March 27, 2018 – The second in a 3-part series looking at the view of Croatia from Australia through the eyes of three generations of a diaspora family. Read Part 1 here.
Part 2 – Learning about Croatia from Croatia
Everything is wrong!
I was 20 years old and it was time to meet Croatia for the first time. I tracked my parent’s trip backwards. I came back from far, far away. It was a painful 24 hour flight away! My parents couldn’t have migrated to a further place! I don’t think I could have a made that decision as an 18 or 22 year old to leave.
Croatia was probably as strange to me as Australia was to my parents. When I first arrived, it was a broken but stunning country. A continuous line of burnt out houses from Karlovac to Zadar but that view of the coast from the top of the Velebit blew my socks off. Both Australia and Croatia have a raw wild beauty that I haven’t seen anywhere else.
Baba’s house was the first stop. She was my only living grandparent and the only one I ever met. And of all Croatia’s beauty she was the most precious treasure to me. She was dressed in black, sitting outside her half destroyed house and praying the rosary when we arrived. She was the first Croatian person I have met to say, “Life was better before when we all lived together” which also happened to be her only political statement that I heard her say. To many Australian Croats, she would have certainly been considered a traitor for that comment.
Interestingly, I discovered that although our village was in a war zone it was much more diverse than the Croatian community back home. The woman who helped my baba through her life was an ethnic Serb and Baba considered her family. In fact, I learnt I had few Serbs and Bosnian Muslims in my family through marriages. There were also people that forgave even though their lives were shattered and they are my role models. I understand also there are those that cannot. It was apparent that the problems were more complicated than backing your team at a soccer game.
Being in the village, I felt like what the Australian Aboriginals describe as going “back to country.” A place they go to reflect and connect to their ancestors rather than a political unit. My Country is bounded by the Velebit, the fertile vineyards and the blue Novigrad sea in between. My clan was permitted to only swim at our beach. All the relatives would be on the rocks: young, old, rich and poor. Kids were jumping in the clear waters from the rocks and practising their English. I picked mussels from the sea for my baba which she used to create a delicious pasta. I was told how difficult life was in Croatia. It seems they were telling me everything was wrong. A total contradiction of the heaven on earth I would hear from Australian Croats. Croatia Looked great but didn’t seem to be functioning that well. There was an irony of being poor with million dollar views.
I left baba and the village to travel down to Dubrovnik. I was very proud to learn an alternative Croatian history, one which: abolished slavery before almost everyone else; used diplomacy to secure their freedom; and was an artistic accomplishment to the world. Dubrovnik to me is a Croatian example of what it could be economically, educationally and artistically rather than a nationalistic backwater which is presented by some in the community.
On the long way home, I said goodbye to Baba. She told me and my sister that now she has finally seen all of her grandchildren she was happy to die. She passed away a few months after we came back to Sydney.
Years later, I returned to Croatia and visited her grave. I bought flowers and took my wife along to introduce her to my story. When I arrived, I discovered that someone had built an ugly mini mausoleum blocking the pathway to my grandparent’s plot. I had never experienced such disrespect to my family. My grandparents spent years being internally displaced. They were down trodden their whole lives and were now denied a dignified resting place in death. I looked at the headstone and couldn’t believe that the person invading their space shared the same last name. It was a relative!
In some ways my Tata and Mama were right. Croatia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, the Adriatic is the bluest sea and the food has caused me a few extra happy kilos. However, there is a darker side too. That day, I learnt Croatia was not the land of the fair go!