The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 7, 2002


Bittersweet memories shade brilliant Croatian landscapes

"Is it safe there?"

When I said I was going to Croatia, almost everyone in Carlisle asked me that question. My mother was celebrating her 50th reunion from the Teachers's College in Rijeka, and she invited me to join her on the trip. We would be gone for ten days, including Mother's Day, and, although I would be thousands of miles from my own children, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate it with my own mom.
New graduates gather for a class photo in 1952 (my mother Marucci stands in the second row, sixth from the left).

Back to the question at hand: yes, Croatia is safe. The country declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. A terrible war with other former Yugoslavian provinces ensued for a few years, but the fighting had effectively ended by 1994. The criminal trial of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague in recent months has revived the horrors and atrocities of the war, especially with respect to Bosnia; however, in Croatia things have been calm for many years. In fact, the country's currency has remained so stable in foreign exchange over the last eight years that the country is under consideration to join the European Economic Community.

Making the journey

There aren't any non-stop flights from Boston to Croatia. In the days the country was under Communist rule, such direct connect with America was anathema, and now in a more economically free environment, it hasn't proven cost-effective for any airline. So we flew to Trieste, Italy, and cousin Roberto, whom we promptly nicknamed "Nostromo" after Joseph Conrad's supremely capable hero, drove us to Croatia. We quickly passed through border crossings in and out of Slovenia, dined on roasted pork at an acclaimed roadside restaurant, and still had time to spare before catching the day's last ferry to the island of Cres.
A postcard view of Osor, my mother's hometown in Croatia.

We started our visit with a few days in Osor, my mom's picturesque hometown on Cres. Archeologists have uncovered one wall in Osor dating back to ancient Greece, and many building foundations and artifacts dating back to ancient Rome. In the 13

Education of a teacher

My mother, Marucci, was born in 1932 at the house numbered 75 Osor, or Ossero, as the town then belonged to Italy. She was the first daughter and second of five children. My great-grandfather Giovanni Mavrovic had presented an impressive stone house to his daughter Maria on the day of her marriage. The massive four-foot-thick stone walls date back 500 years, and the iron bars on the ground-floor windows harken back to the time of pirates. Maria had earned the respect and support of her parents after years of hard work on the family's dairy farm. Married to a ship captain named Tony, she continued working on the farm (especially when her husband was away at sea), and fashioned sheep cheese all her life. Marucci helped with the farm chores, especially during the grape harvest, but her parents made sure she had time to attend the Italian school and take lessons in sewing.

WWII was a terrible time of famine and fear. First Italian Fascists ruled the town, and then the retreating Germans. Americans began bombing the Osor bridge in 1944. The townspeople evacuated the town for hillside villages. When the 13-year-old Marucci returned in 1945, she found the ceiling in the bedroom had a huge hole in it. She awoke the next morning to find a rare snowfall had left a thin white blanket. In the post-war reconstruction, Yugoslavia took dominion of formerly Italian lands including Osor, the surrounding Adriatic Islands, and the Istrian peninsula below Trieste.

Marucci attended a Yugoslavian school where teachers used the Serbo-Croatian language. In the lands that would subsequently become Croatia, people used the Latin alphabet. In the lands that would become Serbia, people used the Cyrillic language. When spoken, the language can be understood by either faction; however, the various areas used their preferred alphabet. Provinces spoke the same language but they wrote it differently, only one small example of the cultural divide.

Marucci had a passion for archeology, and worked at the local museum. She loved sports, singing and especially dancingbut she decided to become a teacher. There were no colleges on the island, so she went to Pula, and then to Rijeka where she graduated from the Teacher's College in 1952.

Committing a crime of prayer

Fifty years later, the gang gathered together again in the resort town of Opatija. Well, most everyone. Of a class of 62:

35 attended (all live in Croatia with the exception of my mother)

11 have died

7 are excused (ill or unable to travel)

9 decided not to attend.

Almost everyone enthusiastically greeted Marucci, who traveled the furthest, from Massachusetts. I quickly discovered my Mom was one of the popular crowd and had a reputation for breaking the rules. The class advisor, now in her 90s, notably greets Marucci coldly.

"We didn't like each other," whispered my mother. Later, she adds, "She gave me disciplinary action and reduced my behavioral grade for going to church." During the Communist regime, people were discouraged from putting their faith in anything but the state. Teachers were leaders to the youth, so they could not support any religion. My mother went to church sporadically and always on her own, but apparently somebody spotted her and reported the infraction. Without formal proof, Marucci was only disciplined. Another classmate was not as fortunate, and was expelled. Her name still appears on the class lists (the Communists were great list takers); however, she appears in the "decided not to attend" column.

I learn another thing about Marucci ­ she had earned a gymnastics scholarship to join the Yugoslavian national team training in Belgrade, the nation's capital, and in the heart of Serbia. "My father told me I couldn't go," my mom said. "He was afraid I'd never come back." So, instead, she returned to the island where she began teaching elementary school in a one-room classroom in the nearby town of Ustrine. The classroom size ranged between 17 to 24 students. For three years, six days a week, she taught grades four through six from 8 to 12 noon and grades one through six from 1 to 5 p.m.

Time to leave

The next year, my mother decided to leave for good, leaving behind the restrictive country she knew, for the possibility of freedom abroad. She had obtained a visa to study archeology in Italy, but her parents knew she wasn't planning to come back. She let her visa expire, and waited to immigrate to the United States, which she did in 1957. Officials posted her name on a "Wanted" list at town hall.

Marucci married an American, had three children of her own, and went back to school. She became a U.S. citizen. After earning Masters degrees in Education and Spanish, she taught for 20 years in the Boston public school system, where she worked with colleagues and children of all races, creeds, and beliefs. As an American she was able to visit her old hometown Osor again in 1970. She saw her mother Maria, but by this time her father Tony had died.

At the reunion, my mother's former classmates were aware that she had gone to America. Many congratulated her on her educational accomplishments; some abruptly inquired as to the size of her pension and assets. Several seemed puzzled that she hadn't returned to live in Croatia now that things had changed politically. They asked why she still preferred life in America. "People are tolerant," she answered simply. Americans recognize the country's great religious and political freedom, but perhaps it takes someone from the Balkans to appreciate the wonder in different types of people living together in peace.

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito