Dubrovnik has two species that distinguish it from other towns. One is the inevitable tourist, who descend on the town from the cruise ships in their thousands almost every day, thronging the narrow streets so that it often becomes difficulty to negotiate one’s way through them. The second species of note are the swifts, those fast-flying little birds that arrive every morning between dawn and the rising sun that emerges from behind the hills to pick out the spires, towers and forts of the old stone city; and again in the evening between sunset and dusk.
One day as I was negotiating my way through the tourists a middle-aged woman stopped me, held up a shoe box for my inspection and, carefully lifting the lid, revealed three tiny birds. She said, “Swifts. Swifts. Swifts,” and then moved on.
This was Téa (pronounced Theh-ah), and her story, as related to me by my reliable authority on the locals, began with a beautiful, antique chair in the home of the man my authority was living with at the time. My authority admired the chair, and her lover told her he had received it as payment for obtaining an acquittal of a man whom he defended in court against a charge of murder. The chair had been broken and was reduced almost to a piece of rubbish, but the family who owned it --- dirt poor at the time --- fixed it up and presented it to the lawyer as the only payment they could afford. This poor family had been reduced to squatting in an open-air structure whose stone wall fronts the harbour, a building that had been used in the 16th century as a place to quarantine sailors who came to port, but a place that still exists and is now used from time to time as a theatre. The court case concerned a feud involving elders in the family, which resulted in the charge of murder against Téa’s grandfather.
At high school Téa fell in love with a boy from a very wealthy family, and the couple eventually became teachers in exercise classes. They took their students on picnics and the like, including my reliable informant. Téa worked for a company called Sebastian, which ran several art galleries. With this first husband, she had a child who became a good ballet dancer. But unfortunately she went to Italy for training, never came back, and now lives in Milan.
All did not go well with Téa’s schoolgirl romance, and she divorced, and married for a second time a man who was in charge of post-secondary education for the town. Upwardly mobile, one might say. But when that marriage concluded Téa married a Welshman, a scientist who built his own boat and sailed to New Zealand in it. He already had several children, one of whom is still living in New Zealand, another in Italy.
Téa has reported that every day she asks her husband, “Am I the most beautiful woman in the world?” to which he makes the adequate response, even though it may not be true. One of Téa’s two sisters was held to be the most beautiful girl in the city. She believed that the first man you shake hands with in certain circumstances will be the one you marry. Obeying this edict, she shook hands with an Italian, and is today living in Italy.
Today Téa, an energetic and intelligent woman, is about 60 and active on a wide front. She has owned three or four art galleries, one of which is still active; having lived for some time in Italy she is able to make a living as a tourist guide in that language; she owns a shop dedicated to doing small repairs to clothing, bags and the like, the last of its type in the city, others having been replaced by shops selling T-shirts made in China; and she has a contract to take parties of children from time to time to the neighbouring island of Lokrum, which is essentially the city park of Dubrovnik.
But in addition to that, Téa looks out for the birds that swoon and dive over the old town morning and night, the swifts. She goes to one of the local beaches, as they laughingly call the collections of rocks from which swimmers dive into the ocean, and while there she feeds the geckos, that are reputed to recognize her and wait for her to come. And at the same time she finds injured swifts, picks them up, and takes them home to care for them until they are better.
These swifts provide a fascinating spectacle for anyone with a taste for bird-life. They resemble swallows, their similarities emerging from their common habit of catching insects on the fly. Swifts, found virtually all over the world, are said to be able to stay in the air longer than any other bird, some sub-species of them being considered to almost never touch the ground. Others, and I am sure those around Dubrovnik must number among them, find refuge in nooks and crags, on cliffs, rocks and within buildings such as those in this city that have narrow slits in the walls that provide ideal nesting for swifts.Anyway, in my mind, devotion to these tiny birds, whose joyous exuberance of flight so enlivens our morning and evening hours, is the most praiseworthy of the many remarkable attributes of the life of Téa, a true daughter of the Old Harbour.