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What’s in a Name? An Exploration of Identity in Serbia and Croatia

Ne razumem, I tell my grandmother. I don’t understand.

A familiar routine follows: I call my father long-distance from Serbia and ask him to translate for us.

“Nana is trying to tell me something; I can’t figure it out,” I say, frustrated with my brain’s inability to grasp a language I once imagined would be instinctive for me.

Born and raised in Yugoslavia, my father immigrated to the United States when he was 30 years old. Though he never spoke Serbian with my sister and I, in 2014 I still chose to move to Belgrade and live with his mother, who spoke almost no English at all. After months of lessons and stumbling through conversations, I still struggled to decipher most of what she was telling me.

“She’s saying that her family is from a town outside of Dubrovnik,” Dad explains. I was deeply confused. “I thought they were from Valjevo,” I said. “Well, not originally,” he explained.

botic_natgeo_family-portrait-2
My great-grandmother Sava with her children in Valjevo.

There I was: thousands of miles from home, with a total of zero English-speaking relatives, trying to connect with the place where my family originated from… only to find out that I wasn’t even in the right country!

Of course, to anyone familiar with the Balkans, and especially former-Yugoslavia, this story is a common one. Identifying as Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, or Montenegrin may actually have nothing to do with where you grew up. Or where your parents grew up. Or where your grandparents came from… originally.

That’s why, to my father, this was not a big deal. Not even worth mentioning before my 24th year of life when someone else brought it up. But to me, this was a revelation that sparked a deep questioning of the complex relationship between identity and geography.

Left: My sister and I in matching Blossom attire with our Deda (grandfather); Right: My grandmother Vinka, who is currently 94 years old.
Left: My sister and me in matching Blossom attire with our Deda (grandfather); Right: My grandmother Vinka, who is currently 94 years old.

Like most people who surround me in this age of disposable technology, where we are bombarded daily with massive floods of information, I desire a more cohesive view of myself. A clear identity. A grounding history. A fully understood image.

Basically, I would like a story with a beginning, middle, and end — in that order, please.

But identity is not so simple. And when we will it to be so, at the very least we miss out on understanding massive parts of ourselves and one another.

It just so happens that the question of self and other has been reckoned with over and over again for centuries in this region. This includes several wars that happened during my lifetime. Now, as refugees traverse, or are contained by, these physical and political boundaries, a new era of questioning begins to emerge. What does it mean to be Serbian if your family originated outside of Serbia’s borders? What does it mean to be Croatian if the country’s perimeter is open, porous, or sealed shut?

botic_natgeo_yugoslavia_map
A (version of a) map of former-Yugoslavia.

I am spending the next nine months exploring identity in Serbia and Croatia to delve into these issues and (hopefully) find some answers, for myself and for you. I will document my family’s history of migration, stories of internal displacement within former-Yugoslavia, and the current refugee crisis in an effort to understand their complexity and relation to one another, rather than further essentializing them.

These stories are part of a much larger global narrative. The questions facing Serbia and Croatia at this moment of history are not so different from those facing us as Americans. The current refugee crisis has brought the United States, members of the EU, and many other nations to a critical place in which they must choose between continuing their perceived historic narrative, and oftentimes mythology, that defines their national identity, or accepting the reality of rapidly changing cultural landscapes and increasingly globalized populations. Perhaps we can begin by recognizing that our own personal histories are more complicated than they appear.

Join me on this adventure @christianabotic on Instagram and sign up for my newsletter.

 

My name is Christiana Botic and I am a documentary photographer and filmmaker as well as a 2016-2017 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow. I will be spending 9 months in Serbia and Croatia exploring the complex relationship between geography and identity in the region through still and moving images. This project was born out of my desire to understand the place where my father emigrated from, as well as my family’s history of migration throughout former-Yugoslavia. It has grown into a more expansive look at how the movement of peoples impacts the modern cultural landscapes of this region. Before beginning this adventure, I was working as a freelance filmmaker, photographer, and writer (in addition to a handful of ever-humbling jobs) in New Orleans. Follow along @christianabotic on Instagram or via my newsletter.

Comments

  1. Daniel Reinhardt
    Cisco Illinois USA
    October 14, 2:29 pm

    Great topic to explore and study! I have been perplexed with this part of the world since the 90s. For instance Serbian word for cross is “krst” and Croatian word for cross is “kriz.” However there are both Serbs and Corats with the last name “Krstic.” Clearly the root of the last name is the cross (as Croatian dictionary does not contain word krst). If that is the case, and Croatian(s) is a separate language, culture, and identity…. shouldn’t all “Krstic” Croatians be “Krizic”? Makes me wonder if modern Croatians are descendants (through numerous invasions and influences) of ancient Serbs?

    • Christiana Botic
      October 14, 2:38 pm

      Also, before the breakup of Yugoslavia, what we now consider different languages were just different regional dialects. A Serbian person living in the Croatia region would use the same word as a Croatian person living in the Croatia region, and so on and so forth. Also within regions the language varied. I’ve been told Serbian spoken in Belgrade is more similar to Montenegrin than to Serbian spoken in Niš.

  2. Daniel Reinhardt
    Cisco Illinois USA
    October 14, 2:27 pm

    Great topic to study! I have been perplexed with this part of the world since the 90s. For instance Serbian word for cross is “krst” and Croatian word for cross is “kriz.” However there are both Serbs and Corats with the last name “Krstic.” Clearly the root of the last name is the cross (as Croatian dictionary does not contain word krst). If that is the case, and Croatian(s) is a separate language, culture, and identity…. shouldn’t all “Krstic” Croatians be “Krizic”? Makes me wonder if modern Croatians are descendants (through numerous invasions and influences) of ancient Serbs?

  3. Bojana Askovich
    Seattle, USA
    October 13, 4:06 am

    Kudos for getting Fulbright fellowship for your intriguing study!
    We need more people like you and Emma Fick (also from New Orleans) to write about Serbia and ties that connect people in the region. I hope you find lots of beauty, warmth, and lifelong relationships on your journey!

    • Christiana Botic
      October 13, 5:36 am

      Thank you. Also, I am a friend of Emma’s! She just finished her “Snippets of New Orleans” book which is similar to the book of illustrations she published about Serbia.

  4. Anthony
    Sydney, Australia
    October 13, 2:04 am

    I have embarked on a similar journey after my travels. I was raised a Catholic Croat and thought that was it. Travelling the former Yu you begin to see Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Venetian and Byzantine influences and it is all part of it. There were also others that lived there like Vlachs, Swabian Germans, Turks, Venetians who have now been absorbed into a religious identity that dictates the national identity. Peoples speech and costumes also reveal a much richer truth. This can change within only a few kilometres. The beauty and the tragedy of the Balkans is in its diversity. I hope you find the truth interesting and good luck.

  5. Xose
    Spain
    October 12, 11:32 pm

    Nice job Ms. Botic!

    P.S: Kosovo has been recognized as an independent state by 109 UN states (also by Malta, Taiwan, Cook Islands and Niue and not by Spain hehe…). Just a fact.

    • Christiana Botic
      October 13, 5:19 am

      I appreciate the facts, thank you. I hope my discoveries will be applicable beyond the scope of former-Yugoslavia. Spain, with its diversity of people, language, culture, and autonomous regions, is a perfect example of this.

  6. Jelena Batula
    Wilmington,DE
    October 12, 10:00 pm

    You go girl!
    My husband is from Croatia and I am from Serbia. Our children spend the entire summer traveling Balkan’s and are very confused with our origin.

  7. Mike Petrovic
    Canada
    October 12, 7:17 pm

    Agreed. The line separating Vojvodina and Kosovo from Serbia should be different (usually dashes) to indicate they are provinces of Serbia as recognized by the UN and a whole host of other internationally binding treaties. Regardless of what the US and it’s allies would like to believe.

    • Christiana Botic
      October 12, 8:45 pm

      Hi Mike! This particular map uses a lighter gray line (which is a bit hard to see I now realize) to denote two autonomous regions. Someone with a different perspective than you may believe the map is reducing Kosovo’s status by comparing it to Vojvodina. As a disclaimer, I did not design the map, I only personalized it with my handwriting. This was an artistic rather than political choice. I do hope to travel to Kosovo to document stories from people who have varying perspectives on this subject, and will continue to appreciate thoughtful comments on this topic down the road! Cheers.

  8. Slavica Ristic
    Scottsdale AZ USA
    October 12, 4:36 pm

    As a mother of two girls who left Yugoslavia as little (now 34 and 38), I will be very interested in following you on this journey. Good luck and all the best!
    Slavica Ristic
    Scottsdale AZ

  9. Darko Petrovic
    Wellington, NZ
    October 12, 4:31 pm

    Nice article, but the map suggests Vojvodina and Kosovo are separate republics, which theya re not. They are both autonomous provinces of Serbia 🙂

    • Christiana Botic
      October 12, 8:56 pm

      Hi Darko! Thanks for commenting about this. There are certainly different perspectives on the issue. It is hard to see, but the lines are done in a lighter shade of gray rather than the typical dotted border to indicate an autonomous region. This was not a political choice on my part, in either direction, but just one version of a map to give people who don’t know much about the geography of this region a quick look. I’m glad you brought it up though because it shows the complexity of and sensitivity surrounding borders here, a topic that I will continue to explore!