“All that is left of me are ashes.
A breeze could scatter me across the world;
while a piece of me would be everywhere,
no one would notice me.”
― Tears Worn Like Jewelry
As young travelers many years ago, our friends and family would ask us to bring them cheese, wine, or traditional gifts from the countries we traveled through. I used to shop for Christmas and make gift baskets with the items I bought from abroad for my friends and family.
Last year, when we were planning our trip to the Balkan countries, a friend asked me if we were going to Rijeka, Croatia. Her father was born in Rijeka. When I responded, “yes”, I could tell that she wanted to ask me something, but she was hesitant.
“This sounds crazy and I have never asked anyone to do this. Would you mind taking my father to Rijeka and scattering him in the Fiume River? “ Now, that was a first for me! I have always returned with travel gifts, never delivered them.
So, Gino traveled with me in my jewelry bag through the Balkan countries. His daughter laughed and said he always liked to travel first class. We arrived in his hometown of Rijeka, Croatia late at night. Our Airbnb was within walking distance of the bus station, and once we lugged our suitcases up a steep flight of stairs squeezed between the cathedral and the chapel, our host was waiting patiently for us at the front door.
When Gino was born, the town was called Fiume, which means river in Italian. It has had a tumultuous past with a tug of war among neighboring countries. Until after World War I, it was alternately under Austrian, Hungarian, and Croatian rule, during which period the buildup of the port and rail connections took place. After 1918 Fiume-Rijeka became a major issue of the postwar peace settlements. At first it was yielded to the new Yugoslav state, but it was returned to Italy in 1924 after Benito Mussolini assumed power and reneged on an agreement for a free state.
Gino and his mother, father, two younger brothers, and one sister lived close to the city of Fiume in the county of Drenova. They shopped at the lively markets daily and bought fish from the busy market in Fiume.
The port of Rijeka has been an important trading and commerce port since the early 1200s. Today it is the largest port in Croatia with cargos of mainly oil, but a variety of other general cargo, and a thriving fish market.
Rijeka is a vibrant blend of old and new. It has a diverse population with the majority of people speaking Italian because it was once part of Italy.
We walked around the city with Gino in my pocket. I hoped he would guide me to the perfect spot for his resting place. I wondered if I walked the same cobblestone streets that Gino had walked many years ago.
Gino, his parents, two brothers, and one sister fled to Rome during the turbulent 1940s and lived in a refugee camp. It was during this time that Gino worked as an extra in the movie, War and Peace, and was able to steal a kiss from Kathryn Hepburn.
These were mostly political refugees, including orphans whose parents had been killed during the war, individuals and families fleeing Yugoslavia’s communist authorities.
But, in 1956, Gino and his family made the brave decision to leave everything familiar behind with the hard times, and travel to the United States. The term Istrian-Dalmatian exodus refers to the post-World War II expulsion and departure of ethnic Italians from the Yugoslav territory of Istria, as well as the cities of Zadar and Rijeka.
According to various sources, the exodus is estimated to have amounted to between some 230,000 and 350,000 people (including several thousand anti-communist Croats and Slovenes) leaving the areas in the aftermath of the conflict.The exodus started in 1943 and ended completely only in 1960.
Gino’s family settled in Connecticut. He soon married his sweetheart, and they raised two children, one girl whom is my friend. She told me that her father always wanted to return to Rijeka, and she was never able to go with him. So, this was an opportunity of kindness for me to help get Gino back home.