I was by a petrol station, where I spend most of my time hitchhiking in countries with motorways. I was in Slovenia trying to hitchhike from Ljubljana to Zagreb. There wasn’t much people around, just a few cars getting petrol and none with Croatian license plates. Behind the station there was some space for trucks to pull in and I spotted one of these trucks reversing out of its space, so I ran over waving before he pulled off. It had a Croatian plate.
I hadn’t yet hitchhiked a truck before (this was back in 2013 and before Croatia joined the EU), so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but he rolled down his window to hear me.
“Hey, speak English?”
“Austostop to Croatia, Please!”
“hmmm, I can take you to border”
He didn’t seem thrilled but he was happy to drop me off at the border, so I climbed into the passengers seat and threw my rug-sack onto the bed behind me.
We did the standard introductions and what-not. An elderly Croatian man (sixties I presume), his English was great and he seemed to enjoy the fact I was Irish. A bucket of tobacco sat on the floor in between us and I watched him reach down, grab some tobacco and roll himself a cigarette with one hand (filter and all) while steering the truck. I was impressed to say the least.
“I had friends from Ireland”
“Did you? Where”
“When I fight in Croatian Army”
“There was Irish men in the Croatian Army?”
“In war with Yugoslavia, Irish men come here. You are Catholics like us.”
This seemed to explain everything to him, but not to me. I thought the days of Irishmen going abroad to fight had long ceased by the nineties, though maybe there was a couple of Irish men here, possibly ex-IRA men who came to fight with other Catholics. It was surely possible. I even heard of a man from Clonmel (a town near my hometown in Ireland) who died fighting for Afghanistan against the Soviets.
“How many Irish?”
“I knew some, one still live in Croatia I think”
He didn’t seem bothered by the subject of war, and my curiosity got the best of me.
“So you didn’t like Communism?”
“You liked Communism?”
“In Yugoslavia, Yes”
“But not Tito?”
“Tito was great leader”
Now I was confused..
“But you fought to leave Yugoslavia in the war?”
“Yes and before that I was in Yugoslav army”
Really confused now…
“And you liked Yugoslavia and Communism and Tito?”
“Yes, we had many jobs and one month holidays every year, education, doctors.”
“Why did you fight against it then?”
“It is not easy say, I am Yugoslavian but also Croatian. When Tito was leader, no problem, we are all Yugoslavian. When Tito die, problem. Politicians make problems, I am Croatian, and Serbians no longer my brothers. I fight against my brothers because of politics but I am only soldier, no question. After war I drive truck.”
This shocked me really that a man could fight the army he was a part of originally. Also the praise for communism was news to me. I did history in school, I suppose a typical Western education will tell you that Communism was awful and no-one appreciated it except for the corrupt dictators. This man spoke so nostalgically in favour of Communism.
“Is Croatia better today?”
“No, but Yugoslavia is not possible without Tito, I must stop at border for hour. Why? In Yugoslavia we were all brothers, I could work and take my holiday. No holiday now, I never see my children, always driving trucks now. Croatia join EU soon. Good but not good, more tourists but hotels, restaurants all bought by Germans now. Money not staying. Understand?”
“Yes, you don’t see your children”
“They are big now, but I never see them small, always driving. In Yugoslavia you work and take break, now in Croatia if you find job, big if, then you always work. I will retire soon and become taxi driver I hope. Taxi driver is good job.”
He then proceeded to tell me about his house on the hills where he will retire and fix a Lada (old Russian car).
I guess for the man who wanted the freedom to move around Yugoslavia, earn just enough to support a family and still go fishing or fix his car at the weekend then Tito’s Communism must of been a dream come true.
In the end he took me past the border where we chatted for an hour and then onto Zagreb.
I wanted to share his story I guess to remind us all that the best way to learn about a countries history is to speak to someone who lived it.
It might just contradict the history book you had in school.