Exhausted and burned out from chasing the ever-elusive American dream, Jennifer Wilson and her husband Jim were desperately seeking a simpler, more connected life. Having lost half of their savings in the U.S. stock market crash in 2008, the timing seemed right to make some changes.
In the summer of 2009, Jennifer, Jim and their two children, Sam and Zadie, arrived in the Croatian mountain village of Mrkopalj to start over in the area where Jennifer’s great-grandparents had immigrated from 100 years ago. For several months they lived like locals, from milking the neighbor’s cows to eating roasted pig on a spit to seeking the village recipe for bootleg liquor. As the Wilson-Hoff family struggled to stay sane (and warm), what they found was much deeper and bigger than themselves.
We spoke with Jennifer about her newly-released book “Running Away to Home: One Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters“, which explores her sabbatical abroad and how it changed her family.
What motivated you to return to the country of your great-grandparents?
Three major events in our lives converged that propelled us to Mrkopalj. The last of my immigrant relatives. Sister Mary Paula Radosevic, passed away and I inherited her personal papers. In them, I read about this little mountain village tucked away in the northwest corner of Croatia. At that same time, the economy was unraveling, and then-candidate Barack Obama was telling us all we’d have to return to our Nation of Immigrants values to get back on track again. It struck me that my generation doesn’t even know what that means anymore. Lastly, my husband Jim and I were feeling disconnected from each other, and from our two little kids, Sam and Zadie. Mrkopalj, Croatia, this faraway place that seemed like it had been suspended in amber for the past 100 years, with its little gnome houses and wide meadows and forested mountains, became my obsession.
How did your family initially feel about the decision to move there?
Jim was feeling restless at work–he was at one of those places where you have to call the boss to prove you need a sick day, and he was barely ever home to see us–so he was pretty easy to talk into this project, though he’s the sensible one of the two of us. My son Sam didn’t particularly want to leave, but he knew he wasn’t old enough to stay home alone or anything. My daughter Zadie was just happy that we’d all be together and she wouldn’t have to be in daycare for a year. And she was by far the heartiest traveler for the entire journey.
What were some of the challenges of living in a rural place like Mrkopalj?
We lived in Mrkopalj through the summer and fall of 2009, leaving before the winter which could be really harsh. (We spent the winter in Istria, writing a draft of the book). At first, it was tough for the high-strung American mom to adjust to life in the really really really slow lane. Every time I’d pull out my datebook to make a time to interview someone about village history, they’d start laughing at the very idea of having a planner in Mrkopalj. “Just drop by, we’ll be here!” they’d laugh, and then go back to sitting on the stoop or weeding the garden. But there wasn’t really anything too difficult, just surprising. The kids were a little taken aback at eating sheep from a spit, and I was a little freaked out about the sheer amount of alcohol consumption–though my husband dug right into that part of the culture. It was like a party all day long! But the women were always working. Always, always.
Surprisingly there were few really tough parts about Mrkopalj. The people in the village stepped up with that amazing Croatian hospitality from almost the very beginning, teaching me old recipes, and always trying to help us with the language. They felt so bad that I’d lost so much family history that I didn’t even know who my great grandparents had been … they just couldn’t understand that this was a common thing in America.
What was it like to reconnect with your relatives?
You know what surprised me most? How much it meant to them that we’d come back to meet them and get to know them. I mean, we crossed an ocean to find out what our ancestors would have to teach us, and it was major. But they treated me like an honored guest, and wept to see we’d come back. I just couldn’t believe that. It meant so much to them. They just don’t want to be forgotten, and we don’t want to forget either.
Do you think this experience has changed the way your family now sees the world?
I think we’ve expanded our definition of family. We aren’t just a small unit here in Iowa. We have a village of 800 people in Croatia that feels just as much like family to us. We stay in touch with them. We love them. We are connected. As Americans, we can’t forget that we came from so many other countries. We are a Nation of Immigrants. We can’t forget that.
Would you recommend that others do the same?
That’s the best part about a travelogue–I did it so you don’t have to! You’ll experience the beauty and difficulty of such a journey in my book, all from the comfort of your favorite reading chair.
Now, if it’s your dream, yes, do it. But I don’t think it’s necessary to take a multi-month journey. Taking a visit of any length of time to the place where your family came from I think would move you to your core. Contact the tourism folks and let them know you’re coming, or look up connections on ancestry sites and see if you can get someone to meet you or help you on your journey. Try to connect before you get there, so someone will be waiting for you who can help guide you or give you some pointers. And feel free to contact me, too, on my website www.jennifer-wilson.com! I’m always glad to lend whatever insights I can — but the best ones are in the book, of course!
About the Author (Author Profile)
Suzanne Urpecz, creator and editor of The Hungarian Girl. Click on my About page for more info.