I have a pretty hot name. No one can say it. They all ask the same thing. The usual, typical curiosity, “Where is it from?” The cultured add, “If you don’t mind my asking?” assuming I might be offended by their question. I never feel offended but, over time, having to give repeated explanations has ceased to be so much fun. It’s not so easy to answer, because one must consider what the other person knows about Europe and the countries within it. Many people have never heard the word Croatia so don’t know anything about it. For them, I usually use my hands to draw an outline of Italy in the air, because I know they know Italy. So, I draw it out, then point out how Croatia is on the other side of the water, on the other side of the Adriatic Sea. Within a few seconds they can envision Croatia, the country, in their mind’s eye and they change from having furrowed brows to wearing a satisfied and relaxed look on their face. Then I just keep talking about everything I love about Croatia, my homeland.
It’s just too beautiful for words, I say. You have to go and see it for yourself, I tell them. Along the coast there are gorgeous palm trees and that means it’s warm. Sunny and warm. Pomegranate and fig trees line the streets; long, thick leaves of cacti peer out of boulders; sweet smelling oleander bushes around every bend make you smile and breathe in the fresh, salt air. And you feel wonderful being alive.
The aroma of grilled fish will remind you it’s time to eat and, whatever it is you choose, you know all of it will be delicious, the wine superb, the people kind and friendly. Don’t worry if you don’t speak a word of Croatian, I say, for the average Croatian will speak some English or German or Italian or French and they’ll make it easy for you to get what you want.
Above all, Croatia is clean. In the summer, autumn and spring, the streets are washed twice a week. I think it makes a big difference to the lives of the people who live in the cities. There is no smell of rot and decay. And for those who live in the country, well, they’re the lucky ones with the cleanest, freshest air anywhere.
I was born in the hospital in Zagreb one April. My mother tells me that it was a beautiful day when she brought me home. From the gate to the front door, sweet pea was in bloom, all white and pink and smelling sweetly as it does. She walked me through the garden and into the house where I joined the rest of my family. It was my sister who chose my name. Why they let her choose it, I will never know.
People usually ask, “Does it have a meaning?” The cultured might add, “Does it translate into English, as biblical names do?” I say, well, literally a visnja is a fruit, a sour cherry, the kind of cherry with which you make cherry pie. The other is a tresnja, the cherry that is so good to eat fresh. But Visnja can also be a person’s name, whereas there is no name Tresnja, which is odd in a way. There are many Visnjas walking the face of this earth, I am not the only one even though sometimes I feel as though I am.
Visnja is hard for most people to pronounce outside of Croatia, unless I meet another Slav, say from Poland, the Ukraine or the Czech Republic. Other Slavs are familiar with my name. The rest often ask me to repeat it, slowly. So, I say, Vish- reach down to my knee and say, – knee-y-a. Sometimes they remember it. Some give up right away and some don’t try at all. Some look at me as though I came from outer space. But Visnja is my name.
My father lovingly called me Vinjo or Little Visnja, Visnjica. My mother told me the story of my christening. When the priest asked what my name would be, my mother said Visnja. To her surprise and devastation he said Visnja was not a proper Christian name and refused to christen me unless I had at least one Christian name. My godmother added Ivanka and everything was all right. I became Visnja Ivanka Murgic.
When I was a self-conscious youngster I changed it for a while, to make it easier for people and for me too – all the explaining had grown tiring. I became Vishna. It was easier but it brought with it a different series of questions. Sometimes they would ask if it was a chosen name, something along the lines of Hare Krishna. I did not choose it exactly, I would say, but adjusted it slightly and that’s quite different. When they mentioned the Hindu god, it always reminded me of the Spanish or Mexican name, Jesus. Men with that name must go through similar experiences meeting people. It must be pretty hard to stand up to a name like Jesus even if the whole world can pronounce it. But when I am in my homeland no one has any trouble pronouncing my name. They say it better than I, sliding it out with complete ease. I feel the stranger then, the foreign one. It makes me think about what is in a name. How different would my experiences of meeting people been had I been a Mary or an Ana? Or an El-iz-a-beth?
When I return to the place of my birth that I left as a young child, I wonder how my life would have been had I never left. Sometimes people ask if I still have family there and if I ever visit them. Yes, I do, I say, and even though these days we can Skype for hours at a time, something else keeps me going back. There is something special about being there. If you go to Croatia you will see what I mean.
From Vishy to Visha to….
Visnja Murgic was born in Zagreb, Croatia. As a young child, she moved with her family first to the dusty steel city of Hamilton, Ontario and ten years later to rainy Vancouver, British Columbia. Since then, she has travelled widely, from the north-western Canadian coast to Mexico, the United States, Bermuda and Europe, not to mention Haiti. Visnja now lives in Montreal, Quebec. Notwithstanding all her past travels, she harbours a long-standing ambition to retrace the steps of her maternal grandfather’s journey to America via Ellis Island and the Hotel des Immigrantes in Buenos Aires and possibly uncover the reason for his mysterious disappearance there. Visnja speaks, reads and writes French, Croatian and English.