I seem to have been coming across a lot of references lately regarding “being Croatian”. Just lots of little comments and observations, and it got me to thinking about those things that we, the children and grandchildren of Croatian migrants, were raised with. The things that we regarded as perfectly normal, but the kind of things that might, from the outside looking in, seem strange, worrying, or plain hilarious.
Let’s start with food, (always a good place to start, in my opinion). As newcomers to Australia many inevitably made a lot from scratch. Most kids of my generation and older grew up with a decent vegie patch in either their own or their grandparents back yard. Much valuable playing/swing-set/pool/cricket space was dedicated to a garden boasting lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, strawberries, parsley, corn, beans, capsicum, zucchini, cabbage, cauliflower, and eggplant. Who needed grass to play on? Not us Croatian kids it would seem. There were also various fruit trees like figs, apples, figs, lemons, figs, mandarins, figs, olives, and figs. So when we did manage to eke out some space to have a game of cricket on Christmas Day not only did we have to watch out for windows, but heaven help us if so much as one leaf was disturbed on a fig tree or if the ball landed in the vegies. You better run because not only were they yelling instantly, but you can bet your Dad would be out with the wooden spoon in about twenty seconds. But more about wooden spoons later. Let’s stick to the food for a minute.
While we may not have known how fortunate we were having such an abundance of fresh fruit and vegies, we were left in no doubt about other things regarding our parents food habits. Like making their own sauerkraut and whole sour cabbage heads in the old plastic bins in the shed. Actually the whole neighbourhood was treated to that. Or on Fridays when we would get off the bus after school and feel like crying because we knew that the stinky-socks smell invading the street was thanks to Mum making bakalar for dinner (dried cod, Portuguese style). Or when the sour cabbage heads were turned into sarma rolls (cabbage leaves filled with mince and rice). Tasted delicious. Smelled awful.
Then there was the force feeding. After loading up their children’s plate with enough food to feed three ravenous men they wouldn’t let us leave the table until our plate was empty. Apparently Croatian children need about fives times the recommended daily intake of all other children. We tried crying, gagging, and pleading to be allowed to go, but to no avail. They liked to remind us that children were starving elsewhere in the world. Violence was threatened to ensure our compliance.
Which brings us to punishment. And oh how Croatian parents love punishment. I can honestly say I got very little of it (I was a good Croatian girl), but I didn’t know of one family when I was growing up that didn’t have a thin, long wooden branch (carefully selected from one of the beloved fig trees) either on top of the fridge or on a shelf somewhere. Yep, most commonly known as a shiba or a prut, it was the most feared item in every Croatian household where children resided. It was also joined by it’s relatives, the wooden spoon and Dad’s belt. Nothing made our legs quiver more than being called up and told to put your hand out, palm up. But at least that beat being told to turn around and drop your dacks.
It’s funny that we copped so much punishment because according to our parents and all their friends, Croatians are never wrong. If we lose a sporting match it’s the referee’s fault. If our politicians are exposed as being dishonest crooks it’s the media’s fault. But it seems that Croatian children are always to blame. Especially at other peoples houses, (“wait until you get home” spat out through clenched teeth). So children need wooden branches, adults are being conspired against. Of course.
Let’s not forget that while being kept busy disciplining wayward children and stinking out a whole suburb, Croatians are God fearing church going people. This is proven by the fact that they insist on having their house blessed EVERY Christmas. Apparently blessings expire after twelve months.
Growing up Croatian also means that your grandparents will actively encourage you to drink alcohol. Like, as soon as you can hold your head up. After all, they didn’t have any juice or cordial growing up and they turned out just fine. It also means that when those same grandparents give you your birthday present one of two things will happen. Either they will give you a card with some cash in it while telling your parents to buy you whatever you need, or they will give you a gift after first telling you what it is. Not much point wrapping it then. Not that you will like it much anyway. You asked for a playstation game? The new Star Wars one? Well, the best you may get is the LEGO Star Wars game. So suck it up. Being a Croatian child also means that you need outstanding translation skills as you will probably be needed as an interpreter for your parents at some stage. Don’t understand legal jargon? Why not? You go to school in this country don’t you?
It also seems that Croatian girls, much like pigs raised for slaughter, are raised to be good daughters-in-law. The boys? They are mostly raised to be good Mummy’s boys. I swear to you that when a twelve year old Croatian girl is being taught to clean the house she will be told “what will your future mother-in-law think of us if we haven’t taught you anything?”. Mother-in-law? WHAT mother-in-law? I’M TWELVE!
At some stage you will probably be sent to Croatian school, usually the local high school where they hold Croatian language classes on a Saturday morning. Five days of school is not enough for Croatian kids, Saturday is also required. And like all the grandparents will eagerly tell you, if your kids don’t speak Croatian then YOU HAVE FAILED AS A PARENT. Then there’s Croatian folk dancing, which is handy for the old social life when you’re fifteen and not allowed to go anywhere else. The traditional costumes won’t do anything for your love life, but it’s a chance to get out of the house, meet some boys, and hide in the dark smoking cigarettes.
But in all seriousness there is nothing like growing up Croatian when there is a big occasion. Lots of cousins, fun, music, and food. You can guarantee that someone will have a video camera. (My Uncle had one of the first ones that came out, in 1982. It recorded onto a VHS tape which hung from his shoulder. We called him channel seven news). Late nights, then falling asleep in the car on the way home.
But the best is when your parents have REALLY enjoyed the homemade wine, don’t pay you much mind, and you can really have fun.
With all those cousins.
And all those fig trees.
Game of Tarzan anyone?
P.S. Please feel free to share some of your stories about growing up Croatian, I would love to hear them!