Perhaps you have visited Croatia, landed in Zagreb and transferred down to Split, Dubrovnik, or one of the other cities along that part of the Adriatic known as the Dalmatian Coast. These places grace the covers of travel brochures; the beautiful coast, hundreds of small islands, wonderful food and wine at a fraction of the cost you would pay across the Adriatic in Italy. In short, perfect vacation spots. Rufus (my wife) and I did not go there!

Instead, we went to Osijek where I taught Introduction to International Business Transactions at the University of Osijek. Croatia is shaped like a large “C,” and Osijek is located to the right of the upper arc of the “C” in the far northeastern corner, spread out along the Drava River.

A Little Retrospective

This was our fourth visit to what, until 1994, was the country of Yugoslavia (Land of the South Slavs) where we have visited Slovenia, Kosovo, Serbia, and now Croatia. Only Bosnia/Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro remain to be explored, assuming, of course, that there is no further subdividing. (Probably not such a good assumption since the northernmost part of Kosovo, which has a primarily Serbian population, has recently become a separate administrative entity under the joint control of Kosovo and Serbia.) Every time I feel like I am getting some perspective on this part of the world, things shift like the pattern of beads in a Kaleidoscope, so a little historical background is necessary before I try to describe the current situation. I take as a starting point the creation of Yugoslavia in 1918 at the end of WWI. Prior to that, Yugoslavia was a conglomerate of pieces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was dismantled at the end of the war and federated with Serbia and Montenegro.

The centuries – and even millennia – before that are a cartographer’s nightmare: Ancient peoples whose names are only familiar to me from the Iliad and the Odyssey (such as the Illyrians), Greek settlements, independent regions of the Roman Empire (the edifices of the palace of Diocletian is still visible as the old part of the “new” Croatian city of Split), the arrival of the Horovaths from the Steppes of Russia, the independent kingdom of Serbs and Croats, the personal union with Hungary, the inclusion and expulsion from the Ottoman empire, the inclusion and expulsion from the Austro-Hungarian empire, the conversion of its peoples to Islam, the return of its peoples to Orthodoxy, the conversion of its peoples to Roman Catholicism, the exile of those who did not share the majority’s religious beliefs and the co-opting of peoples who did. Perhaps the family history of my faculty contact, Mirela Zupan, is typical of those people who now inhabit the land. Mirela’s mother was Hungarian, and she grew up speaking Hungarian. Mirela’s father was the son of a German (Germans were almost a majority of the Osijek population prior to WWI) and a Croat. Though a citizen of Croatia, Mirela is ethnically a Hungarian/German/Croat. With that quick overview, I start with 1918.

If the subject is of interest, I recommend Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” which paints a fascinating and opinionated picture of Yugoslavia between the World Wars, as discussed in my Winter 2011-2012 newsletter article on Serbia. Among other insights, the author offers this admonition to anyone inclined to make a definitive judgment on the rights and wrongs of Balkan conflicts:

English persons, therefore, of humanitarian and reformist disposition constantly went out into the Balkan Peninsula to see who was in fact ill-treating whom, and, being by the very nature of their perfectionist faith unable to accept the horrid hypothesis that everybody was ill-treating everybody else, all came back with a pet Balkan people established in their heads as suffering and innocent, eternally the massacaree and never the massacrer.”

Visit any part of the former Yugoslavia and the people who inhabit it will be your “suffering and innocent.” Visit two, and you are less sure. Visit several, and you will appreciate my confusion.

Sticking to the “Cliff Notes” version of Balkan history, the period from 1918 to 1939 was an uneasy time during which the Serbians (on the winning side of WWI) dominated, soundly resented by the other peoples in the region, especially the Croats. Religious differences played a major role in shaping this period. Oddly, however, it was not so much the differences between Christianity and Islam that drive this period’s history, but the tension between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The dominating tension was the resentment of the Roman Catholic Croats towards the Orthodox Serbs, and vice versa. The lack of any clear geographical borders, where Serbs could line up on one side and Croats on the other, made this conflict particularly troublesome.

WWII gave the Croats the opportunity to align themselves with Germany and to create an independent government known as “Ustaše” to rid themselves of the Serbs. They did so through forced emigration, genocide, and a particularly barbaric system of education camps in which Orthodox children were converted into Catholics; a process that left tens of thousands dead. For good reason, Croats play down their ancestors’ collaboration with Germany and, instead, stress their partisan guerilla warfare against the Germany forces. Indeed, the most important partisan leader was a Croat, whom the world eventually knew as Tito.

At the conclusion of WWII, Yugoslavia became something of a Soviet satellite with Tito as its leader. The old tensions and conflicts were still there, and the Serbs had not forgotten the Croats’ collaboration with the Germans. Yugoslavia was held together, in large part, by Tito’s strong will.

In 1980, as the Russian empire began to disintegrate, Tito died and there was nothing left to hold Yugoslavia together. Slovenia was the first to leave and did so in 1990 in the non-violent “velvet” revolution. The continued disintegration that followed, however, carried a far greater price. What became known in the U.S. as the “Bosnian conflict” was really the unraveling of Yugoslavia. While much of the focus was on the conflict in Bosnia (where true to Rebecca West’s observations the U.S. picked its innocent party), Croatia experienced its own War of National Independence, which this took place mostly in 1996 and 1997.

The physical scars of the war are still visible today. A Serbian siege of Osijek left many buildings with visible wounds. (Photo 1) A more disturbing situation is that in Croatia, there are still uncleared mine fields. On a boat tour of a wild life preserve, we saw several signs warning of land mines. (Photo 2) We were also warned not to wander off established paths as many more warning signs had been removed by the Roma (gypsies) who apparently sell them as scrap aluminum.

The European Union

Croatia became the twenty-eighth member of the European Union on July 1, 2013. The vote to join was apparently quite close, with only fifty-one percent of those voting in favor of the Union. During our visit, we saw numerous billboards, pamphlets, and other “educational materials” attempting to explain what it would mean to join the European Union. Among the more humorous, was the representation that individuals would still be allowed to distill “Rakija” at home. All politicking aside, there was palpable skepticism about how much sovereignty would be given to “Brussels.” Not only in Croatia, but throughout Europe, “Brussels” is often used as a four letter euphemism for overpaid, underworked bureaucrats who justify their existence by enacting laws and regulations that interfere with everyday life.

Osijek – Getting There

Getting to Zagreb is quite easy. There are direct flights into Zagreb from several European cities, including Munich, our point of departure. In Zagreb, we stayed in a magnificent hotel appropriately named, “The Majestic.” (Photo 3) We received conflicting advice on how best to get from Zagreb to Osijek, by train or bus. Once we arrived in Zagreb, however, the decision was simple. (Photo 4) The five hour bus ride (including stops) was comfortable, and the roads were quite good.

Osijek – The Place

Osijek is not on the Adriatic Coast and is generally not a tourist destination. It sits in a region or province of the country known as Slavonia, which is not to be confused with the separate country of Slovenia. Slavonia is generally a flat, agricultural country. In the hills that rise in the north of the country, there is a small wine growing region. My wife is the family expert and considered Slavonia’s wines to be excellent. The region’s output is small, and little, if any, wines are exported.

Unlike other areas of the Balkans, which I recall as having smaller, family farms, Slavonia seemed to be dominated by agri-business, including very large mechanized farms, e.g., a dairy farm with over one thousand cows and only ten employees. Another popular industry is large scale fish farming.

The City of Osijek is spread out along the south bank of the Drava River. (Photo 5) At one time, Osijek was a very prosperous manufacturing center, and its main streets are lined with rather spectacular buildings that date from the late nineteenth century (Photo 6) — most are in need of refurbishment.

The old part of the city is built around a fortress on the bank of the Drava. The fortress dates to the twelfth or thirteenth century and served as a bastion against numerous Turkish incursions. (Photo 7) This part of the city has cobbled streets, stone and brick buildings, and is Oskijek’s main tourist attraction. (Photo 8) A great deal of restoration and archeological study is currently taking place. Every Saturday morning, the main square of the old city holds a large flea market that, at Rufus’ insistence, we explored stall by stall. When we came upon a line of food stalls, I adopted the strategy to stand in the longest line on the assumption that it would offer the best, or at least the most popular, local items. (Photo 9) The strategy proved effective, and I was rewarded with deep fried bread topped with honey.

We visited Osijek in early spring when the weather should have provided warm temperatures. Unfortunately, we met with bitter cold, and it rained on all but one day. Regardless, there is a beautiful esplanade along the river lined with trees that were just budding, which provided for a nice “brisk” walk. The rules for traveling along the esplanade were explicit, as demonstrated by a sign showing what activities could be carried out along the various esplanade’s segments. (Photo 10) Indeed, there were prohibitory signs everywhere, one of which particularly caught my attention because it seemed to ban almost everything. (Photo 11)

While in Osijek, we lived in student housing (Photo 12 exterior) (Photo 13 interior), which consisted of two interconnected dorm rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. Since they were dorm rooms, the beds were single beds. This was fine when we were in college, but now that my fiftieth college reunion is drawing near, the prospect of two people in a single bed has lost its romance. It was odd sleeping in separate rooms separated by a cinder block wall.

The law facility at which I taught was about two miles from the main campus where Rufus and I were housed. I commuted to my class using the tram system. (Photo 14) Both Rufus and I paid about fifty Kuna (8.00 USD) for a fare card, which should have been good for about four days. When the card expired, a red light flashed and you reloaded the card with the driver. It was nearly the end of our two weeks before my fifty Kuna card expired and I was asked to pay more. Rufus’ card seemed to need reloading every day.

While I genuinely enjoyed tram travel, one aspect was a little disconcerting. At most times I traveled, the tram was full of students. The nice thing was that on just about every trip, a student would get up and offer me his or her seat. The not so nice thing was that on just about every trip, a student would offer me his or her seat; I could not possibly look that old.

Osijek, and for that matter, Zagreb, are full of cafes where you can get great coffee and drinks. Restaurants, however, are a good deal harder to find. Our last night in Zagreb, after we had returned from Osijek for the trip home, turned into a quest for a place where food was served. The ratio of drinking to eating establishments must have been 20:1. We did find a favorite in the old town part of Osijek named “Kod Ruze.” It served traditional Croat food (meat in gigantic portions), was charmingly decorated, and had a resident gypsy band. We ate there several times, including a farewell dinner for our two primary faculty contacts and their husbands. (Photo 15)

Sight-Seeing

Though not on the Adriatic, Osijek proves true the adage that there is beauty almost everywhere if you just look for it. One example was a stud farm where the famous Lipizzaner stallions for the Spanish riding school in Vienna are raised. There are three such farms in and around Osijek. The foals are born grey, but mature into beautiful white stallions. Mirela and her husband Boris and children took us to see them one weekend. (Photo 16)

Another surprise was a large national park with hundreds of square hectares of wetlands that served as breeding grounds for several hundred species of birds. (Photo 17) The park was home to a hunting preserve, originally used by Tito. (Photo 18)

The Class

I had a large, very well-attended class. It started with thirty-five students and grew to over one hundred. (Photo 19) While I would like to attribute this rapid growth to my scintillating lectures and great personal magnetism; there turned out to be a much more prosaic explanation. Mirela promised every student who attended at least eight of my lectures that he or she would be relieved of a lengthy term paper. In addition, the market for new lawyers in Croatia is quite limited, and several of the students were recent graduates who apparently had nothing better to do. But to be fair, I have now taught Introduction to International Business Transactions and International Arbitration for several years and have refined both presentations. So maybe part of it was my scintillating presentation.

While teaching, I also had a lengthy interview with the Law School magazine. (Photo 20) The interviewer was a student who, surprisingly, was from Bosnia. She was very interested in my thoughts about the students, with whom I was impressed. All of the students have grown up in a post-Socialism, capitalistic world, and their views of socialism are parallels of my generation’s view of the great depression as related by our parents – “Gee, it must have been tough but I really don’t care about it.” The war for “National Independence” happened when most of the students were toddlers (1996-1997), and made very little in the way of a lasting impression. With iPhones, iPods, and the latest technologies, these students are citizens of Europe, yet all seemed to have deeply patriotic feelings for Croatia.

The Local “Bar” (As In The Lawyers’ Association – Not Drinking Establishment)

The local bar association in Osejek invited me to speak on a topic of my choice. I suggested an introduction to our federal court system, as that would be the most likely forum for a Croatian citizen to sue a U.S. citizen. I was invited to the local headquarters, one morning, before noon, for my presentation. I was offered a glass of Rakija, which I declined, but the president of the association and a few of the local lawyers happily indulged. After an hour or so, the real motivation behind the invitation became apparent. “We don’t want you to talk about law; we looked at your age and we want to know what it was like to have lived in the 60’s. That was a time of great social change in the United States and our country is now going through great changes, so what was it like?” On paper I am a good candidate to address the inquiry. I was fourteen years old in 1960, and twenty-four years old in 1970, so I was the right age at the right time. I had the feeling, however, that my hosts wanted something more than to hear one teenager’s account of coming of age in that marvelous era – marvelous because I barely had a serious thought in the entire decade. It did make me think, however, about how lucky I was to have grown up in a decade that started with Buddy Holly and ended with Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, not to mention Motown, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

The experience made me appreciate that history is not just what I read about before I was born; I have now lived history. I promised the Croatian bar that I would visit again and give a more thoughtful talk, but it was a great time to be a teenager!

My teaching plans for next year are still to be decided. Both Rufus and I feel the need to round out our Balkan experience with visits Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia. Kazakhstan is tempting, as is Romania. We would also love to go back to the Baltic – especially Estonia. Of course, we only saw a small part of Russia – so many places…