Last night, coming out of a showing of the Tom Hanks movie Terminal, Dad and I ran into an older couple who had come into the movie late, and wanted to know what had happened at the beginning. They were a well-bred couple, he born in Croatia and she in the U.K., both Oxford-educated. When Dad revealed that his father was from Gospic, the man´s response was “oh, you come from serious Croatia.” We weren´t sure whether that was a compliment or an insult, but it sounds pretty good to me.
Today we left the gentle confines of Zagreb in search of family. We headed east on the E-70 to Kutina, and then off the main highway into a smaller, but still rather substantial village. All we had to go on was a name — the married name of my father´s cousin Regina.
By some miraculous series of events that involved a trip to a bookie, a trip to the police station (for information, not arrest), and about a dozen extremely helpful Croatians who sent us “up the hill, to the right, until where the pavement ends and you come to a vineyard,” at 4:00 p.m. we found ourselves driving our little Renault down a rough country lane towards a fedora-wearing man leaning on a fence. Dad asked, in his best Croatian, “can you direct us to Manda´s house?”
“This is Manda´s house!” was his response. We had found the house of my step-great-Aunt Manda and her husband Ivo. Manda´s father Stipe is my great-grandfather. We were invited into their humble farmhouse, fed a meal of cured ham and whisky (Dad drank the whisky — I was driving), and Dad pulled off an amazing facsimile of a native Croatian speaker to engage them in conversation about family connections, family history, and their life.
I think Dad and I are still both in shock — especially him, for I think he completely exhausted his brain by dredging up the 60-years-latent Croatian from the depths. I can only imagine what Manda and Ivo are thinking about their strange relations… especially me, the strange one who doesn´t speak at all and refuses a fourth helping of ham.
We´ve come back into Kutina for the night, bedding down in the oddly palatial Hotel Kutina, which has an Internet terminal in the restaurant — 40 lipa a minute for very fast access. Tomorrow morning we´ll had back out and try to find our cousin Regina, who wasn´t home today. Amazing.