The Cardonas: Abby and Levi, Eileen (37) and Gabriel (41) arrived in Dubrovnik one year and 15 days ago. Their Croatian journey started from not knowing much about Dubrovnik but being the city they’ve Googled and – were instantly amazed. As we’re having the coffee in Župa dubrovačka, their now home – Eileen and Gabriel recall the emotions they had while deciding to leave Orlando in Florida and come to live to Brašina, Župa dubrovačka. This amazing journey is also recorded on their TikTok, where Gabriel posts everyday life as pastor, spiritual guidelines, impressions about Croatian way of living, food, people… They are most impressed by people and the way they were accepted.
– We did celebrate our first year here (Gabriel laughs)! I recall the sad emotions back then. We were so sad because we left our family and our community back there. But, there was a reason for making such a big decision! I’m a pastor, so I decided to come here and make a community as well. I was pastor for 13 years in Orlando, a big, almost 300 thousand people city. My wife and I pastored the church and built community centers as well. So we were asked if we can make the similar community center here, in Dubrovnik. We liked the idea, but never actually knew too much about this city. Then we started to Google pictures of Dubrovnik and simply stated: ‘Ok, we’re going (laughs). Dubrovnik wasn’t just Game of Thrones, we loved the pictures and were impressed. And, yeah, we never watched Game of Thrones! And never visited Dubrovnik before… – Gabriel stated.
– It was interesting to Google all these pictures of Dubrovnik! I think that naturally, every country pulls up the most beautiful pictures of the cities, nature etc. But Dubrovnik was way more beautiful and amazing when we got here. We were like: ‘We matched perfectly!’ – Eileen added. Gabriel was, to add, Pastoral Counselor at Dr. Seifert’s Pain Management Clinic.
– In my mind, I had a plan, deciding that I’m just going to make myself transparent and vulnerable. I opened TikTok and Instagram, we didn’t have TikTok back home. My logic was – with TikTok you can target more of your area, with Instagram you’re just targeting your friends when you put a post, your friends see it. But here, you don’t have friends, and yet you want to connect with someone, have coffee, etc… I figured out people are going to meet me before I meet them. I liked that concept. And the rest is history – Gabriel continues.
It is really nice to represent the country, and the impressions about the country – to the people of that country! That’s the concept of Gabriel’s TikTok, along with religious videos that are spiritual and very leading.
– We are not here to change people’s denomination or church, no! Our goal is to deepen the connection with Jesus, the God and that is it. It doesn’t matter where one goes to church. This communication is something we were doing back home as well. We don’t obligate people to come to our church – Gabriel stated.
Within the year, they did make one amazing circle of friends, and met many expats. Some even from America, they stated with the smile.
– To be honest, when we arrived there wasn’t anyone ‘ours’. We did have some friends, but they are leaving soon. So we might not have the ‘original’ friends, but we did make some great friendships through our one-year-journey. We talk about everything, pray… – Gabriel adds.
– On Friday nights we are hosting kid’s service at our home, offering crafts for kids, we sing songs, read them a short Bible stories… Similar to what we were doing back home with the kids at our church but our apartment started to be too small! – Eileen told me. They’re now working on something like community center, a place where everyone can get some ideas and share them as well.
– We talked with some of the parents who want their kids to be somewhere, to hang out… To relax. Like a child version of coffee bar! – Eileen stated – we are not here to push people into: ‘You need this!’ situations. Back in Orlando, we were working in low income community. They needed tutoring, clinic, even school supplies, such as backpacks. We didn’t want to come here and offer all that, because it wasn’t what this area needed. This area needs something else. And if we can contribute, great! – she concluded. They even created their Facebook page, in Croatian – Obiteljska događanja u Dubrovniku, Župi i Cavtatu (link to be inserted in nline version). Their wish was to connect and share experiences with expats and residents of Župa dubrovačka. Now – friends.
– We’ve never experienced making friendships so quickly. I think it really was because we were so vulnerable, desperate and in need for communication with other people. This community has been so nice and respectful to us. We didn’t expect such amazing experiences, everybody was so warm and opening to us being here. It is probably because it is, after all, a smaller community. The consistancy that I’ve seen here is – honesty. I’ve noticed that, per example, if people see something here that is wrong, they’ll simply say that: ‘This is wrong!’ Very direct, I like that. You know the proverb: ‘Don’t beat around the bush’. Something like that! – they both told me. (Ne okolišaj!)
– Our goal is to work with the community, connect to find the needs and inforce any type of unnecessary needs. One of the things that I am personally trying to do is reach out to the priest of the community to work together, he may have the ideas where I can help and vice versa. I strongly want to work with someone to help building better community – Gabriel added – per example, we organized basketball and football nights, every Saturday from 6 to 9 pm, in the old gym. The goal is to give the community the opportunity to be themselves, children to be children – he concludes.
– Closer to Easter, we plan to make craft nights – Eileen added. Also, Gabriel was more than proud to share the publishing experience for our newspaper.
– The last thing is, which I can’t wait to do, is to publish a children’s book that I wrote, and it is about our identity and God. I finally got it translated to Croatian – it has been a process! A year. Luckily it is almost done – he shows me the almost-final-version of ‘When The Wind Whispers’. We will not reveal the plot of this children’s book, but might add that it is, just as Cardona’s, the big life journey with happy end!
– In Orlando, there is so much of everything. It is a very touristy place, and we are used to tourists (laughs)! But, when we arrived here, we realized that you don’t need 24/7 Walmart or more than one gas station. You just have to enjoy in what you actually have. We realized that one doesn’t need that much!
Day by day, one year passed. How one day in their life looks like?
– We’re doing language learning, our teacher is Marija Konsuo from the University of Dubrovnik – and she is amazing! Also, we take online classes, doing classes on our own, trying to absorb as much as possible!
Photography: Dubravko Lenert