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DISPATCH: Rijeka, Croatia
May 23, 2002

Nine at night and children still play in the square below, with the drone of steady traffic down the boulevard. Birds do their chirping, tweeting thing in stiff leaves ten feet away, and I find myself with a blissful evening alone, the end of an eventful first week in Croatia. I must add: a bottle of Mike Grgich's mysterious Croatian Plavac Mali, Vrhunsko Vino Suho, Vinogorje Peljesac, 1999, is deliciously accompanying my small picnic dinner of local salami, spek and prosciutto, creamy and hard cheeses. In ritual fashion, I am wearing all the gorgeous old silver filigree jewelry I have purchased since my arrival, as rare and hard to find as the skinny teeth of a hen.

Although I landed in Zagreb and spent my first three impressionable days there, it and its exotic wonders, including my fast and fabulous new friend Mihaela, will be described in a later dispatch. Rijeka, and particularly Zlobin, were the motivating destinations for this journey, since the roots of my father grew here.

A very brief historical tee-up: my grandfather, Ivan (John) Kruzic, left Zlobin as a boy of eleven with his father in 1902, exactly 100 years ago, on a big ship bound for America. He never looked back, settled in Indiana, married a pretty British orphan, and sired nine children, one of whom was my father, George Francis Kruzick. And just now, nine years after my father's death, I have discovered the genesis of Daddy's accordion genes.

To backtrack a little, three days ago I was greeted at the Rijeka bus station by Radovan Tadej, a fascinating man I connected with on the Internet after only two lucky referrals from the search word "kruzick." He is a Rijekan lawyer, poet, former deputy mayor, twice-removed cousin and author of a small book titled "In Search of the Lost People of Zlobin," which traces the immigration patterns of the people from his, and my grandfather's, birthplace. That first afternoon in the pouring rain we drove to Zlobin for a quick peek at a picturebook village and a meeting with his parents, an astonishing and captivating couple in their late 80's. They offered me brandy, cheese, aged meat, good bread and quick laughter; I couldn't have dreamed up better ancestral neighbors.

That next day, Radovan had business to do in Porec, a village on the Istrian peninsula, and I was invited to come along for the afternoon. I shopped feverishly during his hour-long meeting and soon after we were driving through scenic, Tuscan-like landscapes toward the fortified hilltop Venetian village of Motovun. Even the grey drizzle of an over-saturated sky is dramatic in this 14th century atmosphere, and it was at the medieval Konoba Pod Voltun (pub under the vault) that we took an early dinner of gnocchi i tartuffe, enhanced by the famous Teran wine of the area, a peppery red with more gout de terroir than most. A surprise at the meal's end was a glass of Biska, an herbal brandy made primarily from mistletoe, healthy for heart and libido, though Radovan's happily married status kept it mutually theoretical and platonic. (More on this ironic phenomenon in my eventual Paris dispatch… oysters, oy.) I bought several small bottles of this heavenly elixir in the wine shop for more appropriate quaffing back home, along with jars of black truffles i vrganji, i samoinjoni, i olivio and all by themselves. The truffle dogs are busy in these rolling forested hills and the black market sells many of these Istrian fungi as prized Italian tartuffe.

Tuesday found me lunching with his successful sister-in-law, Marija, at the fancy Bonavia Hotel, a non-stop tasting meal of seafood and sumptuous meat mit vino. Her fluency in English gave me a fair impression of life here in Croatia for an unusual woman with a true sense of herself and a great deal of business savvy. She is the owner of a worldwide shipping company, an anomaly in the developing and struggling capitalism of this country, where most ordinary people feel angry and helpless and less than provided for by the changes in the system. More on this in the Zagreb dispatch.

That evening, dinner was at chez Radovan, where his charming wife, Nevenka, prepared a feast of lentil soup, local pasta and minced meat, along with irresistible fried sardine-like fish and a unique white wine from the island of Krk, called Zlatina. Afterwards, Radovan gave me a tour of the ancient village record book, ambitiously titled "The Position of Souls in Zlobin," with the first entry dated 1796, Toma Kruzic. He illustrated the family tree with photographs of long dead relatives, a fascinating tour de temps.

With little persuasion, Radovan then performed an animated reading of a few of his poems, written in an old Zlobin dialect, much to our delight. The wordplay was evident even to my American ears, though the subtle meanings did not survive the attempt at translation. Then, as a musical diversion, Radovan began to play the nijeh, a bizarre musical instrument made of the inner body of a young lamb that is inflated and played like a bagpipe, though it sounded more like several loud animals dying at once. I did take photos of this strange leather beast, and clearly understand why it has become obsolete.

Some trivia I learned about my family name: Kruzic is pronounced Krooshich in Croatia and means "little circle." Our family's nickname was vucici, the diminutive for "wolf," because they were hard workers and hard savers (I seem to have escaped this genetic predisposition). There are 125 entries for Kruzic in the Rijekan phone book. And from the dictionary: kruziti oko zemlje means to circle the earth, in astronomical terms; the kruzni proces is the transfer of heat from one container of liquid to another; and a kruznouste is an eel with a round mouth. I feel that a whole new dimension has been added to my identity: my name is a meaningful NOUN. My therapist will be pleased.

Wednesday morning, as penance/reward for the previous full day of eating, my mission was to climb the 538 steps that lead to Trsat Castle, high above the town of Rijeka. This I performed in homage to Captain Petar Kruzic, a distant relative who liberated the town of Senj in 1525 and defeated the Turkish army in Bosnia. He was buried in 1537 in Rijeka, minus his head, a common casualty during those bloody times. I visited the famous pilgrimage site of the church of Our Lady of Trsat and lit a candle for my mother, hopefully a healing gesture for her and my long-dead Grandpa, who was a tyrannical old father-in-law, a quality that caused great and ceaseless family ire.

That afternoon, Nevenka and Radovan picked me up at four o'clock for a sunlit revisit to Zlobin. We again drove by the house where Grandpa was born; down the road apiece we spotted some men standing outside a neighbor's home. Radovan must have told them that I liked the local folk singing for they were soon engaged in a thrilling a cappella rendition of a local ballad, hamming it up dramatically as I took photos. We shook hands and they were very pleased to meet the first American Kruzic to visit Zlobin.

Next we headed for the graveyard, and I took more photos as Radovan showed me where the family was buried, except for Grandpa who had died in his adopted home of Key West. It was all oddly unmoving and I was a little disappointed, since everyone had told me that this should be very emotional, to visit to the land of my grandfather, the source of a strong fourth of the blood running through my family tree. I'm usually very sensitive to poignant events like this and wondered what was missing. I soon found out.

We went to the porch of Lydija, Radovan's sister-in-law, and munched on assorted tidbits, downed with a little local firewater. A decision was made to drive to the nearby town of Fuzine to visit a pub or two. On the way, more relatives were sited. The car stopped and I saw a man on a porch across the road hoist an accordion. With a grin, he began to play. I opened the door and stood outside to listen. Like in a movie close-up, my chin quivered, tears swelled in my eyes, and I nearly choked on the proverbial lump in my throat. Something about the music was prompting meltdown. I slid back in my seat, gave Radovan one of those feigned brave smiles as if nothing had happened and off we drove, waving to the receding musician. I inhaled deeply, not wanting to plunge the evening into premature sentiment.

The first pub in Fuzine was a relatively chi-chi affair run by the recently deposed town mayor, whom we soon discovered was soothing her pain with a little too much alcohol. She provided some innocent but innuendo-laden entertainment practically in Juraj's lap, a neighbor who had come along with Radovan and me in the car. Nevenka and Lydija had driven with Oscar, another accordion-playing neighbor. I found myself starving and ordered the grilled mushrooms: a plate of the tastiest wild fungus I've ever eaten soon appeared, perfect with the local dark beer.

After an hour, we drove to another pub, closed because of the late hour. Before we were out of ear's reach, the owner, Nicola, was enthusiastically waving us back. He welcomed us into a large room walled in pine and we gathered round a big table for more drinks. I saw an accordion appear and I knew I was in trouble. Sure enough, after only a few chords and a little three-part harmony by the men, I was crying uncontrollably in my beer, hoping I couldn't be heard over the music. Soon, however, Lydija and Nevenka noticed, and after some attempts at consolation, both were sobbing as well. What a sight we women were, all laughing and crying while the men sang heartbreakingly beautiful Croatian folk songs in harmony that angels would envy. Eventually, we were all singing along, even me with my approximated Croatian - a few more layers that added to the richness.

I told Radovan in the car afterward, and he translated for Juraj, that the tears had come because my father had an unaccountable musical talent. As kids we used to hear him play piano, accordion, violin, and guitar, singing old country songs, completely untrained. And tsunami-like it hit me that this is where his skills had come from: Daddy had never been to Croatia - it was just in his blood. And even though he had been a career officer in the Navy, he often played and sang in bands, evidenced by more than a few old photos. It was just something he was compelled to do.

That night I found a visceral connection to the music of my ancestors that was completely unexpected and powerful. I won't be packing up and moving to Croatia, as beautiful as it is here, but now I have a unique experience and understanding of my father that I could never have gained in any other way. I wonder if he knew?

When Daddy died, I sold his vintage Italian accordion, since it was rotting of old age. His fiddle, though, sits atop my bookshelf back home, patiently waiting for some latent genetic unfurling of musical talent to pluck its strings. It's gathering dust, since the one time I played it, it sounded liked many loud animals dying at once.

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