Good Morning from Croatia
It’s not like he didn’t warn me. For years he said, “If we go to Croatia, we’ll need a month. You won’t be a regular tourist there. You won’t get to see it all. A lot of the trip will be spent in relatives’ living rooms, visiting. And they won’t all speak English.”
And it’s true—I haven’t felt like a “regular” tourist here. We’re staying in the basement apartment of the house his great-grandfather built for the family, right before it was taken by Communists. It’s literally steps from the center of Croatia’s second biggest city—Split—and backs into an enormous maritime museum. The family finally got a small portion of the house back after years of legal battles and his parents have been staying in it since May. They share it with Vin’s sweet aunt and uncle in New York, who also stay for months at a time. You can tell the acquisition is bittersweet—just the bottom floor of a very large house. Every time my mother-in-law comes around the back and sees plants and flowers on another floors’ patio she shakes her head, says, “Breaks your heart.”
We do a lot of visiting between sightseeing. Uncles with names like Slavko and Jakov, aunts who bring out plates and plates of food, old friends from his parents’ village, the best man from his grandfather’s wedding, cousins—there are so many cousins! I swear, Vinny has 50 cousins in Croatia and they are all seven feet tall. Most have spoken at least a little English so I smile and nod and eat and eat and eat proscut proscut proscut while occasionally tossing out a casual “hvala!” (thank you), dobro (good) or Sretan Bozich (Merry Christmas) when I want to make them laugh at how little I know.
On Sunday, before the World Cup game, Vin’s cousin Marinko and his pretty, tall wife “made a dinner” for us at their home, out in the country close to the villages where my husband’s parents grew up. As we drove through their very small farming towns, my mother and father- in-law describe what it was like growing up in a Communist country and point out things along the way.
“See that?” says Vin’s mom. “That church was built by my grandfather…” “Over there? That hill is where I would meet my girlfriends to sing or look for cute boys while I was walking the sheep.” My father-in-law points to a small house—the school he attended until fifth grade. Then we drive past a big hill set behind a large field. “See those rocks on the hill? That’s what my father hid behind to escape the Nazi firing squad. It was dark, and my grandfather said, “You’re young—run.”
I’ve been hearing these stories for years around their kitchen table in Queens, but having them told in their setting has helped me understand so much more—about their land, their history, their family, their religion, their culture, their values. This has, by far, been the most poignant trip I’ve ever taken in my life. Beyond that, it’s been an education, and I want to learn so much more.
We have a little less than a week left on our trip, and Vin was right. We needed a month.