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Friday, April 19, 2024
The Observer

’Ljubavi’: On the Croatian word for love

My favorite word is ljubavi. Pronounced "loo-buh-vee," ljubavi is the Croatian word for love and what my grandparents have always called me and my sister Ella. My Grandma and Grandpa immigrated to the United States in 1970 from the city of Rijeka, Croatia, and have lived down the street from me nearly my whole life. I spent most of my childhood at their home. A typical day at my grandparents included Grandma’s palačinke (crepes) for breakfast, walking us to and from the bus stop for school, savoring delicious homemade Croatian cooking for dinner, spending the afternoon reading, practicing math, spelling together and playing Club Penguin. For years, Ella and I even alternated nights to have a "sleepover" which consisted of wearing Grandma’s nightgowns and flajdas (robes) and "You Are My Sunshine" as a lullaby.Their home is often filled with the aroma of fresh chicken soup and dough waiting to be rolled into šurlice. My grandparents have always outdone themselves in preparing elaborate meals feeding everyone in sight. Common conversation starters in their home include, but are not limited to: "Can I make you palačinke?" and "Are you sure you’re not hungry?" I usually end up with a plate in front of me somehow. During meals, we laughed, shared stories and enjoyed being together. Ella and I devised a series of silly nicknames for my grandparents and playfully teased Grandpa’s (sometimes questionable) sense of fashion. However, they’ve instilled in us a loving sense of humor by generously returning the favor. In 2018, I visited Croatia with my grandparents. In Rijeka, Grandpa proudly exclaimed, while motioning over to a baroque yellow building, "This was where I first saw your Grandma at a ball and invited her to dance with me." They danced to "Strangers in the Night" by Frank Sinatra. We passed the quaint church where Nona and Nono Turcic were married, visited the elaborate Croatian gravesites of many ancestors, as well as the church where my Nona Dodic saw Mother Teresa.Grandpa recollected his childhood by showing us where his first picture was taken at age four and a half. He told us how he rode a non-saddled donkey, carrying two netted baskets of fish, along a five-kilometer journey from the shore to the market at around age six or seven. He also tended sheep as a boy. Grandma and Grandpa share memories of many long hugs upon each return, the first time they took my mother and uncle to Croatia and the most recent one: their own granddaughters.We traveled down the beautiful coast from Rijeka to Split and Dubrovnik, stopping along the way to visit relatives and relish in the beauty that surrounded us. Along the way, Grandma and Grandpa shared stories from their childhood and expressed gratitude for the opportunities my sister and I have in the United States. They said our experiences in the U.S. encouraged a strong work ethic, curiosity about the world and a willingness to try new things. My great-great grandparents only received locally-taught education up to first or second grade. My grandma’s father was taught how to read by her mother. My grandparents were the first generation in my family to receive college degrees. To me, they are living proof that education and hard work can create opportunities for success.My grandparents' tenacity and curiosity about a new way of life in the United States have inspired me to seek opportunities to learn about others' experiences and diverse ways of thought. However, I'll always appreciate my family’s humble origins. In a month, I’ll take my first solo trip to visit cousins in Croatia. I hope I'll return to visit cousins for years to come to share in laughter and camaraderie, just as I have with my Grandma and Grandpa.Today, most of my time is spent far away from their suburban Philadelphia home. But texts from my grandparents, full of Croatian terms of endearment and a combination of Grandma’s favorite heart emojis, convey the same sense of love I’ve been incredibly fortunate to experience all my life. I don’t know where the path ahead lies for me, but I know I’ll forever carry their love close to my heart anywhere I go. As sure as the sun will shine, I know they always eagerly welcome me back home with large embraces at the airport, along with my favorite foods waiting for me in the car. Grandma and Grandpa have always been my loudest and proudest supporters, cheering me on at every dance recital, violin concert, sporting activity ... and of course, always with a lot of "ljubavi."

Julia Warden


May 3

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.