Not so long ago, hardly fifty years into the past, the island prospered. Both in the summer and in the winter about 300 people lived here. Nearly all of the land was tilled. They grew all the necessary crops – even grain. The island’s main crops (grape vines, peas, horse beans and tansy) were exported to Komiža in large quantities – hundreds of wagons of wine and about forty wagons of peas a year. A wagon holds approximately 10,000 liters. Today, everything has changed. Cooperatives have vanished, and together with them any reason to produce as well. Tourism comes in handy, but is not enough for sustenance. Besides, all the money from the island’s main tourist attraction, the Blue Cave, goes to Komiža.
It is difficult to say how many people truly live on the island. Most live in Komiža, and stay on Biševo in the summertime or, occasionally, come by in the winter. They are called “weekenders” by true Biševians. According to the last census, there are 11 people living on Biševo at the moment, which is not necessarily accurate. There are some who spend all of their time on the island, but are listed in Komiža, and vice versa. If the true Biševians are those who live the entire summer and most of the winter on Biševo, then there are 17 such people at present. Most are of advanced age and have similar biographies. They grew up on the island, then ran away to seek their fortune, only to return for good. They say the island is dying. Recently, however, two younger people have moved to the island, where they envisage a bright future.
When I reached the island, some of its permanent residents were not there. They had had to leave for Komiža or Split, due to health problems. There were twelve permanent residents and several weekenders on the island. My intention was to try, in the ten days I was there, to get a deep insight into their lives, and use bits of their stories to create a mosaic of winter life on an outlying island. Although in Komiža and the rest of Dalmatia Biševians are sometimes considered peculiar, it was clear to me from the very beginning this is nothing but a twisted prejudice. They all welcomed me to their homes whole-heartedly, repeating the local proverb, “If it’s on the table, it’s offered!” Only one elderly gentleman would not see me. He is said to be antisocial, a bit “bonkers”, and will not let even his own brother into the house. Nevertheless, he was an exception to the rule which confirms Biševians are simple-minded but social people, very warm and pleasant.
JERE ZAMBRLIN, 73, POLJE
“Few people can live on Biševo – only the loners.”
Barba (Uncle) Jere has had a throat surgery, so his speech is barely audible. Yet he has given many speeches in his life. As a biology and chemistry teacher, he regularly came to Biševo to till the land and mind the vineyards. After his retirement, he moved permanently to Biševo and has settled in a central location in Polje. His vineyards, which dominate the island center, are well groomed. Barba Jere says Biševo is infinitely better than Vis for viticulture, due to its specific climate and land. He is currently the largest wine producer on the island – with about four wagons a year – both for personal use and for tourists. In the summer, he will run after the rare tourists who decide to take a walk inland, and offer them his wine. Whether because they are envious or fond of him, other islanders tease him by saying his wine is no good because he experiments too much. That was his profession, I suppose.
Barba Jere also grows peaches of seven different types, plums, pears and apples, along with a vegetable garden with standard Biševo crops. He also keeps an entire arsenal of agricultural tools. “You need to have two of each,” he explains. “If something breaks, and you can’t fix it, you don’t know when you will be able to go to Vis or Split again.” He also has six large freezers and refrigerators. “When I go to Split, I buy 20 kilos of meat, several packages of milk cartons, a large sack of flour…” Meat is frozen, and bread prepared from scratch… This is how you feed yourself on an island without a grocery store.
The only things he misses are friends to play cards with. “The elderly used to play cards and sing, but it doesn’t happen anymore. We do visit each other as much as possible. There’s a wonderful unwritten rule around here – if somebody is alone, others will visit to see if they might need something.”
NIKOLA (73) and ODESA (67) DEMARIA, MEZOPORAT
“It is a sad place where no children cry.”
Niko and Odesa would rather live in Komiža, but they do not have a house or any close relatives there, which makes them the only permanent Biševo residents. Although they are, therefore, true Biševians they do not attend the bonfire in front of the church on Saint Sylvester’s Day. They bring their stacks of wood, but do not stay to socialize. “So many different people from Komiža come for the occasion and pretend to be the real bosses of the island. I can’t stand it!” Barba Niko explains. Not only does this attitude make him a true Biševian, but he is a typical one in other respects as well – he is 72, though as wiry as a young man; quick, strong and agile. Odesa is a Biševo legend in her own right.
The couple emigrated to Australia for work, but returned 13 years later because of, as they call it, “the island magnetism”. They built a house in Mezoporat and are the only permanent residents on their side of the island. They are also the last who still keep animals – some goats and sheep. Of course, they grow vineyards and a large garden, and sail out to fish when the sea is calm. In the evening, they watch television. “There was more fun before – people used to hang out together, sing, eat and drink… Since television arrived, we’ve become isolated.”
In the summertime, Odesa sells entrance tickets for the Blue Cave to tourists, while Niko has years of experience driving them in a boat to the cave. Biševo is famous for its many maritime caves, which made it one of the favorite locations for the Mediterranean monk seals. They have not been seen in the Adriatic for half a century now. Niko and Odesa remember seeing monk seals often as children. “You could always spot their big eyes. And their black back, too,” they say. “They would bask in the sun on a strand near Potok. When they weren’t hungry, they would play with their fish, throwing them up in the air and catching them again.”
The Medviđina Cave on the southern end of the island was their favorite hideout. The long and narrow cave ends with a small strand, where a family of these pinnipeds used to live. The people would not come near because it was unsafe, Barba Niko says. “The fishermen only went to revenge themselves. They were a big nuisance – tore their nets and stole their catch.” Niko and Odesa do not believe rumors that the monk seal has returned to the Adriatic, but would like them to be true.
NIKICA MARDEŠIĆ, 66, SALBUNARA
“I have long desired this peace and quiet, and my time has finally come.”
Šjor (Mister) Nikica went to school on Biševo – the same one which is now direly empty. There were 44 students in 4 grades. Everyone shared the same classroom, and the teacher would teach one group of students first, then the other. Every day, he would take the half-hour walk to the school in Polje, and back. Having completed his studies, he went to live on the mainland, but the island always beckoned him to return. He finally settled on Vis as an educator, so that he could spend his weekends on Biševo. Now retired, the time has come for him to return. “I am still discovering myself…” he says. He has planted 1,100 vines – “to keep him here”. When he renovates the old house, his wife will join him. Until that time, he is alone here. “You can’t live a month here without starting to talk to yourself,” he says. “The old people used to talk to the vines, the donkeys, anyone…”
He likes living on the island, in harmony with the sun. People go into the field when the sun rises, and return home when it sets. When he goes into the field, he never locks his door. “We have never used locks around here,” he says. “Not because there haven’t been any thieves, but because people may need shelter or tools…” He is also the proud owner of the last island donkey, whose name is Cvita (Blossom). “Thirty years ago there were 21 donkeys on the island, and no vehicles. Now we have thirty cars and only my one donkey.” Cvita is also retired; she would be 80 in human years. But Nikica cannot bring himself to put her down or sell her to the zoo for meat. It is where all the other island donkeys ended up.
Unlike professional fishermen in Komiža, who prefer minced meat to whitefish, Šjor Nikica always chooses fish. He says 80% of his meals consist of fish which he catches himself. “There are no stores here – the sea is our supermarket.” He makes enough wine to last him the whole year, and he plans to make a larger vegetable garden. Like other older islanders, he uses artificial fertilizers on his land, which yield good results, but ruin the soil in the long run. “You don’t till the land for your children and grandchildren any longer, but for yourself in the little time that remains,” he explains. “Young generations aren’t interested in Biševo.”
FANI PEČARIĆ (80), PORAT
“We were poor but united. We lived well. And now, there isn’t a soul. All is desolate and empty.”
Baka (Grandma) Fani is the oldest permanent resident of the island. Having spent her life leaning over the soil, she is now as bent as an olive tree in the north wind, but still prefers standing to sitting down. Her hearing and sight are getting weaker, but not her smile. She even smiles as she says, “Ever since he passed away – trouble and woe and worse!” She still grieves the loss of her husband who passed seven years ago. She says they lived as if in a dream. “He would say, ‘Just see how well off we are here. We are all alone. We have everything we need. We live like two angels.’”
It is those memories that keep her on the island, although her daughter keeps inviting her to Komiža. “She won’t let me do anything there, so what can I do – if I sit down, I am doomed.” She says she has had enough of the sea in her life, and does not feel like crossing over again. “Only, if the good Lord keeps me alive, I’d like to have my hair done at a Komiža salon!” Baka Fani says.
As it is, Baka Fani remains in Porat and still does a little bit of everything. She will not go into the field any longer, because she is afraid she might fall, but she plants whatever she can around her house. “I plant things around the house a little, as much as I can – some onions, beans… Just in case… If you never sow, you never harvest!” Her daughter sends her the rest of the food by the Line, and her grandson sometimes comes to keep her company. Otherwise, her only companion is a black tomcat Malenko (Little One), who, just like the rosary she prays out loud, helps the long winter nights pass quicker. And her neighbors, the Foretić family, visit her every day… When the weather is bad, she cleans around the house. “My eyes are bad, but there are no worms yet, so it must mean I clean well enough,” Baka Fani laughs. “I must joke and console myself so, as there is nobody else to do it for me. It’s hard being alone, and more so when you can’t see or hear well… But, thank the Lord, I have everything I need.” Baka Fani is strong and untiring.
She has everything she needs, and as much firewood as she can use. “In the last years of his life, my husband would only pick wood,” she tells me. “Everybody laughed at him, asking what he would do with so much wood, and he replied, ‘Better to gather while I still can, so we have when we can’t.’ And, there he is, gone for seven years already, and I still keep warm with what he collected.”
VINKO (79) and ANTICA (66) ZANKI, POLJE
“I love to hear the little birds sing, wonderfully filling the silence of Biševo.”
Vinko and Antica are not originally from Biševo, but Vinko was attracted to the island due to his love of songbirds, especially goldfinches. These colorful birds fly over the Adriatic when migrating to warmer lands, and when they stop to rest on the island, Vinko catches them in his nets. He has about ten cages at home, keeping birds that fill the silence of Biševo with their melodious song. The silence is only broken by his wife Antica, who constantly yells at Vinko – some because his hearing is poor, and some because he constantly manages to do something wrong. “Why do you talk to the journalist about the birds, when you know it’s against the law!”
Antica scolded Vinko some more when he told me of a rumor that the partisans killed and buried the Germans who were imprisoned here in the World War Two. Everyone knows about this, and speaks openly about it – there is even a cross in Mezoporat, which the partisans erected in memory of their victims. Antica, however, does not allow Vinko to speak of it and her shrieking rises above the song of their tiny birds. Old Vinko does not care much, “Is the police gonna come here and arrest an old man who loves little birdies? I don’t care, let ‘em come!” He says defiantly.
And so, for these past twenty years that they have been on Biševo, her shrieks and his defiance drift away and vanish into the empty space that surrounds their house.
TONKO (66) and MARICA (62) FORETIĆ, PORAT
“Being on a small island is like being on a large ship”
Tonko and Marica are a harmonious couple. They live in a tiny house, just over 200 square feet, which they never find too small. Although the temperature has already dropped to 16°C, they still do not turn the heating on. They spend their days working in the vegetable garden and around the house, which keeps them fit. Even if they break into a sweat when they work, they never a catch cold in the wind and the chill. They say they have developed an immunity. On Sundays, they abstain from work, and spend their time walking about the island, picking mushrooms and capers. In order to walk more, they do not own a car. During conversations with others, they complete each other’s sentences. “When you need something in Komiža – you go to the shop,” Marica says cheerfully. “Here you have what you have.”
Tonko had spent his childhood here, but worked his whole life in Komiža, only to return to the island for good eight years ago. Porat was one of the main coastal parts of Biševo, both because it is the most sheltered port – although, in Šjor Tonko’s memory, the western winds have twice destroyed all the boats in the bay – and because it has the only water source on the island. The water is brackish, but good for the land, so people would come on donkeys from all over the island to take the water away in water skins. Today, this water allows them to grow 400 kilos of tomatoes each summer. Before the seventies, when there was no electricity and no refrigerators, they used the well in the summertime to cool watermelons. Large dentexes would be kept for a day or two in the colder caves. Pilchards were preserved in salt. In those days, there were about 35 people in Porat and no tourists. Today, there are not enough inhabitants even to pull a gajeta (traditional Dalmatian fishing sailboat) up the shore. In summer, tourists usually come in the daytime to have a swim at the best island beach. Tonko and Marica go for a swim either before the tourists arrive, or after they leave.
“People used to have less, but were more satisfied, and they had the will to work,” Šjor Tonko explains. “The differences were not as big. There were those who had more or less land; those with more or less children; or those more or less capable – but nobody stood out from the rest. The differences were not large and everyone helped everyone else. In the seventies, the standard of living rose and with it also the differences, envy and jealousy among people… That is when concord began to disappear.” Nevertheless, they decided to settle on Biševo. “It is more interesting here. We live in nature, in the open air; we move more and feel better…”
LUCIO BOGDANOVIĆ (28) and LADA KRALJEVIĆ (39), POLJE
“We live a healthy and comfortable life. The air is clean, the land generous, the climate perfect. We have everything we need; we even have time for ourselves.”
Lucio and Lada, the youngest, the most enthusiastic, the most optimistic (and many other superlatives when discussing Biševo), describe its future. Lucio’s father is from Biševo and his mother from Svetac, an even more distant island, which is now uninhabited in the winter. He worked as a chef on a ship and sailed the world. Lada is from Zagreb but completed her education as a yoga instructor in New York, after which she worked in Vienna and Zagreb. When they met and decided to live on Biševo two years ago, everybody told them they were crazy. “Perhaps the city people see it that way, but we live very well,” Lada explains. “I don’t need a 5,000 kuna purse. However, I think it’s important to cook and eat my own chard and fish, to wake up and lie down with the sun. Waking up in the morning and picking my lemons… for me, nothing could be as important.”
“We are somewhat isolated,” Lucio says. “The island is poorly connected to the rest of the world both in summer and in winter. It is very difficult to plan or arrange anything outside the island. There is an ‘if’ about everything. If the sea allows, if the Line arrives… But we live comfortably. We are on good terms with our neighbors, with nature, and with one another…” Compared to life in the city, they explain, some basic things take more time here, such as washing the dishes or heating. But life is much healthier. “The land is wonderful. You can sow both in summer and winter.” Unlike their fellow islanders, they have taken up ecological agriculture, and use compost and bio-fertilizers on their land. This is the only thing they resent about their fellow islanders, although in everything else they admire and respect them.
“The elders have a huge database of knowledge and experience, and their lifestyle is extremely ecological and sustainable,” Lada says. “Everything is recycled here. Hardly anything is thrown away. Saving is inherent to the people because they live far away from a shop. Even water is carefully distributed, because it comes in the form of rain. There is no waste. Five hundred people used to live on this island – and there was food and water enough for everyone!”
However, in those times people used to be organized in a cooperative, which took care of everything. The Biševians of today are not formally aligned. They are a part of the Komiža political entity, which passes all decisions in their stead, or, even worse, passes no decisions at all. All profits from tourism go to Komiža. Lucio and Lada, therefore, want to form a local council, for which they need at least six people. Then they want to advance some issues on the island. “The abandoned school is, for example, an amazing resource, and we are afraid it is going to be sold to private entities, instead of serving a common good,” they say. “There is a cistern with 10 wagons of water in there, and the space could be used for organizing cultural events, a museum, a shop, and so many other things…”
They want to concentrate on tourism in the summer. The few tourists that come just zoom about the island and leave. Lucio and Lada wish the tourists stayed longer and paid attention to the inland; not only the Blue Cave and Porat beach. In the winter, they will grow vegetables on an ecological basis. The land is good, the climate perfect – Biševo is a docile island with a huge potential, they say. In every respect, they see a future for the island, and are looking forward to it. “But slowly,” they say. “Nothing happens over night here. Little by little…”