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Encouragement to go

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In July of 2001 ten members of my family (three generations) traveled from New Jersey to Croatia to see where my mother's family had come from. We visited with a cousin we knew (but had had no contact with for 40 years -- all we had was an address) and discovered family that we never knew existed (but they knew that we existed -- they had a picture of my mother and her siblings that was 50 years old). The following year in September 2002, we returned to attend the wedding of one of the cousins we had met. I can't say enough about what it has meant to me and to my mother to connect with our family in Croatia. And, in this modern world where we have email, I am able to easily keep in touch with them. Last year I put together a book of stories and pictures for the extended family in America to let them know about our trips. What follows are three stories about our Croatia adventures, each written by a different generation: my niece ("On the Porch of My Ancestors"), my mother ("Under the Olive Trees"), and my boyfriend ("Sing One of the Old Songs").

--Lisa Knell

On the Porch of My Ancestors
Karla (at the age of 17) remembers the events of July 7, 2001, in the village of Sveti Vid on the island of Krk, Croatia.

I am sitting, sipping rich Turkish coffee on the porch of my ancestors. My face and the faces of my parents, my brother, my grandparents, my aunt, uncles and cousin are shaded from the late afternoon sun by the grapevine-covered lattice above the long table around which we sit. My mind is swirling, my heart is racing. I glance at my dear grandmother; her cheeks and eyes are giving off a brilliant radiance. I study my father’s face; his eyes are brimming with tears and he is beaming with the most wonderful, pure smile I have ever seen. As my lips touch the small ceramic cup and the steam from the hot Turkish coffee rises to form a warm moisture on my face, I listen intently to the conversation around me.

A question is asked slowly in English. My third cousin Tonci interprets and relays the question in Croatian to his grandmother at the end of the table. Katica, the tiny, old, widowed woman, is dressed completely in black with a black shawl over her hair. She has the most genuine smile. After Katica listens to the question Tonci has asked her in that strikingly beautiful, somewhat harsh yet somehow intriguing Croatian tongue, she nods her head slowly then suddenly looks enlightened. Katica grabs Tonci by his arm and slowly yet deliberately walks him into the small, stone house that I've just learned was the home to my great-great grandmother. We all take deep breaths and wipe the tears from our eyes before Katica returns with fragile family photos and stories that she has remembered from throughout her long lifetime.  

In Croatia, I experienced true, defined moments of revelation. I was shaped by my own expanding perceptions of my individual place in the world. I was seized by the moment of revelation while looking at aged, black and white photos of my grandmother and her siblings as teenagers that were kept in this old Croatian house for over half a century. I felt a unique comfort and wholeness while sipping that intense Turkish coffee, homemade by this tiny woman dressed in black, who we discovered to be my great-grandmother’s first cousin.

The continual tears of joy that poured from the beautiful blue eyes of my purely Croatian grandmother filled me. It was her first trip to the country that her heart had longed for all her life. And in experiencing her rhapsody, my understanding of my life became clearer. As I walked the dirt roads of the small village of Sveti Vid, I could feel the ancient footprints of my ancestors beneath me. As my heart swelled to the organ music in the church, I had the sensation that my great-great grandmother’s spirit was singing amongst the heavenly voices of the choir. And on the evening of my family’s incredible day of discovery, I looked up at the sky. There was an intense, radiant beam of light breaking through the cloud-cover.

I took a picture of the sky at that moment. It now sits in a frame in my room. When I study the clouds and the beam of light, I am transferred back to Croatia in early July of my fifteenth summer, next to the blue waters of the Adriatic Sea where my great grandfathers sailed their ships. I am filled with joy, surrounded by my family and the spirits of my ancestors.

Under the Olive Trees
Frances writes about her trip back to Croatia in September of 2002 where she visited the family of her mother’s first cousin in Sveti Vid on the island of Krk and the family of her father’s cousin in Kostrena (near Rijeka).

On my last day in Malinska, overcome with emotion, I walk from the terrace of the Villa Rova to the rocky shore of the Adriatic Sea. I stand under the ancient olive trees and soak up the beauty before me.

I cry with sadness as I realize my father and my mother's parents had to leave this beauty to make a new home across another sea. I also cry with joy for I am now experiencing this beauty. From where I stand I see Kostrena, my father's town on the far shore, mountains in the background. I realize that my Sveti Vid grandparents could have gazed across this so blue Adriatic at my Kostrena grandparents. How wonderful.

My heart is full as I recall little scenes of these past days.

We are in the village of Sveti Vid on the grapevine-covered terrace of the house my grandparents lived in when they were first married and where their first baby, Gregor, was born and died. We are greeted with great joy and invited to sit at a long table, beautifully set. We feel the warm sun on our backs and the Adriatic sparkles in the distance. Marija (who reminds me of my mother) has prepared a feast for us. It includes soup (like the soup my mother made) and gnocchi (made especially for us since it is a traditional food of the island). Five courses in all, ending with a delicious cake, cookies, and good things to drink. Mima tells stories as Tonci, arm around his beloved grandmother, kisses her affectionately as she speaks. There is so much love and affection here. We laugh and cry and we are all so happy to be together—a family reunited.

Now we are in Kostrena. We arrive on a rainy afternoon and Ervin welcomes us, with so much joy, into the house where my father was born and lived as a boy. As we sit at in the dining room at another long table, Tugomila warmly welcomes us with her food specialties—another five-course meal. All beautifully prepared and presented; a real gourmet feast. We eat and drink and talk and laugh. Suddenly, in comes Captain Tijhan and his wife Mirjana and then, later, Captain Medevic. Mirjana's father (Captain Jelancic) and Captain Tijhan and Captain Medevic had all visited my home in Philadelphia when I was a young girl. They are here to welcome us to my father's village. They tell stories of the sea and ships and the captains of Kostrena. Music fills this home as Davos plays the accordion and Ervin sings. Soon we are all singing. Tears come as Ervin kneels before his aged mother, Marija, holding her hands. Her eyes are shining as they sing together while her grandson Davos plays—a song her husband, Fausto, sang to her. So much love fills the room.

Such wonderful memories and feelings. My Croatian family is filled with good and loving people. As I say good-bye to the blue sea and the olive trees, I give thanks. This knowledge of "from whence I came" makes me feel complete.

Sing One of the Old Songs
Paul writes about his experiences in Croatia.

Fate was with us on our first visit to Croatia in 2001 and delivered extraordinary and memorable moments.

I remember the young man who, as a favor to his fiancée in the Malinska tourist office, drove us to the little village of Sveti Vid in search of relatives. As he ferried us around and we talked, he slowly realized that he, Tonci, was part of the family we sought.

And I remember our first visit to Kostrena in search of Ervin and the Pavletich family roots. We approached a couple working in their garden for directions and were astounded to learn that not only did they know the family, but they'd stayed for a time with the Pavletich's in Philadelphia!

Our second Croatian journey in 2002 to attend Tonci and Mladenka's wedding could not possibly match the first for remarkable serendipitous moments. But our visit was every bit as rewarding as we strengthened the bonds established the previous year.

The marathon wedding celebration was, of course, wonderful. But I remember just as fondly the meals set out on a long table on Tonci's porch. We dipped fresh white bread into steaming bowls of goulash, drank fresh wine from bottles capped like beer bottles, and engaged in boisterous conversation in English and Croatian.

I remember, too, driving to Kostrena to meet Ervin and his family. With steady hands and steel nerves, Pap skillfully steered our van along a narrow, winding road with a deep ditch just inches from the wheels.

Safely in Kostrena, we greeted Ervin, his wife Tugomila and his aged mother, who tottered childlike through the house all evening. Ervin's son Davos with his wife and child joined us later. Around the table in their parlor, we again shared fresh bread and wine, home-cooked food and loud, happy conversation with Croatian hosts.

Ervin spoke a beautiful, heavily accented English, sometimes fractured but always understandable. We learned why the Pavletich family is remembered so fondly in Kostrena: Captain Pavletich would visit ships docked in Philadelphia to invite anyone from Kostrena back to his home.

We learned, too, that this little town by the water has produced hundreds of sea captains, some of whom came calling. Captain Tijhan joined us with his wife and gushed with stories of his American voyages. Captain Medevic paid a brief visit, too. Tall, white-haired, and dressed all in black, he seemed like a Croatian Ahab.

Sometime during the evening, Davos produced an accordion and we all listened, clapped and sang along to tunes like "Amazing Grace," "Blue Danube" and everyone's favorite, "Good-bye America Good-bye." Tears flowed shamelessly after he played a Croatian national song. And he played the accompaniment when Ervin leaned over to his aged mother, took her hands, and sang with her an old familiar song.

Of all our Croatian experiences, I think this night of music affected me the most. How generous Ervin and his family were to share with us not only their home and their table, but their souls, too, with their music.

I realized that I'd forgotten the simple pleasures and joys of singing and playing music with others. Playing guitar with family and friends is something I once did regularly. But somewhere along the line I stopped playing with company, too timid I guess to expose myself as an off-key amateur.

I thought of Ervin's house and the music when, weeks after our return, Lisa informed me that Wynn and Maryann would host a backyard Hootenanny. I dusted (and dusted) my guitar, changed the strings, practiced a couple of three-chord songs, and resolved to join in. My reward was a night of music every bit as satisfying as our night in Kostrena.

I'm grateful to have shared in the "Croatian Adventures." I'm grateful to Tonci, Ervin, and their families for their warmth and generosity. And I wish for all of us that when we are old, someone will take our hands, look into our eyes, and sing one of the old songs.