It’s a great time to travel in Europe, even more so for me than for ICLC students, because I teach on Tuesday mornings only, which means I could leave Wednesday 12 October and not have to return until Monday 24 October, providing of course that I can afford that many days of vacation, with daily hotel bills and meals eaten out. I didn’t take quite that much time away when I taught at ICLC in fall 2005, but had a wonderful time in Italy, flying into Pisa and using that as a base travelling to one of my favorite places in Italy (or anywhere on earth!) Cinque Terre.
I was thinking more exotic for fall break 2011, as I have been to Italy several times, once spending a full month there. So I have been looking at my roots, primarily Slovakian and Croatian, with a dab of German thrown in. I have been to many parts of Germany, was stationed there in 1967-69 while in the U.S. Air Force, and to Prague, one of my favorite cities in Europe (located in the Czech Republic), at least three times. Slovakia is the southeastern portion of the area inhabited by Czechs and Slovaks that was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which has roots in the Holy Roman Empire. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed as World War I ended in 1918, that part of the Slavic lands was united with the northern Czechs and named a republic, called Czechoslovakia. In 1993, shortly after the Soviet Union crumbled, Slovakia broke away from Czechoslovakia, which then changed its name to the Czech Republic. Sound complicated? Ha! The history of this area is much more convoluted than I am making it here.
My mother’s family comes from some village in Slovakia, called, one of my uncles thinks, something like Sirokaya Dlouha (or did he say Nizhni Dlouha? Oi!). My grandfather is the only one of the family that really knew the village. He married a Slovak girl after he happily escaped the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1906 and landed in Bethlehem PA where he spent his life working in the famous steel plant there. But whenever I asked him where exactly he was from, he always replied, “You don’t want to KNOW!”
So I’m curious, but also know that I will probably have no luck on my roots in Slovakia. What I’d do is fly to Bratislava, the capital, an apparently nice city, but not nearly so nice as Prague, maybe take a day trip or two from there, and THEN head to the area my father’s ancestors called home, Croatia. If you think the history of Slovakia is confusing, Croatia has it beat. It too was once part of that gigantic Austro-Hungarian Empire, and in 1918 was made part of Yugoslavia (south Slavia), one of the maddest mixes imaginable, including Serbs and Croats, Slovenians, the republic of Bosnia Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and two autonomous provinces, Vojvodina and Kosovo. After World War I a king ruled this odd collection, but in World War II it became a soviet satellite, albeit freer than most, thanks to its powerful and popular leader, Marshall Tito. He said of the area he ruled: "I am the leader of one country which has two alphabets, three languages, four religions, five nationalities, six republics, surrounded by seven neighbors, a country in which live eight ethnic minorities.” When he died in 1980 ethnic tensions grew among the constituents, and in the 1990s all hell broke loose. The terms “Balkanization” and “ethnic cleansing” will remind you of the nightmares of those years. And the enmity continues.
But I am, as I noted above, curious. I have even less to go on in terms of roots in Croatia than I did in Slovakia. My grandfather on my father’s side, when I asked by me where he came from, replied…can you guess? “You don’t want to KNOW!” (Was this part of a vicious conspiracy on the part of my grandfathers?) And on my father’s side no aunts or uncles could give me any name at all for the village their father came from. But with a name like Hrkach it might be comforting to stroll the streets seeing signs on stores and businesses like Hrvatska (which is Croatia), or Drzic (a famed 16th century Croatian playwright). I could go to the island of Krk! Speaking of islands, much of Croatia lies along the coast of the Adriatic Sea, which makes it tempting whatever my nationality. By the way, the pic above the post is of Dubrovnik, one of the finest coastal Croatian cities. Some of it was occupied by Italy at one point, so there is an Italianesque feel to it, there are ancient Roman ruins all over it. Might be interesting.
But do I really want to discover my roots? Probably. How much do I want to? Probably not enough, I will confess. Slovakia is not all that interesting to me in itself, Croatia has grown quite expensive for tourists, and looking for hotels has discouraged me somewhat from going. Now, any travel guide worth a damn will tell you that you don’t want to spend the night in a hotel in Croatia, you want to rent a room from a local, much less expensive, and you get to know them. Another confession. I have always thought of myself as a loner, a solo act, a bit of an outsider. When I travel abroad I really enjoy being a “stranger in a strange land.” Hell, I often feel like a stranger in a strange land in Ithaca! And I don’t mind. Call it odd, call me irresponsible, call a Dottore, there you have it!
And anyway, yesterday I got a sudden urge to return to Italy over fall break! I’ll figure it out, but if anyone has suggestions, Dr. Jack will be appreciative, whether he follows them or not.