A dinner of door mouse (it tastes like chicken), nights on an ancient futon in a randomly finished attic, a bathroom door that won’t shut, an annoying barking dog next door, drunken neighbors, and a solid language barrier. Such was the glamour that faced Jennifer Wilson and her family when they took a break from their stressful American life to move for four months to the home of Jen’s great-grandparents, Mrkopalj, Croatia. The family went looking for family and adventure and found both. Comfort? Not so much, at least not in the usual sense of the word.
Wilson recognizes physical characteristics that tie her to the people she meets, especially the deep-set eyes so like her own. She eats the food she remembers her beloved Grandma Kate making, such as povitica, a sweet nut bread. She shares local beer with local drinkers, learns to garden the Mrkopalj way, finds old roots and builds new ones.
In this funny and insightful book, Wilson shows us life in Croatia in 2008, and defines what we mean by family. She meets blood relatives, but bonds with an assortment of delightful, maddening, and perplexing neighbors who welcome her, her husband, and their two young children, providing food, advice, and research help.
Initially, the kids, Sam and Zadie, miss their Iowa home and family, but when it is time to leave Mrkopalj, both mourn the loss of the community that embraced them as part of the tiny village where nothing much happens except at the local bar or the Catholic church. But to kids, that meant freedom to roam, to ride bikes on streets with few cars, to play games non-stop with the neighborhood kids, and to eat popsicles on hot afternoons.
Wilson takes us on the family’s journey, peeling the onion of Mrkopalj to find the layers of tears below. Depending on their age, residents survived World War I, II, and the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Many family members died, those who survived faced a life of trauma, the scars of which show in the men’s drinking, a sadness the falls over conversations, and the bad teeth from a lack of dental work and, possibly, bad water.
After months of searching for her past, Wilson recognizes her own good fortune in being the descendent of those who left. But she sees the strength and goodness of those who stayed behind. Past and present blur as her definition—and ours—of home and family expands.
— Pat Prijatel