I love cities, but I love the country even more. After several days of traipsing around the staggeringly beautiful cobblestone streets of Zagreb, climbing towers and exploring alleyways and drinking more kava (coffee) than what’s good for me, it was lovely to escape it all yesterday and spend a day visiting my relatives-through-marriage in the rural village of Laduč.
My father-in-law Stjepan left Laduč when he was only twenty-four, doing what so many young people do — seeking a better life elsewhere. He came to Mississauga, Ontario, and started a new life there that resulted in the birth of my wonderful husband. While working hard as a luthier and raising his two sons, he never had the chance to go back home until two years ago. Finally, after forty-two years away from his brothers, he came home for a visit. Sadly, one of his three brothers passed away just days before he arrived, so the reunion was a bittersweet mix of grief and joy.
After having heard so much about it, I was excited to go myself. Little did I expect a place of such tremendous beauty. The mountainous terrain, dotted with little red-tiled houses, chickens pecking in the dirt, neat rows of well-tended grape vines, the mist-covered hills of Slovenia with a real turreted castle rising above the trees in the distance, trees drooping with the ubiquitous šljiva, or blue plums, and fresh figs — it was utterly breathtaking.
The real fun started in the evening, though. Uncle Leno went outside and hollered across the hillside to his neighbour: “Stanko, come on over to play music with us!” Sure enough, as the plates were cleared from the table after a feast of barbecued meat and sausages, the musicians arrived. An accordion, violin, and guitar trio proceeded to play for three hours — song after song after song of wonderfully catchy traditional dances, Croatian love songs, songs of welcome to long-absent family members, songs of praise for Laduc and the greater region. Uncle Leno’s homemade wine flasks kept appearing on the table and the uncles made jokes about wringing out the glass to get every single drop.
What struck me most about their music was how much they love to play; their faces had permanent smiles, their eyes were full of joy as they threw back their heads and harmonized perfectly. These three men have been playing together since they were boys. Over forty years, they’ve lost Stjepan, my father-in-law, to Canada; he was their key bass player. More recently, it was the brother who died, also another bass player. They play together with a comfortable ease that few groups can ever acquire. Their music gave me goosebumps at times, and even brought tears to my eyes as I watched my husband connect with his cultural roots, after nine long years of not having visited.
It was one of those evenings that I never wanted to end, but the realities of two fussy, over-excited and sleep-deprived children forced us to bed before the uncles were even close to being done with their songs and wine flasks! After all, we had to deal with the realities of parenthood: not enough diapers and no contact solution for our spontaneous sleepover at their house. Nevertheless, it was a fabulous adventure. There’s nothing like a small-town, at-home, family experience to make a foreign country come alive. I now feel like I understand Stjepan much better, and I’m even more impressed by the sacrifice he made for the sake of his family and a better life if he left all this behind. It was a day I’ll never forget.