Croa­tia’s past fed its present

The West Australian - - OPINION - PAUL MUR­RAY

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

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