A Genealogical Quest for Identity – PART 1 of 2
NOTE: My First Blog Post
Nestled amidst symmetrical rows of grapevines on a small vineyard on one of the many rolling rural hills of the Zagorje region of Croatia, I’m writing my first blog post. I’ve been wanting to start a blog for awhile now, as a means by which to express ideas, commentary and exposition on topics that not only interest me, but also to spark intellectual discussions, enrich the reader with newfound information, or simply share stories that I feel are compelling and inspiring. With this first entry of what I hope will be many, I want to share the journey I’ve been on for years, but particularly this most recent trip to Croatia.
I’m currently on a quest to see how far back I can trace my familial maternal line of Croatian heritage. Delving into one’s genealogical history can reveal insights into one’s origins, ultimately and ideally revealing more about you as a person. Having a sense of identity can ground you in place, time, and history and offer perspective about the journey of humanity and the purpose of life. It sounds obscure and grandiose, but stick with me here, it gets even more fun.
Tracing a family history via genealogy research in a country like Croatia that has been war torn for centuries, flip-flopping invaders since the Middle Ages, can be extremely challenging and cumbersome. Just when you think there’s light at the end of the tunnel, you hit a roadblock that can discourage and derail the journey. Vex not oh weary traveler, for what you seek may lie just over the next hill of red tape. The rules and regulations of a country still in transition towards the technological conveniences of modern record keeping are perplexing and mind bending. From my experience, it’s best to just accept them and take what you can get, go with the flow, and when all else fails, charm their socks off with your foreign swagger.
Although I grew up with a strong connection to my Croatian heritage, I did not pick up certain specific cultural attributes, namely the language, but also other inherent cultural idiosyncrasies that are important when planning an immersive experience. How am I going to get through this? What if they don’t speak any English? What if this was a total waste of time and energy? What if…. What if…. What if…. You can drive yourself bonkers with fear driven “What If’s…”, but the bottom line is that you just have to grow a pair, suck it up and get in that car, plane, boat, hovercraft, and go for it, if the interest compels you.
The First Stop – The Office of Birth and Death Records in Lepoglava
Today I was a little bit nervous approaching the records office in Lepoglava where my grandfather was born and raised (and also happens to be where Croatia’s main prison is located, offering a creepy and terrifying backdrop to the situation). I fumbled through a rickety door into the mostly dull 1960s communist era office and managed to ask (in Croatian) the innocuous elderly lady seated at the desk if she speaks English. She replied with an adamant “Ne” (or “no”), prompting me to break out into a nervous sweat with dry mouth setting in, “oh crap, what do I do now?”
The Google Translate app had been my crutch, but my phone was almost dead and would only have enough juice to get me through the very beginning of this conversation, then what?? With my rudimentary Croatian skills, I dug in and proceeded to explain what I wanted. She seemed to understand and softened, her once hard exterior released to a more open and understanding energy. Then came the super-speed downpour of Croatian technical, legal, and political ramblings that would have even a native speaker scratching their head. Thirty minutes later, with the help of some improvised sign language, a lifeline phone call to a cousin in Zagreb, and some guesswork, we were on the same page. I sat down to wipe the sweat pouring off my forehead, my brain exhausted from the ultra, super, focused conversation plus the remnants of jetlag. I could feel my desire for a Croatian coffee increase with every tick of the second hand. My Croatian caffeine addiction was revving its engines and would be in full swing soon enough. Although I generally abstain from coffee whilst stateside, why fight it… when in Rome, or Croatia, right?
Several hours later after a few more red tape hoops to jump through, which included me having to purchase a special government payment stamp from a nearby post-office (a side excursion that could warrant its own blog post), we were ready to get our hands dirty and dig. An hour or so later I left that records office having seen the actual birth logbook entry from 1914 when my grandfather’s birth was recorded over one hundred years ago. I sat on a nearby bench overlooking the town and took a deep breath, acknowledging that I’d had a pretty special moment. Somehow walking on streets and sidewalks in the town my grandfather walked on as a child and sleuthing out this record felt like life was coming full circle in a way. Somehow those pen marks on that old, weathered, faded yellow paper made me feel like I belonged to a deep history of people, a verification of sorts, and my curiosity wants to know how far back that trail goes. Will it venture into France? Austria? Stay in the same region of Croatia? I was dying to know, and my journey tomorrow will hopefully bear more discoveries.
I was also excited to learn that my great grandmother was a school headmaster and her husband, my great grandfather, a teacher. An interesting dynamic for a couple in late 1800s Eastern Europe! It’s no wonder their son, my grandfather, was so well educated with multiple degrees, spoke ten languages, and was well read way beyond his class level. Is my never-ending, unquenchable pursuit of knowledge, the drive within that led to my love for school and acquisition of two master’s degrees, an energetic or genetic result of their union? As the mystery unfolds with each kernel of information uncovered, I am riveted and can’t wait to find out more, not only for myself, but for my whole extended family, my offspring, and generations to come.
The fact that this is only 50% of what makes up my genetic code is mind boggling to me. There’s a whole other world of my heritage that I haven’t even begun to look into yet. Why is it that in the US, the world’s melting pot, we don’t have as tight of a grasp on our family histories as they do elsewhere in the world? The idea of knowing your genealogical history is a much more ingrained part of the cultures in other countries across the globe, but in the US, a relatively young country made up entirely of immigrants (unless you are of Native American descent), the line is often harder to trace. Of course there are exceptions of those that can trace back to their ancestors who arrived on the Mayflower, and those that can go even further, but for the most part, people can only go back a few generations, perhaps well into the 1800s. But it is not uncommon for the family trees of non-North American inhabitants to go back several centuries. How does this affect our culture here vs. there? Does the US adoption rate (both domestic and international) add to the faded records of our collective past? Thoughts to ponder as my research continues.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines Identity as: The fact of being who or what a person or thing is
The very definition of the word invokes a subconscious feeling of innate stability and groundedness, without which beseeches a yearning to know and find “what a person..is” by tracing familial roots or other means, perhaps through spiritual, practical, vocational, etc. For me, the further back I am able to trace my roots, the more deeply connected I feel towards who I am and where I come from, with the hopes of gaining insight on where I want to be or confirmation on where I am. As humans, we are interconnected energetically, physically, and genetically, whether we want to be or not. We are an accumulation of energetic combinations over the course of time, and to be completely blind or ignorant of that history is leaving a large piece of the “identity” puzzle out of the equation for yourself and subsequent generations. By seeking out my heritage, discovering the history, and solving the mysteries of who I am, I intend to tap into that connected energy through revelation, discovery, and always learning with humility and openness.
The Search Continues
Seek whatever ye shall find, find whatever ye shall be, and be whatever ye shall become.
Am I shackled by the idea of knowing my pedigree? Absolutely not, of course I’m confident in who I am and the life I have and would surely survive without knowing more. But will the fruits of this journey hopefully add to the understanding of my life and those of my relatives? I certainly hope so. And I also acknowledge that this quest is probably connected to a means of mourning the loss of my mother, as well as my grandparents, at a relatively younger age than most people. It’s been 6 years since she’s been gone, and I feel like researching these roots, something both she and her father always wanted to do but never did, is somehow bringing me closer to them, an homage to their, and my own, pursuit of identity. I could get into the history of Croatia, the communist regime of Yugoslavia, my mother and her family being displaced during WWII and marring their sense of identity while they desperately searched the world for a place to set new roots, but I will save some of that for the part 2 of this post.
I wait with baited breath for what secrets and mysteries the Croatian Archives in Varaždin have in store for me. Will light be shed onto my own enigmas? Or will it lead me to yet another step of discovery? Or will it be the dead end of the quest? The truths lie within, and only 50 km, a language barrier, mountains of red tape, and tenacity will come into play in determining success or failure.