It was not too long ago that I graduated college, and picked up and moved to Dubrovnik, Croatia. A year later, I’ve created a new chapter in Dubrovnik and now Cork, Ireland with my Croatian boyfriend.
Once again, I’m returning to Dubrovnik. This time, it’s for my mom’s wedding.
This magical celebration was much more than exchanging vows in an exotic destination. It was about honoring our heritage while making new traditions. Most of all, it was about two worlds—my Croatian life and American life — becoming one.
The Prequel to the Dubrovnik Diaries
Many of my readers assume that my mom decided to get remarried in Croatia because of me. But it’s actually the opposite: I came to Croatia because of her.
Long before I even came to Dubrovnik, my mother always was fascinated with Croatia. Growing up, she told me stories about our Croatian relatives, and the swear words her grandfather used to say. (My grandpa is 100 percent Croatian. His dad is from the coastal Rijeka region and his mom from the inland Lika valley).
She finally took a trip in the summer of 2014, and came back with pictures of a place I thought only existed in fairytales. This lit a fire of curiousity inside of me, and I was determined to see it for myself.
I found a study abroad program in Dubrovnik, where I could continue my studies in international relations, and the rest was history. She paved the way for me to come to Croatia and create my own story.
So, the decision to have a destination wedding in Dubrovnik was a dream manifested long before I came there.
Can two really become one?
The wedding itself took over a year to plan, manageable thanks to Dubrovnik Luxury Weddings. A month before the wedding, we had confirmation from 30 of our closest friends and family to join us for the big day in Dubrovnik.
But to be honest, I had a lot of anticipation about “two becoming one”. Not with my mom and now step-dad or the wedding itself at all. Of course this was their big day, not mine, but I started to realize that this was going to be a big step for me as well.
Over the past two years, I’ve been living in two separate worlds. I’ve had one foot in my American life, where I’m known as a go-getter and daughter of a successful criminal defense lawyer (my mom). I’ve had my other foot in Dubrovnik, where I’ve learned to live carefree and let go of the pressure of social status.
Both of these worlds were such a part of me, but they hadn’t met each other yet. I wasn’t sure how they would get along.
Of course Domeniko, my Croatian boyfriend, played into this dynamic as well. I created a life with him in Dubrovnik, but he had yet to see the world I come from and the people apart of it.
I knew that this week was going to be a big test for our relationship and myself.
With all this on my mind, it worked out well that we arrived in Dubrovnik from Cork, Ireland two days before my family actually came. Right before we left, we made the decision to spend the summer apart (more here on that) and I needed some downtime to process everything.
The minute we stepped into his family’s house, we were greeted with a massive feast of freshly caught fish, potatoes, salad, and homemade wine. I could smell the scent of sea salt in the air. I felt a buildup of tension release. I felt content with where I was in the present.
I was home. And I just wanted my American world to feel at home here too.
America, meet Croatia…
By the end of the weekend, I was well rested, and I was ready. It was the first day my family began to arrive. Mostly everyone (my mom and her fiancée as the exception) had never been to Dubrovnik. Some of my family members hadn’t even been to Europe.
I wanted to make sure everyone felt at home. But someone was one step ahead of me.
We first met my sister and brother-in-law, as Domeniko insisted that we pick them up at the airport. The following day we packed the car with seven bags of groceries and a large piece of dried piece of prosciutto—a specialty we went all the way to Montenegro to get.
We then checked into the Villa Lantoni and waited for the rest of my family to arrive.
While I was admiring the gorgeous view from every bedroom and balcony, Domeniko was in the kitchen preparing a cheese and prosciutto plate.
My family arrived with jetlag and only carry-on luggage in-hand. Typical for Croatia Airlines, the checked luggage got lost along the way. As this very well could have been a disaster days before the wedding, Domeniko called the airline and made sure they’d be at our doorstep by morning.
Despite the lost luggage and delayed flights, everyone kicked up their feet and looked in awe of the view. Those that hadn’t been to Croatia before were full of questions about the history and culture, which Domeniko took as a ripe opportunity to enlighten us all.
Most of all I could tell how happy my mom was to be back in Dubrovnik. I never had to explain to her why I loved it so much. She understood, because she felt it too.
“I don’t blame you.”
Over the next few days, we split our time at relaxing at the villa and exploring the surrounding Dubrovnik region.
Throughout all my time in Dubrovnik, I’ve never had the luxury of staying somewhere like Villa Lantoni. We rented the entire villa, and we each had our own room and bathroom. There were several outdoor patio areas and balconies overlooking the gorgeous Mlini region.
My favorite part about the place (besides the view) was the indoor pool powered by solar panels. We had many late nights here drinking, swimming and hanging out. I started to realize how much I had missed everyone.
As we showed my family all of the best spots around the Old Town, Srdj, and Mlini, I started to see Dubrovnik with new eyes myself. The streets I’ve walked down over 200 times still seemed just as magical.
Our crowd started to get bigger over the next few days as family and friends trickled in one by one. I watched as Domeniko took the time to take each and every person aside to not only introduce himself but also to have a conversation.
It may be easy to assume that he was doing this solely to make a good impression on my family. But anyone who’s ever met a Croatian knows that hospitality is a large part of the culture. They love to make you feel at home and take care of you.
It wasn’t long until Domeniko was planning several dinners and outings as our unofficial tour guide.
It was interesting seeing a group of attorneys and professionals completely out of their element and integrated into the relaxed Adriatic mentality.
One night at dinner someone leaned in and said to me: “What’s not to love about it here? I don’t blame you, Alex. No one does.”
Smooth sailing on the horizon
The day before the wedding may have been just as good as the wedding itself. We started the morning by visiting Domeniko’s parents house for lunch. This was the first time my mom and her fiancée were meeting his family.
Typical to Croatian tradition, the “light lunch” his parents prepared was actually an entire feast of grilled fish, two types of potatoes, salad, cheese, prosciutto and wine. Despite a slight language barrier and some extreme cultural difference, it was only minutes before it felt like everyone had known each other for years. Croatians have a way of doing this.
That night we had a dinner cruise around Dubrovnik by boat, which took months of planning on Domeniko’s part. I actually didn’t realize how much work he put in until we arrived and I saw how put together the private boat and catering service looked. Suddenly I felt like I was slacking on my maid of honor duties compared to all the work he was doing!
The rainclouds literally cleared as we stepped onto the boat. We cruised around Dubrovnik for the evening while sipping wine with an incredible view.
I looked around at many of the most important people in my life altogether in one place. These weren’t two isolated worlds anymore. They were one.
Honoring the past and the future
Finally the big day we’d all been waiting for arrived. Luckily we didn’t have much last minute planning to take care of, as the wedding planner took care of most of this. That morning we were able to sleep in, get a massage, and make our way over to get ready in hair and makeup.
The wedding took place on the seaside patio of the legendary Hotel Excelsior. My mom went with an art-deco theme, so the patio was draped with chandeliers hanging from palm trees. Our dresses also went along with the 1920’s theme with a lot of beads and embellishments.
But Art Deco was a lot more than it being simply a trendy theme. My mom wanted to tie it into our Croatian heritage. In the 1930s, her Croatian grandparents got married in Chicago, surrounded by other fellow Croatian Immigrants.
Almost 100 years later, a group of Americans were now getting married in their native country. The wedding was very much about honoring the past just as much as the future.
The storm clouds loomed on the horizon all afternoon, and it began to rain a bit before the wedding started. We decided that we would still have the ceremony outside, and do the dinner and reception inside. Instead of being a bridezilla with these last minute changes, my mom remained the most calm and collected of everyone.
The ceremony itself was small and intimate. I was excited that the day finally arrived, but I didn’t feel emotional. That is, until I saw my mom walk down the aisle.
After the ceremony we had drinks in the bar and made our way for the reception inside. It was too bad we couldn’t eat outside after all the work to set it up, but in good company, it didn’t matter.
A Croatian “Klapa” band provided music for the night, and we even had traditional Croatian dancers perform. The wedding was a combination of our American friends/ family and our Croatian friends, including Domeniko’s family. I loved watching his mom dance with the Croatian side of my family. It was a beyond magical night for everybody.
I know that our Croatian ancestors would be so proud.
“This is your home, too.”
The day after the wedding it started to hit me that this magical week was coming to a close. I didn’t want it to end, and I don’t think anyone did.
On our last night in Dubrovnik, we had everyone over to the villa for a barbeque. I looked around and everyone had become one big family, including Domeniko and his family. I waited for my loved ones to experience this side of the world– my other world– for so long. It finally hit me how much that meant to me.
The last day we took a tour of the Peljesac region, home to the best wine and oysters in the country. We couldn’t stay the entire time since Domeniko started work that day and I had to pack to go back to Ireland to work myself. Most of my family left later that night to tour the rest of Croatia, so we had to say our goodbyes. As we drove away, the two of us both wiped tears from our eyes.
The entire wedding week solidified how at home I feel in Dubrovnik, and also how grateful I am to have such a strong support system back home in the U.S. I know that wherever I end up, I have a lot of people all over the world who have my back.
And as far as Domeniko goes, I’d say he passed the “meeting the family test” with flying colors.
On my last night in Dubrovnik, the two of us spent the evening walking along the beaches in Plat, just like old times. It felt so quiet—just us and the crashing waves. Even after all the times I’ve come and gone from Dubrovnik, this time was the hardest to leave. Saying goodbye to my family for the foreseeable future and my boyfriend for the summer all at once didn’t help either.
But I knew I had to finish the chapter I started in Ireland before returning to Dubrovnik.
As we watched the sunset Domeniko said to me: “I want you to know that this isn’t just my home, this is yours now too. Remember that the door is always open for you, and your family, here in Dubrovnik.”