Ever since I can remember, I have wondered about my last name. It was more than a desire to understand what it meant and where it came from, I wanted to know the history behind it and how that impacted me. I remember asking my father about it as a child and all I ever was able to get from him was that he thought his family had emigrated from what was at the time that I had posed my question, the country of Yugoslavia.
As I am sure many know, “Yugoslavia” only existed as a somewhat cohesive unit when several states of the former Ottoman Empire were joined together in a kingdom following World War I. Then, after World War II, the king was deplaced and Yugoslavia became a socialist state headed by the dictator Josip Tito.
When Tito died in 1980, the country began to quickly unravel as the different factions began to move towards self-governance and independence. It was under this backdrop that I visited the country for the first time in 1986. I was studying in France and at the first opportunity (Christmas break) I grabbed my Eurail pass and headed to Yugoslavia. I visited all the major cities: Ljubljana (Slovenia), Zagreb (Croatia), Belgrade (Serbia), and Sarajevo (Bosnia).
Using my limited Russian (I had studied it for two and a half years) and the locals limited English, I was able to determine that I was likely Serbian and that my last name meant “rabbit hunter for the king” (at least that is what I think the soldier said who had checked my passport as we crossed the border on the way to Zagreb at 3:00 in the morning right before another pressed his Kalashnikov firmly against my forehead).
For the next few years, I proudly professed my Serbian heritage whenever given the chance (particularly to those who actually had heard of the region).
Then came Slobodan Milošević, a Serb who subjugated the region to years of war as one by one the former provinces declared their independence. Among other lowlights, he oversaw the senseless bombing of Croatia and he was accused (but later acquitted) of the attempted genocide of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo.
I decided it was no longer all that “cool” to be Serbian and, still not knowing for sure where my family actually came from, I switched to being Croatian, which seemed much more hip and welcoming.
One of my biggest regrets during that trip so many years ago to the region, was that I never made it to the Croatian coast. In the decades since, I have longed to see Split, Dubrovnik, and the rest of the Dalmatian Coast (which has long since been rebuilt after the bombing). Last month, I finally got there as my family spent nearly a week in the wonderful town of Split.
Here are a few of the hundreds of pictures I took…
More on our trip to the “homeland” next week!