Once Upon a Yugoslavia: When the American Way Met Tito's Third Way

Once Upon a Yugoslavia: When the American Way Met Tito's Third Way

by Surya Green

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It is 1968. Across America, citizens march for social reform and an end to the Vietnam War. Amid all this, Surya Green⎯a New York-born, self-absorbed, modern young woman⎯is a student at Stanford University, blithely pursuing a graduate degree in communication. Her view of life's purpose unexpectedly starts to expand when she says "Yes" when her Stanford film mentor selects her for a writing job at Zagreb Film in Yugoslavia. Family and friends marvel at her courage, or foolishness. The Zagreb studio may be the renowned producer of the first non-American animated film to win an Oscar, but it is in a country most Americans fear and reject as "communist."
Green has no idea that her stay in Yugoslavia will ultimately take her beyond national borders to the outermost limits of her mind.

Surya Green, who grew up in New York City and received degrees from Stanford University (MA in communications) and Barnard College (BA in American studies) is the author of The Call of the Sun: A Woman's Journey to the Heart of Wisdom (Element Books Ltd., UK, 1997). She has published magazine articles and has led gatherings, given workshops, and spoken on transformational themes in the Netherlands, USA, UK, and India. A member of the Dutch Association of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, she has also worked as a professional actress and singer. She lives in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where she established the nonprofit foundation www.SunConscious.org in 2000.

"Pensive, engrossing … The author's sensitive, searching prose makes it feel as though readers are eavesdropping on her thoughts, making every page highly personal and captivating…. An impressive portrait of a country in a tumultuous time but also of a young woman in an equally tumultuous time, eventually heading home with eyes open to the absolute need for equality for women, other races, and for the poor and disadvantaged." ⎯Booklist (starred review)

"Surya Green's fascinating book narrates two journeys undertaken simultaneously... . It is often said that travel broadens the mind. In Green's case, immersion in Tito's Yugoslavia served to deepen as well as broaden her knowledge of herself, and the social orders of both Yugoslavia and her American homeland." —Henry Breitrose, Stanford University

"An important testament. I have not before read an account of the former Yugoslavia made so plain." —John Grierson, pioneering documentary filmmaker

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780990004356
Publisher: New Europe Books
Publication date: 11/17/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Surya Green, who grew up in New York City and received degrees from Stanford University (MA in communications) and Barnard College (BA in American studies) is the author of The Call of the Sun: A Woman's Journey to the Heart of Wisdom (Element Books Ltd., UK, 1997). She has published magazine articles and has led gatherings, given workshops, and spoken on transformational themes in the Netherlands, USA, UK, and India. A member of the Dutch Association of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, she has also worked as a professional actress and singer. She lives in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where she established the nonprofit foundation www.SunConscious.org in 2000.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Read an Excerpt

Once Upon a Yugoslavia

When the American Way Met Tito's Third Way

By Surya Green

Steerforth Press

Copyright © 2015 Surya Green
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9900043-4-9


Venturing Out of the Comfort Zone

Once upon a time, in the summer of 1968, I am seated in a European train taking me toward the unknown: the mysterious country of Tito's Yugoslavia. I have no idea that my foreign travels will ultimately transport me beyond national borders to the furthermost limits of my mind.

The train chugs into the Zagreb train station on a fiery July day. I did not expect a welcoming committee, but there is absolutely no one to receive me. Thinking the Studio's rep is late, I find my way to the waiting room. Poorly dressed and gray-toned people occupy every inch of the cramped space. Some people squat on the ground.

The women wear dark-colored nondescript skirts, mainly long and loose, topped by blouses of coarse plain cotton. Kerchiefs cover many heads. Three small children huddle around a woman who breastfeeds a baby. Never before have I seen breastfeeding in public.

The men are clad in open-collared shirts or pullovers and loose trousers. Many of them sport short-cropped, heavily oiled hair. Several men are stretched out asleep on the wooden benches. One man sits in a corner slicing and giving chunks of greasy roast bacon and bread to the people gathered around him. His family?

The odor of stale sweat permeates the room. These people conform to the stereotype of disadvantaged communist citizens. Have I stepped onto the set of a European art house movie?

As strange as the scene looks to me, many eyes stare in my direction. Not that I am remarkably beautiful or ugly. Perhaps my clothing, of the latest American fashion, attracts their gaze. My minidress contrasts sharply to the modest attire of the Yugoslav women. The dress raised no eyebrows in the States. Here it evokes reactions of dismay.

Clicking sounds similar to "tsk, tsk" sting my ears. I assume this means pretty much the same as at home: "Pity! Pity! Shame! Shame!" The disapproval of the travelers, the stifling heat, the stuffy air, and the stench of the waiting room convince me to leave the train station.

After two days in transit, I rally the strength to go on carrying my suitcase and my portable typewriter. Family and friends, doubting the existence of quality goods in a communist country, persuaded me to pack a hearty supply of skirts, blouses, and dresses to remain my stylish self even in Yugoslavia. My parents stuffed nuts, dried fruits, and cookies into my suitcase. In these free-flying days when airlines do not strictly apply overweight penalty fees, and luggage manufacturers have yet to discover the wheel, my baggage weighs me down. I drag myself to a huddle of taxi drivers who scrutinize me thoroughly.

"Zagreb Film," I announce. The men act baffled.

"The Studio is well known!" I exclaim. The drivers do not understand English and I have not one phrase of Serbo-Croatian at my disposal.

"Okay, okay," I say, more to myself than to them. They snigger as they watch me search in my large shoulder bag crammed with everything I thought I might possibly need during the two days' journey from New York to Zagreb. One driver motions me to his car.

I show the precious letter sent by Zagreb Film confirming the summer job. "This is the address. Vlaška 70." The man shrugs and throws up his hands.

Another driver rubs his fingers together in the international gesture for money. Nowhere on my route have I been able to buy the Yugoslav currency, the dinar. After more rummaging in my purse, I produce the German coins left over from the passage through Germany and the meal in the train. The driver, glancing at them, shakes his head unfavorably.

All except two of the men wander back to their cars. One of them makes a hand signal I interpret to mean I should just stand there and wait, because help will be coming, and I need not fret. The other driver walks off. It is almost high noon, and the blazing rays of summer Sun burn into my naked arms. Leaning on his taxi, the driver leers at my legs, all the while picking at his teeth. His face bears a mischievous grin. I wish I had worn slacks.

Finally, at last, the first driver returns in the company of an elderly fellow who seems to be in his seventies. He is bald and needs a shave. Gray stubble pops out helter-skelter. His round-rimmed eyeglasses remind me of my grandfather's classic pair. The seasoned recruit points to my suitcase, then to himself, and lifts my baggage with youthful agility. Smiling a broad, toothless grin, he walks away at a rapid pace. Astonished, I follow. The dynamic porter marches past the fleet of parked taxis and crosses the street. Running to keep up, I flap the Studio's letterhead address at him.

Not missing a step, he says "Da, da '— apparently "Yes, yes." He strides briskly toward a crowd of people pushing their way into a tram. A veritable battle tank, the old man rolls in among them and squeezes through the carriage. People struggling onto the tram shove me aside. Before I can board, the tram begins moving. I panic and shout in English, "Wait a minute! Wait for me!"

The tram continues. Reenergized by the need of the moment, I run in pursuit, waving frantically for the tram to halt. Passengers hanging out the windows wave gaily back. They seem to enjoy my inconvenience!

Huffing, puffing, and overheated, I catch the tram at its next stop. Adapting the local push-and-squeeze tactic, I burrow into the packed hotbox. The perspiring bodies melt us into a human soup. My nose does not have to be overly sensitive to note again that underarm deodorant may not be available to Yugoslavs.

I hold my breath and resort to the elbowing maneuver. Colliding into the old man, my baggage firmly in his grip, I sigh in relief. He breaks into his huge, toothless grin. Two slightly ripped tram tickets dangle from his shirt pocket. After long steamy minutes as one of the smelly horde, I am unsteadied when the tram jerks to a standstill. The old man gasps and joins the thrust to the nearest exit. I cling to his jacket, my determination to breathe fresh air growing stronger by the moment. Push changes to shove the instant the tram door opens. We land on the pavement as if by a cannon's discharge. I would relish a pause, but the energetic old man resumes his rapid gait.

He leads me to large wooden doors opening into a courtyard. Once inside, he places the suitcase and the typewriter on the ground quite gently. Then he collapses like a ragdoll.

"Are you okay, are you okay?" I cry, tapping his arm. He groans excessively, much more than my light touch deserves.

"Are you okay?" I ask again, forgetting he does not comprehend a single word I utter. His condition alarms me until he sticks his palm straight out.

"Oh, yes, yes, here," I pronounce, emptying my purse into his hand. I have no idea what price the old man sets for his labor, or what the tram tickets cost, but the German marks catapult him to his feet. He brushes himself off, flashes his infectious smile, bows slightly to me, and departs.

I see two buildings, one yellow and one gray. Perhaps the color attracts me; also, the yellow building is closer. A plaque displays the name "Zagreb Film" and the Studio's symbol, a fully maned prancing horse.

Entering, I spot a tiny cubicle. A small desk contains two old-fashioned black phones, an opened newspaper, and a copper pot of strong-smelling coffee atop an electric heater. Behind the desk sits a blonde-haired woman. Her chubby face, unaltered by cosmetics, is broad and plain. She is dressed in a dark blue smock that may be a uniform. Eyeing my baggage curiously, she says something in Serbo-Croatian.

"I am here to work at Zagreb Film," I respond in English.

Her expression is blank. I exercise my rusty French to no avail.

A man comes into the building and stops to watch the tiny drama in progress. His appearance distinguishes him from the Yugoslavs at the train station and in the tram. His slightly long hair, light gray-tinted sunglasses, deep blue tee shirt, and flowing cotton trousers create an artistic look I find appealing.

"Zelimir Matko?" I ask.

"English?" he counters.


"Oh, Americanka. I not speak American, only English," he tells in all seriousness. "Matko meeting, many business."

"Will he be long?" I inquire.

"Oh, maybe two meters," he answers, raising his hand inches above his head. He entrusts my baggage to the receptionist and signals me to follow him. We walk along a gray hallway lined by offices on both sides. The hallway, its paint faded and peeling in spots, sorely needs a renovation. Possibly the corridor lighting is dim for good reason.

We enter a small, cramped room. "Matko office. Not like Amerika," says the man apologetically.

My rescuer is correct: This office "not like Amerika." Stacks of books carrying titles in various languages, correspondence, and reports crowd the room. Raggedy brown-edged papers, crumpled and worn, cover the window ledge. The window needs neither curtains nor shades since the papers block the sunlight. Matko's desk is another mountainous landscape of papers and books. Deftly maneuvering around the papers and books on the floor, I manage to reach the visitor's chair.

After months of corresponding with Zelimir Matko, Director of Distribution for Zagreb Films, responsible for sales and marketing, here I am in the capital of Croatia. Matko's letters, typed on thin, onionskin paper, featured the logo of the prancing horse. In the upper left corner was a reproduction of the Hollywood Oscar and the caption "Academy Award 1961, Best Cartoon, Surogat, 'Ersatz,' by Dušan Vukotic." At first it puzzled me that an organization in a communist country placed a symbol of capitalism on its letterhead.

Pretrip research informed me that the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) is a communist state based on collective ownership and one-party rule. The Federation consists of six Balkan republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. Each republic contains much ethnic diversity, and each has the same degree of autonomy under the federal constitution.

Yugoslavia's leader since 1945, Josip Broz Tito, rejected the domination of his country by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Differing with the methods of the USSR and its leader Joseph Stalin for attaining communism, Tito set Yugoslavia on a middle path balanced between Soviet-style communism and Western capitalism. He forged a "Third Way" between the Eastern and Western Blocs.

The Zagreb Film letterhead conveys that the Studio wants to present itself as an earnest competitor in the business of international film, able to meet the requirements of foreign markets and hard currency transactions. Nonetheless, in one of his letters Matko wrote: "I suppose that the main purpose of your coming to Yugoslavia is not to make money. In any case, Yugoslavia is wrong country for anyone to become rich!!!" His emphatic declaration made me wonder if even people in a communist country equate being rich with having money. He asked how long I could stay. "We have a considerable number of films for which we would like to have a commentary in English," he wrote. "We are only afraid to exhaust you while in Zagreb."

Now I sit alone in this communist country. On the wall behind Matko's desk hangs a photo of President Tito. His expression is serious, resolute. He is a man of peasant stock who became a national leader and international statesman.

Atop Matko's desk a round metal clock stands on thin, spindly legs. It ticks steadily as five minutes become ten, twenty. ... I begin to fidget. Time is slipping away. Perhaps time may signify something different to Yugoslavs than to me. Despite having to dash behind the elderly porter, I sense that life here generally moves in the slow lane.

This thought actually came as my Zagreb-bound train left the Free West, sooo verrrry slooooowly.

After racing steadily through the cities and countryside of Germany and Austria, the train noticeably decelerated once it crossed into Yugoslavia. Languidly it rolled through the countryside, as if reluctant to reach the Croatian capital. The train's reduced speed let me observe the green and lush Yugoslav countryside in detail.

We passed through living Balkan picture books reflecting a traditional peasant society. Horse-drawn carts ambled alongside the train. In the fields, humans and horses were the sole workers, no tractors to be seen. As in an America gone by, the farms grew varied crops. I saw no monocultures. The farmers toiled the land using simple hand tools.

Eventually the snail's pace of the train turned my good humor to irritation.

Now, sitting and waiting in Matko's office, I am annoyed. I am accustomed to the dynamic go-go-go pulse of my hometown. If my life were a film, and the filmmaker used the slow motion technique to slow certain periods of time, that approach could achieve interesting cinematic effects. Doing things in slow motion might even, if my life were a film, make my existence in time appear to last longer.

But my life is not a film. My life is not a stream of light images flickering on a movie screen, giving the illusion of constant movement. I am alive in a flesh and blood body, living here and now in physical reality. Being stilled to slow motion in Matko's workroom is a huge waste of my time. How can life in slow mo, and now even no-mo, be anything except irksome to a born and bred New Yorker? My patience reaches an exasperation point. Just then a smiling man saunters into the room.

Indeed, he towers over me by at least nine inches. If his height intimidates me, his warm approach does not. He greets me with a friendly handshake and keeps pumping my hand, all the while continuing to smile. I estimate he is in his early fifties. His straight chestnut brown hair, combed back on the sides, frames the balding top of his head. Broadly built, he wears gray cotton baggy pants, a long-sleeve brown-checkered sports shirt, sandals, and thin brown socks. I catch a whiff of aftershave.

"Miss Green? I am Matko," he states in a booming voice. He strikes me as someone rich with the confidence of being an expert at his job. "Welcome to Yu-go-slave-ia!"


Entering a Gray Existence

Matko speaks English with a thick accent and, curiously, he hammers the third syllable of his country's name. He pronounces it not as "slav," but definitely as the English word "slave." He laughs, greatly amused. Full and deep, his laugh charms me.

"I am not joking," he says as he maneuvers himself into his chair, a simple wooden chair quite unlike the posture-perfect desk chairs preferred in American offices. Settling into the seat, just wide enough for his ample body, Matko gives a mini history lesson.

"The English word 'slave' refers to the Slavic peoples, the Slavs of Eastern and Central Europe. Slavs were often enslaved during the early Middle Ages. The Romans used Slavs as slaves."

Matko explains that the Byzantine Empire, or the Eastern Roman Empire, trying to stabilize its German-Slav frontier in the early ninth century, captured Slavs and placed them in forced servitude. "As well, the Germans took Slavs as slaves," he continues. "And some Slavs themselves participated in the slave trade. The word 'slave' comes from 'Slav' Well, actually, the word comes from a Latin term, sclavus, referring to those Slavs of Eastern and Central Europe who were forced into servitude by foreign invasion."

Matko's knowledge on the subject impresses me. "The words 'Slavs' and 'slaves' are certainly similar," I remark.

Do all Yugoslavs pronounce "Slav" as "slave," or is Matko transmitting a cryptic message of political critique? In the strictest meaning of the word, a "slave" is a dehumanized human being. A slave, bought and sold as property, is the possession of others and lacks the most basic human rights. Aside from sufficient food, water, clothing, and shelter needed to stay alive in order to carry out the required tasks of one's slavery, a slave does not even receive "slave wages." I want to ask Matko if he, as a Slav, really sees himself as a slave today. Does he truly consider himself to be a Yu-go-slave-ian?

Tito's photo watches us sternly. My questions may be too politically delicate to pose as a foreigner Matko does not know. Besides, his mini lecture is over. There is neither question-answer nor discussion in his history class.

"Now to business," Matko declares. "Please, I must apologize for my long meeting, but that's the influence of your capitalism, isn't it?"

Before I can respond, a woman enters the office. She wears the dark blue smock; the outfit does seem to be a uniform. "Druze! ('Comrade!') Telefon! Beograd!" she reports urgently. "Beograd!"

Beograd, Belgrade, is Yugoslavia's largest city and the federal capital. Located in the republic of Serbia, Beograd houses the national government and Tito's headquarters in the National Palace.

Matko shuffles through papers on his desk. "Back in a minute," he announces, papers stacked under his arm. His tone is cheerful despite the gravity the woman's voice conveyed.


Excerpted from Once Upon a Yugoslavia by Surya Green. Copyright © 2015 Surya Green. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, viii,
Foreword by Dr. Henry Breitrose, Professor Emeritus of Communication, Stanford University, ix,
Introduction: Seeing the Overview, xii,
1. Venturing Out of the Comfort Zone, 1,
2. Entering a Gray Existence, 9,
3. Remembering the Backstory, 20,
4. Living Like the Locals, 27,
5. Getting to Know Zagreb Film, 37,
6. Comparing Lifestyles, 56,
7. Exercising a New Simplicity, 75,
8. Stretching Mind's Boundaries, 85,
9. Detaching from Conditioning, 101,
10. Seesawing between Emotions, 105,
11. Missing Freedom, 120,
12. Assisting Film Trailblazer John Grierson, 131,
13. Knowing Which Questions to Ask, 145,
14. Carrying Out Self-Examination, 157,
15. Glimpsing the Larger Perspective, 166,
16. Experiencing the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia from Afar, 173,
17. Learning from Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, 182,
18. Seeing with New Eyes, 189,
19. Becoming Wise in the Workplace, 198,
20. Crossing Borders, 208,
21. Embracing the Positive within the Negative, 215,
22. Going-from-Slave-ia, 231,
23. Rounding Out Yugo-Nostalgically, 243,
24. Summing Up in the Now and Looking Ahead, 259,
Short Yugo-Historical Afterword, 291,
Glossary, 297,
Index, 302,

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