Assimilation

Little country lots o' texture.

Someone once said to me: “Croatians are from lots of places, like Bosnia or Istria!” (For our American readers, one of those places is actually in Croatia).

Anyway, here’s a regular conversation for me in Croatia:
Croatian Person: Where are you from?
Me: Oklahoma.
CP:???
Me: Its a state, just above Texas.
CP: (shaking his head) I mean where are your parents from?
Me: Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.
CP: (Getting a little frustrated) But where are you really from?
Me: Oh, my family is from Ireland, Italy, France, and Prussia

(that’s right, P-RUSSIA!)

Now lets imagine that conversation in reverse. It would go something like this:

Where are your parents from?
CP: Croatia.
Where are your parents’ parents from?
CP: Croatia.
Where are your parent’s parent’s parents from?
CP: Croatia.


GET IT! Asking Croatians where they are from should be boring. I mean really, how intriguing could the answer to this question be in a country with only 4.5 million people and that’s smaller than West Virginia? You can imagine someone answering by saying I’m from over there and just pointing. The reality is, its fascinating! As an American I’m baffled (or amazed? No, baffled) to see how where you are from can matter so much in such a small country.

I don’t want to make it sound like there are no differences between places in the US, but the differences exist between vast distances and are relatively minor. As a comparison if you drive five hours in any direction in Oklahoma you will end up in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, or more of Oklahoma. You will not encounter a different culture from the one in Oklahoma in any of its neighbors (Its JESUS and GUNS all over!) Maybe in Texas they call “pop” “soda” or something, but that’s about it.

Drive five hours anywhere in Croatia and not only do you end up in a place with a different culture, you can end up in a different country: Italy, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and if you are driving really fast maybe even Albania! Drive two-three hours from Zagreb and you end up in a different region with its own customs, people, and culture. Different regions have their own special cuisine. People praise the pršut from Dalmatia, the wine from Istria, and the kulen from Slavonia. Even small towns can have their own specialty, like risotto from Ston or cheese from Livno (I KNOW its in Bosnia). The best way to think of this is that it adds layers of texture to Croatia’s social and cultural landscape.

While outsiders enjoy and admire each region’s domestic fare, the locals usually hold the things from their town in the highest regard. This can border on the absurd. Like the time when a visiting relative packed two dozen eggs into her suitcase on a flight from Split to Zagreb because “Everyone knows that eggs from Split are better than eggs from Zagreb!” I’m never sure if most of these professed differences are real or imaginary. I oscillate.

While cleaning out the suitcase filled with egg yolk and shell fragments, I certainly felt these “differences” were more FRUSTRATING than fascinating and definitely IMAGINARY. Then I traveled around Slavonia and felt like I was in a different country. The wide and flat land is in such drastic contrast to the rocky lunar-like terrain on the coast. Its much more similar to Oklahoma, not too mention the people too, they are shorter and closer to my height, and the food is more to my taste. The people also seemed to be to more mild manner when compared to um... say... Dalmatians?

The importance of where you are from extends beyond one’s region to even involving your village (ask someone about Imotski!). Its more than food and far bigger than just the rural/city divide. I find people talking about their own mentality based on where they are from. Someone will say: Oh well you know I’m from Split so... . Or Well he’s from Rijeka, so of course he’s open-minded. I also hear people using the differences in a negative way at times, and this is one of the more intriguing pieces of this regional puzzle: the differences are not solely used as putdowns and stereotypes. They can be, but they can also be used as points of pride and envy. For example, telling someone you are married to a girl from Split results in knowing nods and half smiles, that sort-of say, of course an American would be married to a Splićanka, indicating all kinds of (what I hope are) positive connotations about getting a girl from Split.

Still I wonder do these differences exist outside of our own perceptions or are they produced by our beliefs? Culture matters, but where does its accuracy fade into generalization? Are the eggs in Split really better than eggs in Zagreb? Or does our relative just believe they are better? Does it even matter?

I think the reasons this is especially challenging for an American is because the American project, is really one of assimilation. Given our history of immigration, it has to be. How else can you have Irish, Italian, French, and Prussians meeting and marrying each other? Meanwhile, here in Croatia these differences seemed to have endured for ages. Here, there exists a continuity between people and place that can go back hundreds or even thousands of years. I remember one friend from Split telling me that his great-great-great someone came to Klis (US readers, this is a fortress above the city) as an Uskok in the 16th Century and fought the Turks. Then, apparently stuck around, as did his kids, and his kids’ kids and... OK, you get the idea. Even if an American can trace her roots back to the colonial period, her ancestors certainly didn’t stay put, they got up and went West to someplace like... OKLAHOMA (Ha-ha! You blew it! They should have stayed in Boston!).

I feel like there exists in Croatia such a connection with place that helps each place’s individual identity endure. This longevity then maintains the differences, or at least the idea of the differences, whether they are truly real or illusory. In America its different, because we are from everywhere its sometimes as if we aren’t from anywhere.




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