Vera and Paola Eledda oko božićnog drvca

This photograph of twins Vera and Paolo Eledda was taken in 1956. They are my first cousins once removed–the children of my great aunt, Darinka Martinčić Eledda. Since shortly after World War II they lived in Sardinia. I never met them but we recently corresponded. Relatives who are from the same branch of the Martinčić family on my maternal grandparents ancestral line influenced me in so many ways. Family and Christmas are foundations of Croatian culture. Familial roles and and religious traditions (mostly Roman Catholic) are well-defined if not always similarly practiced. In a country of 3.9 million it can seem like everyone is related to everyone else. Families are close-knit and spend a lot of time together especially during the Christmas holidays.

Map of the Croatians around the world. Darker areas show where there is a significant Croatian population.
Wikimedia Commons August 2022

Diaspora is a hallmark of our time. The largest Croatian disaspora is in the United States. Dr. Tado Jurić at Catholic University of Croatia writes passionately about reasons that more people with Croatian heritage reside outside of the Republic of Croatia–between 7 and 8 million scattered worldwide. The number of Croatians emigrating has steadily increased in the past 50 years. Even after gaining EU membership in 2013 Croatians continue to seek jobs and and build lives far from home. Last year in an attempt to draw people to live and stay in Croatia, the town of Legrad near the Hungarian border was offering to subsidize homes that cost 16 cents in return for buyers 15 year commitment to live there.

Family poses in ancestral home in Moščenićka Draga, c. 1950s. Mary Martinčić Scatena

Far flung family. Decreasing population. Increasing secularism. Mass tourism displacing locals. What does that mean for Croatia? Croatia’s diverse, beautiful biomes–mountains, sea, waterways, high meadows, wetlands and islands includes karst formations. Throughout Europe karst regions are protected by national governments. In a study of the Krka National Park and surroundings funded by Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, geographers Telbisz, Radeljak Kauffman and Bočić ask, How do natural settings influence population dynamics? Using a variety of methods they explore how karst formations impact demographics. Telbisz, Radeljak Kauffman and Bočić determine that elevation and proximity to water are two prominent factors linking karst, demographics and depopulation. Unlike historians such as Jurić who cite political corruption and the after effects of the war decade (1991-2001) as primary reasons for de-population, scientific research sheds light on the dynamics between inland and coastal areas as prime tourist destinations, and how National Park management may help stimulate economic and population growth while preserving delicate ecosystems.

 Bol, island of Brac (Dieter_G, Pixabay)

Islands are particularly vulnerable to economic downturns. An academic who lives and works in Chicago and Zagreb sums up the dilemma, ‘Those islands are under so much pressure to preserve heritage and to preserve nature. But also to be open to building up the economy. They’re talking about opening an airport on Hvar or Brač. It’s so horrible for the ecology. And do you really want more people? But there’s nothing else much there so do you let it happen? Gosh, that’s such a stressful thing for them. I guess they have to balance development with the reason people come, which is lack of development.’

For the past thirty years economic support, cross-cultural education, and environmental concerns have been the focus of Snažniji Zajedno-Stronger Together, an embassy-to- embassy program that coordinates efforts between the United States and Croatian. The diaspora has undoubtably contributed to the success of Snažniji-Zajedno and the leadership development programs though the U.S. Croatia Forum Initiative.

Last year in November 2021 Vukovar Water Tower became a member of the World Federation of Great Towers–a prestigious group of iconic towers including the Eiffel Tower and Empire State building. As ‘A symbol of Croatian unity’ the renovated Vukovar Water Tower retains bullet holes that tell the history of the turbulent 1990s. In 1988 historian Peter Alter visited the former Yugoslavia as a college undergraduate. Alter reminisced,  ‘Tito was definitely on the mind as a history major at the time. So I definitely remember that…It was definitely top-level consciousness.  But at the same time I had no inkling that there would be a multi-sided war.’ Peter went on to become a professional historian whose specialities are US cities and southeast Europe.

So the first time I went to Croatia I was five years old and it was 1996. So this was right after the war. We always went in the summer and my birthday is in September, so I was almost six years old. We flew into Germany and drove from Germany into Croatia—me, my dad, my mom and my brother who is five and a half years older. I have such vivid memories of that trip, specifically of us driving into Zagreb first. You know, this is a year after the war.  The war was still very fresh. As a young kid you don’t understand what’s going on, but I remember that in the hotel we stayed at in Zagreb I couldn’t sleep because I thought there was a dead soldier in the closet of the hotel room. 

Daniela Rogulj

In the area of sports, it has been said many times that Croatia ‘punches above its’ weight class.’ For such a small country to consistently produce sports superstars points to cohesiveness and sense of purpose that Croatian sportsmen and women, their coaches and families embody. During the World Cup in Qatar in November journalist Daniela Rogulj reported for several global news outlets. The excitement in Daniela’s voice reflects her background as a soccer player growing up in California and her love of Croatia. In the past ten years Daniela and her parents have returned to live in Dalmatia. Daniela’s behind the scenes insights gave examples of how supportive networks fuel success.

A sense of belonging is what binds us together–through birth families, communities we live in, national and global affiliations, relationships with animals and plants–our earth family. My wish for 2023 is that we recognize and appreciate our family wherever they may be in a rapidly changing world.

Selected Citations

Telbisz T, Radeljak Kaufmann P, Bočić N (2022) Inland-coastal demographic transformations in a karst area: a case study of the surroundings of Krka National Park (Croatia). Journal of Mountain Science 19(2).

Vukovar Water Tower: From Functionless Facility to World Class Attraction 13 November 2021 Croatia Week

Interviews with Peter Alter 25 October 2022 and Daniela Rogulj 1 August 2022 and Anonymous Academic 24 June 2022, Marie Scatena interviewer

Architectural Digest Jessica Cherner 15 July 2021 This Beautiful Croatian Town is Selling Homes for 16 cents Each

Colonization of Croatia and EU Member States? Visegrad Post 11 May 2020 Dr. Tado Jurić

Published by marielscatena

Curious about the ways place shapes experience. Grateful for people who share their time, hopes and dreams with me. Inspired by stories that bring light and love into the world.

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