Book: Running Away To Home (our family’s journey to croatia in search of who we are, where we came from and what really matters) by Jennifer Wilson (NEW October 2011)
Book: A Traveller’s History of Croatia (2010), by Benjamin Curtis
Winston Churchill said, “The Balkans produce more history than can be consumed locally.”
Croatia–the hot travel destination of the early 21st century. No wonder, with all those beautiful beaches, islands, ancient cities. But then again, Jennifer Wilson and her family travel to a different Croatia entirely. Running Away to Home: Our Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters is Wilson’s story of setting off with her husband, son Sam (9) and daughter Zadie (5) to discover the Crotia of her ancestors.
(And how about that subtitle? No need for synopsis, is there?) They go to the real Croatia of small village life, subsistence existence, simmering ancient feuds and endemic alcoholism. The one negative her friends all worry about–war–was ended several years ago when the Croatian-Serbian warfare finally ended and the former Yugoslavia was split up for good.
After a short solo reconnaissance trip, which is enough to make her flee in tears, but not enough to deter her from spending a year there with her family, Jennifer and her husband Jim take the family to her ancestral village, Mrkopalj.
Robert, the bar owner she met on the first trip, has promised her a remodeled apartment, but it is not ready, so the family settles in “temporarily” to the third floor of Robert’s house. Robert turns out to be a sometimes lovable rogue who drinks too much and lets other people solve the problems he creates. He may be undependable, but at least he speaks a little English and he is the Wilson family’s chief guide as they get acquainted with this little community and Jennifer tries to dig up information on the great-grandparents who lived here and the grandparents who came to America.
Jennifer struggles with her own high expectations and a guilt complex about what she has gotten her family into. However, Jim settles into becoming pals with the men of the village and the children, free of hovering parents, enjoy a freedom they have never known before.
I personally had some difficulty with Wilson’s writing style which seems to waver between comic self deprecation and serious attempts to understand the impact of history and geography on these people, who become, as the book progresses, truly HER people.
The book is strongest in portraying a whole village of interesting characters. Anyone who has ever lived in a small town will recognize some of the types. I got a good sense of the culture, and a bit of a feeling for how the landscape actually looks, including some brief trips to larger towns and the beach and the mountains. But I realized how little she conveys of the look of the place when I found some videos on You Tube of Mrkopalj. Imagine my surprise when I found a travel video, in Croatian, that includes an interview with Robert at his bar, Baca Stari, and with the tourism director, Cuculic who was Wilson’s nemisis. If someone who speaks Croatian can tell me what this video is saying, I’d be delighted, but what a treat to see the actual places and people discussed in the book.
My only complaint (aside from the slight cavil about her style) was that her portrayal of herself as hopelessly inept at a) learning the language; b) making friends; c) understanding geneaology; and d) most anything else she tried. I suspected she was exaggerating her difficulties in order to help the story along.
I am certainly not claiming that this family did not go through difficulties. The language is extremely difficult. The community alcoholism is a problem. Despite friendly overtures from neighbors, there were those who saw these “rich Americans” as fruit ripe for the picking. But no one as wimpy as Jennifer Wilson, the character in her own story, would have had the gumption to stubbornly stick it out.
I was even more convinced that she exaggerated her inability to cope when I read Mother of All Trips. Mara Gorman’s review of the book at Mother of All Trips focuses on the family aspect and the effect on the children. Then she interviews a thoughtful, intelligent Wilson who did not sound to me like the same person portrayed in Running Away to Home. Here’s a synopsis by the author at Road Trips for Families.
If you are planning a trip to Croatia or are at least curious about that country, this is a good entry for your travel library. I would also suggest the beautifully done A Traveller’s History of Croatia from Interlink Books. New in 2010, this book is up to date and manages to clarify a very confusing history.
Now let’s talk about what would appeal to you about this trip? Have you, or would you like to take your family to another country for several months or a year? Or do you have an urge to revisit the home town of your ancestors who migrated from another country?
We encourage buying at your independent book seller, however, if you are buying through Amazon and do so through one of the links here, A Traveler’s Library makes a few cents even though you pay no more. The top picture is from Flickr (click on the image to learn more), and the other two are from Jennifer Wilson’s webpage, taken by her husband Jim. Please do not copy those two pictures without permission. Thank you.