On the road in the former Yugoslavia with a couple of Americans: one recreating his trip from 1984, the other looking for cheese.

With Chad Miller and Babs Perkins. Featuring music by Sticky Keys.

Listen

Support the Podcast

Become a monthly patron on Patreon:

Become a Patron!

Make a one-time contribution via PayPal/credit card:

Get the Podcast in Your Inbox ›

Episode Transcript

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

[JINGLE]

PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.

Every year I dedicate an episode of Remembering Yugoslavia to travel. So here we are, on the road again.

I recently spoke with two fellow Americans about their travels in the former Yugoslavia. One has been recreating his trip from 1984, the other is looking for cheese.

Before we join Chad and Babs, let’s first take a quick jaunt around the globe to check in on past guests of this podcast.

In North America, the diasporan Iva Janković is now making music professionally. Look for StickyKeys Music on Soundcloud and get in touch for gigs and commissions.

With their kind permission, you’ll be hearing the tracks “Yugoslav Space Program” and “Balkan Blues” a lot on this podcast from here on out.

[SOUNDBITE – “Yugoslav Space Program” by Sticky Keys]

In Europe, Janja Glogovac, director of the 2001 documentary Tito, is working on a new project, about salsa, the dance. Check it out on IndieGoGo. Milica Popović is turning her doctoral dissertation about yugonostalgia into a book and working on a project about deserters in the Yugoslav wars. Vladana Putnik Prica has a book out about residential architecture in interwar Yugoslavia and is editing a book about housing blocks in the US and Yugoslavia. And the third-culture kid Jelena Sofronijević is working on an exhibition and book about British diaspora artists.

These and hundred fifty other guests have made a difference in your life. At least that’s what I heard in the recent survey.

Take Victoria in Canada who wrote: “I started listening to the podcast after my grandfather died. He was a proud Yugoslav and mourned the death of his country intensely. Listening to the podcast makes me feel closer to him. There are so many questions I wish I could ask him, and bits of the show I wish I could show him. Thank you for creating such a beautiful tribute to the country I wish I knew.”

Adela in the United States wrote, “I really appreciate the podcast; it gives me a sense of community and comfort. There aren’t many Yugoslavia clubs where I can go and meet people, but at least we can come together through your episodes.”

Elizabeth in Serbia: “Even though I am not always able to listen to Remembering Yugoslavia regularly due to time constraints, The story-telling and the interviews have enriched my life as a foreigner in Serbia. The podcast has taught me to really slow down and enjoy the rich offerings of the post-Yugoslavia countries.”

Many other listeners support the show in tangible ways, helping to keep the blinking lights on and the road on the show. Thank you Alex, BoBo, and Boško for your recent contributions.

[SOUNDBITE]

CHAD MILLER: Anyone who lives in the US, and if you live sort of in the middle or eastern part, the first time you ever take a drive to the west, and once you come to the Rockies and go farther, this whole other world opens up. And so I kind of felt that way once I got into Yugoslavia, because it was still Europe, but it was very different.

PETER KORCHNAK: Chad Miller is a writer, photographer, and studio artist in Iowa. As a college student in 1984 he traveled around Europe for a few months with an open ticket, a rail pass, and no itinerary. Towards the end of that backpacking trip, he ventured down to post-Olympics Yugoslavia for a couple of weeks.

CHAD MILLER: It felt much more direct and tangible. It wasn’t as set up for tourism, it wasn’t as comfortable, which I liked, because it put me in better touch with the people in the surroundings. Also, the language was something I couldn’t begin to parse. That changed the whole equation. I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I was very naive at that age.

PETER KORCHNAK: First stop, Zagreb.

CHAD MILLER: I guess the first thing was just the experience of the train travel itself. Because it was a lot less efficient. It didn’t seem to really stick to a timetable. We stopped a lot in the middle of nowhere. I was very confused because I didn’t understand the language. I was the only backpacker or Western tourist as far as I could see who is on the train. So it was something I hadn’t encountered. Because Europe otherwise had been so efficient and slick, which is you know, one of the things like I was saying that I ended up liking because it wasn’t so efficient and slick.

Zagreb seemed kind of not too interesting to me, kind of gray, kind of didn’t see a lot of joy in the people.

PETER KORCHNAK: Hearing that last part, I was having flashbacks to my 6 months in Zagreb last year. Not much change on the joy front, I’m afraid. But we digress.

CHAD MILLER: Later, when I would go down to Split and Dubrovnik, I would see a completely different side of things. You know it was more geared, I guess, toward Western tourists, but it was also just the physical beauty of the place and also meeting more of the local people and getting their hospitality. After that I would go into Sarajevo, Belgrade. Each place was very different, you know, which kind of surprised me.

PETER KORCHNAK: It was a train experience on that first backpacking trip that got Miller to return to Yugoslavia thirty years later.

CHAD MILLER: Between Zagreb and Split I was traveling with a small group of people I had met. But the train kept stopping in different places. We didn’t know why or how long it would stay. And I was with a Dutch friend, I had known him for maybe two days. And we decided to get out of the train. We didn’t even know the name of the place. And he had talked to someone and got the understanding that it would be staying there for one hour. So we just went and took a walk around this small town, which was fun, we got to see a place that we didn’t even know existed or didn’t know the name of. Of course, when we came back, and we’re going back to the train station, we saw the train chugging away. So we missed our train, it had all our luggage on it, our friends were there. So we are kind of stranded in this place that we didn’t know. I don’t think I could have even located on a map.

PETER KORCHNAK: It took two days to reunite with their friends and luggage in Split.

CHAD MILLER: We were sort of stranded in these other places that weren’t in the guidebook and that I don’t think tourists would go to. And it was kind of a defining experience of my life, I guess. And that’s what I ended up going back to kind of rediscover that later.

PETER KORCHNAK: From an old note Miller retrieved the names of two towns the duo visited on their way to Split: Bihać and Knin. He thinks the town where they got off the train was Bosanska Krupa. But he isn’t sure.

Overall—

CHAD MILLER: I felt a certain warmth and directness from the people that I didn’t necessarily feel in some of the other European places. It’s kind of a generalization but when people didn’t have a lot of experience with meeting Americans, they have their own set of like, misconceptions or like popular consciousness idea about America or Americans. So I think sometimes people were you know, excited to talk to an American.

PETER KORCHNAK: Fast forward 30 years later. Miller had left a corporate job, became a writer, joined the PeaceCorps, and spent three years in Ethiopia with his wife. Yugoslavia, now divided into seven countries, was calling.

CHAD MILLER: I was able to go to a fair number of the places I had been in the first time. It was a very different context, because I was with my wife.

Then I went one more time, which we were living in Myanmar. So it’s kind of strange. I don’t know how many people have traveled from Mandalay, Myanmar to Zagreb, but I did. I went back. By this time, I was in an MFA program, completing my creative nonfiction writing thesis work. And so I decided to go back at that time, and try to reenact my first trip. Not the whole thing, but that segment, where we got stranded and didn’t know where we were and lost the train and all that. Of course, a lot of those train lines are no longer running. And so it was sort of a logistical adventure as much as other things.

PETER KORCHNAK: But why. Why does anyone return to Yugoslavia, why does the place captivate the heart and the mind?

CHAD MILLER: For me the experience of traveling in Yugoslavia was very much fused with my own maybe loss of innocence or development as a person. When I first went, I was very inexperienced, I didn’t really have much life experience, very little travel experience. And I think having the courage to do that first trip, even though I know, for a lot of people, for a lot of Americans, it’s very typical to do a backpacking trip, but for me, the way I grew up and where I came from, it was very— it seemed like a big risk or like a big move. So the trip for me was a big development in my life.

And then the Yugoslavia portion was even more important because it was a bigger risk and a bigger reward. And I think I wanted to try to re-experience that feeling of discovery and that feeling of adventure and that feeling of personal growth. But I was also trying to reconnect with who I was as a young man.

So that was kind of the lens through which I could look back at my own life, but alsothat change in the larger culture, in the larger way that people live, in the way that people travel.

PETER KORCHNAK: The difference between 2014 / 2017 and 1984 was palpable.

CHAD MILLER: In 2014, I think what struck me the most was just the unbridled tourism, explosion of tourism. I don’t think that’s unique to Yugoslavia, or I should say Croatia specifically. But at that time, I just hadn’t really seen this new way of traveling that was so over the top with the cruise ships, you know, and the tours, and the Game of Thrones, and all this pop culture stuff that got mixed in. You know, Dubrovnik was just so totally different. The place is the same, same city walls, the same squares, the same everything, but the whole experience was so completely transformed.

PETER KORCHNAK: 1.4 million tourists visited Dubrovnik in 2019 and that same year it was proclaimed to be the world’s most overtouristed city. It has become, to use Rick Steves’ words, “a very pretty but soulless theme park.” Anyway—

CHAD MILLER: On the 2017 trip, what I would say is that, my hope of re-discovering a sense of adventure and discovery, I did have that experience. And I think it was again by getting away from the tourist places, going to Bosanska Krupa, Bihać, and Knin. Not a lot of foreign travelers there. And it’s not so touristed. And so it’s a much more direct experience. You can talk with people, talk with the hotel owner or people on the street. I just enjoyed it much more, it felt much more immersive.

PETER KORCHNAK: Miller wrote a couple of pieces about his trips for his book of travel and place vignettes, Time Being, which is available at the online marketplace you love to hate (the link is in the episode transcript at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast). He is currently finishing a memoir of traveling to Yugoslavia then and now. Reconfigured Memories should be out later this year.

[SOUNDBITE]

[BACKGROUND MUSIC]

Come travel with me in a country that no longer exists.

This spring, summer, and fall, I’ll be leading tours across the former Yugoslavia.

“Yugoslavia: From the Cradle to the Grave” is a 12-day journey across the history, present, and future of the disappeared country. Through three capitals and many stops along the way, we will trace Yugoslavia’s history from its birth to its resting place, and investigate the ways it remains alive today.

Choose from one of seven tour dates, in April, May, August, September, and October.

“Tito: Life and Legacy” is a 10-day ride through the life, accomplishments, and memory of socialist Yugoslavia’s leader. We will follow Tito’s life in places where he was born and died, where he fought and worked, where he partied and hunted, where he succeeded and also where he failed… The Marshal’s life will unfold against the backdrop of the history of Yugoslavia. And we will explore what he means to people in the disappeared country today. Only one date is available, to coincide with Tito’s birthday and the Day of Youth commemoration in Kumrovec.

Everywhere we go in each tour, guest guides and expert speakers will highlight more fascinating stories.

Learn more and book at RememberingYugoslavia.com/TOURS. See you in Yugoslavia!

[SOUNDBITE]

PETER KORCHNAK: Meanwhile, Babs Perkins has been looking for cheese.

BABS PERKINS: —a traditional cheese called, depending on where you are in the region, sir iz mjeha, or sir iz mišene, sir iz mješene.

PETER KORCHNAK: Perkins is a writer, photographer, and editor from Norfolk, Connecticut.

BABS PERKINS: It’s a really unique cheese in a number of ways. Traditionally it’s a sheep cheese, cured in a sheepskin sack.

It is now made more so with a mix of sheep and cow only because cows produce more milk. After the the curds and whey are separated, and the cheese is fresh cheese, mladi sir, is salted and let sit for a day or two. It is then stuffed into an entire specially prepared sheepskin sack. You know the legs are tied off the tail is tied off and the neck is used as the as the way to fill the sack. And then it’s aged three to six months.

There’s only a handful of places, six or seven places, in the world where cheese still cured in this way. It is considered to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest cheesemaking technique on the planet.

It’s a dry, slightly sour, particularly a salty cheese. Because the skin is in its process smoked, it imparts a slight smoke flavor but the cheese itself is not smoked. It is a pale yellowy, creamy-white color. It’s that kind of hard texture.

It’s often served with boiled potatoes or uštipci.

PETER KORCHNAK: —fried dough balls—

BABS PERKINS: enerally speaking, it’s a great cheese to have with pršut

PETER KORCHNAK: —Balkan prosciutto—

BABS PERKINS: —or other cured meats. It’s a very sturdy product.

PETER KORCHNAK: According to Perkins, in Sarajevo, where I was when we spoke, you can get the cheese from a vendor or two at the big Sunday flea market, possibly in the city market hall in the center, and sometimes at the restaurant Žara iz Duvara, the Singing Nettle.

Perkins’s fascination with Yugoslavia originated in the Sarajevo 1984 Winter Olympics. Through a series of experiences over the ensuing decades she realized that Yugoslavia she knew from people from there did not match the version she had learned in school.

Then, in 2012 in Sarajevo, she read a newspaper.

BABS PERKINS: An article that was talking about cheeses going extinct in France, and how at that point, in the previous 30 years, 50 traditional cheeses had ceased to exist. And I was thinking, well, if cheeses are going extinct in France, what’s happening in places like this.

PETER KORCHNAK: And cheese became much more than that.

BABS PERKINS: It’s the lens that I’m using to look at the region, the politics of the region, the culture of the region, the impact of travel and occupation, and all of these things that have happened throughout history, but to do it in a way that is slightly less polarizing.

On every plate is a story. You know, we all come together and eat, and so if I could talk about these things in a way that didn’t immediately polarize people, I’d get better information.

PETER KORCHNAK: What’s cheese got to do with it? How are you using the seemingly simple product as cheese to deal with and talk about all the things that you said?

BABS PERKINS: I had this idea of going to write the obituary of the cheese and use it, you know, just to talk about a place, really a food writer, travel writer, story about the cheese. But it was in the process of doing the research for that, that I became aware of so much nuance that I couldn’t avoid it. And what was supposed to be a simple, you know, travel piece about this thing blossomed into what ostensibly is my life’s work.

PETER KORCHNAK: Interviews and photographs. Ethnographic research. Rural development and tourism. Slow food. Cheese conferences. Food security, sustainability, and sovereignty. Regenerative agriculture.

BABS PERKINS: Cheese is not a polarizing topic, for the most part, you know. It’s one of those things that even if it is polarizing, people can be somewhat humorous about. And so it has become both a vehicle and a foil for conversation.

PETER KORCHNAK: Over the years, Perkins has seen a bit of a resurgence of the sack cheese. A cheesesurgence.

BABS PERKINS: When I first embarked on this project, it was on the verge of extinction. Its future is not clear, because it is tied to a rural way of life, it is tied to the old ways. And Bosnia and Herzegovina is rapidly aging. And kids aren’t wanting to take on this process, they don’t want to— they don’t want the hard life. And so it was one of these interesting crossroads of development, culture, history. And it’s sort of embodied all of this spirit of the region, as I experienced it, this connection. The cheese wouldn’t exist without the connection to the coast, to the Republic of Ragusa, and it wouldn’t exist without the influx of people from the east. And so there’s all of these incredibly interesting threads around it. And so for me, it was a far more compelling, if complicated narrative.

PETER KORCHNAK: Aside from our passion for travel in the former Yugoslavia, there is one important thing Perkins and I have in common. Her ancestors are from Czechoslovakia, the part that is now Slovakia.

BABS PERKINS: My grandfather, my mother’s father who was born in this country but retained— they all retained a very intellectual definition that they were Slovak.

And when my grandfather retired from the Philadelphia Police Department, he moved to rural Pennsylvania and bought a farm and had sheep, he had them for meat. But he also had plums and made šljiva—

PETER KORCHNAK: —slivovica, slivovitz, plum brandy, which in the Balkans is called rakija.

BABS PERKINS: —and made wine and always had garlic in his pocket.

And so there are these certain things about my childhood that my grandfather never directly experienced. But in his retirement, wholly embodied, in a way that I didn’t realize was tied to historic culture until I was in these little small holding farms in rural Serbia, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Montenegro. And all of a sudden, I was sitting with someone who could have been my uncle or my great grandfather or whatever, and it felt so in— it was, to be honest, it was freaky because it really felt it felt like I had plugged into something that resonated with me, but I couldn’t explain it other than to say it feels like not my home but maybe my grandparents’ home. It has that homely feeling that comfortable feeling. But also then the volume and the way people talk and argue and engage is was similar enough to my grandfather and his twelve brothers and sisters. There was this familiarity, I guess that’s the best way to put it, as a familiarity that drew me in and continues to draw me in.

PETER KORCHNAK: In my travels in the former Yugoslavia, I’ve found being from Czechoslovakia slash Slovakia helps. Slovačka is like a magic key that opens doors for me. There is an affinity, an understanding: you’re not from here but you’re kind of one of us.

BABS PERKINS: When people ask me what I’m doing there, and I explain and then they say, Well, how did you get here? And when I explained that my grandfather’s family was from Slovakia, “Oh, okay, you’re one of ours.” I am included by proxy.

One of the things that I keep hearing from people is that I get so excited and exuberant about what I’m doing and meeting people and connecting with people, that people who were originally suspect, very reticent to speak to me, but it was either my continuing to return that showed them that I wasn’t a bad guy, I wasn’t here to take something from them, but also that I was really interested and really curious.

A number of the old women would just sort of pat my hand and say that, “Oh I can tell you’re that you actually, that you’re, you know, you’re a good person or you’re not gonna, you’re not going to hurt us, you’re not going to take something from us.”

It gives me a way of starting in a place, and getting to know not just the high spots, not just the tourist spots, not the well-traveled path, it gives me a compass, to get to know, questions to ask. And that’s what I love most, it’s not just the cheese, it’s really getting to know people. And cheese is the way that I’m getting to know the people from east to west, throughout the region.

PETER KORCHNAK: While it’s not the focus of Perkins’ work, Yugoslavia naturally does come up in conversations.

BABS PERKINS: Some of the women, they met their husbands at university in Zagreb or in Novi Sad or somewhere else. So there’s a very easy tie in to Yugoslavia. And there’s a definite wistfulness in the conversations with some of the folks that I have, because maybe 30 percent of the folks that I’ve talked to, they obviously grew up with making the cheese but they themselves they were not on a rural track, they were on a suburban or not suburban an urban track, they were going to the city, they had gone to university. And they were beneficiaries of this incredible education system and the ability to travel and the ability to— you know, the going to the seaside, the working for the good job at the company. These are folks that had had ostensibly white collar professional lives, that then the conflicts in the 90s really affected their present and their future. And so of course, Yugoslavia comes up again, because they’re in the position that they’re in because the country doesn’t exist.

PETER KORCHNAK: Perkins set out to find cheese. But she ended up finding something else.

BABS PERKINS: Early in my travels, I was down in Niš, in Serbia, and we’d headed out towards Pirot and I had been told that there was this guy that had goats and sold his not to be made into cheese, but I really should talk to this man. And so my, my interpreter, you know, we find the village, we ask, you know, where’s this family? Oh, up that road. So we go up that road, and we come up this road. And we pull in the driveway, and there’s this absolutely, teeny little woman, head to toe in black. My interpreter hops out and asks if this is the household? And she said, Yes, yes. Is that my granddaughter? No, it’s an American journalist. The car, the car’s from Belgrade, and that’s where my granddaughter is. And she’s absolutely convinced that this is her granddaughter come to visit. And she reaches up and puts her hands on my face and sort of does like what a blind person does to feel my face and she looks at my interpreter, like that isn’t my granddaughter? Why are you here? And he explains again, and he said, she says, come with me and she takes my sheet and she had been carrying to like five gallon pails of milk and she sort of plops them down and shuffles across the courtyard over to the barn and says to her grandson, “This is Barbara, this is an American, and you’re going to help her because she wants to know about the goats.”

And then I ended up spending the day with them. My interpreter and I went up on the mountain with Dejan, the grandson and the goats. And this woman, Rezlica, who as of last year had turned 100, still alive, once she realized who I wasn’t, she was still so demonstrative in her her willingness to be helpful, and that somebody would want to come visit them and that somebody was actually listening to them and paying attention to them.

PETER KORCHNAK: Rings a bell, that special sort of hospitality, a streak of suspicion of outsiders—are you a spy?—that quickly dissolves in a sort of gratification that someone from afar is going out of their way to be here and recognize what we do better than anyone else.

BABS PERKINS: It’s a cause for celebration. It’s, we have a visitor, there’s a guest here and we’re gonna bring out the wine and bring out the coffee and bring out the rakija and bring out the cheese and the bread, and we’re going to tell stories. And there was something about that that both completely drew me in, but also sort of stymied, frustrated my very Western, North American I’ve-got-a-schedule to-keep mindset and learning to learning to tell time, you know, Balkan time versus North American time. It’s been a lesson for me in how to in you know, in ćejf

PETER KORCHNAK: —ćejf is an untranslatable word that means something like enjoyment, pleasure, something you do for its own sake because it makes you feel good. It connects you to deeper parts of yourself while time passes by—

BABS PERKINS: —the things that make life worth living. Like what is it that actually makes life worth living and hospitality and spending time with people is that thing.

PETER KORCHNAK: Travel writing travel documentation is about two journeys. actually. One is the external one, in your case, exploring the history etc, the cheese and the other is the internal one. So how has this journey changed you or how are you different now than you were when you first started?

BABS PERKINS: People have this idea that I’m brave. I’m not, I’m a big fat chicken at but my curiosity just outweighs my anxiety. And so I’m compelled to go just like, well, let’s just go up the hill, let’s see what’s around the corner, let’s keep going. And that not getting overwhelmed by the big picture and just seeing what’s around the corner, with each of those corners, I end up finding myself in these incredible places with these incredible experiences.

That meta awareness of the life is actually it’s not about finding the meaning of life, it’s about making meaning. And all of these interactions have given meaning to my life.

But also learning to push myself and believe myself with all of the stories and misinformation and frustrations that I have encountered, I’ve learned to trust my gut and trust my intuition. And learning that people are good. And it’s a really good reminder that generally speaking, people are good and nice and kind and friendly. And if you expect trouble, you’ll encounter it. If you expect surprise, you’ll encounter it. If you expect friends, you’ll encounter them.

PETER KORCHNAK: You can encounter Perkins’ photographs and words at her website, BabsPerkins.com, or on Instagram, @babsperkins.

BABS PERKINS: There are things that we do take home with us. But there are things that just are non translatable, too. There are certain things that are still only available in that place. There’s lots of things that you can get lots of places, but there’s still something about being in a place that is unique to the place.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Balkan Blues” by Sticky Keys]

PETER KORCHNAK: Remembering Yugoslavia grew out of travel. I’ve been going to the former Yugoslavia for over a quarter of a century. When a few years ago I realized that travel writing couldn’t quite cover in a satisfactory form all the various topics and stories I wanted to study and share, podcast emerged as the form my thinking took (ten years prior it would have been a blog, right?).

Still, Remembering Yugoslavia is at its core a travel show. We journey through the memory of the former country in what’s left of it. Thank you for coming along.

And I hope to see you on one of my tours across the region. That is the future of Remembering Yugoslavia. Let me show you the world in my eyes, as my favorite song goes. Let’s travel together in a country that no longer exists. Learn more and get in touch at RememberingYugoslavia.com/TOURS.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]

PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:

KREŠIMIR GLAVINIĆ: There is no state museum about this part of our history, which we thought it was wrong. And that tells you all how much our society deals with its recent past.

PETER KORCHNAK: On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, we’ll travel to the Red History Museum in Dubrovnik, the only museum in the former Yugoslav socialist republic of Croatia that deals with socialist history.

Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts, follow to make sure you don’t miss out, and subscribe to support us.

[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, links, sources, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.

All guests’ opinions are solely their own; unless otherwise noted they do not express, reflect, or represent the views or opinions of any third party, including myself slash Remembering Yugoslavia.

Help make the podcast free and accessible to thousands of listeners. Get exclusive, early access to extended and bonus episodes. Please support the show at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate.

Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić.

Additional music by StickyKeys AKA Iva Janković. Listen and inquire about gigs and commissions on SoundCloud, @stickykeysmusic.

The track “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons.

I am Peter Korchňak.

Ćao and bon voyage!