Legacies Raising My Daughter to Be an Octopus Lover
“Hoba! Hoba!” my daughter screeches, using the short word for ‘hobotnica’—octopus in Croatian. My friend says, “She’s Croatian alright.”
We are in my Croatian hometown for summer vacation when a family friend shows up with a bottle of local red wine and a large pot full of octopus stew. “It’s very fresh,” she says with a smile. “I caught the octopus just a few days ago.”
After exchanging hugs and thank-yous, my husband, daughter, and I sit around the dark wooden table my dad built for this stone terrace. I grew up in this house, in a bay surrounded by pebbled beaches and the dark blues of the Adriatic Sea. Red-tiled rooftops emerge in between cypress, carob, and pine trees.
We open the steel pot and the seafood smell seeps into the warm summer afternoon air. Like many Mediterranean dishes, it relies on olive oil, garlic, and onions for the base. The octopus, tomatoes, and vegetables simmer until the sauce thickens and the seafood is tender, but not too soft.
I pour some stew in a bowl for my daughter. She is eighteen months old and has never tasted it before. I have no idea what to expect. She tries the potatoes and eggplant first, cringes, and spits them out. Then she starts downing the octopus tentacles with both hands. The thick, dark sauce drips down her white tank top with a picture of a ladybug, the pink swim diaper, and her bare, chunky legs. I have a hard time chopping the limbs and filling her dish fast enough.
“Hoba! Hoba!” she screeches with excitement, using the short word for ‘hobotnica,’ or octopus in Croatian.
My family friend says, “She’s Croatian alright.”
I smile at my daughter and pat her back with pride, but also feel a tinge of sadness. We are only here for vacation—we live in New York, an ocean away from my hometown and my friends’ octopus catches.
Three pairs of skinny, tanned legs sprint across a set of stone stairs, then plop down on the wooden dock below. My twin and I are six or seven, our sister four years older. We wear bathing suit bottoms, flip-flops, and Coppertone sunscreen. I have light brown hair, with a white trail of sea salt visible on the loose strands that escape onto my forehead.
Our dad squats beside us with a plastic bucket full of fish. He is tall, with dark curly hair and bushy eyebrows. The container mostly has gray mullets, with an occasional red snapper mixed in. Some are still alive, twisting and gasping their final breaths.
Dad grabs a fish, places it on top of a ripped plastic bag. He holds it firmly in place with his left hand, then takes a sharp knife in his right hand and scrapes it across, from tail to head. We learn to cut the fish open down the middle, pull the cavity apart with our little fingers, then scoop out the insides. With our tanned arms covered in fish scales, we chuck the bloody carcasses in the Adriatic Sea.
We live in Dubrovnik, a Croatian seaside town in Yugoslavia. Decades later, it will become famous to Americans as the set of King’s Landing in Game of Thrones . By then, Yugoslavia won’t exist anymore and it will take me a cross-Atlantic flight and then another flight to reach this place.
Here, history pulls you wherever you go—medieval walls embrace the Old Town, its stone fortresses oozing with pride and strength. The Croatian coast is speckled with islands where you can catch crabs on the rocks, spot red starfish on the bottom of the sea, or stroll on pathways covered in pine needles. Smells of cypress, lavender, and rosemary drift through the salty air.
As we gut the fish, tourists walking along a pedestrian path stop and stare at us with a mix of confusion and disgust. Mom looks on from the stone terrace above and smiles. I grin back, knowing I am making my parents proud.
I am taller than most of my eighth-grade classmates in Toronto. Unlike back home, most Canadian girls my age are already shaving their legs, which makes me even more aware that I’m the awkward foreigner who towers above others, looks different and talks weirdly. I’m embarrassed about my thick European accent—how I mix up “three” and “tree,” and how I don’t swallow the second T in “Toronto.” I don’t know the rules of intramural football or anything about hockey.
I find comfort in a morning ESL class, where I am just another newcomer mumbling her way through a new life. Among the misfits, I fit in. In the afternoons, I sit on the living room couch and watch hours of Full House and The Cosby Show in hopes of imitating the actors’ articulation.
It is hard enough to blend into this new teenage world without all the awkward things that come out of my mouth. I treat my Eastern European inflection as an infection—a virus I could fight off by taking in extra doses of the good stuff. By injecting myself with the smooth sounds of a native speaker’s words, I could defeat my poisonous foreign ones.
The language barrier doesn’t just make you stand out, it makes you lose parts of yourself. Your words, your confidence, your sense of humor—they evaporate. Every blunder makes you hunch your shoulders more, sink deeper into your seat. Each mocking laugh stops you from raising your hand, blocks a joke from leaving your mouth.
You make yourself invisible because there is comfort and safety in your accented words not being heard. Afraid of exposing yourself to ridicule, you become smaller, quieter, less important. You cope by fading away.
The language barrier doesn’t just make you stand out, it makes you lose parts of yourself.
I was thirteen when we arrived in Toronto after leaving Dubrovnik, as Yugoslavia was on the brink of civil war. My parents told me and my sisters that we’d come and stay for a year, until political tensions settled down. They picked Canada because that’s where we could get our papers. They chose Toronto because we know one person there—my uncle’s ex-wife.
When my Canadian classmates ask me where I am from, I say “Yugoslavia,” then “former Yugoslavia.” When that name vanishes from the atlas and my answers become outdated, I launch into a three-paragraph explanation about the Balkan conflict. I tell them that Croatia and Serbia and Slovenia and the other republics used to make up Yugoslavia. That we lived peacefully, until a toxic mix of ethno-nationalism fueled the civil war. That Yugoslavia dissolved in 1992 when it broke off into its former republics. That the name disappeared for good in 2003, when one of the countries it had split into was renamed.
My fellow teenagers roll their eyes, not expecting a simple question to lead to a depressing history lesson. But how do you answer “Where are you from?” when your country has perished?
At thirteen, I don’t see my nation’s death as the birth of my hyphenated identity or the beginning of my life as an immigrant. I simply want a one-word answer, like everyone else has, whether it is Toronto, Athens, or Mumbai. It will take years for me to have a one-word answer I feel comfortable with: Croatia.
As newcomers in Canada, my family navigates a new language and culture—and new seafood stores. For the first time in my life, I hear people complain about the smell of seafood. In supermarkets’ seafood sections, I overhear more than one person say, “Ugh, it smells so fishy,” their nose wrinkled and eyebrows furrowed. In this strange new country and continent, fishy is a bad thing.
Meanwhile, nothing is fishy enough for my parents. When they encounter fillets plopped on ice cubes or occupying the freezers, they cringe and leave in disgust.
“Why don’t fish have heads here?” I ask Dad while waiting in the grocery store’s checkout line.
“Fillets!” he grumbles. “I’m not buying a fish without a head or a tail.”
My parents find the Portuguese shop that sells the best sardines. It is a small family-run store in a market on the west side of Toronto, and Dad drives there to buy sardines and olive oil. He goes to a larger seafood store on the other side of the city for fresh salmon and Prince Edward Island oysters.
The Greek couple that runs the store greets him, “Good morning, captain!”
“Morning, what’s fresh today?”
Dad lowers his head to get a closer look, his thick eyebrows rising up as he examines each creature’s eyes. It is cold and sterile inside and smells like antiseptic. I prefer Croatia’s outdoor fish markets, where grandmas selling their goods wave their calloused hands while yelling and fighting over customers.
My parents never teach me how to grill a burger, but stress the finer points of shucking oysters. I learn to slide the tip of the knife to the base of the hinge, then wiggle the shell to release pressure. Dad, who travels across the world as a cargo ship captain, tells me where he keeps the oyster knife and gloves before leaving for his six-month shifts.
He gives me tips on how to select fish: Never buy a headless one, because you can’t check the eyes. The eyes must be clear, not blurry.
In the basement of my parents’ Toronto home, in the freezer, there is always an octopus or two, and fish heads for making soups and stews. “It’s for emergencies,” Mom says, rolling her R. In the basement, they also keep cedar planks Dad uses to grill salmon. It comes out soft and sweet, but I like Mom’s specialty even more: salmon in a creamy hazelnut sauce.
Throughout high school in Toronto, my sisters and I bring our Canadian boyfriends home. Each time, Dad asks the same question: “Does he like seafood?” To some parents, grades, financial stability and career ambitions are important factors for evaluating a child’s dating prospects. To my parents, affinity for seafood is the make-or-break test. Dad has a hard time keeping track of the Brians, Mikes, and Owens, but he remembers which one praised his black squid ink risotto, lobster stew, and grilled branzino.
The fish Croats serve is not disguised as fillets. Fish is not to come into contact with poisons like tartar or ketchup, and objects like fish sticks and popcorn shrimp are not a part of a Croatian’s vocabulary. Frying oysters or dousing them in sauces are criminal acts. When we eat fish, we suck out the insides of the head and chomp the crunchy tail before licking our fingers. A perfectly clean and intact fishbone is the only evidence we leave behind.
More than once, I come home to see live lobsters dancing in the kitchen sink, Dad’s six-foot-frame towering above them. During a particularly successful lobster season in Newfoundland, we eat lobster salad, lobster stew, and lobster pasta a few times a week.
“$4.99 a pound!” Dad says, as he removes rubber bands from a crustacean’s claws. “Cheaper than chicken!”
Mom is already setting the table, placing a lobster bib and pick on each plate.
Somewhere along the way of trying to lose my accent, I lose myself. While learning English, I shed pieces of my old self and language in order to assimilate. I’m not sure when it happens. It takes one move to become an immigrant, but years can pass before you discard bits of your heritage.
I don’t know when English becomes easier for me than Croatian. When a high school friend asks me “What language do you dream in?” I pause in silence, realizing I don’t know the answer. It is a gradual transition; layers of one language peeling away and getting replaced by words from another.
A Toronto-bound Air Canada flight marked the beginning of my immigration journey, but how do I pinpoint when one language becomes the dominant one? I simply know that at some point, I can access the English words faster, whereas Croatian ones demand more pauses and effort. When talking to my sisters and parents, I increasingly pepper my Croatian sentences with English words.
Mom starts writing the inaccurate expressions I blurt out in Croatian, like she did when I was a toddler learning to talk. I have forgotten how to say the simplest phrases— such as “take a photo”—and even the names of common flowers and spices, like daffodils and basil. When visiting Croatia for summer vacation, I feel like a foreigner in my home country. At a friend’s dinner, I ramble when he asks me about work and life in America, but I can’t recall how to say words like “nonprofit” and “election” in our mother tongue.
I don’t think about this much until years later, when I have a toddler learning to talk.
As I watch my daughter suck her octopus-covered fingers that afternoon during our Croatian vacation, I feel relief—she passed a key Croatian test. But as a parent, I worry. I am raising her in the United States’ biggest city, a continent away from home.
I didn’t grasp how disconnected I got from my roots until I became a parent. Motherhood gripped me with its swings of joy and fear, pain and affection. And it left me with a heavy weight of responsibility: It was up to me to pass on my language and culture to the next generation.
My husband is American and does not speak Croatian, except for the swear phrases he picked up early in our relationship. (He passed Dad’s seafood test, but draws the line at raw oysters). The nearest Croatian relative I have and the only one in the US is my twin sister, who lives more than two hours away, in Pennsylvania; my parents and older sister are in Toronto.
I want to pass on my heritage to my only child so she can communicate in our language with my parents and relatives back home, some of whom don’t speak English. I want her to travel to Croatia and not feel like an awkward tourist that locals make fun of. I don’t want her to be that outsider with an accent, like I was in Toronto. I want my daughter to feel and smell and taste where I come from—and where she comes from too.
I want my daughter to feel and smell and taste where I come from—and where she comes from too.
I know this can’t just happen during yearly vacations in Croatia or Christmas trips to Toronto, where Dad makes his lobster stews and Mom serves salmon in her hazelnut sauce. When my parents see their granddaughter enjoying their dishes across the wooden kitchen table, they beam with pride, like they did watching me gross out tourists on that dock.
“She wouldn’t stop eating my octopus!” Dad recently bragged to one of his buddies over Skype.
But I feel guilty about not doing a better job of immersing my daughter in all-things Croatian. How can I make sure she knows my language if so much of my vocabulary has disappeared? How can I teach my little New Yorker about Croatia if I’m not Croatian enough?
At this point, I’ve lived in North America for nearly three decades—twice as long as I’ve lived in Croatia. My husband, daughter, and I do plenty of New York stuff—the two of us watch Saturday Night Live and she goes to pajama parties at the New York Kids Club down the street. On Friday nights, we sometimes order from Bareburger.
But I recently started making regular visits to the EuroMarket store a couple of miles away to buy Balkan goodies, like kajmak homemade cheese and canned sardines. My daughter’s love for seafood has motivated me to make it more often. It’s nowhere near as good as my parents’, but when I bake branzino in white wine, garlic, and olive oil, it smells like home.
A fishy smell is gross to many Canadians and Americans, but to me, it’s swimming with my sisters, helping Mom lug groceries from the fresh-air markets, fishing with Dad from the wooden dock. Seafood is my pleasure and comfort, my country’s mac and cheese. It’s returning to a childhood cut off by war and reclaiming my identity before it became hyphenated.
I live in the land of fish sticks and popcorn shrimp, but when it comes to seafood, I will not compromise. I am an ocean away from home, but seafood still nourishes and nurtures the immigrant in me.
My daughter is approaching five years, and thanks to her, I am speaking more Croatian than I have in years. I am reading her children’s stories I have not read in decades and singing nursery rhymes from my childhood. I recently searched YouTube for a song about a bunny I have not heard since I lived there. The lyrics were on the back of one of her books and she asked me to sing it. I wanted to get it right.
“Zeko, zeko!” my daughter said, smiling and using the Croatian word for ‘bunny.’ She asks me to sing the story: “Mama, pjevaj pri č u, please!”
She didn’t roll that R perfectly and switched to English a handful of words in, but it was enough to make me smile. My daughter is not growing up by the Adriatic and English may always be her primary language, but I’ve managed to squeeze bits of my culture into her life. Through her love of seafood and her choppy Croatian, my little New Yorker carries my—our—heritage.
She can see the Empire State Building and the East River from her room. On a shelf inside, there is a picture of her mom’s Croatian hometown. In her wicker toy basket, there is a little plush toy with eight tentacles.