A Sort of Homecoming

Travel Stories: Ivana Waz left Serbia for America when she was 14. She returned to her homeland with her son to answer the question: Was she more Serbian or American?

07.21.18 | 12:25 PM ET

Ivana and Makani Waz. Credit: Facebook

Editor’s note: The author of this story, Ivana Waz, and her son, Makani, were murdered in their Southern California home July 11. Authorities say Ivana’s husband shot them before turning the gun on himself. Before this tragedy, travel writer and editor Lavinia Spalding had introduced me to Ivana, and I had the privilege of working with her on this story over the course of several months. “This trip mattered to me more than any other travels I have done,” she wrote, “and I wanted to capture it and give it life.” I’m happy to help give it life, but devastated to be doing so after her death.—Jim Benning

I was sitting at a long wooden picnic table under the thick shade of an ancient oak tree—all my senses heightened. It was a hot and humid summer afternoon in Central Europe, and I was immersed in the comforting, familiar smells of traditional Serbian food and musky vegetation around me.

Makani walked over to me. “Mom,” he said, almost whispering, “those kids won’t play with me. He pointed at the handful of boys about his age. “Because I am American.”

I was stunned. Could this be? My 11-year old son was not welcome in my homeland? After all these years and so much anticipation of this trip, I needed a few moments to process the information.

Makani and I had recently arrived in Serbia from our home in Southern California. I grew up in Serbia. My parents, my sister and I immigrated to Los Angeles in 1984 to be closer to family already living in the U.S. It was a lucky move, because a few years later war broke out in the former Yugoslavia and an American-led NATO coalition led an air assault on Serbia, pummeling this very neighborhood. I was 14 when we immigrated: Old enough to be forever rooted in my native culture and yet just young enough to be fully susceptible to Americanism. In the ensuing years, I always wondered if I was more Serbian or American. I often wondered about Makani, too. He was in many ways a typical 11-year-old California kid. But he was also a little different from his peers. As a mother, I noticed.

Traveling to Serbia, I hoped to settle my own cultural see-saw and establish a clearer connection between my past and the future.

The moment we landed at Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade, emotions flooded me. For the first time in 18 years, I was back in my homeland. I stared out of the plane window and recalled the moment, years ago, when my family boarded the U.S.-bound flight that changed my life forever. I glanced over at Makani.

“Are you excited?” I asked as we landed.

“I guess,” he muttered, followed by a shoulder shrug. “The airport looks like the one in Cancun.”

His seeming indifference pierced my gut. He had traveled to other countries before. For him, it seemed, this was just another vacation. Was I expecting too much from him?

My parents, who had arrived from California two weeks earlier, met us at the airport. Both looked as excited as the day their first grandchild was born. Now they had a chance to show off Makani to our extended family and old friends. We drove for two hours south—through lush forests and past an occasional town or village—to the city where I was born. Kragujevac is Serbia’s answer to Detroit—a blue-collar town where Yugos were once manufactured. We soon arrived at my aunt Mira’s house, our home for the next two weeks.

It was there a few days later, while sitting down to an outdoor supper, that Makani walked over to tell me the neighborhood kids wouldn’t play with him. After thinking it over for a moment, I suspected I knew the reason. A shiver ran through me; the war took place years before these children were even born. Perhaps they had been raised with their parents’ lingering resentments? I could only imagine dinner table conversations over the last couple of decades. My own upbringing in Serbia had been saturated with stories from World War II. Maybe this was just the way here.

Had I stayed, I might have absorbed the anger myself. Long after I left, old Serbian friends told me stories about the airstrikes and the trauma they lived through. They told me how they hid in bunkers, and about how, years later, their traumatized children would awaken at night, screaming in fear. 

I walked over to the boys, who were kicking a ball into metal garbage cans, and recognized one of them from the Facebook posts of an old childhood friend.

“I know your dad,” I said in Serbian. “Please go and get him.”

I never saw eyes bug so far out. He soon retuned with his mom and dad, Jelena and Marko, in tow. I recognized them instantly.

“IVANAAAAAAAAA,” they yelled from across the backyard. “What took you so long to come back and visit?” They ran toward me with open arms, and we hugged and cried tears of joy.

Once we’d collected ourselves, I turned to them. “Do you know what your son and his friends said to my son? They said they wouldn’t play with him because he’s American.”

Marko and Jelena smiled knowingly and nodded. “We’ll talk to him,” Marko said gently, trying to make me feel better by downplaying the incident. It was a cultural nuance I understood.

Marko admitted that he and Jelena had often talked about the war over the years. He marched over to the boys and, wagging his finger, said something to them I couldn’t follow. Afterward, the boys warmed up to Makani, who was quick to forgive them. Soon all of them were playing a mock World Cup soccer game as grandparents and admiring girls cheered from the sidelines.

Over the coming days, I watched Makani play with his new friends. What surprised me more than anything was how similar he was to them—a lot more so than to his American friends. He seamlessly fit in, just like I did. Although he still had a language barrier (Makani understands most Serbian, but will not speak it), certain indefinable traits made him seem cut from the same cloth as these boys. There was an undeniable chemistry among them.

Genetics play an overwhelming part in raising a child, I thought. Maybe a bigger role than parenting. How did I raise a “Serbian” child when I had come to the U.S. as a child myself and done everything to assimilate?

He is me and I am them.

I invited Marko and Jelena to join us for dinner. Per tradition, my uncle sat at the head of the table, while my aunt served everyone. We feasted on my aunt’s home cooking.

Inside, I was quietly struggling. Back in the U.S., I would never let my aunt do all the work by herself. But this was the custom in Serbia. In the moments when she could take a quick break, she stood next to her husband’s chair. Empty plates were intolerable, and if she spotted one, she’d immediately serve more. My uncle simultaneously served Sljivovica, a traditional plum brandy. Many European cultures pride themselves on keeping their guests’ plates and cups full. First cups and then plates—or is it the other way around? I’m not always sure; both seem endlessly refilled.

We talked long into the night about the past, our kids, the future.

“So make sure you educate everyone in America that Nikola Tesla was Serbian,” said my uncle Rade. “Yes, of course people know,” I said. I wasn’t about to admit that one of my friends thought I was going to Syria, not Serbia, and that she didn’t seem to know they were different countries.

As coffee and an array of homemade desserts were served, my aunt finally joined the rest of us. My friend’s accordion and my uncle’s frula (an instrument resembling a homemade flute) came out. After so many shots of Sljivovica, we shed our inhibitions and lost ourselves in the music. There is an old Serbian saying: “He who sings thinks no evil.” We sang, danced kolo (a traditional Serbian dance), and reminisced and celebrated one another. I blended in effortlessly.

Staying with my aunt, I was looking for ways to show my gratitude. I tried to help with simple household duties. But the moment I stepped into the kitchen to help, my aunt pulled me out by my hand, guiding me back to the living room.

“Do you know why kitchens have one stove, one sink, one fridge?” she said one evening near the end of our trip.

“Why?” I whispered, not wanting to offend.

“Because there can be only one woman in the kitchen at one time. This is my kitchen and you are my guest. Please go and sit down!”

Being a good niece, I obeyed. I often stood at the edge of that kitchen and watched as she prepared traditional meals, desserts, snacks, constantly feeding us. Some of the best smells emerged from that room. Familiar, homey, comfort-food goodness. Watching Makani dig into a bowl of anything she made transported me back in time to when I was little. Makani loved my aunt’s cooking—he was familiar with the cuisine, as my mom had prepared many Serbian meals for him over the years, and I had at least attempted to.

Our two-week stay was coming to an end. Time slipped by extraordinarily fast. I was already getting nostalgic. I knew I would soon have to transition back to my life in America. It was strange how being here felt so natural to me. The time gap between when we first left this place and now almost didn’t exist. Except for the memory of everything that had happened in between.

Saying goodbye was bittersweet. I was looking forward to returning home to California. Yet once again I was leaving something that felt so comfortable and familiar. When it came time to part, I gave my aunt and uncle a big, long hug, unsure of when I would see them again. I knew I didn’t want to allow another 18 years to go by. My parents and Makani got into the car for the two-hour trip back to the airport. I lingered an extra minute to take one final look at the house where we’d just spent two weeks, my relatives standing teary-eyed and waving their goodbyes. For one last time, I soaked in everything around me.

On the flight home, I thought about the past. After we moved to America, my parents didn’t want me to change. But I desperately wanted to assimilate—to be like my new American friends. It was a daily struggle. And as I got older, it just became more confusing. Was I more Serbian or American?

On this trip, I wanted to answer the question once and for all. In my mind, I am an American. But words don’t always roll out as easily for me as they do for natives. And that bothers me. For the most part, I think in Serbian. And in some ways, I am very Serbian.

I once read the line, “When you find no solution to a problem, it’s probably not a problem to be solved, but rather a truth to be accepted.” In the end, I am both Serbian and American, depending on the day and how I’m feeling. To a lesser degree, Makani is also some combination of the two. This cultural bipolarity has become a part of me and I can’t deny it. Like so many immigrants, I suppose, I just need to learn to accept it.

Contribute to a memorial fund to benefit Ivana’s family.

In addition to working as a product management specialist at Mattel, Inc., for several years, Ivana Waz was a devoted mother who managed her son's soccer team. She loved to travel, and she lived in Redondo Beach, California.

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