Eastern Europe Part 3: Serbia and Croatia
Part 3: Serbia and Croatia – Ethnic Feud- It All Started When You Hit Me Back
September 9, 2008
Dateline: Belgrade, Serbia
At Belgrade: Latitude 44.49 degrees North, Longitude 20.27 degrees East
We arrived in Belgrade early and docked in the Sava River just beyond the point where it empties into the Danube. We had a guest lecturer, a Serbian expert in Balkan history and political science, come aboard to tell us about what has happened here and why. Our guest speaker’s name is Slobodan (the same name as Milosevich but a much nicer guy) and he said we should call him Dan. In his opening remarks, he told us that he likes the American people very much, but does not comment on American policy, which was as hospitable a welcome as we could expect since NATO bombed his city in 1999. The question of the day is “Did they, or did they not have it coming?” The answer according to Dan is an emphatic no. So here is the story of the area now referred to as “The Former Yugoslavia “in a nutshell as related by Dan.
Prior to 1914, there were the Balkan Wars which were a series of battles fought for territories with no definitive end or outcome. Country boundaries shifted many times in the ensuing years, and thus every time some altercation (localized squabbles to global warfare) took place, they subsequently found they had people living in countries they didn’t have documentation for, on land that they no longer owned, speaking a language different from those governing them and practicing a religion that was different from the majority – a recipe for disaster if there ever was one. No one can seem to put their finger on who started it all, but then the finger never points toward the body to which it is attached. Perhaps a Hungarian saying expresses it best: “It all started when you hit me back”. The combatants were from six different countries (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia). I’m unclear on how Herzegovina figured in back then, but it has since been lumped in with Bosnia. Also the country called Kosovo today was part of Serbia.
Then in 1914 the events that started the First World War began here. Students of history (who managed to stay awake for this class) will remember that the official story is that Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sofia were assassinated by a Serbian Nationalist in Sarajevo, (current capital of Bosnia, but back then part of Austro-Hungarian Empire which I will refer to as AHE). So why did this cause a global war? The simple answer is it didn’t. It provided an excuse for AHE to attack Serbia.
At that time the AHE stretched to the banks of the Sava River and included modern day Bosnia. The Serbs were aware the AHE had designs on their country and were feeling threatened, and having recently endured 500 years of outside rule by the Ottoman Turks, they weren’t real eager to go that route again. So they aligned themselves with some powerful allies in France and Great Britain. Because the AHE had no sea ports, they wanted the area that is today Serbia and Croatia as a means to obtain one. According to Dan, the assassination was more or less engineered by the AHE to create the excuse they needed to declare war. Here’s how it happened: AHE conducted military exercises in the border between these two sovereign countries, Croatia and Serbia, led by the ill-fated Archduke himself. The date was June 28 which just so happened to coincide with the exact same date in 1389 when there was a battle between the Turks and the Serbs and it was a Serbian national holiday, which added insult to injury.
The Austro-Hungarians assumed, at least that was their story, that he had been sent to do the deed by the Serbian government and thus they had their excuse to invade, thinking they could easily knock the Serbs off in a matter of weeks. France, who shared a large border with Germany, got nervous, when Germany backed their kissing cousins, the Austrians, so they sided with Serbia. Then Great Britain, concerned about what would happen if France fell (it’s only a short hop across the Channel after all) sided with France. The USA stayed out until 1916, but finally decided isolationism wasn’t working and so they joined in. And the rest is history, literally. The armistice came finally in 1918 and no one really benefited from the war (or learned anything) except arms dealers such as Germany’s House of Krupp, who prospered sufficiently to finance the Nazis in the next World War.
In the wake of the Great War, as it was called, the former warring and still feisty Balkan nations were brought together to make one country called Yugoslavia, a name which means the Land of the South Slavs. They lived in relative peace until the Nazis came along. The Yugoslav government had an agreement with the Nazis, but it was so unpopular with the people, that Hitler in 1941, decided he better provide the locals with an attitude adjustment and so he invaded his own ally, just for good measure. On Palm Sunday of 1941 300 Nazi warplanes killed 25,000 people in one morning in Belgrade. The invasion created even more dissent and the resistance movement grew under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, who became one of the most successful guerilla fighters of the era. He managed to gain control of over 800 thousand fighters who were loyal to him, which at that time was 5% of the population. Both Churchill and Roosevelt were big supporters of his. The “Freedom Fighters” of Yugoslavia under Tito are credited with saving more than 2,000 downed Allied airmen.
In 1948 Tito became the leader of Yugoslavia, taking the title of “Marshall, albeit under the Communist regime. Unfortunately Russia kept control of almost every country they liberated from the Germans. Tito succeeded by doing a balancing act (sort of a faux Commie/ Western World Wannabe) between Moscow and NATO. He managed to get financial aid from the US (some 13.5 Billion – more than the entire Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe) while saying no to many directives from Stalin and even living to tell about it. He was able to get away with it because he had friends in high places with big weapons. The US had nukes and a proven delivery system and at that point the USSR did not and Tito apparently convinced Stalin that his friends would nuke him if they messed with him. Under Tito, Yugoslavia was invited to join NATO, but decided he liked being the dictator (a.k.a. “Marshal”) and a democracy would only cramp his style. According to Dan, he was quite brutal in getting the country established, but that he had to be in order to succeed. Once he became established, he became more benevolent (as long as you agreed with him of course. Tito was Croatian by birth, but Belgrade and Serbia became his seat of power and Serbian the national language. One of the Nice Guy Tito’s gifts to the people was free medical care (Dan says that today it is not free, not medical and they don’t care). He also gave political asylum to Hungarians and Czechs when their respective rebellions against the Commies failed. The Bad Guy Tito had the Secret Police and a Judge Roy Bean Justice system, but Dan sort of dismissed this as a necessity for the times. Overall everything was beautiful under Tito (unless you were part of that 1% on his enemies list or if you were non-Serbian)
Perhaps Tito’s greatest achievement is that he held a country together that had so many belligerent factions with so many different agendas (e.g. secular nationalists, Muslim separatists, Bosnian Fundamentalists, Croatian Nazis). It is said that his nation was bordered by 7 countries, cobbled together with 6 republics, 5 nations, 4 languages, 3 religions, 2 alphabets and instead of the partridge in a pear tree, there is 1 party and that would be the Communist one. He did this mostly by the force of his personality (and his military backing carried quite a bit of weight as well, but one thing did not go according to plan and that happened in 1980 – he died. Perhaps thinking himself immortal, he had no succession plan and a vacuum was created (always a bad idea) leaving the country wide open for the most vicious and unprincipled to rise to the top. The various countries which comprised Yugoslavia no longer had cohesion and once the Soviet Union crumbled, the perfect storm of chaos was ready to break. In Serbia, this was the cue for Slobodan Milosovich to come to power. His misdeeds are well chronicled and the Serbs agree he was bad, but they say “Everyone else was doing it too” (“It” being ethnic cleansing and mass execution of political enemies).
Milosevich has been demonized for the sins of all the bad guys, but the one that really caused his downfall was the violence in the province of Kosovo (termed by the world at large “a humanitarian crisis”) which was brought to light by journalists around in the world and could no longer be ignored. So to get him to order the Serbs to back off, NATO authorized surgical air strikes at key targets in Belgrade in 1999. Milosevich protested that this was all a hoax and western propaganda. According to him the whole Kosovo thing was a minor dust-up and the world should mind its own business. Fortunately NATO wasn’t buying it, and the bombs came down over a period 78 days. Slobodan was a little slow on getting the message, but finally the atrocities stopped and Kosovo has now been recognized as an independent nation.
Now our speaker, Dan, says this is not fair. Kosovo is part of Serbia and the world is interfering, and it wasn’t Serbia’s fault that a wacko took over the government. As it turned out the bombings were pretty compassionate as far as bombings go. NATO let it be known through unofficial channels that they were going to bomb Belgrade with dates, times and targets so very few injuries resulted, as far as bombings go. Of course Serbia still wants Kosovo back, saying this whole independence thing was just a bunch of Albanians who moved in and tried to take over the country.
On lighter topics, we learned there are (and were) some Famous Serbs out doing good in the world: Nicola Tesla,(scientist), Mother Teresa, (humanitarian candidate for sainthood) Karl Malden (actor) and Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller), Anna Jankovic and Novak Djokovich (tennis) As an example of just how hard life was in Serbia, early tennis stars didn’t have any tennis courts to play on and had to practice in an empty swimming pool.
After the lecture, we took a tour of the city with our guide, Srdan (pronounced Ser-Jan). There are 2.5 million people who live in Belgrade, but only 1/3 are Serbs. The other 2/3 are from 28 different nations. The name, Belgrade, comes from the Serbian phrase belo grad which means white town. The name was given to the city by attackers on the fortress in ancient times since it was constructed of white stone. It is a pleasant city with parks and fountains, although it still bears the scars of the 1999 bombings by NATO cruise missiles on those selected targets (Army HQ, Internal Affairs Ministry and Police HQ) and one that was not selected which you probably remember – the Chinese Embassy – accidentally bombed in an embarrassing “oops” moment.
The Serbian currency is the dinar and the exchange rate is about 52 dinar to the dollar. Their national TV network is called Pink TV. I don’t know if this is a little joke since the station used to broadcast Red Communists propaganda and now they are a democracy with a tinge of socialism and thus only pink, not red. I thought about asking our guide, but some things just don’t translate well – jokes being one of them.
Now at this point, you may saying, what, no Romans? The answer is yes of course there were Romans. Belgrade in those days had one of the roads that led to Rome which was called the Via Militaris – or military road. Anytime they needed to get to Belgrade fast to kick some Barbarian butt, the road was there for the centurions to use. Unfortunately, the Via Militaris (whose gazillion blocks are still intact even now) mostly lies under the asphalt of a freeway. The Celts had been there before the Romans and many conquerors came after them with most of the conflicts centering on what is today referred to as the Kalemegdan Fortress, built at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava Rivers. Most of the conquerors either destroyed the city or occupied it, with the longest tenants being the Turks, who came in 1521, and stayed for the next 500 years. During the Turkish occupation there were repeated battles, not only with the Slavs trying to kick them out, but also with Crusaders setting out to free the Holy Land.
Belgrade is a very prosperous looking city (aside from those half a dozen bombed buildings, but even these have been tidied up) and is very western in many respects – many streets resemble those of Paris’ wide boulevards lined with chateaux. The city is dotted parks, outdoor restaurants and open air markets, and the drivers don’t exhibit that same crazed behavior as the drivers of Bucharest, so you can walk here without having to risk annihilation at every intersection. They also have the endearing western habit of coming up with cute names for their portable toilets – instead of “Johnny on the Spot” or Port-a-let, they call theirs “Toi-Toi”s.
The best hotel in town is the Hotel Moskva (Moscow Hotel) that was pointed out to us as, not only the place where Tito liked to hobnob with the Jet Set, but as a place of former international intrigue during the Cold War. Today it is mostly celebrity intrigue that goes on there any time a
celeb from the West shows up, and thus it has become a paparazzi hangout. We also visited Republic Square, the site of two protests against Milosevich. In 1991 approximately 100 thousand people came to the square demanding that Milosovich leave office. Srdan (our tour guide) was among the protesters and says it was his first experience with tear gas. Unfortunately, the protesters were very harshly dealt with. However, in October of 2000, there were an estimated 1 million protesters in the same square, and this time the police and the military joined them, voicing the same demand and Milosevich came to the conclusion that it was time to decamp. He was later charged with genocide by the International Courts System and imprisoned to await trial at the Hague. He died during his trial and was never punished for his crimes, but many who suffered under him believes God will deal out the justice in this case. Mrs. Milosevich and her son reportedly received asylum in Russia and are living there.
We did a drive by shooting (cameras, not bullets) of both Tito’s former residence and the garden where he is buried. It is in an area very reminiscent of Embassy Row in Washington DC. Tito’s house is now a museum showcasing the many gifts he received over the course of his 35 years in office, bestowed upon him by everybody from Churchill to Elvis. Tito was reportedly quite the name dropper and loved getting lavish gifts. However, there are so many of them that the displays have to be rotated frequently in order to have everything displayed. In the same neighborhood is a house Milosevich built for his daughter, Helen, as a wedding present which he named Villa Helen, although locals just call it the Thank You Daddy Villa. Helen never got to move in since it was finished about the time the one million Serbians gathered at Republic Square and all of a sudden Milosevich had other priorities.
We also had a few minutes just on the outside of St. Sava Church which the locals call The Temple. It is a huge, and beautiful domed structure, very “Eastern” looking – and interestingly enough given the events surrounding its construction, it looks remarkably like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Sava was the youngest son of the King of Serbia back in the 12th Century, who ruled at the pleasure of the Ottoman Turkish Sultan. Sava traveled to Greece where he became a Greek Orthodox monk, and then made the bold move to go to Constantinople to see the Byzantine Emperor (Sultan) to ask if Serbia could become independent from the Orthodox Church. Strangely enough, the emperor actually agreed and Sava became the first Archbishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Orthodox churches don’t have popes – each branch has its own head. Shortly thereafter people starting coming to Sava for miracles of healing and so forth. After his death, they still came to the church and prayed to his spirit and the miracles reportedly continued until 1594. At this point, the Turks made the decision to let the church exist, but they took his mortal remains and burned them (since he had been dead for a really long time with no preservatives, I’m not sure what there was to burn, but then it was a time of Miracles, so who knows for sure). His followers collected what was left (presumably bone fragments and ashes) and vowed to rebuild a church in his name. They had to hang on to them for quite a long time since the Turks weren’t driven out until the late 19th Century. The church is still under construction and there have been many offers of financial aid, which have been turned down by the archbishop. He says” we are not building this church – the church is building us”, meaning that the church has given Serbians a sense of self worth and an identity. This building is no small undertaking (e.g. it took 16 hydraulic elevators to lift the dome into place) so the Serbs have a lot of expense and work ahead of them.
From there we went to the Kalemegdan Fortress, which is situated on a high bluff at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. This location has been used as a strategic military stronghold for over 2500 years. In its early days as a Roman outpost, it was used to keep the Barbarians on their own side of the Danube. Then there were literally centuries of battles with the Turks. The fortress was destroyed many times and every time reconstructed with the rubble of a previous battle. In fact one set of walls from the 1400’s is constructed of brick from the Roman fort, big stone balls used in catapults in Medieval times,
and an assortment of mismatched hewn stones from wherever they were found. Srdan tells us that Belgrade has been destroyed 40 times in recorded history and has changed hands 60 times. (I guess that means there were 20 times when they gave up without a fight). It is estimated that over the course of time, approximately 6 million people have died in and around the fortress. One battle was so violent between the Slavs and the Turks that virtually everyone on both sides was killed. The final defeat of the Turks came at the hands of Prince Mihail who liberated the fort in 1867. Actually the Prince had to finish the battle, it started in 1804 before he was born, so it had gone on for 63 years by the time he won the final battle. The Turks were suffering defeats all over the Ottoman Empire and so Mihail may have just outlasted them instead of actually beating them. The fortress continued to have a role in conflicts, but none so bloody. The Fortress was last bombed in 1944-45 by the Allies in advance of the Russian troops coming from the east to liberate the city.
In the afternoon we had the opportunity to tour and to take a ride on the Blue Train – the personal train and favorite mode of transportation of Josip Broz Tito. The cars had been stored for years after his death, but have been dusted off and brought out for the tourists to see. The cars are very elegantly appointed, velvet covered furniture, burled maple wood paneling, Murano chandeliers and light fixtures and silk draperies. Tito’s most famous guest on the train in terms of star power was Queen Elizabeth II and we saw her compartments as they were when she stayed in them. Tito’s suite includes a conference room car, and
his personal car which has a small sitting room, office, his bedroom and bath and Mrs. Tito’s bedroom and bath. There were actually 5 Mrs. Tito’s over the years, 3 of which became exes, one of whom died before she could become an ex and one who survived him. Josip was said to have liked the ladies and was quite the libertine, but we weren’t told whether he ever put the moves on Her Majesty during her visit. He was also quite short and was fond of a variety of devices to enhance his physical stature including a taller chair than others around him, only allowing photographs where he is seated, etc.
We left Belgrade in the early evening as we were eating dinner and toasted our good time in Serbia in the local lingo with a heart-felt “nazdraste” , which translates as “cheers”.
September 10, 2008
Dateline: Vukovar and Osijek, Croatia
Latitude at Vukovar 45.20 degrees North, 19.0 degrees East
Today we docked at the town of Vukovar, (pronounced voo-ko-var with the accent on “voo”.) If the name rings a bell, you may have seen footage of it on the national news being bombed, if not into oblivion, then certainly into rubble, during the last decade of the 20th Century. Our tour guide is Sonia, a native of Vukovar, who was a college student when hostilities broke out in the early 90’s. During the war she worked in an administrative role trying to assist victims of the war and their families in the business of day to day survival Her husband was seriously injured in the war and her home and in fact 95% of her home town was destroyed by a combination of the 3,000 bombs, artillery and house to house fighting. Her comment on all this tragedy was at once simple and profound and that is “You learn to complain less when you are so blessed just to be alive.” In listening to Sonia, we got the other side of the story that Dan, the Serb told us yesterday.
Croatia is a boomerang-shaped country with a beautiful coastline on the Adriatic Sea on one side of the outer western edge, Slovenia and Hungary on the northern edge, with Bosnia/Herzegovina on the underside and Serbia on the easternmost tip. The capital is Zagreb which is in the center of the country, just at the bend of the boomerang. There are 4.5m people in the country, with another 2 million abroad who left during the war with Serbia and have not returned. There are essentially two parts to the country – the coastal area including the lovely Dalmatian Coast (where the spotted dogs with the same name came from originally) most often described as a scenic paradise, and the eastern end of the boomerang, Slavonia, is most often described as a “war-torn” landscape . Croatia is also the country where the necktie for men originated. The Croatian Cavalry back in the olden days wore a scarf they called a cravat, which is a Croat word. The French adopted the look and the word and the necktie evolved from there. Another Croatian export was the Grgich family who moved to California and produced wine under the label, Grgich Hills. The Croatian currency is the kuna and there are 4.5 kuna to the dollar. The name, “kuna”, literally means “marten” (the little furry mink-like animal) in the Croat language, and harks back to the days when animal pelts were used as currency. They have a chessboard on their national emblem on their flag which symbolized a legend that an ancient king defeated an enemy prince at chess and won the kingdom of Croatia. Of course the way the boundaries have changed , that king might have won some totally different real estate from what Croatia is today.
As many as 1300 years ago, people settled along the Adriatic Coast and over time more people came and they more or less assimilated. It was only later when religion, language and nationalism got involved that the squabbles started. The biggest threat was from the Ottoman Turks, so the Croats welcomed the rule of the Hapsburg’s Austro-Hungarian Empire (AHE). In WWI of course they sided with the Germans who controlled their long time ally Austria and ended up on the wrong end of that one. Then in WWII their leaders put their money on the Nazis, and we all know how that turned out. However, many of the locals had joined Tito’s guerilla fighters and once the war ended, the country became part of Tito’s Yugoslavia.
Here is where the Croatian view diverges from the Serbian one. Sonia was being extremely diplomatic, but gave us the impression that Tito was not considered the national hero here that he was in Serbia – he was much more the heavy handed dictator, and as bad as his Communist brethren across the USSR and the puppet countries they controlled. But they do give him credit for (1) fighting the Nazis (2) standing up to Stalin (3) bringing tourism to Yugoslavia.
The Croatian version of events is that Serbian ambition to control Croatia goes back two hundred years when the prince who ruled Serbia (at the pleasure of the sultan of course) decided that Serbia should rule everywhere that Serbians lived. Since many lived in Croatia, then ipso facto, Croatia should be theirs. However, Croatia was one of the 17 countries ruled by the AHE and they weren’t really eager to relinquish control. Then came the World Wars and then the Communists, which sort of killed the idea of a Serb takeover. However, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, all bets were off and Serbian expansionism reared its ugly head again. The countries under Communist control began pulling away and establishing themselves as independent countries. Tito had been dead for 9 years and had left no successor to hold Yugoslavia together, which resulted in what was termed the Homeland War. So the 6 countries that made up Yugoslavia decided to make a break for it. Slovenia tried it first and it went pretty well for them, but when Croatia tried to follow suit, they were attacked by the Yugoslavian Army, which was largely comprised of Serbs, but which also had Croats in it – thus they were ordered to attack their own country. In addition to a regular army there were also right wing Croatian extremists called Chetniks who favored Serb takeover. And the thus the battle began. It is interesting to note that all the fighting was on Croatian soil, and thus the Serbs were viewed as the invaders (except in the Serbian version it was rightfully theirs in the first place.)
Vukovar was the first point of attack in August of 1991 when the first bombs were dropped. The town was placed under unrelenting siege, and yet the defenders of Vukovar, which included people from towns all over eastern Croatia (military and civilian) were still able to hold out for 3 months at an enormous cost. There were 2,000 people killed, over half of which were civilians, and many were found buried in mass graves. Survivors were sent to Serbian concentration camps. While Vukovar eventually fell on November 18, 1991, the 3 months it held out at least gave the rest of the country time to evacuate and prepare for the coming battle. Over 22,000 residents became refugees for the duration of the war which lasted for almost 10 years, and ended only with the Dayton Accords, signed in 1998 in Dayton, Ohio, which basically said Serbia had to leave Croatia and go back to their own land as defined by the Accords. The Croatians have a small clay bird that can serve as a candle holder in many of their homes they adopted during the war as a symbol of their faith in their eventual return to their homes. They call it the Dove of Vukovar. It is really a pheasant based on an artifact from an earlier time, but who’s going to quibble over details after what they’ve been through. We bought one to remember our visit.
Our trip today took us through Vukovar to the ancient town of Osijec (pronounced oh-sick, with the accent on the “oh”) which unlike Vukovar, is of significant ancient history. Yep, the Romans were there – with ruins now being excavated just east of the old part of the city. They seemed to have not built much in Vukovar except a road out of there, which given the current state of things, that proved to be good idea. As we drive through Vukovar on our way out of town, signs of destruction are still everywhere, even though much rebuilding has been done. Some of the people who fled here spent years as refugees and have come back to plant flowers among the ruins as a symbol of their hope for the future. Croatia still has much to do, including solving an unemployment rate in the eastern area of the country (the war torn part) of around 28%. Those are the official numbers, but our guide Sonia tells us there are many undocumented workers so these people aren’t necessarily idle. Another major
problem is that many of the mined areas have still not been cleared and on our drive to Osijek we saw many overgrown fields with the warning signs in multiple languages accompanied by a skull and crossbones. Many of these were planted by the Croatians to defend their towns against the Serbs, but unfortunately they are now reaping what was sown. Landmines aside, it is very pretty countryside with farms similar to those in other countries we have seen. It’s also very flat (the local saying in this part of Croatia (Slavonia) the highest thing on the horizon is a pumpkin. ) There is a lot of post-war housing lining the roads that have been built with contributions from foreign countries including the US. We noted that instead of free standing utility poles, they have the poles emerging from the roofline of each house – sort of teepee-like. It should make for an interesting floor plan.
Osijek is still trying to get over the war as well, but because they did not hold out as Vukovar did, they have much more to work with. They do still have a lot of Communism to get over, such as the massive (several blocks long) military barracks from the Tito era. Now why couldn’t the Serbs have destroyed that, they may ask. In an attempt to make lemons into lemonade, they plan to make it into university housing. Our tour takes us to the Tverda (pronounced something like “tah-ver-ja” with the accent on “ver”) which means fortress. It was built by the Austro-Hungarians to fight off the Turks. Much of it has been torn down over the years.
It is situated on the banks of the Drava River on top of old Romans ruins of a community the Romans called Mursa. The Slavs settled here after the Romans were eventually rooted out. The city of Osijek was mentioned in written history as early as 1196 and more or less flourished as a medieval trade city until the Turks showed up under the command of Sultan Sulejman, the Magnificent in 1526, when the town bigwigs promptly surrendered the keys to the city without a struggle. The good news was their surrender saved the city from destruction. The bad news was, the Turks stayed 161 years. They also got a
bridge across the Drava out of the deal since Sulejman had his eye on Vienna. The AHE raised a Christian Army to destroy the infidel and when the Turks heard these Crusaders were coming, they headed back toward Constantinople at a pretty good clip until Sulejman ordered the city gates closed. However sometime in the night, all the troops simply went over the walls and headed east and the Sultan decided to skedaddle right along with them, and thus Osijek was once again in Christian hands.
We explored the Tverda and visited the Church of the Raised Cross, which the locals call St. Anthony’s Church and an adjacent monastery. City fathers (and mothers) are working to get this area designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. There is a picturesque baroque square with pastel buildings with many commercial enterprises in the lower floors. For example McDonalds is located on the first floor of a towering gingerbread structure, but the locals say it’s not a McBargain for them with a happy meal running around 5 bucks. Sonia says this is her children’s number one treat of choice. However since the average Croat earns around $600 per month, it is a rare treat for local children. The church bells ring out on the square at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., originally to commemorate the defeat of the Turks, but now everyone just uses it to remind them it’s time to head to McDonalds, or more commonly, head home to prepare lunch.
All school children go home for lunch – if parents work, then they have a “grandma service” where lunch is prepared by her. School provided lunches are unheard of. After our visit to the old town, we went to the local village of Almjas (pronounced All-mash with the accent on “all”). The name means apple orchard. It is a tiny village on the banks of the Drava River and there we had lunch prepared for us by a local woman who lives there named Snjezana. If you ignore the “j” in her first name, the pronunciation will be close to Sneeze Anna, but it didn’t sound all that bad and in Croatian. It means something along the lines of White Snow or Snowflake. She works as a hairdresser in the village and her husband is an electrician. She lost a 20 year old brother in the war and has named one of her two teenage sons after him. We met the sons, but not the father and they were so much like American teenagers, it made us smile. She made a great chicken soup for us with couscous dumplings and then served meatballs and all sorts of fresh vegetables from her garden and a cake she made herself from scratch. She also served us local wine and fresh cherry juice from her own tree’s fruit. She also offered some plum brandy they call palinka, but it was pretty strong stuff – I think it may double as charcoal
starter. Plum brandy aside, it was a delightful meal and a memorable glimpse into another culture that demonstrated something that is true all over the world. That is: We human beings have much more that binds us together than separates us. After some local refreshments along the Danube in Vukovar, we returned to our ship to head up the Danube into Hungary, ready for our next adventure.