The town of Perušić was big enough to be included on a map of Croatia but too small for guidebooks to mention. I had no idea what to expect when my partner, Melinda, and I pulled off the highway and followed the signs to the birthplace of my great-grandfather. When the roads narrowed to single lanes, compact cars gave way to tractors, and concrete turned back into cobblestone, we found Perušić. The farming village spread across the rolling green and golden hills of the Eastern European countryside looked somewhat similar to the place my ancestors emigrated to in Iowa, settled, and never left.
“A kokoš!” I cried, as a rooster ran into the road. A real one. As far back as I could remember, Grandma’s called out, “Who’s my kokoš?”
“Me!” I’ve cawed my entire life. Perhaps my childhood nickname piqued my curiosity about our Croatian heritage. Maybe it was because I looked the most Croatian—of all my third-generation American ethnicities—with olive eyes, hair the color of dark honey, and Mediterranean skin. Or it could have been that once I discovered Croatia’s landscape included over a thousand islands bobbing in the crisp Adriatic Sea along the country’s craggy 3,000-mile shoreline, I couldn’t wait to go there.
When my trip was booked, Grandma sent a stack of dusty airmail envelopes from her old-country cousin in Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb. They dated back four decades. Most were Easter greetings between two devout Catholics. There were a couple of long, laboriously translated letters explaining our ever-expanding relations. And three photos. Running my fingers along the typewriter ink that over the years had blurred into a fuzzy gray font like Grandma’s hair, I traced my roots. Actually, I Google-mapped them across the heartland of Croatia.
Melinda and I landed in Zagreb on a Sunday to find the capital almost entirely closed. Over 90 percent of Croatians professed to be Christians, nearly all of them Catholic. I planned to visit the monastery at the return address listed on the nun’s letters but thought better of dropping in on the Sabbath. We bided our time exploring Zagreb–
a treasure map of outdoor sculptures, brightly tiled rooftops, and gardens ranging from an enchanted beer garden on top of a funicular to a botanical garden in full July bloom.
The next morning we pulled up to a coral church at Mošćenička 3. Inside the atrium, I tried to explain myself in the halting Hrvatski I’d been practicing in Teach Yourself Croatian on my iPod for months. I knew how to request a room with a view or white wine, but “I believe I’m related to a nun who lives here—if she’s still alive” was never covered. Eventually between Melinda’s Spanish and the nun’s knowledge of Italian from Vatican prayers, they cobbled together the explanation: Madre de la Madre. Escribe. Esta aya. The mother of the mother write this girl.
Ah yes! The nun escorted us into a visiting room that had clearly been decorated with care where a gaggle of nuns greeted us from behind a locked gate in the far wall.
“She’s upstairs sleeping,” they explained, lifting their jubilant faces heavenward. Melinda and I
cheered. We yelped and laughed at the luck. We almost kissed out of habit but pulled back for a prolonged high-five hug. Until they got the priest, who explained in perfect, projected pulpit-like English that my cousin was really upstairs, really, really sleeping.
“The nun you are looking for…” he said, “is dead.”
There was no time to mourn. Miraculously, one of the three photos I carried was of the nun’s niece, my distant cousin, Anica. She belonged to the parish and lived nearby.
“What does ‘just up the hill’ mean?” Melinda asked.
“We’ll see,” I said, turning the hand-drawn map upside down or right side up or sideways. After a couple of wrong turns and knocking on a deserted house with the same address number on a different road, we rounded a corner and saw them. Three generations of family on the lookout from every level of their two-story home. Grandma hung half out of the upstairs’ picture window. Mom and Dad surveyed the streets from the second floor balcony. And the three teenage daughters spread out oldest to youngest from the front door to the end of the yard. They were all shouting in different levels of accent and belief: “From America?!”
They welcomed us in and despite being separated by time, countries, religion, and language, they felt like relatives and their hospitality, a homecoming. My cousin, Anica, taught me how to pronounce Grandma’s maiden name, Marinac, Marine-natz instead of Mare-rin-nack. I drew our family tree, showed them Iowa on a map, and Facebook friended the three daughters. Anica challenged the love story my great-grandparents had passed down on our side of the Atlantic Ocean. We heard that Grandpa emigrated, made good, and then sent for Grandma. According to my cousins, they met on the boat. Two independent travelers on their way to the new world, which sounded like my stock.
They sent us on our way with raspberries from their garden and boxes of hazelnut cookies. “Eat lamb in Perušić,” they shouted by way of goodbye.
Driving through my great-grandfather’s birthplace, there were plenty of sheep braying through pastures but no restaurants. Short of knocking on someone’s one-story stone home door and joining them for lunch we were out of luck. After
ten-minute laps from one end of town to the other, we turned toward a pink church on the hill. I was drawn to it even th ough I’ve steered away from religion for most of my adult life.
The lovingly maintained medieval gothic church was the pride of the town as well as the surrounding
region of Lika. I imagined my great-grandfather walked this very way for services, weddings, funerals, and potlucks. I found it surprisingly meaningful to stand where my ancestors surely stood. I took in the country breeze, fresh scent of growing corn, and blue sky on the kind of day that inspires picnics. Wildflowers bloomed along the path interspersed with puffy granddaddy dandelions just waiting for a strong wind to carry their seeds to faraway places.
“Ready?” Melinda asked
, taking my hand. We were only driving through. There were no hotels in Perušić, nor was it the place for tourists.
Days later, while lounging on the sun
-soaked i sland of Hvar where lavender grows like grass and the sea is the color of emeralds wrapped in Tiffany blue, I was beach-reading Croatia: A Nation Forged in War by Marcus Tanner. I was nearing the end of the 18th century in his expansive thousand-year overview of the nation’s history when Tanner mentioned Perušić. He quoted an Italian traveler and scribe, Alberto Fortis, who witnessed a same-sex union between two women at the church in Perušić and recorded it in his Travels into Dalmatia (1778), saying: “The satisfaction that sparkled in their eyes when the ceremony was performed gave a convincing proof that delicacy of sentiments is found in minds not formed, nor rather not corrupted, by society.”
“Lesbians got married at that pink church in Perušić,” I gasped. “We were there!
That’s where I come from,” I said in awe.
Buy a copy of Curve‘s September travel issue at B&N or subscribe here!