Goats and Americans
The privilege of peace and the aftermath of war....
Twenty six years ago today, I stepped on board a train in Amsterdam which took me and eleven others down to Croatia. We changed at around 10pm in Munich. The station shops had just closed but the one remaining open kiosk served us hot drinks and we bought a stash of Ritter Sport chocolate bars to keep us going while we huddled together on the freezing platform. Our next train showed up at midnight and we tried to sleep in our seats as it trundled through Germany, down into Slovenia then across the beautiful Slovakian mountains and into Croatia.
Not being great at sleeping on the move, I stared out of the window as we raced through the mountains. I’d never seen this part of the world. As a child we had one family holiday to the south of France, and I’d done the obligatory Magaluf trip with a friend when I was 18 where we spent the entire week hiding from our holiday rep. This was different, it was like watching a movie from the other side of the window, or turning the pages of one of those beautiful coffee table books with pages that squeak. These places actually existed in real life. The houses were like something out of Heidi, wooden framed, small and balancing on the side of mountains. Yakety yak yakety yak, the hypnotic rattle of the train on the tracks carried us through tunnels that brought us to the other side and yet more mountains spread around us. Everything seemed vast, and clean. The sky seemed higher too.
The train stopped in Zagreb, a bustling city with stunning architecture. We found our way across the square in the warmth of the morning sun, and to the bus station where we boarded for the last stretch of our long journey to Zadar, on the southern coast of Croatia. We were heading to help rebuild a school now the war was ended. Our team of twelve consisted mainly of Americans with two Germans and two Brits.
We travelled through towns and villages bereft of life, windowless buildings decorated with bullet holes, and piles of rubble still lining the streets. The war ended a year ago but some of these places looked as though it ended only last week, there was still so much to do. Children hung out in empty doorways, and little faces peered at us through broken windows. Clothes flapped on makeshift washing lines, because life still went on. I had never been more conscious of my privilege. I sold everything I owned back at home in a frantic boot sale where people bartered my loved belongings down to 5p and 10p. I barely made £20 but it contributed to my leaving the UK, my troubled family and my journey to find myself. As I looked across at these children, I realised what a privileged position I was in, some don’t even get the chance.
The Croatian/Serbian war ended in 1995, the year before we got there. It raged for four years from when Croatia declared independence against Yugoslavia rule in 1991. More than 120,000 people died. One of the battles lasted 87 days after which 7,000 people were sent to concentration camps. The war led to mass economic destruction with $36 billion of war damages and thousands of homes destroyed. Even now, all these years later, some families have still not found out what happened to their missing loved ones.
We arrived in Zadar, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, down on the coastline that hugs around Bosnia-Herzegovnia. The inner city was framed by a wall and sat on the water’s edge with architecture dating back to 6BC, miraculously untouched by the war. It was book ended by the Velebit mountain range at one end and the long white coastal sands along the other.
‘Hi hi, welcome welcome’ a man in a thick green jumper flung his arms open and crossed the road to take our bags. ‘Good trip?’ Thomi’s english was stilted but fluent enough, I felt relieved I didn’t need to dig out my Croatian dictionary just yet. ‘I am Thomas, please, call me Thomi, my wife Slavitska’. He was the headmaster in the local high school we were going to be lending a hand with over the next few weeks. ‘My car is over here, less go you all’ he gestured toward his Lada.
Filled with a new burst of energy, we followed him and crammed our bags in. ‘I take these, you walk to the end of the road, turn right and our house is across park. You’ll see my mother Dida waving. She has coffee for you’.
To be honest, this English girl was a tea drinker up until this point but I quickly tired of Lipton being the only option on offer throughout Europe, and so trained myself to drink coffee, with lots of sugar.
‘Hello hello’ Dida shouted at us as we crossed the park. ‘Hello hello, come come’ this was the extent of her English for the entire time we stayed with her. This was matched by the extent of our Croatian, so it was fair. Thank goodness for Thomi and drawings. She greeted us with big hugs, poured coffee and handed out large chunks of cake, wiggling her eyebrows at us with excitement.
Croatians didn’t really speak any English back then and so over the first few days of making ourselves acquainted to our new surroundings, we found ourselves resorting to drawing pictures or utilising our charades skills in order to make ourselves understood. We discovered some universal words, coffee, hello, yes and no were a good start, and spent the next few weeks attempting to communicate with these wonderful people rebuilding their lives. We painted and fixed, tidied and did all we could to get Thomi’s school ready to welcome students in for the new term. We worked long days, amazed by the resilience and generosity of the staff at the school. They couldn’t do enough for us to show their gratitude and yet it was us who were getting so much from this opportunity to see life through a completely different lens.
Easter weekend arrived and we wrapped up our work at the school. It was pretty much ready for the new term and looking great. We walked down the hill, as we had done every day so far toward Dida’s house. As we got closer, we could see her at the gate. It looked like she was waving, but not just to welcome us home. Something was wrong, she seemed almost frantic. We picked up our pace and broke into a run. As we got closer, we could hear her shrieking, ‘Hello, hello!!’ and then she waved her arms toward the park. ‘No ok! No ok!’ she shouted. (I decided by now that the repetition of words was down to the fact that using it more than once almost made a sentence, which made sense enough).
We changed direction and head toward where she was pointing. There were very few cars on the streets at this time, people didn’t tend to be out and about, so we took to the centre of the road, scanning for whatever it was that caused her distress.
Around the corner we spied a goat, trotting along. It heard us coming and in turn, picked up its own pace. We could hear Dida’s voice behind us, ‘Yes! Yes!!’ she shouted, cheering us on. Now I’m not going to lie, we saw the comedy in this and it’s really quite hard to run down a goat when you’re laughing your heads off at the same time. I drank so much coffee through the day that I was bursting to pee at this stage too.
As we closed in on the goat, a car came from around the corner in front of the goat and spun to a sideways halt. No word of a lie, it was like a scene in a movie and only added to the hilarity of the situation. Ivan, Dida’s husband leapt out of the car ‘good, good’ he said. He opened his boot and gestured to us to lift the goat in. We managed to coralle it and between a few of us, pick it up and put it in. As we shut the door, it looked me straight in the eye, terrified by the entire ordeal.
We hadn’t really explored the house we were staying in and being quite a remote area of town I thought Dida and her husband must have a small holding where they got their milk and eggs, maybe the goat had escaped from there. Glad to have been of assistance, we returned to Dida at the house, ‘thank you, thank you’ she kept saying, armed with glasses of milk and a plate piled with cookies by way of thanks. Much relief all round for a good day’s work - I raced to the toilet!
We didn’t think any more of it until Easter Sunday came about. Thomi told us that they had been preparing a special Easter banquet for us. The night before, they brought us baskets filled with eggs and some paint. Dida gestured to us that she wanted them painted, which we duly did. The next day, we showed up as invited and took our seats at the table. ‘Look, look’ Dida picked up two of the coloured eggs that now sat on the table. They filled three large bowls and she bashed them together and laughed. One cracked the other, she lifted the unbroken one. ‘Yes! Yes!’ she exclaimed and gestured to us to do the same. Thomi came in from the kitchen ‘it’s tradition guys, you smash eggs before you eat’ and so with much hilarity, we started attacking each other’s eggs.
Each course was brought out to us, one foodstuff at a time. First course was the eggs, second was salad, third was bread and so on. We ate each course in turn before the next came out and as we did so, Dida, her husband Ivan and Thomi stood proudly in the doorway watching over us as we laughed and yummied our way through each course.
The fourth course then came along. Plates were piled high with chunks of meat. The eggs, salad and bread had all been polished off, this was the bit we had all been looking forward to. Our hosts were particularly proud of these dishes and as they placed the last plate on the table, ahead of us being given the go ahead to dig in.
Thomi said ‘remember the goat? Now you know why Dida was so distressed, he was your special lunch’.
I was mortified. I saw those eyes in the boot of the car, it wasn’t saying to me that was a scary ordeal it was saying don’t send me back, they’re going to kill me. It was a hard course to swallow, we laughed probably more in shock than anything else. It tasted awful of course, how could it be anything else – I had looked into his eyes.
But as we said our goodbyes the following week and made our way back to the train in Zagreb, I took with me the memories of these special people who shared all they had with us. They gave much, from a small pot and big hearts. We don’t need much, if anything, to be people who care and to be people who give.
Now I watch the Ukranian families fleeing across Europe, and it reminds me of that bus journey, the realisation of our privilege, and being born into a country at peace.
That’s why I always try to remember, love first