Saturday, November 03, 2007

Suicide makes me angry.

Really angry. As does unemployment.

They are similar really. Both waste talent and stop human beings reaching their full potential.

I have broadcasted about the economics of suicide. But when I wanted to write about it, the Sydney Morning Herald had doubts. It has been fairly well-established that just writing about the topic encourages it.

I feel rotten about the death of Charmaine Dragun, who I never knew.

This morning I read this absolutely beautiful piece she wrote about travelling to Croatia to gain a deeper understanding of her family's background.

Read this like me, and feel awful...

THIS is a copy of Charmaine Dragun's Perth Sunday times Magazine article on researching her Croatian roots.

Armed with a map and a few tantalising clues, Channel 10 newsreader CHARMAINE DRAGUN went cruising the islands of Croatia in search of her family history. Sunday Times Magazine went along for the ride.

Fierce lovers often declare "When you know, you just know". And for me, this was love at first sight. My breath caught as we stepped on to the tarmac and gazed out on Croatia for the first time.

Accompanied by the other love of my life, photographer Simon Struthers, I headed off into the dusky landscape where mountains buried in clouds melt into the sea, and a blood orange sun lights the sky. It was a sumptuous sight and I heard myself asking: "So, why did my family leave here again?"

Well, war, gloomy job prospects and communism provided a few compelling reasons. After all, man cannot live on beauty alone. Still, it must have been awful to say goodbye to all this forever. And that they did, swapping one island for another, to try their luck in Australia.

Like so many of their countrymen and millions of others from around the world, they helped shape our land into the nation it is today: a rich brew of migrant cultures and influences.

But what was life like for them back in their mother country? And what did they leave behind? These were our thoughts as we started a family road trip with two other members of the Dragun clan, my aunt Pamela and uncle Tony, to uncover the path of our ancestors.

Before this adventure began we were ashamed to admit we knew little about my grandfather's past. Dad's father had always been a man of few words, and took most of the stories of his family and youth with him to the grave. So where does one begin the task of tracing a line of family history when you haven't a shred of information and are about to enter a foreign country?

Well, I started where anyone else who can't speak a word of the language would start: the local tourist office. As luck would have it, I was directed to an official who happened to be a

fellow Aussie. And not just any expat mind you, but one from Perth. It was a connection which made her eager to help.

After sifting through old records and exhausting her island contacts, not only did she pinpoint the tiny peasant village my ancestors came from, she also discovered that their 300 year old family home was still standing. And we still had relatives we didn't know about on the island.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, my uncle had been mining as much information as he could from distant cousins and old friends of the family. It was a 90 something man who provided the missing branches of our family tree, and managed to get a message through to our newfound cousins, alerting them to our plans.

We were making terrific progress, but none of us were prepared for what would come next.

Our first stop was Dubrovnik, the dreamy medieval city that until recently was whispered to be Europe's best kept holiday secret. Too many people must have let slip about the old world allure of this town that looks out over a coastal wonderland because, even before the summer peak, it resembled a tourist mecca, with swarms of photo hungry snappers cramming inside the ancient walls.

Despite the crowds and the merciless bombings it endured during the Balkans conflict, Dubrovnik retains all its charm. The sheer romance of the place had us expecting to see James Bond and his Aston Martin fly around the corner and sweep us off our feet.

Tearing ourselves away, we followed the coastline along the "Croatian Riviera", a stretch of winding cliffs and pristine pebble beaches every bit as spectacular as its famous namesake, only without the Gucci clad glamour set.

When we hit a small port town, we drove our car on to a ferry and headed towards a hazy blue island looming in the distance: Brac, the home of our ancestors.

On the way over we tried to temper our excitement with sensible warnings of how we shouldn't go getting our hopes up. After all, how emotional could a meeting between complete strangers possibly be? We had no idea whether our arrival would rate even a ripple on their side of the family but, to us, this was a pivotal afternoon.

Of course, it wouldn't be a true family road trip without getting hopelessly lost along the way, and that's what happened as we tried to make our way to the house where our cousins lived.

It was after 9pm by the time we lobbed on their doorstep and looked up to see an older couple finishing their dinner on the balcony. The sound of the doorbell startled them, and we realised with horror that our arrival time must have been lost in translation.

But the pair didn't skip a beat. They flung open the door and spread out their arms, wrapping us in the kind of embraces usually reserved for long lost children and old friends.

What followed was a night of laughs, chatter and mountains of food a winning combination in any culture. In fine Slavic tradition, the plates just kept on coming, loaded with exquisite pastas, meats, cheeses and salads, all doused with a carefree helping of olive oil, and washed down with their own home bottled wine.

Their generosity was astounding. The more we protested, the more we were fed! There was the small issue of a language barrier to contend with they had indeed been expecting us the following day, but that only served to fuel the hilarity of the evening, as we tried to decipher some semblance of meaning from our broken codes.

When I said earlier I didn't speak a word of Croatian, I was underselling myself; I knew at least four or five words, and managed to weave them into every conversation we had. You would be amazed at how much you can communicate using just a handful of common words and the skills you learned as a child playing charades. I even found myself tossing in a few Italian phrases for good measure, much to the amusement of the rest of the table. How I wished I'd shown more interest when my late grandmother tried to teach us her native tongue. She'd be the one having a good chuckle now.

Our living links filled us in on their lives and those of their children and grandchildren, showing us photographs of cousins we were yet to meet, and sharing much loved memories of family members we'd never get to know.

There were countless cuddles which took me straight back to my grandmother's arms, as the vibrant matriarch, Marija, pressed her smooth, squishy cheek into mine and pinched me on the chin. I squirmed gleefully, just as I did as a youngster, and thought "This is what life and family are all about".

We were all humbled and blessed to be experiencing it. Just as we were preparing to find a hotel for the night, her husband, Ivo, produced a key and indicated that we were to stay in the village. It took us a while to register that he intended for us to sleep in the very same house where generations of our family members had called home. It turned out Ivo's parents had cared for my great grandmother after her husband died and her children had migrated to Australia. Then when she passed on, his family inherited the property.

It lay abandoned for more than four decades until Ivo and a small army of family and friends lovingly rebuilt it from the ruins and transformed it into a holiday villa. We followed him out, expressing disbelief at the turn of events.

The cottage was made of stone and stood between a church and a pub rather fitting for our family we thought. Situated on a hill, in the heart of a quaint but crumbling rural community, it was framed with pieces of the original home's facade, and finished off with traditional wooden green shutters. The painstaking effort and attention to detail that must have gone into restoring such an authentic residence has even been acknowledged by the Croatian Government, which has declared it a culturally protected monument.

It was a surreal feeling stepping inside the wrought iron gates and entering the grounds where my grandfather, great grandparents and scores of other family members had woken, worked and spent their days. Pouring glasses of red, we toasted those men and women as we surveyed the flawless renovation, and soaked up the ambience of a piece of living history.

When we turned to Ivo to offer to pay for our accommodation, the man shook his head solemnly, and with his hand on his heart, said in slow, sure English: "No. You my family."

The conviction with which he uttered those words brought tears to our eyes.

The next morning I woke early, determined to see the sun rise over the village like my ancestors might have done. Outside the door I encountered a donkey of all things, which made me laugh out loud at the different world I'd found myself in.

Making my way up a rocky track, wild hares bounded in front of me, while sheep grazed in small fields. On the main road I passed a man walking his goat, as a tractor rolled lazily into the settlement. It wasn't hard to imagine my grandfather and his siblings running amok on this land or helping their parents tend the crops, since many parts remain undeveloped and appear to have been largely untouched for decades.

Behind an old church was a modest cemetery, and that is where we encountered a remarkable twist of fate. We went there hoping to find the graves of my great grandparents, but while we recognised many of the surnames we couldn't find a single Dragun.

One other family was wandering through the burial ground and as they approached we noticed they were speaking with Australian accents. Striking up a conversation, we discovered they were also on holiday and had come here to visit the graves of their ancestors. One of the group, a grandfather from Sydney, asked who we were looking for, and when we replied he let out a gasp. "The Draguns! I knew the Draguns very well," he exclaimed.

He then motioned for us to follow him to a far corner of the cemetery where a large, unmarked tomb lay. "There," he said. "That is where your great grandparents and great aunt were laid to rest."

We stood in silence and tried to fathom how, in a small graveyard, in the middle of an island, on the other side of the world, we managed to cross paths with an Aussie who would lead us to our roots.

Like most of the men from our family, the former islander was a stonemason, and he took us on a tour of the cemetery, pointing out tombstones that our relatives had carved by hand and which are now regarded as significant historical relics.

He also painted a clearer picture of what life was like in Croatia during the last century when so many people decided to flee.

As we headed back to the villa, we were greeted by the next door neighbours who also turned out to be cousins. They welcomed us into their home and invited us to breakfast the next morning. But there was to be none of that toast or cereal business. We were treated to a lavish, continental spread.

After polishing off thick strips of prosciutto, along with olives, cheese and plump, burgundy cherries, we didn't think we could fit in another thing. That was until our hosts unveiled the sweetest dish of all: a pot of homemade fig jam, made from fruit plucked from a tree which my great grandmother planted 100 years ago.

To think her family is still enjoying the fruits of her labour.

More remnants of our family history popped up inside this cousin's house, which has been similarly restored to the villa. Antique furniture, dating back to the 1800s, formed gleaming showpieces throughout the home, while out the back was the original concrete base of our family's wine barrel, where, after much squishing and squelching by the kids, grape juice would have been poured in to ferment, to their father's special recipe.

Fine limestone carvings, also sculpted by our ancestors, adorned the walls, and on a door frame we were shown an early etching my grandfather is believed to have done while learning the family trade.

There's definitely something about retracing the steps of your ancestors and putting your shoes on the land where they once left their mark that leaves you with a higher insight into their lives. Learning about their struggles and triumphs can also be a good way of staying grounded in this modern world.

One story really hit home for my partner and me. We're pretty chuffed that we had managed to endure a long distance relationship for eight months. Well another set of great grandparents put us to shame. They were apart for 12 years while he worked on a new rail network in Australia, raising enough money to bring his young bride and their newborn daughter out here. There certainly wasn't the internet or mobile phones to keep them in touch. All she had was a handful of letters, which she had to rely on a neighbour to read to her because she was illiterate.

As we made our way to the plane that would take us home, I experienced a sudden sadness. We had only been in Croatia a week, but in that time we'd covered decades of ground and, from that moment on, I decided this would be an affair to be treasured and continued.