The house on a hill / by Marek Charytonowicz

The rectangular silhouette seems almost purposely ordinary, sitting slightly away from the road among long grass and weeds. The curved stoned path leads around the house to the entrance facing the garden. An old heavy wooden door with fresh bay leaves stuck into it to stop the threads of black ants going in. The door is guarded by a huge rosemary shrub, bent to the ground by a recent heavy rainfall. It’s been planted when this house was still filled with kids, running around and filling the rooms with laughter and life. Behind it, a wooden table is visible through an opened window, with dusted pile of books and small empty glass bottles. A few old mugs and candle holders, thick from beeswax, stand on the window frame on the left. Behind me, an old garden stretches to a stone wall, overgrown with long grass that wraps around three old rattan chairs. My watch stops.

The house has been built in 1898, at least that’s what the inscription above the doorway indicates. Since then it witnessed births and deaths, war and peace, pain and happiness. The life on a small Croatian island. And although people walking its stairs have changed, the house stayed the same. Time seems to have stopped here or at least slowed down to almost imperceptible pace.

There’s no running water, central heating or electricity. The water is fetched with a bucket on a rope from an old cistern that the house is sitting on - apparently the biggest on the island. No one knows how to translate it’s capacity known only in old measuring units. But as I’m told, there has never been any shortage of water. There used to be electricity - the thick black cable runs from the side of the house to the nearest pole. But because of long legal battles over ownership of this place, it’s been cut off. Since then, beeswax candles light the evening table and portable solar chargers provide a bit of energy for mobile phones, the only modern devices here.

Cooking is done on a gas cooker or in the fireplace. The bathroom consists of two buckets - one with clean water to wash and one with waste water for the toilet. An enamel basin and a brick of soap sit next to the clean small towel and a bunch of dried rosemary in the corner. A tiny mirror hangs below an opened window with a view over the hill.

My backpack looks out of place here. I take it up the old wooden stairs all the way to the attic. That will be my bedroom for the next week. The wooden planks making the floor creak under my shoes. They’re all really old, with cracks and splinters in between. In some places the ceiling gave way and through large holes you can see a room underneath. Piles of old books flank the attic and two opened windows let in a nice evening breeze in, smelling of a storm that is brewing on the horizon. A simple mattress, a mosquito net and a single candle make the bedroom. It feels cosy and welcoming. Essential and enough, without any of the unnecessary items that rush these days to make everything simpler and more comfortable, cluttering our lives as a result.

I go back downstairs and visit the rooms on the first floor. They all look similar. A chest of drawers, a mattress with a mosquito net, sometimes a pile of old books on the floor, an enamel vase with some dry herbs - a natural bug repellent, and an opened window. All the windows in this house are opened. Always opened. This is the way the house breathes and lets the light in. Even when the storm comes and the windows are closed to avoid damage, the rain always makes it inside and is drained through special holes in the wall back outside. “Natural” finds a true meaning here; the sunlight waking you up with its warm embrace, the air smelling of the sea, the water from the rain.

This house hasn't been abandoned. It's the need to make it modern has. Every little repair and refurbishment is done in the traditional Dalmatian way. Even the wood for new windows is actually old, properly dried for years and assembled by few remaining craftsman in the area. This makes the potential complete refurbishment extremely difficult and extremely costly. But this is the only way, the owner says with a smile on her wrinkled face.

Otherwise this house will join the row of recently refurbished ones, freshly painted in bright colours, properly insulated from the heat of summer and the cold of winter, filled with brand new looking objects arranged in feng shui way in their own empty spaces. Here every dust covered item is full of life. Life that is or that was. And if you leave the modern preconceptions and comfort habits outside, it will welcome you and make you feel like you’re in a long lost home.

At the end of the day, the heavy wooden door is always open for both ants and guests alike...

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Premuda, Croatia, 2014 August 2014