Could there be any better present for Thanksgiving than learning that you have 13 great aunts and uncles you never knew you had?
From Kutina, where I last posted, Dad and I drove south, close up to the border with Bosnia, and stayed overnight at a weird hot springs complex where things like “lymph drainage” were available for a fee. Our fellow guests appeared to be exclusively large tour groups who swam, soaked, sang hearty Croat folksongs and had their bodies drained together. We merely slept.
Our next stop was the fantasic Plitvice Lakes, which are incredibly beautiful — a series of interconnected lakes, each rising several metres or more from the previous. Dozens of waterfalls, streams, etc. Raining throughout, but stunning nonetheless. After a good afternoon at the Lakes, we drove south a little, and then turned right and drove over a mountain.
Between the highway south to Plitvice and Gospic, our family´s homeland, runs the Velebit mountain range. Rather than driving south, around the mountains, we decided to go over. This involved driving up, up, up and up, then down, down, down and down. Along the way, in addition to the wreckage of the last war — bombed out and abandoned houses, empty villages — we came with a couple of metres of driving into a very, very large and mean-looking bull, out for a stroll down the road.
Once over the mountains, it was an easy drive into the town of Gospic, itself affected very obviously by the war, but a thriving metropolis nonethless. Dad had built up Gospic to be a dusty, poor, rural town; I was certain we would be sleeping on threadbare army blankets on a dirt floor. An hour later, after a hearty dinner of gnocchi and veal, we retired to our room, where we had 300-odd TV stations from around the world to watch, and 200-odd radio stations to listen to. Nothing says “rural hinterland” better than going to sleep listening to NPR´s All Things Considered with a good meal in your belly.
Monday morning was family research day. We headed out into downtown Gospic early, visited the Museum (and had the luck of meeting the curator, who was very helpful, and showed us prehistoric jewelry dug out of the ground in my grandfather´s hometown). Then it was on the road again, north to Perusic. At Perusic we turned right, over the tracks and under the new expressway to Zagreb, and up a long low hill to the small village of Konjsko Brdo: a small outcropping of farm houses and buildings, nestled together tightly and connected with a paved road cum path. We stopped a couple of people along the road, and Dad used his power Croatian to explore Rukavina connections, but we learned nothing definite.
We headed back into Perusic, which is the administrative centre of the area, and took a flyer and walked into a nameless office building that looked vaguely official. We walked upstairs until we found people, and asked them where the vital statistics office could be found: very helpfully someone was nominated to accompany us back downstairs and point us in the right direction. On the way, we stopped at the Catholic cemetery and found dozens of Rukavina graves; I suggested we photograph all of them, both for our own purposes and others´. Dad stuck with the plan for two gravestones, then abandoned it; I covered half the ground.
We showed up at the vital statistics office just after closing, but luckily the clerk was still there. It was a huge, almost empty office, with two large racks of musty old register books. As luck would have it (again), their first record book started with 1903 — my grandfather´s year of birth. She opened the book, and there, blamo, was his record. And so we learned, for the first time, that my great grandmother´s name was Ana Kurtes.
Having no other information to go on, and no earlier records, we reconciled ourselves to that being the end of the road. On a lark, though, Dad suggested we stop at the post office. There we found a very helpful woman who, although unable to offer us any information directly, suggested, in Croatian, that we “go and talk to the Pope.” So we headed up the hill to the Catholic Church, and knocked on the door of the house next door.
A very friendly woman answered the door, and invited us into the parish office. We told her what we were looking for, and she pulled out a scribbler filled with names. She looked up the address of my great-grandfather, and there, blamo, was not only the information about the birth, marriage, and death of my grandfather and the brother and sister we knew about, but also information about his grandfather. And the 11 brothers and sisters that we had never heard of (he wasn´t a talkative man). Ten minutes later we were joined by the priest — a friendly, 50ish, leather-jacketed man with a demeanour that was enough, almost, to bring me into the flock. He pulled out an old registry book, and then spent an hour with us interpreting it all.
So on this thanksgiving, welcome to the family we never knew we had: Bozo, Roko, Nikole, Ana, Kata (one and two), Regina, Marta, Ana (one and two), Matija (one and two) and Manda.
We´re in Split as I type this — in 4 hours we board the ferry to Italy, then up to London on Thursday and home on Friday. What a trip.