In October, Rebecca Mais and her husband, Richard, traveled to Croatia to surprise a former employee. The Maises, the owners of McCabe’s Gourmet Market in South Bethany, have been hiring Croation students to work at the shop each summer for nine years.
“Here at McCabe’s, we had our first foreign students ever in 2001, and they were two young ladies from Croatia. Now, one is a psychiatrist and one owns an engineering company,” said Rebecca Mais.
“You know, I had never even heard of Croatia, to be honest,” she added, “when they came to us, and they were working down on 94th Street, at the Princess Royale, and they had ridden their bikes up here looking for a second job. And, I thought, ‘Anybody who is looking that hard…’ We fell in love with them, of course, and it worked out great.”
Over the last nine summers, the Maises have employed 20 Croatian students at McCabe’s. They helped the students find nearby places to rent for the season, and they became almost like family.
“Every single one has been so lovely and hardworking and just nice people,” said Rebecca Mais. “I think it’s great for our staff to get to know people from other parts of the world. It’s certainly great for those kids,” she said.
One such student, Mario Burek – who is now a lawyer in Croatia – worked at McCabe’s for three years and was also very involved, along with the Maises, at River Soccer Club, helping run camps. Burek also played on the McCabe’s men’s league team.
“Last winter, he e-mailed me and said, ‘It would be my greatest wish for you to come,’” Rebecca Mais said of the invitation to Burek’s upcoming wedding. “I thought, ‘Aww… We can’t do that,’” she explained. “But the more we thought about it, we thought we really should.”
The Maises contacted some other former employees who were friends with Burek and conspired to surprise him the day before his wedding — all while telling Burek they would be unable to attend.
“He would continue to e-mail us, ‘It would be my greatest wish...’ My husband said, ‘That’s kind of mean, Rebecca.’ But it was so worth it when we got there.”
Burek ended up finding out about the surprise the day before the Maises arrived, because their friends couldn’t persuade him to go out the night before his wedding, where he was to get the surprise.
The Maises’ eldest son, Brandt, also joined them in Croatia for the wedding, and as a gift, the Maises compiled a picture album for Burek of his time in Delaware and gave his wife, Karolina, a University of South Carolina sweatshirt – from Mais’ alma mater – because of the similarity in names between the school and the bride.
“This wedding was absolutely amazing,” said Rebecca Mais. “We went to the groom’s house first, and they dance and sing and have food. Then we went to the bride’s home and did the same thing. Then we went to the church, and after, the reception was like an American one, except it went on until they had dinner at 2:30 in the morning. We had soup… another round,” she explained.
“It was tradition to start at two in the afternoon,” explained Rebecca Mais, “and, at 4:30 a.m. – my husband and I are not huge partiers – we said, ‘We can’t drink another drink or eat another piece of food, or dance another dance. We’re going home.’ I think the wedding was officially over around 6 a.m.”
The Maises stayed in Croatia for a week and saw 18 of the 20 students who had worked for them over the last nine years.
“I had e-mailed a lot of them, and I didn’t really expect to see some,” she said. “I knew I would see some who would come to this wedding, but the very first young lady – she drove three hours from her home to have dinner with us and drove three hours back… just to have dinner with us.”
Continued Mais, “One boy’s grandparents have a vineyard, and they took us out there and barbecued all day. Their grandparents are actually Hungarian, so they gave us all these Hungarian paprikas to bring back.
“It just really took us nine years to get there after meeting all these young people,” she noted. “It was overwhelming. I cried for a whole week, because every time I turned around there would be someone new to see. We met their families. They were so lovely to us.”
The Maises spent the majority of their time in Ojisek, Croatia, which Rebecca Mais said reminded her of Delaware — fairly flat with a similar climate. However, a significant difference was the remnants of war.
“A different thing for any American was it wasn’t that long ago that they were at war with Bosnia and Serbia, and there are still shelled-out buildings and buildings that you would go by and see bullet holes. That was kind of interesting to see,” she said. “They talked about that a lot.”
Rebecca Mais recalled having taken the first two Croatian students they hired to Washington, D.C., with her two sons, for a day of sightseeing. While outside of the White House, Yelena and Rose noticed police on the roof.
“I said, ‘I think that’s pretty normal,’” she recalled. “They asked, ‘How come there are so many airplanes flying over?’ and I said, ‘Well, there’s a big airport here.’ They said that, for them, that was memories of the war, which had been about seven or eight years before.
“The very next day was 9-11,” she continued. “They almost didn’t get home… Their experience in the United States was pretty unbelievable, with 9-11 and what was going on with the country. They went to New York and said their greatest memory was that they smelled and tasted metal in the air… That’s what New York was like the last couple weeks after 9-11.”
Rebecca Mais said she recognizes that there are some locals who think negatively about foreign students working in the area. However, she said, she hopes McCabe’s can continue their tradition of hiring them.
“It’s just been such a nice addition,” she said. “I hear a lot of hostility about the foreign students coming in and taking jobs. … I don’t know what I would do without the foreign students, because they can stay,” she said. “We never felt it was trouble, because they were such great workers. They bring something different, and ours have a great work ethic. I hope we’ll continue our tradition to have Croatian students.”
The Mais family hopes, too, to return to Croatia again to visit their foreign workers. Noting again how lovely all the families were there, Rebecca Mais said the experience of the Croatia trip was a special one and a lovely memory.
“It’s one of the beautiful things in life… The older I get, the more I understand relationships are with people and how small the world is. When we went to go visit with their families, we always heard them talk about it – even though they spoke a very different language… We felt so at home. We felt like we could just live there. The people were so friendly with us.
“The world is very small, but we should pay attention to people around us, and it’s nice to keep those connections,” she said, adding, “I mean, who in the heck have heard of Bethany Beach or Fenwick Island, Del.? But for these kids, it was one of the most important things they did in their lives.
“We’re just tickled that we could be a part of it, and we have a great memory.”