I tried not to grimace as I took a second swig of rakija from the tall plastic water bottle. I winced slightly, but then smiled and was met with chuckles and applause. I don’t usually drink straight booze at lunch, but I couldn’t refuse, not just out of politeness, but also out of curiosity. As the warmth of the homemade moonshine spread through my body, I looked toward my boyfriend’s grandfather for approval. The snow-haired man who I was told “only puts his teeth in for pictures,” flashed me a toothless grin that told me I’d crossed some sort of threshold of acceptance. He was entertained by how obliging I’d been; taking a swig every time he nudged me playfully with the bottle. We did not speak each other’s language, but I didn’t need a translator to understand that his cajoling was a sincere attempt to make me feel welcome. Despite being an American, if I could handle the drink, that meant there must be some Croat in me somewhere.
Very few people travel over four thousand miles to meet their boyfriend’s family, yet I found myself as one of the lucky few thrust into a whole host of new experiences all at once. One of those experiences was imbibing with the family patriarch just a few hours after being introduced. I met the whole family in Konjic, the Herzegovinian town where my boyfriend was born, his parents were raised, and where they all lived peacefully until the onset of the Yugoslav wars. Just two decades ago, Vanja and his parents had fled Konjic for Croatia, trying to escape the mounting violence. Being there then, back at the house they had to abandon, I not only learned how life had changed over the decades but, more importantly, which traditions had endured.
Booze as a way of welcoming guests and bringing people closer together (sometimes literally) isn’t a new tradition. My dad cracks open a beer with my boyfriend on game day, I often give wine as a gift to a girlfriend, and at Christmastime, my aunt makes a traditional Pennsylvania moonshine that the whole family imbibes. Every household, and every family has its traditions. But I’d never had a few stiff swigs of moonshine with a significant other’s grandfather just hours after meeting him.
Before the bottle of rakija was even brought out, I could tell its production was intrinsically bound to the culture. I learned about the process before I’d even tasted it, starting right out in the backyard with the plum trees.
At that first family gathering, once all of the introductions had been made and everyone settled back into their routines, the adults sat out back of the house eating freshly picked plums. Hundreds of trees grew in the yard, and I was just an arms length away from the juicy fruit, much of which would eventually be turned into the plum rakija, šljivovica. The adults showed me the proper technique for getting the pit out, no knife required. I pointed the seam of the oblong fruit toward me, squeezing each end with thumb and forefinger. The seam split, exposing the pit, which I quickly removed. The smile that spread across my face after I popped the fleshy halves in my mouth was mirrored by the rest of the family, as pleased as I was that I’d gotten it on the first try.
Later, when my boyfriend was showing me around the house and property, I came face to face with a large copper vat in a garage-like area, which used to serve as a workshop for his grandfather’s thriving carpentry business. I knew immediately what the container was for, asking Vanja, “Is that for making rakija?” His face lit up as he affirmed it was. He showed me how the moonshine would be made, how whichever selected fruit would eventually be turned into liquor. Plums grow abundantly in the region, but many other fruits like grapes and cherries can also be used to make different kinds of rakija. I learned that the finished product is not only a remedy for the blues, but also for pretty much any other ailment as well. “If I had a fever when I was younger,” Vanja said, “my mom would soak potatoes in rakija and put them on my feet. The fever would be gone in no time.” I tucked that tidbit away for future reference just as his aunt called us into the kitchen for lunch where, unbeknownst to me, Vanja’s grandfather would offer me my first taste of the plum-based liquor.
I left Konjic that day as a new member of a loving family, one that did not hesitate to extend their well wishes across seas and ocean. Vanja’s grandmother gave me a bottle of visnjvaca, rakija made from cherries, to take home to my parents. She handed me the bottle and Vanja translated, “She says that this is for your parents to enjoy. She made it herself. It is made from cherries and it is meant to be sipped slowly, not taken all at once.” As she spoke, we each held onto the bottle and each other’s hands, our arms, bodies, and the bottle forming a kind of circle. I made it a point to look directly into her soft brown eyes as she spoke to me, trying to show that although I did not speak the language, I understood.
After the welcome Vanja’s grandfather gave me with the šljivovica in Bosnia, I expected a bit of teasing and some sort of test from his friends back in Croatia. I knew the younger generations especially would want to see how I handled Croatian traditions. At night, out at the bars, however, they went surprisingly easy on me, introducing me to a rakija that went down smoothly and sweetly. Medica, rakija infused with honey, came to be a word I welcomed, knowing it meant I wouldn’t have to politely refuse every shot that was bought for me. This honey-infused rakija became my go-to if I was coaxed into taking a shot, a practice I’ll admit I rarely partake in, despite being a college student. Medica is fiery in the belly, but less harsh on the way down. In those moments, standing in a circle around a too-small bar table in a too-tight skirt, lifting a round of medica with my newfound Croatian girlfriends, I felt comfortable, like part of the group.
There was not much difference between the way rakija was appreciated in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. It was still a drink enjoyed with family, made by the family, and offered to guests. However, in the more densely populated Croatian coastal town of Zadar, most families didn’t have the physical space to make their own rakija. It was either made by family members or bought from neighbors. I did enjoy more of the nightlife in Zadar, in which rakija featured prominently, but whether in Croatia or Bosnia it had a similar effect. Every time we would pass a rakija bar in Zadar, I would glance curiously at the list of all the different types of rakija they served (only rakija), but it was also available in every regular bar we went to. I did not make it home at the end of a night out without first being persuaded to do some rakija shots, which, like in Bosnia, left a buzz not only in my limbs, but also in my spirit.
In the airport in Croatia’s capital, on my way back to the United States, I passed some time in the small souvenir shops, which in addition to postcards, key chains, and clothing, sold small bottles of rakija. I perused the t-shirt rack, smiling when I came across the popular design that read “Rakija: Connecting People.” It was a slogan I had seen in many tourist shops during my time there, but its meaning for me was different now than the first time I saw it. As funny as I found it, I knew I didn’t need a t-shirt to remind myself it was true.