Bound for Bosnia – Week 15

It’s the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday. Since the weekend was going to be quiet, I planned a day trip across the border to Bosnia, a welcome distraction to try and soothe my melancholy in being away from my family during the holidays. I knew it would be difficult to be absent from our traditions in preparing the Thanksgiving food, arranging our Christmas card photo shoot (usually met with eye rolls or groans in matching outfits) and running in the Turkey Trot, but it was more challenging than I anticipated. The loneliness really seeped into my little Croatian apartment as I was cooking a box of Hamburger Helper (a sweet treat from my husband in a care package that arrived a few days earlier) and turned on Netflix (only to have an error message flash across the screen that the Internet was not working). It was too quiet and I did not like it. I longed for being with my family, hugging, laughing and being in the same house together. But I reminded myself that growing up as an only child, I’m used to being independent and going solo. I learned from a very young age how to entertain myself, as I was unaccompanied most of the time. I think one of the reasons a sorority in college was so appealing to me was the thought of having over 100 “sisters” to turn to, ask for help and hang out. So balancing time between being alone and being with a group of family and friends is the best.

Where in the World?

“Why not go to Italy or Greece?” my friend asked as we were talking on WhatsApp (this is one of the must haves for communicating abroad – it’s free and offers video and text to stay connected). “Well, I’m right there – it’s only 3 hours away from Croatia and when I am going to get another chance to go to Bosnia?” I responded. “Sounds like you, getting outside of the box. It wouldn’t be my first choice, but have fun anyway and be safe!” she said.

I met the driver at Restorn Bruschetta, a popular meeting place because it is an easy pick up on Zadar’s main one-way street. He introduced himself and in the next breath asked if I had “papers.” Yes, I did bring my passport and now carry a bonus card — yesterday I finally got my Biometric Residency Permit at the Police Administration Office (a Croatian ID that I applied for when I landed here in September). He opened the door and we started driving out of town. He was a native from Zadar and told me we would have to be extra careful crossing the border at night because “The Syrians are constantly scrambling across the mountains into Bosnia, headed toward Croatia, Greece and their main destination – Germany.” He said he has seen a heavier police presence at night, but “all they do is turn them around and tell them to go back; they don’t really make a difference.” And he said their company fields multiple e-mails per day from European IP addresses and fake European phone numbers, asking us to pick them up and drive them across the border, sometimes offering us up to 10 times the normal price of transportation.

We have not even gotten to Bosnia yet, and I have more butterflies in my stomach than before. Maybe I should have gone to Italy instead? I remained calm and appreciated the car ride, as buses were my only means of transportation besides walking. It was quiet and I watched the mountain range as we sped along the highway. It reminded me of taking long car rides with our daughter Madison who always asks to “go for a ride,” listening to music, reflecting and enjoying the journey to a new destination.

Is this Part of the Tour?

Online pictures of the Old Bridge, Stari Most, was one of the reasons I wanted visit Mostar, but my guide, Emir, opened a dialogue that was completely unexpected. Emir introduced himself as Communist Muslim, “But not the kind where my girlfriend has to dress like a Ninja. I am a communist Muslim. I believe differently. I am more open minded with the Quran.” Hmm, this was going to be an interesting private tour.

He launched into the history of Stalin and Tito, grappling for power. “Stalin was jealous of Tito and tried to assassinate him multiple times. You should go to the House of Flowers in Belgrade (the resting place of Josip Tito, the President of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia for over 30 years) and see Tito’s letter to Stalin because he tells him to stop sending his assassins, as he will only send one to Russia to do the job. Stalin later died of natural causes, but Tito would have killed him and probably should have.” Emir is referring to the Tito-Stalin Split, or Yugolav-Soviet Split, the conflict between two leaders.

The conversation turns toward his opposition toward Croatians. His disdain is palpable and uncomfortable at times. We pass a shop in the bazaar that is selling Nazi swastikas and I am shocked. I turn to look at him and he pulls me aside and says, “You see, those symbols, patches and pins are for the Croatian tourists who come here and want it to buy it. The Croatian Nazis are everywhere. And let me tell you how to find them – ask them if they liked Tito. If they said they didn’t like Tito, then they are Croatian Nazis.” I am growing increasingly uneasy. I have told Emir I am teaching in Croatia and my positive experience in Zadar. My sentiment seems to irritate him.

He goes on to tell me “The truth is everywhere, but the Croatians won’t tell it. They will tell you their version of the truth. They walk around with walnuts in their pockets (he is referring to corruption). If you want to know the truth, listen to me and watch the BBC documentary, The Death of Yugoslavia, complete with six episodes. Do not watch the forged versions.”

We stop again on the side of the street and he puts his hand on my shoulder pointing to street graffiti showing a heart with Tito’s name scrawled inside, “We all loved Tito. We still think about our ‘Tito Time.’ I remember in 1980 when my father called me, crying and said, ‘When Tito died, Yugoslavia died.’ We still have a picture of him in our kitchen. Everyone does. Tito was a mass murder, I mean, he killed like 500,000 people, but none of them were in Yugoslavia. They were all outsiders. He took care of us. He invited us to practice any religion we wanted and if you did, you were in a specific category. If you didn’t practice any religion, you were communist, and you were in a different category, a better category because you were paid 30% more, and you a chance to be promoted. Tito believed in the power of the people. For example, no outside business was allowed, no exports. So Tito decided that if you grew your business to more than 5 staff members, then you would automatically give your business away to the government. But you know, that was fair because we thrived on the local, small business model. It worked well. There was never a teacher’s strike when Tito was our leader because everyone was paid the same and paid fairly. He even gave us presents for holidays – everyone got a gift. And he wanted us to relax too after we worked – he set up apartments by the sea for us to go out and enjoy with our families. What do we have now? Democracy (he grimaces). And no one wins here. People are leaving our country because they can’t find jobs. They can’t compete here because they don’t want to.” It’s a struggle between collective memory and the motivation to move forward, visible everywhere in town, a living narrative of resistance during war.

He takes me to the bright yellow Austrian-Hungarian High School building and points to two multiple wings, segregated with all of the “bad religions” on one side, the Orthodox and Muslims, and the Catholics on the other side. “They hated us. They hated what we believed in. They still do.” Again, he refers to clashes between Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats, the ethnically rooted war from 1992-1995.

Juxtaposed to the heavy weight in conversation and symbolic reminders of war throughout our tour, Mostar is a small and beautiful city. The original bridge was built by the Ottomans in 1566, but destroyed during the war. Now there is a replica of the bridge, constructed in 2004. Emir offered several viewpoints of the bridge as we walked back into the Old Town and crossed the Neretva River. He explained that during the summer months you can watch the famous bridge jump — a scary tradition among locals, men who regularly make the daring leap from Stari Most into the waters below as a rite of passage. Some tourists will be approached to pay to watch a “jumper”fly off of the bridge and resurface below. But today was too chilly for the bridge jumpers and crowds were thin. Emir has jumped off the bridge, but he reiterated how dangerous it is because of the strong current and hidden caves below the water that can suck you in and under. “My uncle’s son was an Olympic swimmer here in Yugoslavia. He was an amazing athlete and one year he jumped off the bridge and didn’t come up. His body was never found.”

The Old Town on the eastern bank of Mostar has a large bazaar selling traditional Bosnian items. Most of the items were copper plates, cups and coffee pots, but they also had some cushions and handmade clothes. It is situated along a quaint cobbled pedestrian street, the Kujundžiluk, and has managed to retain its Ottoman look over centuries. Lined with traditional stone and Ottoman houses, there are local craft stores, inns and restaurants. If you’re looking for souvenirs from Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, this is the area to get it.

Mostar is a picturesque town from above and well worth making your way down to the water’s edge. From the west end of Stari Most there’s a long staircase which ends on the rocky banks of the Neretva River. The water is clear and offers a different perspective of the Old Town of Mostar.

One of the most prominent buildings is the towering bank just off the Spanish Square (named after the brigade of Spanish who fought for peace) is the Sniper Tower. This former glass windowed bank was once a snipers’ nest for Croatian soldiers during the conflict. It’s an eerie spot, now a skeleton of a building with the inside full of broken glass and debris; both inside and out have become a canvas for street art.

Walking through Mostar there is still so much evidence of the recent wars and battles that were fought here only twenty or so years ago. To think that these battles were fought in our lifetime is sobering. Emir tells me he was about five years old when the war raged on. He still has nightmares about it, but not about the bombings, he has a fear of not having food. “I was always hungry. My stomach was out to here – bloated with air. Even now, I can’t go to sleep at night without eating most of what is in my refrigerator. I don’t want to ever be that hungry again.” He paused. “But you know, the Americans helped us. Bill Clinton helped us. Hillary Clinton helped us. She held up a picture of one of our Bosnian woman who was raped and threw it in front of your congress. After that, your American soldiers started sending food in big boxes. Chicken that was made of dust, but it tasted so good because it had been so long.”

He pauses and says, “Don’t get me wrong. I like Americans. But make no mistake, George Bush Senior started our war in Yugoslavia. He wanted to break apart our strength and was in on it with Khrushchev. I think it was their idea. We didn’t want any war. But we got one.”

The Siege of Mostar was fought during the Bosnian War between 1992 and 1995, after Bosnia & Herzegovnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Air strikes destroyed many of the important buildings and structures around Mostar, including Stari Most, the Old Bridge. Emir mentions the bridge multiple times, “They took out our jewel, our bridge. And it was then that we rose up to fight them as hard as we could. They could not take our bridge and our pride away from us.” He pointed to both mountain tops and the valley in between. “They were over there and we were over here. We are walking on ground zero now. It was chaos. It was blood.” He told me about Gabela and Heliodrom concentration camps run by the Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia and Croatian Defense Council.  “My uncle was a survivor of those concentration camps. He was beaten and tortured. And now lives in Brooklyn.”

We continued walking for a few hours, stopping at a Catholic Cathedral and Ottoman-style mosques along the way. The main religion in Bosnia is Islam, followed by Christian Orthodox, and Catholic. Islam came from the Ottoman occupation, which lasted around 400 years.

At the end of the tour, I made a comment about the garbage overflowing in dumpsters throughout the city. Emir said the people of Mostar decided to stop having their garbage picked up over three months ago. “The politicians want to build a garbage dump right next to the river, because it is cheap land. But we can’t have a dump in that location. I mean, I swim in that river, my dog drinks from that river. The river flows through our town. So we are all protesting by not having our garbage picked up and it is causing quite a problem. For example, see this? (he points to debris that has fallen off the side of a building) These clay tiles fell off the roof the other day because of the earthquake (Albania had a 6.4 magnitude earthquake last week, quickly followed by Bosnia with an earthquake registering 4.1 magnitude). The people are not cleaning that mess up. And the best part is that a politician’s parking spot is there, so he can no longer park, but he has to look at the rubble that fell off the roof, the garbage sitting directly on his place. And that is hopefully what will move action forward.”

When I got back into the car, I reluctantly told my driver about some of what the guide had shared. He wholeheartedly agreed with the sentiments regarding Tito, “our hero,” but quickly disagreed with being hungry during the war and particularly the thought of complaining about it. “That’s all in his head. He needs to forget that shit. We didn’t have time to be hungry. We were just trying to keep our heads on and not blown off.” And he went on to tell me his father died in the war in 1993. He was quiet for awhile and said, “My mother held everything together like mothers do. And I have an 18 month old daughter and I will be her father, protecting me like my father never could.”

As we crossed the border, we were stopped and the border patrol officer pointed to me in the backseat and started speaking quickly. I held my breath. The driver spoke just as quickly and was waving my passport in front of the steering wheel, laughing and pointing to me. I wondered what was happening, but kept quiet. After ten long minutes of this, we moved forward and the driver handed me my passport. “What was that all about?” I asked. “Oh, she saw your food in the plastic bag sitting next to you in the back.” I had purchased a to-go bag of cevapčiči and baklava based on Emir’s local restaurant recommendation. He continued, “The border patrol office was telling me told me that bringing food from Bosnia to Croatia is forbidden. But don’t worry, I told her there was no food in the bag, but it was in your stomach!”

Blessed Virgin Mary

Before we crossed the border to return to Zadar, the driver suggests stopping at Saint James Church in Medjugorje (meaning “between mountains”). The church was built in 1892 and located in a village in Herzegovina, close to the Croatian border. Saint James Church has been the site of apparitions of the Virgin Mary since 1981 and become a popular pilgrimage site. We pulled up when mass was taking place and it was a very simple, unassuming service, not a next-generation televangelist type of church with glitzy proselytizing. Although the driver points to the souvenir shops crowded with statues of Mary, and tells me how people spend their religious vacation here with “consumeristic Christianity,” waiting to see Mary. He said, “They have seen her on the mountaintop. People have spoken to her recently.” Despite the T-shirts and keychains that surround the church, the church itself is quiet and simple in design. Visiting this church, like many others in the area, provides liturgy and tradition in a sacred space with respite and reorientation. I am thankful I can carry some of our church traditions across the globe and this makes me feel more at home, less like an outsider and more like I belong.

My mother’s maiden name was Mary Therese Bulfin and in this particular church I feel serenity and light as I kneel in front of a statue of the Blessed Mother, Our Lady of Medjugorje. I thank God and my guardian angel, my mother Mary, for protecting and guiding me on this journey to Bosnia today. Amen!

Hiking in Paklenica National Park

It’s no secret that I like to hike. I love being outdoors in the elements and breathing deeply. Paklenica is one of eight national parks in Croatia. I asked Ellie and Leonarda if they wanted to take a hike on Saturday during Thanksgiving weekend and they said yes! We were planning to take two cars with our small Fulbright group including Tiana and Josh, Lindsay, Ellie, Leonarda, her son and myself. Paklenica is in Starigrad, about an hour away from Zadar, on the southern slopes of the Velebit Mountain.

Two main activities are hiking and climbing, but there is also an option to ride a bike on specific trails in the park.

More than 30% of visitors at the national park are climbers, as there are over 400 marked climbing trails with the shortest climbing routes situated in Klanci, the narrowest part of the Velika Paklenica canyon.

It was a beautiful weather day with the sun shining and bright blue skies. Unfortunately Ellie and our Fulbright friends could not make the trip due to transportation snafus, but Leonarda and her 11-year old son Marko picked me up at 9:00 a.m. and we headed toward the mountains.

We started on a 3 hour trail leading up to Anića Kuk, one of the most famous climbing sites in the world, its north-west face a 400-metre wall of limestone and Europe’s answer to Yosemite’s El Capitan. There is a variety of botany as well. The park has 79 endemic species and is regarded as a world-class location for wild flowers. In fact there were signs posted not to pick the flowers out of respect for the area. We also stopped to read several signs about park animals including deer, boar, wolves, bats, bears, snakes and lynx.

The map also showed some ominous pink blotches nearby: minefields. During the Balkan wars of independence in 1991-95, Serbian forces pushed up to this ridge, hoping to establish a permanent grip on Croatian territory. By the time they were defeated, some 20,000 people had died, the park was closed for years and the Croatian economy was in ruins. For the Mountain Association the challenge has been to rebuild footpaths away from those danger areas.

The rocks jetted out beneath us, making walking a little slippery and tricky at times, but it was a gorgeous hike. We saw donkeys coming down the mountain on their way to carry supplies from the town below. The bells around their necks gently rang as they cautiously found footing on the rocky paths.

When we reached a small bridge, we saw a mountain house and stopped to eat budola and cheese sandwiches Leonarda prepared. I brought pink lady apples and granola bars for us to munch on. And the mountain house host (or forest ranger?) brought us a bowl of warm fritule, a special Croatian dessert, small deep fried donuts with powdered sugar – perfect to warm us up and continue hiking.

We finished a total of 18 miles hiking and Leonarda invited me for dinner. It was very late and she insisted I eat soup she had prepared that morning. It was a lovely invitation and her son Marko was very excited to show me his collection of currency from countries all over the world. His arrangement of bills and coins was really impressive, an authentic study in numismatics. I gave him a $5 US bill to add to his collection and he gave me a $5,000 former Yugoslavian bill along with an elaborate “Croatian cheat sheet” he designed, translating Croatian numbers into English language. I really enjoyed spending time with Marko and Leonarda. Marko is a very intellectual and mature young man, knowing a mass amount about history, politics and religion well beyond his years in sixth grade.

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Making Connections in Croatia – Week 12

Island Hopping

There are over 1,000 islands to explore in Croatia and today I visited one about 20 minutes across from Zadar called Uglijan, above the small town of Preko (translated, Preko literally means “across”). I boarded the 7:30 a.m. ferry with Jadrolinija, Croatia’s largest liner shipping company for passenger transport and vehicles. Most of the ferry connections are now operated from the ferry terminal Gaženica, the main ferry port. Our ferry, called “Dora,” departed from the dock right on time. If you’re visiting the island, I suggest packing water and a lunch, as many of the restaurants were closed for the season in the town square.

I began hiking for almost 2 hours completely solo, amongst the chirping birds and trees lining the asphalt road. It was really peaceful, but a bit eerie not to see anyone else on the path. I followed the road across the valley, surrounded by olives and stone walls, before a sign appeared, pointing toward a steep stone incline to the fortress, St. Mihovil (St. Michael’s) peak, about 250 meters above sea level. The ruins of a 13th century Venetian fort, it most likely served as an observation post. During this same period, Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great had been making attempts to revive the western half of the Roman Empire. With its strategic position, it’s possible that the fort was used by the Byzantine Empire to monitor and control the surrounding sea routes.

There has been a lot of destruction since 1345. The fort is due for renovation and is in bad shape because of the bombings in World War II. Only a few walls remain and the site is full of phone antennas, crawling with black wires on the ground. Until the local government decides, archaeological excavations and conservation work weep for reconstruction. There are plans and visions for the fort’s future, according to the Tourism Municipal Board of Preko it is supposed to be made an officially protected historical site, possibly becoming an interpretative center called “The Castle of Island Stories (Dvorac otočnih priča)” – telling stories of nearby islands. For now, watch your step, as there are many loose stones and precarious points along the pathway to the fortress.  

Look at that view!

The fortress is a great place to understand the topography of Croatia, with amazing views of Preko, Zadar, National Park Kornati and the surrounding archipelago.

There is a lot of mysticism surrounding the stone fort. In fact, local storytellers say the fortress was built by fairies who carried stone blocks up the hill. On the way back, I came across a rock garden that was a stop along the way for church goers in the past to pray for a good harvest before they made the climb to St. Mihovil.

I also spotted a lot of pictures of upside down anchors on murals and doors throughout the town of Preko. The upside down anchor was the way they were positioned on a boat when the fisherman decided to stop work for the day and sail home. The anchor was hung on the bow and the boats were seen sailing into the harbor with the anchor upside down.

I took the early afternoon ferry back to Zadar and met a man who was a medic in the Homeland War. He told me how his eyesight was badly damaged by a bomb he stepped on. However, he can only be seen by a doctor once every year or two within the healthcare system in Croatia. He shrugged and said, “Oh well, it’s all behind us now, but I really need to see for my job.” He is paid $500 Euros per month as a garbage collector, owns his apartment and pays for utilities. He was visiting Preko because his parents were born there and it was All Saints Day, so he was honoring their life by putting flowers upon their graves.

Coca-Cola and Supernova

It is well known among my family and friends that I have a Coke habit (no, not the drug, the drink!). Wait, that sounds terrible. Let me clarify, I do not have ANY contact or have ever consumed illegal substances, but I do have an addiction to Coca-Cola, the sweet bubbly soft drink, or “pop” as we call it in the Midwest. I drink approximately 3 Cokes per day and yes, it is an unhealthy habit I realize, but it is a vice I indulge in. My favorite type of Coke is from the fountain with ice – preferably crushed ice (I love to crunch the ice) or one inch cubes. It is a sort of ritual drinking a Coke. I really enjoy it.

Imagine my delight when I landed in Croatia and almost broke into song with the 1971 jingle, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke!” I can still hum this tune, as it has a lasting connection to my childhood and became more than just a drink, it apparently it is a universal love.

It turns out, Coke appears to be just as popular as coffee in Croatia. The Coca‑Cola Hellenic Bottling Company has been the largest bottling company of non-alcoholic beverages in Croatia since 1968. HBC operates from Ireland in the west to the Pacific coast of Russia in the east, from the Arctic Circle in the north to the tropics of Nigeria in the south. A few years ago, they launched a nation-wide campaign Coca-Cola loves Croatia with the goal of promoting cities like Dubrovnik, Osijek, Pula, Rijeka, Split, Zadar and Zagreb on their bottles. The company chose several buildings representing symbols of each city and put stylized forms of those buildings on bottles. The illustrations also appeared on t-shirts, aprons, tables and various print materials.

It is unavoidable to enter any establishment in Hrvatska without seeing a red and white Coke bottle. In fact, the soft drink brand Coca-Cola is a must stock item and the company has been accused of placing other soft drinks at a competitive disadvantage because of the exclusively of this supplier. Contracts to purchase only Coca-Cola brands for commercial usage in hotels, bars and restaurants in Croatia is apparently unavoidable.

The dominant position of Coca-Cola helped in making me feel at home and of course continued my obsession!

This brings me to another vice (this blog post appears to be taking a confessional route): shopping. So on a rainy Sunday after church, I took out my rain jacket and walked to the bus stop (about 25 minutes from my apartment in Zadar) and boarded the #11 bus (10 kuna per person) to the largest shopping mall chain in Croatia: Supernova. This mall was built in Spring 2018 and it was spectacular. It offered a range of local and international fashion from high end to bargain basement. I recognized stores like Zara, H & M, Nike and Levis, but also was impressed by the quality of clothes and shoes from Poland, Italy, Croatia and Spain. The stores were clean and the hours were favorable for a weekend.

Eating selections were vast from Milnar, the Croatian franchise bakery, to a full blown food court. It was a one stop shop, as the mall also had a Spar Supermarket, hardware store and pharmacy.

And after a few hours of power shopping, of course there are several cafes to enjoy a cup of coffee (or in my case, a Coke!) before boarding the bus back to the station. A sidenote – on Sundays the bus has a special schedule and only runs every 2 hours.

Croatian Cooking Class – Week 11

Croatia is a culinary delight. The vegetables and fruit are fresh and very inexpensive – only a few kuna per kilo. The city market has been operating since the Middle Ages around the edge of the town square. Each stall has a separate shaded awning and offers more color than the next, displaying apples, plums, potatoes, zucchini, squash, figs, nuts, fresh herbs and much more. There’s homemade olive oil, rakija and cheeses. Turn a corner and you’ll be standing in the meat market and a few steps further the fish market is positioned inside the city walls. Being on the Dalmatian Coast, the fish are in abundance – octopus, sardines, salmon, sea bass, squid, eel, the list goes on. There’s even a clothing section of the market to buy a pair of underwear if you have the need. You can browse, bargain and hear Croatian banter while walking by each stall bursting with goods.

What’s Cooking?

Ellie, her friend from high school, Dillon (who is teaching in France this year) and I signed up for a Market Tour and Cooking Class with Viator Travel. We meet our guide at Café Louvre at 9:00 a.m. in the People’s Square and of course, before the tour begins, we pause for coffee. About an hour later, we are walking amongst the market stalls, choosing vegetables and fresh mandarinas or mandarine oranges for snacks. They are in season and the citrus taste is delicious! She buys potatoes, carrots, peppers and onions before inviting us to take a look at the fish market.

The smell of fish greets you several feet before stepping into the fish market. It is damp and slippery on the floor. The guide encourages Ellie to eat one of the raw mussels from the overflowing pile on the table. She bravely picks up the shell and slurps it down, saying it tasted a bit salty. We continue to see fish on display, their black eyeballs and shiny fins askew on a variety of tables, men gutting fish and talking with customers.

These are expert fishmongers, trained in selecting, purchasing, handling, boning and filleting their seafood as fresh merchandise for us to purchase. The guide chooses a few squid and a bag full of mussels which look like black clams. She tells us mussels are highly perishable and we need to watch if the shell is closed tightly. If any of the mussels are slightly opened before cooking, we would need to throw them away to avoid contamination and food poisoning. But while cooking, the mussel shell should open with steam.

After the guide purchases the fish, she moves onto the bread stand. She chooses a fresh loaf and tells us we have all of the ingredients to return to the shop to begin the cooking portion of our tour. We arrive to a brightly colored cooking area and the chef greets us with a drink of honey flavored brandy.

Stuffed Squid

The chef gives us tips in preparing the local cuisine and talks fondly about her grandmother who taught her how to cook while living on one of the neighboring islands. She is witty and honest, sharing that she works three jobs and is a single mother of two children. We start with gutting the squid in the sink. She shows us the first squid, gently pulling the translucent spine out (“it tastes like plastic and isn’t easy to cut, so we don’t need that”) and slicing the eyeballs, which splatter bright red blood onto the side wall. She tugs at some of the yellow fat toward the bottom and then hands us each a squid, inviting us to try the gutting process. The consistency is rubbery and a little slimy, but we did it and place the squid’s bodies on the baking pan. Next, we slice and dice potatoes, carrots, garlic and onions, stuff the squid and put it in the oven with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt for 45 minutes.

While waiting for the squid to bake, we prepare dessert, fritule or Croatian fritters. They look like tiny donut holes and are fried. The chef tells us fritule is a traditional Christmas treat and can be stuffed with chocolate, lemon, rasins, apples or rakija (what doesn’t go with rakija?!). She “kicks” the batter by sitting down and stirring with rigor. She says this is a great way to “get the anger out” and often during holidays they will pass the bowl of fritule batter around the room and everyone gets a chance to “kick it” or stir it. When the batter is mixed, the cooking time is very short. She places the batter in her hand and has a spoon with oil nearby to prevent sticking. She artfully passes the batter from her hand, making small balls and drops it into the hot oil on the stovetop. The donuts turn a golden brown and she sets them onto napkins before sprinkling them with powdered sugar.

Cheers! Živjeli!

The last step is to steam the mussels in a large stockpot with garlic and white wine to add flavor. The chef tosses them and covers the pot until the mussels open. And since Dillon is a vegetarian, she makes a special vegetable and risotto dish for her as well (she teases Dillion relentlessly that her body is “crying out for fish” during our cooking preparation, but Dillon has been a vegetarian all of her life). The guide plates our food and we sit together with a chilled glass of white wine and a delightful meal that we helped to prepare. This was a very special way to experience cooking from start to finish. The chef’s refrain was “keep it simple,” but learning about the variety of food, how it’s made and eaten throughout the day added an even deeper appreciation and complexity of the culinary customs in the country.

Cigarettes, Coffee & Cats -Week 10

When I was in kindergarten through third grade I spent almost every day with my Grandma Bulfin. My mom used to work in the Chicago Public Schools and she would drive from our house in Darien, east of Cass Avenue, to Beverly in Chicago by 7:00 a.m. every morning, Monday through Friday. She really sacrificed a lot for me to attend a Catholic school. Spending so much time with my grandmother influenced me in many ways. I would often walk home from school to eat lunch at my Grandma’s house. She would be waiting for me with a bologna sandwich on Butternut white bread — the 1976 brand with blue and white gingham checkered packaging and a picture of Peanut’s Snoopy the dog on the side. Sometimes a few pieces of candy corn, her favorite sweet, also appeared on my plate. The television would be tuned to “Match Game,” with celebrities like Edward Asner and Jimmy Walker. It was a sensory experience at my grandparent’s house.

After school my Grandma would often retreat to the basement, or what we affectionately called “Bulfin’s Bar.” She would sit on an orange vinyl swivel chair, listen to Bing Crosby Christmas music, no matter what time of year, and smoke Virginia Slims while slowly sipping a Miller Lite beer.

Purse Pack

The sound of my Grandma unwrapping the gold and white package of cigarettes is still familiar. In 1973, the Phillip Morris company advertised their new brand of cigarettes, Virginia Slims, depicting a beautiful, lean woman smiling and holding a cigarette with the slogan, “You’ve come a long way baby.” I look back on this cigarette campaign and think how it may have made an impact on my grandmother. She never got her drivers’ license, raised three children and was a devoted wife. She relied on my grandfather as the financial family provider, but did not fit the “traditional mold” of conforming to certain gender roles. For example, my grandfather did all of the cooking and grocery shopping while my grandmother did the laundry and paid the bills. They were a good team that balanced household responsibilities. The Virginia Slims brand targeted a female market to not only sell cigarettes, but also the idea of female equality. This particular brand appealed to a modern woman, as the first cigarette tailor made for women only – designed with a flavor and size “women like,” even packaged in a “slim purse pack.”

Virginia Slims promoted the idea that smoking was a sign of youth and beauty, with feminist undertones that may have given some women the idea that smoking is an act of female liberation and equality, particularly in the late 1960s and 1970s. But ultimately I believe this was a false narrative, with the primary goal of getting women addicted to their product, cigarettes.

I watched my grandmother as she smoked and was fascinated by the allure of it, the clouds swirling above her head, the lit ember glowing. And I remember one day, I must have been around 11 years old, I asked if I could hold one of her lit cigarettes – not smoke, but just hold one, to be more like her. She said “no” immediately and I never asked again. A few years later, my grandmother suffered a massive stroke. She was diagnosed with aphasia, a language disorder caused by stroke. Her words were difficult to formulate except for certain phrases she spoke with clarity like “That’s right kid.” She never returned to smoking and I often wonder that if she could have found the words, what she would have said about it.

If you are sensitive to smoke, you cannot avoid it in Croatia. It is literally everywhere. People smoke at breakfast, lunch and dinner. People smoke while bike riding, boating, walking and shopping. Croatia has the third highest number of smokers, with Greece taking the lead. The average smoker in Croatia lights up over 26 times a day. Although the European Union has threatened to crack down on smoking in public places, it is prevalent and there are no signs of it stopping, as the laws are not strictly enforced. Croatians have a serious cigarette habit, almost as serious as their coffee drinking.

Cup of Joe

Coffee is a state of mind in Croatia. It is not to be rushed or taken away in a plastic cup. It is not served with sprinkles or whipped cream. As our tour guide remarked, “We don’t have coffee milkshakes here” (a wink and a nod to Starbucks). Coffee is a social event that happens daily and can last two to three hours or more. There’s always time for coffee and conversation. “Idemo na kavu” means let’s go grab a cup of coffee. There is a rhythm and routine to coffee rituals. For example, my colleague and I went out for coffee and she commented, “I always smoke two cigarettes with my cup. This is my time. It is what I do.”

And this is one of my favorite social constructs in Croatia. People slow down, engage and make eye contact. There are no cell phones on the café tables as they sip and smoke. In Croatia, coffee starts with an espresso base, or shot of coffee. Variations include bijela kava – a plain white coffee with warm milk; veliki macchiato – a shot of espresso with warm foamy milk; mali macchiato – a shot of espresso with a dash of frothy milk and cappuccino – a shot of espresso with a lot of milk foam and powdered chocolate on top. I’ve also recently tried Turkish coffee for the first time in Zadar and it has a very intense, heavy flavor – even with a heaping tablespoon of sugar and cream. Turkish coffee is so thick it looks like a mud puddle in a tiny cup. It must be an acquired taste.

It’s Raining Cats and Dogs

Well, more like cats only. They are everywhere! There is a community of stray cats on every corner. One of the reasons there are so many cats in Zadar, my colleague says, is because of the fish. But another reason could be that most people don’t pay to spay or neuter cats. I have seen many locals feeding cats on the street or offering a cardboard box for shelter. They are adorable and it takes a lot of willpower not to scoop one up and take a little kitten back to my apartment to snuggle with.

Say Cheese – Week 9

Day trips are an important part of exploring and immersion in the Croatian culture. This week I arranged for a tour of Pag, an island founded in 1443. My guide was a former Humanities Professor at the University of Zagreb and was delighted that I was his last tour of the busy season. Things start to shut down in October in Dalmatia — restaurants and shops close their doors until spring. The advantage of taking a tour when things are winding down is of course there are much fewer people in town. Pag felt quiet, minimalist and desolate. It offered a completely different feel than Zadar.

The drive to Pag is a dramatic shift in topography. It is rocky and moon like with minerals covering most of the blank or “naked mountains.” The history is fascinating and the guide tells me about the various “take overs” within this area. He specifically talks about the Venetians trying to fend off the Turks from siege and pillaging. During the tour he points to a blank space above one of the churches, Assumption of Mary, in the main square. Right under the beautiful stone rosetta – one of Pag’s many white flowers, there is a rectangular parcel of stone that seems out of place.

No More Lions

The wonky rectangular stone on the front facade of the church has significant meaning. The story goes that after World War I, Pag was conquered by the Italian forces who ruled the island until 1921. Apparently, Mussolini had a specific philosophy based on his country’s late days of glory, claiming every settlement bearing the iconic Venetian symbol – the lion of St Mark – was inherently Italian. The coat of arms were erased, depicting the Lion of Saint Mark, a winged lion with a halo and symbol of Saint Mark the Evangelist, patron Saint of Venice, standing across land and ocean, perhaps symbolizing Venetian military and naval power.

The people of Pag didn’t like the meaning behind the lion, so they purposely destroyed every stone lion in town, including the lion on the church facade. All of the Venetian lions were in fact sanded down to anonymity.

Ladies and Lace

We walk on toward the Lace Museum and see beautiful needlepoint on full display. Needlepoint lace has its origins in textiles within the eastern Mediterranean. Real lace first appeared in the renaissance period. Basic forms of early lace are found on national costumes – a square area inserted in the cloth and filled with thread in a spider web design. Young women of Pag town learned the intricate lacework craft as part of their education from Benedictine nuns. Since the 16th century, along with prayers, the nuns taught lace making and literacy to girls, and later on established a girls’ primary school with qualified teachers, where lace making was a special subject. The museum curator shows me how to create the lace with a pillow and cardboard pattern piece. She sews precisely, with a quick flick of her fingers. After her demonstration she randomly comments, “We once had a man go through our lace education class. He did okay.”

Worth Your Salt

We get back into the car and take a short drive across the bridge to an area where salt was produced. Known as white gold, salt was a strategic product that was crucial for preserving food for centuries. We saw pictures of historical production techniques with salt pools and pans. Records show tons of salt being exported by ships. Now they have modernized equipment and moved the factory to a different site. The climate is perfect for salt production and assists in all ways of life, as the salt is blown by the wind into some of the grasses and eaten by the sheep, who largely outnumber the population of 8,000 people to 35,000 sheep. In fact, the name Dalmatia means “land of the shepherds.”

The Cheesiest

We end our tour of Pag with a visit to Sirana Gligora, a lovely little cheese factory and restaurant. Instructed to wear hair nets and large white coats, we walk on slippery floors and view racks of aging cheese. Their famous and most delicious type of cheese is Paski Sir, a hard cheese made with flavored sheep milk. A variety of gourmet cheese is displayed on a plate at the end of our tour with a glass of chilled white wine. Delicious!

Take me to Church – Week 8

Irish Catholic

Full disclosure, I was raised Roman Catholic and even more specifically, Irish Catholic. I spent most of my childhood on the southwest side of Chicago and attended St. John Fisher Catholic Elementary School located in the community of Beverly, where Sister Alice and the priests introduced me to the seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, communion, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and matrimony. I remember staring at my elementary school crush, Eugene White, between church pews in first grade. And giggling next to my best friends Shannon O’Reilly and Diane Benoit during the May Crowning ceremony in the spring, where we watched one of our classmates place a crown of flowers on our blessed mother Mary. We wore our scratchy plaid checkered uniforms and walked together each day before morning prayer.

Church was the center of my upbringing. My Grandma Bulfin used to walk to church almost everyday and created a table “altar” in the hallway of her Chicago bungalow, with a crucifix, holy water and candles. We didn’t miss a Sunday mass. In fact, if we went on vacation, the first thing my dad would do was look for the phone book in order to find the nearest church and mass schedule. He grew up right next to the church and his parents were so devout that they sold their house and land to the church for a modest price. My cousin Jim became a priest and joined us at family gatherings to bless the food, bless our home, bless our babies. Father Jim created one of our many family traditions of taking the baby Jesus figurine out of the crèche, the nativity scene, passing the baby around the circle of relatives and friends, kissing baby Jesus on the forehead and sharing a prayer aloud during the Christmas season. His charismatic way of spreading the word of God with sensitivity and care was celebrated at our wedding ceremony, baptism of our two daughters, last rites of both my mother and father and at their funeral liturgies.

You’ve Got a Friend in Me

My mom used to tell me, “You are who your friends are.” When I met my lifelong friend Debbie Bieber over a decade ago in our neighborhood, I couldn’t have imagined what a spiritual impact she would have on me and so many of our friends. Debbie brought our neighborhood together through her leadership in ministry and fellowship. We all had children around the same ages in school and we spent a lot of time together on school related projects, sports and community service. Our kids had play dates and in turn, we did too. They became friends and we became friends.

Debbie recognized the importance of women coming together in conversation. We “did life” together, centered around discovering a deeper relationship with God. She opened her home every week for our small group discussions, led Bible studies in church and participated in the coordination of elementary, junior high and high school Moms in Prayer International (MIP), an organization bringing together moms to pray for their children and schools in more than 140 countries and in all 50 states. We would all meet in Debbie’s dining room or basement and cover our school districts with prayer, reading names of teachers and administrators, exchanging stories about our children’s triumphs and struggles. Debbie provided a safe haven for us and we grew closer as a community.

With her enthusiasm and gentle heart, she enhanced my experience as a Catholic; I was used to a routine of sitting in rows during Sunday morning services and changed to gathering in circles in a small group setting, deepening and expanding my understanding of specific Bible passages. I grew up with a priest interpreting scripture while delivering his weekly homilies and now I was engaged in sorting through complex concepts, giving more insight into the context of the Bible, which informed many aspects of my life as a wife, mother and child of God. Debbie would effortlessly recite passages from the Old Testament and New Testament, with a refrain of knowing Jesus and what he fulfilled in life, death, resurrection and ascension. My biblical illiteracy was enriched by this time of is time of study and reflection. I was no doubt challenged by scripture study, which I often thought was reserved for pastors and theologians. Debbie assured me that Bible study is open for everyone from all backgrounds, no matter where your knowledge base starts. She also began inviting us to read Christian authors like Beth Moore and Jen Hatmaker, often giving us copies of their books as gifts. An avid reader (it must have been fueled by her law degree!), Debbie told me about Bob Goff, the author of the New York Times best-selling book Love Does. These books became touchstones for me and I still pull them off of my bookshelf to re-read.

During one point in our several coffee conversations, long walks and spending beach time together in Michigan, Debbie and her husband Henry told me about their volunteer work with Josiah Venture, a group of young Christian leaders traveling throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The Biebers had been to Split, Croatia several times, working with Josiah Venture. Each time upon their return, they would speak highly of Croatia and the people they met. On the Josiah Venture website Croatia is described as “As a post-communist country, Croatia has reverted to its ethno-religious roots of Catholicism that date back to the eighth century. Most Croatians identify themselves as Roman Catholic although many would openly acknowledge their faith as nominal. The countryside is speckled with old stone churches, but most of them are empty and only cultural points of interest. Josiah Venture’s primary focus in Croatia is evangelism and discipleship of youth. We partner with local evangelical churches to equip and develop young people in their faith. Our prayer is to see mature, disciplemaking youth that have been equipped to fulfill Christ’s commission through the local church.”

Debbie was influential is checking in on my spiritual health and choosing Croatia as a primary destination for further intellectual pursuits and the study of prayer was part of my entire decision making process. Here’s to the prayer warriors in our circle of lifelong friends: Jen, Kristi, Trixie, Deanna, Linda, Tanya, Nina, Jayne and Debbie. I love you all!

Croatian Catholic

Another important part of my decision to choose the country of Croatia as my US Fulbright Scholar location was based on spiritual demographics. There are 80% practicing Catholics in Croatia. There is practically a church on every corner. But, as I found out, in Croatia, there is no distinction between church and state. As a colleague told me, “Well, there are ‘Catholics’ and then there are ‘Croatian Catholics.’” Croatia differs from most other predominately Catholic countries in Europe by making Catholicism a state religion and rallying the nation around the church. The Croatian Catholic right has a dominant presence in conservative Zadar. The patriotic ideology is a key tenet in Croatia’s Catholic identity.

Having a conversation about the practices and beliefs of religion can be approached with curiosity instead of judgment, but it can also be intertwined with politics, morality, family and dozens of important topics that can be handled with respect and care. The Croatians I talked with were willing to speak up and openly discuss their beliefs. For example, we engaged in a conversation in a café about Catholic nationalism and the person whom I met just an hour before expressed in a candid manner his view of the church. Again, I am paraphrasing:

I was born Catholic. I mean, we’re all Catholic here. Did we even have a choice? It is all tied together here. The homily is just one long political message – we are told by the priest who to vote for, and if you don’t follow the flock, you’re going to hell. So yes, it is Catholic  nationalism. It’s wrapped up in war and conflict. Serbians were our arch enemies because they were Orthodox. The Serbian Orthodox Church is the second oldest Slavic Orthodox Church in the world, made up of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina. But even though we [Serbs and Croats] used to hold the same Yogoslav nationality, it’s not the case anymore. I think ultimately their Bible must be thinner than ours.

On one of my tours of the city, our guide explained the four religious orders in Dalmatia:

  • The Franciscans focus on giving radical witness to the Gospel through the evangelical counsels: poverty, chastity and obedience. Their spirituality tends to embrace the emotional side, leading with heart, and focused on the Will of God.
  • The Dominicans are historically “Irish twins” with the Franciscans, responding to similar movements in the church. They were the intellectuals in the church, praying through their study. They favor parish and school ministry.
  • The Jesuits were founded to be radically available to the Pope’s needs, especially in the missions. Their spirituality focuses on discernment and obedience.
  • The Benedictines, unlike the other orders, are a monastic order. Their purpose is to get to heaven, by the work of their hands and prayer. Their vows include manners, stability, and obedience.

When Croatia was part of former Yugoslavia, Tito discouraged outward displays of religion as part of his effort to meld ethnic identities. The members of the church hierarchy were exposed to overt persecution. Bishops, priests and believers experienced difficulties and pressures; catechesis was thrown out of school, organizations were dissolved, faith was proclaimed to be a personal matter of each person and society was exposed to systematic atheization. But when the post-war Yugoslav communist regime came down, Catholics lost no time celebrating their Catholic faith as part of declaring their independence.

During the war from 1991-1995, the Catholic Church again suffered harsh persecutions. Some priests and monks were captured and killed. Hundreds of priests and monks were in exile. Over one thousand church buildings were either destroyed or damaged.

The fall of totalitarian regimes about 20 years ago brought certain freedoms and the result was a return to the church, even by some of those who had persecuted it. The number of church attendees went up dramatically. In the past two decades Croatia has lived to see the freedom of its pastoral activity in different areas – education, economy, army and police, but has Christian living accompanied these changes? It is a complicated question to explore.

But when I walk into the numerous churches in Zadar including St. Mary’s, St. Donatus, St. Anastasia’s Cathedral and St. Francis’ Church and Monastery, I feel that same spiritual warmth I do in my home church. I dip my fingers in the holy water, say a little prayer, and thank God.

Volunteering in Zadar – Week 7

Why are you here?

“A lifetime of giving to others” is written on my mother’s tombstone. She died when she was 49 years old after suffering from the ravages of lung cancer. My mother comes up frequently in my blogs and I am reminded what a positive influence and legacy of altruism she left with me, her only child. Her career in teaching was impressive; she gravitated toward schools that were known as the lowest-performing, with drop-out rates nearly 10 times the rate of average Illinios students. Her life’s work was to try and help students overcome obstacles in their lives – violence, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy. She was a tough love teacher – she pushed students to explore their opportunities, reach for the stars and land on the moon.

My mother was a pioneer in service learning. She began her teaching career in the 1950s and took students to soup kitchens, war veterans’ groups, literacy centers and more. She infused learning in the classroom with experience outside of the classroom. Her intellect and independence introduced me to transcendentalism – the importance of nature and self-reliance in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature and Henry Thoreau’s Walden Pond. I recently re-read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail – California to Oregon, a memoir of self-discovery memoir and Richard Louv’s The Last Child in the Woods, who coined the phrase, “nature deficit disorder.” And another book that influenced me to create service learning curriculum was written by one of my College of DuPage colleagues, Tom Fate, who beautifully wrote Cabin Fever – A suburban father’s search for the wild in the Michigan woods.

I was a Girl Scout. I love to be outside and participate in hiking, biking and running. So I combined my passion for the outdoors with service learning and developed new English composition courses called, “The Prairie Project: Students, Sustainability and Service.” I created curriculum with Remic Ensweiler, College of DuPage Prairie Manager and Krystina LaSorsa, Assistant Manager for Career Services, for students to engage in ecological restoration and write about their experiences harvesting seed, cutting invasive plants and learning about the ecosystem. Students wrote about their experiences in the field and ended the semester with multi-modal projects defending a thesis statement regarding different aspects of prairie preservation from economy to history.

In tandem with a US Fulbright Scholar award and my College of DuPage semester sabbatical leave in Fall 2019, my goal was to develop and teach international service learning courses at University of Zadar in Croatia. This project supports our continued coordination of College of DuPage global partnerships while promoting the expansion of civic engagement.

From COD to Croatia

Collaborating with faculty to teach service learning courses opened complex studies in literacy, culture and diverse perspectives within the Croatian community and beyond.

What are service learning courses like in Croatia? Within the first few weeks on campus, I quickly learned that support for the development of global service learning, particularly at University of Zadar, had a fairly low profile. My colleagues shared that university courses in service learning were non-existent in the Department of English and required encouragement and recognition in order to begin building a formal process of gathering information and establishing a model within this area. Anecdotally, students frequently shared with me their lack of participation in clubs, community and cooperation. They were matter of fact in wanting more out of their college experience, particularly since most of the courses I taught were in Contemporary English Language, with students pursuing bilingual interdisciplinary concentrations in education, tourism and public relations.

Their goals collectively were to stay within the city of Zadar, seek employment, promote community and pursue positive changes. We shared several complex discussions about becoming long-term stakeholders at their university, using the vehicle of service learning to combine both academics and action.

How do we start?

Securing adequate resources for future development of service learning courses is needed. Increasing a system for service learning and the value-added benefits within the curriculum is a challenge worth pursuing to encourage service learning as a key pillar of the university infrastructure. Putting the right people in place to champion service learning on campus is critical to building and sustaining a program. These may be respected, long-time faculty or staff members, or up-and-coming instructors who see the benefits for the campus and the community. Faculty leaders need to take time to mentor and train others who are new to the service learning pedagogy.

Although some progress is being made in Zadar, programming is mostly focused on the local high school through the Ministry of Family, Veterans Affairs and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) relying mostly on grant funding from the European Union and Office for the Associations of the Croatian Government. In particular, I began working with the Agency for Rural Development of Zadar County (AGRRA) with activities focused on:

·  Preservation of cultural-historical and traditional values for creating sustainable use, protection of nature and environment and efficient renewable energy

·  Establishment of sustainable tourism with natural and cultural values

·  Development of technical and technological documentation

I was most interested in their recent project with students from Obrovac High School with the inclusion of school curriculum in planting a forest, cleaning up rivers, painting town murals and beautifying the landscape. The local Croatian service learning project was called “The Volunteer Forest,” which aligned with my College of DuPage service learning English composition courses “The Prairie Project: Students, Sustainability and Service.” Our mutual projects shared a clear global connection – to pair academics with action.

According to one of the recommendations made in the Croatia National Report, “Europe Engage: Developing a Culture of Civic Engagement through Service-Learning within Higher Education in Europe,” (2016) it is necessary to develop teaching materials that would promote the results of service learning programs. In other words, a number of universities in Croatia are new to the concept of service learning and College of DuPage would be the first to build a partnership with a highly selective university like University of Zadar during an important embryonic stage of their development. This project presents a unique opportunity to share best practices in instructional design and curriculum development, yielding future versatile offerings for both of our campuses.

Wherever it takes place, global service learning requires deep, grounded knowledge of community cultures along with respect for the knowledge and experiences of community members. Attention to cultural, economic, historical, political, and social issues affecting the community, as well as to those issues’ local and international contexts, is essential.

A current model to consider is at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) Croatia in Dubrovnik. They host a Community Service Day as part of a Year One course in the first semester with students organizing events like cleaning areas in the small village of Trstenik, on the peninsula of Pelješac. Trstenik was hit hard during heavy fires that occurred in the region in 2015. In addition, large amounts of garage washed ashore on their local beaches and they were struggling with managing waste properly. Students partnered with fire brigades and members of the community to help clean the area. They found medical waste, plastic chairs and even random shoes littering the shoreline. After that day of service, a student commented, “I hope types of events will motivate service learning in the future because the positive energy after working is priceless. If you don’t experience it yourself, you’re missing out.” This example is part of a larger program called RIT Cares, a joint effort between RIT and chapters around the world making a difference in communities through service projects. It is important to note the difference between volunteer community service and service learning. The beach clean-up program in Trstenik is an example. With a community service effort, volunteers participate in a beach clean-up and the community appreciates the assistance with litter removal and temporary beautification of the area. However, with service learning, volunteer students with an academic background or interest in environmental sciences can study waste collection and recycling as practiced by the host city, and then participate in clean-up project to learn about accessibility and use of these services in different villages. The community still receives assistance with litter removal and beautification, and they also are informed about recommendations on sustainable waste management. The student receives academic credit for their research and recommendations, and the community receives immediate assistance and responsible guidelines on how to better maintain their environments. An international service learning experience also allows the student to acquire professional skills, and it can lead to a career, however, its goal is to translate academic subjects through real-world activities that have a positive impact on all participants.

At College of DuPage, faculty members who facilitate service learning experiences take extra time to ensure that their students are fully prepared for challenges they may encounter. Lisa Higgins, Associate Professor of English at College of DuPage, wrote “A Handbook for COD Faculty” in Spring 2012, detailing COD’s Service Learning Program, complete with tips, techniques and texts in the service learning field. The handbook serves as a practical introduction to teaching service learning courses, offering helpful resources and ideas. In 1998, College of DuPage provided the Service Learning program with a grant from its Major Institutional Initiative fund. This grant has been used to increase service learning opportunities at the college.

If you build it, they will come

To heighten awareness of best practices in international service learning involves key ingredients and time. During my US Fulbright Scholar residency at University of Zadar in Croatia, I observed, recorded, summarized and began to assess ways to combine campus resources and launch this new service learning project together. I interviewed faculty and students, attended site visits and reached out to as many organization in country for further discussions on the overall concept of the goals and intent of the program.

I met with the Deputy Head of Zadar Regional Development Agency, several times to discuss development, projects and processes in Zadar County. She was articulate and well versed in strategies to assist local communities. In fact, efforts to specifically help areas ravaged by the war included Gračac, Benkovac and Obrovac (in northern Dalmatia, Zadar County). She spoke candidly about how the homeland war in the 90s continues to effect future generations. “The youth who were raised during the war are the lost generation. They take their degrees, their knowledge and they get out. It is a brain drain. We need to reach over them to even younger children who can contribute and take ownership in growing their communities. We require a network of different stakeholders to raise the quality of living in this area. Their first conclusion is wanting to cooperate because it empowers by example, it changes our communities and changes us all.”

She told me how villages were crushed, demolished and obliterated during the war and never raised up again. “The priority was on building new roads, hospitals, markets. And yes, we built those things. [she pauses] But what we forgot was to build and re-build people.” We talked about the network of different stakeholders to raise the quality of living in this area like Volonterski Centar Zadar, interested in youth volunteering activities, “We promote volunteering in the local community by informing, educating and connecting people’s interest in volunteering with organizations that need volunteers.” Their partner connections also include Salto-Youth.

Part of the challenge in creating service learning at the university level is the delivery of coursework combined with a lack of classroom technology at University of Zadar — the majority of courses emphasize lecturing and theory rather than application and discussion. In other words, students learn concepts and apply them to imaginary or simulated circumstances rather than acquiring knowledge in the “real world” that service learning has to offer. Worksheets are distributed to students to fill in the blanks and recitation of a long list of vocabulary words is a standard practice. Providing hands on experience in the curriculum will be a different philosophy to consider adopting. The process of collaboration, transformation and observation to yield results will take time and a delicate balance of respect toward the current pedagogy and delivery. Implementing a new teaching strategy involves a paradigm shift and investment at all levels among administration, faculty and students.

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth,” said Muhammed Ali. Global service learning is a powerful, transformative practice that all students should have an opportunity to experience. Hopefully we can continue to collaborate and work towards creating a robust service learning curriculum in Zadar.

Leaving Zadar for the Weekend — Week 6

Idyllic Istria

During my second overnight trip in country I traveled to the region of Istria, a peninsula in the northwest. It’s about 4 ½ hours from Zadar and has breathtaking hilltop villages, art galleries and bike paths through forests — an incredible respite from a rigorous teaching schedule at University of Zadar. I stayed at the Grand Park Hotel, the new Maistra Collection’s flagship collection in Rovinj, looking across the bay to the Old Town. The hotel was very modern, designed by an Italian architect, with minimalist vibes. Each floor was painted a dark navy blue and displayed names of trees from the forest situated behind the hotel. The concrete walls and mini plunge pool outside my room on the balcony added to the atmosphere. Upon check in, the front desk invited me to indulge in the Wellness Center as part of my stay. They told me that multiple saunas, steam rooms and quiet areas were available for my use if I wanted, so I stopped at the Wellness Center on my way back to the room one evening. The scent of vanilla and jasmine wafted through the air and a series of glass walls with bamboo coverings offered a cocoon for guests to spread out on oversized chaise lounge chairs quietly reading books . . . in the nude! No one mentioned to me that this was a “clothing optional” part of the hotel.  I was fully dressed and immediately blushed in this unexpected awkward situation. Clearly I could not have blended in if I tried. So I glanced at the “snack table” where glass cylinders of dried mint, chamomile, orange rind and cinnamon were beautifully displayed. I focused on searching for a tea bag, but was so distracted and embarrassed that I couldn’t grab a cup fast enough, so out of the corner of my eye, one of the hotel guests attempted to help me – again, not wearing any clothes. This older man directed me to the paper tea bags and instructed me to fill a bag with loose leaf tea. I quickly made a steaming cup of tea before pivoting and walking briskly to the exit, eyes on the floor.

When I told my “wellness” story to one of the tour guides in Istria, he sternly warned me that I could have been kicked out for wearing clothes. “Social nudity is part of our freedom from communism. It was liberating to shed our clothes, which is why the first nudist beaches formed. People always enter naked in public bathhouses like the Wellness Center at your hotel. It is a welcome experience and there are many camps and parks in Istria celebrating the natural bodies of men and women. In our socialist state we are at ease with it.” Um, okay, but I am more comfortable with wearing clothes.

The next day I toured the town and climbed up the steep hill to St. Euphemia Church built in 1725 and viewed the iconic bell tower, resembling the tower of St. Mark’s Basillica in Venice. In fact, folks call Rovinj “little Italy,” as it is bilingual, with signs written in both Italian and Croatian. Rovinj was a settlement of Venetian tribes before being captured by the Romans. From the end of World War I until 1947, Rovinj was part of Italy, further cementing the long Italian influence on its culture. However, when it was made part of Yugoslavia in 1947, many Italians fled.

Classmates with Melania Trump?

I signed up for a “Flavors of Istria Tasting Tour” and our guide Dejan drove us to Montovun and Hum – hidden jewels only accessible by car. One of the first things he told us was that we was born and raised in Slovenia. The second thing he told us was that he went to high school with First Lady Melania Trump – she was his neighbor. He briefly discussed her modeling career and presence in their hometown, but shifted the conversation to history. Dejan did not mince words. He launched into history, while comparing the positive attributes of Slovenia with the negative hardships of Croatia. He continued with a stream of consciousness style monologue while driving our small group to the first location, Hum, the smallest village in Croatia with 26 people. I am paraphrasing his words:

I served in the Yugoslav Army before it changed. Croatia suffered religious wars and is divided into thirds – Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian Muslims. The Yugoslav Army moved from Slovenia to Bosnia and overnight before they changed to the Serbian Army. Times were hard. The money was coming from Austria for weapons – they smuggled guns and artillery in garbage cans to help people who had nothing to fight with or fight for. Those stupid Croats were fighting with each other. And no one cared. Ultimately there was a right side of the war and a wrong side. By the end of the war, the profiteers were not happy. After all, they were supplying drugs, cigarettes, oil and prostitutes. The jails were empty – all the criminals were fighting in the war. And now we have a parliamentary democracy. But what is democracy? Is it all good?

After our tour of Hum with tastings of black and white truffle paste, brandy and fuzi pasta, we drove to Montovun. On the way Dejan pointed out forests where truffle hunting dogs searched amongst the trees and joked, “Never buy a used car in Montovun – the suspension is shit.” Montovun is perched high on a hill and has an impressive city wall which circles the town and provides stunning panoramic views. It is famous for its film festival and striking examples of Venetian colonial architecture. Reminders of the former Venetian rulers are everywhere with stone lions (Venice’s symbol) standing over the tower gates and coats of arms adorning buildings. The water cisterns in the town square date back to the 14th century.

Toward the end of the day we stopped for lunch at Lim Fjord among the vineyards that produce Teran and Malvasija wine. We made a toast with a small glass of Teranino, a blush red liqueur made from Terrano wine – like a liquid candy for dessert!

Nema problema (no problem)

My dad used to say this phrase a lot, “No problem.” It’s a phrase I incorporated into his eulogy because it really resonated with me during my childhood and still has long lasting effects. It was his mantra and in a way this phrase has become my motto as well. Didn’t make the varsity team? No problem. Break up with a high school boyfriend? No problem. Didn’t earn the grade I worked for? No problem. Had an argument with a friend? No problem. Burnt a grilled cheese sandwich? No problem.

After a long solo bike ride on one of Rovinj’s beautiful crushed gravel trails, I headed back to town for a cup of tea (fully clothed – see above). I sat by myself at the café, but eventually started talking with a young graduate student. His honesty was disarming and he had no problem sharing a range of opinions with me almost immediately. Again, I am paraphrasing his words in 10 points during our conversation:

  1. Zadar is different than Rovinj. Zadar is uber conservative and Rovinj is more liberal minded. There is evidence of xenophobia — closed minded and stuck in the past I think.
  2. Rovinj is more progressive and can get behind someone like presidential candidate Mislav Kolakušić, an Independent who so far is a surprise not only announcing his candidacy, but gaining popularity in his anti-corruption message, running his campaign mostly on social media. He’s gained a good amount of support. I’m watching closely.
  3. The education system is broken. Croatia ranks 138th out of 140 with only places like Ethiopia behind us.
  4. Reform is hard. The politicians make the rules and we follow the rules.
  5. All highways in Croatia are not Croatian – we give money to Hong Kong. We need to put the work ethic back into Croatia.
  6. The mayor of Zadar doesn’t know what to do with the tourists. There are more and more of them and less of us. He has no system and no proper fee structure. It’s everyone for themselves.
  7. Ivan Šarić, the Croatian stand up comedian, says that old people can’t let go of the past, but young people don’t know what the future brings. It’s funnier when he says it though.
  8. A lot of young people are getting out of Croatia. They’re moving to Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands to look for jobs. I hope we can all return to Croatia, but I don’t know for sure.
  9. In Rovinj it’s hard to get along with areas like Zadar. We kind of mock them, you know? We think they’re slow. Maybe there’s too much sun in Dalmatia.
  10. I love my country and that should be enough, but it’s problematic sometimes. Do I deserve more? I ask that question a lot and can’t find an answer.

It is this list of poignant points that causes me to pause and reflect. It is a barrage of thoughts, clashing ideologies and deep roots of conflict. I am reminded of how grateful I am for this opportunity to listen, engage in dialogue and absorb as much as possible over this semester sabbatical in Croatia.

James Joyce doesn’t like the Golden Gate

I had no idea James Joyce, the famous Irish novelist (he wrote Ulysses (1922) based on Homer’s The Odyssey and Finnegans Wake (1939) taught English language courses at the Berlitz Language School in Pula from 1904-1905. However, he did not enjoy teaching in Pula and often showed up to class drunk and ended lessons by singing Irish songs to his students. Joyce walked under the same Arc of Sergil that I did today. It is also called the Golden Gate, but Joyce did not find any redeeming qualities about the area. During his stay in Pula he wrote a disgruntled letter to his aunt:

“I am trying to move on to Italy as soon as possible as I hate this Catholic country with its hundred races and thousand languages. . . . Pula is a back-of-God-speed place—a naval Siberia . . . . Istria is a long boring place wedged into the Adriatic peopled by ignorant Slavs who wear little red caps and colossal breeches.”

Unlike Joyce, I enjoyed my time in Pula, albeit it was only for a few brief hours on a heritage walking tour. My guide was born in Moscow and married a fellow tour guide from Trieste. She told me about the gates featuring the Greek gods Zeus and Hercules. Under the Italian Fascist government of Benito Mussolini, non-Italians and especially Croatian residents who came to Pula under Austro-Hungarian rule faced stringent political and cultural repression because they had to learn how to integrate and learn the Italian language. But the tour guide said Mussolini wasn’t in Pula very long. He wanted to demolish the main government building and make it bigger to show his strength, but he did not succeed.

We walked on to the most famous and largest monument in Pula, the amphitheater or Arena built in the 1st century AD. It took over 100 years to build and was an architectural marvel. It could host up to 20,000 spectators and was built for gladiatorial combat with bloodthirsty beast hunts. She pointed to the “death door” where they would “throw” the dead bodies. Oh my, a very violent time.

We ended the tour at a café (surprise?) and she introduced me to a unique Croatian drink called the Bambus. She described the concoction as a summer drink mixed with half Coca Cola and half red wine. Bombis – ½ coke, ½ red wine – a favorite summer drink and unusual cocktail. Istria, you did not disappoint!

Zigzag in Zadar – Week 5

Mi casa es su casa

We recently sold our home and are planning to downsize. With two daughters in college, we need to save more money to pay for tuition and board without eating peanut butter sandwiches for every meal. Plus, to be honest, we were ready for a change. But the process of selling our house involved choosing a listing agent, assessing value, preparing for showings, marketing, fielding a purchase offer, negotiating, ordering a title, scheduling an appraiser and inspector and finally closing with the assistance of our relator and lawyer was exhausting. Whew! It was quite a process.

But believe it or not, buying a house or land in Croatia can be much more challenging. In fact, purchasing land doesn’t always mean you can build on it. We drove by some parcels of land with small portable trailers situated toward the edge of the land. When I asked about the trailers, the response was, “Oh, they’re waiting to build. It just depends on the paperwork. Some will wait for decades. Some will get the right papers. Some won’t be able to build their house at all.”

It turns out that real estate agencies are largely unregulated in Croatia. Building zones change every 10 years or so. In other words, while a piece of land is in the building zone when sold, it will not necessarily be the case in a few years. Now you have it, now you don’t. There are three stages of building permits in Croatia: the location permit, building permit and usage permit. But many properties built after 1968 have no usage permit because during that year, there was a blanket amnesty of all illegal building. The authorities photographed the country from the air, so if your building existed, there is a document to prove it. Houses built after 1968 require a usage permit to be fully legal, but this comes only after construction is completed.

Building plots are usually for sale without a permit. Once you buy, you then design what you want to build and apply for the permit. But building permits are sadly not a foregone conclusion. For example, the US Embassy driver told us he had already paid thousands of kuna for a piece of land, but every time he returned to secure a permit, he was told he needed “one more piece of paper.” He was incredibly frustrated, but at the same time sighed and shook his head, “It’s just the way it is.” It is a labyrinth of paperwork and permissions, so most folks just stay put or move out of the country.

Soviet bloc versus Lego blocks

Our daughters loved to play with Legos, the colorful plastic interlocking bricks that can be easily assembled into all sorts of objects with gears and figurines. Legos assist in developing fine motor skills as children create elaborate construction and complex design. Lego creations can also be an imaginative form of storytelling. This favorite childhood toy somehow reminded me of the relationship with urban planning in Croatia, once dictated by political and social ideologies. The first priority after World War II was to re-build destroyed cities as quickly as possible. The need for a workforce to fuel industrialization projects was put into motion. Developments generally featured tower blocks, standardized and mass-produced to house a large capacity of residents.

According to Justin McGuik’s article, “The Unrepeatable Architectural Moment of Yugoslavia’s “Concrete Utopia”’ featured in The New Yorker (2018):

“What is now the Croatian coastline (most of the former Yugoslav republics barely get a sniff of the Adriatic) was also the place where the Venn diagram of East and West overlapped—on the beach. In Yugoslavia, the right to housing was enshrined in law. And yet two factors distinguished its effort in building mass housing from those in other socialist countries. The first was that this was not just centralized, state-built housing. In fact, following new legislation, in 1960, the housing boom was driven by competitive house-building firms (self-managed, naturally) aiming at a market of institutions seeking homes for their employees. These were subsidized by the state but there was no state-owned property; it was “social property.”

Second, Yugoslavian housing was not standardized. There were certainly prefabricated systems in use, but these were highly flexible and encouraged the diversity of housing types. Most of the housing in Yugoslavia—in fact, most major buildings in general—were the result of architectural competitions, which was another reason that the output was so diverse. As a Slovenian architect told me recently, such levels of bespoke design without mass production should not really have been feasible, but, somehow, it happened. There was also a great deal of thought put into the apartments. Rather than uniformity, individualism was encouraged. Open, flexible layouts were highly popular, with movable partition walls and multipurpose rooms—all ideas that remain current. The quality of these apartments was one of the high points of Yugoslavian self-management. And it resulted in modernism being baked into the national psyche.”

My colleague at University of Zadar mentioned  government issued communist block style housing as positive – she said we once had the choice of selecting our own house. Concrete was the main material, projecting a dystopian feel, but at the time of construction, the buildings were purely an optimist-fueled utopia, representing the future. She commented, “We can’t build like that now (with sheer immensity and “brutality architecture”). It’s too expensive and we can’t get a loan from the bank. The interest rate used to be 12 percent, so I just renovate my apartment because I will never move.” The global recession of 2008 hit the Croatian property market hard, with prices falling between 25 and 50 percent. Hopefully a recovery process is designed with people in mind.

Zadar in the Zone –Week 4

Tell me how you really feel

I really like listening to people’s stories, getting caught up in the personal narrative, hearing descriptive details of family and asking specific questions about life’s journey. Stories have always intrigued me. My doctoral dissertation was a series of case studies examining students’ stories in relation to using computers and composition in the classroom. I interviewed students, faculty and staff, engaging in an ethnographic study of how they made connections to writing with technology, transcribing their thoughts and opinions.

I have used vehicles like creating a WordPress blog to tell my story of designing and teaching online courses:

https://teachingwritingonline.wordpress.com/2016/01/25/day-1-online-teaching/

Participating in the Illinois Consortium for International Studies and Programs (ICISP) faculty exchange in Xi’an, China:

https://icispchina2018.wordpress.com/2018/05/28/china-day-1-saturday-may-12-2018/

And now launching this new blog about teaching in Croatia as a US Fulbright Scholar:

https://collegeofdupagetocroatiausfulbrightprogram.home.blog

The Fulbright Program is another outlet for sharing stories. This flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the US government is designed to build lasting connections between people of the United States and other countries. Together, we can promote cultural understanding through sharing our stories. And meeting the English faculty at University of Zadar has opened the door to channel the storytelling method by discussing values, similarities, differences and cultural norms. I have already experienced a strikingly authentic range of social cues from storytelling as a function in passing on valuable knowledge in a social context. I am respectful to the sensitivity and raw nature of these stories. It has been an honor to hear the words.

This week I had a heart to heart story telling session with one of my colleagues. She spoke candidly about the Homeland War in vivid detail. She told me in a matter of fact tone that Belgrade was responsible for starting the war in 1991. After all, she said (I am paraphrasing): It’s where Tito lived, so he had been coordinating it for a long time. The Serbians wanted all of the power. But you know what? They never got it in the end, did they?

She was pregnant when Homeland War began in 1991 and went to Italy to visit her aunt and have the baby. She returned to Croatia when her daughter was six months old and had no electricity or water. She described constant raids from “over the hill.” She pointed out the window and told me that if the Chetniks had made successfully made it over the hill, she wouldn’t be sitting here talking with me today.

The Chetniks were detachments of the Yugoslav Army – part of the royalist movement with anti-Axis goals engaged in the resistance activities (tactical collaboration with occupying forces during the war). She brought up PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and admitted that she is still dealing with it. Her husband was a driver during the Homeland War and delivered weapons and food supplies. “He has PTSD too, but that’s Croatia. We are survivors. It’s just the way it is.”

Her story splintered into many pieces as she mentioned the Croatian mob. I tried to capture the main points and essence of our conversation by paraphrasing her words:

They’re the ones who own all of the restaurants and control the standards (building codes and rent). For example, I have lived in a small apartment for the past four years with a seafood restaurant beneath us. They installed a cheap venting system and the fried fish smell lingered in my apartment for years. It was so rancid that I couldn’t open my windows. After years of not saying anything, I finally couldn’t take it any longer. I was angry and went into the restaurant and demanded to see their system. It was horrible. I mean, they had this type of archaic oven system used in the Balkans where the mountain people live. (I tried to visualize what she described – was it shepherds practicing ancient pastoral traditions in isolated villages using the same type of kitchen equipment found beneath her apartment in Zadar?).

I told them their outdated ventilation was cheap and they needed to fix it. They should do something because after all, we share this space. She paused and continued:

But I should not have said anything. I should have stayed quiet because it got bad. It got really bad with their backlash. They want us to be quiet. Don’t say anything. They want submission. And you know what? They make the rules and can break the rules. Nothing will change. It’s just the way it is.

I am learning that what my colleague is referring to is a complex criminal underground that appears to have a strong presence in Croatia, having effects in several areas including the judiciary and political system. According to some, a percentage of the Croatian government is mafia controlled. Many believe Croatia is in the grip of a powerful mafia whose roots lie in the international embargo against Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. With a lack of trade revenue and supply of weapons, smuggling became part of the establishment and criminals became businessmen making dodgy deals, amassing huge amounts of wealth.

This refrain of “It is what it is” is echoed in many conversations I have with Croatians in Zadar, Zagreb, Istria and on the neighboring islands. It is like the Eeyore effect (the donkey character in Winnie the Pooh books) – afraid to risk positive emotion or expression. It is a futile attempt to look on the bright side, like a chronic low-grade depression that leaves a feeling of hopelessness in the air. It can be draining to witness a kind of clinging to pessimism despite the perseverance and success in becoming an independent country. But, as one student told me, “It’s like when you finally get a house, but you don’t know what to do inside of it.”

When is Payday?

Croatian currency is known as kuna, which is the word for marten, a Roman-time form of tax used in many Slavic countries during the early years of the Slavic migration.

The 10-kuna note features Bishop Jurai Dobrila. He was a 19th century bishop who fought for the rights of Croatian people in the Habsburg Empire and encouraged education among the peasants of Istria. Banknotes come in denominations of 1000, 500, 200, 100, 50, 20, 10 and 5.

The lowest average salaries in Croatia include workers in the textile and service industries, while the most profitable sector is tourism and hospitality.

My colleague told me she used to work in the only high school in Zadar before coming to the university as a professor. She made $3,500 kuna per month as a high school teacher and taught 21 class sections per week, however, she wasn’t always paid for the job (more on this later). When she was hired at University of Zadar, her salary jumped to over $7,000 kuna per month, but she was assigned an even larger course load and administrative responsibilities. I thought about our College of DuPage contract that was recently in the news, highlighting our union (Illinois Education Association or IEA) negotiations after a three year salary freeze. Our 304 full-time faculty engaged in mediation sessions to discuss working conditions and learning conditions to continue to keep College of DuPage an affordable, quality local option in our community, while attracting experienced and high quality educators. Although a strike was threatened, thankfully it never came to pass and we settled on a new contract agreement.

My colleague also spoke of the teachers’ union in Croatia and in fact the primary and secondary school teachers went on strike in October 2019 regarding similar requests for higher wages and improved working conditions. Croatian Labor and Pension System Minister Josip Aladrović said, after failed conciliation talks, the teachers’ unions rejected the government’s offer of a 2% wage increase.

A typical Croatian monthly salary is about three times lower than the average in Western Europe, while the prices of most goods and services are pretty much aligned, and sometimes even more expensive, mostly because of Croatia’s VAT (Value-added tax) levels. Men are still paid more than women in Croatia (this rings true in the US as well), with an average 13% higher salary than women. The level of education greatly affects the salary level as well. University graduates have an average 50% higher salary than those with high school education. A completed Masters degree or PhD increases the salary on average by as much as 103% in relation to those with secondary education.

All work and no pay

Since jobs are scarce, thousands of workers in the countries spawned by Yugoslavia’s breakup in the 1990s regularly work for nothing. What? How can this be? I have heard anecdotes over and over regarding people who work for months without a paycheck, being fed false promises that the “money is on the way.” In fact, this is why my colleague said she was forced to quit teaching high school – she had not seen a paycheck in over 6 months. Apparently this has been happening all over Croatia. The phenomenon is growing in some places and contributing to social unrest. Most former Yugoslav republics, including European Union members Slovenia and Croatia, have yet to overcome problems born of the business practices they inherited in the 1990s.

In socialist Yugoslavia, the state owned all medium-sized and large companies and controlled salaries through a central payments system. With the federation’s collapse, new and newly privatized companies tried to expand without much capital. Short of cash, some began delaying payments to suppliers, tax offices and workers. State-owned firms and institutions began doing the same, exploiting a lack of financial oversight to pick and choose their obligations.

Kresimir Sever, a union leader in Croatia, estimates some 70,000 workers in Croatia are facing delays in wages. “In most cases workers wait too long before filing for bankruptcy (of their company), figuring they are better off having any kind of job and no salary rather than losing everything. In time, the company’s assets melt and when the bankruptcy process begins, they (the workers) really do end up with nothing.”

“It’s almost impossible to explain to someone from the West,” said Ante Babic, secretary-general of the Foreign Investors Council in Croatia. “But it’s not surprising that companies are not paying workers when you see that they can afford not to pay taxes or for the goods they bought. Control over salary payments is even looser.”

Predrag Bejakovic of the Institute of Public Finances, an economic think-tank in Croatia’s capital Zagreb, said that not paying taxes is still seen as “resourceful rather than immoral.”

Croatia is a coastal and maritime country. Another example of not paying workers happens in the shipyards.  Croatia was once among the world leaders in shipbuilding, but ever since the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, this prosperous industry has been slowing down and struggles due to the strong competitors in Asia. When Croatia joined the European Union in 2013, shipyards had to be restructured to operate without government money, since the EU rules don’t allow state financial help. One of the biggest shipbuilding groups in the country, the Uljanik Group, had two massive shipyards in the Adriatic coastal cities of Rijeka and Pula. But the company suffered financial crisis and stopped paying employees due to mismanagement of funds. My colleague told me, “They keep telling us to be patient. Wait another two weeks. Your payment is coming. But we waited and nothing happened. Some people were buying bread on credit from the bank. But after months of that, bankers refused to give them something for nothing.”