Monday, 29 October 2018

A road more travelled

It wasn’t just fun to visit our friend Ana in Zagreb over the weekend. It was also highly entertaining. I particularly enjoyed learning a little of her history. And felt one bit of it at least deserved to be shared here.

Ana was born in Podbila, Herzegovina, now a constituent part of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Podbila was a mountain village which had one shop, a church and a primary school.
Podbila, nestling in the mountains
‘Sometimes you’d see the men outside the grocery having a beer.’

‘Because there was no bar or café?’

‘Oh, no. There was no bar or café. Just the shop.’

Most of the men worked holdings that took the form of patches of land scattered across wide distances, sometimes as much as a kilometre apart.

In such villages, intellectual society consisted of the teacher, the doctor and the priest. But Podbila was too small even for that: the doctor was in the next town and the priest only came to hold services.

‘In a little church surrounded by a cemetery. You have the same in England. I saw one in the middle of Birmingham, right in the centre of the city. It looked very strange. We had the same, but it was in the country.’

Ana’s father Jakov was a joiner and building worker. He moved to Germany to make a better living. It was a temporary arrangement but, as Ana pointed out, most of those who went abroad stayed there. Jakov was no exception, living out his life in Frankfurt.

There came a time, however, when Jakov and Ana’s mother Mara decided that Podbila might not offer the most glittering opportunities for a truly world-class education. Which was what they wanted for their two daughters and their son. So Jakov set out to find them a new home.

Ana (left) with Mara and Jakov and her siblings
A little while before she became an eminent research scientist
Mara was clear. She wasn’t prepared to give up growing her own vegetables. She made it clear he was to look for a place in one of the villages outside Osijek, in eastern Croatia, an area known as Slavonia, which was then quite wealthy.

Jakov caught the local bus to the small town of Posusje, where the farmers of the outlying villages used to bring their produce to market. There he mounted the intercity coach travelling to Osijek.

Everything went to plan until the coach reached the town of Okučani. Here it was to turn right, eastwards, and head for Osijek. And here Jakov was seized by doubt.

‘Osijek?’ he thought. ‘We want to educate our children? Osijek’s a great university city, but it isn’t the capital, is it?’

Now in those days there was no such state as Croatia, but there was a nation. Croats, even the ones in Herzegovina, felt a bond to it. And Zagreb was its capital. True, it was only the capital of a constituent republic of the uneasy federation of Yugoslavia, but the Croat capital it nonetheless was.

It was the work of a moment. Jakov changed his ticket. He made for Zagreb. Not a village nearby, but the city itself, as close as possible to the schools and universities.

Except for several visits abroad, Ana has been living in the capital ever since 1979. Now a research chemist and a professor at the University of Zagreb, she’s living proof that her father’s strategy worked out.
The eminent chemist today
On the other hand, Mara never got a proper field to cultivate. Jakov ultimately built the apartment block in which we stayed with Ana, and in which Mara has had a flat ever since she returned from Frankfurt. True, she has a back garden which she can cultivate; true, too, that her brother living in another house Jakov built has a garden and her son-in-law has an allotment both of which Mara has taken over; but it’s urban market gardening rather than anything like real farming as she’d hoped.

As for Jakov, he bought himself a plot in a Zagreb cemetery.

‘This will be my apartment when I return,’ he told his family.

When they asked whether he wouldn’t prefer to be buried back in Herzegovina, he couldn’t see the point.

‘Why? Zagreb’s our home now. This is where my coffin will go.’

And it has.
Jakov a little while later than the previous photo
How might things have been if Jakov had stayed on the bus to Osijek? It’s hard not to believe that they would have been different. But we shall never know.

That puts me in mind of the Robert Frost poem The Road Less Taken.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Just like Jakov. Though he took the road more travelled. And, because we could visit Ana, we – like chemistry – have profited by his decision.

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