MY LIFE STORY – Australian Girl in a Croatian World.

My LIFE, MY STORY has been written to explain to those who are puzzled by my eternal bond to Croatia…an Australian woman of predominately Irish heritage who fell in love with a Croatian immigrant in Sydney; the years spent learning a language, experiencing a new culture, the difficulties, and the happiness, living life through the highs and lows, the good and the bad. In hindsight, I feel blessed to have experienced the full spectrum of life. If I was given the opportunity, l wouldn’t change a single moment. Here is my story….

Sydney, Australia, 1945

The postman was mounting the front steps two at a time, arriving at the front door, telegram in hand. Sarah hurried along the hallway to greet him, her mind racing, heart beating. Her 24-year-old son Ben, her firstborn, a member of the Australian 6th Machine-Gun 2/24 Battalion had been badly wounded by the Japanese forces at the WW2 Landing of Tarakan in Borneo, a week ago.

Ben’s young wife Margaret was heavily pregnant with their first child and living in with her in-laws, Sarah and Benjamin Nixon Senior in southwest Sydney. Until this day, the Australian Military had kept the family up to date about Ben’s progress, and here was yet another yet tragically final update. Margaret watched and held her breath hoping against hope that the news would be announcing the date and time of his arrival back to Sydney, to the safety of his family and his home. The telegram was opened and read aloud. “We regret to inform you that Corporal Thomas Benjamin Nixon has passed away on this day, 26th May 1945 due to complications as a result of internal injuries.”

Crushing, horrific beyond all proportions, shock and searing unbearable pain entered their hearts and minds on that fateful and dark historic day.

That final telegram was a devastating blow. Ben, their elder boy, and Margaret’s beloved husband was not coming home. The grief was overwhelming, too much to bear, too deep to heal, too agonizing to concede that he would never walk through the doorway ever again, back to his loved ones. That handsome face, framed with his thick black wavy hair, his tanned body, fit and healthy, ready to take on a vibrant future. Now he was gone, never to return.

Barely three weeks later on June 10th, their baby girl was born. She was named Robyn and was the living image of her father. As she grew, Margaret often sat and stared at her daughter, mesmerized by the incredible likeness. Her mannerisms, her facial expressions, the way she walked and talked, her handwriting, and later her apparent positive outlook on life reminded Margaret of the many loving moments spent with her husband, a born optimist, and of the many hours spent dreaming of a positive future together, free of war and danger, a life of hopeful prosperity following years of world wars and devastating destruction.

1962 Sydney

I have many happy and warm memories of my youth, of growing up in Sydney with doting grandparents, and a loving mother, yet my mother’s sadness was always swirling around me, a feeling of unjustifiable loss, yet something she never spoke about. I always felt it was a subject that was far too painful for her to endure speaking about. For this reason, I refrained from asking questions about my father.

As a young girl, I played many games with my imagination. Perhaps he was lost in the jungles of Borneo? Perhaps he was wandering about trying to find his way? Surely one day he would come home to my mother and to me?

My grandfather, Benjamin senior, took the role of patriarch in our home, and I loved him dearly. The son of an Irish immigrant to the northern English coalfields, he grew up around Newcastle on Tyne in Northumberland. As a young boy of 18 he had served in the trenches of France in WW1, and somehow survived the horrors of that wretched war, the gas, mud, and stench of death day after day. He had survived, but his boy, his very special boy, young Thomas Benjamin Nixon had been taken.

Before being drafted into the army, my father had worked as an apprentice tailor and took a great interest in Australian politics and economics.

His dream had been all about a fair and honest government, working for the good of the country, creating prosperity and opportunity for all!  Quite often young Ben could be heard on Sunday afternoons in the Sydney Domain, standing on a soap box, speaking and debating about many current political issues of the day.

The years passed, and many Anzac Days came and went, yet my mother and grandparents never once attended an Anzac march or service. They couldn’t see the sense of it all and preferred to remember and grieve together silently and painfully.

At a very early age, I became a member of Legacy, the association formed to take care of those affected by war, attending physical culture lessons with my adorable grandmother, and vividly remember performing on stage at the formidable Sydney Town Hall at the age of 3. On one grand occasion, there were side-splitting sounds of laughter as we performed. The older girls had a perfect rhythm and routine, and here was this little 3-year-old with Shirley Temple curls and blue ribbons in her hair in completely opposite rhythm to all the others! Surely, they laughed with me, not AT me?

My grandfather encouraged my mother to put her mind towards a career, a war widow’s program, fully funded by the Australian Government. My mother was a natural and completed her course in Dressmaking and Millinery at East Sydney Technical College at Darlinghurst with flying colours.

Following her graduation, there were immensely difficult circumstances thrust upon her, a situation where it was necessary to leave me in the caring hands of my grandparents Monday to Friday, travelling by train on the Riverina Express to and from Sydney and Young where she had been positioned by the Government as a teacher at the local Technical College, visiting me on the weekends. It was heartbreaking and took its toll on her emotions.

Friday night was always a cause of great excitement, the anticipation, waiting for her weekly homecoming, seemingly in the middle of the night, seeing my mother crawling into bed, warm, caressing, cuddling, and laughing, together again.

I was a very fortunate little girl to have such a wonderful and loving grandmother who took great care and interest in providing me with all she was capable of giving of herself, taking me to the children’s pantomimes at the Tivoli Theatre in Sydney, followed by lunch at David Jones cafeteria, then a stroll through Hyde Park before catching the train at St. James’s Station on our way home.

One of our favorite pastimes was taking a stroll hand in hand through the Botanical Gardens by Sydney Harbour, all the way from Circular Quay to Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, noting all of the botanical names attached to a vast array of plants, Australian natives, and exotic species.

Summer was never complete without catching the electric train out to Cronulla, then a ride across to Bundeena on the little TOM THUMB ferry, and spending the day with my Nana on the beach and clambering around the rocks.  I loved my Nana dearly.

I was the pride and joy of the Nixon household, and at age seven, my mother remarried, hoping to provide me with a home and a sense of family. As I grew and entered high school there were expectations placed upon me that I would naturally become a school teacher, following in my mother’s footsteps. The relationship between my mother and step-father was not successful, however, there is always a silver lining to every story and as a result of their marriage I have two wonderful step-sisters, Wendy and Jennifer who both followed in Mum’s footsteps, graduating from Teacher’s College as Primary School teachers. 

1962 Boy meets Girl                                                                                                

One morning, at age 16, I awoke from a very vivid dream about a young man, barely an adult, leaning on the rails of a ship somewhere out on the sea. The full moon illuminated his handsome young face, yet his whole being seemed to be in a state of sadness about the place he was leaving and deep contemplation about where life was heading. He seemed to be gazing out to sea and lost in thoughts as deep as the ocean.

Showering and dressing for High School, I thought about that dream, wondering about my strange feelings of closeness and connection to that unknown boy. “What was the significance of that dream?” I wondered.

After graduating from High school in 1962, I attended my first year at Waverley Kindergarten Teacher’s College, travelling from Beverly Hills to Waverley every day through the week, changing trains for buses at Central Railway Station for the Eastern Suburbs Bus Route which took me from Eddy Avenue in the city centre, through the notorious area of King’s Cross on its way to Waverley.

A ‘nice’ girl of 17 would never contemplate strolling through King’s Cross alone, where even in the daytime hours it was considered to be a dark and dangerous place of crime, sex, prostitution, and mafia, yet each time my bus passed a certain little coffee shop on Darlinghurst Road, my nose was pressed eagerly to the glass window pane observing a throng of exotic looking foreigners chatting and laughing, packed in the café like sardines. The sign outside was even more exotic, and spoke about the latest revelation from Italy, the CAPPUCCINO!

This was something I had to try! I would risk my reputation and stop one day on my way home from college and try this thing called a cappuccino!

With much bravado, on a Friday, the last day of my college week, I pulled the ‘stop cord’ at the next bus stop. The day had come! Across the road the cappuccino sign was beckoning, and feeling very shy and more than a little apprehensive, I somehow threw caution to the wind and made my way inside the café.

It was simply called ‘The Hut’ and was obviously one of the most popular places in the Cross at the time. Finding a place to sit was not easy, it was a busy place, but thankfully I found a little cubicle at the rear, and took a moment to look around me, taking in the colourful scene, the animated gestures, and the facial expressions. I felt a great sense of excitement!

A beautiful olive-skinned waitress, with dark almond-shaped eyes, shiny long dark hair, and a welcoming smile was soon at my table. While I was ordering my very first cappuccino from this goddess, a young man, appeared at the doorway, dressed in a navy-blue Italian suit, narrow tie, white shirt, and latest sleek black Italian leather shoes.  Casting his eyes over the scene around him, he searched for a place to be seated. My cubicle was the only choice, the seat opposite was free, and as he approached, he politely asked in very broken English if he could possibly share my table. My shyness seemed to disappear; I was taken aback by his extraordinarily handsome features!

He explained in his limited English that he had recently arrived from Italy, after spending 18 months in a refugee camp in Latina near Rome. He was Croatian from the Central Dalmatian Coast and had decided to leave the then socialist country of Yugoslavia, leaving his ship in the port of Trieste, and finally sailing to Australia with the help of the Catholic Church.  He introduced himself as Brando, and as we spoke and smiled at each other. I noticed he was keeping a careful check on the time, but the compliments were flowing, the cappuccino tasted superb fulfilling my expectations to the hilt, and all the while my smile was broadening at his every strange yet sweet remark.

An hour or so passed quickly and leaning across the table and tenderly pinching my apparently rosy cheeks, he said “Your cheeks like apples, and eyes blue, like my blue Adriatic”

It was about then that she walked in the door, a tall blonde girl called Leanne from Jannali. We were introduced, this girl and I, and she wasn’t impressed!

Gathering my briefcase and standing to depart, I politely said goodbye and made my way back to the bus stop. As I stood there thinking about my first date with a cappuccino, and all that had transpired in a very short capsule of incredulous time, there was an urgent tap on my shoulder, and that handsome face was next to me, inviting me to return again next day. “You come tomorrow? You come same time?”

This was how I met my husband, the man I would share the following 42 tumultuous years of my life!

Late 1964, marriage, motherhood, and farm life in Far North Queensland. An Aussie Girl in a Croatian Community; learning a language and much more!

Within weeks, I had made my decision, probably the most astounding decision in my entire life!  A decision that dumbfounded my mother, and shocked my grandparents to their very core. I was in love, and at age of almost 18, I knew best, as many teenagers tend to think!

This foreigner called Brando was taking their daughter and granddaughter away from college to the tobacco fields of Dimbulah, in Far North Queensland! Distraught and overcome with unbelievable disappointment, my grandfather and grandmother finally agreed to hear what this young man had to say for himself! At this time my mother was living in Young, almost 400 km away, and in those days it was a very long journey.

On that winter’s evening in our cosy lounge room, the fire flickered and crackled. I always loved spending time by the fire with my grandparents. We conversed a lot, and many evenings were spent with my Nana brushing my long thick and wavy dark hair till it shone, but on this occasion, we waited pensively for my young Croatian beau to arrive. There was a soft knock on the front door, and my grandfather made him welcome giving up his comfortable lounge chair for this immigrant who was aiming to disappear into the sunset with his only grandchild, while my Nana offered him a cup of tea and homemade scones served on a little tray with a pretty white lace doily. My Nana was always the epitome of grace and warmest hospitality, the kindest person in the whole world, however, I felt tense, uneasy, and very uncomfortable about what might soon erupt, destroying my relationship with my Brando and also with my family.

Brando looked my grandfather in the eye, firstly explaining his name was really Branko, not Brando, (no excuse was given why that was so) and went on in the best English that he could muster, holding up his hands, fingers spread apart, he blurted out, “Mr Nixon, I poor boy, but I 10 fingers have. I look after your granddaughter very good”.

My grandfather was not impressed and with all his might he tried to persuade the two of us to consider the dire consequences of me leaving college and travelling so far away from home with an almost unknown stranger. A decision that would lead to certain disaster. “Be sensible, finish your studies, your young man will wait for you if he truly loves you!”

One week later, headstrong and head over heels, I was on my way, travelling 2460 kilometers north, leaving college and family behind. We drove from Sydney to Cairns in an old FJ Holden belonging to Branko’s friend Luka Gamulin from Jelsa, Island of Hvar, on the Dalmatian Coast. Luka was a well-known gambler and he was on his way to the northern casinos. It was a long journey and the old FJ barely made it, stopping and starting, huffing and puffing, but finally, after what seemed an eternity, we arrived and my expectations of experiencing a luxurious tropical paradise, with cocktails by the pool were seriously diminishing, and consequently seriously dashed, a far cry from all the glamorous magazines I had ever seen!

From Cairns, we travelled up and over the lush rainforest area of the Kuranda Ranges to the dry rain-shadow area of the central tobacco town of Mareeba, and then a further 50 kilometers out west to Dimbulah. This was an amazing journey, the soil was bright red, and as we passed crop after crop of newly planted tobacco, the intermittent scenery was stark and dry, with scraggy gum trees and towering anthills.

The History of Dimbulah                                                                                                                                 For many years, Dimbulah was the centre of a thriving tobacco industry. At its peak, there were approximately 800 growers in the area, producing over 8,000 tonnes of tobacco per year; however, the last tobacco sales contracts in North Queensland were filled in early 2004 after a Federal Government and industry-funded buyout. The township of Dimbulah (an aboriginal word meaning “long waterhole”) was born after 1906 as a watering place for locomotives traveling from Mareeba to Chillagoe. A hotel opened in 1908. Prior to the 1930s, pastoralism was the major land use in the district before tobacco growing then began in the Sandy Creek area. where we lived. Irrigation was introduced around 1947-1948. The completion of the Tinaroo Dam in 1958 provided additional water. The town was connected with electricity at this time also. The scope for farming expanded and a large influx of migrants arrived during this time in the 1950s.

The little township of Dimbulah consisted of a very busy pub, a police station with two policemen, a Catholic Church with one priest, a few shops, a butcher, baker, post office and grocery store, Tobacco Association offices, movie theatre with calico slung seating, and the only restaurant in town was Capalazzo’s Italian Restaurant where the infamous Mama Capalazzo was in full control of the entire operation, or so it seemed.

The inhabitants of Dimbulah and Mareeba were predominantly Italian and Yugoslavs (as they were then known in those days), a mixture of hard-working Croatians, Serbs, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Bosnians, and Slovenians with a sprinkling of Australian families and a few Greeks for good measure. English was the second language for the majority of Dimbulah’s population.

I was in awe of all I saw and the people I met. Living in a worker’s hut on one of the farms was an experience never to be forgotten! A wood-fueled oven meant waking and reluctantly rising before sunrise and lighting the fire, the only way to heat the unpasteurised milk, make the polenta, and brew a pot of good and strong Turkish coffee. Branko worked for an excellent wage of 20 pounds per week on the Vukalović farm, a family from Herzegovina! He was a strong, fit, and a sought-after worker. To me, he had the body of Michelangelo’s David, and nights were reserved for caressing and fulfilling each other’s desires of romance and blissful unabated youthful passions in this less than basic hut with fruit packing boxes serving as seats around the wooden table. To me, it was our home and I tried the best I possibly could to make it pleasant, gathering wildflowers and arranging bowls of fruit, creating an atmosphere of domesticity and caring.

I loved him with all my heart, and it became only natural for me to become part of him, his culture, his language, his Croatian cuisine, his family, and his country far away, nurturing a love of all that was him and his.

On 17th July 1964 marriage seemed a great idea! We jumped in the car, a cream-colored Ford Zephyr, and were married on the spur of the moment in the Mareeba Courthouse, with two court office assistants acting as witnesses. Branko carefully listened and repeated the wedding vows in his limited English, muttering, “I Branko Vulinovich, take thee, Robyn Nixon to be my AWFUL (Lawful) wedded wife”

As we lay arms around each other that evening, laughing at his hilarious mistake, we talked in the moonlight, about our dreams for the future and our hopes to raise a family. As we caressed and enjoyed each other’s warmth and closeness, Branko’s story was unfolding. His childhood memories of a young barefoot boy helping his parents before and after school in his village of Podgora, helping with the harvesting of cherries, figs, grapes, and the family olive trees. Life for the Vulinovich family in Dalmatia was not easy with 10 mouths to feed. The family was poor, but hardy, honest, and known for their resilience. My father-in-law, Nedjelko, was an expert in stone masonry, building many of the stone walls still in existence in Podgora today. It was inevitable, much to his disappointment that his three sons, Pasko, Branko, and Ranko, would eventually migrate to the faraway lands of Australia and New Zealand to seek more prosperous lives.

Branko went on to tell me about his years as an apprentice chef, working for the Brodospas Shipping Company of Split in Dalmatia. From the young tender age of 14, he toiled in many kitchens with mostly bad-tempered chefs, treating their apprentices poorly, yet they were skilled at their trade and taught their students well in all facets of food preparation and hygiene.

I listened with disbelief as he described the life and experiences of a young apprentice and the many times, he would finish his long working day by leaning on the ship’s rails, savouring the fresh air, the wind through his hair and against his face, away from the hot and exhausting steamy kitchens, looking out to sea, homesick, and wondering where his life was taking him. 

Was this the young boy in my dream two years ago?

The following year 1965, we moved up the ladder and became tobacco share farmers together with Vinka and Niko Sokol from Blato, Island Korčula on Ivka (Ivka Vela from Podgora) and Perko Klaricic’s farm in Dimbulah. (Perko was from from Vrgorac) Over the next two years, Teta Ivka taught me many things about Croatian culture and traditions with lessons and advice on how to be a good Croatian wife and mother! She also told me about many of the old superstitions and the art of natural contraception, leaving little to the imagination!

At the end of 1965 we purchased our own farm on Sandy Creek Road, in partnership with Branko’s sister Zlata, and her husband Jurislav Vela (Teta Ivka’s nephew) who had emigrated in the 50’s. also from Podgora. Living together with them and their 2 young sons, Tony, and Zoran, in a small 2 bedroomed tin roofed cottage had its moments, but it was here that Zlata and I bonded as true sisters. I had much to learn, and together we managed to work together beautifully. Branko’s younger teenage brother Ranko had also migrated from Podgora, living and working together with us for a few years before returning home to Podgora, and continuing his studies in Zagreb and Rijeka before finally emigrating at age 25 to Auckland.

Their older brother Paško had migrated earlier to New Zealand and also joined us for a season on the tobacco in the late 60’s before returning to Auckland, the land of the long white cloud! Paško had a way of causing bedlam, always enjoying a bit of teasing and creating confusion. They say he took after his grandfather, Pasko Vulinovich, an old rascal, also from Podgora.!

The climate of the tobacco growing country was hot and dry, where the heat would sear through our sandshoes while we tended the crops. Over a period of some 6 months life was hard and physically challenging, from the time of planting young tobacco seedlings in the Spring through the weeks of chipping the sandy soil, de-suckering 40 acres of tall tobacco plants, irrigating, picking, and finally stringing the big sticky nicotine filled leaves to wooden sticks and placing them into a curing barn, fueled by gasoline, not forgetting to mention the all night watering of the entire crop by physically setting the irrigation water pipes, then dismantling, moving them and resetting, ensuring all the thirsty plants were well watered. I have always been against smoking, and when I think about the amount of poisonous pesticide substances that were sprayed over the crops protecting them from blue mould and leaf eating caterpillars and pests, I cringe at the health consequences, not to mention the weed killers pumped into the soil! 

During the months of harvesting, we employed a number of young Croatian seasonal workers, providing them with accommodation and daily meals including breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our day started at sunrise, and by 8.30am these young men were ravenous!  We always had at least 10 hungry mouths to feed! My sister-in-law did most of the cooking while I worked in the field, yet helping her with the final touches. Learning a new language, hearing it spoken day in, day out was becoming the norm. Learning to cook beside Zlata was a great learning experience. “Robi, Robi, Brzo brzo! Promišaj gulaš, pazi da nebi izgorilo! Moram popišati! (Robi Robi..Stir the goulash, don’t let it burn, I have to do a pee pee!)

I remember the day I wasn’t feeling well and Zlata kindly offered to replace me in the field with the men. I was to stay home and prepare the lunch for ten adults and 2 children. For a Croatian woman this is perhaps a simple and easy task however, for me, with limited cooking skills and experience it was a terrifying feat! “What shall I cook?” I asked.  “Oh, the usual vegetable soup, 2 chickens roasted with potatoes and a bowl of salad, a tomato pasta dish and an easy fruit salad and ice cream will be fine!” she replied.

I had five hours to prepare this meal. Five hours!! Firstly, the chickens were not in the freezer, they were still running around the chicken coop! Catching them, beheading them, cleaning feathers and innards as I’d been shown was now becoming a definite reality! This was a day I’ll never forget!  I managed to get the soup prepared as I’d been shown, that’s the easy bit, then the chickens were caught, beheaded, cleaned and finally roasting in the oven, now to make a fresh tomato sauce for the pasta dish! Ripe tomatoes from the garden had to be peeled, and slowly simmered with sauteed onions and garlic. The salad was easy and also the dessert. I had watched Zlata, I had learned so much, but would my first attempt please these people from a foreign land? Would they eat the food whipped up in a frenzy by this young Australian girl of very limited culinary experience? Would it be eatable?

I tasted the soup, it needed a boost, so a couple more stock cubes seemed the way to go! The clock was ticking, soon they would be here! I felt sick with apprehension, scared, and in fact terrified!

The table was set, the jugs were filled at the outdoor water tank, the wine poured into flasks, and the sound of the tractor heralded their arrival. My head was spinning as they washed their hands at the outdoor wash basin, and finally filing in, taking their seats, with only one thing on their minds! Food! Glorious Food!

It was always platters of ‘serve yourself’ style meals by Zlata, so I followed in the same fashion, and once the food had been served on the table, I made a hasty exit! Running around the exterior of the house, peering in through the window trying to see some facial reactions! Nobody spoke! Plates of food were being passed around, and the wine was flowing. “This was a good sign” I thought.

Time to return to the dining table and clear the hopefully empty plates, and as I passed by Branko, he caught me by the hand and squeezed it firmly, saying “That was great!”  It was all I needed to hear, and my smile returned as a sense of relief flooded my whole being! I slept well that night!!

We worked like Trojans through the season and by late summer when all of the harvesting and curing of the leaf was completed, the 3 months of grading the leaves from highest quality to poorer, tying of tobacco ‘hands’ and baling would start, preparing the entire crop for the Mareeba tobacco auctions in the early spring.

Like many young couples, we had great aspirations, dreams and goals, money to be made and places to go, and if clearing a few more acres of scrubby land, gathering heaps of branches and burning of tree stumps wasn’t enough, there were always the unrelenting mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, red back spiders, and masses of ugly cane toads to contend with.

This was definitely a serious ‘learning curve’ in the life of a young Aussie girl from a protective family upbringing, coming straight out of college and arriving in Dimbulah only knowing how to cook a limited and basic choice of Australian meals, like scrambled eggs, lamb chops and three veg, plus my Nana’s apple pie!

1969 First Trip to Croatia                                                                                                  

The Croatian language is not an easy language to learn, but fortunately I was surrounded by it day in and day out. Our workmen were all young seasonal workers of Croatian descent, travelling between the North Queensland sugar cane fields and tobacco farms and some had worked on the Snowy River Hydro Scheme in Victoria. After a short period of time, I could understand all the unsavoury words, and within a period of 3 years, I was able to have a more in-depth conversation. Our first born, a beautiful child named Brando, after his handsome father, was born in 1965 and started school in Dimbulah with little knowledge of the English language!

Finally, I discovered the reason why Branko had adopted ‘Brando’ as his nickname during his single days. It had been a ploy so that the girls he dated (and there were many) were not given the privilege of knowing his real name, just in case they became a little too serious for his liking and tried contacting him!

My dream was to one day visit the seemingly fairytale and magical land of Dalmatia in faraway Croatia. Branko constantly painted beautiful pictures in my mind, describing the beauty and perfumes of his Dalmatian homeland. I could see the mountains, and as he spoke, I could feel the warmth of the smooth pebbles on the beach, comforting and healing as we lay there after our swim in the pristine azure-turquoise-colored waters. I could smell the pine, lavender and rosemary, sage, chamomile, and bay leaves, and I could hear the long-ago voices of great grandmothers and grandfathers, calling to each other up in the village high above the sea, calling their children home to dinner. I could taste the fresh fish grilling over the coals, the pomegranates bursting in my mouth, exploding with sweet juices; trees laden with oranges, lemons and mandarins; the grape harvest and aroma of fermenting new wines; and the freshly cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil in the autumn, now stored in grandfather’s konoba (Cellar)

The pictures were vivid, and a decision was made, we were finally going to meet Branko’s family and visit this far away land called Croatia for a three-month summer holiday.

1969 A dream comes true! No amount of ‘telling’ prepared me for what I was about to discover on my first trip, together with our now 4-year-old son, Brando.

Sailing from Sydney aboard the Italian ship Galileo Gallilei was the adventure of a lifetime. On the evening of the Captain’s Gala Dinner during the cruise, it was announced the captain would invite a young lady to partner him for the opening dance. He entered the ballroom, a tall strikingly handsome man dressed in his magnificent white maritime suit and as he made his way to the dance floor we females were all in awe of his male magnetism! We assumed he was Italian, possibly from the northern provinces, given his height and stature. We wondered who would be given the nod and opportunity to dance with the most important male aboard the ship? For a moment he stood and gazed around the room, then walked towards our direction. I turned in wonderment, thinking there was obviously a woman of interest sitting somewhere behind me or beside me, and then to my utter astonishment he was standing in front of me extending his hand! With a few words of thanks and a smile in Branko’s direction, (adding  to Branko’s annoyance), he guided me across the dance floor and as we swayed to the music he explained he was a Croatian from the Island of Lošinj!  His name was Rodolfo Šangulin.

Now that’s a dance I’ll never forget!

From Australia we sailed across to Durban and around the Cape of Good Hope, up the African Coast to the Canary Islands, past Gibralter, arriving one month later in Naples. During this period of time the Suez Canal was closed. Together with a group of fellow Croatians we disembarked and travelled by minibus across country through the mountainous villages of Abruzzo and up the eastern Italian Coast to Pescara, continuing through Le Marche to Ancona where we transferred to the Croatian Ferry, the ‘LIBURNIJA’ and sailing across the Adriatic to the port of Zadar on the Croatian Coast, the northern part of Dalmatia. We arrived early in the morning and stood on deck watching the approaching mainland. Branko’s eyes filled with tears, the thought of returning home following nine years living in faraway North Queensland, a land of opportunity, yet never replacing his homeland, was an emotional moment I’ll never forget.

Many of Branko’s family had travelled north to meet us, to have a good look at the new additions to their Vulinović family, an Australian of Irish heritage and a four-year-old boy of mixed-blood!

Uncle Beppo (Tetak Beppo) from Makarska, took one look at my blue eyes and pulled his beloved nephew aside, whispering not so softly,“Be careful of women with naughty blue eyes, (zlocaste oci) they can betray you!”

Branko’s parents, Nedjelko and Neda, being elderly, had opted to await us at home in Podgora, as for the rest of the family members, sisters-in-law’s, cousins, nieces, and nephews, they greeted us with arms outstretched and as we all clambered onto our coach heading home, south to Podgora on the Makarska Riviera, it was a free for all, everyone speaking at the same time! What a din, and to the delight of all the other passengers, my new family created entertainment all along the road to our final destination, along the most stunning coastline I had ever seen!

It was the month of June, late spring, early summer, and the weather was mild and sunny. Branko was in his glory. Arriving home felt like “being wrapped in cottonwool”. This was the way he best described his emotions and feelings of familiarity, warmth, and security within one’s own language and surroundings. I realised being able to fully express one’s self is a very important factor for us all.

As we travelled along, I gazed out at the scene beyond. The majestic Biokovo mountain range soaring from the sea shore to the dizzy heights above. Little villages along the way nestled in the bays of azure waters, remnants of the days of the powerful dominance of the Venetian Empire, followed by the Turks and Austro-Hungarians. Terracotta tiles, well-worn limestone walkways, olive groves, figs, cherries, and grapevines, donkeys, homemade wines and cheeses, and olive oil for sale. Signs along the road advertising Sobe/Zimmer Frei/ Camere’ (Rooms to let) But it was the absolute beauty and colours of nature that took my breath away on that very first trip. The sheer magnificence of this rough and rocky landscape helped me to better understand the people of this harsh rural environment. The soft Mediterranean Sea against the harsh landscape, a sharp contrast, yet it has created through history, since the 7th century, these Croatian people with enormous strengths and resilience, while at the same time possessing warm hearts full of romantic passion and love of their homeland.

I was for once and forever in love with Croatia.

The Homecoming                                                                                                     Branko was excited. The last few kilometres were taking forever. His eyes were shining with joy as he pointed out familiar places between Makarska and Tučepi, the road hugging the coastline all the way, with the islands of Brać and Hvar beckoning in the distance. Rounding the final curve, he could hardly contain his exuberance and finally we arrived at our destination, Branko’s beloved village of Podgora. There it was, below us, a sparkling seaside spectacle! This is where he was born, this is where his parents and grandparents were born, and where the families of Podgora have lived for generations, where olive trees are over 300 years old, and everybody knows everybody, and everybody’s business!

His parents were waiting, together with Branko’s youngest sister, Sinajka, and her husband Lovorko. Neighbours were milling about eager to welcome Branko and catch a glimpse of this newcomer to their midst, an Australian woman of Irish Republican descent and a child called Brando.

It had been nine years since Branko had defected to Italy and made his way to Australia. He had written many letters to his parents describing his experiences, always enclosing money orders in support of them.

His father, Old Nedjelko was a man of the land, tending his plots of ground, and living life through the seasons taking care of his olive groves, making his wine, drying his figs, harvesting his cherries, while Neda, Branko’s mother gathered grasses and food for the animals, and had taken care best she could of their 7 children through the years. Nedjelko built the family home from stone, a small dwelling with one larger room, a kitchen and storeroom downstairs with housing for their livestock. It was simple yet it was located high in the village of Upper Podgora in the Babić neighbourhood with spectacular views out to the Island of Hvar and Brač in the distance. In 1962 an earthquake destroyed most of the village, and almost the entire community was relocated to lower Podgora down by the seaside. Nedjelko and Neda purchased a plot of land and building of a new house commenced. At this time Branko had only just started establishing himself in Australia, yet upon hearing the devastating news, immediately sent the entire sum of his savings to his father to help with the purchase of the land and building materials.

The coach dropped us at the nearest bus station, a mere 200 metres from this new home. Branko was in his element, and he went ahead, not able to restrain his excitement, with the rest of us following, walking downhill laughing and talking as we approached the front gate. They all heard us coming, these people, these friends, and neighbours of Podgora.

Hugging, crying, laughing, emotional embraces, and words of greeting, the familiar aromas of the summer garden, roses, lavender and rosemary at the front gate, a table soon filled with delicious food, flasks of Dad’s wine, and there we were until late at night, until weariness invaded our happiness, and slowly we said goodnight, showered and fell into bed. We were home and for the following three months we basked in the Dalmatian sun, met literally hundreds of cousins, aunts and uncles, wandered up through the old village, ate masses of deliciously cooked, grilled, roasted and baked Dalmatian food, guzzled the red wine, harvested cherries, figs, and grapes, and continued on my merry way learning new words and making new friends that are still until this day, very close and dear to me.

Returning home to our farm in Far North Queensland we were soon advised of my grandfather’s passing in Sydney at the age of 72. Pop had developed emphysema, a severe lung disease resulting in a breathing difficulty, sadly from his days and nights in the trenches of wartime France during World War 1. Inhaling the poisonous German gasses that had been very much part of their wartime strategies of destruction. It had been the reason he had migrated to Australia in 1920, exchanging the cold and inclement weather of Britain for the warm climate of Australia.

1970’s Restaurants and Trauma During the years of the political ‘Croatian Spring’ in the early to mid-70’s, the tensions between the Croatian and Serbian communities in Australia were escalating and becoming increasingly violent, with the apparent presence of Tito’s Yugoslav secret police infiltrating the Australian Yugoslav communities, supposedly investigating so-called ‘troublemakers’ and accusing Croatians who were falsely blamed and described as terrorists by the Australian media.  Bombings and crimes were committed in the name of political and religious beliefs, and at this point in time, Branko decided we would make a move to Auckland in New Zealand.

The Dalmatian Community, particularly in Auckland was well established, and most were second and third generation, many originating from the original Dalmatian immigrants from the earlier Austro- Hungarian Empire in the early 1900’s.

A huge number had immigrated from Branko’s village of Podgora and the surrounding Makarska region. Many of these people brought to New Zealand their natural skills in winemaking, fruit growing, and fishing, and these industries were predominantly owned and successfully operated by prominent Dalmatian families.

On 30th May 1974 we boarded a Qantas flight to Auckland to start a new chapter of our life in a new land, where Dalmatians were highly respected members of the local community unlike in Australia where at that time they were viewed with suspicion and contempt by the Australian community with thanks to Tito’s secret agents causing the political unrest.

Our years in New Zealand were a mixture of happiness and sadness. Branko had many relatives living in Auckland. On his mother’s side, his late Uncle Tony Lunjevich and family, Aunty Jelenka, their daughter Znanka, and sons Matko and Leo greeted us with open arms, and I always felt a sense of comfort and warmth each time I entered their home.  Through all the years we have remained very close and I will always love them dearly.

One of my other favourites was our dear Teta (Aunty) Vinka Juretić. A widow with incredible energy and passion for life; in fact, she went to see the record-breaking long-running movie, ’The Sound of Music’ and loved it so much she went weekly over and over to listen to Julie Andrews 52 times!!

On his father’s side, the family of the late Mate and Pera Vulinovich, their sons, Denis and recently deceased brother Ron and the late Teta (Aunty) Kata Marinovich, with her sons Frank and Joe and their families out at Oratia were always considered close to our hearts.

 During the early 70’s to 80’s, we became well known as seafood providores in Auckland, and our life started to change. As business grew and became very profitable, we became financially stable, purchasing real estate, and enjoying a high standard of living. Entertaining at home was very much in vogue in those days, and it was a continual round of visiting friends, games of tennis with the girls, particularly with the late Shirley Segedin, and Susan Farac, and many days spent with close friends Jasna Sunde (Ex Vulinović) and Julena Radojković (Ex Sisarić) were always days I enjoyed immensely. We girls had, and still have, a very special bond of great friendship.

One of Branko’s best friends was Marijan Radojkovich from Mairangi Bay, originally from Podgora. Marijan’s wife Carole, also became one of my closest friends and to this day we remain in constant touch.

Our second son was born in 1975 during our 8 years spent living in Auckland. We called him Adrian, (Jadran) after the Adriatic Sea, (Jadransko More). He was a delightful child, 10 years younger than his older brother Brando, and always full of life, with a tremendous gift of the gab, forever getting into mischief one way or another, yet he was adorable and always the life of any party so to speak. Adrian excelled at sport, playing soccer for Queensland for a number of years, travelling overseas to Italy and Germany followed by a 6-month stint at the legendary Hajduk Club in Split on the Central Dalmatian Coast at the age of 15.

Brando his older brother, on the other hand, was born with a God-given creative talent, artistic, both in detailed drawing, interior design and in food preparation and presentation. He is an exceptional chef. His drawing of Mother Teresa and Child was the talk of the Gold Coast Art Exhibition in 1981 when he won the first prize against all odds. There were many senior graphic artists displaying their finest works, yet this schoolboy of 14 had drawn a beautiful piece of religious art that always continues to amaze us.

Our life in Auckland was considered very gracious and elegant, we enjoyed the finer things in life, but the considerable amount of time and energy spent running a successful business started to affect our relationship. Branko was encouraged by his close friend Antun ‘Bili’ Sisarić to take a business trip to Australia. He was in awe of the development happening on the Gold Coast. The property boom was escalating! He felt it was time to move back to Australia and so in 1980 we returned, very reluctantly on my part!

This was also the year my beloved grandmother suffered a stroke and passed away a few months later at the age of 82. On my last visit, we managed to communicate by holding hands and she squeezed firmly for ‘Yes’ and no reaction for ‘No’. It was devastating to watch her deteriorate and a blessing when she was finally resting in peace. God Bless you darling Nana.

My mother at age 65, passed away 5 years later following a massive heart attack.  Our last visit was during her last days in hospital, and taking my hand she said, “Don’t worry Rob, it’s time for me to go to Ben”, and it all seemed to make sense. Her lifelong grief following the death of my father was soon coming to an end and she sensed it and was looking forward to their reunion. God Bless you Mum.

Living on the Gold Coast in the early eighties was not a happy existence for me. Branko became drawn to the bright lights and nightlife of the tourist mecca while I was trying my best to juggle motherhood, running a household, and a marriage that was starting to burst at the seams!

Apart from investing heavily in the property market we soon once again entered the restaurant and catering arena, owning and managing Julio’s Gourmet Italian Pizzeria and Pasta at Pacific Fair Shopping Centre until 1994. The stress level was intense, the money plentiful, yet night after night the only conversation tended to be about business.

I remember our eldest son Brando one evening making a dynamic comment, ‘Mum! Dad! Can we talk about something else other than BUSINESS!!’

It was at this point in early 1994 that we received an excellent offer of sale on our business. Branko promptly negotiated with the purchaser and a deal was struck, contracts signed, money exchanged, and suddenly eleven years of hard work came to a sudden end! WHAT NOW?

I had always dreamed of visiting Ireland, the home of my Irish Great Great Grandmother, Hannah Rafferty. Young Hannah was orphaned during the Irish famine and was sent to Australia by the British in the mid1850s to serve in their military laundries in Sydney. Her presence and details are noted in the present-day Hyde Park Museum devoted to the 4000 Irish orphan girls who sailed out of Cork bound for faraway Australia. A nightmare of a journey. She was only 17, illiterate and uneducated, yet she managed to survive and finally became a businesswoman and the mother of five children.

Hannah was born in Castlerea, Roscommon County, one of the poorest areas of the Irish Republic. And that’s where I wanted to go, to explore and to ‘feel’ a sense of belonging, of my heritage, of my existence! Branko on the other hand had his sights set on another trip home to Podgora..his Dalmatian dreamland. It took a bit of convincing, but finally, he gave up, and tickets were purchased! We were off to Canada, Ireland, and finally the newly independent Croatia!! A four-month well-deserved holiday! I would like to add, Branko enjoyed his days in Ireland as much as I did. He felt a lot of synergy between the Irish people, and his Dalmatian homeland, both in personality and particularly in the stone-walled villages and way of life throughout the countryside.

Giulio’s Italian Ristorante 1999 – 2004. Another enormously successful business, yet it took its final toll on our marriage and the cracks started appearing, with little hope of being repaired. Life in Australia was proving too hot to handle, with very few hours being available for relaxation and pleasure with our growing boys. Every conversation at the evening dinner table revolved around business decisions, daily happenings, problems, and profits. Money was plentiful, yet contentment and quality of life were poor and wretched.

Our restaurants won many prestigious awards over the years, and our success was well known, yet our private life was falling apart, and it was during these years of stress and strain that Branko and I parted ways, yet never divorced, and after 34 years of marriage an incredible journey of passionate love, sweat and tears came to an end, or so we thought!

While on holiday in 2002 visiting his mother in his beloved Podgora, Croatia, there was a devasting accident that almost severed Branko’s right arm from his body and was the final cause of his untimely death 2 years later in 2004!

While sitting at a seaside cafe in Podgora with a group of friends enjoying the morning sunshine and conversation over a cup of coffee, heavy machine gun fire burst out within close earshot! Deafening, explosive, terrifying, and not knowing from where it was coming, Branko leaped, and ran inside the café, while others scattered to safety behind the nearby stone wall. Owners of the café, two local brothers, had been arguing and a machine gun had been fired in anger spewing bullets in all directions. Branko unknowingly came within direct contact, but too late, there was no turning back! The wound was horrific and he was rushed to Firule hospital in Split where he remained for a considerable amount of time having reconstructive surgery which managed to save his arm. His surgeon at the time, warned him of the possibility of blood clots in the foreseeable future and the need to be particularly vigilant, keeping a constant check on possible coagulation throughout his system. After all, this was a War Doctor who had spent many months on the front line in Bosnia during the recent war during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and had tended many similar injuries. He knew full well what might lie ahead during Branko’s recovery. Our son Adrian flew to Croatia to spend time visiting his Dad in hospital and finally escorted him home to Australia.

In 2004, once again Branko travelled to Podgora. He arrived home on the 18th May, and on 18th June, one month later following his final flight, suffered pain to the chest and a fatal blood clot to the heart and passed away suddenly. The phone call came late at night with the shocking news.  Brando, Adrian, and myself immediately boarded a flight to be with him on the day of his burial at home in Podgora next to the little chapel of St.Tekla overlooking his beloved Adriatic Sea.

Following the funeral and our return to Australia, our son Brando, usually, a man of few words, wrote and recited a very special eulogy at the memorial service at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church on the Gold Coast. Adrian, on the other hand, well known as a man of many words, found it difficult on this occasion to control his flood of tears, his grief, and deep loss, and although Branko has gone, I still hear him, I hear his voice, I hear his laughter, and realise he was so correct about many things that didn’t seem important at the time, but now I can understand what he was trying to express through the ‘ways’ of his Croatian heritage, where ingrained traditions and family values take precedence over our more modern way of living and thinking.

Fortunately, the night before that final departure, Branko called me and we talked until late at night, there was much that he wanted to say, and over the next three or four hours we reminisced, talking about the past, our mistakes, our successes, our family, yet all the while he was assuring me, comforting me. There were tears of forgiveness, of remorse on my part, wishing I had made better and perhaps different decisions, but at the time of our seperation, it seemed to be the best solution.

It was as if he ‘knew’ it was our final goodbye.

Filled with many friends from the Croatian, Australian and Italian communities, Branko was farewelled, with his favourite Dalmatian music playing and ringing in our ears. His presence was strongly felt around us, I know he was with us in Spirit and always will be.

I will forever be thankful and truly blessed by all that Branko gave to me, 2 loving sons, 6 beautiful grandchildren, Jordan Brando, Rubi, Jagger Dante, Christian, Dorian, and little Mia, and their mothers who I have come to know and love as my own daughters.

For 43 years, from the age of 24, I visited Croatia many times, and I have grown to love this country, the people, the history and all that it has to offer. In 2012, after a period of eight years following his death, and constantly travelling back and forth with small group tours to Tuscany and Croatia, I decided to make a more permanent move, choosing the Central Dalmatian coastal city of Split as a place to call ‘home’ immersing myself in the local way of life with a consistent interest in sustainable tourism which led me to my travel consultancy business My Hidden Croatia. I have enjoyed meeting so many travellers, mainly from Australia and New Zealand who have travelled with me or who have trusted my advice and chosen me as their travel consultant.

It has been a great pleasure and privilege, and I’m happy to say I have remained in touch with many of my clients throughout the years. 

Over the years I have travelled far and wide throughout all the Croatian counties, all so beautiful, yet so diverse in landscapes, cuisine, language dialects, and climate.  I was born in Australia, a wonderful country that I will always call ‘home’, yet, a sense of belonging overcomes my whole being each time I return to this part of the world. I feel this is where I belong; here in this land of Croatia, woven over the centuries as rich and colourful as an exquisite tapestry. Robyn Vulinovich, Split 2021

BELOW: Robyn aged 5, my Father, Ben, and my mother Margaret, Robyn aged 7, Grandfather Benjamin senior with Brando aged 4 and me being held by my grandmother Sarah. The bottom left-hand corner is a photo of my grandfather, Benjamin during World War1 I. He fought in France at age 18 and survived. My father Thomas Benjamin Nixon fought in Borneo in World War 2 and sadly was killed by Japanese forces at the Landing of Tarakan in May 1945. I was born on 10th June 1945.

BELOW: On the Tobacco Farm Sandy Creek Road, Dimbulah, North Queensland late 60s. Branko’s sister Zlata Vela and younger brother Ranko, Branko and Mrs. Kadić tending the crop, and on the tractor Jure Vela is driving while Zlata and I are planting the tobacco seedlings. Bottom left-hand photo I am stringing the tobacco leaves ready for curing. Bottom right hand, Zlata and Branko taking a break!

Branko and Robyn..A never-ending love story of incredible joy, blood, sweat, and tears, ending all too soon, but with a great legacy of two wonderful sons, Brando and Adrian Benjamin, and six beautiful grandchildren, Jordan, Rubi, Jagger Dante, Christian, Dorian, and Mia. To my loving daughters-in-law, Carla, Georgina, and Kasia thank you from the bottom of my heart for being part of our family and for all the love and caring over the years. I have been truly blessed.

Robyn Nixon1962 * Robyn and Branko Vulinović1965 * Branko Vulinović1962

“You would make a great Tour Director!” my close friend Donna remarked as we sat relaxing in my apartment on Queensland’s Gold Coast. Donna is heavily involved in Canadian Tourism and was visiting me for the weekend from Sydney. Her feet were on my lap, and as I massaged dainty toes with some warm oils, she was in bliss-land, and with half-closed eyes, she managed to make some disjointed yet interesting comments about the possibility of me attaining a position as a Tour Director with a leading Australian tour company. My antennae went up! Tour Director? “How does one find such a position?” I asked. Too late, she was asleep.

My life was at a crossroads. The world financial crisis of late 2008 was hitting tourism worldwide with a vengeance. To be assured of an income during this period would be a godsend! My own business of organising small groups to Italy and Croatia was becoming more difficult during these times of heavily discounted fares with tours being promoted by the big boys of tourism. How could I compete?

Donna successfully put me in touch with one of Australia’s leading Travel Agencies,  and almost a year later, there I was with three tours down and four to go for the summer season of 2009 in Europe.

Due to my knowledge and love of all things Croatian, I was assigned the 14-day Dalmatia Discovery Tour, which departed from Budapest and makes its way down to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia then across to Zadar on the Dalmatian Coast. From here the tour made its way down to Split, then along the stunning Makarska Riviera to Dubrovnik, ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’. Following three nights on the Southern Dalmatian Coast, we head back up to Trogir, Plitvice Lakes, Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, Postojna Caves, Lipica Stud Farm, and finally Venice. This itinerary places me in my element! Spending time in two countries that I am very passionate about, Croatia and Italy.

After two weeks on tour with my first group, the hectic program of Go! Go! Go!…..up at 6.00 am and making sure the listening devices were all charged up and ready for the walking tours during the coming day with the local guides…going over the day’s itinerary, reading up my special notes, and timetables, making sure all was in order for the day ahead, texting the guides …confirming our meeting points …..then finally down to breakfast and on to the coach… “Don’t forget to check your baggage has been brought down from your room”! This was my usual war cry!

A Tour Director, so I am learning, has a lot of responsibility. Planning and confirming are the key ingredients, as the best-made plans have a tendency to go astray….

The goal of every successful professional tour director is never to allow your guests any possibility of sensing your moments of anguish. This is a holiday many have dreamed of, they are here to enjoy, indulge and relax with a tour director that allows them to feel safe, comfortable, well-fed, and the fixer of all things imaginable!

My greatest satisfaction has always been in taking great care of my guests, from the days spent in our restaurants in the past, until the present moment, trying my best to make dreams come true.

The groups consisted mainly of retirees, mainly self-funded, more mature Australian couples, who are at the stage in life when they have the resources, unlimited time to travel, and reasonable health before old age sets in disabling them from any future thoughts of leaving home and travelling long distances when aching bones, and knee and hip replacements are more the talking point rather than travel destinations.

I have so far found the majority of these people to be so delightful, patient and fun-loving, and appreciative of all the effort and time involved in keeping them happy, contented, and fulfilling their dreams and expectations about their chosen tour.

There are however, a small minority who are obviously at odds with the whole world, and particularly with themselves, and no amount of encouragement or professionalism can place even a half smile on their face!

One such person, an elderly fellow of British heritage, had his hair parted at the back of his crown and combed it forwards and across the top of his head, with a florid complexion, and small steely blue eyes that peered right through you. You know the type!

Poor fellow, his continual complaining attitude was annoying many of the other passengers, and one complaint followed the other; “the coach is not comfortable; there is no lumbar support; the seats are not numbered; you didn’t explain where the toilet was; our room is not big enough; there is a tree spoiling our view; I refuse to walk to the restaurant; There’s no Nescafe!.”

I decided he was sent to try me, and so with all the professionalism and charm I could muster, I worked very hard to make him comfortable and to provide him with a few little extras. In Zagreb I bought him a kilo of the largest, ripest, blackest, freshest cherries; organised a day cruise in Dubrovnik to the nearby islands (something he wished to do) always making sure I attended to his needs as much as possible, and always considering the fact he was elderly, but he was a hard nut to crack!

Finally in desperation, I had a quiet moment with his lovely little meek and mild wife. I asked her if her husband was feeling well as he seemed so grumpy. She looked at me with eyes that spoke a 1000 words, and said, “Well dear, thanks for asking, I’m afraid he’s been suffering badly with severe constipation!”

That explained everything!  Not even my big black ripe cherries did the trick!

by Robyn Vulinovich…Tour Director

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