Its Arbutina A-R-B-U-T-I-N- A. Like Argentina only a little different. Think of Evita.
For years, Ive watched and listened as my last name has been mangled and bedraggled. Its common for Arbutina to morph into Arbutino look, Ma, were Italian! People have shifted my first name to
Christina on occasion as if my parents would have named me Christina Arbutina, which to me always sounds like I should be a flamenco dancer (ole!).
Then there was the time a bank issued me a debit card and in so doing shortened my first name in order, I was told, to get my last name to fit. The result: The son of God had been issued a gold card with overdraft protection.
But when I got married, I never really thought about giving up the name Id been lugging around for all those years. Unfortunately, Chris Smith rolled off my fleet tongue sounding like Christmas, with a lisp, and I always thought that if I ever introduced myself to someone named Mary the joke would be on both of us.
Over the past week, Ive been thinking a lot about names and what they mean for people and places.
The one thing about my family is that we have enthusiastically claimed and celebrated the ethnic history of my dads side of the family. Over the years, my mother has ruefully observed that in our family no one seems too concerned about where her ancestors came from. Sadly, shes right.
It may have been that we just spent more time with my Baba and Dodo (no, that wasnt his name its what I started calling him when I first started to talk and the unfortunate nickname stuck).
For as long as I can remember, I have known their story. It was no fairy tale. My grandfather, married, the father of a young son, came by himself to America almost 100 years ago to make money. While he was gone, his son was killed in an accident and his wife died shortly after that. My grandfather returned to his village in what is now Croatia with the sole purpose of finding a wife. My grandmother lived about 18 miles away. She was the youngest daughter of a poor widow. There was no money. There was no dowry (my grandmother always emphasized that point). The wedding was arranged the afternoon they met.
As often as I have heard that story, I realize now there are big, wide gaps. I sadly, selfishly never asked for details when, where, how, why. I never questioned, just listened and accepted it simply as a child.
In the past week, details would have been handy.
For years my father has talked about visiting the village where his father was from. So, were going. In just five days, we leave for a trip to Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia. This time, we are being joined by one of my brothers and my aunt (who isnt really my aunt, but thats another story). I deliberately mapped a route that will skirt the eastern side of Croatia to put us near where Id been told my grandfather is from.
The problem: I havent been able to find the town. My dad
warned that it was a very small village and wouldnt be easy to get to. I Googled various spellings for hours. Nothing.
Until I decided to see if I could find my grandfathers obituary, which I hoped would list his birthplace. No luck there but what did come up was his Ellis Island record. I thought I had looked this up years ago but within a few clicks I knew I had never seen this before in my life. Because the certificate said my grandfather was from ... Hungary. Hungary?
As my Baba, would have said if she had lived to have heard this: Ey yi yi yi yi.
A quick look at a Google map confirmed that Hungary juts right up against Croatia. My guess was that sometime during the tumult of world wars in the first half of the 20th century the border had shifted. A few more clicks, and it turns out I was right.
But for those few minutes, I was thinking we were going to have to exchange the familys collection of Proud Serbian Steeler Fan T-shirts for ones proclaiming Proud Hungarian Steeler Fan. And drive the rental car a few miles further east.
The Ellis Island ship manifest lists a town that my dad insists isnt the right place. But it seems awfully close. Plus, Ive found another town, in the same vicinity, that shares most of the letters in its name of the place my dad has had me searching for all along. Whats a missing vowel or two when youve come this far.
So, we leave in less than a week and two of our stops will be at places that may or may not be where my grandfather was from.
This is about so much more than a name. It promises to be quite a journey where we will find out where weve come from and how far it has been. And figure out where do we go from here.
Chris Arbutina writes a monthly column for the CDT.