I was a fifteen-year-old paper carrier. I’d like to say that I sped around on my bike flinging papers hither and yon, hitting the exact front doorstep with each toss and looking like a San Francisco bike messenger in training; but in truth, I crept around on foot, groggy and grumpy, lugging my giant sack over one shoulder, and feeling very uncool about it all. Then one pre-dawn morning I went out to pick up my stack of 25 Montgomery County Records, and there was an announcement bundled to the top. An essay contest just for paper carriers, sponsored by Parade magazine, would award the winner a two-week trip to Yugoslavia. I was good at essays and had been raised to believe that travel is enriching, so I wrote one on “what the newspaper means to me,” and I won the contest.
It turns out this contest was held all over the country and a couple of children were chosen from each state. I was issued a blue blazer with a “Parade Magazine” patch on the left breast, and asked to pack a uniform of gray skirt and white blouse. They rounded the hundred of us up, chartered a plane, flew us to Yugoslavia, packed us on about five tour buses, and drove us around the place. My bus’ theme songs were were “Rock me like a hurricane” and “Come on feel the noise.” It was basically a traveling summer camp, complete with counselors. I viewed a lot of inexplicable monuments, listened to a lot of lectures about Slav hero Tito, and ate lots of breaded veal. I had some kind of feeling that there must be more to foreign travel than this, but was much more concerned with preventing myself from being the object of any vicious gossip and generally hiding from the cool kids for whom I was always an easy target.
Then I met Dennis. All I remember of him was that he had a look not unlike that of Ricky Schroeder, if you remember those teen heartthrob days. He was shy and sweet and he liked me, and I liked him. We were assigned to separate busses, so mostly we tried to secretly find out each other’s room numbers at the hotels where we stayed, then plan opportunities to pass one another in the hallways and say “Oh, hi!” and walk on. But then, on one of the last few days of our tour, the busses pulled up someplace truly interesting.
Surrounded by ancient walls, the cobblestoned city of Dubrovnik was a truly enchanted place. All cars parked outside the city gates, and within those gates nearly every building, fountain, and street was made of ancient stone. It seemed as unchangeable and permanent a place as might exist in some fairy tale. A maze of streets and alleys beckoned us to wander down narrow passages where the laundry of quaint inhabitants hung on lines overhead and where high above us windows were opened against the summer heat while curtains of antique lace and raggedy gingham fluttered in the breeze. For once, the counselors set us free to play and explore—sans guide, sans educational lecture, sans pre-selected cafeteria meal, knowing we could only go as far as the city walls allowed.
For the first time Dennis and I actually had a chance to walk and talk together outside the confines of hotel walls. We bought the most delicious and unusual ice cream in a cute little shop, then wandered the magical city with our cones. Approaching the city’s external wall, we discovered a hidden staircase. Furtive glances behind us solidified the unspoken teenagers’ pact that if this is forbidden, we of course must do it. Giggling, we snuck up and up and up until we found ourselves on top of the wall itself. It was probably six or eight feet thick, this wall, and Dennis and I walked along it, astounded to find ourselves gazing out at the sparkling Aegean Sea.
Finally we came to a place where the wall was built around a large outcropping of rock. The sea came right up to it and splashed and exploded dramatically, throwing off little star-bright droplets of spray that arced up, over, and back down into the endless turquoise water. We stopped there and I suddenly realized how far from home I was. I marveled that I would soon walk away from this magical place and be back in the teenage traveling summer camp. I felt like I should be changed by the beautiful and exotic sight, that I should from this moment forward be someone different, someone experienced, someone deep. At that moment Dennis reached out to hold my hand, but I still held my cone, and in fact, so did he. Our cones knocked together. We gobbled our ice creams hastily, almost pretending that we had both suddenly become outrageously hungry, then linked our sticky hands together, nearly daring a kiss.
We watched the sea, noticing the sun going down and its sublime reflection in the water and realized it was time to be getting back to our groups and our busses. It’d be no good arriving late and facing the jeers, catcalls, and gossip that was likely to ensue upon our conspicuous entrance. I felt like, looking at this amazing sight, holding hands with this amazing boy, being on top of the world and all alone like this, none of that should matter. Nevertheless, we turned back and walked slowly, holding hands, all the way to the staircase, where we parted hands, scampered down, and ran back to the busses like two people who just happened to be running the same way at the same time. Within four days, I was back home in Pennsylvania and he in Wisconsin. For my own part, I noticed I was no deeper or more mature from the experience, at least not yet, and felt disappointed. Dennis and I exchanged a few letters. School took over our lives. I realized it was over, whatever it had been.
A few years later, I heard on the radio that Dubrovnik was destroyed by bombs in the Serbo-Croatian War, but it wasn’t until twenty years after that that I shed a tear for it. I found myself on one of my typical corporate lunch-break strolls in downtown Santa Fe, and discovered a new shop that sold gelato. I sat down for a treat, tasted the delicious concoction, and realized—my God, it was gelato. That’s what it had been. Gelato. That day in Dubrovnik, holding sticky hands above the salt-spray and the world. Gelato. Gelato. Gelato.