Arriving back on American soil, I was happily greeted by my good friend, James “Cotton” Pugh. We talked about the whole experience, and he was extremely happy about the news; he had always believed in me, and I always appreciated that. I described how wonderful things had gone, how beautiful the country was, and how amazing Anela was. The trip from the airport was always the longest part of the entire journey. The highway was pitch black and desolate. One could easily drift off to sleep if not careful. It would have felt like an eternity if not for all the stories I had to share. I think “Cotton” thought I was pretty crazy, but he definitely didn’t fall asleep at the wheel out of tiredness or boredom.
On the other hand, telling my family was a very stressful time for me. By leaving them, one might think I had a lack of feeling or emotion toward them, but that simply wasn’t the case; I love my family more than anything. I had always been close to them, and it was really hard knowing I would be leaving, not knowing when I would see them again. They were very excited to hear about my experience. I think they were treating it more like a vacation, believing I would come to my senses; however, this wasn’t the case. During this time I gave them a lot to absorb – I told them everything to the smallest detail.
My first goal was to comfort them. I wanted them to know I was going to a safe place – actually a much safer place than where they lived. The safety issue was always an interesting topic because, unfortunately, most people could only allude to the War of Independence. They thought the atmosphere was volatile. Remember, this was an era before the “Game of Thrones”, and many people in America knew very little of this region except the happenings of WWI, and the mid-’90s.
I did lessen their concern of safety, but they were still interested in Anela. Who was this girl who was taking away their son? How was she like? What did she do? I, of course, answered back enthusiastically to the detail. It was easy because I simply told the truth (like always lol). However, one thing was very different about Anela than anyone else I had met before. She came from a Muslim family. For me, this was totally new. I had met only one Muslim prior in my life, and that was in high school. Understand this, I come from the South, where Islam simply doesn’t exist – only 0.3% to be precise. The region is predominantly protestant, and I was personally brought up in a Lutheran environment.
So this was a new experience for me and for my family. However, Anela wasn’t the “stereotypical” person of faith I had imaged. She was always held at the mercy of good pršut, and she would occasionally indulge in a cool glass of gin and tonic. It is my assumption this “label” identified her to the people who raised her and showed her love her entire life: her mother’s side. They were her family, so naturally, she associated herself with them. To me, none of it mattered anyway, for I was agnostic, but my family was very much interested in this topic. They asked the typical questions any “American” would, and I gladfully obliged them. Furthermore, I described Anela as ellaborately as I could. I’d never been a person full of words, but in this case, I had to make an exception. I wanted to reassure them I was making the right decision. My convictions prevailed and they couldn’t wait to meet her.
With my family at ease, I had a full list of things to accomplish. It was around the first of July, and I had roughly over a month to make everything happen. The first thing was to give my resignation at work. I needed to give them at least a month, so I did this immediately. Some of my coworkers had known of my intentions before, but after resigning, everyone knew. One of my friends and coworkers, Susan, even made us a personalized coffee mug – how fitting for the Zagreb cafe culture!
The next thing to do was to buy the tickets! Yes, I said tickets, as in two tickets! Anela and I had planned that she would first come to America on August 2nd, and we would return to Zagreb together on August 28th. Sounded like a plan to me! Well as you know, tickets aren’t so cheap, and I had to minimalize anyway, so I sold my motorcycle and other things I didn’t need to buy us tickets. Of course, there were so many other things on the to-do list, but I’d accomplished two out of the three big ones. Now only a single task remained albeit one of epic proportion affecting our lives significantly later on.
If you’ve followed Anela’s Instagram profile, then you are fully aware of Bella, our family pet. Bella’s life began on September 22, 2012, and six weeks later, I went to pick her up and make her a part of my life. She was just a tiny little creature, fitting snugly in the palms of my hands. Everywhere I went, Bella also went. From being just a tiny puppy, she loved travelling and sticking her head out the car window. If one saw me driving, they would soon see a blue pitbull puppy’s head sticking out the window enjoying the fresh air and scenery of the new world. I showed her love, and she has reciprocated that emotion to this day not only to Anela and me but more importantly, to our children. But Bella’s destiny wasn’t so certain, for I was caught in two dilemmas. The first being, how would I get her there, and the second, how would she be received by Anela and her mother?
Naturally, this caused me a great deal of stress because this little dog had been such a big part of me; I couldn’t imagine leaving without her. But even if Anela and her mother accepted her, how would I get her to Croatia? Well, this took a lot of investigating on my side. It was very expensive to transport a dog, so that wasn’t an option. I searched and searched and being the pragmatist I am, I found certain airlines which permitted “emotional support animals”
Alas! My golden ticket – or should I say Bella’s ticket! ESA policies essentially prescribed the dog to the passenger as medication – Bella would be my prescription! All I needed was a diagnosis for a mental disorder, which I probably already had anyway! Additionally, this meant Bella wouldn’t be travelling in the cargo area, but instead, under my feet in the cabin. So, how did I do this?
I sought my local physician and told her my story. I told her I was moving to Croatia, and I couldn’t imagine being without Bella. She, being an animal lover, prescribed Bella to be my emotional support animal. After this, I had to send the airline company all information about the dog including her breed type. I was a bit worried as Bella’s breed wasn’t the “shining star” to the public eye. I additionally researched breed-specific legislation in Croatia and the EU because there were some countries which had outrightly banned her breed like Germany. This stress never left me until Bella was on the other side of Pleso airport!
Nevertheless, I did all the paperwork and additional vaccinations for both Croatia and the EU, so Bella was set to go! She only needed the approval stamp from Anela, but more importantly, the Punica-to-be. Now, I had to patiently wait for Cinderella’s arrival, August 2nd.
The date had finally come. I remember it being a beautiful, hot and sunny afternoon – not a cloud in the sky. I pulled into the pickup zone at the airport and got out to search for my beloved. I didn’t have to search far because she had just walked out of the exit! Glowing, smiling, and looking as beautiful as the day. It felt a bit like déjà vu for obvious reasons, but with the absence of fear and anxiety – just pure excitement. This meeting was different. After seeing each other, we ran and met. I picked her up, held her, and our lips touched with purpose and passion; it was real, there was no hesitation or awkwardness, which was quite the antithesis of the first airport experience. Being swept away in excitement, time withdrew from us. We had to come back down from the clouds rather quickly to pack the car with luggage. And Lord Jesus, what luggage it was! I thought she’d planned to move forever with the amount of stuff she’d brought!
I’m not a planner. I’m more of an improviser. This day was special, so instead of going back to Hickory, I had something else in mind; we were headed to Charleston, South Carolina. If you’re not familiar with Charleston, it is a very special place. I knew Anela had been to the usual cities such as New York and Miami, but Charleston was different. Charleston is one of the oldest port cities in the United States. Its architecture is well preserved, and you get the feeling of being lost in time. In this city, you’ll find an abundance of weeping mossy oak trees, old cannons and artillery, and the beautiful sea. It is also the home for many films such as The Notebook, Forrest Gump, Cold Mountain, Magic Mike XXL, and The Patriot.
I chose this place because it was an atypical city, but moreover, I knew the city very well because I had gone to college there. So, we found ourselves in the famous words of Willie Nelson, “On the Road Again”. Our first task was to find a Subway sandwich shop; Anela loves Subway. I don’t know how, but she can eat more Subway sandwiches than anyone I’ve seen in my life. Therefore, we definitely fulfilled this task at the beginning. She always orders the same thing: toasted ham, cheese, bacon, tomato and mayonnaise on white bread. I’ll confess, it is pretty good, but I’d had enough of that food to last 10 lives.
The trip only lasted about 2.5 hours from Charlotte (Americans don’t use distance for measure, rather we use time), and it was filled with music, junk food, and excitement! We didn’t hurry, we stopped as we pleased and lived the moment as we wanted. We were lost in each other, only enjoying the energy and presence of the other. The only thing Anela kept complaining was the dirtiness of the car. I thought I had cleaned it enough, but not to her standard.
We finally arrived at our hotel located in Mt. Pleasant, just outside the center. It was the only one available as everything else had been fully booked. In short, it was no five-star wonder, but it fulfilled its purpose. We rested a while and later set out to see the center. Crossing the beautiful Cooper River Bridge, I could see the luster in Anela’s face – she was excited. She had never experienced a place like this and her look seemed to approve. Charleston is known for its cuisine, but the romantic I was, took her to my favorite Mexican Restaurant in the Center, La Hacienda. There we had our fill of margaritas and burritos, and the Mexican staff were a bit confused by Anela’s accent. They started speaking Spanish at first but were utterly surprised when they discovered she was not from latino descent. This lead to more curiosity in their faces, you could hear them gossiping about her in the background, but they never inquired. I guess they’ll never know:)
After la buena comida, we walked around the center. We strolled down Market Street, seeing all the crafts and culture of the town. This part had a very dark history as it had been used as one of the main slave markets in the United States. I would always get an eerie feeling there, but at least today it’s been made into something useful and nice. We then headed to a local club, waiting in line for half an hour, only to discover I wasn’t allowed inside because I was wearing flip flops. So we went out to find another “fine” establishment accepting “flip flops”. We did manage to find a place and had a couple drinks. Anela told me afterwards she had been proposed to by some Hispanic while coming out of the bathroom, so I guess either she left a lasting impression or he had way too much tequilla – maybe both ! We finally we made our way back to our Special “5” Star Hotel to get some much-needed rest for the next day.
The next day we ventured to the coast, Folly Beach. This was Anela’s first experience under the blistering Charleston sun! The drive was pleasant, with its fill of beautiful water inlets and marshes. Naturally, we stopped at a Subway on the way, ate, and finally headed to the beach. After arriving, we found our way to the beach. The sand was so hot there, you couldn’t walk barefoot until you reached the damp sand colliding with the water’s edge. After finding ourselves a comfortable spot, I came to realize I had left my phone at the Subway. I was unbelievably pissed off, so I hurried my way back in fear of it being stolen. Anela stayed on the beach and absorbed the sun. Luckily for me, the phone was waiting, but it took a bit longer to get back because of the heavy traffic. When I arrived back to the beach, Anela was still soaking in the rays, so I joined her. It was so soothing to hear the crashing waves, wind, and seagulls. So tranquil it was, that we both fell asleep.
We both awoke only to discover our bodies were turning bright red. It was time to go, but it was too late – we looked like two bright red lobsters. You could smell the burn if that’s any indication. We made our way back immediately to the hotel. There, we applied the cold aloe vera lotion sending cold chills to the spine. It hurt to lie down, it hurt to move, it even hurt to talk. We tried resting, and then I suggested one of my favorite pizza delivery restaurants, Papa John’s. Maybe some good food would distract the pain. I actually had been praising about this pizza for a long time, so we ordered it.
When it arrived, I proudly brought it to the bed wearing a big smile and opened it slowly. To my surprise, I was met with a burst of intoxicating laughter that filled the room and probably the rooms adjacent. My eyes looked to see what was so funny, and I discovered it wasn’t the quality of pizza I had once known. As a matter of fact, it was an embarrassment – a total abomination. Croatia had ruined it all – there just wasn’t any competition in pizza. After that moment, I never thought of a Papa John’s Pizza the same. My whole childhood of Papa John’s Pizza was utterly destroyed at that single moment. With Anela poking fun at my “special” pizza, we attempted but didn’t finish it. I must confess, there is some damn good pizza in Croatia.
So the next morning and our final day, I gave Anela a final tour of my Alma Mater, The Citadel. If you’ve watched House of Cards, this is Frank Underwood’s school represented as The Sentinel. After the tour, we met my dear friend and roommate from school, Don, and his future wife-to-be, Melisa. We met each other at a little restaurant on a beautiful water inlet called Shem Creek. It was a very nice outing. Anela took a liking to Don and his then-girlfriend. Don was great as always, he didn’t tell too many bad things about me nor did I about him. We then said our farewells and returned back to Hickory, NC.
We remained in Hickory the remaining weeks until our departure. We all stayed with Anela’s father, Mr Gordan, and that was a treat. It was always amusing hearing the rhetorical battles between those two. Gordan, being a joke master, seemed to always succumb to the verbal whit of what he named Anela as “The Warden”. It was nice being all together, and it was Anela’s first chance to meet, what Gordan named Bella, “Jurrasic Dog”. Actually, Gordan had a name for everyone – mine was “Hutch”. Anyway, Anela was very timid toward Bella at the beginning. Bella didn’t help matters when she ate one of Anela’s wooden high heel shoes. They finally made their amends, and Bella soon won Anela’s heart and ever since, they’ve become inseparable. Anela, of course, convinced her mother to bring Bella, which was a marvellous achievement as Jasmina was afraid of even her own shadow. Anela might have left out some minor details like “pitbull”, but all was well in the end.
Before meeting my family, Anela and I stayed there maybe a day. I think she was a bit nervous, but the event was inevitable and imminent! We finally had our gathering at my Grandmother’s home, where Anela cooked for them. She made, of course, stuffed peppers since it was a local favorite “Mexican dish” we were accustomed to. I remember before we started eating, my Grandmother went into prayer mode. She started addressing “Jesus” in every sentence, praying for me, Anela, and every other living thing under the sun. I couldn’t help but open my eyes and glance at Anela’s face. I might have even giggled out loud, but we all made it through without our food getting cold.
With the departure date approaching, things were getting serious. The realization of packing, planning, and saying our goodbyes was setting in. Anela helped me with the packing. It seemed everything I wished to take wasn’t approved by the fashion police. I was rather restricted, to say the least, but it made it much easier, I guess. All I really cared about taking was my dog and a guitar – everything else was compromised. I took a lot of family photos and some sentimental things. Imagine, putting all your belongings into two suitcases and leaving the rest behind for good. At first, it’s very shocking, but later it’s actually a relief. You realize later you never needed 90 percent of the stuff you had in the first place.
August 27th, the day of our departure came. Our flight wasn’t until 17:10 so we weren’t at all rushed. Our families chauffeured us to the airport around 15:00, and I remember the ride being pretty brutal. My mother had a hard time holding back her tears and this, of course, domino affected all of us. The tears were; however, mostly happy tears. As I mentioned before, my family was really behind me and supported this decision. I couldn’t imagine it being the other way around.
Standing in front of the terminals, we all talked a little bit, hugged each other, and said goodbye. I remember them watching us until we vanished on the other side into the terminals. Anela and I were pretty emotional – Bella was the only one under control. We all three sat and waited for our flight. It felt like an eternity, and we all were overcome with anxiety, sadness, and happiness. Finally, our flight was called and having an emotional support animal, we were allowed on the plane first. We boarded and situated ourselves – Bella lay underneath my legs and Anela to my right – this was our first flight together and Bella’s last! Finally, the sadness dissipated and the adrenaline kicked in. I thought to myself, this is really happening. I’m on a plane with a fiancee and dog, and I’m headed to a foreign country I had never heard about 8 months before. What could be better!
The flight went smoothly, but again I kept worrying about the dog being quarantined upon entering Croatia. I just wanted to get there, I couldn’t stop thinking about it! In hindsight, maybe this was a great distractor to keep me from thinking about other things. Bella had just lain there the entire time; she never moved an inch (or now centimeter). People around were probably wondering what the hell a pitbull is doing in the cabin, but it couldn’t have passed better. We landed in Munich for our connecting flight, and I tried taking her to the bathroom by putting paper towels down on the floor, but she politely refused. So we finally boarded our last flight to Pleso.
Setting foot on the solid earth was a great relief. At last, we arrived and Bella would either be approved or my worst fear, denied entry. Standing in the customs line, tension slowly growing, every bad possible thought arising, a was becoming a bit nervous and began sweating. Ms Anela saw the customs officer with a Bosnian surname, so she told me, “Let me talk.” I did feel a little relieved but still, the time of judgement was imminent. I gave Anela all the paperwork for Bella, about 10 sheets total, and my passport. She handed all the passports and information to the kind looking gentleman. He looked at Anela with comforting eyes and then turned to Bella and me with a hint of suspicion. A moment passed then he loudly announced to the entire airport, “If the dog’s good enough for Germany, then welcome to Croatia -STAMP!” I was shocked and frozen out of disbelief – we weren’t checked in Germany – the officer didn’t even look at one paper! Jesus, and all the bureaucratic bullshit we had to do for nothing – how amazing this was! I loved Croatia even more at that moment!
So then we moved promptly as to not wait for the kind gentlemen to change his mind! There we waited for our luggage, picked it up, and finally broke free to the side of freedom – we’d finally made it! We were greeted by our friends Hrvoje and Josipa, and of course the Punica-to-be! We didn’t stay around so long inside to talk. We made haste for the outdoors where I quickly lead poor Bella to the green grass to finally relieve herself. Home at last. We did it!
Now we’re just getting to the good stuff. To be continued in Part III.