At Sea in Izola

At Sea in Izola

Alex Siminoff

As the sun sets over the Slovenian coast, I stroll into Hanger’s, the local pub. I’m in Izola, an old fishing town off the Adriatic coast. It’s quite peaceful here I must admit.

Hanger’s is a small bar. It’s what you would expect of any local seaside tavern. The brick walls are filled from top to bottom with old pictures of the town, fishing gear, and cheesy fishing quotes. One sign reads, “Please hold, I’m on the other line.” Every time you step into the pub a big waft of fish fills your nostrils.

I’m sitting at the bar sharing a few drinks with a group of locals. Everyone is going around sharing tales about the times they’ve caught large tunas. While I listen to them, I’m munching on a fritaja, which is an egg omelet with an assortment of veggies.

I’m intrigued by their adventures and ask if I could tag along the next time they head out to sea. They are quick to deny me. Franc suggests talking to a gentleman by the name of Luka instead. They describe him as a local fishing legend who knows the seas better than anyone else. I ask where I can find him, but they suddenly grow quiet. While staring at his drink, Franc quickly nods his head towards the opposite corner of the bar and whispers, “there.”

Across the bar sits an older man sipping on a schnapps. His gray hair falls beyond his beat up fishing hat. The hat is covered with small tackle and hooks. His beard and mustache are thick and cover up a large part of his face. The vest he’s wearing matches the khaki hat and has more tackle and hooks on it. His jet black glasses are hanging down from his neck by a beat up string of orange lanyard.

I’m intimidated from the guys reactions, but walk across the squeaky, wooden floor towards Luka. Nervously, I introduce myself to Luka. He slowly turns his head and looks straight into my eyes.

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“Hello tujec, welcome to Izola! Did you know our city’s name originates from the Italian word Isola, which means island? Our town has a heavy Italian influence because Izola was an ancient Roman port and we were once ruled by the Venetians. We’re only a mere 13 miles away from the Italian border. So, what brings you to me tujec?”

Luka has a thick accent, but speaks English very well. I told him I came here to fish. I heard magnificent stories about fishing off the coast of Istrian peninsula and wanted to experience it myself.

“Well, you came to the right place! Although the Istrian peninsula is predominantly Croatian, we do have a stretch of it for ourselves here in Slovenia. We have been fishing here for centuries! Despite having different rulers and empires in Southwest Slovenian, we have always fished. Did you know we were once apart of Yugoslavia?”

Before I could get a word in, Luka brightens up and says, “Hey let’s go fishing and I’ll tell you more! After all, you came here to fish!”

He quickly zips up his vest, throws a few euros on the table, and heads for the door. Next thing you know, we’re walking on the street heading towards the docks.

Luke loves to talk and has a tendency to bounce around a lot. Nevertheless, I enjoy his wealth of knowledge. He begins to tell me about his boat, The Žbogar, who he named after the famous Olympic sailing champion, Vasilij Žbogar. I try to pay attention, but my mind drifts off.

The town is beautiful at night. The street lights illuminate the colorful homes and buildings. The terracotta tiled roofs shimmer in the dim light. He wasn’t kidding about the Italian influence.

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Once aboard the boat, I ask what tujec means. He wholeheartedly laughs and says, “It’s what we Slovene’s call foreigners. It’s a joke I suppose. Are you ready to fish?” He hands me a net and continues, “Sardines and anchovies are easy to catch with a net. We’ll do that first before we go to my favorite tuna spot.”

The old-fashioned boat is gliding on the water. He tells me it’s lasted him over 20 years. It’s mostly made out of wood, but it’s a good size fishing boat. Several people can easily fit on board. The wind is picking up as we get further and further from the shore.

Luka beings speaking again after a rare few minutes of silence. “Tell me, do you know much about the Yugoslavia?” I shake my head. “Well, let me tell you then. Yugoslavia was made up of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, and Slovenia. After WWII, the socialist state of Yugoslavia was born and governed by the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. The communist party ruled the area since 1919. In WWII, the Germans invaded and shortly after civil wars broke out. Then our leader, Tito, got into it with Putin and more war broke out. In the early ‘90s, each country seeked independence. Slovenia was the first to break apart from Yugoslavia. Pretty crazy, eh?”

This was the first time I really learned about Yugoslavia. There is so much history that our schools fail to teach us. I ask a few questions as our boat slows into a halt. I help Luka cast a large net. He thinks this is the best spot to catch sardines and anchovies. But to catch tuna, we need to go further out to sea.

As we’re heading out Luka says, “Tell me. Do you know much about Slovenia?”

I shrugged and told him only what I read on Google on my way here.

After a brief pause he tells me, “Slovenia became independent in 1991 and Ljubljana became the capital of the newly formed country. Ljubljana has a famous myth about a dragon. Have you heard it?” I once again shake my head. “A famous Greek legend says that on their return home after having taken the Golden Fleece, the Argonauts found a large lake surrounded by a marsh between the present-day towns of Vrhnika and Ljubljana. It was there that Jason struck down a monster. This monster has evolved into what we today call the Ljubljana Dragon. Our coat of arms depicts the Ljubljana Dragon on the top of the tower of Ljubljana Castle.”

I recall reading that story, but never realized it was in Slovenia. I enjoy Greek mythology and try to ask him a question, but the old man rather quickly continues on about Slovenia.

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“My other favorite city is Maribor. It has this beautiful ski resort called Maribor Pohorje on the outskirts of the city. The most famous football team in the country, NK Maribor, is from there too. They played in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League three times. Do you watch football?”

I eagerly respond that I’m an Arsenal fan and love football. This strikes up a lively conversation about football as we approach his tuna spot. Luka is moving around like a mad man to set everything up. While he’s doing so, he explains to me how fishing has been in his family for decades. His parents and grandparents were fishermen too. Throughout the wars, various governments, and economic downturns, the fish were always here to be caught.

We sit in silence, our minds left alone to wander while our lines are casted out as far as the eye can see. We’re surrounded by the darkness of the sea. Only the faint moonlight shines on the ripples of the sea.

Suddenly, he makes a noise. Next thing you know he is furiously reeling in the rod closest to him. Excited, I ask if he has a bite. He pay no attention to me and hollers to grab on the rod and hold tight. I so as I’m told and instantly feel tug that nearly sends me over the railing. How this man knew I had a bite on my line I’ll never know.

I’m listening to Luka’s instructions and trying my best to not disappoint the fisherman. I’m reeling nervously when the fish slows down. I can see the fish only a few inches away from the top of the water now.

Luka screams, “NOW! Get the ribe!”

I yank with all my strength upwards to get the fish over the railing. It’s flopping around on the wooden deck and Luka says something that I can’t understand.

He looks at me, startled, and slowly says, “That’s no tuna… that’s a bream! I haven’t seen one of those in years! They suddenly disappeared from our waters a few years ago.”

Luka and I embrace and celebrate. He goes below deck and comes back with 2 beers.

After we finish our drinks he says, “Alright Tujec, it’s quite late. We caught ourselves a beauty. We'll check the nets on the way back. You must come by tomorrow to celebrate and feast.”