Monday 20 January 2014

Memories of my first trip to Istria

The first time I visited Istria was in 1979.

My parents had been living in Canada for over ten years by then, had become Canadian citizens, and during that time my older brother and I were born.

This trip would be the first time my parents were going back home for a visit since they had left. They hadn’t seen their family members for many years and for my brother and me, it would be the very first trip to the place of our parents’ birth where we would meet our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins for the first time. 

Before this trip, the only contact we had with family members in Istria was through letters, photographs and the rare telephone call. We had a collection of photographs my mother kept in a canvas bag of people I didn’t know. Many were black and white and the ones we received in letters were in colour. I remember picking out a wedding photo and asking my father whose wedding it was. “That’s my sister,” he told me, pointing to the bride. My father had a sister? This seemed strange to me. I studied the faces in the photograph with curiosity.

The closest contact I personally had with my faraway family members was through the gifts they would send to us, sometimes through the mail but more often in the suitcases of my parents’ friends and acquaintances. I had a set of children’s handkerchiefs my grandmother had sent me, decorated with hearts and cartoon-like drawings. I also had a purse an aunt had embroidered for me. These tokens were the only tangible things I had which revealed that there were people far away who cared about us.

My father with his family before my parents left for Canada

We travelled from Toronto to Zagreb on JAT Airlines. After a long and uncomfortable flight which seemed endless (for a child anyway) we arrived at Zagreb airport in the middle of the night. I remember a woman at the arrivals area calling out “Svi za Beograd!” (All for Belgrade) in a loud voice, over and over.

I next remember being on a train. When I woke up we had arrived in Pazin and it was still dark. My grandmother was at the door of the train as we disembarked. I knew her only from her photographs but even though it was the first time I was meeting her in person, somehow I already felt close to her.

Next we were at the house where my father was born (and at least four generations of his family before him). The whole family was there to greet us and I was meeting not only my grandparents, but also aunts, uncles and cousins who until then I had only known by name and from the photographs in my mother’s canvas bag.

Going back in time: the Zastava 750!
Istria was very different then. The roads were not paved and the cars were tiny. My grandparents did not have a phone, water was delivered by a truck and stored in a cistern, and there was a squat toilet in the barn. Though I came from a very different world, nothing seemed strange to me. As a child I accepted everything unconditionally and without question. I loved staying at my grandparents’ house and it would become the most idyllic place in the world for me. I loved being outdoors the whole day, feeding the chickens with my grandmother and accompanying my grandfather when he took the cows to the pond. I was delighted and fascinated by all the farm animals and enjoyed picking cherries, plums and figs from the many fruit trees. My grandfather carved tiny wooden toys for us: miniature farming tools like a sickle, a yoke, a basket, a rake, which we loved playing with.

We also spent a lot of time travelling all over Istria visiting my mother’s huge family. I remember the many emotional reunions, and travelling in buses with the doors wide open and the radio turned up loud, playing Rod Stewart's 'Do Ya Think I'm Sexy'.

We spent the whole summer in Istria and it was eventually time to go home and back to school. My grandmother started crying days before we were to leave. But she soon came to visit us in Canada, and four years after our first trip we returned to Istria for another long summer holiday. Then years later when I started travelling independently, I would visit my grandparents almost every year.

Since my first trip to Istria over 30 years ago, many things have changed, both political and economic, as well as social changes. The roads are now in excellent condition and the cars much bigger. There are fewer buses plying the roads though, and the train no longer runs from Zagreb to Pula via Pazin. My grandparents are no longer here. But my vivid childhood memories of my first trip to Istria remain.

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  1. Isabel, thanks so much for joining the "SundayTraveler, and for sharing your tales. Your post actually did make me a bit sad. I won't say that I cried a bit (which I totally didn't) because it would sound strange. Imagine your parents not seeing any of their family for over ten years.

  2. This is a great post! That's very cool that you got to experience Istria then and later. Love that you included that old photograph too. Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler this week :)

  3. I'm sure you didn't Frank ;-). But it wouldn't have been strange at all. This was a very personal and emotional post for me!

  4. Thanks for stopping by Southern Gypsy! I love old photographs and plan to publish a few more soon.

  5. Ohh I have goosebumps. I am so glad that you linked up this heartwarming post with us for #SundayTraveler. Although I have heard many stories with similar tales, I never really get over how people like your parents must of felt. Imagine the joy in his heart now, knowing you're 'home'.

  6. Aw great post! I love nostalgic personal posts like this and that photo just made it even better. It's always an interesting experience going back to your roots when you've grown up and lived in a different culture and country.

  7. Thanks SJ and Sammi. I guess it's hard to write about something about this without at least a hint of nostalgia.

  8. hello- let me introduce myself as your secret traveller, enjoyed all your blogs every time you poste new ones. being a software professional, working crazy schedules, did not stop me from craving for your blog. I am really happy for you, as i see you have always lived the way you dreamt. Happy travelling and all the best.

  9. Thank so much for your comment Madhu and for travelling with me for so long!

  10. Beautifully written post and amazing photos! Istria has been one of my favourite regions in Europe since I visited it, and it brought back many awesome memories reading this post! Glad to have connected via #SundayTraveler - safe travels!

  11. Thanks Travis! I'm glad to hear that you're an Istria fan.

  12. what a beautiful and moving post, Isabel. What precious memories. I am sure your parents had quite an adventure themselves when they left Croatia and all they knew and loved, and emigrated to Canada? do you know their story?

  13. Thanks Elisa! My parents' story is similar to those of many others who emigrated during that time.

  14. just stumbled across this blog and being born and raised in Australia , you have revived so many memories of my own experiences like going to live with my baba in Bosna for many months when I was only 4 and then at 7 and again at 13 visiting the relos from all over the country which is now Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia.
    I do envy you as I would love to live there as an adult .... but I am doing that thru your blogs. loving it!

  15. I'm glad my story resonates with you - thanks for sharing this. I hope you have to chance to visit your relatives soon!


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