Running Away to Home: Our Family's Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters

Running Away to Home: Our Family's Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters

by Jennifer Wilson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312598952
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/11/2011
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

JENNIFER WILSON is an accomplished writer who has chronicled her travels, both epic and around the corner, in National Geographic Traveler, Gourmet, Esquire, Midwest Living, Better Homes & Gardens, Frommer’s Budget Traveler, Parents, and Disney Family Fun.

Read an Excerpt

chapter one


October 2008


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.

He sighed.

“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

Reading Group Guide

A middle class, Midwestern family in search of meaning uproot themselves and move to their ancestral village in Croatia

Jennifer Wilson, her architect husband, and their two kids lived the typical soccer-and-ballet practice life in the most middle-American of places: Des Moines, Iowa. They overindulged themselves and their kids, and as a family they were losing each other in the rush of work, school, and activities. One day, Jen and her husband looked at each other - both holding their Starbucks as they headed out to their SUV parked in the center lot while the kids complained that the store didn't have their favorite soda - and asked themselves: "Is this the American dream? Because if it is, it sort of sucks." Jim and Jen had always dreamed of taking a family sabbatical in another country, so when they lost half their savings in the stock-market crash, it seemed like just a crazy enough time to do it. The family packed up and left the troubled landscape of contemporary America for the Croatian mountain village of Mrkopalj: land of Jennifer's ancestors. It was a village that seemed hermetically sealed for the last 100 years, with a population of 800 (mostly drunken) residents and a herd of sheep milling around the post office. For several months, they lived like locals, from milking the neighbor's cows to desperately seeking the village recipe for bootleg liquor. As the Wilson Hoff family struggled to stay sane (and warm), what they found was much deeper and bigger than themselves.

1) The book opens with the author fleeing the village of her ancestors, far out of her comfort zone and desperate to return to it. And yet, she does return, and with her family. There are a number of reasons—both conscious and subconscious—for her return. What are they? Have you ever experienced a compulsion to do something terrifically outside your comfort zone? Did you find her move selfish or understandable?

2) The author experiences a discomfort with The American Dream, as it looks in modern times. How does she see that dream, and why did she abandon it? What benefit might that have? What do you think The American Dream is today?

3) What is metanoia? Have you experienced it?

4) What was the problem with construction on the family's rooms—and how was it emblematic of Mrkopalj in general?

5) The author had a hard time settling in to the village. When was the turning point in her time there? What happened, and how did that catalyst for change affect the rest of the book?

6) In the village, drinking is a constant, especially among men, and eventually with the author herself when she states: "With an immediate burn in my belly, I knew I had just been inducted into the village of my ancestors." Were you surprised drinking was so prevalent? Did it put you off, or was it just a cultural difference?

7) Robert really unsettles Jen, but he and Jim click. How are these two men alike? How are they different? Why do you think they connected?

8) In some loose way, do you think Robert and Jen represent Croatia and America: their ways of looking at life, ways of doing things (or not), different approaches to life?

9) What happened when Robert helped the author and Jim find their ancestral homes? Do you think this helped them connect to the past? To the village itself? To its residents (particularly Robert)?

10) The old women of the book served almost as midwives to the ancestral connection for the author—particularly Baka Ana and Zora. Do we have traditions we pass from old to young in our culture? What are they? Or have we left them all behind in lieu of progress?

11) How did it affect the family to meet their long-lost relatives? Are Americans really disconnected from our roots and families? What have we lost—and what have we not? Who here has connection to family overseas? How does this affect your family and your life?

12) Did you find the family's simpler life appealing? What would you love to get rid of? Can you imagine your family living so close together for months on end?

13) How is the author changed at end of book? Why did Viktor's question "Which kind of Radoševic are you?" particularly affect her?

14) What did you know about Croatia and the history of that area before you read this book? What have you learned about Balkan history? What surprised you? The World War II history in the book was particularly harrowing. How has this affected the village? Did you find it odd that the area remained unscathed during the Yugoslavian Wars?

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Running Away to Home 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
BookAngel_a on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Jennifer Wilson¿s grandparents moved to the USA over a hundred years ago, searching for a better life. Jennifer and her husband got tired of the ¿American dream¿ and all the materialism complicating their life, and their children¿s lives, so they decided to return to her family¿s village Croatia to create a better life for their family. They could only afford to stay a year, but what they learned will last much longer.This book documents the initial culture shock Jennifer and her children experienced, how they came to love their village, and how Jennifer discovered her ancestral roots. There were some bumps in the road, but her family drew closer together and learned what is really important in life.The only disappointment for me was that the book ended before they returned to the USA. I was really hoping to see how they applied what they learned in their lives when they moved back to fast paced life. Perhaps that will be covered in a future book, but I was waiting for it now.If you have ever tried to live in another country ¿ not a vacation, but everyday life ¿ you will be able to relate to this family and what they experienced. This book is recommended for anyone who has ever done that, or anyone who dreams of getting away from it all and living a truly simple life.(I received this book through Amazon¿s Vine Program.)
bbellthom on LibraryThing 8 months ago
What a wonderful book, not so much because of the writing but the whole concept. Jennifer Wilson and her husband decide to stop living the so called American Dream and move to Jennifer's ancestral home Croatia.While reading this book I just kept thinking what a wonderful dream to be able to go to a foreign country for one year to not only find your ancestors but to be "stuck" with your family. When you move to a foreign country only knowing your immediate family you are bound to become closer (not that you wouldn't need some alone time). At times the book did drag for me, but at those times I thought of what if this was my family how would we fare. I also would have liked a little more of the history of Croatia.Overall I would recommend this book.
marasgma on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This delightful book by Jennifer Wilson is well written and invites the reader to join the experience of her family as they leave what many of us know as the "hurried life" in the United States to spend a year exploring her ancestral heritage in Croatia. The most intriguing feature for me was her detailed descriptions of how the slow down changed their lives. I entered the book wondering just what they would do all day and it was delightful to read her descriptions of a formerly busy dad sitting on a swing, reading a book, as his children played nearby. I loved watching them take a walk together each day while the children stayed (safely) at home. And I was intrigued by their ability (and failings) to have conversations with people who didn't speak the Wilson's familiar English.This story felt so honest as Jennifer described not only the highlights of their trip, but also the numerous difficulties they experienced. No drama, no whining, no self-pitying - just an open sharing of both experience and the feelings that accompanied their journey.Some things I found to be especially helpful: the couple of drawings in the book that helped acclimate the reader and the detailed descriptions of people, places and conversations. Including a pronunciation guide in parenthetical phrases helped with the many Croatian names and made reading go smoothly. The most surprising? The variety and quantity of alcoholic beverages shared at all times of the day and night, and again, no drama or judgment to accompany the stories. And, of course, the stories themselves; stories of a community, individual people, her great-grandparents and those they encountered along the way.I am hoping for a sequel, as this experience must have changed the way they faced life and family when they returned to the United States after discovering so much about themselves.
EmThomas on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I find myself at odds with this story. As someone who has a completely different lifestyle and parenting technique, I would catch myself getting stuck on our differences instead of losing myself in the author's experience. I also didn't get the sense that there truly was a lot of emotional growth on the author's part [which I assume is the purpose of writing these kind of books], though there was certainly growth portrayed by her family and neighbors. I did enjoy the secondary characters story lines quite a bit and learning about the Croatian culture and history.
thornton37814 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Jennifer Wilson, a free-lance travel writer living in Des Moines, Iowa, and her husband Jim, an architect, (and their two young children) decide to take a year to live in Croatia, the land of Jennifer's ancestors, in hopes of discovering more about them. They face a number of obstacles including the difficulty of finding housing in her ancestral village, the language barrier, and access to records. Jennifer seems to be a bit unprepared for her genealogical ventures. An organized research plan is never shown and most of what she is doing seems to be random. She also seems to be content to leave her research at the parents of her immigrant ancestors instead of trying to go back further. She does mention loss of records in the narrative, but the main record mentioned as being lost is the record of burials. I'm certain there are other records which could have been explored for the time period. The Family History Library guide mentions some that they have filmed or are in the process of filming. The reader does come away with a feel for some of the family's experiences in the country, but there are gaps in the narrative and places where you want more details and many places where you want far less information.
l-mo on LibraryThing 8 months ago
When Jennifer Wilson and her husband started to become disenchanted with the American dream meaning acquiring stuff, they searched for a way to change their lifestyle. They did this by learning a bit of Croatian and moving their family of four to a small village in Croatia where her ancestors hailed from. The story is captivating, and I found myself visualizing nearly everything she wrote of. I loved the bits of Croatian in the book, and was surprised that it was so similar to the little Polish that I know. The locals are forever charming the reader with their personalities, even if the writer herself doesn't. I have to say that I have a bit of wanderlust in me right now.
Alie on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I really enjoyed reading Running Away to Home. It is a memoir of one women and her family's adventure to move to her ancestor's village in Croatia to discover where she came from. It is a dream many of us have, to press pause on our current life for a year of travel, but rarely succeed in pursuing. What I found most refreshing was Jennifer's honest account of the struggles that she faced in her journey from finding information on her family to adjusting to a new culture. The book made me laugh, enlightened me on Croatia and the turmoil it has survived, and most of all reminded me to be grateful for what I have.
chutzpanit on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I love this book and really enjoyed reading the adventure that this family decided to take. I really think that it takes a lot of guts to do what Wilson and her husband did, getting up and moving to a foreign country, even for a year, with two young children. My parents chose to move my family when I was 13, my brother was 10 and my sister 4 to Israel. We lived there for four years and it was some of the most fascinating parts of my childhood.I think this book does a great job of showing us exactly why foreign travel and international experiences are important. I don't think Americans experience enough of them in a true fashion.
nyiper on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This was a slow read for me. It's probably not a book I would have picked up unless someone recommended it or, as in this case, it was a LibraryThing choice I made and received. The author was highly descriptive of the entire Croatian portion of the trip on which she and her family embarked. Perhaps the point that it was an incredible effort to get much done once they were there, became, in the end, valuable. Slowing life down made it possible to begin to appreciate the minutes that passes. We tend to go so fast in everything we do that we spend almost no time appreciating much of it. Jennifer Wilson writes beautifully so that you can easily imagine the scenes she describes full of people and events. She is telling about an effort that probably not a lot of us would choose to do ourselves. Although I really enjoyed the last few pages I would have loved to have a description of what it was like to return to the United States----maybe that's her next book---one about the readjustments to life here.
tjsjohanna on LibraryThing 8 months ago
There was a lot to like about this memoir and one of my favorite parts was towards the end when Ms. Wilson talked about the sacrifices of her ancestors and the gratitude that she found as she spent time in the Croatian village where her family came from. The memoir overall is a curious mix of the quirky and the difficult, but also of generosity and friendliness. In addition, there is a story to tell, which makes reading this memoir feel satisfying.
Bcteagirl on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Jeniffer Wilson and her family decide to spend close to one year in her families ancestral village in Croatia. While the trip is overall a wonderful one, things never seem to go according to plan (e.g. they show up to find their rented lodging is actually still under construction). I found this book decidedly less self-centered that the two previously mentioned books, and very much enjoyed reading it. Jennifer is able to paint a rather vivid picture of small town Croatian life... you get an idea not only what the town and surrounding areas look like, but what the people are like. Rather than painting herself as special and the center of everything, Jennifer is able to step back and see how she fits within the Croatian. She is also able to admit where she doesn't fit, and what her failings are. I loved the descriptions of the old buildings, and the traditional way of life that many are still living there (e.g. making their own cheese, guarding with their lives their vodka recipes, etc). Closer to the end of the book she is also able to talk with some of the oldest inhabitants of the town about the area (e.g. most of the villages have been burned down at least 5 times during various wars) and I found the discussions very touching. While there were a few spots in this book I found a bit slow, I did give this book 4.5 stars/5.
Twink on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Jennifer Wilson and her husband Jim have a good life in Des Moines, Iowa. Two great kids, careers, house, friends - the American Dream. But they had another dream as well - " to escape to the place where we could live simply with our kids." But where could that be? Jennifer's family was originally from Croatia. And that, they decide, is where they will escape to for a year. Jennifer does a short reconnaissance mission in her ancestral hometown of Mrkopalj, returns to the US and less than a year later, they're on their way. I thought Running Away to Home was such a neat idea - and something I would have liked to do when I was younger (I would have headed to Ireland myself). To have really chucked it all for a year, packed up two young children to just explore, learn and live takes courage and an adventurous spirit.Wilson doesn't pull any punches in this memoir. It's not all smooth sailing - their planned accomodations go awry and Jennifer is actually the one who has trouble fitting in with village life. Her husband Jim seems to seamlessly integrate himself into daily life. "You haven't tried to fit in! You're hanging back. You're trying to figure everything out before you actually enjoy this. I don't think the point is to figure anything out. I think your time is better spent getting to know people." Once she takes her husband's words to heart, things go better for Jennifer. She starts to relax and just 'be'. Once she starts to interact and join in, her experience is enriched.The book is written from Jennifer's point of view, with Jim and the children's thoughts added by her. I would have enjoyed reading from Jim's perspective as well. I enjoyed 'meeting' many of the 800 residents of Mrkopalj and learning of daily life, history and customs of the area. I did find a little too much of the story devoted to Robert - the owner of the home they end up living in, although they depend on him for much of what they need during their time in Croatia.Did the Wilsons find what they were looking for? The subtitle of the book is "Our journey to Croatia in search of who we are, where we came from, and what really matters." I think the time spent together as a family was invaluable. I would have liked to see a postscript - what happened on their return to the US? Did they return to their jobs? What changed as a result of this trip? Pictures would have been nice as well, but you can view the trip album on Wilson's website.I enjoyed the honesty of Wilson's writing, learning more about Croatia and the thoughts and possiblities her adventures sparked in this reader.
melaniehope on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This was a well written travel memoir of the author's quest to discover her family ancestry in the heart of Croatia. Her husband and two small children accompany her for one year to discover where they came from, who they are and what really matters.I really liked this book. Jennifer writes with humor and honesty. One day they are living the "american dream" in Iowa, but feeling like they are losing themselves in the mad rush of work, school and constant activities. Seemingly on an impulse, they decide to take one year off to travel to Mrkopalj, Croatia, the land of Jen's ancestors. Eventually they would also take some time to visit the coastal beaches of Croatia and parts of Europe. This part is not really talked about in the book. Instead the book focuses on the trials and tribulations of getting visas, finding a place to live for months, and trying to become a part of village life. The story was interesting, the people of Mrkopalj were likable and it was always fun to read about how Jen and her family were essentially welcomed into this community.I only wish there would have been some photos included inside the book. I also would have liked to have had a small section that highlighted the rest of their trip in Europe and then how the return to the US went. Is Jim still working as an architect or did he decide to change careers? How did the kids do acclimating back to US life and school again?This was a terrific read, interesting whether you have lived overseas or just like to read about it. Loved the writing, it was always a page turner for me. Glad to have received this book through the Early Reviewers program.
PyrBon More than 1 year ago
This book is pure enjoyment from the very beginning. You don't have to be of Croatian descent to be hooked from the first page. The author, feeling restless and dissatisfied with the rat race of American life, takes her family back to the area of her ancestors for one year. There, they are connected to the old ways in an area not touched by the modern world.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is pure fun for anyone like me who is of Croatian descent, has visited the country, is totally fascinated by all things Croatian, is anxious to learn more about the culture and people, and wishes to discover their own roots. The author's account of her experiece was honest, captivating in its detail, and remarkably dead-on in its portrayal of the characters. I laughed aloud numerous timrs. It was extremely humorous yet authentically moving. It really touched me. I could not have enjoyed it more.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Gulf_Coast_Juga More than 1 year ago
In Running Away to Home, Jennifer Wilson chronicles the adventures she shares with her family while living in Mrkopalj, Croatia and searching for her roots. The great granddaughter of Croatian immigrants , Wilson describes life in the village: a blend of old world and new. Her descriptions of the people, food, landscape, culture and political history are at times heartwarming,funny, sad and eye-opening. My husband presented this book to me, as I am also the great granddaughter of Croatian immigrants searching for her roots. Thanks Jennifer, for taking me on your trip to the "old country." I thoroughly enjoyed it.
WAZAMom More than 1 year ago
As with a good book of fiction, Jennifer Wilson’s prose in Running Away to Home transported me to another time and another place, where I also escaped suburbia and lived a simpler life for 317 pages. What made it even more captivating, however, was the fact that she was recounting her actual tale, allowing me to embrace the quirky characters even more as I envisioned them actually living out her often hilarious, yet thought-provoking anecdotes. She minces no words in describing her feelings of self-consciousness at being away from all that was safe yet mundane, and in the end she relishes in the interconnectedness of our lives and all that has transpired for her to be exactly who she is today. It’s a personal journey that the reader can plug into, since Wilson invites you inside her every emotion, meaning you never have to stand at a distance. As a bonus, you get to see, smell and taste life in a timeless Croatian mountain village where a shot of rakija is all it takes to make a few good friends. Thanks for the ride!
VDelic More than 1 year ago
Can't get my eyes off this book! So inspired by Jennifer's courage to leave everything behind and learn about her heritage, living a simple, rustic life in Croatia. Her stories are funny and candid, they transport you to the beautiful countryside of Eastern Europe. Best part is going to her blog and enjoying the pictures of the actual trip, I can put faces to the characters!
SFarrand More than 1 year ago
This book was so good! I started following the author's blog at the very beginning of her journey and loved reading about the adventures her family went through while in Croatia. I couldn't wait for the book to come out and when it did, it didn't disappoint. Thanks, Jennifer Wilson, for allowing me to travel along with your family!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When I was reading this book it felt like I was experiencing her purlious mission to Croatia with her and her family
Anonymous More than 1 year ago