February 19th will mark the 35th anniversary of my family’s arrival to the U.S. I was 14-years-old and have vivid memories of that day. Growing up in former Yugoslavia, I had been raised to love America and the ideals for which it stood. My dad often took me to see American movies, in particular Westerns — his favorites due to often celebrating self-reliance and rugged individualism that he associated with American ideals.
I also loved American (and British) rock music, which seemed to me an expression of rebellion and personal freedom.
I started learning English in the 2nd grade and was always the best in my classes (the only ones for which that was the case, I should add).
When in the summer of ’83 my dad called from the U.S. to tell my mom and I that shortly after meeting Professor Russell Kirk, a well-known author and conservative political philosopher, he had invited my dad to come study with him, and that we would be moving to America, I was thrilled!
That fall and winter were highly memorable for multiple reasons. After the death of Yugoslavia’s Communist dictator Tito in ’80, the Yugoslav socialist economy had begun its slow collapse, accelerated by the hosting of the Winter Olympics in February of ’84 in Sarajevo. In order to be able to power the Olympics, the Yugoslav government started rationing electricity all around the country for months in advance. In my hometown of Zagreb, the second largest city in Yugoslavia, that meant blackouts from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. for one-third of the city every day. My family lived in an apartment on the 20th floor and having to walk up all that way, often carrying my bicycle, probably made me hate socialism more than anything else. At the same time, there was an increasing number of shortages of everyday items. I was sent to stand in line for hours for milk, detergent, and other household staples. Despite all this, I have great memories of this time since I had a group of close school friends with whom I shared many interests (music, chess) and we were just old enough to turn the blackouts into opportunities for exploration and adventure.
In the months leading to our move, my family had to liquidate most of our belongings, so bit by bit our apartment became bare. At the end, I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor, with only the very few things that I planned to take with me remaining in my room.
When the big day finally came, we made our way to the airport early on that cold and overcast morning, brightened by my group of friends meeting me at the airport to send me off. I was sad to bid them goodbye, but very excited to make the trip, my first, to the U.S. We flew first to Frankfurt, Germany, and from there to New York City, and then to Detroit. One of the legs of this trip had the U.S. Olympic hockey team returning from Sarajevo, the “Miracle on Ice” team that beat the Soviets in the ‘80 winter Olympics! (Alas, they did not do nearly as well in the ’84 Olympics.) They all wore matching light-brown suede and fur jackets and cowboy hats, and were quite impressive. By the time we arrived to Detroit it was dark and fairly late. We were met by a friend of Kirk’s who was sent to assist us, expecting we would stay the night at a nearby hotel, but my parents decided that it would be easier to simply make the trip to Kirk’s ancestral home in Mecosta, MI (a three hour drive) right away. They rented a big station wagon with typical ‘70s/early-‘80s fake wood side paneling and stuck all our earthly belongings in it — there was barely enough space on the back seat for me to squeeze in!
It wasn’t long before the drive turned more eventful than we had expected: my dad, only 40-years-old at the time, came down with heart palpitations, gradually increasing in severity. We had to pull over several times for him to catch his breath and attempt to calm down. My parents feared that he was experiencing a heart attack — but what cruel fate would have him finally see his childhood dream – moving to America! – come true, only to strike him down mere hours later? My mom was increasingly frightened at this point since her ability to speak English was very limited and this was a foreign country, after all. They eventually concluded that his state was due to his considerable intake of coffee served on our flights, a drink he did not otherwise consume. The excessive caffeine consumption had gotten the better of him. The entire episode had delayed us by a few hours and left my parents exhausted. We had to pull into an empty parking lot in the middle of nowhere so we could get some sleep, only to be woken up by a policeman who must have found the entire scene quite remarkable — a family of three sleeping in a station wagon filled to the brim with stuff on a cold February night. After my dad explained what was going on, the policeman kindly provided directions to a nearby motel where we finally brought this long and stressful day to an end.
We woke up to radiant sunshine the next morning and got on our way. Hillsdale College students know how desolate and stark the Michigan countryside is in February, so despite the sunny weather, things looked a bit grim. Mecosta is a very small town, so at one point my dad stopped to go into a restaurant to ask if that was it. My mom had been very quiet for most of the morning; in contrast, my dad’s mood was ebullient — he was feeling much better than the night before, and was finally in the U.S. When he stepped back in the car he happily proclaimed, “This is Remus — Mecosta is another five miles ahead — and it’s even smaller!” My mom promptly burst into tears. This was not exactly what she expected when she contemplated a move to America. Once in Mecosta we were greeted by Kirk’s irrepressible wife Annette, which is a whole story unto itself. Mecosta was indeed a tiny, humble place, but it became our home for the next two and a half years. I was in high school two days later despite leaving Yugoslavia as an eighth-grader. Our American adventure was off to quite a start.
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