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I’m Losing Count

“The fellow student couldn’t even tell me what city their Croatian relatives were from. I was disappointed, it’s a small country after all.”

For years, I couldn’t count in English.

I could say ‘a wave-function is a vector in a Hilbert space’ and ‘a potential flow has to have zero curl’ and ‘the symmetric group has as many irreducible representations as there are partitions of symbols that make it’; rolling all that off my tongue wasn’t difficult. All the advanced stuff, the focus of my classes and my late nights in college sounded like gibberish, but it stuck to me. Thick English jargon would fill my mouth like bubble gum. I could chew on it endlessly. Like in that Godzilla movie from the 90s, the bad one, where Jean Reno literally chews gum to sound more American. Except that I wasn’t a monster hunter, just a math-and-physics double major trying to keep my head above water in one upper-level course too many.

But even if I could divert attention away from my accent by being fully proficient in jargon in the classroom, simple things would defeat me outside of it. The counting. I just couldn’t do it. In gym class my freshman year I would count my crunches in Croatian, hard r’s of the ‘tri’ and ‘četiri’ counts lending texture to my under-the-breath mutterings. Simple math was the same — I couldn’t calculate a tip without resorting to speaking Croatian to myself. I dreamt in English. In fact, my first thoughts when I woke were in English often enough that I started to worry about forgetting my native tongue, but then a roommate would ask how many yogurts we had left in the fridge and I’d be reminded that in some categories my brain just couldn’t make the switch. Years later, in graduate school, I will meet a postdoctoral researcher from Croatia, and hearing them use terms for my work in our native language will make my skin crawl. Having left the country at sixteen, the language had stayed a signifier of simple, relaxed things for me; I almost didn’t want to know what it sounded like conveying something more stressful than one, two, three…

But even if I could divert attention away from my accent by being fully proficient in jargon in the classroom, simple things would defeat me outside of it. The counting. I just couldn’t do it.

Once, a college classmate told me they were Croatian too. I got excited but the whole thing ended up being more of a teachable moment than a cultural reunion — I should have clarified I was Croatian from Croatia and didn’t just have some Croatian blood somewhere in my family tree. The lesson: when an American says they are of a certain nationality they almost always mean the latter. The fellow student couldn’t even tell me what city their Croatian relatives were from. I was disappointed, it’s a small country after all. (Maybe too small to emerge from the proverbial American melting pot with any strong, defining feature intact.)

That same year, there was a Bosnian student in my dorm (first Bosnian from Bosnia, then Bosnian from America courtesy of the atrocities of war that engulfed the Balkans in the early 90s) and occasionally we’d share a few words in a language we both understood perfectly well but were reluctant to identify as the same. We’d have to explain this to our American friends, explain how Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian are often taught together because they are linguistically very similar but the history of conflict and oppression in the area that was at some point Yugoslavia makes it really important to not conflate them. At some point during that winter, I made crepes in the dirty, cluttered dorm room kitchen and the Bosnian correctly identified them as ‘palačinke’. I’ve always been unsatisfied with translation options for ‘palačinke’, almost offended by the lack of a name for the mid-point between crepes and pancakes that they occupy. It was a brief moment of feeling like we were both in on something that escaped the rest of the hungry college students trying their best to be civil while sharing that awful kitchen. Years later, my husband will tell me of his plans to sit in on a Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian course and I’ll wonder whether that would truly teach him the language I have always called my own. His schedule will never work out, forcing him to learn Croatian in a way that will feel safer — by listening to me speak it.


Karmela's grandmother making plum dumplings to end a big family meal while on holiday. (Courtesy of Karmela Padavic-Callaghan)

In graduate school, I became, first, vegetarian, and then vegan. Croatian cuisine is heavily dependent on big meaty roasts and rich with seafood. It also features lots of cheeses and smoked meats. My family has always leaned into this: my father built himself a grill that could accommodate a whole lamb meant for big family celebrations, my grandparents had me and my brother helping make sausages from a young age and my mom delighted in sending me vacuum-packaged slices of glossy, thick rind-ed sheep cheese after I moved to the United States. Deciding I wouldn’t consume any of those felt like breaking away from my culture in a very public and tangible way. And yet, food remained a prominent tether to what ‘back home’ felt like.

After I moved out of my college dorm and into an apartment first shared with roommates, then a boyfriend, I quickly figured out that Americans view food differently. There were fewer big communal, family-like, meals and a lot more ordering in and opening of cans. Not that all the stereotypes about unhealthy Americans I had heard back home were true, but no-one was as aggressive about never eating alone as my family had always been. That sentiment resonated much more with other international students and immigrants. My college best friend’s Chinese mom would come to town a few times a year and cook up a tremendous amount of food in my kitchen, then push it onto me just like my grandmother had when I was a child. She’d ask the two of us to invite all our other friends, make it clear that the purpose of all this food was to feed us all at the same time, not some efficiency-related cooking for leftovers. During my Ph.D., I’ve felt the same while sharing meals with Indian friends and colleagues. Somehow our conversations would always gravitate towards food, somehow, they’d never stop at just discussing dishes but escalated to persistent invitations to cook together.

A friend’s Indian mom was visiting one weekend when I stopped by with some vegan sushi rolls that I just did not want to only keep to myself. It was raining so I shoved the re-used take-out box into my friend’s hands on their porch and scurried to wherever I was going. A few minutes later I realized they were running after me with a box of their own — their mom insisted that you can’t just let someone give you food without reciprocating. She might as well have been a Croatian mom, I thought to myself.

When I’m asked whether I have found similarities between the culture I grew up in and the one I find myself immersed in now, I’m often at a loss because I have started to think that similarities are created rather than found.

I had to learn a lot of new words, your palaks, and dahls, and chanas, the baos, and the shumais, but the feeling of folding them into my idiom as a consequence of eating with a friend felt innate. ‘We’re just a culture that gets really into food’ I will say to friends and partners over years of settling more and more comfortably into the role of an ex-pat. My husband will learn to play along quickly, entertaining talk of big fantasy feasts over late night text messages during our long-distance years. He’ll roll the r in ‘ajvar’ at my grandmother’s house while on holiday, bridging the language barrier with her by the means of a full plate.


Streets of Krk, Croatia in the summer. Krk is the biggest city on the eponymous island and Karmela grew up in one of its small towns. (Courtesy of Karmela Padavic-Callaghan)

In the limited character count, one is given when writing a biography for a social media profile, I always save some for ‘Croatian in the Midwest’. Mostly by chance, I have lived in Illinois for almost a decade. This took me from a clueless Eastern European’s idea of the United States strictly consisting of an East Coast and a West Coast (and maybe Texas) to happily joking about Midwestern stereotypes. The shift sometimes feels ironic: Eastern Europeans are often perceived as rude and loud while Midwesterners are painted as friendly to a fault and, occasionally, as bland as dishes made out of canned soup and tater-tots. A high-school teacher once told me, during my very first year living in the States, that maybe I came off as so harshly direct, and maybe even a little rude because I must be translating from my language word-for-word when I speak. More concretely, they implied that Croatian was just not built for sugar-coating and excessive politeness and not all American teenagers were used to those being taken out of the equation. Small talk and chit-chat are among the hardest things to master when you are not a native speaker of a language and, so many years later, I still give myself a mental pat on the back when I exchange casual pleasantries with a cashier at the grocery store or a coffee shop barista successfully. I credit the small Midwestern town that I’ve called home for the past six years for that skill. And so the tension between the mores of my family’s home in Croatia and the home I have built for myself in the Midwest feels productive like it has forced me to engage with layers of my personality that may have otherwise never mixed. The little piece of digital self-identification someone who has not met me may come across acknowledges this, it situates me in space quite literally, geographically, but also hints at my intrinsic sense of culture being hybridized.

When I’m asked whether I have found similarities between the culture I grew up in and the one I find myself immersed in now, I’m often at a loss because I have started to think that similarities are created rather than found. Like sharing meals with my Indian or Chinese friends or taking comfort in the sound of an almost equivalent language that is so much more sullied with politics back home, there are times when something feels normal somewhere as deep as your bones. In these cases, you just have to jump on those opportunities and make something that is yours out of them. I’ll never be a real Midwesterner and if I moved back to Croatia after eleven years of coming of age in America, many would likely see me as a stranger more than anything else. But the ‘Croatian in the Midwest’ label is meaningful to me — I did settle on it all by myself, after all.

When it gets really snowy in the winter, and in the Midwest this is no joke, I resign myself to running on a small indoor track where a single mile requires counting out five laps. My mental count starts in English these days. Without an exception, it reverts back to Croatian by the time I make it to mile two.

Courtesy of Karmela Padavic-Callaghan



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Karmela Padavic-Callaghan

From Omišalj, Croatia, Karmela obtained her B. A. in Physics and a B. S. in Mathematics from the University of Chicago and her Ph. D. in theoretical physics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Karmela's research centers on the intersection of theoretical condensed matter physics and atomic, molecular and optical physics. More plainly, she is interested in emulating or simulating properties of physical systems by using ultracold atoms. She is also interested in the basic properties of such ultracold atomic systems in novel and complex geometries, for instance, having been involved with work discussing ultracold atomic bubbles currently being studied aboard the International Space Station. Karmela has been to almost as many Iron Maiden concerts as has been to American Physical Society conferences. In a given semester, she goes through eyeliner and scratch paper at a comparable rate.

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