Learn more about Slovenia culture, food, people, history, tourism, geography, life in Yugoslavia, war, and more in Part I, Part II, and Part III of my interview with Slovenia Tour Guide Marijan Kriskovic.
My encounter with her was brief but passionate. I didn’t get to know her as well as I would have liked. However, I fell in love in our short time together. She was beautiful, our time together was passionate, and I enjoyed learning more about her despite our differences.
The trip was short but I fell in love with Slovenia. One of the most beautiful places I ever visited was Lake Bled – an Alpine lake just a short drive from the Slovenia capital of Ljubljana. I enjoyed the beauty and the culture but also learned a little about the history of Slovenia. This unexpected surprise made Slovenia one of my favorite countries and gave me the opportunity to put together a travel guide to Slovenia for those who want to explore more of this country.
However, there is so much more to Slovenia that the beautiful outdoors and a mountain lake.
Growing up in Slovenia and the Yugoslavia War
Many years ago, I had the chance to meet Slovenian tour guide Marijan Kriskovic who was a guide on my tour of Europe. Marijan has spent his entire life growing up in the former Yugoslavia. Marijan’s father and mother were from Croatia and Slovenia so he spent time experiencing both countries during his childhood. While most of his childhood years were spent in Croatia, Marijan also spent a lot of time in Slovenia and even went to university in Ljubljana.
Over the years, I’ve developed a friendship with Marijan and have had the opportunity to get to know him. He’s truly one of the nicest, most engaging, and insightful people I’ve ever met in my travels. He’s fluent in a number of languages and has spent years leading tours all over Europe. He understands Europe’s complex history and has enjoyed sharing his knowledge for many years.
However, I wanted to talk to Marijan and learn more about Slovenia history, the Yugoslavia War as Croats and Serbs fought one another, and what it was like growing up in Yugoslavia.
Marijan was kind enough to take a little time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about the war, the region’s history, and growing up in Croatia and Slovenia.
1. Tell me about your family. Where did you grow up? How much time did you spend in Slovenia as a kid?
I was born in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana (then part of Yugoslavia), but went to elementary and high school on the island of Rab in Croatia, before moving back to Ljubljana to study at the University. Due to my mixed background (parents from both countries) I spent a lot of time in both places at any given time in my life.
2. As a kid, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I think the earliest thing I can remember wanting to be is an actor. I got quickly over that phase though and moved on to next week’s idea.
3. Growing up in Yugoslavia, it was much different than the rest of Eastern Europe and other Communist countries. Why was Yugoslavia different and how much did you travel as a kid?
Yugoslavia was different in the respect that it wasn’t a Soviet block country, but was still communist. One of the major differences compared to the countries behind the iron curtain was that its people were free to travel. In fact a Yugoslav passport was probably one of the best ones to have in the days of the cold war since you could travel without any major restrictions both to the East and the West.
Still, my parents always decided to head west on one of our frequent family trips. Places like Italy, Germany, Austria, France, Spain probably offered more “color” and diversity not to mention being more family friendly in those days.
4. What was it like growing up in Yugoslavia as a kid? What memories do you have?
My personal memories are very nice ones as I grew up in a resort town on a northern Adriatic island. My father managed one of the main resorts on the island, which was mainly frequented by well to do Germans and Italians. So, my memories are those of cocktail parties on yachts and enjoying the beautiful setting of a stunning Mediterranean island like Rab. Not exactly images one would necessarily connect with a communist country. Ha, ha.
But seriously, I was very fortunate to grow up in such a sheltered and idyllic place and a loving family home. There were a lot of problems in Yugoslavia that I was not aware of living in a place like that. Overall the country had a mix of planned communist economy and market economy. So there was significant political freedom, concept of private property etc. but still with certain limitations. For instance, its shops wouldn’t have been as plentiful and nice like the ones in the west, but at the same time not as empty as the ones in the east.
5. What did your parents and family think of life under Tito? Is life better now?
My parents would have somewhat different points of view in regards to that and that would pretty much reflect the polarized sentiment in the general population as well.
Most people my parents’ age (that would have been born just after WW2) would think of Yugoslavia with very fond memories. Statistically there was no unemployment and with relatively easy work you could afford a reasonably high standard of living (which doesn’t make much sense in a market economy and turned out to be largely funded by loans which Tito got from the West and which my great-great grandchildren will probably still be paying off). Most of all, life was simpler and put a stronger focus on family and friends. There was less corruption and mismanagement (at least so it seemed) and the average family was doing significantly better than now.
If someone’s goal was just to have a comfortable day to day life, Yugoslavia would have been a good place, but anybody wanting to achieve something more or “out of the box” would have had a hard time. As time goes by and the economical situation for the majority middle class gets harder every day, people tend to romanticize about the “good old days” in Yugoslavia and phase out in their memories all the absurdity and not so nice things that the communist regime brought in the same package.
6. The war started in the early 90s but many people only know about the tragedies under Milosevic. What was the conflict about?
The conflict around the breakup of Yugoslavia was not just one but several, spread out in different time lines between 1991 – 1995. There were multiple and very different backgrounds ranging from historical, cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic and political making it very difficult to understand fully due to its complexity.
Yugoslavia was a 20th century artificial creation left after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of WW1 in which nations were thrown together that had very little in common and therefore little chance to make it as a “family”. The differences could not be bigger and as vast ranging as from one end of Europe to the other – from language, religion, culture and mentality to economy. These territories haven’t been part of the same state since the Roman empire broke up in two parts in the 3rd century, with the border going right through the heart of what would be Yugoslavia.
Essentially it was doomed to fail from the start. Grossly oversimplifying it, one could say that it was a combination of Serbian expansionism and chain reaction of Turkish conquests of the southern Balkans 5 centuries ago and the resulting ethnic migrations.
At the core of the 1990s conflict was the rivalry between Serbs and Croats who weren’t always enemies as some would like to portray. On the contrary; while they were ruled by foreign powers (which they shared as a common enemy), they even got so close that by the mid 1800s they wanted to merge their language into one (which almost happened, except for a few differences in the pronunciation). Once they got to share the same “household” with the creation of Yugoslavia, troubles started.
The growing rivalry erupted in ethnic violence in the context of WW2 and was after the decades of Tito’s rule (who suppressed the nationalistic tensions) resurrected when Milosevic claimed the right for Serbs to rule other people and territories under the political program of “Greater Serbia” triggering a reaction in the Serbian communities across Yugoslavia as well as other ethnic communities that saw themselves threatened by these events.
7. What was life like for you and your family in the war? Did you lose friends over the conflict? Were there any people that you or your family knew that died in the war?
I fortunately lived at the time in a part of Croatia that was not directly affected by the war itself, but rather the economical impact that the conflict had on a community that previously exclusively depended on the tourist industry.
With the war, things literally changed overnight. For instance my father found himself changing professions from hotel manager to being head of a refugee camp in the same workplace, as the big empty hotels on the coast proved to be the ideal place to house the numerous refugees fleeing the war zone further inland. Seeing images of burning villages and people being killed just an hour away seemed surreal and like something out of a Hollywood movie. It was hard for me to fully grasp reports as being reality and some part of me refused to acknowledge it, all up to a single event.
I remember it was the very beginning of October and I was helping out with the wine harvest in my father’s vineyard when I heard six shots fired in the distance. It sounded as if a hunter would have been hunting for pheasants in the neighboring woods, but when a couple of fighter jets came flying low over our heads, it became clear that wasn’t the case. The air sirens sounded from the town and the war had become part of my life.
Fortunately, nobody was injured in the attack. In fact what had happened was that a naval blockade was proclaimed by the Yugoslav navy and the ferry boats servicing the island decided to ignore it (since they didn’t think it would concern them with the island being far away from any strategic target). Still, jets showed up and fired the warning shots at the ferry. So, for a time the supplies were transported by night using speed boats with no lights.
In the following months things were like something that I would have never thought experiencing off a TV screen – daily air blackouts (so the planes could not easily recognize their targets at night), buildings like medical facilities monuments etc. marked with special signs which should grant them exemption of any military action and the notion of the possibility of any of those planes dropping their bombs at any time anywhere. Again, we were lucky and the island was not targeted, but made for a few very stressful months.
8. What was the relationship like between Slovenia and Croatia like under Tito, during the war, and after the war?
The relationship between Slovenia and Croatia remained good at any point since the two countries had a lot in common, being the most economically developed parts of Yugoslavia and sharing a common Austro-Hungarian past and culture. In particular Slovenia managed to remain in good relations with all of the republics of former Yugoslavia since it wasn’t involved to a larger extent in the military conflicts following the breakup of the country.
9. Slovenia was one of the more fortunate countries in the Yugoslavia war. How did the war affect Slovenes? What steps did Slovenia take to declare independence?
Slovenians didn’t necessarily want to break away from Yugoslavia but at the time this was the only alternative to being subdued by greater Serbia. Presented with these facts, people voted in favor of independence with an overwhelming majority. Still, one more chance was given to the possibility of living in a common state and the declaration of independence was delayed for another year.
During this time negotiations went on between the presidents of the Yugoslav republics which ultimately didn’t produce any results and in 1991 officially the independent state was declared. On the 25th of June the Slovenian flag was raised and the president prophetically proclaimed “today dreams are allowed, tomorrow reality begins”. The following morning tanks of the Yugoslav army were rolling down the streets of Slovenia as an introduction to the “10 day war of independence” which was contained to a number of minor skirmishes and luckily didn’t escalate into a full scale war as it was seen later in Croatia or Bosnia.
Modern day Slovenia – an ideal travel destination
Slovenia’s independence from Yugoslavia was relatively peaceful. However, neighbors and families were torn apart by the tragedies of the war in Yugoslavia. Even resort destinations in Croatia like the island of Rab and Dubrovnik weren’t spared attacks.
Today, the older generation in Slovenia remembers the days of Tito fondly. The middle class is struggling to establish itself in a more capitalist economy while the younger generation enjoys the freedoms. Understanding Slovenia’s history, as well as that of Yugoslavia, can be difficult. However, this region of Eastern Europe is unique and beautiful.
Whether you explore the tragedies or treasures of this country, Slovenia is a place worth exploring. Thanks to Marijan for sharing his experiences growing up in Slovenia and Croatia as well as his perspective and history on Yugoslavia.
For more information on one of my favorite countries, check out photos and travel guides for Slovenia.