Motherland

In the summer of 2009, freelance journalist Jennifer Wilson and her architect husband, Jim Hoff, left behind a comfortable life in Des Moines, Iowa, and took their two young children, Sam and Zadie, to live in Croatia, Wilson’s homeland. What began as a crazy idea hatched late one night by two weary parents became a journey that would change the family’s lives. For four months, they lived in Wilson’s ancestral village: Mrkopalj, Croatia (pronounced MER-koe-pie). There they lived a simple life, forged deep and lasting friendships with the local people, explored Wilson’s ancestral roots, and connected as a family on a deeper level than they ever had back home.  While Hoff (’93 architecture) home-schooled the kids, Wilson (’93 English) documented the family’s extraordinary adventure. The result was a book, Running Away to Home, published in 2011.

Mom, Sam, Zadie in the yard

Running Away to Home by Jennifer Wilson
Excerpt from Chapter 1

October 2008
Dawn had not yet broken as I wrestled my suitcase out of my room above the bar in Mrkopalj, a tiny Croatian village nestled in a low mountain range that looks like the Alps but with fewer people and more wild boars. I sweated my luggage down the creaky back stairway, careful to step quietly, for fear that some of the rowdy night drinkers whose noise kept me up all night would now be snoozing somewhere among the empty bottles in the brown-on-brown murk of the bar.

I crept across a quiet courtyard surrounded by weeds, my breath coming in icy puffs against the night. I threw my stuff into the trunk of the rented Volkswagen Polo. Somewhere out there, as I hurriedly rubbed the fog off the windshield with my coat sleeve, hungry bears were creeping down those mountains to rob the wilting gardens of the village. They wouldn’t find much. Most of the cabbages in Mrkopalj (pronounced MER-koe-pie by the locals) were fermenting in wooden barrels by now, its potatoes stacked in red-net bags in root cellars. What the bears did not know (and I didn’t know yet, either) is that they would find more action at the local drinking establishment that was now in my rearview mirror, operated by a man who was, in spirit, one of them.

The last shreds of darkness still cloaked Mrkopalj’s 800 residents and their yard chickens as I skidded past Jesus and the robbers on Calvary, the sheep near the post office, and the dark office of a drunken tourism director. This was the land of my ancestors, the homeland of my mom’s side of the family. The village my great-grandparents left behind when they immigrated to America 100 years ago. From what I’d seen so far, it hadn’t changed much since they left. This, in theory, was a good thing, considering that my husband Jim and I were planning a back-to-basics family sabbatical with our two little kids as America’s economy hit the skids.

In the spirit of scouting possibilities, I planned to explore Mrkopalj for a week.

I fled after 36 hours.

The engine of my tiny Euro car whined in high gear as I floored it out of last century. One urgent thought pulsed continuously through my mind as the sun began to rise: Get me the hell out of here.

I had come to Mrkopalj in search of home. A rustic, simple country home that I hoped to mysteriously recognize on some deep and spiritual level. Preferably, something that smelled like baking bread or maybe hay. Though I knew so little about Mrkopalj when I set out on this scouting mission, I’ve been to enough of my old family’s funerals to know that I look just like them, with knobby cheekbones and eyes so deep set that I’m pretty sure they’ll eventually emerge from the back of my head. In a way, Mrkopalj is an essential part of who I am. Unfortunately, I discovered, this revealed me to be isolated, mildly alcoholic, and dentally challenged.

So that was disappointing. Jim and I had been working up the courage to do something we’d always dreamed about – escaping to a place where we could live simply with our kids, Sam and Zadie. We’d shared the dream of living overseas ever since we’d met and married 10 years before in Des Moines, Iowa. The dream faded as we built our careers – me a moderately successful travel writer, he an architect. It disappeared altogether when the kids came along. We dove blindly into the blur of the American family frenzy, with all its soccer practices and frivolous shopping trips to SuperTarget. We worked. We drove the kids around. We shopped.

We were chest-deep in the fray when the escape fantasy began to revive in me. I wanted to get back to that essential kernel of connection that had brought Jim and me together in the first place. We’d worked hard and happily to carve our own version of the American Dream. We renovated a house together in lieu of dating. When we married, we promised that above all, we’d provide each other an interesting life. We raised two babies in our homemade house where I planted big gardens under the open sky of the uncrowded state where we both grew up.

Then, somewhere along the line, things got complicated. I worked during naptimes and nighttimes while I stayed home with the kids, writing in my half-sleep – I was doing it all but none of it well. I found myself mindlessly rushing to school or swimming lessons or ballet or work or another trip to the store, anything to distract my mind from the endless needs of the kids and the longest single-syllable word in human history: “Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahm.” The manufactured schedule replaced a more tangible life. And really, Sam and Zadie just wanted to hang out at home and wrestle and play beauty shop with Dad, though the 6-7:30 p.m. window of time that Jim actually spent with his children was filled with the chaos of supper, bath, and bedtime. We ran because we couldn’t sit still. Neither of us knew why.

As we were living this life of distraction, we began to accumulate things. At final count, Jim bought three grills – the last one cost us four digits. “You can make naan in it!” he’d announced at the unveiling, stepping aside on the porch to reveal a large oval-shaped ceramic urn mounted on a wooden platform. It looked like an altar. But I wasn’t in any position to judge. My shoe collection closely resembled a DSW store in my closet.

Restlessness circulated through our house like that one smell that happens when a mouse crawls into the ductwork and dies. Sort of vague. Faint. But pervasive, and disturbing. I’m not lodging a complaint here, we were comfortable physically, and that’s more than I can say about three-quarters of the world, and for that very reason it just didn’t seem like the right way to live anymore.

Jim and I just sort of looked at each other across the shopping cart one Saturday afternoon, both of us holding the Starbucks that accounted for $150 of our monthly household budget, SUV idling in the parking lot, kids grousing that the Lego set they’d chosen was somehow lacking, and we asked ourselves: Is this the American Dream? Because if it is, it sort of sucks.

It was into this void that Mrkopalj came calling. In August 2008, my great aunt died. Sister Mary Paula Radosevich was the last of the old immigrant family. Because no one else was interested, the nuns gave me her personal papers stored in a bronze-colored tin lock box. To most of my family, the old relatives were old news. But I thought knowing more about them might help guide my own life. My olive-skinned mom rarely mentioned that she descended from thick-accented immigrants, full moustaches upon both the men and the women. I’d once asked her where our family came from, but she would only answer: “Iowa.”

I sensed some shame about these poor ancestors who’d toiled in coal mines, or maybe it was just her natural reticence.

The night after Sister Paula’s funeral, after the kids went to bed, I nestled on the family room couch and sifted through that bronze-colored tin box. I dug out her modestly short handwritten autobiography. In shaky upright cursive, she wrote that her parents, Valentin Radosevich and Jelena Eskra, came from Mrkopalj, Croatia.

Valentin and Jelena’s tale had been furtively tucked away as the Radosevich clan rose to middle-class prosperity. With my generation, the immigrant story nearly vanished. I wished I had more to teach Sam and Zadie about our roots. I didn’t know one old recipe. Few words. No helpful bedtime stories where the misbehaving child gets disemboweled by wolves. But this felt like a start.

I read that Valentin and Jelena had six children. I never met the brothers. But the sisters meant the world to me when I was a girl. The elder Radosevich women, those chuckling old hens, short of stature and big of butt, doted on me, each in her own way.

There was Mary, who became Sister Paula, the oldest and the only one who went to college. She’d become the principal at a Catholic grade school in Des Moines, and at the funeral her former students told me she was strict but fair. I think that’s code for mean. But with me, Sister Paula was attentive and inquisitive. How was I doing in school? Was I making books my priority? Higher even than softball and boys? Growing up in Colfax, Iowa, where the only black person in town bagged groceries and lived at the dump, Sister Paula urged me to broaden my understanding of the world, and to consider travel a crucial part of my education.

Annie was the middle sister, called Auntie by all the cousins. Auntie wore a girdle, a fascinating device of physics with levers and fulcrums underneath her cotton housedress. I know about the girdle because Auntie would let me come into the bathroom during her morning constitutional so I could snap and unsnap her stockings from her garters.

Katherine was the youngest. My Grandma Kate. My mother’s mother. I loved her above all others. Toni perms had burnt her jet-black hair until it was crisp and brittle. Her oversized sweaters sparkled with sequins. Grandma Kate’s eyebrows were singed from lighting Misty menthols on the coil of her electric stove. She drove her metallic blue Volaré just a few notches below the speed of sound.

I was lonely in my mother’s harsh and nervous universe. An unhappy woman stranded in a small town, Mom was prone to days of angry silence. I was an intense and curious kid who seemed born to question.

And just as I have always been a seeker, my mother has been one who has hidden her whole life. I wish I could tell you why she would spend so many days isolated from the children so eager to love her, lashing out in bitterness from an imagined slight from one of us. Or she’d simply level stunning silence that would last for days. I do not know if this was depression, though later I know she struggled with alcoholism. I also don’t know why my dad never stopped it. When I worked up the courage or the anger, I demanded to know what we had done wrong, why she was not like the other mothers, why she couldn’t offer the simple closeness and openness that we all craved. It created a friction between us all, a fear and a void, that has left so many of my questions unanswered. And so, perhaps, I was also looking for my mother in that tin box.

From this odd home life as a kid, I found refuge at Grandma Kate’s house in Des Moines. Though her voice was manly and thick with a staccato Croatian accent, and she had a complete inability to cook anything flavorful, her unabashed love of my company built a foundation for my shaky confidence. She was widowed when I was young, having lost my Italian Grandpa Gino to congestive heart failure, so I had my Grandma Kate all to myself when I’d visit. We’d sit for whole weekends chatting at her Formica kitchen table or calling her other daughter, my vivacious Aunt Terri, on the phone, and only moving every few hours to lie foot-to-foot on the couch reading romance novels.

“Boy, Jenn’fer, I tell ya,” she’d rumble. “They sure make doing it with a man sound a lot better than it is.”

I would pluck her chin hairs, or we’d head to her Saturday night card party where I’d give all the ladies bouffant hairdos. Around Grandma Kate, I was no longer the weepy kid obsessed with horror comics and the Little House on the Prairie box set. She thought I was smart and funny. With Grandma Kate, I was the best version of myself.

She had a stroke when I was in my 20s. My uncle found her on the bathroom floor where she’d been laying for two days. She grabbed my hand when I walked into her hospital room and told me she’d just had a vision of my long-dead Grandpa Gino.

“I almost went, but Gino told me to come back,” she cried. “That big dummy.”

She should’ve just stayed with him. She moved into a nursing home where I’d find her with bruises on her arms and legs and,once, a goose egg on her forehead that the chief of staff couldn’t explain. I’d find her sitting in front of the blaring common-room television, tears streaming down her face.

When she was in the hospital with some sort of complication, I came into her room where two nurses were cleaning her up for the day, one of them swabbing her mouth because she couldn’t swallow well anymore. Grandma Kate began choking on the mouth swab, which the nurse had dropped down her throat. They sent me out as she thrashed around in a panic. When I came back she was dead. I sat by her side, holding her hand as her body went cold, whispering her childhood nickname over and over again: “Kata. Kata. Kata.” I have never stopped missing her.

I dug through these memories on the couch until after midnight, poring over pictures of Mrkopalj on my laptop, dreaming of the village where my Grandma Kate’s parents had come from, this ghost-like place that was simply never mentioned. It seemed like something out of a storybook: a smattering of gnome houses among fields of spotted cattle and fat sheep, hemmed in by low wooded mountains less than an hour from the sea. It appeared to have changed little over the centuries. Like it had been waiting for me all along.

Maybe this simple and wide-open existence was just what my family needed. Travel had always cleared my head and renewed my focus. But could I run away from home – and bring my family, too? Was it even possible? As my wondering turned to obsession, it seemed like Grandma Kate and Sister Paula and all the old relatives were answering: Maybe you can.

The more I thought about transporting us back a century and across the globe, the more I thought this was a very good idea. Which, frankly, is crazy. So I figured I’d check with my human sanity barometer one night after I put the kids to bed. I married a steady Midwestern man who spent his free time fine-tuning our Ameritrade accounts. If anyone could spot a dumb idea, it was Jim.

“Let’s talk,” I began, plopping down in front of him as he was watching an ultimate fighting match.

He turned to me. “We are not watching Rock of Love with Bret Michaels,” he said. “No matter what you promise me.”

“This is better,” I said, grabbing the remote and clicking off the television.

He sighed.

“Remember how we used to dream about living overseas together?” I asked.

“I remember,” said Jim.

I smiled, trying very hard to look beguiling. “I’ve been dreaming about it again.”

Surprisingly, Jim did not mock this.

So I unveiled my proposal for a return to the old country, re-learning the forgotten lessons of our ancestors, spending uninterrupted time together as a family. It would be a reverse immigration of sorts – my own family starting over where the ancestors left off. There was a tidiness to the plan.

“I know it doesn’t sound sensible,” I said. “But for some reason it sounds right.”

Now, in most marriages, there is a contented partner and a restless one. You can probably guess which one I am. But Jim wasn’t quite the contented spirit he had been. He’d suspected for a long time that architecture wasn’t the best career choice for someone who would rather build a house than draw one. At night, he pored over cooking magazines, dreaming of owning his own lunch truck. To most people, he was the same old Jim, the guy who’d push your car out from the snowdrift. But I recognized restlessness when I saw it.

I sat there waiting for the onslaught of Reasons Why We Can’t. We’ve got a mortgage. We’ve got pets. We just hooked up the TiVo. But Jim sat in silence.

Then I realized Jim was breaking into the same look he had the first time we met, when he was bellied up at a bar with his buddy Dave, pretending to watch Hawkeye basketball, but really watching me drink whiskey near the jukebox, harmonizing poorly to the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” with my sister, Stephanie.

I liked that look. I married that look. Jim stayed quiet, rubbing his beard, and running his hand over his mouth. Then he got up and poured me a glass of wine.

When he sat down again, he spoke. “You know, I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t do something like that. We’ve got some money saved up. We could rent out the house.”

I chimed in. “We’re not getting any younger. And it’s the perfect timing for Sam and Zadie – they aren’t old enough to put up a fight yet.”

“I could take a leave from work,” Jim said.

I was stunned he was even considering this. “Really?” I said. Maybe we were both crazy.

“Why not?” he asked. “I just sit at my desk all day and think of the things I’d rather be doing – working on the house, making dinner, just hanging out. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had a whole day just to hang out with my kids?”

He got up and grabbed the family atlas. He flipped through it with an enthusiasm I hadn’t seen since, well, since he took me home on “Take It Easy” night. We were clicking on this. For some reason, it felt right. Even necessary.

We studied the map of Croatia for a while: the funny tilted wishbone shape, all that seacoast, the proximity to Italy.

“The idea of just leaving. Just walking away,” he shook his head. “Can you imagine?”

I wish I could say that our decision to run away to Croatia was more carefully crafted than the drunken midnight talk of two tired parents. But it wasn’t. Jim and I could argue for hours about the frequency and aptitude of his lawn-mowing skills, right on down to how he only uses the weed-eater biweekly. The smallest minutia imaginable. But in regard to the biggest decision we’d ever make in the trajectory of our family, it really was as simple as two restless souls in a rambling mood setting a ball in motion that hasn’t stopped rolling since.

The day we arrived. Still smiling, because we thought our rooms
Baka Ana and her gardenIMG_7546
IMG_4911IMG_2189photo: jimhoff
viktor!

A Conversation with Author Jennifer Wilson

Chucking it all and moving to Europe is a fantasy shared by a lot of Americans. How did you manage it financially?
One of the main things people say when they hear about this trip is, “Boy, I wish
I had the money to do something like that.” But there’s a way you can do these things. It’s a lifestyle change. It was amazing to us as a middle class family how much money you can put away if you just batten down the hatches. We simply quit going to superstores. We would buy our food fresh when we needed it. We didn’t have a big, fancy Christmas. And by the end of that savings period of almost a year, it was enough for a very frugal almost a year in Europe in which we lived more cheaply than we ever lived in the States. Some people buy a fancy car when they hit midlife; some people buy a new furniture set or a big TV. We bought a year off.

What advice would you give to others who are ready to leave behind the American Dream and go in search of a simpler life in their homeland?
I don’t think you need to simplify your life by taking a nine-month European vacation. I don’t think that’s necessary. I think to live a smaller, more connected life you can just get rid of a lot of your stuff and you’ll probably feel better when you do. I think sometimes we become prisoners of our own lifestyles and prisoners of our own affluence.

motherland_jenniferHave you thought about writing a how-to?
I think everybody knows what it would take to pare down their life. It’s just a matter of “Are you ready to do it? Are you ready to not take your kid to soccer but instead play soccer with your kid?” That was the question we were asking ourselves. Are we ready to, instead of putting Zadie in expensive ballet, dressing up with her and putting on music and dancing with her? Which is what she wanted anyway. It seems like we were spending so much time in the car en route to things that we should have just been doing on our own.

Now that you’re back in the States and presumably back to your old lives, how has your travel experience changed your family dynamic?
I am much more likely to make everybody stay home now, to sort of stop the rush and pull everybody in. I see that more as my job now. I guess my role as a mom was clarified to me. I’ve become a more confident parent. We still play sports and have music lessons and all that stuff. But if I feel like we’re not connecting – I mean, that’s our big souvenir. That was the greatest gift from buying the year off. It’s hard not to be connected with your family when you’ve just spent three months in a compact car with them driving in a foreign country. We got connection from that, and I don’t want to ruin it. We still buy stuff. But it’s the connection thing I’m much more fierce about.

Food is a major character in the book. Have your eating habits changed since you’ve been back home?
We’ve expanded the garden. In Mrkopalj, the yards are tiny farms. We brought that back with us. The backyard is sort of our working farm now. We’ve got a flock of chickens that provide our eggs every day; we planted berry bushes. The whole idea of being more connected with our food source came from Mrkopalj and the people’s way of life there. It was just such a clean, connected way to eat and live.

Did you always know you’d write a book about your experience?
Yes. I had an agent, and he and I worked together on the proposal. He said, “Don’t expect to get a book deal or an advance before this trip. I have to know before I work with you that all you want from this is a great journey with your family and someday an attractive book on your bookshelf.” And I said, “That’s all I want.” But, miraculously, an editor at St. Martin’s was on board with the idea.

When I was putting together the proposal for the book I was really far behind in our industry. I didn’t know how blogs worked. I didn’t know how social media worked. I had just been writing straight-forward magazine and newspaper pieces. And I wanted to be part of that. So when I was planning this I put in the proposal that I will run a website when I am there and I will develop my platform via social media to work on my audience before the book’s ever finished. And, really, the early readers of this book were my blog readers. Besides just friends and family following the blog I had a nice community of readers before I ever handed in a draft of the book, and they really helped inform how the book was made by their reaction to certain scenes. The early readers were part of that journey the whole way.

What has been the response to the book?
In terms of response from readers, I’ve been surprised how many people of
Croatian descent have written me passionate, long letters. Croatian is not a hip nationality. We don’t have pizza or tacos; there’s not a big [special day for Croatians] where we all drink beer and wear purple. So I think having somebody talk about being of Slavic lineage in a really positive way … has helped people connect with this population.

So the Croatia connection surprised me. I thought it would be soccer moms who were looking for escape, and there’s a lot of that, too. But by far the most passionate responses have been people who had any sort of amount of Croatian lineage who were also forced to eat these terrible, cabbage-filled foods growing up.

What’s one of the biggest takeaways for you from this entire experience?
I do hope that when people read the book that they’ll be inspired by the stories of the families that stayed behind when our families came overseas and that we can’t forget our connections with the countries we came from. Because when we do we’re really losing what it means to be an American in the first place. I feel like we have to maintain those connections because they feel connected to us. It was the surprise of the story to me. I knew it would mean a lot to us, but I had no idea it would mean a lot to them, too. I mean, they felt bad that we had missed all these things. Like: “How could you not know how to make tea, Jennifer? We’re going to have to show you how to do that. Any Croatian woman should know that.”

 

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