The Ljubavni Zid (The Love Wall)

So Much Happiness a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.

But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records . . .

Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.

I’ve been thinking a lot about love—its forms, power, elusiveness, surprises, secrets, shame, the need to justify our choices, who gets to claim it…and who doesn’t.  It strikes me as one of the most influential forces we have as human beings and yet, like Nye’s poem describes, there is nothing to hold onto like there is with sadness.  In another poem (Kindness), Nye uses the language of sorrow and loss to describe kindness.  Why doesn’t love and connection have the “grip” that things like war and tragedy do?  Part of this may be for survival sake; being aware of danger is part of the human stress response. But this post is not about giving a lesson on the nervous and endocrine system—you can take a class with me for that (!)—bur rather about my experience of going to the Love Stories Museum in Dubrovnik and my conversations with one of its founders/owners, Dragan Mišković.

Dragan describes himself as a very positive person who has been inspired by the many museums he has visited over his lifetime. He was struck by the fact that of the eight billion people on the planet whose commonality is love, there was no museum dedicated to it. In May, 2018 he and some members of his family opened the Love Stories Museum located just outside the walls of the Old City (Grad) in Dubrovnik.  In the short time that it has been open, it has gained quite a following.  The museum has an excellent rating on TripAdvisor, has several articles from the Lonely Planet, and has been written about in local newspaper (e.g., Total Croatia News).  I will add that Dragan is also a very generous and kind man–he offered a bottle of water to each visitor and allowed me to return to the museum to talk with him and take more photos.

The intention of the museum is to celebrate love and togetherness, sharing its positive emotions in the most romantic place in Croatia.  It was a conscious decision on the part of the creators not to include negative emotions associated with love (e.g., heartache). Dragan admits that sometimes it is hard to draw people in with “just” happiness and together we wondered why this is.  We speculated about how negativity is so much more present in news/media to catch people’s attention. Perhaps, as Nye’s poetry suggests, we may need sorrow to fully appreciate joy.  Croatia has both the Love Stories Museum in Dubrovnik and the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb and it will be interesting to explore my experiences of both—stay tuned!

documenting the owl gargoyle and true love legend

You will need to be able to climb stairs to see all the exhibits in the Love Stories Museum.  There are three floors and eight rooms, each with a different theme and music to fit the topic.  The Croatia room celebrates local Dubrovnik legends. For example, one legend is that if you can stand on the owl gargoyle head on the wall of the Franciscan Monastery and take your shirt off, you will find true love. You will also find two liqueurs in this room reported to be “love enhancers”— Rozulin or Rozalin is made from rose petals and Limoncello, of course, from lemons. And, of course one of the best known aphrodisiacs are oysters.  But oysters that come from Ston are said to have a distinct nutrient blend that people come from all over to try…and oh, I have!

The Troubadours of Dubrovnik

The music and movie room celebrates love in film and music.  I grew up listening to the Dubrovački Trubaduri (a Croatian folk/pop band that was formed in the 1960s) so it made me happy to see the tradition of the troubadours represented here.  The plaque says that if you ask any local over the age of 60 what music was playing in the background when they had their first kiss or dance, it probably was one from this group.  Although this music wasn’t playing in the background of my first kiss, it shaped the sounds and experiences of my childhood—singing my heart out to words I did not understand, dancing in my Babi’s little house, and attending the large Sveti Vlaho (St. Blaise) festivals in the Bay Area (California). In fact, I attribute my love of dancing to the Dubrovački Trubaduri.  My friend Mike Hess and his wife, Megan Kamerick, have a global music show on Monday nights on public radio out of Albuquerque, New Mexico (  One of my “missions” is to send him any new Balkan music that I discover, but I’m so steeped in the “old” stuff.  How can you not want to dance to Mi Smo Dečki ( They are sort of like the Croatian version of the Beatles:!

There is a room especially designed for children, a Game of Thrones section, one that is dedicated to love in mythology (e.g., Venus, Hathor, Parvati), and a personal item room where you can read personal stories paired with an item that represents the story.  There is also a selfie space complete with kissing bench which Dragan told me was optional—good thing since I didn’t have anyone to kiss! 

But, my favorite room of all is located on the top floor—the Ljubavni Zid (the Love Wall).  It’s a wall covered in paper hearts with love stories of those who have visited the museum from all over the world.  The room also has a space where you can write your own message and add it to the wall.  The description of the museum says it takes about 45 minutes to get through it, but I know I spent more than 45 minutes just in this one room.  I loved reading what people wrote.  For me, these love stories added a needed dimension and complexity to the museum’s sole focus on romantic, heteronormative love.  There were messages about self-love, pets, love’s absence, family members, the desire for love, love’s heartache, expressions of love beyond the gender binary, and some pretty funny ones too. I asked Dragan about the obvious cisgender, romantic love stories on display and why there was not a single one from those who identified as LGBTQ+.  He has asked for other stories but people have been reluctant to share them (other than those on the love wall).  I have only been here in Dubrovnik for two months, but my sense about the inclusion and support of the LGBTQ+ community and anyone who is gender expansive is non-existent. If this is the case, then I understand why people would not want to put their names, stories, and items on display here.  But, from the Ljubavni Zid, it’s clear that there are such love stories and my hope for The Love Museum is that they will strive to be more inclusive of all narratives.  

Dragan agreed to save all those beautiful hearts from the Ljubavni Zid so that my students and I can do research project to identify and come up with themes of other people’s love stories.  I’m excited about this partnership!

So what was my love story that I left on the wall?  I don’t have any one story, one person, or one experience—I have many that incorporate all the complexities of joy and grief.  I wrote what was most true in that moment which is about how expansive my love feels. 

What would you write for the Ljubavni Zid?  There is a place for your love stories here.

Your Love Story Goes Here

Volunteer with Anja

view of Sipan as we left the island

I grew up Catholic and attended Santa Clara University (SCU), a Jesuit institution.  Although I no longer identify with Catholicism, my Jesuit education instilled a value I hold dear—service to community. When I attended SCU, the University’s academic schedule left Wednesdays open for volunteering or engaging in service learning projects. I certainly didn’t spend all my Wednesdays volunteering, but it did create a culture where service was not only considered important, but expected. I owe my academic career to one such experience in college, but that is another story.

So imagine my surprise to be here in Croatia, where just over 86% of the residents are Catholic, that this sense of service to community is nearly non-existent.  In my visit to Libertas University, I met Anja Marković, the Executive Director of Bonsai , who is working to change the culture of volunteering in Dubrovnik. Bonsai is a relatively new non-profit organization that was founded in 2008 and reimagined in 2010 that put volunteering as its center.  Their mission is to increase community engagement through volunteering based on the values of tolerance and respect, active participation, and social sustainability.  

I spent time with Anja on two occasions—a beautiful sunset dinner with the two resident directors of API at Libertas University (Nada and Ivana) and a day trip to Šipan with her and members of other NGOs/volunteers.  Anja is a psychologist very much dedicated to addressing the needs of those who are marginalized within this community, especially those with mental illness and learning/physical disabilities. She works hard to recruit and engage others in service.

One of the things I have loved about my own personal journey here is a connection to family and a better understanding of my heritage.  Family is central and certain structures are in place to support the family.  For example, women are given six months maternity leave with full pay and if she wants to take the entire year off, she can get half of her salary for the remaining six months.  If a woman has a third (or more) child, she is allowed to take three years off with an income of approximately $300 US dollars. I’ve discovered a wonderful website: Expat in Croatia and it outlines more about family leave policies if you’re interested.  But, Croatian salaries are low—an average of 6420 kuna per month (approximately $962 US dollars).  According to the most recent data from Croatia’s gender equality ombudswoman, the gender wage gap is 13.19% (women make less) and that gap has been increasing since 2010. Similar to the US, women tend to be employed in occupations that pay less—education, non-profits, and healthcare (and certainly is true of those who I have met).  But, I digress…the other side of a family-centric culture is that the burden of care for mental or physical illnesses fall heavily on the family–primarily women. Mental illness or learning disabilities are particularly stigmatized so families are reluctant to reach out to those like Anja who can provide psychological support. 

The photos above are from our day at the beach in Šipan where a member of the group found some beautiful starfish! Don’t worry, they were all returned to the sea.

I was also shocked to learn that there is no infrastructure provided for domestic violence or sexual assault.  There are no shelters for domestic violence or support for those who are victims of intimate partner violence.  There is no sex education in schools at any level but it is mandatory to take a religion class (specifically Catholicism). In fact, even at a University level, there are no courses where one can study gender or sexuality, at least in Dubrovnik (my colleagues said that it is different in Zagreb).  I hope to work with Anja and Libertas University to build an event here in Dubrovnik (e.g., Take Back the Night) when I return with study abroad students.

And it’s not true that people don’t volunteer here, it’s the nature of it. One of my cousins gives one hour of her time per week to a church in the Old City so that it can remain open 24-hours a day to visitors (can you imagine taking the 2-3 am shift??).  During busy hours, there is more than one person in the church which translates to hundreds of volunteer hours per week.  I wonder what might happen to the level of volunteering if the required religion classes emphasized the Jesuit value of service to one’s community.     

Studying Abroad in Croatia

I never studied abroad when I was in college.  It scared me. I was raised in a tiny two bedroom house in the middle of my grandparent’s pear orchard.  The town of Upper Lake, CA maybe had 500 residents.  The nearest “big town” was Ukiah with a population of about 15,000.  It took us 40 minutes to get there but they had a bowling alley, a movie theater, and more than one stop light.  Yep, lots to do there!  When it was time to look at colleges, I wanted to apply to UC Berkeley so my parents and I went to visit.  I saw the polka dot man and was on a campus (not even a city) that had more people and buildings than any town I had ever lived in.  I felt anxious and overwhelmed; I didn’t even apply.  If Berkeley was overwhelming then certainly studying abroad was not going to be in my future.

The other reason, I think, is that my family didn’t really travel.  Our vacations consisted of weekly summer camping trips to the coast, which I adored.  The only trip I remember taking with my extended family was a week in Lake Tahoe for Christmas. Maybe traveling was expensive. Maybe traveling was a value my family simply didn’t hold. Or maybe, as an immigrant family, my father didn’t want to leave a country he risked his life for.  All I know is that my father was terrified to return to the former Yugoslavia even after he became a citizen of the United States.

So here I am in the country of his birth and, of all things, working on a customized study abroad experience for my students.

Nada Raic and Ivana Bajurin, API Resident Directors (left to right)

I spent a fulfilling three days at Libertas International University with the two Resident Directors of API (the study abroad organization that the University of Hartford is affiliated with)—Ivana Bajurin and Nada Raic. These two women are described as “being a resource for you” both on-site and in Croatia.  Let me just say that is exactly what they were and remain for me—without their knowledge, support, kindness, and willingness to help me understand the long process of applying for temporary residency, I don’t know where I would be.  Nada is on maternity leave and was still present for all our meetings and activities—seriously, that is above and beyond the call of duty. 

photo of me with the 15th century frescoes above

Libertas International University is a small, private institution located in Old Town (Grad) Dubrovnik located on the second floor of the Dominican Monastery that dates back to 1301.  They have several majors (e.g., International Relations and Diplomacy; International Business and Economics) and host customized study abroad programs like the one I am creating.  Dubrovnik is a UNESCO World Heritage site and as such, any changes in buildings are strictly overseen by the ministry of heritage—an extraordinary number of permits are required.  For example, in renovating the monastery for the University, some frescos from the 15th century were discovered on some of the walls and great care had to be taken with documenting and preserving them. And don’t expect these buildings to be air conditioned—definitely not approved by the ministry of heritage and culture! Although I will say that the classrooms have portable air conditioners for when it gets really hot and humid.

I was able to sit in on an International Business class co-taught by Professors Janice McCormick (Former Director of PhD at Harvard University, Graduate School of Business) and Iva Adzic.  Their interactive teaching methodology was very similar to my style and I felt right at home in their class.  It made me excited to think about my own students sitting in one of these rooms in the not too distant future. I also had a lively lunch with Ivana, Nada, and Professor Jerko Ban, a Catholic priest, who teaches a course in Comparative Religion. His community and hospital work with those who have dementia, are deaf and/or blind, or in need of palliative care, reaffirmed my growing understanding that there is little to no systems for such care in Croatian culture. Families are left alone to deal with mental and/or physical illness.

As part of my visit at Libertas, I had a wonderful tour of Dubrovnik with Vesna Barišić and met Anja Marković, executive director of Bonsai, a community-based volunteer organization.  I have much to share about what I learned from these women and will write about that in another post.  

I went on an excursion to Lokrum Island with Nada, Ivana, and the current API students studying abroad here.  The island is short boat ride from Old Town and a popular day trip for locals and visitors.  Our tour guide led us through the botanical gardens, the ruins of a Benedictine Monastery, the dead sea (a small lake) olive trees, and gorgeous views of the Adriatic Sea.  If you like peacocks and rabbits, you’ll love Lokrum—they are everywhere! The bunnies are quite peaceful and friendly, you’ll see dozens of them hanging out eating grass while people are sunbathing.  And, of course, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you may recognize the Kindom of Qarth, as seasons 2 and 3 were filmed on Lokrum. Within the walls of the monastery, a room has been converted to a small museum regarding the series.  And yes, there is a replica of the Iron Throne that visitors can sit on.  Although I am not a GOT fan, I did not pass up this opportunity. 

I did not go hungry! Nada and Ivana made sure that I was well fed (a good Croatian custom!) and that we took time to sit and have coffee (another good tradition).  In fact, I think most of my “meetings” on the first day were in outdoor restaurants eating lunch, having dessert, and drinking coffee.  While visiting Libertas, I stayed at the Orhan Rooms, just outside the city walls, convenient to everything.  If you want the experience of staying in one of these ancient buildings, then Orhan is the place for you; you will not like it if you want modern/new types of accommodations.  The owners also have a restaurant (Orhan Restaurant) where guests are served breakfast. As you can see, the view from the restaurant is one of a kind and worth navigating the small streets to find. For Game of Thrones fans, you will recognize this site filmed on Pile Bay looking up at Fort Lovrijenac (Fort Lawrence). On the second and last night of my visit, we ate at Levanat Restaurant in the Lapad section of Dubrovnik. It sits on the walking trail from Sunset Beach with a spectacular view of the Adriatic; that night I got my sunset dinner with Nada, Ivana, and Anja.

Ivana, me, and Nada (left to right)

If you are a university student scared of studying abroad and choose to come with me or spend a semester here, please know that Ivana and Nada will take care of you!  If I had guides like them when I was in college, my fears would have been allayed.  Even my father eventually overcame his fears and returned to visit his home.