By Frances Vidakovic
Back when I was a child, I was used to hearing stories from my parents, who were born in the village of Pupnat on the island of Korcula, and eventually immigrated over to New Zealand (and eventually Australia) in the late 60s. Like most children of first-generation Croatian immigrants, I discovered they had grown up in what could easily be considered poverty, travelled to the other side of the world with nothing but the clothes on their back and yet still managed to create prosperous and happy lives.
As a child growing up in the 80s, I was slightly in awe of this massive contrast between their former and current life. But bear in mind – this was back when iPads and mobile phones did not exist, there was no Netflix or Internet so my afternoons were still spent in the cul-de-sac playing with my friends until the streetlights came on, much like my parents had back in the selo.
This new breed of Cro-Aussie kids, including myself, were very much living in the cradle of two worlds colliding – the old Croatian ways mixed with the new Australian culture. My parents still struggled with speaking English. I often filled out important documents and paperwork on their behalf even as a kid and Saturday nights were often spent at dances where every Croatian in the nearby vicinity came to dance and socialize, even long after their kids had fallen asleep on squashed-together seats, covered only with father’s suit jacket to keep them warm.
By the time I was an adult I thought I knew my parents well because so much time was spent analyzing their unique behavior growing up (no, you can’t go out there! Oh they are Croatian? Of course you can go out!) I blamed our differences on the cultural divide and that was what I truly believed until I had my own kids and this bubble was burst.
Yes, it was truly burst wide open.
Just as the world seemed to shift dramatically between the period that my parents were born and the time I was born, it did a few more massive somersaults over the following decades. Today I find myself often telling my own kids about the “good old days” (like a parrot mimicking my parents) – a peaceful time before technology, when kids were forced to keep themselves busy without devices, when we didn’t worry about FOMO (because social media wasn’t in your face back then) and we were responsible for making our own fun.
If the distance between my childhood and the life of kids today felt gigantic, then the one between my parents and my kids was truly incomprehensible. But that was not to say that this distance could not be shortened between the generations. All it took was a listening ear.
Whenever we took the time to understand our elders and hear their stories, its helped us better understand who they were, the life they had lived, the choices they had made and ultimately how it affected the generations that followed them.
So how well do you really know your family? When your parents or grandparents shared with you stories in the past, how much of that information did you truly retain and how much slipped through your fingers like sand seeping down an hourglass? I thought I knew my parents well until I sat with them the other day with one goal – for my 12 year old son to ask them questions to help form a bridge between the great divide.
And my oh my, I was blown away. I thought I knew them well but it turned out I had spent much of my childhood simply annoyed at their stories of no electricity and no money because I thought it was just another excuse for them not to buy me the Cabbage Patch Kid (that every little Aussie girl was allowed to have!) This time round I pressed record on phone and I truly PAID ATTENTION to what they had to say. I probed and encouraged them to keep speaking and it felt like the past was exploding out of a celebratory champagne bottle. Once they started speaking and reminiscing, the golden stories kept on flowing and we were thirsty for more.
Here’s the thing: when you take the time to listen to the stories that spill from the hearts of previous generations (whether it’s our parents or grandparents) you may be surprised by the hardship suffered in their lives. The reality for most was that a lack of money meant owning one pair of shoes and when the soles of those shoes wore away an inserted piece of cardboard was the only thing preventing their feet from bleeding. No books, no toys and definitely nothing as remotely luxurious such as running water from a tap.
Ask your parents what they used for shampoo and they will probably reveal something as simple as soap. How often did they shower? The word shower will probably raise their eyebrows as it doesn’t quite equate with the giant tubs they used to douse themselves in once a week. Electricity was most likely something that appeared later in their lives as did fridges, washing machines and a proper bed (try sleeping on hay sometime for five star comfort).
But would our parents and grandparents have traded this difficult past for one less troubling? Possibly yes but they also knew it is from that suffering that they learned appreciation; through their hardships came humility and strength. And that is what made so many older Croatians great.
I cannot encourage you enough to take the time to properly interview your parents or grandparents while you still have the opportunity to do so. The types of questions one can ask during the ‘interview’ process are endless. They can range from the basic (such as: tell me more about your mother, father, grandparents, siblings, neighbors and friends…what was life like in the village? describe a typical day as a youngster; how did the summers differ from the winters?) to the more complex (such as what did your family do to earn money, what were your school years like?).
It is also so important to make sure to record these interviews as best as you can, either with a video camera or a recording app, because in the years to come you might regret not having done so. Not only is having such stories recorded for prosperity’s sake a precious gift, it can also be passed down from one generation to the next, so the memories continue to exist long after you are gone.
Don’t overlook the fact that your parents or grandparents will be extremely grateful and flattered by your interest in them. Everyone wants to be heard – this is a universal trait! Sitting down and listening to someone older and wiser speak about their life is not only a learning experience for the listener but it often bonds and brings the two individuals closer for life. Like the saying goes, where there is understanding there is peace.
So please take advantage of all the priceless knowledge, wisdom and memories that our elders hold while you can. In the end exploring and recording your family’s Croatian history will not only make you feel infinitely closer to your family but will also help you better understand where you came from. So start a conversation today that actually matters, with the people who truly matter the most.
WITHOUT FURTHER ADO – 150 QUESTIONS YOU CAN ASK YOUR PARENTS OR GRANDPARENTS WHO WERE BORN IN CROATIA
This guide was created with the goal of encouraging you to start a conversation today with your parents or grandparents born in Croatia. These questions cover so many different aspects of a person’s life and they are designed to help your parent take either a quick or super long trip back into history.
It should be said that there is no right or wrong way here of interviewing your parents. Simply pick the questions you feel most comfortable or intrigued about and ask away. If you have kids, they may also love the opportunity to ask these questions too and hear their answers. You both may be surprised to discover how little or well you know your own parents/grandparents.
THE BEST QUESTIONS TO ASK ARE RIGHT HERE
QUESTIONS ABOUT THEIR CHILDHOOD
- What is your date of birth?
- At what age did you get electricity?
- What age did you start going to school?
- What age did you stop going to school and why?
- What was your favorite subject at school?
- What was your worst subject at school?
- What was a typical school day for you as a kid?
- Who was your favorite teacher at school?
- Describe to me your mom. What was she like?
- Describe to me your dad. What was he like?
- Who was stricter – your mom or dad?
- What did your mom do for work?
- What did your dad do for work?
- Tell me something funny about your mom.
- Tell me something funny about your dad.
- Did your family have money growing up?
- Can you remember any stories your own parents shared with you?
- What is your earliest memory?
- Tell me about your brothers and sisters.
- What was it like living in your family?
- Who was your favorite sibling?
- Describe to me your house. Where did everyone sleep? What were the rooms like?
- Did you have any farm animals? How many?
- How many siblings did your mother have?
- How many siblings did your dad have?
- Do you remember your own grandparents? What were they like?
- What time did everyone go to sleep?
- What time did everyone wake up?
- Where you ever cold?
- Where you ever hungry?
- Where did you store your food?
- How old were you when your family first got a TV/radio/fridge/car etc.?
- How did you survive without these items when you didn’t have them?
- Did you have a clock when you were young and if not, how did you know what time it was?
- How old were you when you got your first toothbrush?
- How often would you shower?
- What was your favorite way to spend your time?
- Who were your best friends?
- Which cousins did you see most often?
- What was your village like?
- Who was your favorite person in the village?
- Was anyone ever exceptionally kind to you as a child?
- Was anyone ever exceptionally mean to you as a child?
- How often did you visit other villages or towns?
- What happened if you got sick – was there a local doctor?
- What did you eat every day?
- What did you eat on special occasions?
- What did you do every afternoon after school?
- How did you spend your Christmases?
- What is the best Christmas present you ever got?
- How did you celebrate your birthdays?
- What is the best birthday present you ever got?
- Did you ever have a nickname as a kid?
- What was your prized possession as a kid?
- What were you most proud of as a kid?
- Who were you named after?
- When did you first see a TV?
- What do you remember the most about your childhood?
- What do you remember the most about your teenage years?
- Were you ever naughty? Did you ever get into trouble for something?
- Did you ever go to church? How often?
- What was your priest like? Did you have any nuns in your village?
- What was your mom’s maiden name?
- Where were you born?
- What did you love doing as a kid?
- How did kids have fun back then?
- Were you ever bored as a child?
- What did you do when you were bored?
- What games did you like to play?
- What were your clothes like?
- Where did you shop for your clothes?
- What sort of music did you listen to?
- Did you ever have a health scare?
- What did you want to be when you grew up?
- How old were your parents when they passed?
- How old were your grandparents when they passed?
- What did your parents and grandparents die from?
- When was the first time you went on a plane?
- When was the first time you rode in a car?
- What was it like living in Croatia before the age of tourism?
- How long did it take for you to return to Croatia?
- Why did you not return sooner or later?
- How did it feel returning to Croatia? How had things changed?
QUESTIONS FOR THOSE WHO LEFT CROATIA TO START A NEW LIFE IN ANOTHER COUNTRY
- What made you leave Croatia?
- How old were you when you left?
- How did you have money for the airfare?
- What was your first impression of the new land?
- What did you come with in your suitcase?
- Where was your first job?
- Describe to me the day you started your first job.
- How much was your first pay-check?
- How did you decide on your career?
- How did you study for your career?
- Where did you first live?
- Did you plan to eventually return to Croatia?
- What was the first car you ever bought? How much did it cost?
- What was the first house you ever bought? How much did that house cost?
- How did you save money for that house?
- Which friends did you see most often?
- Name the other Croatians who had come to your new country at the same time. You did you see most often?
- What did you miss most about Croatia?
- What did you do for fun?
- What did you worry about back then?
- Where did you go on your first holiday?
- If you could live anywhere in Croatia where would you live?
GENERAL QUESTIONS ABOUT LOVE
- How old were you when you had your first boyfriend/ girlfriend?
- How many relationships did you have before you met your wife/husband?
- When did you first meet your wife/husband?
- What made you think they were “the one”?
- How did you propose?
- Describe to me your wedding day.
- Did you go on a honeymoon?
- When is your wedding anniversary?
- What is the secret to a good marriage?
GENERAL QUESTIONS ABOUT LIFE
- What is the best advice you have ever received in life?
- What is your favorite movie?
- What is your favorite song?
- Who is your favorite actor?
- Who is your favorite actress?
- What is your favorite food?
- What is your favorite drink?
- What is the hardest thing you have ever done?
- What is the best thing you have ever done?
- Do you have any regrets in life?
- If you could go back in time and change one thing what would it be
- How has the world changed since you were young?
- Is life harder or easier now?
- In what way is life harder or easier now?
- What have you always been good at?
- If you could go back in time and choose a new career for yourself what would you pick?
- How many countries have you visited?
- What is your favorite place in this world and why?
- Is there any city/country you still wish you could visit?
- Why did you choose to live where you live now?
- Have you ever been in an accident?
- If you could wish for three things, what would you wish for?
- What do you wish you wasted less time on?
- Has anyone ever hurt you?
- Were you ever scared of anything?
- Have you ever met anyone famous?
- Have you ever won an award?
- Do you think money can buy you happiness?
- If you could invite 5 famous people to dinner who would you invite?
- What world events still stand out for you in life and where were you (e.g. man landing on moon, Elvis dying, etc.)?
- Pick three words to describe your personality.
- Is there anything you still wish you could do?
- What has been your happiest moment in life?
- What is the hardest decision you ever made?
- Where do you want your body put to rest?
- What is the secret to happiness?
I strongly recommend taking the time to record your parent’s answers either via audio, video or on paper. You may not understand the importance of this now but I promise – you and your children will appreciate your efforts so much in the future! These memories are PRECIOUS and I have no doubt that you will ultimately cherish them forever….