Jody Vance

Learning from History – by Jody Vance

Getty Images: Peter Langer

My Mom was born in Dubrovnik, her sister in Copenhagen. Their parents, my maternal grandparents shared in that heritage, my Grandmother the Dane — Grandfather the Yugoslav.

We have deep European roots and have reflected that here in Canada.

This is not an immigration blog — believe it or not, this is about having grown up watching a “change of Government” change a country remarkably quickly.

My Mom first took us to Europe in 1975. It was a magical trip.  Family, friends, THE FOOD, all of it was remarkable — and such a learning experience for my brother and I.

I had my 8th birthday in Copenhagen.  A beautifully spotless, not to mention safe, metropolitan city – Mom let us free-range.  We had been taught just enough Danish to get by.

On top of learning that Copenhagen had the best Playland (Tivoli Gardens) and the best hot-dogs EVER (Pölsa), we learned Denmark was so organized, so clean/safe/beautiful because of “very high taxes.” and great government.

We soaked up seeing that “1/2” of our heritage and were excited to explore the other 1/2.

Off to the warm and beautiful, but Communist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, where we would “likely need to line up for gasoline.”, the adults forewarned.

After an epically beautiful, 2-night, train ride to Zagreb …. and ridiculously long/hot/scary-cliff-hugging bus ride to our destination, we arrived in Herceg Novi, Yugoslavia — near Dubrovnik.

Our massive extended family rolled out the slavic red carpet — my Grandfather’s arrival, the eldest son, garnered a hero’s welcome.  We were whisked away to the family compound.

Not fancy, it was rustic and hearty.  “Over there” is where 95 year old Nana was born (a stone structure).  “Over there” is the main house, with the open kitchen, that never stops baking/cooking/frying/doing. “Over there” was “our house”, on the far side of the massive vegetable garden.  (think: classic yard veggie garden x 20 .. home to the best tomato I’ve ever eaten….and onion you could eat like and apple.)

Yes, we quickly confirmed that indeed gas was lined up for.  Add to that: the handful of grocery stores were lean on stock, at best.  The people of Yugoslavia lived at the whim of the government.

While there were “big fancy hotels” near by, we would forage for our food – literally.  Diving for octopus, pulling mussels from rock faces or fishing – coupled with plucking veggies from the family garden for the side dishes.  Our aunt Maria made delicious bread each morning.

We were immersed, there for the better part of a month.  No tv’s, clearly long before cell-phones and wifi, we spent the evenings sitting around a fire pit, under grapevines, listening to/telling stories.  I alway had the prime spot: my Grandfather’s lap.

It was there that I overheard countless stories of the Yugoslav communist government ruled, with an iron fist, by Pesident Josip Broz Tito. Tito was appointed President “for life” in 1963.  He was far from perfect, but somehow he kept peace in a place where Serbs and Croats  insisted on continuing their religious war. “Most don’t even know what they are fighting about anymore, they are just taught to hate.” (For the record, if you asked my Grandfather if he was “Serb or Croat” he would push out his chest and answer “I. Am. Yugoslav”.)

Tito was both loved and hated by his people.

That stayed with me.

From Wikipedia:

“According to official statistics, from the 1950s to the early 1980s, Yugoslavia was among the fastest growing countries, approaching the ranges reported in South Korea and other miracle countries. The unique socialist system in Yugoslavia, where factories were owned by workers and decision-making was less centralized than in other socialist countries may have led to the stronger growth. However, even if the absolute value of the growth rates was not as high as indicated by the official statistics, both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were characterized by surprisingly high growth rates of both income and education during the 1950s.”

When Tito died in 1980, the unrest came quickly. Ethnic tensions were at the centre of the storm.

My Grandfather passed away in 1985, he didn’t see the brutal war fought between Serbs and Croats, destroying his stunning jewel – the walled ancient city of Dubrovnik, and for that our family was thankful.  As a Yugoslav, he would have been crushed by the spectacle that was this “Post-Tito Era”.

That era was smudged with shame thanks, in no small part, to Slobodan Milošević who eventually took the reigns of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia.  What unfolded under his rule is nothing short of shocking.  Ultimately, the world would see him charged with war crimes including genocide, and crimes against humanity, in 1999.  After Milošević resigned from the Yugoslav presidency – amid demonstrations – he was arrested by Yugoslav Federal authorities on suspicion of corruption, abuse of power, and embezzlement.  That was March 31, 2001. (not all that long ago!)

The Yugoslavs, who were crushed by the political changes there between 1980 and 1999, were not ignorant to the dangerous dynamic growing in their midst over that time — but they were powerless to stop it.

Yes that leader was ultimately punished, but the damage was beyond comprehension. Unfixable for millions.

So, as we look on with grave concern over the massive changes taking place in the USA we must be diligent in our actions and reactions to the power-plays.  We must use all available resources, and our collective global voices, to hold accountable those seemingly drunk with power.  The Coup that more and more appears to be unfolding before our eyes is frightening.  The US government inner circle is shrinking, the infrastructure created to add checks and balances to constitutional laws are being eroded.  This is a loud call to all of us – as a global society – to not loose site of the true impact history shows us this will have, long term.

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  • Reply Charlotte Phillips February 1, 2017 at 8:49 pm

    Excellent essay, Jody. Very informative and so well written. I could just see it all through your childhood eyes.

    • Reply Jody Vance February 1, 2017 at 9:16 pm

      That means a great deal coming from you Charlotte. I was worried it was too personal….

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