After spending my last year of graduate school and the best year of my life in Paris, and after 12 weeks of almost non-stop studying for the bar exam, it’s time for the longest-anticipated trip of my life as a traveler: I leave in a few days for Croatia, the ancestral homeland of my mother’s family.
As you’ll know if you scroll back in time on this blog, I’ve been to Croatia three times: in 2006 with my family (including my grandmother, who grew up speaking Croatian in the US), in 2011 as a volunteer with World at Play (described in posts on this blog), and earlier this year during my spring break while studying in Paris. Why then do I want to go back?
Being Croatian has influenced me in numerous ways. If you actually know me, it’s very likely that you know that I’m Croatian and that for a long time I’ve wanted nothing more than to go to Croatia and learn the language. I’m only 50% Croatian by blood, but because my mom grew up in a very Croatian community in northwest Indiana, her childhood was heavily influenced by that heritage. My own connection is much more tenuous. I grew up in Virginia, unaware of any other Croatians in the area, and the only way in which I can truly make a legitimate claim of being Croatian is by pointing out that I look Croatian. I have an olive complexion, dark hair, and dark eyes, and for as long as I can remember I’ve had random people ask me my ethnicity because I “don’t quite look American.” It’s true, and people have taken me for a native each time that I’ve been in Croatia.
My mom’s pride in her heritage transferred to me, but it has always bothered me that the only truly Croatian part of me is my genes. In particular, I’ve always wished that I spoke at least some of the language. My grandparents and their peers in the 1940’s and 1950’s saw no value-added in teaching their children Croatian, a decision heavily influenced by a desire for full integration into their new country. As a result, my mom and the others of her generation grew up speaking only English, with a smattering of Croatian words and phrases thrown in for good measure. The central difference between me and my mom is that she grew up in a Croatian community that kept much of the culture alive; she attended a Croatian Catholic church (where I was baptized and where it is still possible to attend a mass in Croatian) and went to events at Croatian Center. The food, music, and dancing of her childhood was all Croatian.
In an effort to make up for my linguistic and cultural deficiencies, I’ve attempted over the last several years to at least become conversant in the history, geography, and politics of Croatia and its neighbors. Volunteering with World at Play in 2011 brought me back to Croatia and also introduced me to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Serbia, which helped to give me a more complete picture of the former Yugoslavia as a whole and expanded my vocabulary to about 200 words (many of which are useful only in that context, like “Make a big circle! Run! Faster!”). I also learned the Cyrillic alphabet, which is not used in Croatian but is used in Serbian (more linguistic notes to come). I spent the following summer working at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, where I focused on a case concerning Bosnia but gained a much more in-depth understanding of the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s and how that experience, and the much longer history of the region, continues to shape the culture and politics of today. While there, I met my friend Iva, who lives in Split and is now one of my closest friends. She was always happy to give me random vocabulary lessons and often invited me to join her and the rest of the interns from the region on their coffee breaks. They would speak BCS (Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian) to each other while I happily listened, occasionally picking out a familiar word or phrase. They also enjoyed looking through my Croatian phrasebook and laughed to no end about its inclusion of the phrase “lakše malo mačore,” which in the book translates to “easy tiger!” (on the page with bedroom vocabulary…) and which they said would be essentially unintelligible to someone in that context. Duly noted. Croatians and others from the region have been universally supportive of my desire to reconnect with my ancestral homeland, and that means a great deal.
I started thinking about going to Croatia to do an intensive language course sometime in college, before I’d even visited the country for the first time. Each time in the last decade that I’ve had a gap period, I’ve pondered the possibility of going to Croatia. When I started law school three years ago, I emailed my Croatian cousins to suggest a group trip to the homeland in August of 2014 once I’d taken the bar exam. One of my cousins took note and is coming with me!
I start work in London next month and so, once again, I lack the time and timing necessary for doing an intensive language course. However, I’ve acquired a number of Croatian textbooks over the last several years, and I plan to study a bit of grammar and vocabulary each day during the two weeks that we’ll be there. As of now, my vocabulary is entirely limited to words and phrases – I have no knowledge of grammar whatsoever. I’ll be pleased if I can end this trip able to conjugate some verbs and form complete sentences in at least one tense. It’s a big help that I already understand how to pronounce the language; I made that my goal during the trip in 2006. (This, coupled with my ability to read Cyrillic, came in handy a few times while working at the Tribunal. We occasionally encountered documents that were written in Cyrillic, and the Croatian interns couldn’t read them, so I would read them out loud. I had no idea what I was saying, but my pronunciation was good enough that the Croatians were able to figure out what the text said. Teamwork!)
My cousin Rachel is coming with me on this trip, and I’m ready to have a great time. I plan to write and post pictures daily. We’ll be visiting Split and Dubrovnik (both of which I saw in 2006) along with the islands of Brač, Hvar, and Vis. I’m thrilled because we’ve booked all of our accommodations through Airbnb, and in several of the places we’ll actually be staying with real Croatians in their home. All of them know that I am studying their language and have expressed a warm willingness to be of assistance. I’m also looking forward to seeing Iva in her hometown and to generally relaxing after a very stressful summer of studying!
Stay tuned for an introduction to Croatia and its tricky language! You’ll want a pronunciation guide for my upcoming posts.