A Love Letter To Buie

Buie is an Italian hill town that stands outside of its Italian context, in the peninsula of Istria, and in the country of Croatia.

There is no way that the italianità, both historic and contemporary, can be erased from Buie’s bones

Not everyone loves Buie. In fact, the first things I heard about it were negative, namely that it was too hot and the people were not nice. These words came from members of a nearby village and I cannot say they were wrong exactly. Buie is too hot in the summer, or it is at least considerably hotter than the nearby village in question, Verteneglio, which is greener and more open, and therefore runs a few degrees cooler than Buie, which is all stone, with its streets twisted into a medieval knot. As for its inhabitants, I would say that you just have to get to know them, and get to know Verteneglio, and then you will see the line of reasoning of the verteneglesi.

Whatever its merits and defects, I came to love Buie, and here is why. Let’s start with its location, perched high on a hill, high at least for the surrounding terrain, and thus the historical lookout for the region, which includes the coastal towns of Umago, Cittanova and Rovigno. Did I mention that Buie is in northwestern Istria, in Croatia? It is, and it is thus in Istria’s, and Croatia’s, most Italiany part. Buie’s italianità (only the Italian will do here; italianity is not a word, at least not yet, and italianness shouldn’t be, ever). In any case, the stari grad (only the Croatian will do here, don’t ask me why, maybe because centro storico describes a place that is noticeably past tense, and Buie’s stari grad is still very much present tense) occupies most of this hill and the main piazza, Piazza di San Servolo, its absolute peak. The piazza holds three notable structures: the Chiesa di San Servolo; a large neoclassical building that once served as an elementary and middle school, but which is now vacant; and la casa veneziana, a Venetian style house that, like the church and to a lesser extent the school, stands in a state of glorious decay.

And perhaps this is why I love Buie so much. It wears its age gracefully, but you can tell that even in its prime it had its problems. But it is still here and there is no way it can hide its nobility, a nobility bearing the scars of a scrappy and hard won life, of being battered day and night by rain and sun on top of this glorious hill that looks out over rolling hills that are attractive, but not exceptionally so, and almost on the horizon, the Adriatic Sea.

Now, undoubtedly, there are hundreds or perhaps even thousands of such towns in Italy, and I imagine that most of them are just as beautiful or probably more beautiful than Buie. But here is what makes the difference, at least for me: Buie is an Italian hill town that stands outside of its Italian context, in the peninsula of Istria, and in the country of Croatia. It is the hybridity of its condition that informs and emphasizes its unique beauty. When you stand in the piazza and look around, you see and feel Roma, and Venezia, and Trieste. You also see and feel a bit of Vienna, Ljubljana, Sarajevo, Kotor and a bit of every other small European hilltop town made out of stones.

I get the same feeling when I see some of the people who inhabit Buie. There was a big change in population after the Balkan wars ended. With the breakup of Yugoslavia, many people came to Istria, from Bosnia, perhaps, or Montenegro, so daily life has an undeniable Slavic feel, but the bones of Buie are still undeniably Italian, and even people who have not a drop of Italian blood speak Italian, which along with Croatian is an obligatory subject in the local schools.

What seems strange is that the Italian you will hear on the street and in stores, with seemingly decreasing frequency and in fewer and fewer places, is an Italian ‘and/or’… and/or a local version of the Triestine or Venetian dialect, and/or the standard Italian taught in schools. So in the mouths of local residents who are not of Italian heritage, but who were educated in the local schools, Italian is a functional second language spoken, it seems, perfunctorily, with neither enthusiasm nor disrespect, but with a kind of utility and in an indifferent mood, or mode, and often with considerable difficulty.

I recall leaving after my first three month stay, taking the one hour bus ride from Buie to Trieste, and being struck by the fluency, at least to my ears, of the Italian being spoken at an outdoor cafe, by a group of elderly women in particular, whose words hit my ear with a tympanic clarity, as if someone had suddenly dialed in a radio station on an old analog stereo to make the signal strong and clear.

So again this takes us back to the hybridity of a place, to the unique mix of influences that make a place what it is. To me, the mix that Buie carries and presents so dramatically is Italian plus something, that something itself being a mix of historical influences that had their origins both locally as well as abroad: in Italy, in Austria, in Croatia, and in the rest of the Balkans. For another visitor, someone without an Italian frame of reference, it could very well look a bit different, but there is no way that the italianità, both historic and contemporary, can be erased from Buie’s bones; it is baked into its landscape, into the stones that line its streets and make its walls.

Verteneglio, the nearby village that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, wears this hybridity differently, more gracefully perhaps, more congenially and more beautifully, more comfortably, so I can understand why they regard Buie in the way that they do. Still, Buie has a nobility and an importance that Verteneglio, for all of its friendly livability, can never acquire. A portrait of that charming village, not necessarily a natural beauty itself, will be worth a closer look in a future piece.

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