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Fall 1969: Oregon Girl Spends Year in Yugoslavia

…and kicks off a lifetime of travel. 

I’m excited to have my mother guest blog here this week. She grew up in the USA and didn’t start her global mobility adventure until she was at college. But boy did she make up for lost time then! She has spent most of her adult life abroad. As an accompanying spouse and raising two TCKs, making some crazy houses our home, teaching us how to stay connected before the Internet and building new family traditions by blending her “home” culture with various local flavours – in the kitchen and elsewhere. Here she shares a recipe from her very first trip overseas to Yugoslavia (now Croatia). 

Growing up in Germany we spent many summers visiting her friends – at their weekend homes and camping at beautiful beaches. My memories are mostly a happy blur of sun, saltwater, the smells of coffee, homemade Slivovitz and grilled meat and the sounds of laughter. But one funny moment stands out: the son of a Croatian friend of Mom’s, with a Finnish mother, and Swedish grandmother, who spoke Croatian, Swedish, Finnish and English was playing soccer on the beach with some German kids he couldn’t understand. So he came busting up to his parents, shouting at them for “not teaching me any foreign languages!” Epic TCK moment. He speaks German now.

I haven’t had sarma for years but just reading the description brings flavour memories flooding back. Thanks, Mom!

Childhood in Oregon

I grew up in the wilds of Oregon. Seriously, my dad was a forest ranger and we lived miles from the nearest grocery store, had no TV and the only phone was the old crank style (two shorts and a long was our number but anyone of the 7 other households could listen in). Our school was one of those 2 room kinds with each teacher teaching 4 grades. We had a huge deep freezer and mom fed all of us (and there were a lot of us) with basic, no-frills food.

I can’t say I was yearning for the big world but I was certainly open to something.

When I headed off to college (the year was 1968) I really had no idea what I wanted to study. As I was enrolling I was intrigued by a program being offered by the Eastern European Studies group. In the end, I could not resist taking up their offer: one year at the University of Zagreb in former Yugoslavia, a country that I had barely heard of before.

So in the fall of 1969 I headed off with a group of 20 other students for my first plane ride and an adventure that would change my life forever.

New Life in Croatia

I fell in love – with travel, new experiences, foreign languages, and especially food. Everything was new and different and I loved it all. I enthusiastically threw myself into the culture and the language, distancing myself from the other American students. I became “Yugoslav” as much as I could, spending my free time with a wonderful friend, Kaja and her family. They lived in a town about a 4 hour train ride from Zagreb and I loved being a part of this new life.

Kaja’s mama was a seamstress, she kept chickens, and pretty much everything she served us was fresh and wonderful. One winter weekend Kaja and I arrived from the big city to find mama had made the Yugoslav specialty – SARMA. Kaja explained to me that this was basically cabbage rolls. Okay, I’ve had cabbage rolls before but oh my! I fell in love again.

I can’t recall what the occasion was as Sarma is usually reserved for special celebrations such as a wedding. And this dish is so much more than just cabbage rolls! Sarma is made with sauerkrauted whole cabbage heads (krauted by mama of course). The dish is enhanced with layers of smoked pork and slow cooked for hours. The dish was served with mashed potatoes and kajmak (a fresh soured cheese, sour cream is a good substitute).

Over the years I ate sarma many times and eventually developed a good rendition of the dish. During our years in Germany, I always made a huge pan of Sarma at least once a winter, sharing this dish with many friends over the years. Even now, in Delaware, there are quite a few people in my world who ask “when will you make sarma again?”

Of course I never krauted my own cabbage and have not found a good source for whole krauted cabbage heads. But I have created a credible substitute and still make sarma often. Just recently I was tooling around on Amazon and found I could order a krauted head of cabbage. I can’t wait to make really authentic sarma!

– Peggy Fisher

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