By Frances Vidakovic
Ten years ago I was blessed enough to have the opportunity to write for the English supplement of Australia’s Hrvatski Vjesnik as the special features writer and these articles were later compiled to become a book titled CROATIAN PRINCESS, which was published on Amazon in 2012.
Back then, I happily shared my musings on all things to do with Croatia. As an Australian-born Croatian, I lived for many years as an Inbetweener, feeling the familiar tug between two beautiful countries and living a life of limbo, navigating to and fro, never knowing quite how or where to find that perfect middle ground.
I wrote articles like “What Croats Living In Croatia Really Think Of Us” to “Why It’s So Hard To Pack Your Bags And Go Live In Croatia Forever” which all stemmed from the experience of living two and a half years in my motherland.
The title of my book was completely tongue-in-cheek – to quote: “I should start this book by stating that while I am Croatian, I am by no means a princess in the conventional sense of the word. But that was the tag pinned on me by all foreigners when I moved overseas and planted myself on the island of Korčula.”
It is now over 20 years since I moved to live in Croatia, as a wide-eyed 20-year-old with the world completely at my feet. I can still remember the feeling I had when I stepped off the plane and was assaulted by the most beautiful sounds of Croatians frenetically talking over the top of each other, as though only the loudest voices reigned supreme. It was December 1995, the war had ended months earlier and with a degree in psychology tucked under my belt I had nowhere but everywhere to go, so the most logical place was home.
It may seem funny to Croatians overseas that I would call a country half the world away my second home, when I only visited the place twice during my first 20 years of life (first as a toddler then as a preteen for a long, heated summer.) But that’s because they don’t understand what it was like for a child here growing up with immigrant parents.
My parents had left their country decades before more out of desperation rather than desire and planted themselves here in Sydney, without a cent to their name, unable to speak more than a few words of English, and set to work creating something out of nothing.
Outside in the real world, I’m sure the rest of Australia lived a wonderful Aussie life but once you stepped over the threshold of our home it was like “if you can’t go to Croatia, Croatia would come to us.” Guests would be welcomed with the smells of Croatian cooking (ćevape, stuffed capsicums, you name it we ate it), the sounds of Croatian music (hello rockstar Oliver) and the fractured hum of a crazily comforting Croatian dialect.
Broken English was expected when any foreigner was introduced to my parents and guests were either stalked constantly by my mother with a plate of food or intrigued by my father who could often be seen stamping grapes for his homemade wine, smoking massive stumps of soon-to-be prosciutto or outside working in his garden (to my dad it was just like being in the fields back home).
By the time I was 20 I felt confused by my identity – I had obviously grown up in Australia, gone to an Australian school and had fabulous friends of all different ethnicities but deep inside I felt detached from them, different, as though a part of my soul was left a thousand miles away, waiting to be claimed.
So I set off to Croatia and there I lived for two and a half years – for me, it was the right place at the right time and when I left to come back to Sydney for what I thought was a short trip, I did not expect to become entangled in a web of new dreams.
Once upon a time I thought the perfect life for me could only be lived in Croatia but here am I now, a 41-year-old, living in Sydney for almost twenty years, with my husband and two gorgeous children and I see that I was wrong. I underestimated the beauty that existed here in my own country because I was blinded by my desire to retrace the steps of my past and complete the full circle, of returning to a place my parents had never really wished to leave.
Here in Australia over the last two decades, I have created my own incredible community of friends and family, just like my little village back in Croatia. Even though our heritage may not be the same, even though our lives started out differently, to me my friends and family here constitutes my new home, my new life, the one I have grown to love.
And yet still I cannot ignore the pull of my homeland whenever it whispers my name. When I hear that a family member or friend is going back for a holiday my heart clenches with pain, a longing, a desire to be there too. I realize now that life is more complex as an adult.
You can’t just quit your job at the flick of a switch, you can’t jump onto a plane whenever the desire hits, because you have responsibilities, duties, children to take care of and financial security becomes more important than a summer spent at the beach.
I have friends who have managed to conquer the great divide. When I lived in Croatia from 1996 to 1998, jobs were scarce and if I wanted to stay on the island of Korčula (which of course I did) I was considered extremely lucky if I scored a job as a bartender at the local bar or a coveted position as a checkout operator in the local butiga.
The idea of moving to the mainland away from my village, family and friends defeated the purpose of being in Croatia for me. I wanted to be close to my parent’s tiny village which had nothing to offer at the time but the most amazing, resilient and kind people I had ever met. So I stayed there until I knew there was potentially more for me in life and it couldn’t be found in a selo, konoba, polja, mountain or my grandparent’s breathtakingly beautiful island.
My friends who moved to Croatia later, once the country slowly managed to get itself back on its feet have succeeded in ways I never dreamed were possible. They have set up prosperous businesses, married lovely partners, had children and created wonderful bonds with other ex-pats who are also living the dream that I once thought was the ultimate thing in life. But life has a way of taking you down a path that you didn’t foresee. Hurdles appear that you didn’t expect you would ever have to jump.
The irony of life is that I am now a writer, a wonderfully mobile job occupation that can be attended to from any corner of the world. Yet I have two children, one of whom has neuro-muscular condition that is practically unheard of in Croatia. Once upon a time, when the kids were still young, the idea of my family moving there seemed intriguing but now that notion is so fraught with issues I have put it to rest.
But even more so of a problem than the reality that my son requires the use of a wheelchair whenever he is tired (Croatia is unfortunately not the most accessible country in the world nor do they have the same specialists he requires) is the fact that my desire to live there permanently has miraculously gone.
So many things have changed since I lived there twenty years ago. So many relatives have passed away, including my grandparents, making the current Croatia a different place from the country I experienced twenty years ago. But such is life…nothing lasts forever and time changes everything. My children and husband (who also has two Croatian-born parents) all adore Australia and if truth be known, this life has grown on me too in ways that are unexpected, hypnotic and freeing.
They say that our truest life is when we are in our dreams awake and that is how I used to feel when I walked the rocky paths of my ancestors. I would witness the sinking of a burnt-orange globe falling in the sky and it would take my breath away. I had to pinch myself sometimes when I was in the throes of a dance overseas, moving to songs which meant more to me than the simple words in the chorus.
My life in Croatia felt like a glorious dream that I never wanted to end. But then it did end and I discovered that it wasn’t the worse thing in the world, to be away from it all because it gave me the opportunity to create something new, something special, here in Australia.
Because I once upon a time lived in a little village and knew what a community felt like I searched for one and found it here. Because I knew the importance of family I made sure to keep my bonds strong with the relatives that remained here in Australia, to the point that we moved my wonderful Croatians in-laws into our home just so my children could spend as much time as they could with their grandparents.
Though it still hurts in a sharp, strange way when I sing along to my favorite Croatian music and my children look at me blankly because they don’t understand the words, I know they have time up their sleeve to further discover the country that I have never been truly able to let go of.
It is true what they say -you cannot be in two places at once but that’s okay. I no longer feel torn, like a piece of elastic that will break when stretched between two points. Instead , feel strong, buoyant, adaptable and free like a bird that knows it has the ability and freedom to fly from tree to tree at its leisure and enjoy the sights it sets its eyes upon. Out of sight does not always mean out of mind.
The blood that flows through my veins cannot be changed nor can my heritage be rewritten. I am here and my motherland will always be there for me, waiting like a lost secret unrequited love. Should I ever wish to dip my toes again into its pool of warmth or nostalgic memories, it is comforting to know I am only but a flight away. And as they say, a bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not in the branch but in her own wings.