Croatia and I have been circling each other for some time, a dance of circumstance and coincidence that finally culminated in a long-awaited rendezvous. The connection began when I was an undergraduate student in southern California. Two of my best friends during college were a pair of brothers from Croatia. With a Croat father, and an Oklahoman mother, the brothers grew up in Zagreb but also spent time stateside, and attended college in Los Angeles.
Our paths crossed via mutual interest in media. In my freshman year I signed-up to DJ a late night music and talk show on the campus radio station. Predictably titled “Night Owl,” we broadcasted from midnight to 2 AM once a week. It was there I met David, the older of the two brothers. David was majoring in television production, which meant most of his time on campus was spent in the opposite end of the communication building from myself and the other print journalism majors, but he also DJ-ed a music program that aired directly before my Night Owl shift.
I honestly don’t remember what, if anything, I knew about Croatia prior to meeting David. Over time I developed a fascination with the country, driven by my natural curiosity about a part of the world I had never seen, and sustained by the effervescent charisma of David and his brother Daniel. My fascination with the Croats and their homeland flourished through descriptions of life during the Croatian war of independence, the mischievous sharing of violently nationalist football chants, and especially over frequent meals of cheese burek at the Aroma café in west Los Angeles. In a media studies course I took in my senior year, students chose a country to focus on, elaborating on various aspects of their media ownership throughout the semester. I of course selected Croatia, mainly focusing on the state-controlled press during the Tudjman era.
Years later I had moved to Florida, got a job in a bookstore, and began dating a co-worker (my superior, even). About a year into our relationship, I traveled with her to meet her family over the Thanksgiving holiday. As I got to know her family, I eventually realized that this was a family of Croatian immigrants. Her grandfather was present that weekend, and he told me about how he emigrated from Croatia following the close of the Second World War. Her mother had grown up speaking Croatian in their home. We dined on Croatian sarma as part of the Thanksgiving feast, and the following month I rejoined the family to make Croatian breskvice cookies to send as Christmas presents. Alas, no burek!
Even more years after that, I married into this family of Croatian immigrants. My mother-in-law’s cousin, from the side of the family that had remained in Croatia, traveled from Zagreb to attend our wedding. Following the ceremony, on the eve of her return to Europe, we got to speak at length about her life and work in Croatia, the current political climate there, and my own history with and knowledge of the country (she seemed slightly embarrassed at the football chants my friends had taught me). I told her how intent I was on finally visiting Croatia, and teased out some possible research areas that I might explore to provide an opportunity for traveling there.
Merely half a year after this meeting, I was immersed in a research program studying urban development and city life through the perspective of media studies. Always on the lookout for conferences and journals geared toward this area of analysis, my interest was immediately piqued by a call for a special conference on urban media studies. And where was this conference on media and the city to be held: where else, but Zagreb, Croatia?