About a year and a half ago, an old colleague Shea Winter Roggio introduced me to Josip Hotovec and Mate Mikulandra who run a small company in Croatia called Paradox Bay. Shea thought their expertise with social media and search engine optimization might be useful for Wonderful Machine, so I started working with them.
As I got to know Josip and Mate, I mentioned that I was expanding our staff, and Josip suggested his younger brother Petar might make a good addition to our team. I hired Petar, who is a student at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing in Zagreb. Then Mate introduced me to his younger brother Luka and his cousin Iva, so they both joined us. Soon after, Iva’s husband Vid came into the fold. Then Petar proceeded to recruit his friends, classmates, and friends of classmates, becoming our de facto human resources director. With our Croatian team now numbering 15 people, Josip and Mate suggested it was time for me to visit the team in person. So that’s what I did earlier this month.
Shea and I decided to make the trip together (he also lives in the Philadelphia suburbs). Josip had mapped out a plan to spend two days in the capital city of Zagreb, then two days in his parent’s tiny village, then two days in Mate’s seaside town, then finish off with one last day in Zagreb. May is usually a beautiful time of year to visit Croatia. But the weather forecast for our trip included a lot of rain. That did not dampen our spirits. Instead, it provided us with some additional excitement.
On our walk through the city, we stumbled upon a school fair with students sharing their projects with passers-by. A police officer gave Petar the chance to test out a pair of “beer goggles” showing the effects of alcohol on one’s ability to walk a straight line.
On our second night in Zagreb, we got together with most of our Croatian staff members for a team dinner. Since it was Mate’s 28th birthday the day before, we decided to surprise him with a cake.
When we first started planning our trip, I asked Craig, Bryan, Andrew, Nicole, Marianne, and José to send me brief travelogue videos showing what life was like in their part of the world. They all did an amazing job and it was a big hit at the party.
We then had some fun with a trivia contest with cash prizes. You can test your knowledge here!
Josip’s team edged out Mate’s team by a score of 12-11.
Early the next day, we headed out of the city in Mate’s car, driving about 2 hours east to Josip and Petar’s village of Srednji Lipovac, which is home to a mere 200 people.
Srednji Lipovac is in the Slavonia region of Croatia (not to be confused with the nearby country of Slovenia).
Petar and Josip’s parents Đuro and Katica “Kata” Hotovec welcomed us into their lovely home, and Josip’s twin sister Josipa (who was visiting from Zagreb) joined us as well. Every meal was a feast of meats and cheeses and vegetables, and every meal starts with a miniature beer mug full of rakija.
A lot of people in rural Croatia live a very agrarian existence, and Đuro and Kata are no exception. They raise chickens in their back yard, they have vegetable gardens, a walnut grove, and a plum orchard. In all, they estimate that they grow about 90% of their food. It’s also very common for people to make their own wine and rakija and store it in any bottle that’s available.
We were in the middle of a card game one afternoon (I was teaching everyone Oh Hell!) when we noticed that it was starting to rain pretty hard. Then, Petar and Josip (who are both volunteer firemen) got an alert to report for duty. It turned out that the town was experiencing a flash flood and basements throughout the town (not to mention the firehouse itself) were filling with water.
Bucket brigades formed to help bail out basements.
The next day, the weather had past and we took a walking tour of the village, stopping along the way to meet and chat with friends and neighbors (and drink more rakija).
The third leg of our Croatia tour took us 90 minutes west towards Zagreb and then 3 hours south to Mate’s seaside town of Bilice (our path wrapping around Bosnia, to avoid having to pass out of and back into the European Union). Bilice is on the outskirts of Šibenik, a popular tourist destination (and about an hour’s drive north of Split) in the Dalmatia region of Croatia.
The city sits on the edge of a lake that empties into the Adriatic Sea. Unlike other cities along the Adriatic coast, which were established by Greeks, Illyrians and Romans, Šibenik is notable for being founded by Croats, and with its 4 strategically-placed fortresses, it has never been conquered by a foreign power.
As tiny as it was, we came upon a car that was struggling to make a tight turn, so we stopped to lend a hand.
Of course, one builds up quite an appetite with all that walking, so it was fortunate for us that Mate and Luka’s mom Milanda is an excellent cook. For dinner, she treated us to delicious prawns in tomato sauce (and Mate and Luka’s grandfather (Milanda’s father) Ljubo Grubišić taught us how to suck every last drop of juice out of them). Earlier in his life, Ljubo was a traveling troubadour, with some renown throughout Croatia.
On our last day in Bilice, we were treated to yet another fabulous meal, this time by Iva’s parents Nada and Duško Mikulandra (who happen to live next door to Mate and Luka’s mom). Duško (who is a bomb technician for the Croatian police) went spear fishing that same morning and caught about a dozen sea bass, which he then grilled whole, with the most delicious seasoning and drizzled in homemade olive oil. Once they were cool enough to touch, everyone grabbed a fish and we tore into them with our bare hands. It was heaven.
Saying our goodbyes to the Mikulandras and beautiful Bilice, we headed back to Zagreb for one last night before our flight home.
One other funny aside was that the NBA Playoffs were happening the whole time we were in Croatia. In case you’re not aware, Croatia is a basketball power (remarkable for a population of less than 4 million). Most NBA games happen in the middle of the night, but game 7 of the Boston/Philly series went off early enough for us to listen in as we drove back to the city. Luka’s favorite NBA team (the Celtics) prevailed over Bill and Shea’s 76ers. Just one more example of how we are all now simply citizens of the same world.
A few of our Croatian team members weren’t able to make it to our dinner the previous Friday, but we were able to sneak in a quick coffee before I had to head to the airport.
It’s fair to say that Shea and I were blown away by our whirlwind experience in Croatia. As beautiful as the coast was and as charming as the village was and as bustling as the city was, what impressed us most was the warmth and generosity of all the people we met. We look forward to returning for another visit soon (and Shea is contemplating a real estate purchase). In the meantime, we’ll continue to grow our team there, and I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before our photographers and clients will have a chance to meet some of our Croatian teammates too.