My grandparents were both born on Brač; my grandfather in Novo Selo and my grandmother in Sumartin. My grandfather left the island with his two brothers when he was a teenager. He travelled first to South America and then on to New Zealand in the early 1900s. His cousins had also come to New Zealand around the same time. Did they travel together? Who was first to arrive? Did he come because they were here? I don’t know.
In New Zealand he met my grandmother who had come here with her mother. They met and married on the other side of the world from the small island on which they were both born, a couple of miles apart.
I travelled to Croatia for the first time in 2012 with my partner and our son. The morning of our flight from London to Dubrovnik I wake up in the most hideous mood. Venom spewing from me. I feel deranged and possessed. The boys keep their distance.
We get to the airport and I have an altercation with a stranger while we queue to go through the scanners. In my fury I round on this man and I see him shrink away from my derangement. When it is my turn to go through the scanner, the alarm goes and I am pulled aside for a full body pat down. I have no metal on me to trigger the alarm, but my madness has been observed. We are allowed through and, still possessed, I leave the boys and take my hideous self to the bathroom. There is a large mirror the length of the wall and I glance at the poor tortured face in it as I walk past. I’m already in the cubicle before I realise that it was my own face I was seeing.
I meet the boys in the bookshop and after looking at books for a while I’m suddenly aware I’m back. I’m me again. The madness gone.
How do I explain it? I don’t know, but it felt as if a long line of ancestors knew I was coming, and had a lot to say. A long line holding a lot of pain. When I was back in NZ, a friend told me that her Croatian husband has a similar extreme reaction when they visit Croatia and is unbearable to be around for the first few days they are there.
Dubrovnik was beautiful; the weather perfect, the hotel luxurious, the coast picturesque, and the ‘old town’ wonderful. Yet still, intermittently, I was overcome with this horrible state. I was so revolting that the boys kept away from me and we went separate ways in our sightseeing. I loved being there even though I felt so disturbed. The people seemed familiar but separate, making me feel at once an outsider as well as stirring a deep sense of connection.
On the third day we travelled by taxi along the coast to Makarska. I was not prepared for how beautiful and unspoiled the coast is. Makarska is a beach town located at the base of the most dramatic mountains, and again the weather was perfect and our hotel was lovely. Yet still I felt agitated and awful. Or rather, I felt as if I were being agitated, as if it had nothing to do with me.
The manager of the hotel rang the phone number I had for the relations on Brač, and they invited us to visit them the next day. We caught the ferry over to the island not knowing if they would speak English, not really sure how distantly we were related, not knowing what to expect at all. But family is family and we were welcomed with an openness and warmth that made my heart sob.
This was my grandfather’s brother’s grandchildren; ‘cousins’ to me. My cousin kept holding me and smiling and saying, I’ve met you before? You have been here before? She felt as familiar as one of my sisters. I held and squeezed her back.
It hurts to say goodbye and leave the island. It hurts again the next morning to say goodbye to the hotel manager. Hugging her (this woman I’ve only known for 3 days) like I would break and her saying ‘don’t cry’ before I did and me wailing ‘I just don’t want to go’.
I felt so at home there and, as in Rome also, so right in myself somehow. Even though it’s all so different and we were so different from it and from the people, yet it was on some level so deeply familiar. Weird really. No, ‘familiar’ isn’t the right word, and I don’t know what is. Just a blind sense of connection at a cellular or molecular level perhaps.