This blog post wouldn’t be about Croatia if it didn’t include something about gifts. And last December when I went back to the US for the first time in six years, I needed some gifts. Of course, Croatia is most well known for its natural, scenic beauty. But, since I couldn’t box up the Dalmatian Coast or the Adriatic Sea and bring it to people in the US, we had to opt for Croatia’s second best thing: food.
That’s right, we’d decided our gifts to the US would be Croatian food. For my niece and nephew my daughter and I bought all kinds of Croatian snacks. Smoki, Jaffa cookies and Munchmellows (yes, I know they are technically “Serbian”), Napolitanke, chocolate covered Napolitanke, Lino-Lada, and a bunch of other snack time staples. For my parents we bought cheese from the island of Pag, (Paški sir). and for everyone else we did the most Croatian gift-thing possible, we bought boxes and boxes of the chocolate Bajadera. Bajadera’s motto is: Don’t know what to gift? Gift them Bajadera. Actually, it’s not. But it should be because Bajadera are the universal gift in Croatia. It’s the gift that says, I didn’t know what to get you, without really saying, I didn’t know what to get you.
With that problem solved, my wife created another one by suggesting we get something special just for my mom. My mom comes to Croatia every year and LOVES Croatia. She even goes to Split and hangs with my mother-in-law for some of the time. And she has done a lot for us in terms of spiritual and material support. For example, she one hundred percent approves of my moving to Croatia! She also sends my daughter loaded packages with toys and clothes from Target.
Considering all that and just how special my mom is, I agreed with my wife’s suggestion and asked my mom what she would like from Croatia. I expected her to say something along the lines like: You all coming to America is all I need from Croatia, or Oh, nothing. Don’t worry about it. And then I would report to Vana, that we didn’t need to get my mom anything, which would then lead to a big discussion how we have to give her something! And the result would be… you guessed it… Bajadera!
Only that’s not what happened. Instead my mom said that would like some kulen. Kulen? Not what I was expecting, but okay. My mom didn’t want just any store bought kulen, she wanted the best kulen in Zagreb. So, in the wintry twilight I walked down Ilica two days before we were supposed to leave. Couldn’t find the kulen store, realized I had the wrong address, called Vana to get the right address and walked back four blocks to the kulen store.
For some reason I told the woman at the store that I was buying this kulen for my mom because she loved it and I was taking it to America. At the mention of that last bit her smile was drawn into a line of concern. She informed me that she thought we couldn’t take kulen to the US. But, I thought, my mom brought some back to America. I told the lady as much and she just gave me one of those famous Croatian shrugs that say without being rude: Well, okay.
A few days later and we are in line at the US border and already I’m nervous. Trump had caused so much controversy around immigration and foreigners coming to the US that I worried there might be some new problem with my wife’s visa, even though it didn’t expire for a couple years. I hoped that since Trump’s wife was from Croatia’s neighbor, Croatia would remain in the good list, but it’s the Trump administration and you never know what can happen.
Not helping matters was the fact that the woman in front of us was taking forever. It looked like the guy was really checking her out, not in that way, but in an are you a terrorist type of way. Also, I was recalling how on my sister’s return from Croatia her husband had been detained for a couple hours on some kind of suspicion. Her husband of Scandinavian descent, who had worked for the US Senate for fifteen years… was detained. It felt like in Trump’s America anything could happen.
As we were called to the desk with the border agent I tried to keep cool and trust in the integrity of America’s institutions. The agent had jet black hair, glasses that reflected the light in away that made it hard to see his eyes, and overall a stern demeanor. He took my passport and looked at me:
“What took you to Croatia?” He asked.
“Oh, um, er… we live there.”
“Oh,” he seemed surprised by this.
“How long have you lived there?”
“And what brings you to the US?” Here I was thinking, really? It’s Christmas, duh.
“Christmas. Visiting family.” I said, trying to keep the “duh” tone out of my voice.
Then he looked at me, this time I could see his eyes clearly.
“Are you bringing any… meat products with you?” The way he said it sounded like a dare. Like Clint Eastwood asking a punk if he felt lucky. And he didn’t ask if we had something to declare, but specifically if we had some MEAT products.
“Yes,” I replied. Now, every time I tell this story to a Croatian, they laugh and give me a patronizing look that says: Man, you need to learn how to lie at the border. They then proceed to tell me a story about coming back to Croatia or Yugoslavia from Graz or Trieste and how they had to wear their all their new jackets, sweaters, jeans and shove VCRs down their pants. And yeah sure, fine. But I’m not about to lie to a US border and customs agent who specifically asks me if I have any MEAT products when that is specifically what I have!
Hell, there’s a sign next to him that says: Giving false or misleading information can result in fines and prison. And I’m going to take that sign at its word.
“What kind of meat?” He asked.
“Well… .” I realized I actually had no idea what is in kulen. But I went on, rambling: “It’s like a delicious cured meat, different from prsut, which is what they eat on the coast. This is more of an inland Croatian delicac…”
“It’s like a salami,” my wife interjected, stopping my detailed and pointless description.
“All right, we’ll have to check it out,” the man replied. He went through my daughter and Vana’s passports, asking Vana if she was visiting on business or tourism. And I guess visiting family for the holidays does not strike my wife as something a tourist would do because she seemed confused. But we got that straightened out. He then asked Sara if we were her parents. The pause in her answer suggested that she was really thinking about it, hmm… as if now was her chance, could she change her parents? Finally she gave a timid, weak: Yes. And I thought I’m really happy we all have the same last name.
Then the man took my passport and stuck it in clear, thin rectangular box.
“All right, we have to see about that meat. So take this and follow that line.” We did so, and the line lead us to a room that immediately told us where we were. We were in the room for people bringing stuff in the US that they should not bring. Immediately the room was more… um… “diverse” than the people who had been on our flight.
We had to wait for someone to get our luggage and bring it into the room. Then it would be X-rayed and searched. After about 20 minutes our luggage was pushed in on a cart. I unloaded the luggage onto the X-ray machine. The agent asked me what I had and I had to tell him that we had about ten billion boxes of chocolate as gifts, ready to explain that in Croatia you have to bring gifts to everyone, some cheese, and some meat. He said the chocolate and cheese were fine, but he had to see the meat.
The bags went through the machine and the man’s eyes widened as if to say: Oh, there is the meat. Once it went through he opened the suit case and pulled out the kulen. It was cut in half so you could see the orange and red scattershot of the meat inside and wrapped in a vacuum sealed plastic that seemed greasy on the inside. To me it looked like something alien, or something from Aliens.
“Oh no,” the man shook his head. “You cannot take this into the United States.” He hefted it in his hand as if weighing it.
My wife looked skeptical. She seemed to think this was just a shakedown.
“Well, someone is gonna really enjoy that,” she said as we gathered our other luggage. Both the man and I gave her a puzzled look. Each time I retell this story to Croatians they assume the same posture. One that seems to say, Man they swiped your kulen, bastards!
I don’t see it like that at all! I mean if I were in this guy’s shoes there is no way, zero chance, that I would be even remotely interested in some sweaty, greasy piece of space meat I took out of some dude’s suitcase. I’d want to thrown that thing in the trash to be burned before it started to gestate and hatch its alien babies all over the airport. And every time, my Croatian friends and wife look at me, their eyes seeming to be on the cusp of agreeing with me, but then that look fades and they shake their heads.
“Nah, it’s kulen!” And if my wife mentions that it was Galovic kulen. Then all doubt fades and everyone is like: Of course he took it! Cody, Cody, you let them get away with your kulen.
In the end it worked out because my mom felt bad and she wanted to know how much it cost us. I looked side to side and inflated the number because with gifts, really it’s the thought that counts, and why not let my mom think we’d spent a lot of money on her this time.