Sunday, 03 February 2013 14:17

Our family house on Hektorovićeva ulica was – and still is - blessed with several advantages. Apart from being well-built and having a large, beautiful garden, it was very close to the beaches at Firule and Bačvice, and Split’s main tennis club; it was quiet, but only a short walk from the old centre of town, the harbour, bus terminal and train station; and it gave easy access to one of the main roads leading out of town towards the rest of Dalmatia, Croatia and the world.

A prime asset for us was its proximity to one of the best restaurants in Split (so far as I’m concerned): Kod Bobana (at Boban’s). Hektorovićeva ulica is a very long road, so the walk to the restaurant at its other end sharpened the appetite, while the walk back helped the digestion and salved the conscience after what was invariably a wonderful feast. In my early years of going there, the restaurant consisted of a leafy outdoor space and an unpretentious indoor area, with the kitchen open to inspection on many sides to all comers. My uncle Kolja Carević, who was a health inspector, once visited unannounced when he and a group of friends were planning a reunion dinner there. He told me later that the kitchen was run to the highest standards of hygiene – always reassuring to know.

Much later on, responding to the more sophisticated tastes of modern Split diners, the restaurant was revamped with a stylish modern décor. But its most important assets, the good fresh food, fine cooking, and high standards of hygiene, remained unchanged, as did the warm welcome and the courteous, ever-helpful, unobtrusive service. When its owners dine there, quietly enjoying local specialties such as tripice (tripe), they are served without apparent special favour.

So Boban’s was the obvious choice when my sister Marija and I were planning a lunch celebrating what would have been our late mother’s 100th birthday, on 23rd June 2010. We were joined by our long-standing friends Davor, Vera and their son Hrvoje. It was a beautiful day, sunny, not too hot, perfect for sitting out under the trees over a leisurely meal. When I say leisurely, that’s not to say we were ever kept waiting, the service was timed to perfection to our needs.

At my suggestion, ever-loyal to Hvar, a bottle of Andro Tomić’s fine Plavac barrique was ordered from the wine list. I suffered a moment of doubt, surely it needed to breathe to be at its best. I shouldn’t have worried: our waiter did a fine job of decanting and aerating the wine so that it came out to perfection after a fascinating display of expert care. It’s a rare treat to find a true sommelier in a family-run restaurant, so we were well pleased and settled in to our chat, fuelled by family memories.

Our mother was a renowned beauty in her day, and indeed remained strikingly attractive well into her older age. Born in 1910 in Sušak, now part of Rijeka, she was formally christened Aurelia as ethnic names were not allowed at the time, but she was known all her life by her Croatian name, Zlata. Rijeka was then Hungary’s main port, but the majority language was Italian, so Mother’s birth certificate was written in Italian. The downside of this was that the document had to have an official translation for any bureaucratic dealings concerning property or passports in each new political permutation for the region. Born under Austro-Hungarian rule, Mother lived through the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats Slovenes (1918-1929), royalist Yugoslavia (1929-1945), the wartime Italian and German occupations of Dalmatia, the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia (1945-1963), the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1963-1991), surviving to see Croatia emerge into its current era as an independent Republic. If ever I’m tempted to explain the politics of our region to the uninitiated, I think of the political waves and upheavals which were the background to Mother’s life and I desist.

The upside of all those changes was that Mother was an expert linguist, as many Dalmatians are to this day. In her eighties, she was hospitalized in London, and I was surprised when her Italian doctor was translating the events of a ward round to her. He was surprised to find she could speak English fluently, if with a strong accent. “But her Italian is so good, I thought she couldn’t possibly know English as well!” Mother eyed me slightly sheepishly, but a defiant gleam denoted she’d enjoyed a fine piece of mischief leading her Italian friend up a garden path.

Mother’s best languages were her native Croatian and Brač dialect, followed by flawless German and Italian. She only learned to speak English when she escaped from then-Yugoslavia to London, aged 37, and her written English was stylish and close to perfect. She also had a good knowledge of French. She was a lady of many talents, a good pianist, strong swimmer and fearless water-skier.

Indeed, Mother was exceptionally courageous, and sometimes (often) reckless. Davor, whose own mother Gracijela was a lifelong best friend to ours, regaled us with some of his childhood memories from the Second World War. Mother and Gracijela’s sister Dora would defiantly hammer out a duet version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on her boudoir grand piano, while our oldest brother Saša would rush round the house fastening the shutters to prevent the Nazi soldiers billeted nearby from recognizing the BBC call-sign (the first five notes represented the Morse code for V - for Victory). Aged all of ten, Saša was much more aware of danger and potential untoward consequences than Mother ever was in the course of her long life.

As our celebration lunch progressed, our minds drifted over the halcyon days of the period between the world wars. Aurelia and Zlata mean ‘golden girl’, and Mother was born with a golden spoon in her mouth, her father and his brothers having gone from poverty to wealth through producing and trading wine and investing in property. Then in 1933 Zlata married Nenad, the man from the Grisogono ‘golden family’ – the original version of the surname was Greek: ‘Chrysogonos’. They and their friends had a charmed existence for those few years. Our father Nenad had his own yacht, ‘Morska Lastavica’ (‘Sea Swallow’), so sailing was a big part of their leisure time. Zlata had her super-sized powerful speedboat, ‘Torpedo’, behind which she or he water-skied with aplomb. While Nenad revelled in the skills of yacht racing, the speedboat was sometimes put to the test against the ferry between Split and Supetar: family legend has it that the ferry captain would gallantly slow down at the end to let Mother’s speedboat enter the harbour first.

The Split tennis clubs, (of which the present-day Firule club is not far from Boban’s restaurant), also featured large in their tales, and we recalled the time Father’s friend Ženi (Eugen) Šoštarić tried to impress our aunt Ksanta, Nenad’s sister, another renowned beauty, by flying a little airplane low over the courts where she was playing. But he’d forgotten he was trailing a drag-rope, which in those days stopped the plane on landing. It duly hooked the net up, fortunately causing no harm other than Ženi’s injured pride.

Our lunch gradually wound to a close with a sense of complete satisfaction on every count. The fun and wealth our parents had enjoyed ended with the Second World War. After that they faced a completely different lifestyle, which demanded – and brought out - new depths of personality and courage. Sitting in Boban’s on that early summer afternoon, enveloped in the welcoming, contented atmosphere, it was not hard to believe that the wheel had turned full circle, and our late parents were willing us to enjoy our homeland with our lifelong friends in the peace and harmony which are the region’s rightful inheritance.

Friday, 14 December 2012 22:24
April 1943, the family's last year together in Dalmatia
 
 

We are delighted to introduce Vivian Grisogono, member of one of Split's oldest noble families, to the Total Split team. Now leading a very active retirement on the island of Hvar, Vivian is a regular contributor to Total Hvar, and we are happy that she has decided to write an occasional column for Total Split. 
 
Welcome Vivian. 
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A Happy Return

My first impression of Split was rather unnerving. On the spur of the moment I'd decided to travel there from Athens, where I'd been playing in a tennis tournament. It was the 1960s, and I was an impecunious student of 19. I took a third class hard seat for the long train journey, then found my way to the family house on Firule.
 
The details of how I got there after 24 hours of gruelling travel escape me, but I vividly remember walking under the tall cypresses in the garden, opening the front door to the house and climbing the stairs to our flat. I was aware of eyes, inquisitive, knowing eyes; a door or two opening as I passed, then closing again. I was reminded of Dr. Zhivago coming home to find his mansion occupied by a multitude of strangers. On a much smaller scale, the same thing had happened to us. Our family house, purpose built by my mother's father Ivan Dubravčić to accommodate a few generations in spacious apartments, had been nationalized in 1959. My parents' flat on the first floor had been given, by chance, to one of their friends, otherwise the new occupants were strangers. The top floor had been divided to accommodate my grandmother and her oldest son Ivo in one flat, her younger son Dinko and his family in the other.
 
I knocked on the door, and Domina, the faithful family servant who had stayed on despite the new postwar Socialist order, opened it. She looked bemused, but like everyone else in the building, seemed to know immediately who I was. How so? Well, the bemusement was logical: the letter I had sent announcing my arrival had failed to arrive; this was my first visit to Split; communications between Socialist countries and émigrés in the West in those pre-internet days were limited; so no-one in Split had any particular reason to recognize me. When my letter finally arrived, quite some time after me, my uncle Ivo was convinced it had been opened on the way by the secret police. Such things happened in those days.
 
Why people seemed to know me is a little more complicated to explain. Perhaps I was recognizable through the most prominent feature inherited from my father's family, the Grisogono Nose. I arrived in Split feeling like an outsider who belongs on the inside. I was not a refugee myself, but shared the exile of my family; I was neither first-generation nor second-generation abroad, but somewhere in between; I didn't speak what should have been my mother tongue; I had met very few of my many relatives in Croatia. Yet everything in Split seemed familiar, despite being all new to me. Speaking no Croatian, I got by on Italian, although Domina's version of Venetian dialect sometimes floored me. My decision to visit Split was unplanned and taken in haste, but it was also the culmination of a dream which had unfolded throughout my childhood and early teens. As my parents were unable to return for fear of arrest, I had had to wait until I was confident travelling alone.
 
Croatia is a relatively small country with only 4,290,612 inhabitants as at the last census in 2011. Some estimates have it that there are as many Croatians living in the diaspora as in the homeland. It is certainly true that you can come across Croatians in farflung places like Tierra del Fuego, and in large numbers in Australia and New Zealand. Migration has been commonplace over many centuries, mostly for economic reasons.
 
My father Nenad Grisogono left during World War II: he took part in the defence of Split under Partisan command in 1943, when the Nazi forces invaded Dalmatia after the fall of Italy. When the defence failed after two weeks' fighting, my father and his friends knew that both the Nazis and the Partisans were likely to kill them, so they found a suitable boat in Split and sailed clandestinely for Bari in Italy, where my father joined the British Army with the rank of Captain. His prudence in fleeing was justified: Nazi soldiers came to arrest him on the night he left, and there were several close shaves with Partisans under orders to kill him and his friends while they were negotiating their way out of then-Yugoslav territorial waters.
Reunion in Trieste

At the end of World War II the Communists came to power, and my father, by then in London, realized he could not return safely. Following the death of her firstborn, Saša, in 1947, my mother Zlata fled the country on her own to join my father. She went over to Šolta, hid in a church overnight and was taken by boat to Italy, from where she went on to London, where I was born the following year. A happy accident, she assured me later, but I imagine my arrival must have added an intolerable financial and emotional burden to a difficult situation. Refugees didn't receive handouts in those days, and my father had to find such work as he could, because his Croatian qualification as a lawyer was not valid in the UK. And there was still the problem of how to get my brother and sister out past then-Yugoslavia's closed borders.
 
Their Great Escape took place in 1949. My grandfather Prvislav (Grisogono) was in charge. At the age of 70, he trained for the escape by putting 11-year-old Branko on his shoulders and running up and down the beach at Firule, pretending it was all a good game. When the appointed date came, Prvislav, his daughter Ksenija, the children Branko and Marija, and a couple of friends took the train to Istria on the pretext of going on holiday. They left the train before the border stop, and met their two hired guides in a graveyard at midnight. They then walked for two nights, hiding during the day. There were unexpected dramas: Marija, tetchy in the aftermath of chicken-pox, refused to remove her hair ribbons, despite the guides' fears that their luminosity would be picked up by the border searchlights. Ksenija solved the problem by carrying Marija, hiding the ribbons in her hands. Happily, they reached the safety of Trieste at about 3am on the second night, crossing the border into the American Sector during a change of guards on the Yugoslav side. The Americans gave them blankets and food. When he heard the news, our father flew out to meet them and arrange papers for their transfer to England, having obtained a special permit to enter Trieste beforehand.
The rubber stamps which brought my brother to England in 1949.
Illegal escapes from Communist countries were both costly and risky, and those early postwar years in the UK were extremely difficult for my family. The light which shone in the background of current miseries was the talk of how life had been in prewar Dalmatia. It was probably every Croatian exile's dream to return home. I was brought up with visions of this sunny beautiful place, and on festive family occasions we would enjoy Croatian songs or carols, as well as 'Lijepa naša Domovina', the Croatian anthem which was of course banned at the time in our homeland.
 
Coming to Split on that first occasion all those years ago seemed like a homecoming to me, even though it was my first time and my stay was short. My long-term aim to live in Dalmatia seemed then like an unrealizable pipe-dream. As it turned out, the opportunity arose, and I took it. So I came back to my homeland, or perhaps I should say heartland, and have been extremely grateful ever since for the happy chain of circumstances which made my 'return' possible.