The Gen x Place: The Drawbridge

Volume 1

Hello and welcome to the first installment of Place x The Gen! In today’s dispatch, we read a story from The Gen community member Ivana, for whom home – after fleeing the Croatian war with her family and living for a time as a refugee before eventually settling in the US – has become a complex, if abstract place. Ivana brings us back to an old family portrait location, the drawbridge near Dubrovnik’s old town, and explores how this spot of transience is where all parts of her past can come to meet. 

This is the first in a series of three dispatches the Place will be releasing alongside The Gen in addition to our regular Friday newsletter, so keep your eyes peeled to your inbox over the next couple Sundays. And don’t forget to check out The Gen’s newsletter and their Instagram for more stories like Ivana’s. 

The Gen is a global community which aims to bring people of cross-cultural backgrounds together to connect over shared experiences stemming from intercultural upbringings. The Gen hosts community workshops and roundtables, provides resources to learn for intergenerational cross-cultural experiences, and runs a crowd-source blog in the form of a newsletter.

Meet me at the drawbridge

The old town of Dubrovnik is a fortress. A proud, walled city which protects - behind its 15-meter thick limestone walls - even prouder Dalmatians. Here, the pride runs thicker than the sweet local wine, Prošek. So thick is this pride, that during the Medieval era the drawbridge that connected the inner town to the outer city was pulled closed nightly at 6pm, announced by the evening church bells to prevent any outsiders from coming in.

I wonder if that drawbridge would have been closed to me.

I was born in 1993, well after the medieval era but not after the era of senseless war. Six nations took to arms in a bid for independence and freedom from communist Yugoslavia. Some, like Slovenia, got sovereignty without much fuss early on in 1991. Others, like Bosnia and Herzegovina where my mother is from, bore witness to the biggeest genocide on European soil since 1945. The war officially ended in 2001 after UN and NATO involvement. You don’t have to look hard to find the scars running deep in buildings and people alike.

A few months after the shelling of Dubrovnik, my parents, barely in their early twenties, fled to Vienna as refugees where I was born. Young and homeless, with a young child and another on the way, they struggled to assimilate as second-class citizens. From Austria our family moved from country to country, settling for a time here or there, collecting languages and communities along the way. Home became an abstract concept, a long-winded answer to a cocktail hour question

A drawbridge serves two seemingly opposing purposes; one to connect and the other to separate. One is therefore a bridge in its true sense, and the other is a wall. I never fully arrive in Dubrovnik until I arrive at the drawbridge.

The drawbridge, which once hung over sea separating the old city from the wider town, now straddles a grassy park. It overlooks a part of the coastline where wooden rowboats retire after they cater to the bigger yachts just beyond the other wall. On either side of the drawbridge – on both the old town and new town sides – are bridges made from ancient limestone, now slippery smooth and slick to the wrong type of sandal from centuries of wear. It is a local pastime to sit in a café and guess where drunk tourists are from as they stumble on smoothed-out stone and tumble to their shame.

There’s an enchantment about the drawbridge, some medieval magic that pulls you along a hollowed out path through small corners and grandiose churches, eventually spilling into the old town square. But it is the two bridges on either side of the drawbridge that serve as the focal point for locals. Entirely lined on both sides by a row of benches and as such serves as a common meeting place for friends to gather before venturing on the night out, all you have to say is “na pilama” and everyone will know where to meet you. 

Mostly when I think of the drawbridge, I think of the smell. Smell is the strongest link to memory and the old town drawbridge is enveloped by a most peculiar scent. There is no name for the onliest smell of pregnant figs bursting at the seams, blending with the Adriatic salt, motor oil and that particular smell of dry heat in August. The smell is singular, so distinct and pungent that it stuns me every time. It is as if the city was greeting me with a perplexed grimace: “But where have you been? Have you not missed me? Have you forgotten where you belong?”

Sitting in between the two limestone bridges, the drawbridge is a portal between the old town and new city, my Croatian roots and my American self. It is against this backdrop on this drawbridge that we have a family collection of annual summer photos. Always facing the same direction, our backs to the sea, my brothers and I are dutifully lined up in our Sunday’s best. Scowls, grimacing into the sun, sweating under the glare of high noon. We children force smiles as our excited parents look on. 

I can see myself grow-up in the pictures on the bridge taken over the years. Over time, my three younger brothers slowly appear beside me, one by one in the frame, where they will eventually all outgrow me (the youngest even by a full head). I never had a house where within the hidden frame of a door my parents diligently measured our height from childhood to adulthood. By the time I was 13, we had lived in eight homes in four countries. I’d always wanted to see how tall I had been. Only now do I realise that this unassuming series of pictures on the drawbridge is in fact my measuring stick.

As the years pass, the pictures tell the story of cultural integration; we shed our Sunday clothes for beach wear, bringing back to our fatherland a diminished sense of duty for attending mass when we no longer believed. Western ideals were slow to be accepted in a country where religion was suppressed for fifty odd years in the name of communism. The differences between my cousins who had stayed and my family, who had left, grew louder. Emboldened and armed by MTV ideals and American friends, our mentality changed. We defiantly embrace our new home in America. We didn’t have CDs of old Yugoslavian folk music, but Atlanta rap and California. We never learned the Cyrillic alphabet, instead preferred to use the word y’all. Kajmak was replaced by ranch, and we learned that it was unbecoming to use your front lawn to roast a whole lamb, head and all, in suburban USA. 

My identity is a constant push and pull, an opening and closing of a gate. I am both here and there, this and that. I am both Croatian and American in equal measure. I am two wholes rather than two halves; much the same that a parents’ love for a child does not half when a second is born, but doubles.

The drawbridge of old town Dubrovnik doesn’t close anymore; much to the chagrin of locals who have been grandfathered in their apartments within the city walls, and who are still adjusting to the mad influx of tourists on their Game Of Thrones tours. These days, tourists and locals alike pour in and out of the old town at all hours of the day, stealing midnight kisses on the bridge.

Even if at times my words tumble awkwardly out my mouth and deceive my otherwise very Croatian name, this is where I am from. It may not answer for the reason that I speak English like an American, live in England and am writing this from my mother’s apartment in Cape Town, but it will always be my first home. The earth of my ancestors, the roots of my mother tongue, is here. This I know to be undisputable. Here amongst the turquoise sea and Adriatic irises is where I am from, where my body exhales a heavy sigh of having been gone for too long. Of finally arriving. When I meet a local, born and raised, they often dismiss my dual identity. “Naša si,” they say. You are ours. How comforting to know that the drawbridge was not closed to me despite my early departure.

- Ivana Lučić is a Purpose Consultant usually based in London, currently chasing the sun in Cape Town

- Illustrations by Place editor Kylee Pedersen