My Walk With Vesna

Photo of Old Town Dubrovnik taken from Fort Lovrijenac

I co-teach a newly created interdisciplinary course with Professor Kristin Comeforo at the University of Hartford (“Systems of Oppression: Our Binary Code”) for which I am trying to set up a customized study abroad experience here in Croatia.  I’m connecting with scholars, organizations, and activists who are addressing gender issues, one of my main interests.  Nada Raic and Ivana Bajurin (resident directors at Libertas University who I introduced in my last post) connected me to Vesna Barišić who is one of the few people who grew up and remains living in the Old City (there are only about 900 people). She gave me a personalized three hour tour (!) of Dubrovnik.  She has a great interest in how women, Jewish, and other marginalized groups were regarded historically.  If you would like a tour or better understanding of minority groups in Dubrovnik, I highly recommend that you take a tour with her.  I was taking notes like mad—I couldn’t keep up with her! I’ll highlight a few things that I learned from her.

Not surprisingly, a woman’s sole purpose in Dubrovnik during the 13th-17th century was to get married and have children. Marriages, of course, had nothing to do with love but everything to do with producing heirs.  Girls as young as 7 or 8 were already “engaged” and married by the time they were about 15, usually to a man who was twice their age.  Prior to the 15th century the bride didn’t even have to be at her own wedding—only the two fathers were required to be present.  After all, marriage was an economic exchange and families could afford only one dowry that went along with the eldest daughter.  The younger daughters were put into a convent (there were seven convents within the city walls) if they were under the age of 12.  Since 12 was the age of consent, girls older than that had to give their consent before entering a convent. 

Old Town Dubrovnik

There were no graveyards so families living within the city walls had to be buried there.  Nobility could afford to build their own church next to their house so that they could be buried together. Women died often in childbirth so it was normal for a man to remarry several times.  Like me, you might be wondering what happened to all his wives who died in childbirth?  Since he probably had many wives, they may have been buried, but their names were never recorded on a headstone. This lack of recognition was partly due to the fact that it was not her family name, but her husband’s.  Can you imagine how many women have literally been erased in this way?  This lack of identification is likely the case for millions of people who have been systematically wiped out after being buried in mass graves due to war, natural disasters/famine, crime, the holocaust, refugees lost at sea…).

Girls were never educated, even those from wealthy families (this changed in the 1500s).  A girl was not allowed to look through the windows of her house because she might be seen from the outside; this was considered indecent exposure for which she could be punished.  It makes me wonder if the shutters over the windows so typical of the architecture here have anything to do with preventing girls and women from being seen.  There is an impressive stone balustrade leading to the Dominican monastery.  At some point, it was partially walled up so that when women walked up the ramp, their ankles would be hidden from sight.  Women could only leave her home for two reasons: 1) to visit relatives and 2) to attend church. I suppose the fact that there are 30 churches within the walls of the Old Town is a good thing because, as Vesna suggested, women went to church a lot as it was the only way they could gather with other women—to connect, chat, and exchange news.

balustrade leading to the Dominican Monastery partially walled from the bottom so that women’s ankles could not be seen

The streets of Dubrovnik are named either for their characteristics/locations or are named after well-known men.  There is only one street in the town that is named after a woman—Ulica Cvijete Zuzorić—and it’s only because of her “scandal”.  She was born in Dubrovnik in 1552 (at that time, it was called The Republic of Ragusa).  Her father was a merchant and the family moved to Ancona, Italy where she was educated.  She was a lyric poet who wrote and spoke Croatian, Italian, and Latin.  She married an Italian nobleman who was appointed to be Florence’s ambassador to Ragusa.  The couple would host gatherings in their home for artists and scientists for discussions. After her husband died, Cvijete was severely criticized (and most likely envied for her freedom) for continuing to hold such gatherings which were well-known in the literary and artistic community. In 1974, the Croatian acoustic duo Buco and Srđan wrote a song dedicated to her:

Vesna and me

A walk with Vesna is a walk into a less well-known history of Dubrovnik, certainly an opportunity to hear the stories of those whose histories are hidden in the margins. I hope you will consider studying abroad here and walking with us.

Studying Abroad in Croatia

I never studied abroad when I was in college.  It scared me. I was raised in a tiny two bedroom house in the middle of my grandparent’s pear orchard.  The town of Upper Lake, CA maybe had 500 residents.  The nearest “big town” was Ukiah with a population of about 15,000.  It took us 40 minutes to get there but they had a bowling alley, a movie theater, and more than one stop light.  Yep, lots to do there!  When it was time to look at colleges, I wanted to apply to UC Berkeley so my parents and I went to visit.  I saw the polka dot man and was on a campus (not even a city) that had more people and buildings than any town I had ever lived in.  I felt anxious and overwhelmed; I didn’t even apply.  If Berkeley was overwhelming then certainly studying abroad was not going to be in my future.

The other reason, I think, is that my family didn’t really travel.  Our vacations consisted of weekly summer camping trips to the coast, which I adored.  The only trip I remember taking with my extended family was a week in Lake Tahoe for Christmas. Maybe traveling was expensive. Maybe traveling was a value my family simply didn’t hold. Or maybe, as an immigrant family, my father didn’t want to leave a country he risked his life for.  All I know is that my father was terrified to return to the former Yugoslavia even after he became a citizen of the United States.

So here I am in the country of his birth and, of all things, working on a customized study abroad experience for my students.

Nada Raic and Ivana Bajurin, API Resident Directors (left to right)

I spent a fulfilling three days at Libertas International University with the two Resident Directors of API (the study abroad organization that the University of Hartford is affiliated with)—Ivana Bajurin and Nada Raic. These two women are described as “being a resource for you” both on-site and in Croatia.  Let me just say that is exactly what they were and remain for me—without their knowledge, support, kindness, and willingness to help me understand the long process of applying for temporary residency, I don’t know where I would be.  Nada is on maternity leave and was still present for all our meetings and activities—seriously, that is above and beyond the call of duty. 

photo of me with the 15th century frescoes above

Libertas International University is a small, private institution located in Old Town (Grad) Dubrovnik located on the second floor of the Dominican Monastery that dates back to 1301.  They have several majors (e.g., International Relations and Diplomacy; International Business and Economics) and host customized study abroad programs like the one I am creating.  Dubrovnik is a UNESCO World Heritage site and as such, any changes in buildings are strictly overseen by the ministry of heritage—an extraordinary number of permits are required.  For example, in renovating the monastery for the University, some frescos from the 15th century were discovered on some of the walls and great care had to be taken with documenting and preserving them. And don’t expect these buildings to be air conditioned—definitely not approved by the ministry of heritage and culture! Although I will say that the classrooms have portable air conditioners for when it gets really hot and humid.

I was able to sit in on an International Business class co-taught by Professors Janice McCormick (Former Director of PhD at Harvard University, Graduate School of Business) and Iva Adzic.  Their interactive teaching methodology was very similar to my style and I felt right at home in their class.  It made me excited to think about my own students sitting in one of these rooms in the not too distant future. I also had a lively lunch with Ivana, Nada, and Professor Jerko Ban, a Catholic priest, who teaches a course in Comparative Religion. His community and hospital work with those who have dementia, are deaf and/or blind, or in need of palliative care, reaffirmed my growing understanding that there is little to no systems for such care in Croatian culture. Families are left alone to deal with mental and/or physical illness.

As part of my visit at Libertas, I had a wonderful tour of Dubrovnik with Vesna Barišić and met Anja Marković, executive director of Bonsai, a community-based volunteer organization.  I have much to share about what I learned from these women and will write about that in another post.  

I went on an excursion to Lokrum Island with Nada, Ivana, and the current API students studying abroad here.  The island is short boat ride from Old Town and a popular day trip for locals and visitors.  Our tour guide led us through the botanical gardens, the ruins of a Benedictine Monastery, the dead sea (a small lake) olive trees, and gorgeous views of the Adriatic Sea.  If you like peacocks and rabbits, you’ll love Lokrum—they are everywhere! The bunnies are quite peaceful and friendly, you’ll see dozens of them hanging out eating grass while people are sunbathing.  And, of course, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you may recognize the Kindom of Qarth, as seasons 2 and 3 were filmed on Lokrum. Within the walls of the monastery, a room has been converted to a small museum regarding the series.  And yes, there is a replica of the Iron Throne that visitors can sit on.  Although I am not a GOT fan, I did not pass up this opportunity. 

I did not go hungry! Nada and Ivana made sure that I was well fed (a good Croatian custom!) and that we took time to sit and have coffee (another good tradition).  In fact, I think most of my “meetings” on the first day were in outdoor restaurants eating lunch, having dessert, and drinking coffee.  While visiting Libertas, I stayed at the Orhan Rooms, just outside the city walls, convenient to everything.  If you want the experience of staying in one of these ancient buildings, then Orhan is the place for you; you will not like it if you want modern/new types of accommodations.  The owners also have a restaurant (Orhan Restaurant) where guests are served breakfast. As you can see, the view from the restaurant is one of a kind and worth navigating the small streets to find. For Game of Thrones fans, you will recognize this site filmed on Pile Bay looking up at Fort Lovrijenac (Fort Lawrence). On the second and last night of my visit, we ate at Levanat Restaurant in the Lapad section of Dubrovnik. It sits on the walking trail from Sunset Beach with a spectacular view of the Adriatic; that night I got my sunset dinner with Nada, Ivana, and Anja.

Ivana, me, and Nada (left to right)

If you are a university student scared of studying abroad and choose to come with me or spend a semester here, please know that Ivana and Nada will take care of you!  If I had guides like them when I was in college, my fears would have been allayed.  Even my father eventually overcame his fears and returned to visit his home.