By magic and choice, I am in Karlovac, Croatia. Karlovac is both a city in central Europe and central to my life. This is the town where my great grandfather, Ignac Lilek, came from. I wanted to come here and to Ludbreg to learn more about my family.
There are about 15 people here helping me think of ways to find information on the Lilek family. Everywhere I go, I stop, sit down, tell people why I am here and they all point me to some church, priest, city hall, or archives. I attempt to find each place only to arrive when they are closed.
I phoned Mr. Miro who is very old and ‘knows everything’. He told me about a Draco Lilek born in 1933. Draco or maybe a relation to Dracula. Anyway, he was not home today.
The people I meet always ask me, “What are you looking for? Was suchen Sie?” Good thing I know German, since that seems to be the only language people speak here, besides Croatian.
What am I looking for? I have been getting annoyed when they ask me that, since I can say, well, I am looking for the town where my great-grandfather lived or I can say, I am looking for his house. But am I really? I came here searching for information about my family history, but deep down, I am really searching for more answers about me.
Magic has more to do with the rental car. There were not any cars left in Dubrovnik. As I walked to the laundromat one morning, I saw a Hertz sign. Stopped in only to be told, no cars. As I was frantically searching on kayak.com and using my logical brain to find a solution, a man walks in to rent a car to a family.
Marko asks me if I need a car and I told him how I wanted to drive north to do some research on my family and that I needed to return the car to Split. We make a deal and he asks me to meet him at the Biker Café the next morning. Sure. Hours later I am driving north, through Bosnia, in an old Fiat Punto.
The whole rental car situation is a great example of letting go of control. Just sometimes kayak.com does not have the solution and we have to rely on letting things work out. Was it just perfect timing that I ran into Marko? Maybe. Either way, part of my journey is to see what happens when I let go of control and the plan and so far things have worked out quite nicely. By the way, the name of his rental company was Pema. Means lotus flower and is a Buddhist name.
Back to Karlovac. I learned that there was a Lilek family name registered at the church in Zavrsje. It is near the town of Netretic, which I saw on a sign on my morning run and it was only 7 km or about 4 miles away. I decided to rent a bike from the hotel and ride to Netretic and find the city hall and the church and finally get my answers.
I was wrong. First of all, the hills here are killing my legs. After walking up and down at least 500 steps a day in Dubrovnik, my leg muscles are done. Anyway, I peddle and have a map. I can do it. We have turning points in life and sometimes a turning point can be a right or left turn. One is the correct way, the easy path. The other, well, not wrong, just a bit longer and wild. Seems to be the theme of my life now. I turn left.
A fine plan, if you are fit enough to ride Tour de France size hills. After a few choice words, running into chickens, and pushing my bike, I carry on. First stop is at a restaurant. I ask about where I am and where I need to go, since this clearly is not the right way. Again, German saved me and I also got that same dreaded question when I told them about Ignac Lilek. Was suchen Sie? Agh, quit asking me. I don’t know what I am looking for; I am just here looking for something.
The boyfriend of the one woman who speaks German comes over. “Hi, how you doing?”, he asks. Perfect English and here he lived in New Hampshire and just sold a house in Oregon. We talked about his choice to come back to Croatia and leave the US. He said, “We have to figure out where we are comfortable and not compare the two. Comparing two places that will never be the same will only cause grief.” He continues, “It does not matter if it is a $50,000 home or a $500,000 home, if you are not happy in it then who cares.”
He felt that a lot of Americans he met were focused on working and saving money for retirement and really did not have hobbies. There were people his age that retired and did not really know what to do to enjoy life. Maybe they had millions in the bank, but they missed out on living a life of pleasure by doing things they were passionate about each day. I told him about my life now and my decision to re-evaluate what is important to me.
A few years ago I had no idea what I liked to do and had to work on figuring out what moved me. It was not easy to slow down and sit in feelings and dig deep. It was easier just to work all the time and avoid such questions about how to enjoy life. Sure, having wine and food with friends, this was joyful for me. But what I wanted was to figure out who I was, what I liked to do with no one else deciding. Only then does this mean that I am doing something that I deeply desire. This is what brings moments of true bliss.
The group of four bought me a coffee and wrote down ideas for where to go next. Meanwhile this one woman was getting very excited and loud and insisted I was in the wrong village and that I needed to go to the church in Zavrsje. “That’s it!”, I said. “I know that my family name is registered at the church.” They tell me how to go and to always follow the river. All this time, there is a man sitting at the back table.
I leave and pray to the Mary statue on the side of the road to flatten all the hills that may come before me. Maybe I should have tried St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, because Mary was of no help.
After the first hill, I lost sight of the river to my left and was lost again. Shit. Oh, I see a very small yellow sign, Zavrsje. And strange, the man sitting at the back table. I also see him. He tries to help me and points me in the right direction and asks if I want a ride. My intuition says NO. My legs say YES, but I am polite and speak German and decline the ride. He said there is a big hill, but I told him I was fit enough to do it myself.
I proceed; he passes me in his car. I barely make it to the top of the hill and after pedaling through two mean dogs, I get to the first church in Zavrsje. And once again man at back table is standing there, pointing towards the church. I don’t like this at all.
There are two men working at the city hall, but they confirm the church records are not there and I should try the higher church…higher meaning more uphill on my bike. In pain, I pedal and push my bike to get to the highest church in the region. Guess who is there waiting for me? Correct, man at back table.
Man at back table is taking me around the church grounds and that includes the cemetery. I am thinking worse case scenario and that I really do not want to die at the church where my great-grandfather was a member. We are in the middle of nowhere, I am on a bike, this guy insists on showing me the way, and I have no clue who he is. Something is off.
I get on my bike and ride down the hill and he passes me again in his car. He knew I was trying to find Kolenovac to get back on track with the hotel map. So, after ten minutes on my bike, there he is again. Standing at the sign pointing to Kolenovac and he is waving hello to me and pointing left and showing me the way. Maybe he was guiding me and it was harmless. Maybe he was the reincarnation of Ignac. Maybe he was a serial killer. I will never know, but my intuition said pedal fast.
I thought, great, finally getting back to the town that is on the hotel’s bike map. Surely it is a larger town and I can get a taxi to take me back to the hotel. After seeing back table man, I pedal so fast up the hill and am happy to see houses. But there are only three houses. God, I just need a cab.
The first house I see, I stop. There is a woman working in the garden. I put my bike down and said “Dobar Dan.” She jumps, since I startled her. I apologized and her puppy came running to me and jumped on me, kissed me, it was so nice. I asked her for water so we went to her barn and I filled up my bottle. She went to get her husband, since he, of course, spoke German. His name is Dragutin.
Dragutin was really nice to me, they were both nice and I stayed for about 30 minutes and told them about Ignac, the church, the man at the back table and of course, Dragutin asked me, “Was suchen Sie?” This time I had an answer. My hotel, a taxi.
He said, “There are no taxis here.” He was so kind to take me to the hotel and my intuition was right on. He and his wife were very kind to me and when we got to the hotel, he told the woman at reception that he wanted to make sure I was safe. I bought him a beer and we said goodbye.
I will unlock Karlovac’s secret. Maybe tomorrow. Or the next day. Or maybe never.
The day I left, I sat in my normal breakfast place and looked out over the hills. There was the church, right in front of my eyes. I searched all over for this church and failed to see that it was in front of me the entire time.
The secret that I did unlock was that the answers to some of life’s biggest questions are right in front of us, or inside of us. I already know who I am and don’t have to look for it. We just need to sit still for a bit and go inside and we can find out anything we want.