If I’m completely honest, the stories our Baba used to tell us about Croatia seemed pretty far-fetched. She told us how her parents were neighbors in Konavle but never got together till my great-grandpa tracked down his bride-to-be on American soil and, by the power of true love, swept her away from a rich fiancée…how Baba’s grandfather was such a great storyteller that whenever he crossed the Atlantic, the whole town would come out to hear him tell of his adventures on the other side…how one of her uncles was so athletic, he could jump onto a horse that was running at a full gallop…how if we ever needed anything, we could just go “home” to Old Country and they would greet us with open arms.
In 2006, my mom and I made our first trip together back to Croatia. She had not been since she was young, traveling with her own parents, and I had yet to experience the place I’d been hearing about all my life. Baba had recently passed away, and our only tie to Old Country was the little notes and faded letters she’d left behind. Not quite sure how to approach contacting people who, to us, were basically strangers, my mom and I caught a bus to one of “our” villages and went to the local cemetery to look for family names. While we were peering through the graveyard gates, my mom pulled out a black-and-white photo from our family album, and we realized that the hillside in the photo was exactly what we were seeing before us in full color. Soon a man rounded the corner in a little black car, cigarette in his mouth, and stopped to ask what we were up to. He quickly identified one of his own relatives in our photo book and told us he could take us to our family.
As we were driving through the village, an old man driving the other way stopped in the middle of the road and started chatting excitedly with our new friend. As they spoke, the man peered through the window at my mom and me and began gesturing and shouting almost tearfully, “Jesi moj! Jesi moj!”—or, “You are mine!” We had found one of Baba’s first cousins.
Over the years, we’ve learned how strong the ties are between the old and new worlds. The same century-old stories we grew up hearing are still being repeated around the table at our relatives’ houses. They talk about my great-grandmother as though she just left the village last year. They remember the legends of Baba’s grandfather, the storyteller. They even told us the same exact story about the uncle who could jump on the horse!
In 2012, we went back to Croatia with my brother, making the rounds of all the relatives and showing him the villages where our family stories had been born. As we dug deeper into our roots, again we could see the love, the bonds, the strength of blood, and the stories that had somehow endured generations of separation across thousands of miles. Since then we have collectively been back several times, and our mom has made the move from visitor to resident, growing those bonds even further.
I believe Croatia is a little unique in its treatment of the diaspora. Many like us have traced their roots back to the countries they originally came from, but in Croatia the ties are just so strong. So special. We started DOMA Trading because we want, in our little way, to help strengthen those ties even more. To nurture the relationship between past and present, between old and new worlds, between loved ones and those still to be found. And they do want to be found. As much as we, the diaspora, need to know we have a place and people to go home to, those who remained in Croatia also need us to walk with them into the future.