Croatia’s past fed its present
When I trace my curiosity about Croatia it starts in William Street, Northbridge, in the early 1970s and often in the early hours of the morning.
There was a restaurant called the Balkan run by Mirko, a gregarious Yugoslav. He must have been a recent arrival because he spoke English with the heavy accent of a B-movie Russian spy.
The political reporters at The West Australian adopted his place as their late night haunt after the week’s parliamentary sitting ended on Thursday following drinks at the Palace Hotel.
Mirko served a hearty mixed grill with the usual cevapcici sausage and raznici skewers, but with a special dish we knew as The Happy Boznac, a huge crumbed piece of veal stuffed with ham and cheese and served with piles of sliced raw onion ringing the plate.
I ran into it recently in the Croatian capital as zagrebacki odrezak, Zagreb steak, an eastern Austro-Hungarian schnitzel hangover which starkly delineates the maritime flavours of the western Dalmatian coast.
Lost in the mists of time are the foundations of the Boznac challenge which our raffish band pursued in youthful excess from time to time.
This entailed a brave individual trying to eat more portions of the dish than the prevailing Chief Boznac, perennially the newspaper’s Parliament team leader, David Warren.
He was so successful in beating off all challengers — at least a day’s notice had to be given to allow for fasting — that he gained the nickname Boz, by which he remains universally known in newspaper circles.
After way too many beers and lots of red wine, the thing that always killed off a Boznac challenge was the searing raw onion, which the uninitiated foolishly left to the end, but which Boz cautiously whittled away as he proceeded.
What provoked that memory was a lunch last week on my Croatian homage — on the island of Korcula from where many of my Dalmatian friends and acquaintances originate — and a mixed grill that could have come straight from Mirko’s kitchen.
Several days later, in Dubrovnik, I saw a dish called a Cheerful Bosnian, veseli bosanac, which was a cheese and vegetable-stuffed veal fillet and seems to be a close relative of Mirko’s staple.
Like with all migrant groups, a lot of early assimilation is through food, but the actual contribution to Australian society of the people is so much deeper than that.
In recent weeks I’ve been raking over the history of Croatian migration to get a better handle on the cultural richness this little understood community has given us.
In AFL grand final week, we had been noticing the big number of athletic young Croatian males built like Eagles colossus and dual premiership star Glen Jakovich. There’s something about the look: big bodies, their chiselled features and buzz-cut hair.
And then you realise the big numbers of men who fairly recently fought a bloody civil war. That’s when the military bearing and formidable demeanour makes sense.
Croatians are disarmingly hospitable and generous in their homeland, but there can also be a gruff abruptness in casual encounters that is at first off-putting. Sometimes it’s hard to buy a smile.
Then there’s a volatility that caused some in my generation to label them “bomb throwers” — there were attacks on Yugoslav offices in Australia in the 1970s — that relates to the hyper-complexity of a region that has been fought over countless times, often with the violent subjugation of the people.
And there’s an admirable toughness about Croatians which took a visit to the home village of my former colleague Mike Zekulich’s family to understand fully.
Underneath a forbidding grey stony mountain is a small collection of farms running along a rocky valley. It looks like great country for goats and heartaches for farmers.
Zavojane had a maximum recorded population of 1263 in 1910 just 14 years before Mike’s father Joe, the eldest of nine children, migrated. It was 308 at the last census.
“It was just too hard to make a living,” Mike says. “But it gave WA the benefit.”
The early migrant years are never easy. Winemaker Tony Cobanov’s grandfather also left Croatia in 1924 and spent 13 years cutting sleepers in the South West before he could afford a deposit on the family’s Windy Creek property in the Swan Valley. It was a tough life.
As was the case with many migrants from non-British backgrounds, we did not always treat Croatians well. During both World Wars many were interned as enemy aliens, some on Rottnest Island, which at least might have reminded the Dalmatians of home.
A friend says you can work out Croatians if you know whether their grandparents supported Tito’s partisans in World War II or not. However, it’s not that simple and the truth is multi-layered. When the civil war broke out in the early 1990s and Croatia sought its independence, not all people of Yugoslav origin in WA were Croatian and not all Croatians here wanted out of Yugoslavia.
Some still yearn for Tito-style socialism.
During the bloody conflict, Serbian authorities often sought to justify their actions by referring to independence-seeking Croatians in terms associated with the Ustashe, a nationalistic movement which supported fascism during WWII.
That spectre reared its head when the Croatian soccer team returned home from the World Cup final this year and some stars, including Golden Ball winner Luka Modric, insisted on including a controversial nationalist singer in the celebrations, dividing the country.
These tensions are consistent undercurrents in the Croatian and wider Yugoslav diaspora.
Another friend who migrated in the late 1960s came because his father, sympathetic with Tito’s regime, rejected the appropriation of his family property by corrupt officials. The socialist dream was broken.
Complicated history gives us complex people.
I first met George Grljusich when I was editor of this newspaper and he came to my office with his new boss at 6PR, Shane Healy, over Inside Cover’s ongoing interest in a family feud with brother John, the former mayor of Cockburn.
Healy had been threatening on-air retaliation unless the stories stopped. “Do you really want a war Shane,” I asked, pointing to figures on relative audience sizes. George threw back his head and roared laughing. We were firm friends from that day on and he recounted that yarn many times. And even Croatians at home don’t come much more complicated than George.
Illustration: Don Lindsay