The Full and Fascinating Interview With Croatian Language School Student, Philip Paspa, An American Citizen Exploring His Croatian Origins.
1. Can you give us a little background into your Croatian heritage?
I was very nearly born in Croatia myself. My great grandfather, Ivan Paspa, moved from Bohemia from Vienna. It was there that he established an electric shop which made, amongst other things, batteries, flashlights, and other electrical appliances. He also established a battery factory called simply enough “Croatia”. This was unfortunately taken away from the family during the communist regime. He worked on 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.
My grandfather Maks was an oral surgeon who eventually specialised in dentistry, with a practice in Zagreb, which eventually moved to his house. My father Aleksandar followed in his footsteps and pursued Oral-Maxillofacial surgery.
In 1958 my father decided to move to the United States and that year he also married my mother, Mary Paspa, born Maraćić (the Americanized version of name became Marachich). Both her parents were of Croatian heritage; they were born and came from the small town of Punat on the island of Krk. They came to the United States in the fifties for economic reasons. My grandfather on my mother’s side was Peter Maraćić and his wife was named Mary. Their only child was my mother also named Mary.
Although my mother was American she spoke fluent Croatian and worked at the intelligence office equivalent of what was at the time the National Security Agency as a translator. My father had met her several years earlier and they kept up a correspondence. My mother had travelled to Croatia many times as a teenager, and met my father through a mutual family acquaintance on one of her trips. She eventually returned to Croatia to re-establish a relationship with my father and they were married in Zagreb in Saint Mark’s Church. They travelled to the United States by ocean liner and three months later I was born in New York City.
I myself have visited Croatia many times, both as a child and then as a teenager and again several times as an adult, most recently with my own family. It is unfortunate that my father never emphasized our Croatian heritage. It was never a big part of my life growing up except for the occasional visits from relatives and my grandmother. As the years pass however, I felt personally something lacking, and this has become more acute the older I get.
We have a very interesting and rich family history. While much of what we had as a family, such as the battery factory, was taken away from us by the communist regime, some of what we lost was due to neglect, disuse and inattention. I have strived to regain connections with the remaining family members and most recently was delighted to find a cousin, Vlasta Stern, who I had just met at the end of last year. Luckily I have two remaining cousins from the family who still remember my grandfather and the family and hopefully I’ll have much more time to develop relationships with them and find out more about the family. We visited last year in October 2018 and I and going back with my wife for the Croatian Language School language and culture course in June 2019 in Slavonia, and I suspect I will probably visit again in 2020 or 21 at the latest.
2. Could you tell us a little more about your grandfather and the Zagreb Film Club please?
My grandfather was the founder of Kino Klub Zagreb [Zagreb Film Club]. I met the curator of the films from the national archives on my previous visit six years ago. It was through this connection that I became acquainted with Vedran Šuvar, who I met last year and who is the current president of the club. We had a very delightful meeting last time I was there with my family in October 2019. We saw the building where the club currently resides and the screening room downstairs. There is a plaque there commemorating my grandfather.
My grandfather Maks was extremely interested in film. He founded the club in the nineteen twenties and the films became, and are, a part of the Croatian national heritage. He was the first to use colour by alternating red and green colour frames. This was done by hand! He painstakingly alternated hand colouring the film frames one green and one red and it is unbelievable to imagine doing that for the entire film reel. He made many films including selected short subjects travelogues, family films and films of a general interest. My father Alex also became very involved in making amateur movies and he also made a movie for the Kino Klub Zagreb which was presented there. My grandfather’s films were donated by my grandmother to the national archives and are currently there in storage. I understand from the curator of the archive that they are going to obtain the telecine machine. Is my intention to help facilitate, by any means necessary, 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 do you get a chance to introduce some ofCroatia’s culture to your American friends and neighbours?
I live in North Carolina, in a smaller town, one hour north of Charlotte, called Hickory. Although small, it is a progressive community with strong interests in art and music, pro-education, and a cosmopolitan feel. Unfortunately there is not much of a Croatian community locally, Hickory is too small for that. Nevertheless, there is a Croatian Club of the Carolinas which I have just found out about, 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. He didn’t speak much English so it was a great opportunity, as was the entire trip for that matter.
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?
I took Croatian lessons because I felt the need to reconnect with the country of my origins. I did speak Croatian when I was a child but, when I started going to school, my parents felt that the Croatian was interfering and we reverted to speaking only English to each other. Of course this was a huge mistake and I believe later on in life they realised it. This happened in part due to my father’s emphasis on Americanisation and his own belief in America and all that it stood for then. Consequently this Croatian part of our heritage become atrophied.
One time, a few years ago, there were was some basketball players who came visiting here to play at the local high school, and I met them. Unfortunately that time I could not converse but I felt an instant connection with them. This was 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. Now granted my ability is rudimentary, nevertheless we were able to carry on a conversation and I found that to be very fulfilling.
I guess the ultimate reason I decided to take Croatian lessons was the realization, sometimes in rational thought, and sometimes in the subconscious realm, that something was missing from my life; namely that part of my heritage which was still in a dormant state. I felt it was important to revive it.
There is another factor also in play. As we live in the United States and as time goes on, the country itself has become increasingly fractured and the connections between people are becoming less and less strong. People have lost most common backgrounds, interests, and goals. There is no bonding anymore in many instances. People in Europe take this commonality for granted but it helps them maintain connections and bonds with one another. This is lacking in the United States. I believe we who live in America don’t realise that we are missing this and people who have it, such as those living in Europe, may not realize that they have this precious commodity. However I believe people who share a common bond have better connections and better rapport with their fellow man and woman.
That was the long part of the answer to this question; the short part – finding a Croatian teacher – was easy with the internet. I just googled “croatian lessons online”, or something similar, and the Croatian Language School popped up. After a few email correspondences, 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. One was entirely worthless, and the other was just too small of a course to make any difference at all. For instance one well known course (which is very good) can have 48 tapes for its comprehensive course in a well known language. Their entire course offering in Croatian was only ten tapes. There is simply not enough content out there in this type of format. Additionally, tape cannot begin to compare with taking actual lessons, in terms of the vocabulary and grammar you will learn, as well as the speaking proficiency you will obtain compared any tape or computer driven course.
5. Could you tell us how long you have been studying Croatian with the Croatian Language School [CLS], the format of your lessons/courses/studies, and how you would describe your current level of proficiency?
I’ve been studying approximately six years with the Croatian Language School although there have been several instances where I had to stop taking lessons for a period of time due to personal or professional concerns. For example there was one break of a few months where I had to pause because I was studying for the interventional cardiology boards, and it would have been too much for me to take on if I had to study Croatian at the same time.
The current form of the lessons usually begins with a conversation, usually about everyday affairs, or sometimes items of a particular interest. This may take up to 20 to 30 minutes or sometimes longer, and then this is followed by a didactic session. This may take the form of review of exercises from the text, or perhaps a translation I was assigned, or a text which I may have prepared. I would hope that we would continue in this format, which works fairly well.
I think my current level of proficiency would be intermediate.
6. What have you enjoyed/do you enjoy most about your Croatian Language studies?
What I’ve enjoyed most is actually completing a lesson and being able to converse and getting the sense that I’ve progressed in small increments each time. Every time you complete a lesson you have gained a little bit in terms of proficiency. I enjoyed 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. Of course I suspect he was being nice to me and let my errors go unannounced.
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 it is exactly the author is looking for. Sometimes the questions request either 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, or any friends interested in learning Croatian and/or do you have any theories as to what might prevent other members of the Croatian diaspora/younger generations in theUSfrom rediscovering their native language?
As of now, my brother and sister have not studied Croatian, but I only began around their age also. I plan on showing them this article, and I hope they would consider starting to learn the language. I know right now they are very busy with their work and families.
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.
The Paspa Family Photo Album, spanning five generations, from Philip’s grandfather, Ivan, to Philip’s own children visiting Croatia, the country of their grandparents’ birth. The first few photos are at the Zagreb film archives, then Philip’s family visiting Croatia. followed by a young Philip with his father, Aleksander, then Maks, Ivan and other ancestors.