Friday, June 22, 2012

Dobar tek!

"A mother is like the olive tree. You neglect her, but she still gives and gives. But a wife is like the grape vine. If you do not tend to her she will not bear fruit and will go traveling to the neighbors." This was the saying told to us in the simple cellar of the Senjoković winery on the Island of Brač in the Adriatic Sea. The Senjoković family has been on the island for generations, but they have only been selling their wine for four years (since 2008). Brač was once a major European wine producer; over 90% of the island was covered in vineyards. But a plant disease in the early 20th century wiped out the majority of the vines, forcing many Croatians to leave their homes (many of these immigrants became wine makers in Chile, Australia, and California). The Senjoković family is now one of the first families in the area to attempt commercial wine production again.

The entire country of Croatia is in transition. They are dealing with the remnants of a harsh past and looking with uncertainty to the future. 20 years ago this was a brutal war zone and next year it will become part of the European Union. People are unsure whether joining the EU will be good for the country or not. On one hand research money and loans will be more available, but on the other hand competition with much bigger countries may make them insignificant. 

Despite this uncertainty and history Croatia is an incredibly safe place filled with jovial people. (An American Fulbright student here "proved" to us that Zagreb is safer than any American city by specifically walking us home one night via the darkest alleyways and the sketchiest park trails in the entire city!) People here value their families and they do not want to leave Croatia for better economic conditions elsewhere. And even though unemployment is high and many industries are stagnant, everyone finds time to travel to the coast for a week or two (or 4!) of vacation with their families. 

Graduate students here, who are making next to nothing and have slim job prospects, keep buying me lunch because I am a guest. (I've learned that "I just go to toilet and then we go" is code for "I am secretly going to pay the bill.") And, oh man, have I eaten some good food! My diet has turned 180 degrees in Croatia. In the United States I do not eat meat and I cannot afford fruit or alcohol, but here fruit is plentiful, meat is always served, and alcohol is traditionally drunk before, after and during the meal! In the middle of the day we take a break from work to enjoy leisurely meals, to drink beer, wine, and homemade brandy, and to eat eat from a cuisine somewhere between Central Europe and the Mediterranean.

I have eaten čevapi (rissoles of minced beef), ajvar (a paste of red bell pepper, eggplant, paprika and garlic), gnocchi in a thick beef gravy (njoki s komadićima bifteka), and  štrukliburek and whole suite of other cheese filled pastries. On the coast I ate stingray with potatoes and carrots in a white wine sauce (gregada). On the Adriatic Islands I ate grilled squid (lignje na grillu) served with blitva (swiss chard, potatoes and garlic), and in some old alleyway in Split I ate mussels in a tomato broth (dagnje na buzaru). In the eastern part of Croatia the food is heavily influenced by Hungary and paprika practically flows from the tap! Here I ate game meat with dumplings and cottage cheese (perklet od divljaci), and I ate the classic fiš-paprikaš (chunks of river fish [carp, pike, and catfish] stewed in a tomato and paprika broth over a wooden fire) all while drinking  grasevina wine from the local cellars mixed with seltzer water. Yesterday we went to Istria, considered to be the Tuscany of Croatia --- here we ate sea bass carpaccio with capers, octopus salad and some amazing pasta.

The beer is nothing to write home about, but everyone in Croatia has their own homemade brandy. I have had tried brandy made from walnut, quince, cherry, honey, plum, carob, and even mistletoe. Every once in a while you'll be offered some local firewater made from grape or blackberry --- that stuff doesn't go down as easy as the brandy!

Many times I do not even know what I am eating. After visiting an experiment partially funded by the national fertilizer company we went back to company headquarters to have a four course lunch. We started with pear brandy, prušt (Croatian prosciutto) and a creamy cottage cheese, then moved on to some brothy soup with spindly noodles, then we ate our main dish, some cutlets with potatoes and broccoli, while we drank a local white wine, and we finally finished our meal with crepe like pancakes covered in chocolate sauce and filled with a walnut mash... then it was time to go back to work!

But things are changing in Croatia. Although many young people are not willing to move out of the country to find employment many are having to move to the capital to find a job. One quarter of the entire Croatian population now lives in Zagreb. Also, Croatia has also been told that they must reduce government spending and increase productivity before they become full members of the European Union.

One of my hosts was not able to buy me lunch. A young single mother of two, this assistant professor apologized but she did not have time for a meal. Instead, we went to McDonald's and got ice cream from the drive-through. She said everyone was very curious about McDonald's when it first came to Croatia, but now it is just normal.

Senjoković Winery 

Papa Senjoković                                Papa Senjoković years ago              The next generation (and me!)

Croatia-Italy EuroCup Game
(watching on the big screen in the main square)

I have no idea who this guy is                                             No hot dogs at this game. (big vat of spaghetti)

Lunch at the Factory

Typical Croatian Soup                        Local White Wine      Pancakes, chocolate sauce & walnut mash!

Dobar tek! 
(Bon appetite!)

Eating white fish gregada (later found out the "white fish" was stingray)
(In the foreground is bruet pura [remotely related to bouillabaisse]

 Grilled squid and blitva
perklet od divljaci (deer with dumplings and cheese)

octopus salad (Istria)

Istrian feast

Dagnje na buzaru on the left and typical Dalmatian grilled fish on the right

Sorry folks, but that sausage in the middle is partly made with horse meat.
  Another meal bought for me (some chicken with mushrooms over noodley thing)

Cherries from the Market


Croatian beer with new friend Igor

Local brandy
Drinking something called a "Pipi"
(don't worry - it tasted like vodka with orange soda)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Where I've been...

Zagreb is a lively city with blue trams running through its streets. There is graffiti on every inch of every building up to 10 feet high. There are little bakeries everywhere. Everyone is smoking (30% of the population I am told) --- they are smoking in the street, inside restaurants, and in their offices. And currently there are fresh strawberry vendors on most street corners, including in front of the malls. Jay-Z, Adele, and especially Gotye are playing on the radio.

Central Zagreb is filled with Baroque architecture, cobblestone streets, and Old World charm. The ubiquitous outdoor cafes with their small circular tables are especially busy Saturdays when the
špica occurs, where everyone stops for coffee and to people-watch before or after going to the Dolac Market.
We live south of the town center, just north of the Sava river. This area has very little charm, but it is still lively and still chock-a-block filled with graffiti!

We were working with the Department of General Agronomy last week and they took us out into the countryside. Houses in the countryside are larger and better kept that you would expect. They all have gardens and some animals and a little vineyard (some vines may be older than the United States!). We were told that since food is so expensive here [folks spend 1/3 to 1/2 of their income on food] most people try to supply a good portion of it by growing their own. All the houses have enormous wood piles --- infrastructure issues and the price of natural gas means that wood stoves are the only source of heat in the winters out in the Croatian countryside.

Instead of saying we are "in the middle of no where" Croatians say we are "on the backside of the Gods". There are large stretches of central Croatia without any population centers, and much of the countryside was depopulated by the war, but there are also energetic little towns in this area. We visited Novska [and the nearby site of the infamous Jasenovac WWII concentration camp] and Kutina. Kutina is the site of Croatia's fertilizer factory --- instead of being a gritty industrial hub, though, it is rather a bucolic town filled with children and families and little shops. Everyone is employed by the fertilizer factory in this town and everyone is worried about the Croatian government's plans to sell its majority stock in the company. Probably some country like Russia will buy up these shares and will subsequently close down the plant (so they can sell their own fertilizer), leaving the entire town in a desperate situation.

We visited the Zagorje area north of Zagreb, near the Slovenian border. Here there are castles and the birthplace of Tito, the former dictator of Yugoslavia. There is still a mixed view of Tito (whose claim to fame is that he was not as bad as Stalin) because, although a few people have gotten incredibly wealthy since the fall of the Yugoslavian state, most industries have shut down in Croatia and many people's lives are no better than they were before.

Currently, almost all of Croatia's economy depends on tourism. Last week was a national holiday so we went down to the Dalmatian coast, the heart of tourism in Croatia. We took a 5+ hour bus ride from Zagreb, over the mountains (actually more like through a lot of tunnels) and down into the city of Split on the Adriatic Sea. Central Split is dominated by the remnants of Diocletian's Palace... it is jaw-dropping to see. You wind through cobblestone alleyways where shops and apartments are dug into old palace walls and then you get into an open area and boom! there is a centuries old cathedral or an ancient Roman ruin. It is incredible. The smell of the harbor mixes with the lavender that all of the street vendors are selling.

The dominance of the tourism trade is troubling, though. We took a kayaking tour around the medieval town of Trogir and our guide was a Mechanical Engineering student. I asked him what he wanted to do when he graduated and he said, "In Croatia we do not get to decide." He said that many people get a college degree and then go back to the tourist job they had before because there is no other opportunity.

The culture on the coast is surprising as well --- despite being a tourist hub people can be brusk and downright mean. The guy who rented us scooters on the island of Brač was a jerk. He wasn't willing to teach me how to ride and I failed his 5 second driving test so he said "no way" and walked off... I went back and paid a little bit more for a 4wheeler. [P.S. driving around a beautiful Adriatic island = awesome] Our kayak tour guide was no great personality either --- "What is that building?" "It is a castle." [maybe mechanical engineers just don't make good tour guides?]

The coast is also a lot more conservative than the inland areas, despite being more connected to the rest of the world. People were worried about us going to Split this past weekend because it was the date of the yearly gay pride parade --- last year there were riots against the paraders and a lot of people got hurt. Our electrical engineering friend in the dorm (who got us internet somehow) is from the inland part of Croatia and he says he has no problem with the gay community, but that his roommate, from the coast, is adamantly against homosexuality. We only saw this year's parade from afar... it looked like there were more police than paraders which was good for safety but it was sad in general. After the parade everyone went home, no parties, no revelry... this is definitely no NOLA Southern Decadence Gay Pride Festival!

There were, of course, wonderful people in Dalmatia as well. Especially the family that showed us around their wine cellar on the island of Brač. But that is too long a story to tell here.... maybe another post.

This week I am working with the Department of Herbology (a.k.a.Weed Science) and the Department of Agricultural Zoology (a.k.a. Entomology). We will see where I end up!

Croatia National Theater (Zagreb)

St. George and some graffiti (Zagreb)

Strawberry vendors (Zagreb)
Doloc Market (Zagreb)
spiča (Zagreb)
Graffiti (Zagreb)

Triticale (Croatian Countryside)
Me and Tito in Kumrovec

 Zagorje Region

Jasenovac Memorial
Old City Street (Split)
Cathedral of St. Domnius (Split)
Up the Cathedral belfry (Split)
Gregorius of Nin (Split)
Rubbing Gregorius's big toe brings good luck and guarantees you'll return to Split!
View from Marjan (Split)
Street vendor selling lavender in purple sacks (Split)
The one stop light we saw on the Island of Brač
Swimming in the Adriatic (near Bol on the Island of Brač)

Sea kayaking around Trogir (near Split)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Croatia --- Week 1

We have had an amazing first week here! (and thanks to the dorm room electrical engineering student we finally have some form of internet!)

Our hosts, the University of Zagreb Department of Agriculture, have been treating us incredibly well.
We have already seen so much of the country and have met so many wonderful people.
Ivana has made sure that everything we need is taken care of.

A major highlight was visiting a farmer who raises pasture-based pigs and cows and sheep --- at the end of the day we sat down with him and ate fresh cheese, salami, pršut (prosciutto), sausage, and ajvar (eggplant/pepper spread) all from his farm.

The War almost always comes up in conversation. Younger people are willing to talk about it ---
They are nervous about the new nationalist president of Serbia; They are frustrated by the reconciliation demands the European Union is making in exchange for membership; The war depopulated many of the rural areas in Croatia, leaving few people to farm the land.
But the older generation is less willing to talk about it. As one professor said, when we were driving through a rural area where Serbs used to live, "That is a very sad hard story. I do not like to talk about it."

The weirdest lost in translation moment was at the grocery store this weekend when we were trying to get some things to settle in
Aaron: Dobar dan [good afternoon]
Check-out Lady: Dobar dan plus lots of Croatian I did not understand
Aaron: I am from America
Check-out Lady: Nods her  head  and says "Ah"... then continues to talk to me in Croatian
            While she is chatting away she begins to pick at some stray hairs on my shirt
            I smile; she smiles back and continues to talk to me in Croatian

After this I learned to say "Govorite li engleski?" [Do you speak English]