Monday, October 26, 2009

Where I Come From

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Dear Readers, I have taken a small break from the food blogs to blog about my European trip. It is really for the benefit of my family, a sort of diary of the experience. I will get to the great food, I promise, there is much to talk about!

Have you ever asked someone where they are from? I usually answer Iowa. I grew up there, went to high school there, eventually transferred back to college there and got married. But in the last 45 years, I have lived a lot of places and just this year I discovered where I really come from. No discredit to Iowa, but would I be that different if I was raised in the same family but lived in New Mexico? I think not. I believe where I come from is relative to where my family comes from. I went and saw the roads and alleyways my great grandparents and grandparents walked. I drank water from the village spring and walked around the ancient cemeteries. I heard the languages they spoke, ate the food they knew and gazed at the landscapes they called home.

My mom's family came from Yugoslavia. I know, it really doesn't exist anymore, but it's what I have always known. Her Grandfather, Steve Miskin was a Serbian from Trebinje, which is now in Bosnia. Confused? Yea, me too. But I went to Trebinje with my Mom and Dad to see where Steve Miskin was born and raised and where he would have probably died and been buried if he didn't dream of a better life. Trebinje is a charming town just 18 miles over the mountains from Dubrovnik and the Adriatic Sea. There is no love loss between the Croatians in Dubrovnik and the Bosnians in Trebinje. The "last" war as it is often referred to there was deadly and ugly and the scars are still present. We went with another couple my parents met in Florida with the surname Miskin. Richard did a lot of research on his family, and prior to the mid 1700's the trail runs cold in England. He was fairly convinced that his family originated in Yugoslavia, so he and his wife Becky came on the Bosnian journey.

Steve Miskin although many years passed on has a great-nephew in Bosnia, Savo and his wife Jadranka, daughter Mirjana, and son Vladomir (Vlado). None of them speak English. Thankfully, there was another Miskin (by marriage) Miljana who translated the entire day for us.

Our Croatian driver dropped us off at the Platani Hotel in Trebinje and we met up with Miljana and had coffee. My favorite European experience is sitting outside on a beautiful day sipping coffee. What a great idea, no paper cups and hot sleeves for you to mindlessly drink as you drive around. Sitting and visiting, sipping incredibly strong coffee and perhaps smoking if you live in Bosnia. Apparently they don't have a surgeon general to tell them how bad it is for them. We enjoyed sitting outside in the large square canopied by the Platani trees, which are like our Sycamore trees.

When the rest of the family arrived we sat down to lunch inside the hotel. Of course it began with wine, then Bosnian Antipasti, fresh bread, and platters of meats. Sausages, veal, pork chops and chicken accompanied by a platter of salads, lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers and slaw like my Grandma made, cabbage, vinegar and oil, no mayo here. It was delicious. For dessert I ordered Baklava, which the Croatians were quick to tell me was a Muslim dessert. I always assumed it was Greek, we make a Serbian version called pita or burek, and whatever its origins, it was delicious! Now the real fun would begin!

We left the hotel on foot and across a large park where a farmer's market had been in the morning. The litter was unbelievable. There were trucks out cleaning up, but I know the Santa Monica Farmer's Market or Memphis Market doesn't look like that when it's over. But litter is very common all over Europe, very tragic. Miljana took us to her school where she teaches English. It was very inspiring and unfortunately the cost to send her books is high or I would empty my shelves of the kid's easy readers and send them on, as they are hungry to learn the language. Most of the signs in Bosnia are written in Cyrillic which is virtually impossible to decipher. I felt like an alien the entire day. We proceeded to the cars and I rode with Vlado and my parents. Typical post teenage boy, drives too fast with the music too loud (see previous post for video).

Our first stop was the monastery on top of the large hill in Trbinje. It has a new Orthodox church and a view that is spectacular (see the view at the beginning of this post). My great grandfather was Serbian Orthodox, as was my grandmother, but in DeKalb, IL there was not an Orthodox church and my Grandmother converted to Catholicism when she married. The church interior is gorgeous and the icons are very similar in every Orthodox church. There are many of St. Michael the Archangel (a personal favorite) and St. Stephen which is the patron of my family. I lit a candle for my own family thousands of miles away. We then went to Savo's store. It is a feed and construction type business and the small store has drinks, eggs ( not refrigerated) and food. We had a cold drink mingled with the locals and moved on. Vlado drove us to the family village along one lane roads in the thick brush of the country.

A hundred years ago, many families established their own "village", basically a cluster of homes with gardens, root cellars, vineyards, bee hives and crops. They could self sustain for the most part. Of course, those days are over, and our village has been bombed by missiles and is decaying. There is still an old gentleman living in the only standing structure with his lush garden and grapes rotting on the vine. It is amazing to think Steve Miskin was born and raised there, and that 20 years ago my mom visited relatives inside that home that the war destroyed.

The cemetery was down the road and was overgrown with 4 foot weeds, but the newer graves were covered with flowers and next to them were crosses that were hundreds of years old. We left this family village and Miljana took us to her village. Her husband was a Miskin and was very active in preserving the history of the family. He restored a small chapel in the cemetery where he was eventually buried and it is a tribute to him.

Miljana's village had an ominous warning tacked to a tree, a reminder of that war again, there are potentially land mines anywhere that hasn't been thoroughly swept. She lives in her country house on weekends and holidays from school. She also has a small house for her daughter in college, Anna and another small building is a replica of a home from the 1800's where she is putting in antiques to make it a museum. How nice to have this small compact neighborhood, but you had better like your only 4 neighbors!

By this time it is late and dark and we call our Croatian driver to meet us at the border. No one really wants to drive into the other's country after dark. Interesting dynamics. It was a great day. I learned so much about about the hardships and the drive it had to have taken to get on a boat and come to the U.S., leaving the comfortable surroundings your family had lived in for hundreds of years. I am grateful he came, but I am also grateful to know where I came from. Next, my dad's family story.


  1. thank you for sharing, we all should be so fortunate to go back to "where we come from"!

  2. I felt like I was there (again!)
    Great pics and even better commentary. Yaksi mush, as grandpa would say.

  3. what an incredible experience. I hope to be able to do that one day. Miss you guys!

  4. You know I never think about going to that region on vacation until I hear a story or see a picture and then am reminded of the history. Looks like you had a great time.