Philip Paspa lives in Hickory, a small town in North Carolina, USA, but was very nearly born in Croatia. He arrived in the world in 1958, just three months after his parents sailed on an Ocean Liner from Croatia to America to start a new life. Migration must be in the genes: Philip’s grandfather, Ivan Paspa, moved from Bohemia [now part of the Czech Republic] to Vienna, Austria, and eventually settled in Zagreb, Croatia.
Although Philip’s mother, Mary, was American, working at the National Security Agency as a translator, she was of Croatian descent (from Punat on the island of Krk with the family name Maračić) and spoke fluent Croatian, visiting frequently as a teenager. Philip’s father, Aleksandar, had met her several years earlier and they had kept up a correspondence. Eventually Mary returned to Croatia to re-establish their relationship and they were married in Zagreb in Saint Mark’s Church.
Philip spoke Croatian as a child but, when he started going to school, his parents felt that this was impeding his progress in other areas and so he spoke only English with his parents and siblings. Philip’s father admired America and all it stood for and was keen for his family to integrate into his newly adopted country, but it meant that the Croatian part of Philip’s heritage became atrophied.
Some time ago, Philip felt the need to reconnect with his origins and started to learn Croatian as well as taking a greater interest in his Croatian family tree. Excerpts of our interview with Philip are below and you can read the whole fascinating story here:
1. Can you give us a little background into your Croatian heritage?
My great grandfather, Ivan Paspa, moved from Bohemia to Vienna and then Zagreb where he established an electric shop and a battery factory called, simply enough, “Croatia”. He worked at the HNK [The Croatian National Theatre] in Zagreb and was instrumental in its electrification. Ivan and his wife, Rosalia, had many children, one of which was Maksimilian Paspa, my grandfather. It was Maks who established the Kino Klub Zagreb in the 1920s.
I have visited Croatia many times, as a child and several times as an adult, most recently with my own family, striving to regain connections with remaining family members. Most recently, at the end of last year, I was delighted to find a cousin, Vlasta Stern. Luckily I have two remaining cousins who still remember my grandfather and hopefully I’ll have much more time to develop relationships with them and find out more about the family. We visited in October 2018 and I will be back with my wife for the Croatian Language School language and culture course in June this year, in Slavonia, and I suspect I will probably visit again in 2020 or 2021 at the latest.
2. Could you tell us a little more about your grandfather and the Zagreb Film Club please?
My grandfather, Maks, founded the Kino Klub Zagreb [Zagreb Film Club] in the nineteen twenties and it’s now an important part of Croatia’s cultural heritage. Last year, I had a delightful meeting with Vedran Šuvar, the current president of the club. I saw the building where the club currently resides and the screening room downstairs, where there is a plaque commemorating my grandfather.
Maks was the first to use colour by alternating red and green colour frames and this was painstakingly done by hand! Each film frame was coloured manually, one green, the next red….and it is unbelievable to imagine doing that for an entire film reel.
Maks made many films including travelogues, family and general interest films and my father, Alex, also became very involved in making amateur movies including one for the Kino Klub Zagreb which was presented there. My grandmother donated my grandfather’s films to the national archives and I understand they are going to obtain a telecine machine to show them. It is my intention to help, in any way I can, to facilitate the transfer of these films into digital format to help preserve them.
3. Is there much of a Croatian community in your area, do you get to practice your Croatian much and/or to introduce some of Croatia’s culture to your American friends and neighbours?
I live in Hickory, one hour north of Charlotte, in North Carolina. It is a progressive community with a cosmopolitan feel and is pro-active in art, music and education, but it’s too small a town for there to be much of a Croatian community. Nevertheless, I have just found out that there is a Croatian Club of the Carolinas and hopefully this will be an avenue which will allow me and my family to have a closer connection to Croatian people and heritage, both in the United States and in Croatia itself.
Unfortunately I don’t get to practice speaking Croatian a lot: my stepmother speaks the language and sometimes I get a chance to talk to her in Croatian. On my trip last year I was able to use the language when speaking to my cousin Vlasta’s husband.
4. Why did you decide to take Croatian lessons, did you speak very much before and how did you go about finding a Croatian teacher?
Taking Croatian lessons was part of feeling the need to reconnect with the country of my origins. A few years ago, I met some Croatian basketball players visiting here to play at the local high school. Unfortunately, at that time, I could not converse but I felt an instant connection with them and this was just one example of a “rekindling” of my interest in my heritage. Most recently, prior to her passing, I was able to talk to my great aunt, Blanka Simon, in Croatian, and I found that to be very fulfilling.
There is another factor also in play. Like many westernised societies, the United States has become increasingly fractured, the connections between people are becoming less strong and people have less in common. Many people in Europe take this commonality for granted but it helps them maintain connections and bonds and a better rapport with one another, than perhaps here in the USA. Commonality of language is an important component of this.
As to finding a Croatian teacher, that was easy with the internet. I just googled “croatian lessons online”, or something similar, and the Croatian Language School popped up. After a few emails, I started the course with Linda Rabuzin approximately six years ago and have not regretted one moment of study.
I did not speak Croatian prior to starting the lessons. I did, however, have a pretty good ear for the language, probably from having spoken as a child and listening to my parents converse with each other, and I did recognize many of the words.
Prior to embarking on online classes I tried some courses on tape but there is simply not enough content out there in this type of format. Additionally, tape cannot begin to compare with taking one to one lessons, in terms of the vocabulary and grammar you will learn, as well as the speaking proficiency you will obtain.
5. How long have you been studying with the Croatian Language School [CLS], what is the format of your lessons and how you would describe your current level of proficiency?
I’ve been studying approximately six years with the Croatian Language School although I’ve had to pause from time to time, for various reasons, including a few months when I was studying for the interventional cardiology boards and there was no time to study Croatian as well.
Lessons usually begin with a conversation about everyday affairs, or something of current interest. This may take up 20 minutes or so and then we move on to more formal learning – perhaps a review of exercises from the textbook, or a translation or text which I may have prepared. It’s a format which works fairly well.
I think my current level of proficiency would be described as intermediate.
6. What have you enjoyed/do you enjoy most about your Croatian Language studies?
I enjoy completing a lesson, being able to converse and getting the sense that I’ve progressed, each time, even if it’s just small increments. I enjoy being able to talk with a Croatian person I may meet while visiting New York City for example. On my last trip to Croatia in October 2018 I very much enjoyed being able to practice the language, and be reasonably successful in communicating. I can’t say I will follow every bit of the conversation but I believe I have enough information and skill to discuss the basics with most people and carry on a basic conversation with my cousin’s husband.
7. And least?
What I like the least is the time that it takes to study and the fear of being unprepared. To be honest, I never feel completely prepared but I suppose I never will. I try to and take it as seriously as possible and review the vocabulary and grammar as much as possible prior to a lesson, and allocate enough time to read, comprehend, and complete the exercises. Learning the vocabulary is by brute force, but when I come across a word with which I am less familiar I’ll try to use it in a sentence to myself. I will also try to review as many words as possible, this gives a mental reinforcement, because it is possible to learn new words and forget the meanings of the older ones.
In terms of the exercises it takes a fair amount of time just to ascertain what is requires. Sometimes it’s a translation or the creation of new sentences which, in and of itself, is fairly time consuming. And this of course brings up the main theme and common denominator in any field of endeavour: finding the time. You have to actually find the time and sometimes you have to make the time.
8. Are there any tips you could pass on as to how best to “practice” or “study” in between lessons?
I think the response to the last question begins to answer this. First you have to make the time to study and prepare, and then practice as much as possible. In addition, anytime you can talk to someone is a great time to practice.
I try to keep a list of vocabulary, and review this as much as possible, in addition to completing the exercises in between lessons. I also sometimes make a list of questions which I refer back to and sometimes I will review the old material, just for a refresher, since it is easy to forget without reinforcement.
9. Are any other members of your family, interested in learning Croatian?
As of now, my brother and sister have not studied Croatian, but I only began around their age and I know, right now, they are very busy with their work and families. I plan on showing them this article, and perhaps they may consider starting to learn the language.
10. What are your plans in terms of continuing with your Croatian language studies?
My plans for continued studies in Croatian are, quite simply, to continue them. In addition to lessons, I’m attending the 2019 Croatian Culture and Language studies course and I suspect this will not be the first time I attend this course. I plan on visiting Croatian more frequently in the future, and perhaps combining these visits with this course. In addition, I plan on reaching out to some Croatian heritage clubs to seek further opportunities for cultural enrichment.