Hilton Head Island offers a warm welcome to people from all over the globe. Come meet a few locals who add a little bit of international flair to the Lowcountry.
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff
In a place like this it can sometimes be easy to forget that there’s a whole wide world out there. After all, when you have sunsets, sandy beaches, golf and a lifestyle that is the envy of the world, why bother going anywhere else?
But if you broaden your horizons, you see that there is more out there than paradise. There are billions of people with stories to tell, stories you can’t imagine. Each person who travels from their home country to call the Lowcountry home brings a little bit of their old home with them and a perspective that can teach you more than you know.
Here we meet a handful of our neighbors from far-flung places and hear just a few of the fascinating stories they have to tell.
Rossany and Gustavo Rattia
These Venezuela natives are ambassadors for the Lowcountry to the Spanish-speaking world.
One of the most glorious promises this country has to offer is the chance to turn past into prelude. Coming here, the place you were born becomes where you are from, rather than the place that defines you. Here in America you define your path.
There are few greater examples of this than Rossany and Gustavo Rattia. First arriving here eight years ago, they came to escape political persecution in their native Venezuela.
“It’s hard to describe what you experience when you leave your country due to the struggles you experience,” said Gustavo. “We had to make the decision to leave because we weren’t safe there.”
That one decision brought them here, but it does not define them. Instead, the couple’s deep wellspring of talent and endless ambition does. They first met through music. As members of Rapsodia Coro de Cámara, both singers lit up stages around the world as they represented Venezuela. Rossany came from a large musical family and still feels the pull toward song. “When I came here and saw the orchestra, it reminded me of when I was a kid,” she said. “The music for me is the best way to remember my country.”
Even before they left Venezuela, they had harbored an ambition to start a film company. With Gustavo being a systems engineer and Rossany being a lawyer, it was more a fanciful musing until they found themselves in America. They pursued their dream slowly at first, working in production at WHHI and shooting film and video at special events or weddings. But as they immersed themselves in the local Hispanic community, they saw an
opportunity to do more.
“After seven years working with WHHI and our production company, we thought what if we had our own window to integrate these communities?” said Gustavo. “We wanted to create something for people who are not English speakers and English speakers who want to know about the community.”
The result was Oceano TV, a full line-up of programming broadcast through their website, oceano.tv, and coming soon to streaming services like Roku and Apple TV.
“We thought there was a need in the community to have local firsthand information so people could be more informed, but we also have a cooking show, news show, real estate show, sports,” said Gustavo. “We were trying to fill up a whole schedule with a variety of shows.”
The channel has quickly proven popular, racking up viewers not just in the Lowcountry but as far away as Spain and Latin America. As ambassadors for the Lowcountry to the Spanish-speaking world, the Rattias see the opportunity to pass on the love they’ve found for their new home.
“We appreciate all the love we’ve received from the States. We feel this is our own country,” said Gustavo. “We want people to thrive and make this country even better.”
(Click the thumbnail images below to view larger)
Treasured memories of Venezuela
For Rossany and Gustavo Rattia, owners of Oceano Blue LLC, it’s their shared love of music that brings them back to their childhoods in Venezuela. The couple met as members of Rapsodia, a chamber choir representing their country in song to the world.
“Venezuelan music is so rich – full of instruments and rhythm,” said Rossany. “My mom is a professional violinist and choir director, and she has an academy for teaching kids violin. All of my cousins and uncles are orchestra directors. The music is the best way for me to remember my country.”
Top Venezuelan attractions
Angel Falls: The highest waterfall in the world
Archipiélago Los Roques: A beautiful chain of islands
Margarita Island: Major tourist beach attraction
Morrocoy National Park: A destination for diving
Mount Roraima: A Jack and the Beanstalk type of rock island in the sky
Mieke and Hendrik Smit
Two World War ll survivors exploring the world.
In Amsterdam, at the corner of the Apollolaan and the Beethovenstraat, lies a statue depicting three figures standing in a group. It memorializes the tragic night in 1944 when 29 Dutch citizens were dragged out of a prison by German occupiers and murdered in the street. Their bloody execution was to serve as a warning to anyone else in Holland about the price of defying invaders.
Hendrik Smit doesn’t need to see a statue to remember that night. He watched the whole thing happen at the age of 17. He had been out siphoning the few drops of heating oil from the bottom of empty oil tanks to use again and get some heat, when a truck unloaded its human cargo beside an air raid shelter.
“They lined them up, took their rifles out and shot 29 men dead in the street, he said. “That made me literally sick.”
As a deterrent, it did not have the effect the Nazis had hoped. Despite his young age, Hendrik immediately signed up for the underground.
Further south his future wife, Mieke, also was feeling the pressure of the Nazi invasion. Her father was a bulb grower living on an island in the south of Holland. Mieke’s father had become a well-respected member of the small community. That did not impress the Germans.
“They took possession of everything he had. They took the warehouses where he stored his bulbs, and they made them into dormitories. We had two German officers take our guest room and live in the house with five children. As soon as they started fortifying the coastline against a potential Allied invasion, all my father’s employees were put to work on it.”
Mieke’s father, like Hendrik, joined the resistance to these invaders. In 1944, when the Allied invasion was imminent, the Nazis decided to inundate the whole island – breaching the dykes and sending residents away so they wouldn’t have anyone at their back.
“Imagine 20,000 people trying to leave, with their farm animals, no transportation and nowhere to go,” Mieke said. “My mother left in an ambulance with the two babies. My dad packed two suitcaes and took the four of us — children — on the broken down public transportation system to my grandparents’ house near Leiden. It took two days. And that is where we spent the next year and a half.
“With the men in hiding it was up to my mother to get food and she took her bicycle and regularly went on long foraging trips . We ended up eating tulips and sugar beets and about 20,000 people died of famine during the 1944-45 Hunger Winter.”
That April the Swedish Red Cross came to the rescue, dropping food on the region.
“I can still taste that white bread and chocolate,” Mieke said.
After the liberation, the incredible process of restoring life began. Mieke’s family returned to their island (it took two days on a truck) through a countryside that was totally destroyed, with no bridges left to cross the rivers.
Hendrik went to engineering college, Mieke started her secondary education.
Meanwhile in the U.S., Senator Fulbright had the brilliant idea to use the revenue of sold military surplusses for international education. The Act was passed and it started the Fulbright Program, considered to be one of the most widely recognized and prestigious scholarships in the world.
Hendrik and Mieke did not know each other then, but both qualified for a scholarship which sent Hendrik to the Wharton school for his MBA and Mieke to Western College in Oxford, Ohio, for a BA. The experience was life-changing for both.
Upon their return to the Netherlands they both started working for an American company and met in Amsterdam.
Not long after their marriage they emigrated to the U.S. and became U.S. citizens. They also had three children. However, the company, Remington Rand, decided that they needed Hendrik’s talents in Europe and pretty soon, the family moved to Brussels. This was the beginning of their life as expats — a challenging period of getting their children adjusted and in the right schools, learning new languages.
After 20 years of corporate life, Hendrik became an officer at the U.S. embassy in Brussels. His French and Dutch knowledge served him well in Belgium and the ambassador used his talents in many ways.
It’s these happier memories that now define the couple and the life they’ve built as one of the first residents of TidePoint.
“We were thrilled to discover the piano competition and, having a grand piano, being able to offer hospitality to a contestant,” Mieke said. “Not only have we hosted 18 contestants, we have also followed their careers and forged friendships. A number have returned to play here or are planning to.”
But the fairy tale experience in Mieke’s life has been meeting a young pianist in Odessa, Ukraine, in 2006. With the help of many friends, Dasha came to the U.S. and studied at Peabody (BA), the University of Miami (MMS) and Stony Brook (DMA).
“That took massive fundraising and a lot of support,” Mieke said. “Dasha spent 11 winter breaks with us on Hilton Head and played many concerts. All our friends know her.”
Dasha is now married and has a little girl. Recently she was joined by her mother from Odessa.
“The kind of environment you grow up in, that’s kind of the soil,” said Mieke. “But when you open your eyes to the diversity of what other nations and cultures have produced, you start to look for them. And I dare say, we have done our share of exploring.”
(Click the thumbnail images below to view larger)
Top Netherlands attractions
Jordaan: A charming neighborhood with beautiful canals.
Keukenhof: Known as the “Garden of Europe.”
Rijksmuseum: A stunning art and antique museum in Amsterdam.
Anne Frank House: The Amsterdam home where Anne’s family hid.
Kinderdijk: Nineteen 18th-century windmills dot this charming village.
Michele and Les Janka
This power couple brings a wealth of international talent to the Lowcountry.
On the walls of Les Janka’s office, you’ll find countless hints to the fascinating history of this recent island native. On one wall you’ll find a plaque inscribed with camels and Arabic writing which roughly translates to, “No matter how much the dogs bark, the caravan moves on.”
On another wall you’ll find a great example of the barking dogs, a framed political cartoon from the L.A. Times. He’s the butt of the joke, but these days with the caravan having moved on, he can laugh about it. “My parents lived in L.A. when that came out,” he said, “so they got to see that on their front doorstep one day.”
As a California native, Les Janka didn’t need to come to this country to gain a different perspective on it. Instead he cultivated a unique way of viewing the United States and its relationship with its most vital allies and deadliest foes as a key figure in international relations. Working under three different presidents, he spent years with his finger on the pulse of U.S.-Middle Eastern relations.
Graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 1964 after studying international economics and Middle East studies, he was in a unique position of authority on a subject that had suddenly been thrust into the spotlight. Long-simmering tensions over the Gaza Strip and the Suez were just a few years away from igniting into the Arab-Israeli War, and Janka had been honing his skills working with the Foreign Service before returning to academia.
“Henry Kissinger invited me to come back into government and work on the Vietnamese peace negotiations, so that attracted me to leave academia,” he said. “And then of course in 1973 the (Yom Kippur) war broke out, and I was the only person on staff who spoke Arabic.”
Seeing the government through that conflict led to Janka’s staying on through the Ford Administration, but in 1978 a move to the private sector led to the greatest adventure of his life. The consulting firm he worked for required him to learn French. His teacher was a young Belgian named Michele.
“I had no interest in graduating from the French class because I wanted to stay with her,” he said with a laugh.
“It was really interesting because we were talking politics the whole time in French,” she added.
The pair became inseparable, even as their jobs took them all over the globe. She left the consulting firm to work for the Belgian and then the Australian Embassy. He started his own consulting firm, helping governments like Egypt, Jordan and Morocco work with Congress to establish better relationships with the U.S. In 2007, with the couple’s children all having flown the nest, Les fielded an offer from Raytheon to head up its new Saudi operations. Michele loved their years in Riyadh .
“There were just small challenges,” said Michele of her time in Saudi Arabia. “But the women that I met were so interesting. They have their own totally separate society, and they’re all very entrepreneurial.”
And now as Hilton Head Island transplants, this power couple brings a wealth of international talent to the Lowcountry.
“I spent 50 years working for peace, stability and prosperity in the Middle East, and retired with a great sense of accomplishment,” Les said with a wry smile.
(Click the thumbnail images below to view larger)
Treasured memories of Belgium
Michele Janka’s journey from Belgium to America brought her to a greater understanding of personal freedom. As a French speaker in a largely Flemish town, she found herself often on the outs, with little recourse for social mobility. But in America she found the freedom to be whomever she decided. That’s not to say there aren’t elements of Belgium she remembers fondly.
“Chocolate and French fries,” she said with a laugh. “But besides the food, the culture. I mean that in the sense of art and appreciating the everyday art, living that way.”
Top Belgian attractions
Bruges: Home to beautiful canals and a stunning belfry.
Gravensteen: A well-preserved moated fortress.
Meuse Valley: Waterfront towns with hilltop craggy-castle and fortress ruins.
Castle of Vêves: A fairy-tale-style medieval castle.