Zoran Matulic – Oral History

I was born in a little village called Dol on the island of Brac, about three kilometers from Postira. My father had a large family, originally ten. Five brothers and two sisters alive; three of them had died. My grandparents had a lot of land and they made their own wine, their own olive oil. They had their own vegetables, their own fruits. their own goats, … their own milk. We were lucky, we had a little more than a lot of people did.

Brac is a resort island. My family has had a resort in Postira for about forty years. It is one huge house that my father and his brother built, with three floors, and seven bedrooms on each floor. Some of the bedrooms overlook the bay. There is a main kitchen downstairs, a dining room that seats fifty people, and an outside patio with a barbecue about the same size. It is located right on the water and we could take a boat to another little village, to swim or fish, It was great!

My mother did the cooking — forty to fifty people for lunch. Forty to fifty people for dinner. And being in a resort I started helping very young. I was peeling potatoes when I was 3 years old!

When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, Tito was president of Yugoslavia. It wasn’t as communist as people thought. It was a socialist country. People had a chance to run their own businesses. People were fisherman, or carpenters, or they ran hotels. They were all independent contractors.

My parents couldn’t go to church when we lived in Split because my father had a good position with a hotel/restaurant and was a member of the Communist Party. But every time we went to the Island, come Sunday, the first thing you do is go to church. I was baptized and confirmed and was even an alter boy on the Island.

As a teenager, I watched all those American movies and listened to western music. I said, “Wow, I have to go to America, and someday I’ll come back and turn this mountain that is in front of me — in Split, that is — turn it into gold or something. Build a huge resort …”

I came here in 1966 by myself when I was seventeen. I stayed with my grand uncle for a couple of years in San Francisco and then I moved on. This grand uncle, you might like to know, he came here in 1899 or something. and he sent a letter to his friends in Croatia to find him a woman. So that happened and they got married and were married for some sixty years! He was 94 when he died and she was 103.

My first six months in the United States were very tough. I went to English school at John Adams Adult School, in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. This was the height of the hippies. I came in with a suit and tie, and everybody else was … long hair, flowers, naked (laughs) So after a few days, I took off my tie, then … (laughing) That was something, coming from one extreme to another.

At that time I socialized with the Slavonic people in San Francisco. They’d come up to you, “Hey, Slavonian, how are you?” There was no Yugoslav, no Croatian, no Serb. Nobody mentioned those things. Everything was Slavonian. You couldn’t mention Yugoslavia. I remember coming here and they were still singing those “against-Yugoslavia” songs. I didn’t know those songs. I only knew these modern … “Hey Slovenia ” and all of that.

The restaurant business is in my blood. After six months here in California I enrolled at the City College Hotel and Restaurant School. I was there for a couple of years while I was working in restaurants. I didn’t necessarily want to be a manager, but a few years later I changed my mind. So I started managing restaurants and have been doing that for perhaps thirty years. I was fortunate to have worked in some of the top houses.

In 1996 my business partner and I had the opportunity to buy this restaurant. We opened it as Oberon. Previously, it had been Gelco’s for twenty-seven years. It was a gathering place for Serbs, Croatians, Macedonians, Yugoslavs, whatever Slavic nationality. There was music from Serbia, music from Croatia. I used to come here myself and I had a great time. Now I’m trying to build it up again as an Eastern European place, not necessarily Croatian. The menu here is southern European.

Last week-end, for example, I was ready to close about midnight, and seventy-five people showed up, after a Serbian film screening at the San Francisco Film Festival. That was great! They stayed till 2 a.m. and sang and drank — some Dalmatian songs.

Last time I was in Croatia was 1990, just before the war started. Obviously Croatians wanted independence because Croatia is everything to Yugoslavia. Tourism, fishing, shipbuilding, beautiful Adriatic Coast, — that’s all Croatia. Now Croatian’s are happy that they split up Yugoslavia.

One difference though, under communism, you know, if you have a toothache, you can take three days off, or when summer comes, you go to the doctor bring him a bottle of wine and say, “Hey, give me a month off .” Everybody gets paid, everybody’s taken care of. When democracy came those things changed. If you don’t work you don’t get paid. People weren’t used to that, and they still aren’t. That’s why it’s going to take a couple of generations to teach everybody how to make democracy work.

I don’t know if I will retire back in Croatia… probably. I’m American, but I’m one hundred per cent Croatian. There are a lot of great memories of Brac. I have land on the Island, and an apartment in Split. I have two young children right now. Who knows what will happen when they finish their school?