top of page
Sean Benesh/Unsplash

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)