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…..
- 1945, Sydney, Australia
- 1962, A Boy on a boat
- 1963, Boy meets Girl
- Late 1964 marriage, motherhood and farm life
- The History of Dimbulah in Far North Queensland
- 1969 My Dream
- 1969 Falling in Love with Croatia
- 1969 The Homecoming
- 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. A move to New Zealand, Restaurants and Trauma,
- 2004 Returning to Australia and an unhappy ending
SYDNEY, Australia, May 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 first born, a member of the Australian 6th Machine-Gun 2/24 Battalion had been badly wounded by the Japanese forces at the WW11 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 south-west Sydney. Until this day, the Australian Military had kept the family up to date about Ben’s progress, and here was yet another and 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, 26thMay 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 agonising 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 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 worldwide.
1962 Sydney – A Boy on a boat 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 Sydney Domain standing on a soapbox, speaking and debating about many current political issues of the day.
The years passed, 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 routine, and there was this little 3 years old with Shirley Temple curls and blue ribbons in her hair in completely opposite rhythm to all the rest! Surely they laughed with me, not AT me?
My grandfather encouraged my mother to put her mind to 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 to Young where she had been positioned by the Government, 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 home-coming, 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 having such a wonderful and loving grandmother who took great care and interest in providing me with all she was able to give 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 most 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 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.
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 ocean. The full moon illuminating 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.
1963 Boy meets Girl After graduating from High school, 1963, I attended my first year at Waverley Kindergarten Teacher’s College, travelling from Beverly Hills to Waverley every day through the week, changing train for bus at Central Railway Station for the Eastern Suburbs Bus Route which took me from Eddy Avenue., through the notorious 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 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, 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, and 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 facial expressions. I felt a great sense of excitement!
A beautiful olive-skinned waitress, with dark almond shaped eyes, shiny dark hair and 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 communist state of Yugoslavia, leaving his ship in the port of Trieste, and traveling finally 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 bag 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 gorgeously 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 33 tumultuous years of my life!
Late 1963 marriage, motherhood and farm life in Far North Queensland. An Aussie Girl in a Croatian Community; learning a language.
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! 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 finally agreed to hear what this young man had to say for himself.
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 foreigner 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 doyley. 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 and destroy my relationship with my Brando and also with my family.
Brando looked my grandfather in the eye, firstly explaining that 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 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 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. 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 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 30 miles 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 a 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 1930’s, 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 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 1950’s.
The little township consisted of a very busy pub, a police station with two policemen, a Catholic Church with one priest, a few shops, 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 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-fuelled 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 torrid love-making, 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.
It was a hot and dry climate, where the heat would sear through our sandshoes while we tended the crop. 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, fuelled by gasoline. We worked like Trojans. By late summer when all of the harvesting and curing was completed, the 3 months of grading the leaves, 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, straight out of college who had arrived 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 !
On 17th July 1964 marriage seemed a great idea! We jumped in the car, a cream coloured 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 repeating the wedding vows 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, of 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 a more prosperous life.
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 of two years ago?
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 sugar cane fields, tobacco farms and some had worked on the Snowy River Hydro Scheme in Victoria. After a short period 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! It was 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 land of Croatia. Branko constantly painted beautiful pictures in our minds, describing the beauty and perfumes of his Dalmatian Coast. We could see the mountains, and as he spoke we 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. We could smell the pine, lavender and rosemary, sage, camomile, and bay leaves, and we 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. We could taste the fresh fish grilling over the coals, the pomegranates bursting in our 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 we made a decision, we were finally going to meet Branko’s family and visit this far away land called Croatia.
1969 Croatia – my first visit. No amount of ‘telling’ prepared me for what I was about to discover on my first trip, together with our 4-year-old son, Brando.
Sailing from Sydney aboard the Italian ship Galileo Gallilei was the adventure of a lifetime. The Captain was a Croatian from the Island of Losinj who invited me to dance with him at the Captain’s Dinner on the Gala Night of the Cruise, much to Branko’s annoyance! 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. Together with a group of fellow Croatians we disembarked and travelled by minibus across country through the mountainous villages of Abbruzzo and up the eastern Italian Coast to Pescara, continuing through Le Marche to Ancona where we transferred to the Croatian Ferry, the ‘LIBURNIA’ 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!
Tetak Beppo (Uncle 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, sister-in-laws, 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 seashore 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 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 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 descent and a child called Brando.
It was extremely fortunate my heritage being Irish Republican, that certainly hit the spot in this land of devout Catholicism, and where the Irish are considered as brothers.
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 Brac 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 were given 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 building materials.
The coach dropped us at the nearest bus station, a mere 200metres 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.
1970’s – 2004 Restaurants and Trauma and final goodbye after 33 years 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 becoming increasingly violent, with the apparent presence of Tito’s Yugoslav secret police infiltrating the Australian Yugoslav communities, investigating so-called ‘troublemakers’. Bombings and crimes were committed in the name of political and religious beliefs, and at this point in time, it was 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 Austro- Hungarian Empire in the early 1900’s and 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 restaurateurs in Auckland, and our life started to change. Business was growing and was very profitable, we became very successful, 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 Shirley Segedin, and Susan Farac, and many days spent with close friends Jasna Sunde (Ex Vulinovich) and Julena Radojković (Ex Sisarich) 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, an Australian by birth, also became one of my closest friends.
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 took a business trip to Australia. He was in awe of the development happening on the Gold Coast. The property boom was escalating! Time to move back to Australia and so in 1980 we returned…reluctantly on my part!
Apart from investing heavily into 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 until 1994 and Giulio’s Italian Ristorante until 2002. They were both enormously successful businesses, yet they took their final toll on our marriage and the cracks started appearing, with little hope of being repaired.
Our second son was born in 1975 during our 8 years spent living in Auckland. We called him Adrian, after the Adriatic Sea. 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.
Brando, on the other hand, has a God-given creative talent, artistic, both in detailed drawing, interior design and in food preparation and presentation. 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.
During the 70’s 80’s and 90’s, we became known as seafood restaurateurs in Auckland, returning to Australia in 1980, owning both Julio’s Gourmet Italian Pizzeria and Pasta at Pacific Fair until 1994 and Giulio’s Italian Ristorante until 2002. They were enormously successful businesses, yet they took their toll on our relationship.
Sadly, not all stories have a happy ending, and it was during these years of stress and strain that Branko and I parted ways after 33 years of marriage and an incredible journey of passionate love, sweat and tears came to an end.
Soon after, even more sadly, Branko suffered a bloodclot to the heart and passed away suddenly while visiting his homeland in 2004, and although he 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. It was late at night, there was much that he wanted to say, and over the next three 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 it had all seemed to be the best solution.
It was as if he ‘knew’ it was our final goodbye.
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 daughters.
Branko is buried ‘at home’ in Podgora next to a little chapel 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.
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 have been visiting Croatia for over 43 years, from the age of 24, and I have grown to love this country, the people, the history and all that it has to offer. 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. This is where I belong; here in this land woven over the centuries as rich and colourful as an exquisite tapestry. Robyn Vulinovich, Split June 2012
In 2010 I decided to move permanently to Croatia..and in 2013 I remarried, but that’s another story…