People come and go. So can ideas, jobs, friends and even marriages. We don’t, however, expect countries to disappear, certainly not our birth countries. Even today, as the world becomes increasingly multicultural, most people associate the country they were born in with their national identity, their passport and, in most cases, their cultural belonging. But what happens when all that changes? When the passport you’ve had since birth is no longer valid, and the question “Where are you from” leaves you flummoxed?
My junior year in high school started just as the previous two. There is a certain noise that only a gaggle of teenagers can produce when they are excited, nervous and happy at the same time. It is a universal sound that can be heard from Hong Kong to the United States, and everywhere in between. In the autumn of 1991, that was the noise that billowed through the hallways of my school. In appearance life was just as it had been when I said good by to my classmates before the summer. In September we were just more tanned and brimming with stories of summer adventures. In reality our lives had changed profoundly, but we still didn’t know it.
The war in Jugoslavia did not enter my life with a bang. I never heard gunshots or bombs detonate. My corner of the country was not impacted by the physical atrocities of war. The closest we came to any action was witnessing the jets that flew over us from the nearby Air Force base in Aviano, Italy.
Istria, the region of Croatia today dubbed the new Tuscany, and which I called home, always considered itself different from the other territories that were patched together to form Jugoslavia after World War II. Here, Italian is still an official language and in many towns and villages the local dialect is closer to the Venetian idiom than any Balkan language. Handing Istria over to Tito in 1945, is still something many Italians recall with melancholy.
When Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence from Jugoslavia in July 1991, the events we watched on the news seemed to be in another country, not our own. Istrians have never been swept with the nationalistic pride that raged through other parts of Croatia and Serbia. This fact alone made our little corner of heaven an ideal place for refugees to settle in.
The word refugees, evokes images of tent-lined camps, famine and devastation. As I settled into my classroom that September and looked at my four new classmates, I never thought of them as such. They were not poor; there were no tents. Together with their families, they left other parts of Croatia, closer to the Serbian and Bosnian borders, just until things cooled down. We didn’t understand that their presence marked the beginning of the transformation that was to engulf our lives.
The war changed many things. In my case it changed the course of my entire life. Croatia’s tourism industry, a pillar of the Jugoslav economy, and my family’s entire source of income, was suddenly wiped out.
My family and I left Jugoslavia a few months after classes started. Just like those students who came to my high school, we also didn’t go far, and “temporarily” left our home, expecting to be back before the next summer’s tourism season. Surely this political nonsense wasn’t going to last long.
Our new home in Venice was just a few hours drive, but it felt like another planet. As months turned to years, we settled into our new lives, but Venice remained a temporary solution. After two years we moved back to the US, where we had lived in the 80’s, and where my father’s business could flourish.
Around that time, I developed something my mother calls itchy feet syndrome and I didn’t stay put for long. As I added languages, homes and countries to my personal baggage, my sense of identity evaporated. Before the war, answering the question ‘where are you from’ was easy: I was half Irish, half Jugoslav, but then one day someone decided that was incorrect.
What did I actually mean by Jugoslav? What part specifically? What they really wanted to know was whether I was from the ‘good or bad’ side. The answer depended on who was asking. I grew tired of explaining to foreigners that was not what Jugoslavia was about. It was easier to simply make up an answer and move on.
Almost a decade went by before I returned to Croatia. I could have gone back many times, nothing was stopping me other than the desire to look forward and ignore the past. People are surprised when I tell them I was avoiding the memory of good times, not running away from traumatic nightmares of a war-torn past.
Wars have many consequences. Most are well documented, expected and understood, but there is an aspect of war that is often overlooked. The trauma that occurs when the life you know is taken away and you are expected to be happy about it. You are told you are one of the privileged ones, wealthy enough to have choices and be able to pursue them. You have not lost loved ones so you don’t dare allow yourself the right to grieve. But I did lose a lot. The home, life and friends I worked hard to achieve and expected to grow old with. Most of all, I lost my identity, my sense of belonging.
As the saying goes, ‘time heals all wounds’, and in my case it is true. I am now in a comfortable state of mind where I do not feel the need to define my nationality and am happy to simply be the citizen of the world that I am.
* The original spelling of Jugoslavia is maintained throughout this piece