Do you speak Yugoslavian?

David - summer 1984

In the summer of 1984, about half a decade before the various movements for, and wars of, independence I was lucky enough to have had a guided tour through three beautiful countries included in the communist state of Yugoslavia.  We traveled across some stunning regions, including the exquisite coastline of Dalmatia, as well as amazing country-side and beautiful old cities. At that point in history, there were six republics that formed federal Yugoslavia.

My journey began earlier in 1984, when a certain Croatian (don’t dare say “Yugoslavian”) friar came to join us at Canterbury, to study English.  He and I got on really well, and he was happy enough to learn English with a Welsh accent!  His name was Božo.  He was studying German and English in Frankfurt, and had a couple of terms with us at the Franciscan Study Centre in Canterbury.  That was the year I left the Order of Friars Minor, to carry on my degree in Theology at the University of Kent at Canterbury (UKC).  During the summer vacation, I flew to Frankfurt to meet Božo, for us to travel through the then Yugoslav Republics of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.  We spent a few days in Germany, where he introduced me to two nuns that we were making the trip to Croatia with us.

The Sisters were in a very traditional order.  They wore full habits and came across as ever-so holy and religious.  They didn’t speak a word of English.  Lucky for me, I had been trying to learn a few phrases from what was called a “Serbo-Croat” phrase book.  I could greet people, ask for basics (probably wine, wine and more wine) and I knew how to conjugate verbs.  Once I knew the verb in its infinitive, off I would go.

Essen - with Bozo's cousin
I ‘forced’ my way into the kitchen, to help wash up!

One day, just so I could meet the Sisters before spending a few days cramped in a little car with them, and travelling for hundreds of miles together, Božo took me and them around an amazing park in Essen.  I could greet the Sisters in their mother tongue, for which they seemed pleased, and I could utter a few brief sentences.  Then Božo wanted me to impress them by conjugating a verb.  So he said “Go on, David, conjugate the verb ‘to write’ Na hrvatskom jeziku (i.e. in the Croatian language)”.  He told me the infinitive, and off I went.

Ja pišam, ti pišam, on pijemi …

I was happy reeling off to formulaic “I write, you (informal) write, s/he / it writes; we write, you (plural / formal) write, they write”.  Or so I thought!  The Sisters were in stitches!  In Croatian, there are two verbs that are very close to each other in sound and spelling.  “To write” is pisati, but pišati means something very different!  Božo got me telling these holy ladies “I piss, you piss, s/he pisses …”

Once he explained why they were splitting their sides in laughter, and despite my totally red face, it was great fun and the Sisters certainly didn’t take any offence.  So there we were, four of us, squashed into a little car, going to “Yugoslavia” for a holiday.  You might be wondering why I am using the name “Yugoslavia” with such caution.  Probably ever since the creation of the state, back in 1918, the different ethnic mixes and nationalities that were lumped together under one flag weren’t all that keen on each other.  In fact, as we know since, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s showed how much they actually hated each other!  What made matters worse, not only were very proud national peoples pushed together in this false sort of a federal state of south Slavia, but decades of rule under the total dominance of the Communist Party meant life was good for some (the pro-communists and party members), but not for all the others.

There are few short stories I can tell you here, to give you a flavour of the tensions and the dreadful poverty I witnessed, all on the continent of Europe.  That’s what shocked me: Yugoslavia was part of mainland Europe, and although my journeys across the continent were few back then, I had never witnessed poverty – or such poor infrastructure and services – ever before.

Water melons, sweetcorn and the poor people begging

Prsut - Bozo's family meal
Sad to think, but pršut in the making!

I love both water melons and sweetcorn.  Given the affluence of the UK (well, until Brexit really hits the fan) I have watermelon almost every single day without fail.  Back then, they were rare in Britain, but plentiful across Yugoslavia.  Families would grow them in abundance and then carry them to the local villages, towns and cities and sell them on the roadside and in the market places, for a mere pittance.  The same goes for corn on the cob.  These two foods, along with peppers and other fresh herbs and vegetables formed part of the main diet of most “peasant” families.  A leg of smoked ham (pršut, Italian: prosciutto), equivalent of a farmer’s monthly salary, was a luxury.  That’s right – communism had a peasant class, and life was harder the further down the pecking order someone found themselves.


The people who sat on the roadside selling watermelons and sweetcorn were the rich ones, really.  Once a person was too ill or infirm to work, the communist state refused to support them.  There was no such thing as welfare, no ‘universal credit’, not even sick-pay or disability living allowance.  They just begged or starved, or both!  The number of people bowed down on the roadside, with hands in prayer-fashion and their head resting on the praying hands, was a sight enough to make a stone weep!  There would be whole families, babies, too, and so many people without limbs.  Their bandaged stumps looked filthy, simply a covering for pain and soreness.  They would just beg.  The communist state wiped them off the books; they didn’t exist, until they did something wrong and were either sent to goal or declared mentally disturbed, and subsequently incarcerated.

Bozo's mother - hard at work
Božo’s Mother at work on the farm

I met many families in farming and rural areas, usually with a large number of children.  Big families were good, so the communist party logic told them.  The more boys a household had, the more money the family could earn.  Conscription to the armed forces was still rigorously enforced.  At other times, the sons would work at the family business or farm the land.  If a family was ‘lucky’, some of the offspring would become priests and nuns, and escape the poverty for good!

Bozo's family

In the traditional farming families (mainly seen as peasants), when a son married, his family would just build an extension to the house so that the new daughter-in-law could move in.  She would then help with the house-hold chores, and do the things the ‘women did’. Even back then, I hated the women of the household having to make my bed or wash my clothes – men simply weren’t allowed to do it, and insisting on it (as I tried) made me the foreign freak with quaint habits; upsetting the natural order, no doubt!

Anyway … I met a number of large farming families where the fathers (head of the household) could not afford to pay national security stamp for all of their sons.  In one family, the youngest son (late teens / early 20, or so) developed a serious eye condition and had to be admitted to hospital for a few weeks.  As his father had never paid stamp for him, technically, the son could not go to hospital or get any sort of medical treatment at all, without paying huge sums privately.  So the young man borrowed his big brother’s wedding ring, and made out to the hospital staff that he was years older, and called something totally different i.e. his eldest brother’s name.  They got away with it at the time, but as soon as the young man was out of hospital – and instructed to wear prescription dark glasses for at least 12 months afterwards – he had his military call-up papers, for conscription!  Despite medical advice to wear dark glass for at least a year, to prevent long-term and irrevocable eye damage, the son had to go back to his own identity, join the army and pretend there was nothing at all wrong with his eyes!

The stinking fish and the cracked lamp shades

The communist government was supposed to guarantee a job for all those people fit enough to work.  Unlike our catering, hospitality and service industries in the UK, it didn’t matter if the staff were rude to customers or couldn’t give a damn about their job: they were guaranteed work as long as they were fit and turned up!  So one evening, Božo and I went to a restaurant sticking out of a cliff face and hanging over a river, below.  It was beautiful and so picturesque.  He ordered a fish dish.  Once he started to tuck in, Božo realised the fish was off!  He called the waiter over and complained.  “This fish is off!”  The waiter shrugged his shoulders and said

“Eat it, or don’t eat it.  The choice is yours!”

And off he walked!  Another poor customer relations event happened in a huge light section of a department store.  Well, I call it a store, it was more like a warehouse where the only lights on were the occasional bare bulb in-between hundreds of dusty light fittings, chandeliers and other displays.  We were so used to constant and plentiful electricity in the UK of the 1980s that even department stores would be lit up most of the night, especially the window displays of actual lamp and lighting products.  Not so in Yugoslavia!  Electricity was so rationed that they would only have enough bare bulbs for the minimum light across a store.  All the display lamps or shades and chandeliers were just not on; hanging there, gathering dust!  So Božo fancied a particular light fitting with about 5 or 6 shades on it, for a present.  He asked to see it up close, and when the assistant begrudgingly lowered it down from the ceiling, all covered in dust, there was big crack through one of the glass shades.  “This one is broken” Božo said.  Again, the response startled me, simply “Take it or leave it!  You don’t have to buy it.”

The ancient city of Mostar

Mostar Bridge post card - 1984

We went to visit the ancient and beautiful city of Mostar, with its truly famous medieval bridge (blown up by the ‘other side’ during brutal wars of the 1990s).  There were dozens of people on the bridge, all looking over to watch this young man jump off and dive into the river below, to earn some money.  Everyone was hanging over the bridge, watching him at the highest point, feigning to dive.  He really knew how to whip up the crowds!  So we all gave money to the young men walking up and down with ‘begging’ bowls or caps in their hands.  We were standing there for ages as the crowds grow bigger and deeper, awaiting this timed spectacle.  The longer he pretended he was going to jump, the more people crowded the bridge and cheered him on, and the more money they gave.  I was getting a bit fed up of waiting for so long, and turned around to see Božo and ask how long this might go on for – plop!  He jumped; I missed it!  Haha, that was it, we didn’t wait for an encore.  So sad to see that beautiful bridge, city, and country torn apart by the ravages of war only a few years later, and always lovely to hear of the regeneration and UN World Heritage developments.

Mostar bridge - Bozo

The secret police in the restaurant

Just one more story before the punch-line.  One day, we went to a restaurant for an early lunch.  There must have been about 30 – 40 tables outside, in the beautiful sunshine.  Less than half a dozen out of the 30 – 40 tables were currently in use.  So we chose a table well clear of everyone else.  As soon as we sat down, a man came and sat on the table right next to us.  With all the empty tables available, he had to sit next to us!  But as we ate a 3-course meal, with drinks and coffee, however long that all took, he only had one cup of coffee.  He was swinging back on his chair (wish I had kicked the legs from under him!), reading a newspaper cover to cover.  He was swinging so close, his back and chair were almost banging in to me.  Božo quietly motioned to me by putting a finger to his lips, as though to say “say nothing!”

When we left the restaurant, Božo told me this man would have been secret police, and had I / we said anything at all political, especially against the communist government, then he would have just asked the restaurant staff to call the police, and we would have been arrested.

Do you speak Yugoslavian?

This final vignette is in a similar vein to the last one.  One evening, Božo and I attended a friend’s party .  A very well-to-do woman came up to me and asked “Govorite li Jugoslavija?”.  In all innocence, I recognised what she was saying, but didn’t appreciate the nuance of what she said.  The line I had learned from the phrase book got me to reply “Ne govorim hrvatski”  (No, I don’t speak Croatian).  Remember, my phrase book was of Serbo-Croat, or as the Croatians would say: Croat-Serbian.

All of a sudden, there was silence around me.  The woman looked totally offended, and someone politely dragged me away.  Later, Božo explained to me that pro-communist people, from any of the 6 republics (each with their own language) would refer to their own republic’s language as “Yugoslavian”.  How was I to know?  So the very fact she asked me if I spoke Yugoslavian was a pro-communist / pro-Federal government statement.  The fact I “corrected” her by replying that I don’t speak “Croatian” was seen as a pro-Croatian / pro-separatist affirmation, and slap in the face!  (Well, I never did like communism, anyhow!)

Such a magnificent part of Europe; the most welcoming and friendliest of people; stunning natural beauty, and amazing historical sites.  I wish them all continued and genuine peace and prosperity.

David in Venice 1984
On a day trip out of ‘Yugoslavia’ into northern Italy: visiting Venice and the site of Mussolini’s execution in Trieste
Venetian sunset with Bozo
As we drove away from Venice, the sun was so huge it filled the car’s rear-view mirror

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