The Things I know: A Croatian Lesson

It was during a third grade pool party, surrounded by kids splashing in bright bathing suits and adults carting ice-pops and lemonade, when I learned I couldn’t say my own last name. What should have been facile and fundamental for me as an eight-year-old became an embarrassing revelation, coming as it did from an old man whom I had never met before. He had waddled up to me, bearded and beer-bellied, as I sat under the wooden awning beside the pool. He asked me to choose between two pronunciations of my name: Miškulin and Miskulin. I chose Miskulin, and he smiled as I said it, as if he had set up the question on purpose as a trap: Miskulin or Miškulin?  

My mistake, I came to learn later, was in fact a minor one. It had to do with the pronunciation of only a single letter—“s”—but in the Croatian spelling it is “š,” pronounced as sh. It was a simple distinction, but an important one, and I remember the old man made an extra effort to emphasize the sh with a sputter of salvia. 

The pronunciation of the š is everything. Without it, Miskulin sounds like mesclun. Without it, Miskulin sounds matter-of-fact and dry. Prior to the pool party, I had heard both varieties, Miškulin and Miskulin, but I had mistakenly thought Miskulin was the correct one because it sounded simpler. 

This man, as I learned later, was my friend’s second cousin or third cousin. Some intangible, indistinct bond brought him to the party, that day, with his sunburned face and stomach—to celebrate the birthday of my friend Nicole, who is Croatian. Nicole is blonde and blue-eyed and has a last name that sounds Italian. Before I met her, she was referred to as “that Croatian girl” among my family, her ethnicity the only thing that distinguished her from all others girls in my town. Unlike me, Nicole was a true Croatian: she recited the first readings in Croatian church, practiced clogging every Sunday, and wore a traditional embroidered dress and bareta while dancing. Back then, I was jealous of Nicole—not because she could speak Croatian, not because she could clog—but for something else, something I couldn’t quite explain. 

My aunt, Teta, has a “Croatian radar,” an intuitive knack for identifying and knowing all Croatians in our New Jersey area. Teta knew Nicole’s aunt, mother, and uncle before I even met her. She knew that Nicole’s aunt, Bruna, had a son who was a hippie with dreadlocks and a deep passion for yoga. She knew their family hailed from the southern city of Zadar, that Nicole’s uncle worked in construction, and Nicole’s mother had once been to Japan. 

In the small town where I grew up, a town part-suburban and part-metropolis, Croatians are scarce, but not nonexistent. In my school, there were two Croatian boys that I knew of. In North Bergen where Teta lives, a small community of old Croatian men play bocce in an old club tucked away along a decrepit side street. Her mother, my grandmother, walks to church each morning with a tight clan of Eastern European women. Wearing long flowered dresses, they carry black beaded pocketbooks filled with tissues and hard candy. I have several cousins in New Jersey: Teta’s daughter, Christina, in Hoboken, is my half-blind cousin; Maria in Jersey City; my cousin John and his kids down in Weehawken. 

Teta arranged my friendship with Nicole. Years of subtle hints and prodding finally brought us together, though neither Nicole nor I spoke much about the old country and our friendship was more American than anything. Teta also arranged my first trip to Croatia. She was dutiful about the preservation of tradition in the way of most stereotypical family matriarchs. She had shipped both her kids to Croatia when they were young to stay all summer. My father was well-meaning but oblivious when it came to the business of passing down culture; those abundant little tasks involved in the safeguarding of tradition against the encroachment of modern American. Though my father was, like his sister, born in Yugoslavia, Teta was the true authority on all matters involving the mother country. 

My father would not have taught me the proper pronunciation of my last name, Miskulin. He would not have sat me down and spelled my surname with its v-shaped accent mark over the s, and explained to me the sh sound it is supposed to make. He wouldn’t have done this, not because he didn’t care, or because he neglected me, but because it didn’t fit. Between the trips to the zoo, the mountain hikes, the weekly soccer practices, and museum trips. Among all the events and outings he arranged for my sister and me in our blissful American childhood, Miskulin, with its clunky Croatian pronunciation and funny accent mark did not have a place. Instead, my father passed down American things to us, interests he acquired here where books were plentiful and ideas were unlimited. In third grade, he gave me a dog-eared copy of Herzog by Saul Bellow and the audiobook of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, which he played everyday in the car radio. In third grade, my father introduced my sister and me to the Fugees while ferrying us back and forth for piano lessons.

A memory of Croatia was not something my father had to transfer either way. He was born in Yugoslavia in 1960, before it was Croatia, and left when he was nine. He could not remember the names of the school friends he used to have, or the date they left the hometown, or the faces of the neighbors they lived next to for many years. He remembered only sparse sensory details: the cold wind lashing against his face while skiing, the smell of bread baking in the oven, the feel of Lola’s, his German shepherd, fur against his cheek. For my father, Croatia was always out of focus, like the two blurry photos he brought back: 1) the black and white image of him and his sister standing stiffly and unsmilingly in the town church; 2) my father at three, outside and bundled in a thick winter coat while his father, with his thick mustache, embraced him and another boy. It seemed the only relic my father retained from Croatia was his name, Drazen, which he had already reduced to the more playful, Drazy. 

Teta has a memory of Croatia, a memory sealed in a concrete layer of dates and names. She remembers they left Yugoslavia on December 15, 1969. She tells me the story which is not a story, but a statement: “We left Yugoslavia in December 15, 1969, and there was a snowstorm.” 

I reconstruct my own version of the story. Teta, the older sibling, reprimanding her rambunctious brother, my father, who would have whined and complained, shuffling in his seat as the horse drew their carriage across the snow-covered road to the train station. He would have grumbled about the cold, and that icy December wind. Teta wouldn’t have mentioned it, or she would have pretended to be unperturbed by it, sitting stiff-backed on the bumpy seat, her eyes glued on the thick descending veils of snow. She would have known then that nothing she could say would matter. No protests on her part could bend the unyielding wind of my grandfather’s passion. They were going to America. My young father, I heard, held up hope, protesting and walking sullenly even after they had been in America for many months. I wonder if Teta had scolded him, chiding him to be still, be quiet on the train ride, on the plane. I wonder if she had dragged his hand as they rushed across the airport toward the terminal, clutching hard, but not too hard. Telling him to hurry, telling him to watch out for the crowds that ran toward them on either side. 

My surname is something Teta also couldn’t provide. She is a Marusić. An early, rushed marriage and a divorce severed her from the Miskulin name, changed her maiden name to the name of a man who wasn’t who he said he was. A man who turned out not to be the humble, good Croatian he appeared to be. She might have told me how to say my surname, and I have just forgotten or misremembered. Teta often told me a good many things that I disregarded, her statements ranging anywhere from quaint superstitions to strange aphorisms. In my grandmother’s house, Teta warned me to wear socks or else I’d get pneumonia. Once in the car, Teta gave my sister and me unofficial rights to the family house in Croatia. Keep your name and the house is yours, she had said, without any elaboration. I spent many weeks afterward unraveling the phrase like a ball of yarn, as if solving it would give me the key to understanding Teta and perhaps, subsequently, my Croatian heritage. It was clear that the divorce had left a mark on Teta, a mark whose effects were far-flung and dispersed, ranging from Teta’s guarded stoicism to her wary distrustfulness. To this day, I have trouble separating Teta from the divorce, from deciding how much of Teta’s curtness, her sarcastic humor, are her own traits or the product of the a past event. To this day, I can’t decide if the divorce had strengthened her or crippled her. It seemed Teta believed my sister and I had a duty to uphold the future of our Croatian lineage, a task I feel I have little qualification for. In the end, the image of me in the past still resounds: me, a hopeless American girl being taught the pronunciation of her surname by a strange Croatian man, an American girl too distant from her heritage to even glimpse it, to see it behind the massive-colored billboard which was America, which was my life: idyllic, and happy, but also lacking in a clear framework, or a point of reference—a past I could lay claim to. It was this, perhaps, that made me jealous of Nicole, her comfort in a heritage I felt I didn’t belong to.

I wish the incident at the party was more than what it was, an awkward moment of inadequacy, like one of the many that would punctuate my unsteady relationship with Croatian culture. I was angry, but I forgot about it, as most kids do of embarrassing situations. My father did not want me to learn Croatian. He wanted me to learn French, or German, or Chinese instead. He wanted me to travel the world, write a book, preside as a judge over a court. He had big plans for me, plans that involved not Croatia but another future more glamorous and important than anything the old country could provide. 

In eighth grade, I went to Croatia for the first time. Teta escorted me. Her motives were part pleasure and part business. She needed to pay taxes and secure paperwork for our apartment. She also needed a vacation. I would be tagging along, so I could finally see where my family came from. It would be a convenient, win-win situation for both of us, though my aunt never presented the trip in these stark terms. 

Teta and I have little in common except for our love of lamb and our disapproval of the excesses of youth: alcohol, drugs, party, casual sex. I was a “good girl,” a prudish rule-follower and a nerd, which my aunt admired, respected in her own tacit way. Unlike me, Teta is a conservative—morally, culturally, economically—and bitter in the way of many people who live through years of bad luck, people for whom life is not widening up but only tapering down, a gradual sharpening into something narrow and clearly defined. 

I was angry in Croatia that first trip. I was angry the way tweens are angry at seemingly everything and nothing at the same time. I would have preferred my father taking me. Teta was overbearing, oppressive. She watched my every move. She held my hand while crossing the street. Your father will kill me if I lose you, she would say as she gripped my hand and shuffled me to the houses of our relatives and friends. 

My first experience in Croatia was disorientating. I had nausea on the flight over. I couldn’t sleep at night. Flies and mosquitos buzzed through the fluttering curtain of the open window in our Croatian house. I entered the country shyly, in awe of everything from the villages dotted along the highway to the meat hung on hooks at the supermarket deli. 

On our first day, Teta drove us to Mrkopalj. Our neighbor, Dzank greeted us with a smile, sweeping me up into her fleshy arms and shoving us toward our house like an aggressive tour guide. She had been maintaining the house in our absence, dusting the cabinets and pulling the weeds from the doorsteps. As we walked, a pack of dogs barked loudly. As we walked, three boys emerged, chugging up the road with ski poles in their arms. We met Dzanka’s husband in the house, a laconic man with a large face and sleepy eyes. My aunt told me later he was born in France. She said this by way of explanation, as if his silence was linked to his place of birth. I still remember our house then, packed, filled with crowds of people jostling through the cramped kitchen and the bedrooms. Neighbors would appear, followed by a slew of introductions, and disappear. There was the couple from Australia, my father’s childhood friend with the wide cheeks and motorcycle helmet in his arms, the woman scowling across the street who turned out to be our estranged relative. 

The days had no distinction while I was in Croatia. Hours morphed into each other, afternoons were listless affairs with 3 pm coffee by the wood-burning stove, conversations with Dzanka while I stared at the plethora of St. Mary iconography in her kitchen. Though I didn’t know what was being said, I was well trained at sitting quietly and demurely, hands folded politely—Catholic-girl style. 

Croatia was subjugated for centuries by the Romans and later, by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Croatia was not its own country for a very long time and when it became its own country, its metamorphosis was ugly. People who shouldn’t have died, died; people who should have died, lived. Francois Tudman, the President of Croatia, was said to be the founder of this independence (though he was anti-Semitic and cruel, among other things). The death of Tito, the Communist leader of Yugoslavia, was said to have caused Yugoslavia’s demise, though there were warning signs before that. The Yugoslavian wars were said by many in the West to have been the inevitable cause of an ethnic blood feud that could never have been stopped and mitigated; an ethnic blood feud so barbaric and obscure that there was no point in trying to decipher it. Croatians claimed they were being subjugated by the Serbians. Serbians claimed they felt threatened by the Croatians, Muslims, and Albanians—anyone who was not Serbian. The Serbians claimed that genocide was being committed against them (which was true and not true). The Serbians committed genocide against Bosnian Muslims, and claimed it was self-defense. Bosnians asked the West for help, and the West claimed the Bosnians were lying to them.1

Now, however, popular sentiment has changed. The Yugoslavian War is said, by many, to be far in the past that they had no relevance now, no bearing on anyone. The Balkans are peaceful. Celebrities buy houses in Croatia. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt bought a villa in Istria. Game of Thronesis filmed in Dubrovnik (which was also the site of a brutal battle between Serbs and Croats).

I did not know any of this during my first trip to Croatia. I knew that there was a war not too long ago, and that this war had been very bloody, and that men from Mrkopalj and other towns had left to fight and returned to their old lives in a new nation. I knew that if we had stayed in Croatia, my father would have fought in this war, and he would have lived or died, as everyone else did. I knew Teta and my grandparents would have waited anxiously for news of the war, would have huddled in groups, listening to gossip, and the TV, which only showed victories and propaganda. I knew that before the war, there was no Croatia but only a Yugoslavia, and that this Yugoslavia had been bad, or not altogether good for Croatians, and that Serbians, perhaps, were to blame for this, or maybe Serbians had started the whole war (or maybe not). I was never sure. My cousin Steve was friends with a half-Serbian boy, and this was a controversial issue in my family, a point of deep contention for my grandfather who hated Steve’s friend’s Serbian father, though I never bothered to ask why. At that time, I regarded most of these facts as just special traits peculiar to Croatians, traits I would never understand anyway since I was not truly Croatian. 

When Yugoslavia died, it died dramatically, though through causes which were quite ordinary: mismanagement, a failed communist regime, a leader who craved too much power, a lack of foresight on the part of the West—the kind of factors that would have sent many states or empires into collapse throughout history. Yugoslavia survived 74 years, which some say was a long time, considering the circumstances, and others say was a very short time, considering the circumstances. When Yugoslavia died, it was younger than my grandmother and only a decade older than Teta. When Yugoslavia died, my family was tucked safely away in the States and they did not predict it would happen that way, in that fashion, in that time—the war that is. 

When I was sixteen, I went to Croatia again, but with my father and sister. At the time, my father was slowly dying from cancer, but I did not know it. We traveled the country briskly, in a pace that was extraordinary in its speed. On the first day we landed, my father drove the six or seven hours to Dubrovnik in a single day. In the city, he spoke Croatian to every local he met with a kind of innocent delight, like a child who had just learned to speak the language: he talked to cab drivers, and shop owners, poll tellers and police officers. He did not stop. We did not stop. From Dubrovnik, we traveled back up through Split and then to Rijecka, then next we were in Pula, then Slovenia. On the final weekend, we went to Venice. We took a three-hour boat ride to the city and then skittered through the rain-drenched alleys like mice. We had no umbrella. Venice was congested with crowds, and our shoes were leaking water. At the time, standing in St. Mark’s square under a church awning, watching the world crumble into grey, it felt like we had been punished for something. On the boat ride back, my father asked us to rate our experience: I gave it a seven; my sister gave it six. Three days later, we were back in America. 

I did not understand my father’s frantic sweep through Croatia until I read British writer Rebecca West’s account of Yugoslavia, The Black Lamb and the Gray Falcon, a book I did not pick up until many weeks after my father passed. Like my father, Rebecca West travels through Yugoslavia with reckless urgency. Unlike my father, West had no Slavic background, nor was she facing a terminal illness. Instead, West’s ties to Yugoslavia were strange, if not entirely elusive. Her first encounter with Yugoslavia came in the form of a radio announcement of the assassination of King Alexander in 1934. This spurs on a slew of recollections: the assassination of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, the butchering of King Alexander Obrenovic of Serbia in Belgrade in 1903, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, all of which occurred in Yugoslavia, all of which was proof of, if not a conspiracy, than at least a deeper, graver danger at hand. As West writes in her prologue, “I quite simply, and flatly knew nothing at all about the south-east corner of Europe; and since there proceeds steadily from the place a stream of events which are a source of danger to me…that is to say I know nothing of my own destiny.”2  

I did not understand at first how anyone’s destiny could be tied to a particular place when my own future, for so long, appeared dispersed, scattered, and very much in-the-making. The term destiny itself was displeasing to me because of its connotations with fate and inevitability. My father had raised me to believe in my own agency, to view each day as something to be conquered, and of my own actions as important, and meaningful. My father set no restrictions on my future. He wanted me to follow my passion, to lay my roots in any location of my choosing. I had my own dreams to be a worldly traveler, to stay in great cities like Paris or London, to move around the globe without ever laying roots. In these dreams, Croatia never plays a part. In my father’s excited talks of my future, Croatia never has a role. 

West, herself, recognizes the bizarre nature of her destiny: “I lay back in the darkness and marveled that I should be feeling about Yugoslavia, as if it were my mother country, for this was 1937, and I had never seen the place till 1936.”2West had traveled only three times to Yugoslavia: the first in 1936; a second with her husband, Henry Andrews, in the spring of 1937; the third in early summer of the following year. She had intended first to write a “snap book,” a concise account of Yugoslavia and its people. What resulted instead was a massive, discursive tomb covering nearly every aspect of Yugoslavia from the intricacies of its history to its art. The project was extensive by any standard. As West states herself, “[I]n 1936 to devote five years of my life, at great financial sacrifice and to the utter exhaustion of my mind and body, to take an inventory of a country down to its last vest-button, in a form insane from any ordinary artistic or commercial point of view.”3  

West cites no one particular reason for her fascination with Yugoslavia, and throughout her book, her depictions of the area are varied and diverse, not unifying. In one scene, she describes her conversation with intellectuals in a café in Zagreb; in the next, she launches into a tirade against the Austrian Hungarian Empire. Perhaps it was this medley of experiences that attracted West, the humbleness of Balkan peasants, the cosmopolitan city of Dubrovnik, the unusual position of the Croats themselves: “It is not comfortable to be an inhabitant of this globe. It has never been, except for brief periods. The Croats have been peculiarly uncomfortable.”The Croats, as West describes them, are “fierce and warlike intellectuals…”2 Their power resides in their survival, their continued living in the wake of a tumultuous history, a history that has been far from easy or comfortable. 

I imagine my father tried to gain a sense of his motley and diverse country, and it was this desire that led him beyond Mrkopalj to the southern tip of the peninsula and then back up north to Istria. I myself had no epiphanies in Croatia, no designs or particular mindset that made me examine Croatia in any way other than just as a foreign country, a foreign country that I happened to have some affiliation to.

When I had come to Croatia for the first time, I had hoped to find my Croatian identity hidden somewhere in the town, like my grandmother’s dresses collecting dust in the closet of her bedroom. I thought the town would be a catalyst for my second self to emerge like the earthworms that litter the ground after a rainstorm. This did not happen. When I came back after three weeks, I was the same person I was before. I enjoyed nearly every minute on my second trip to Croatia, but I took little time to reflect on the significance of the trip, both for my father and myself. 

If I did have an epiphany, it occurred much later, mulling over Teta’s enigmatic words, keep your name and the house is yours. I began to imagine a future with Croatia, one where my sister and I jointly owned the house in Mrkopalj, visiting the country every summer on our own. If I did have an epiphany, it occurred in the wake of my father’s death, when I understood the double-edged sword of my father’s successes. 

When I was ten, I told my father I hated Teta, and he fiercely defended her with a passion I had not expected. My father and Teta had a bond that was unique, a sibling connection characterized by silence, an unspoken loyalty. While in high school, Teta worked four to eight every day at Shoprite, paying for my father’s Taekwondo classes. It was sacrifice and shared experience that drew my father to Teta, a homeland that predated my mother, my sister, and me. 

In immigrant families, fear must be preserved lest the next generation becomes too comfortable, too thoughtless within their own lives. Teta passed down this fear. When we were young, she told us cautionary tales—of our grandfather’s five wives all dying in succession from a fire, of her own self straying from the path and breaking her leg after encountering a bear in Mrkopalj. Teta’s stories never had details. They had been whittled down to their bare necessities, compacted and transported to our ears as a reminder of how unsteady our hold really was, how little control we actually had. 

On her ex-husband, Teta had even less to say. He was a Croatian butcher, recently remarried with a newborn at 60, hiding out in Zadar for tax evasion. They met in Hoboken, years after my father’s family had left Yugoslavia, years before their country had gained independence. I imagine them walking hand-in-hand down the street, like they owned it, carving out their new lives in their first apartment on Washington Street. It must have seemed like a saving grace for my grandparents at the outset: marriage for their eldest daughter, stability, a steady income. They would have wanted the same for her in Croatia. They would have wanted the same for her anywhere. 

Somewhere, something went wrong. I hear talk of abuse, adultery. I hear he once threw a television out the window. I imagine glass shattering and him, posed in the living room, glaring down at his wife crouched on the floor. I picture him scalding pork, severing the carotid of calves, slicing primed cuts of chilled carcasses. His butchering profession seems suitable to me. Out of all the details I’ve heard, it’s the only one that makes sense. 

Teta never told me the story of her ex-husband; she never had to. It is a story she lives in everyday. To say it out loud would be redundant. To ask about it would be taboo. 

When my grandfather died, my uncle, Dennis, shared a story. “Your grandfather was a man of the same cloth as my father: old world, hard-working, immigrant.” At my father’s funeral, Dennis used the same phrase to describe my father: “cut from the same cloth as his father.” At the time, I didn’t understand why he would lump my father and grandfather under the same category when they were worlds apart. My grandfather was a silent, working-class man. When two of his fingers were cut off doing construction, he walked home with a shirt over his hand, and never went to hospital. My father worked in IT at a magazine called Consumer Reports. He was worldly and well-read. His career was entirely modern, divorced from the physical labor my grandfather had pursued all his life. My father’s life was difficult in its own right, but incomparable to my grandfather’s experiences. He worked a nine-to-five job, he had friends from work, cosmopolitan friends who came from different parts of the world. His stresses consisted of the drive to Consumer Reports at Yonkers each morning on the George Washington Bridge; his painstaking, frugal management of our family’s expenses; and his never-ending commitment to entertaining and furthering my sister’s and my futures. My father’s life was hard, but he did not bear the brunt of the difficulties in adjusting to the United States like my grandfather had. I spoke everyday to my father; in contrast, I never had a single conversation with my grandfather. 

So I do not know why my family settled in New Jersey. I am told my grandfather made the decision. I imagine him, lover of geography, saw America first on the map, saw the expansive swath of land, and mulled it over many weeks until the image became too clear to resist. I imagine he saw New Jersey as a safe spot to land, the state nestled by the sea which he loved, and close to where his brother had settled not too long ago. I imagined he thought highly of the skyscraper view from where they were in Hoboken. I imagined he woke up early some mornings to see the sun set between the buildings, but perhaps this is just a romantic thought. My grandfather was practical, thrifty, and pragmatic above all else. He found a job in Hoboken and probably stayed just for that. 

I always thought of New Jersey as a view of something else, as a fragile strip careening precariously along the Hudson with the heavyweight of the city looming large and vicious, or of the JFK Boulevard lurching up and down the slope along the river, across towns. I thought of New Jersey as the familiar view of the George Washington Bridge, of drives with my father to Weehawken where he stationed his camera along a ledge to take photos of the city—always the city, with its gleaming lights and harsh rectangular forms. I thought of New Jersey as the Garden State Mall and Macy’s, the interstates and throughways, and the shopping trips with my cousins as they dragged me from store to store. 

My father liked New Jersey. He liked taking bus rides to the city and hiking near the Hudson River. He liked taking pictures of the George Washington Bridge. In my town, he gave himself a new name and bought us a house, creating a life for a family. 

So it was my first name my father was most concerned about. My first name, Alexandra, which my father had chosen himself for what it meant in Greek: helper of mankind. It is this name he reminded me of, on his deathbed, days before he died. This was the name he did not want me to forget. 



  1. Cohen, Roger. Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo. New York: Random House, 1998. 
  2. West, Rebecca. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. New York: Penguin, 1941. 
  3. Dyer, Geoff. “Journeys into History: Geoff Dyer on Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and GreyFalcon.” The Guardian. August 5, 2006. 

Photo at the top of the page is of the Cliffs in Telascica Nature Park, Croatia, taken by Andres Rus.