I was recently interviewed by someone in the United States working on a research project with Croatians and Croatian-Americans about the relationships between tourists and locals in Croatia. As a Croatian-American and someone who has lived in Croatia for seven years, I was a good fit.
The wonderful hour-long Zoom call took me on a journey through my Croatian adventures, from the Croatian influence in my family growing up in San Diego to my first visit to Croatia in 1996 and every visit after that until I moved here in 2015.
And it got me thinking a lot about my first trip to Croatia in 1996. I was 5 years old.
My family and I flew into Germany and drove from Frankfurt to Croatia, passing through German and Austrian towns along the way before reaching Zagreb. Which I remember vividly.
As Croatia smelled fresh of war, I remember being unable to sleep that first night in our Zagreb hotel, thinking there was a soldier in the closet. It was a haunting experience for a 5-year-old, and I can paint the interiors of that hotel room in my mind now.
I remember playing with pigeons in Ban Jelacic Square, which is something I recall every time I visit the capital now. If only I were as fearless of pigeons as I was back then…
We drove from Zagreb to Rijeka to visit my grandmother’s sister and her family before taking the overnight ferry down to Split (remember when that still operated?).
Oddly enough, we chose not to spend much time in Split, even though it is the city where my father was born and where my grandfather and grandmother raised their family before moving to New York City in 1958. I do, however, have this photo of my brother and me at the ferry port. How those Jadrolinija ships have hardly changed in the last 26 years.
We made our way to Trogir, the town where my grandparents met in their teenage years. My grandfather’s family roots are in Trogir, well, technically from a small village in the hills above Trogir called Prapatinica. His family ultimately migrated from the selo to the ‘city’. My grandmother’s family moved to Trogir from Stari Grad after World War II, which is where one of her brothers continued to live when we visited in 1996. I will never forget eating pršut and sir amongst the chickens in his small outdoor shack.
The memories I can recall most from that trip are with my mother’s family in a tiny village outside of Metkovic called ‘Kosa’. The seven-house village sits on the river, with two surnames ruling the territory. We are all somehow related.
We stayed at my mother’s family home – where my dida and baba raised my mother and her 6 siblings. My mother hadn’t seen her family in over a decade, though this absence carried more significance, considering her younger brothers had just fought in the Homeland War. My brother and I spent a lot of time dressing up in their uniforms.
I have home videos of me chewing on crusty white bread, spread with butter and šipak marmalade, as that was my go-to breakfast in Croatia that summer (the sugary cereals of America were quickly forgotten). The few words in Croatian I knew then were endlessly repeated, from ‘neću’ to ‘šta?’ and ‘jedan, dva triiiii!’.
I remember playing with the other village children on the river, setting out on our small trupina boat to reach the farmland across the way, where my family cultivated their crops to make a living. And the goats – I remember the many baby goats! If only I knew what their fate would be then…
Being from the Neretva River and all, frogs are the ultimate delicacy. And my uncles were experts at hunting them – a unique craft that is done explicitly in the early morning hours. Now, anyone that knows a bit about frog culture in Dalmatia, is that it is usually eaten two ways – in a brudet (and in Neretva, this means stewed with river eel, too), or fried – you now, breaded like schnitzel or fried chicken.
I remember 15 of us huddled around the small family dinner table eating, what I thought, was fried chicken. And as any 5-year-old from America might do, dipping it in ketchup to imitate chicken fingers. I grew suspicious after I glanced over at my father eating the same thing, considering he had been a pescatarian since his early 20s. “Hmm.. If Tata is eating it, it can’t be chicken.”
And thus, my first experience eating frogs was had, with ketchup, at 5 years old.
I remember swimming at Klek beach, now just a short drive from the new Peljesac Bridge, which is where this famous photo was taken.
And all I remember about our day trip to Dubrovnik is serving this look on Stradun.
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