The badass, lo-fi, funky crew at RAD AND HUNGRY have featured my chronicle of finding family ties on my first trip to Croatia.
“Just got home from Illinois, locked the front door oh boy!” CCR’s plucky number is picking up speed as we race along a midnight highway, passing two cars and then jetting around the bend. Distant lights outline the shoreline to my right while the moon gleams on the satin folds of the Adriatic.
I did just get home from Chicago, to my father’s homeland of Croatia – where he himself hasn’t returned since immigrating fifty years earlier. Dad always sang this song to us as kids. Now his cousin Mirko sings it from the driver’s seat. Mirko speaks no English, but he doesn’t miss a beat singing along with John Fogerty. It’s at once surreal and satisfying to connect over music when conversation isn’t an option.
This is my first visit to Croatia, and I had modest hopes of connecting with some of dad’s relatives during my time in the old country. I sent old-school letters to Croatian addresses, surprised and a little nervous when I began receiving email and Facebook replies just days before I embarked. I was determined to see my father’s village in Medjimurje, even when he joked, “There’s nothing to do there, go see the coast instead.” What I hadn’t prepared myself for was the outpouring of welcome, the intensity of connection, and familiarity of home.
At Home Around the World
The first five days of our trip are a sea of beaming faces, platters of pastries, and piles of aging photographs. Dragana, my cousin and our steadfast guide, never reveals the day’s agenda. Leading us from one village to the next, she allows each experience to unfold in awe. I enter these homes not knowing the residents, grasping at distantly familiar flotsam of Croatian drifting around in my brain. It’s irrelevant because they are my family, and that’s how we are welcomed.
Sitting in their living rooms, I’m transported to my grandma’s home in Cleveland. It always felt like a portal to another place – and from the way the lace hugs the tabletops and windows, and from the taste of the chicken soup, it’s clear I’ve emerged on the other side. Even the manicured lawns and petite fruit trees (unlike America’s sprawling variety) recall my grandparents’ house. The acutely flavored, seedy purple grapes are the kind Grandpa used to grow. The faint scent of homemade wine and brandy on this table immediately reminds me of his basement kegs and storage room in Ohio. “What?” is pronounced “kai,” the way I remember Grandma shouting it across the room, rather than the proper “što.”
Folk stories are coming to life all around me. The once vague sketches of faraway relations with difficult-to-pronounce names are embracing me, toasting me with slivovitz too early in the day, and passing along family lore that Dragana translates. I learn that my uncle’s entire class came to see my family off when they departed for America, and that my dad tried to avoid leaving by hiding in a pile of hay. The names from the family tree that Dragana unfurls at each visit leap off the page as I begin to comprehend my ever-growing heritage.
It doesn’t matter if I can’t make sense of their excited conversation because things come together, as they usually do with families, around the table. Family-style kitchen tables, dining room banquet tables, and vintage coffee tables from another era magically fill with food like we’re at Hogwarts. Even Hen finds familiarity in these rituals – she shares the similarities between Croatian-style entertaining and the family-centric customs from her native Korea.
At one table, I flip through Vinko’s family photo album and exclaim to see my own family smiling back at me. Maybe it’s the effects of too much rakija too early, but I burst into tears realizing that we aren’t so far away, that our photos had been sitting in this living room for decades awaiting a reunion. I flip over one photo that my grandma had mailed back to her sister and trace my mom’s own handwriting on the back. After traveling so far in search of stories to write, I’m utterly astonished to discover that I am the story.
Family Tree Takes Root
At another table, Dad’s cousins Visjna and Nina help me physically trace the family tree by placing images alongside each name, sorted from boxes of photos. Reiterating what relatives have said from Sveta Marija to Privlaka, these graciously generous people thank me. It seems many of the family factions haven’t been in communication, and my appearance in Croatia is bringing them all back to their roots.
The Heart of It All
Yet nothing has prepared me for the most moving instances of familiarity. Over one table in Mala Subotica, and another across the country in Biograd, I’m able to embrace my grandma’s two surviving sisters. There’s no way to describe Jelica’s hug except to say that it feels like home, and I recognize so much of Grandma in Tereza’s lively smile. I ask them both to describe my grandparents when they were young, and the sisters independently supply the same answer without hesitation. “Their parents didn’t want them to marry, but they had such a big love no one could keep them apart.”
I’m not sad to depart for America. My heart and my luggage are impossibly full. Hearts are, in fact, symbolic of both Ohio (for its shape, “The Heart of It All”) and Croatia, where licitars are gifted to represent both love and long journeys. This overwhelming, enlightening mission is markedly different than the one I thought I had embarked on – but more successful than I could have imagined. Just before returning to my own home, I ask my cousin Ivan to name his favorite place in Croatia. “That’s hard,” he pauses, “but I’d have to say my home.” I’d have to say the same.
This article first appeared on RAD AND HUNGRY. Thanks for featuring my story!