Buying a House from a Strange Man in a Straw Hat: Jelsa (August 2002)
Part 3 of Notes on a Small Island: Expat Living on Hvar
Start at the beginning! Notes on a Small Island, Part One
Notes on a Small Island, Part 3
Having decided on a home on an island I couldn't pronounce, events took a life of their own, the only constant being that I was less than in charge. Kendra, impressed (concerned?) at my decisiveness, managed to take a couple of days off, and announced that we would leave the following Friday at 0300 to beat the crowds. We would have to leave Hvar at lunchtime on the Monday, the interim mission to find a home for me on what she informed me was one of the world's ten most beautiful islands, according to Conde Nast.
Thursday night came, and one beer led to another, so there didn't seem much point in going to bed. She appeared punctually at three, driven by her unannounced boyfriend, Amir, and off we went, I somewhat worse for wear. The highlight of the 4-hour drive down was the mandatory stop at Jablanica, where spit-roasted lamb is available round the clock. Delicious.
A Strong Silent Bosnian Speaks
The reason for the early start was dictated by ferry times and the tourist hordes in peak season, and Amir, a man of few words but excellent driving skills, was pleased to be on the first ferry from Drvenik to Sucuraj. It was a quaint old vessel, holding perhaps 30 cars for the half-hour crossing. What I lacked in sleep, I made up for in adrenaline, for I had already resolved that this island would be my new home.
We stopped for coffee at Cafe Toni, an Australian-Croat bar on the water in the sleepy fishing port that is Sucuraj. All I knew was that it was on the east of the island, some way from the main action.
"Jelsa is the nicest place on the island," vouched Amir in between long drags on his cigarette, thereby doubling his conversational contribution to the trip. "If I had the money, I would buy in Jelsa."
Jelsa it was. This trip was taking on a finality of its own.
From Sucuraj to Jelsa: Where are the People?
We continued, Amir expertly dealing with one of the hairiest roads I had ever seen. Sheer drops either side on a narrow two-way road winding at every opportunity made for spectacular viewing, as the Adriatic was in full view on both sides, interspersed with emerald islands.
It was undoubtedly beautiful, pine forests, hills, exotic flowers... and empty. We drove for an hour to Jelsa and encountered perhaps three cars in the opposite direction. People? There were none. Pretty stone villages with tongue-twisting names, such as Bogomolje, Zastrazisce (quickly re-christened 'the Z-village'), Gdinj and Poljica, before we finally reached the civilisation that was Jelsa.
Paradise Found: Jelsa, a Dalmatian Heaven
Amir was right. A pretty fishing town, centred around a stone square with bustling cafe life, restaurants, shops and tourist activities the length of a stunning waterfront, with the palm trees of Jelsa contrasting nicely with the mountain peaks of the mainland in the distance. It felt right, and I had found my new home.
We drove to other towns to get a feel - Vrboska, Stari Grad, Hvar Town - but the spontaneous decision had been made. I was to be a Jelsa boy. The only problem that remained was finding a house. This was Croatia, 2002, and real estate agents were thin on the ground. Amir told us to have a beer on the square and he would be back in an hour with some options.
Real Estate Viewing, Croatian Style
He reported back two beers later. The choice was thin. There was only one property for sale in the town, and he had arranged for us to meet the owner at 6pm. We were to wait by the catamaran and look out for an older man in a straw hat.
The House with no Kitchen
Ante appeared on cue, impressive straw hat to the good, and we proceeded up ever smaller alleys in the ramshackle old town. The excitement was palpable, every large property my potential new home, hopes that were dashed as Ante continued on. Eventually we turned left into a tiny courtyard to reveal the property on offer.
Had I not been pre-disposed to buy a house at all costs, I might have been a little more discerning. The house (or houses) were odd, to say the least. The main property was a crude sub-division of a larger building, the result of an inheritance split, I was to learn later. Living-room, bathroom, two bedrooms, but no kitchen. Not a problem, as across the way was another building included in the sale - kitchen and bedroom but no bathroom.
One Pre-Contract, Three Words of Croatian
I was hooked. Within 24 hours, we had agreed a price, rustled up a lawyer on a Sunday (which should have set off alarm bells), signed a pre-contract and taken 2,000 euro from the bank for the deposit.
We left in triumph on the Monday lunchtime as scheduled, one house to the good, with completion set for a month later. Ever the linguist, I was proud to leave with three words of the native tongue in my linguistic arsenal:
Punomoc - power of attorney
Hobotnice - octopus.
And the imperious (so much so that a couple of Aussies named their Croatian company after it)
Potpis - signature.
Life on my unpronounceable small island was about to begin.
Read on for Part 4 of Notes on a Small Island