Dawn had not yet broken as I wrestled my suitcase out of my room above the bar in Mrkopalj, a tiny Croatian village nestled in a low mountain range that looks like the Alps but with fewer people and more wild boars. I sweated my luggage down the creaky back stairway, careful to step quietly for fear that some of the rowdy drinkers whose noise had kept me up all night would now be snoozing somewhere among the empty bottles in the brown-on-brown murk of the bar.
I crept across a quiet courtyard surrounded by weeds, my breath coming in icy puffs, and I threw my stuff into the trunk of my rented Volkswagen Polo. As I hurriedly rubbed the fog off the windshield with my coat sleeve, hungry bears were creeping down those mountains to rob the wilting gardens of the village. They wouldn’t find much. Most of the cabbages in Mrkopalj (pronounced MER-koe-pie by the locals) were fermenting in wooden barrels by now; potatoes were stacked in red net bags in root cellars. What the bears did not know (and I didn’t know yet, either) is that they would find more action at the local drinking establishment that was now in my rearview mirror, a place operated by a man who was, in spirit, one of them.
The last shreds of night still cloaked Mrkopalj’s eight hundred residents and their yard chickens as I skidded past Jesus and the robbers on Calvary, the sheep near the post office, and the dark doorway of a drunken tourism director. This was the land of my maternal ancestors, the village my great-grandparents left behind when they immigrated to America a hundred years ago. From what I’d seen so far, it hadn’t changed much since they left. This, in theory, was a good thing, considering that my husband, Jim, and I were planning a back-to-basics family sabbatical abroad with our two little kids as America’s economy hit the skids.
In the spirit of scouting possibilities, I planned to explore Mrkopalj for a week.
I fled after thirty-six hours.
The engine of my tiny Euro car whined as I floored it out of last century. One urgent thought pulsed continuously through my mind as the sun began to rise: Get me the hell out of here.
I had come to Mrkopalj in search of home. A rustic, simple country home that I hoped to recognize on some deep and spiritual level. Preferably something that smelled like baking bread, or maybe hay. Though I knew so little about Mrkopalj when I set out on this scouting mission, I’d been to enough of my older relatives’ funerals to know that I look just like them, with knobby cheekbones and eyes so deep set that I’m pretty sure they’ll eventually emerge from the back of my head. In a way, Mrkopalj is an essential part of who I am. Unfortunately, I discovered, this revealed me to be isolated, mildly alcoholic, and dentally challenged.
So that was disappointing. As I mentioned above, Jim and I had been working up the courage to do something we’d always dreamed about: escape to a place where we could live simply with our kids, Sam and Zadie. We’d shared the dream of living overseas ever since we’d met and married ten years before in Des Moines, Iowa. The dream faded as we built our careers—me as a moderately successful travel writer, he as an architect. It disappeared altogether when the kids came along. We dove blindly into the blur of the American family frenzy, with all its soccer practices and frivolous shopping trips to Target. We worked. We drove the kids around. We shopped.
We were chest-deep in the fray when the escape fantasy began to revive in me. I wanted to get back to that essential kernel of connection that had brought Jim and me together in the first place. We’d worked hard and happily to carve out our own version of the American Dream. We renovated a house together in lieu of dating. When we married, we promised that above all, we’d provide each other with an interesting life. We raised two babies in our homemade house, where I planted big gardens under the open sky of the uncrowded state where we both grew up.
Then, somewhere along the line, things got complicated. I worked during naptimes and at night while I stayed home with the kids, writing in my half sleep, parenting in the same manner—I was doing it all but none of it well. I found myself mindlessly rushing to school or to swimming lessons or to ballet or to work or making another trip to the store; anything to distract my mind from the endless needs of the kids and the longest single-syllable word in human history: Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahm. The manufactured schedule replaced a more tangible life. And really, Sam and Zadie just wanted to hang out at home and wrestle and play beauty shop with Dad, though the 6:00 to 7:30 P.M. window of time that Jim actually spent with his children was filled with the chaos of supper, baths, and bedtime. We ran because we couldn’t sit still. Neither of us knew why.
As we were living this life of distraction, we began to accumulate things. At final count, Jim had bought three grills—the last one cost us four digits. “You can make naan in it!” he’d announced at the unveiling, stepping aside on the porch to reveal a large oval-shaped ceramic urn mounted on a wooden platform. It looked like an altar. But I wasn’t in any position to judge. My shoe collection closely resembled a DSW store in my closet. Restlessness circulated through our house like that one smell that happens when a mouse crawls into the ductwork and dies. Sort of vague. Faint. But pervasive and disturbing. I’m not lodging a complaint here; we were comfortable physically, and that’s more than I can say about three-quarters of the world. But for that very reason, it just didn’t seem like the right way to live anymore.
Jim and I looked at each other across the shopping cart one Saturday afternoon, both of us holding the Starbucks that accounted for $150 of our monthly household budget, SUV idling in the parking lot, kids grousing that the Lego set they’d chosen was somehow lacking, and asked ourselves: Is this the American Dream? Because if it is, it sort of sucks.
It was into this void that Mrkopalj came calling. In July 2008, my great-aunt died. Sister Mary Paula Radosevich was the last of the immigrant family. Because no one else was interested, the nuns gave me her personal papers, which she’d stored in a bronze-colored tin lockbox. To most of my family, the old relatives were old news. But I thought knowing more about them might help guide my own. My olive-skinned mom rarely mentioned that she was descended from thick-accented immigrants, full mustaches upon both the men and the women. I’d once asked her where our family came from, and she would only answer “Iowa.” I sensed some shame about these poor ancestors who’d toiled in coal mines, or maybe it was just her natural reticence.
The night after Sister Paula’s funeral, when the kids were in bed, I nestled on the family room couch and sifted through that tin box. I dug out her modestly short autobiography. In shaky upright cursive, she had written that her parents, Valentin Radosevich and Jelena Eskra, had come to America from Mrkopalj, Croatia.
Valentin and Jelena’s tale had been furtively tucked away as the Radosevich clan rose to middle-class prosperity. With my generation, their story had nearly vanished. I wished I had more to teach Sam and Zadie about our roots. I knew not one old recipe. Few Croatian words. No helpful bedtime stories in which the misbehaving child gets disemboweled by wolves. But this felt like a start.
I read that Valentin and Jelena had had six children. I didn’t know the brothers. But the sisters meant the world to me when I was a girl. The elder Radosevich women, those chuckling old hens, short of stature and big of butt, doted on me, each in her own way.
There was Mary, who became Sister Paula, the oldest, and the only one who went to college. She’d become the principal at a Catholic grade school in Des Moines, and at her funeral her former students told me she was strict but fair. I think that’s code for mean. But with me, Sister Paula was attentive and inquisitive. How was I doing in school? Was I making classwork my priority? Higher even than softball and boys? I grew up in Colfax, Iowa, where the only black person in town bagged groceries and lived at the dump, and Sister Paula urged me to broaden my understanding of the world, to consider travel a crucial part of my education. She was the one who after hearing that my parents wouldn’t let me see Grease, placed a call to my mother to tell her it was a defining movie of a generation and I must see it. And so I did.
Annie was the middle sister, called Auntie by all the cousins. Auntie wore a girdle, a fascinating device of physics with levers and fulcrums, underneath her cotton housedress. I know about the girdle because Auntie would let me come into the bathroom during her morning constitutional so I could snap and unsnap her stockings from her garters. She died when I was a little girl, but not before she sewed an entire wardrobe for my Barbie dolls and ruined my palate by stirring butter and salt into my baby food.
Katherine was the youngest. My Grandma Kate. My mother’s mother. I loved her above all others. Toni perms had burnt her jet-black hair until it was crisp and brittle, and her eyebrows were singed from lighting Misty menthols on the coil of her electric stove. Her oversized sweaters sparkled with sequins. She drove her metallic-blue Volare just a few notches below the speed of sound.
I was lonely in my mother’s harsh and nervous universe. We seemed so mismatched as mother and daughter. An unhappy woman stranded in a small town, Mom was prone to days of angry silence. I was an intense and curious kid who seemed born to question. In Wednesday-night church school at Immaculate Conception, my classmates would pass me wadded-up notes bearing questions that they were too embarrassed to ask.
“So if Jesus is real, will he catch this book if I drop it?” I asked a flustered fourth-grade teacher as I held the catechism above the floor.
“If premarital sex is a sin, then how are you supposed to know if you’re going to like being married to someone? It seems like a bad idea not to test-drive the car before leaving the lot.” That one I floated out to our priest in high school, who responded with a stumped silence, but I’ll tell you that my parents were not pleased when he had a Why Premarital Sex Is a Sin pamphlet sent to us from the diocese.
And just as I have always been a seeker, my mother has always seemed one to hide. I wish I could tell you why she spent so many days isolated from the children so eager to love her, lashing out in bitterness from an imagined slight from one of us, her anger often turning to taunting that she would encourage the others to join in on. Or she’d simply level a stunning silence that would last for days. I don’t know if this was depression, though later I know she struggled with alcoholism. I also don’t know why my dad never stopped it. When I worked up the courage or indignance, I demanded to know what we had done wrong, why she wasn’t like the other mothers, why she couldn’t offer the simple closeness and openness that we all craved. It created a friction among us all, a fear and a void. So many of my questions went unanswered. And so perhaps I was also looking for my mother in that tin box.
From this odd home life as a kid, I found refuge at Grandma Kate’s house in Des Moines. Though her voice was manly and thick with a staccato Croatian accent, and she had a complete inability to cook anything flavorful, her unabashed love of my company built a foundation for my shaky confidence. She was widowed when I was young, having lost my Italian grandpa Gino to congestive heart failure, so I had Grandma Kate all to myself when I’d visit. We’d spend whole weekends chatting at her Formica kitchen table or calling her other daughter, my vivacious aunt Terri, on the phone, only moving every few hours to lie foot-to-foot on the couch and read romance novels.
“Boy, Jenn’fer, I tell ya,” she’d rumble, “they sure make doing it with a man sound a lot better than it is.”
I would pluck her chin hairs, or we’d head to her Saturday-night card party, where I’d give all the ladies bouffant hairdos. Around Grandma Kate, I was no longer the weepy kid obsessed with horror comics and the Little House on the Prairie box set. She thought I was smart and funny. With Grandma Kate, I was the best version of myself.
She had a stroke when I was in my twenties. Uncle Howard found her on the bathroom floor, where she’d been lying for two days. She grabbed my hand when I walked into her hospital room and told me she’d just had a vision of my long-dead grandpa Gino.
“I almost went, but Gino told me to come back,” she cried. “That big dummy.”
She should’ve gone with him. She moved into a nursing home, where I’d find her with bruises on her arms and legs and, once, a goose egg on her forehead that the chief of staff couldn’t explain. I’d find her sitting in front of the blaring common-room television, tears streaming down her face.
When she was in the hospital with some sort of complication, I came into her room to find two nurses cleaning her up for the day, one of them swabbing her mouth because she couldn’t swallow well anymore. Grandma Kate began choking on the mouth swab, which the nurse had dropped down her throat. They sent me out as she thrashed around in a panic. When I came back, she was dead. I sat by her side, holding her hand as her body went cold, whispering her childhood nickname over and over again: “Kata. Kata. Kata.” I have never stopped missing her.
I dug through these memories on the couch until after midnight, pouring over pictures of Mrkopalj on my laptop, dreaming of the village where Grandma Kate’s parents had come from, this ghost-like place that was simply never mentioned. It seemed like something out of a storybook: a smattering of gnome houses among fields of spotted cattle and fat sheep, hemmed in by low wooded mountains, less than an hour from the sea. It appeared to have changed little over the centuries. As if it had been waiting for me all along.
Maybe this simple and wide-open existence was just what my family needed. Travel had always renewed me. But could I run away from home—and bring my family, too? Was it even possible? As my wondering turned to obsession, it seemed as if Grandma Kate and Sister Paula and all the old relatives were answering: Maybe you can.
The more I thought about transporting us back a century and across the globe, the more I thought it was a very good idea. Which, frankly, is crazy. So I figured I’d check with my human sanity barometer one night after I put the kids to bed. I had married a steady Midwestern man who spent his free time fine-tuning our Ameritrade accounts. If anyone could spot a dumb idea, it was Jim.
“Let’s talk,” I began, plopping down in front of him as he was watching an ultimate fighting match.
He turned to me. “We are not watching Rock of Love with Bret Michaels,” he said. “No matter what you promise me.”
“This is better,” I said, grabbing the remote and clicking off the television.
“Remember how we used to dream about living overseas together?” I asked.
“I remember,” said Jim.
I smiled, trying very hard to look beguiling. “I’ve been dreaming about it again.”
Surprisingly, Jim did not mock this.
So I unveiled my proposal for a return to the old country, where we’d relearn the forgotten lessons of our ancestors and spend uninterrupted time together. It would be a reverse immigration of sorts—my own family starting over where Valentin and Jelena left off. There was a tidiness to the plan.
“I know it doesn’t sound sensible,” I said. “But for some reason it sounds right.”
Now, in most marriages, there is a contented partner and a restless one. You can probably guess which one I am. But Jim wasn’t quite the contented spirit he had been. He’d suspected for a long time that architecture wasn’t the best career choice for someone who would rather build a house than draw one. At night, he pored over cooking magazines, dreaming of owning his own lunch truck. To most people, he was the same old Jim, the guy who’d push your car out from the snowdrift. But I recognized restlessness when I saw it.
I sat there waiting for the onslaught of Reasons Why We Can’t. We’ve got a mortgage. We’ve got pets. We just hooked up the TiVo. But Jim sat in silence.
Then I realized that he was breaking into the same look he’d had the first time we met, when he was bellied up to a bar with his buddy Dave, pretending to watch Hawkeye basketball but really watching me drink whiskey near the jukebox, harmonizing poorly to the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” with my sister, Stephanie.
I liked that look. I married that look. Jim stayed quiet, rubbing his beard and running his hand over his mouth. Then he got up and poured me a glass of wine.
When he sat down again, he spoke. “You know, I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t do something like that. We’ve got some money saved up. We could rent out the house.”
I chimed in. “We’re not getting any younger. And it’s the perfect timing for Sam and Zadie—they aren’t old enough to put up a fight yet.”
“I could take a leave from work,” Jim said.
I was stunned he was even considering this. “Really?” I said. Maybe we were both crazy.
“Why not?” he asked. “I just sit at my desk all day and think of the things I’d rather be doing—working on the house, making dinner, just hanging out. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had a whole day just to hang out with my kids?”
He got up and grabbed the atlas. He flipped through it with an enthusiasm I hadn’t seen since, well, since he took me home on “Take It Easy” night. We were clicking on this.
We studied the map of Croatia for a while: the funny tilted wishbone shape, all that seacoast, the proximity to Italy.
“The idea of just leaving. Just walking away.” Jim shook his head. “Can you imagine?”
I wish I could say that our decision to run away to Croatia was more carefully crafted than the drunken midnight talk of two tired parents. But it wasn’t. Jim and I could argue for hours about the frequency and aptitude of his lawn-mowing skills, right on down to how he only used the weed eater biweekly. The smallest minutia imaginable. But in regard to the biggest decision we’d ever make in the trajectory of our family, it really was as simple as two restless souls in a rambling mood setting in motion a ball that hasn’t stopped rolling since.
Before we did anything rash, we decided I should probably check out Mrkopalj in person. Occasionally countries host travel journalists on familiarization trips, so I wrote a heartfelt letter to the Croatian Tourism Board, begging to be included on one. I received a tepid e-mail brush-off. I called the office. I got a recording. I called again, and got another recording. I called three times, then four. Nothing but silence.
Now, maybe it was that beautiful surfer boy in high school who never called me back, or maybe it’s just standard Iowan tenacity, but for whatever reason, when I’m blown off, I develop this epic stubbornness that borders on compulsion. I called again and again, until I lost count. I heard nothing in response.
I was getting the picture that Croatian Tourism did not want me to visit Croatia. I mentioned in my messages that I wrote for National Geographic Traveler and Frommer’s Budget Travel. (I did not mention that my stories were the teensy ones in the front of the book.) Still, no one responded. I couldn’t help but wonder: What are these people hiding?
Finally, a woman with a deep, harried voice returned my messages. I’ll call her Vesna. Vesna told me that a press trip was indeed coming up. I could go if I could get an assignment from one of my magazines.
“I’ll do it,” I assured her.
But I didn’t. I called every editor I could think of. No dice.
A week later, Vesna called again to chew me out.
“What is happening?” she barked. “What is wrong? I try to help you go to Croatia, and now you do not have press letter.”
“I want with all my heart to go on the press trip!” I said. “But I can’t get an assignment.”
Vesna reminded me quietly: “Jennifer, I try to create special circumstance so that you can come to Croatia.”
“I understand that, and I appreciate it,” I said. “But it’s a little-known country and I think everyone has all the Croatia coverage they need right now.”
“Croatia is not little-known country!” she yelled. “Rudy Maxa has come to Croatia!”
I did not mention that few people have heard of The Savvy Traveler either. Instead, I said: “I’m sorry. I’m just saying I tried to sell the story. No one is biting.”
Vesna lowered her voice. “Can’t you just make something up? I want you to go. I do this because your people are from Croatia.”
I had not thought of this option. And so I wrote my own assignment letter. Something about sourcing posh lodgings and local booze for an upscale home magazine. I figured, reach for the stars, right? And sure enough, by day’s end, Vesna had secured my slot on that fall press trip to Croatia and a rental car to visit Mrkopalj afterward—a two-week trip in total.
“Good luck, Jennifer,” Vesna said. “You will be very happy there.”
I would leave in ten days. There was much to do before my departure. In addition to clearing my desk of work, I had to prepare the house and the pets and the family for an absence of their mama for the longest period of time we’d ever been apart. At some point during the writing of the twelve-page instructional manual for Jim—“Please remember that we have a cat” and “The children will need to be washed periodically”—I realized that my trip research time would be severely limited. For some reason, I didn’t use that time to track down a relative or two, or to learn useful phrases in Croatian. Instead, I figured the easiest way to do the trip planning would be to meet someone who was from the area and ask a few questions. Surprisingly, not a difficult thing to do in Des Moines. During my lifetime, Iowa has been a haven for war refugees, including people from the former Yugoslavia fleeing from the wars of the 1990s. I made a few phone calls and connected with a friend of a friend whose family had moved to Des Moines from Rijeka (pronounced ree-YAY-kuh), a port city about a half hour away from Mrkopalj.
The ridiculously attractive Zlatko met me at a local coffee shop, where he quickly assessed the vast abyss of my Balkan knowledge with gorgeous blue eyes in a tanned face. You could practically hear the Al Green song playing as he slid his wraparound sunglasses over his gold-brown hair. He gave me the once-over, finding before him a mildly frumpy mom whose potential for hotness had faded soon after she started getting spiral perms in college. And so he set to work giving me a no-nonsense schooling in the ways of his homeland.
Zlatko borrowed a piece of paper and sketched Croatia. The region my family is from is called the Gorski Kotar, or Mountain District, and is in the northwest corner of the country, the “handle” of Croatia’s odd wishbone shape.
So that was the Gorski Kotar geographically. But, running his hands through his continental hair, Zlatko seemed to be having trouble coming up with the right words to talk about the place culturally.
“Gorski Kotar is one of the places…,” he began. Then he closed his eyes, resigning himself to something. “There are a lot of crazy people there. They’re not as civilized in a traditional way. It’s a little more primitive than you think it is.”
I stared at him. I considered touching his face.
In the Gorski Kotar, Zlatko said, one of the most ancient dialects of Croatian is spoken. My Croatian phrasebook wouldn’t help me all that much. So bizarre was the Gorski Kotar, in fact, that every region surrounding it had been affected by the Balkan wars from 1992 to 1995, and yet it had remained oddly untouched. He had no explanation for why this was.
“What exactly was that war about?” I asked. “I’m sorry to seem ignorant. It’s because I am ignorant.”
“The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed in 1918,” Zlatko said. “It was a country with many different nationalities and three different religions—Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox. During the 1990s, Yugoslavia broke up, and the people had a nationalistic conflict. Everyone wanted more land from the division, and in the end they all went their separate ways.”
I’d never heard it explained clearly like this. I’d asked my own brother, Brian, for a Reader’s Digest version of the war. He served as an Army doctor in Bosnia. “Some guy stole another guy’s sheep two thousand years ago,” he said. “And they’ve been fighting ever since.” The series of conflicts was so confusing that they didn’t even have an official name. I’d done some reading and just referred to them as the Yugoslavian Wars.
“The war is over and has been for a long time,” Zlatko said. “It won’t be dangerous by any means. Besides, you have the most important thing that you need in Croatia. You have heritage.”
“So it’s not dangerous for us, because we’re family?”
“More or less,” Zlatko said.
“Well, the wilderness sounds nice,” I said. “Maybe my husband will learn to like camping!”
Zlatko leaned forward gravely. “You need to not go into the woods, Jennifer,” he said. “There are wolves. There are wild boars. You tell someone in Gorski Kotar that you’re going into the woods, and they’ll pull out a shotgun from behind the counter and tell you to borrow it for the weekend!”
But it wasn’t really what was in the woods that got Zlatko worried about my family and me. And on this point, he would not elaborate.
“Jennifer,” he said, sighing heavily, “you never know who you’re going to run into in those woods.”
And that was the first indication that perhaps my Motherland wasn’t quite the idyllic rustic family vacation destination I’d thought it would be.
Copyright © 2011 by Jennifer Wilson