Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Coming Home

I knew I had found my homeland when I began to recognize the heavy-browed people of generous proportion sweating through their clothing, their roughhewn features the genetic result of millennia of undiluted peasant stock.  Forever operating under the assumption that my hyperactive sweat glands were some cruel anomaly, I had finally discovered an entire creed of people whose evolutionary trajectory had set them on a path of perspiration profusion.  My people.  This primal cognition allowed me to overcome the self-consciousness induced by my sweat-stained shirt and freed me to pursue my more definitive anthropological work - comparing cankle size and structure.  I was home.

Tiny & Mary take Europe!

In my youth, I was nagged by a jealousy of the kids who spoke to their parents in Polish, Spanish, Portuguese.  I could never come to terms with the fact that, while many of my friends went to Japanese School, Chinese School, Hebrew School, the most exotic school I would ever attend was "public."

The Island of Rab, Croatia
How's that for exotic?

Where some children were stymied by the overabundance of colorful options, I always knew exactly what food I would bring to represent my heritage on Culture Day, a pristine loaf of plain, white bread (more than likely with the crusts removed).  With a surname of Slavic derivation, we practiced no language, no music, no culture that could substantiate the claims of our ancestry.  Certainly, I'm grateful to be American but I felt an urgency to connect with the land that gave me my name, my history, and my nose.

We weren't forty minutes into Croatia when we saw the sign!!

The Yugoslavian surname Simich (Simić/Šimić) puts the bearer pretty firmly in one of two camps, Serbian or Croatian (based almost entirely upon the presence/absence of the caron - that little "v" above the "S").  Knowing little about our paternal genealogy beyond its origins in the former Yugoslavia, the search for our roots was limited to Croatia by the strict policies of the car rental company; liability prohibited us from crossing the borders into Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, or Bosnia-Herzegovina.  This trip and the forbidden, albeit very minor, detour through Bosnia would have tickled the mischievous heart of my genealogy-loving dad to no end.

Treading the well-worn paths that many Simiches have surely trod.

We couldn't help but think of our dad throughout our Croatian sojourn.  He was with us.  In fact, so deluded by the fantasy of coming face-to-face with my father (or his Croatian doppelganger at least), I kept a watchful eye out for a happy, hulking brute entertaining crowds of people with tall tales and home cooking.  It wasn't to be.  The reality of his mother's Swiss heritage would have certainly played a role in his genetic makeup, making him not so solidly Slavic.  Nevertheless, the dominance of these Eastern European genes had me convinced that I saw a relative or two.

Are you my uncle?
Painting in panties with peacocks is a longstanding family tradition.

Too many viewings of The Parent Trap had me secretly wishing that I might even find a long lost twin whose very existence explained my face and the way it looks.  The satisfaction of such an encounter would have been profoundly tempered by the horror that there were two unfortunate souls wandering the earth with my ugly mug!

I was immeasurably comforted by my bus buddies.

There is an innocent disregard for time and law in coastal Croatia that felt organic to our independent spirits.  From the barefoot construction workers wearing naught but speedos so they could enjoy intermittent dips in the Adriatic to the bus driver who held us hostage during his break, it is clear that the acquaintance Croatians have with rules and regulations is decidedly casual.  Having long attributed our collective disposition to a carefree coastal upbringing, I began to consider the possibility that an affection for the sun and the sea, combined with a genuine mistrust of authority, might very well be hereditary.

Don't tell us what to do; we'd rather be boating!

After several wonderful days of sun-drenched swimming and stair climbing, wherein I earned plenty of blisters on both my feet and forehead, I came to realize that no matter how deeply I connected with the sights and sounds of Croatia, even on my best day I'm still only Yugoslavian-American.

I mean, in the most heinous of un-Croatian activities, I swam with a shirt on.
Let's make #swimshirtsareforheroes a thing, okay?

I probably shouldn't admit it but the American in me hates minding my own business.  From the one time I felt it my duty to firmly correct the behavior of an elderly woman for demeaning a cashier to the multitude of times I have been forcefully awoken out of a comatose-like trance whilst staring at a scene unfolding before me, I continue to insinuate myself into situations which I obviously do not belong.  As evidenced by the regular rivulet of drool coursing down my chin, the staring problem has indeed become pathological.

Some people call me a Croatian cowboy.

The American in me is silly.  If there are bubbles being blown, I will giddily chase them.  If there are fart noises to be made, I will make them fervently resound.  If there is music playing, I will dance (remind me to tell you about the time we spontaneously learned a folk dance and joined in the video of a Spanish tourist group in old Dubrovnik).

Post fiesta siesta...

The American in me is probably louder than necessary, overly smily, and unilingual.  My high school German might have helped a tiny bit in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland but crossing the border into Croatia left me dumbfounded.  I had no basis for understanding Croatian and still refuse to believe that an entire region can communicate everything it needs to say with merely a series of "sh" and "ch" noises.

"She chose to share her snowy charms
and showed her clothes were bleached."
I guessh I shouldn't casht the firsht shtone...

Genealogical research seems to be all the rage currently; I can't say that I'm really all that interested in searching out the historic celebrities with whom I might share a second-string strand of DNA.  Rather, my search was for a sense of knowing and a place of belonging.  I found it for a time in the ham-and-cheese fritters, the crinkle in the corner of the eye of the man who resembled my grandfather, the smooth limestone pathways of the old cities.  I found it in the slow pace, the love of family, and the connection to the land.

Heck, I even found it in seeing the granny panties sway on the line...

My blissful daydreams of what might have been had my great-grandparents remained in the old country were occasionally shadowed by darker images of communism and civil war.  Visiting Croatia left me torn between gratitude for my "American-ness" and wistful for a way of life that is uniquely European.  Like it or lump it, I am the sum total of each weighty branch of my family tree; the Yugoslavian branch had long felt like a stump.  My hope is that we nurtured it with plenty of Dalmatian sun and water (enriched by good, old-fashioned American dirt).

I'm going to choose it's a branch of bougainvillea.

I will still envy those childhood friends for knowing from their earliest days who they were and from whence they came.  I will probably complain (exclusively in English) about my contemptible lack of language skills - I am American after all.  I will always cherish my first trip to the land of my people; I will be equally grateful for a loving family to whom I can always return.  Croatia's sky and the sea will continue to call me but until my next adventure in the old country, I know that I am home.

Dubrovnik, Croatia (2016)


Mr. Tiny