By Jim • 

Using cars and sports to break down barriers

The two McMinnville Rotary Clubs — Noon and Sunrise — hosted a Croatian Group Study Exchange team from the Croat wine industry in late May and learned that Croatians exude confidence when it comes to their sports’ programs.

Perhaps Sasa, an enologist for a large winery in Croatia, put that confident attitude in a nutshell at the Rotary District 5100 Conference when he said, “We’re the best.” Of course, he followed that statement with a boastful, “I’m a stud muffin.” Sasa, who I got to know over a five-day period in which the Croats toured local wineries and attractions and frequented local restaurants and pubs, wasn’t too far off the mark.

Apparently, he liked the girls — and the girls liked him because of his outgoing personality, sense of humor and self-confidence. I saw that at several bistros and tasting rooms where he and the gals bonded. He also liked cars, so we gave Sasa and his team an hour at a local car show in McMinnville, and he fell in love with a number of collectors’ cars including some heavy metal from the late 60s and early 70s. But, his new “girlfriend”, he told us, was “Camaro”. Apparently, a nice ‘67 Camaro caught his eye and he fell in love at first sight. But he also loved several others cars in the show including a Porsche and a couple of modified coupes and one or two hot rods. I didn’t say it aloud, but I was thinking maybe Sasa was a little fickle, both with women and automobiles. But when I pinned him down on just which car he’d like to own if price were no object, he said, “Porsche Cayman.”

Me, too, Sasa, me, too.

On the month-long trip with Sasa were Mislav, an IT person who develops software for wineries, Nina, an enologist for a small winery and team leader called “Z” since most Americans couldn’t pronounce his name correctly. They visited a number of Rotary clubs in District, beginning with Battleground in Washington and ending in McMinnville.

When I finally broached my favorite subject, sports, the Croats reminded me that several of their countrymen played on NBA teams while football (soccer) is their number one national sport. They’re also solid at the club and national levels in basketball, volleyball, water polo, rugby and team handball. In the interior, ice hockey is popular. As far as individual sports go, the Croats participate in tennis, alpine skiing, swimming and boxing. And, at the national level, teams enjoy a strong following, especially in soccer.

As one Croat said, “Croats are simply talented.” And the Croats I met seconded that opinion although none claimed any special talent in any of the club or national sports. “Z”, a sturdy man in his early 60s, looked like he could have played rugby at one time — maybe even American football if he had the opportunity. The 25-year-old Sasa I could see as a quick little linebacker, the taller Mislav a wide receiver and Nina a top gymnast or maybe an outstanding softball player, again, if she’d had the opportunity in her country, which I found, enjoys American television shows.

That’s why, on occasion, the English they spoke was a mix of textbook English and American slang. Unfortunately, they don’t have the “luxury” of having a zillion sports’ channels to watch like many Americans. Maybe, for the non-sports fans in Croatia, it’s a blessing. The long-suffering Molly would love the opportunity to miss a sports event or two, especially when I tune in to NASCAR or drag racing on a Sunday afternoon or even momentarily take a peek at a boxing match.

After spending hours with the team each day from a Thursday afternoon team pick up in Hood River to the final Monday evening event in Lake Oswego, I heard a great deal about the country, not only about its wine industry but also about sports and the beauty of Croatia, which has many small islands off the Adriatic coast. In a couple of years, if my wife and I can find the time, we just might make the trek to Croatia and visit our new friends and attend several sports’ events to discover for ourselves just how “talented” the Croats are.

Yep, relaxing in a little apartment on the Adriatic for a week or two would suit me just fine.

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