Episode 12

The Italians of Mahovljani

Published on: 16th July, 2023

Hello and welcome to the podcast, where in this episode we look at the legacy of a group of some 55 Italian families that came to the village of Mahovljani back in the late eighteen hundreds.

Today all that remains of that Italian influence is its church, high on the hill, vineyards that those settlers founded (and by the way are still harvested and turned into wine), and families with both Italian first and second names.

Many years ago I heard about this small former colony near where I have lived for nearly 20 years.I have been intrigued ever since. So, to my surprise and by pure chance, I bumped into one of the descents of one of the Italian families, Guilia, and asked her if she could tell me more about her community.

She agreed, and so we met her, and her family, at the Italian church on the hill, looking down on the Vrbas valley, just like her ancestors must have done on their arrival over 140 years ago. It’s quite the story.

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f mahovljani back in the late:


Many years ago I heard about this small former colony near where I've lived for nearly 20 years. I've been intrigued ever since. So to my surprise and by pure chance I bumped into one of the descendants of one of those Italian families, Julia, and asked her if she could tell me more about her community. She agreed and so we met her and her family at that Italian church on the hill looking down on the Vrbas valley. Just like her ancestors must have done.


on their arrival over 140 years earlier. It's quite the story. You're listening to an Englishman in the Balkans. We're in this really rustic room in a building overlooking Banja Luka Airport. And when you look in this wonderful view that we have, it's like an amazing valley that runs from the Croatian border at the River Sava at one end and it goes all the way down to the foothills of central


Bosnia, which is on the other side of Banja Luka. So we have this valley and we're on this hill. Now this hill is particularly special, not only because of the view, because watching or looking at an airport is nothing, but when you're looking at vineyards, now that is something else. And on top of that, this location has a particular community built around it that came here.


in the late 19th century. And we're going to find out about that. We're going to find out about food and a lot of other things. Now when we talk about food, we talk about ingredients, right? You have different ingredients that you put in the pot, you mix it all together and then something comes out and it tastes really nice. Today we have a linguistic meal that Julia is going to help us with.


Because today we will be speaking English, we will be speaking Italian, see? Si. That's Beppe by the way, well done Beppe. We'll be speaking English. Yes, of course. Won't we, Julia? I tried to speak English but I'm not sure if I... Well you're doing all right at the moment. And what's your father's name? Romano. And Romano is going to do Srpski, right? Yes. Dobar dan. Dobar dan, kakaste. See, that means how are you? I'm fine. So, we're going to try and do all this...


today, which means that if when I'm talking to Julia, she has like culinary questions, it could be that Bepe, sat on my right, is going to answer those. When we come to the history, her dad is going to tell us that. Right, here's a backgrounder. In the late 19th century, the Ottomans were leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina because the Austro-Hungarians had got the mandate from the international community to take over this particular area.


started. We're here today in:


and we're joined by some lovely Italians. I tell you, I've just had some wine and some food, so I don't know if I'm gonna get through this, but we'll see. Julia, first thing. Yes. Today has been an exceptional feast of Italian food. And if I didn't know that I was in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I would most probably think that I was in Italy. You were born here in Laktasi ? Yes. You grew up in an Italian family?


You've traveled around? Italian, not actually only Italian. My mother is not Italian. See? My mother is from... So you've grown up in a multicultural environment. Yes. First of all, what's it... And you've traveled and some years ago you came back. So first of all, what was it like growing up here with a family that had not only Serbian influence, but also Italian influence as well?


But it was very different from all my friends, from all my people that I know, because every year we have two Easter's, two Christmas, and it was completely different from other people that are still in here. But it was very nice, very nice anyway. And some...


sisters and brothers from my grandfather, every year came here from Rome and then we have, you know, spend more time with them and we go around and came here on the church and cemetery and everything and it was, it was very nice anyway. Did you feel more Italian or more Serbian? And the reason I asked that is that my grandparents were Irish and at my age now and I'm on the wrong side of 60,


then when I moved to Italy in:


very good in Italy. I pick up everything from Italian people, like I was maybe grew up there, I was born there and everything because I don't know, I like food and like people and like, but wherever the Italian people done, I like everything. And I don't know, I feel more Bosnian before, but now...


I'm feeling more maybe Italian. I don't know. I want to ask Dede the same question. When he grew up all those years and he grew up a long time before, before you did, his memories of his family, was it more Italian then or more Serbian? He asks when you grew up, since you grew up with me, did you feel more Italian or more Bosnian, Serbian?


He was Yugoslavian. I was born in Yugoslavia, I always felt like a Yugoslavia. And I still feel it today.


with you bringing the Italian side of the community back to the forefront.


Italian or do they teach you Italian more? They teach me more, but here is the Serbian Republic and here I am.


Sun and Low? Yes, Sun and Low. It's Italian and even me, I'm not telling that I'm completely Italian, but I'm speaking very well Italian and I'm feeling not more Italian than Bosnian or Serbian, but you know. But anyway, he is born here and my father lived in Italy for 15 years, I think.


20, more or less 20 years. But, you know, every Friday, take the car, come here, stay here with the people that are staying here. You know, when you are born somewhere, it's always, you know, your place. Indifferently if you are Italian or if you are English, or it's... But there is this cultural connection, this community.


connection here for those from those first Italians that came. There's a church here. Yes. There's there's super wine. Actually I think my father's family and maybe another one it was unique family that stay here. So you're saying most of them went back? A lot of people that when they came here for during the war and everything a lot of people came back into Italy.


My father's family, and I think another one, I don't know now the name, we always stay here. No one came back to Italy. So how many families would you say, and maybe your father can tell us, how many families within this community, this tight community that you have on here, how many still have some form of Italian in their daily life, whether that is...


phraseology in their speech or the way they eat? I can maybe answer this question because actually the old people, it's no one needs with us now. It's all that now. And the son or the daughter or everything else that it's coming after, these people now it's in it actually it's born in Italy.


And yeah, we know that it's Bosnia, that it's Italian church, it's everything, but no one is coming. Sometimes someone is coming here, but it's not feeling actually from here. Now you married a very, very nice guy, Beppe, who's over there. Thank you. He's got the nicest actor's beard I've ever seen. But no, no, I mean, he's here. We've been eating food today.


I didn't know that he's a chef, your son is your sous chef in a restaurant. So in a way, in a way, and I answer honestly now, in a way, it's like a renaissance for that Italian origination of all those years ago that you've brought back. Did you plan to do that? No, definitely not. Me, no, because I, when I...


went to live in Italy, I just go away from here, but not because I don't have money or just because I have a possibility to go in Italy to learn the language, to do something different, no? And then I meet my husband and then everything is changed completely because I want to stay maybe for one year, two years to learn the language and then come back here and just work and...


do my things, but now everything is changed. And first time when I bring Giuseppe here, it was like seven, almost 18 years ago, and he told me, I want to live here one day. And I had no way. I don't think so, we live here, you know, just.


I can't imagine that someone from Italy, that it's born in Italy. I'm completely different. It's coming here to live like you from England that you're here. You know, it was 20, almost 20 years ago. It was very difficult to understand that someone can come here to live. But, um, everything, a lot of things has changed even in Italy, in England, and all of that. And now we are here and, uh,


Yeah, actually maybe he was right when he told me 20 years ago I want to live here and now we are here, we are living here. You've got two great children. You've got an older boy who I said earlier on could be your sous chef and a very talented daughter. We've just had a piano recital from her. The thing about those two is that they speak with a better London accent than I do.


Why did you go to London to open a restaurant? To change a bit, to see how London was, to get to know London. I was a fan of Amy Winehouse, I liked the situation in Camden Town. I wanted to...


to know London. The only thing I could do was open a restaurant because my passion is cooking. So he basically wanted to change a bit and he was a big fan, and he still is, of Amy Winehouse. And he really liked... I love him. He really likes the...


and like he always wanted to go there and basically it's just like his passion and when he decided to come to London he also decided to open a restaurant because his passion is cooking. Was it difficult for you to run an Italian restaurant in London which is different from here when there's so few of them but in London there's so many of them? That must have been a challenge.


Was it difficult for you to open a restaurant in Italian? Because there are not many people here, but in England there are not many people, was it difficult? No, because in Camden Town there were not many people, and then the English were looking for Italian, Italian, Italian pasta, the environment, the heat, the Italian party, Italian. And we did...


Four years with the English and a lot of Italians who are in London.


We had a tasting today. Doesn't she speak perfect English? You'd think she was, right? Yeah, I agree. I'm not speaking perfect English. We had a tasting today. And I … Guys, we already finished everything. There's hardly anything left for those that can see at home, right? But no, there was pasta served today, and I just love pasta.


And I said to Julia about, the pasta here is different from anywhere else that I've had it. That includes the Italian restaurants I used to go to back when I was in England, but definitely here, there is an amazingly outstanding difference. And I said to her, you know, how do you do that? She said, I don't do it. It's Beppe that does it. Yes. And she also said that he had an issue, Beppe.


When you started to create your menu and to create the food, how easy or not was it for you to get local chefs working in your kitchen to produce a menu to your standard?


How difficult was it to make the chefs you found, local, to make them eat the way you want to make them? Fortunately I managed to create a staff only in Italian, in Naples, Sicily, our staff was all... Oh, here! Do you mean here or London? Here! Here? Oh dear!


Not really. Two months is pretty hard. You have to show how to make Bolognese, how to cook, the cooking times. If the raw material is good, we can find good pasta on good Italian sauce. And you have to...


to work together and get along.


because there's like no other way. You know when you're talking about the products, the ingredients? Yes. I noticed today that when we were having the pasta, your mother said, this is pork cheek. And I noticed that Tamara went, Yeah? And so pork cheek is not a normal thing here. How difficult has it been for Beppe to find what he needs to get that total


Italian taste.


We taught them how to do it, and now we have guanciale and products that are just like ours. Apart from what we import from Italy, there's everything. So basically there's pretty much everything from the help of Romano and their friends, except for the things that they bring from Italy.


basically found everything that they need. Just like that? Yes, Gwentalli. We just explained to people how to make it, and now we made it here, Gwentalli, that it's for cheap. What is the reaction to mum and dad, your mum and dad, to what you're doing? Are they supportive or are they shocked? Maybe a little bit of both, huh? Both of them, yeah. But no, they help, it's very...


Good for us because even me for 20 years, I didn't live here and everything has changed. 20 years, it's a lot of time, you know? But with them, it's easy for us, you know, everything, even, you know, to find the products, to find the people that you can work with them and, you know, a lot of things, but it's easy with them here.


Today when I arrived there was this guy with a sort of like white beard from Belgrade, I think. And I mean my Serbian is pretty limited and his English was extremely good. So once again I felt like I was in League Division 3. But nevertheless I then get to find out that he's quite a celeb. Is that not right? He's a celebrity, is that right? He is, yes. Yeah, he's famous. I mean like a... So famous. ..Serbian program. Yeah, he's got a TV program in Serbia.


Total transparency here, yes, I did get a selfie with him. Don't worry about it. When a TV chef from a neighbouring country such as Serbia brings a TV crew to see you at the epicentre of where an Italian community was, and the epicentre of every community is its church, which is right next to us, and then proceeds to look at the food that you create.


the culture that you're following. To me that means that you have started to arrive and make an impact in this area. We hope, we definitely hope that it's like, you heard just explain. Because we wanted to bring something different here, you know, the people, it's not like, I live in London for five years, in London like you tell before, it's a lot of Italian people, it's a lot of other...


cultures, kitchens and everything. But here it's actually no, here it's very difficult that you can find, I don't know.


different type of restaurants and everything. And then we want to make something different, that people, when they come to our restaurant, that can then tell, yes, this pasta, it's pasta, it's very good, it's the same like maybe I eat in Italy when I go for the holidays or something, or something.


And it'll be different, definitely. I've lived here long enough to know, and I think one should always be open and honest. I've seen restaurants come and go in Banja Luka. I've seen Asian restaurants, I've seen French restaurants, I've seen Spanish restaurants. They sort of like, they're for three or four weeks or three or four months, and then they go because the local culture is conservative with a small scene. Mentality is very difficult. The mentality is very difficult. So.


That's been in the back of my mind. It kept me awake all night last night about how...


How do you defeat any negativity or any conservatism with a small c to what you're doing? It's not easy. It's not easy because you need to explain to people and just push them to try something different because our people are eating enough meat and just meat and you know and just try this and maybe you can like it if you you need to try something to say


I don't like this or either I like this, you know, you need to try something different to see, to tell me, yeah, I know this one, I don't like it, or maybe this one, it's okay. Or, you know, it's difficult. Even now, it's not easy, but we are here and we are going, you know, we want to try and we don't want to.


I don't know how to do in English. We don't French equals to Malara No, we know a lot Yeah, he walked we don't want to give up definitely is that why you chose your hometown of Laktasi she because to be honest It has a small a small population the Opstina the municipality is big So the town as it is now is small. Is that why you chose here rather than go into Banja Luka and take on the big?


Actually, when we start, we want to open something in Banja Luka, because Banja Luka is biggest and there are a lot of people and everything, and even the tourists. But then, you know, it's more difficult, even if, and then we think maybe it's better here, small, something very, very, like intimate? No. Intimate. Yeah.


And then people, if they try something that we made, even they can come even from Banja Luka or from other place, you know? And just to explain to people that everything is in family, you know? Not like I'm opening the restaurant, the big one, I never going inside, you know? Just the people that's working for me and that's it. We want to be...


there we want to speak with the people that it's coming in and then we want to you know like like a big family to stay together and let them try our plates and food and even to make them friends and that people is coming because we are inside you know. I've stalked you on Facebook so I know that was that in a nice way.


You've been to, well, one of the recent posts was that you went to a wine fair. Yes, yes, Verona. Verona, the Verona wine fair. Yeah. Do you think that it is important to bring things like Italian wine? Tamara and I drank some Italian wine today, and it is markedly different from the wine that is produced here domestically. So a two-part question.


Do you think bringing different wines is exciting? Do local people find that exciting? And two, how does that compete with that vineyard that is at the bottom of the hill just outside those windows where we're sitting? Actually, when we went to Verona to wine fair, we bring my friends, it's my friends, we grow up together from the school and we just grow up together. Now, my friends is having like


It's a forniture. It's making import exports from the drinks and all things, no? And I bring him with me in Italy and then we try different kind of wine and explain and everything. And my friends actually import some Italian wine because we want to do this.


And now the people, it's coming back to my place because I have Italian wine different from all other place, not like the same, you know? And I think that people like to try something different and it's nice because I have a lot of people that is coming, I want to try, you know, I drink the red wine from Italy that you have and...


Why not? Just something, we need to do something different because if you're going to all other places, it's always the same wine. Even me, I have wine from here, from Serbia, from, it's good, you know, even it's very, very good wine. But we are Italian restaurant, we want to have Italian wine. Very good Italian wine that people when it's coming to us, that it's wow.


I tried this wine here, I can't find in any other restaurant or... And anyway, we have, you know, mixes from here, from Italy, but I think it's good, you know, the people, it's like it. Is Beppe really good with fast, quick questions? I don't know. Let's find out. Beppe.


Your menu is diverse at the moment. What is your dream? Because everybody has a dream. What is your dream for your menu? Do you want to make it more half and half, more local and Italian, or do you want to go for that formula one option of 100% Italian for your guests?


Since you have the half-half menu, would you still like to do it in Italian, with a little bit of Serbo, or 100% Italian? I would like to continue like this, 50-50. The best thing here, and the best thing in Italy, is to combine...


He would still like to keep it like the half and half Because like he wants to keep the best of Italian food and the best of Serbian food or let's say local food Which is like to get more people to come because maybe not everybody likes Italian food for exact Reasons, I mean that's weird, but still Cool There's two people we've left out of this and we and I don't like leaving people out


Okay. So what does Baka and Mama and Tata, what does Mama and Tata, what do they think about what you've done so far? What do you think about the fact that I opened a restaurant and that Mama is a woman? And you see, what my father did.


My mum was like... Audio is a sess with the mind. Dede just put a corkscrew in his head. But your mum thinks it's great. Yeah, definitely. Does she eat with you? Does she eat at your restaurant? Yes, of course. We made the food in our house, like Italian food, not always my mum. It's very good.


Chef, Italian chef. No, no, no, cook, cook, cook. Cook, you know, like traditional, our food. But my mom is like Italian food. And then we, when we are all together, we always making the food at home, Italian food, and something, you know, different. So what is Berka's favorite that you make? Starajsha barajsha, Italian kuchhne. Paps.


Pasta. Girovana, girovana. Girovana, I will wait now, you shall tell me after. My mother said, I like pasta. I love pasta. Pasta with porcini mushroom, sausages. It's something like, it's homemade. I'm going to have to go to hospital in a minute, you know that. You can come. In my restaurant, I have this pasta on my menu. It's amazing.


It's homemade pasta with sausages and pocini mushroom. But usually all type of pasta, it's the best. And then my father say he liked the pasta, she liked the pasta, but she even liked me. I'm Italian. Yes, okay. Right, final question for you.


You've set up in Lactashi, you did say to me that you chose Lactashi not only because it's your place of birth, but it's a small enough market for you to do your experimentation and test your business plan out. We all have dreams, I know that dreams change as we get older and situation changes.


But if you could put all the exterior pressures to one side, what is Julia's dream? My dream? It's so many, but no. Actually, every time when I'm going to holiday, somewhere is the sea, where is the nice place. And then I tell my husband.


Why we go to London to live when it's always gray, you know, in the raining and everything. And then we came even here that we don't have a sea, we don't have, you know, it's completely different. Maybe to live somewhere where is the sea, but not too much people, yeah? Just small, small town with not too much people, not too much problems.


And that seems maybe, you know, just opened to small, I don't know, kiosk. Like a small South traffic place, like a kiosk. No, but on the... Like a bistro. Kiosk on the beach. To have like a mini...


A small place on the beach? Yes, where you sell things. To send the cocktails, you know, and that's it. All day you have a very nice... Like ice creams at Brighton? Yeah, that's it. Like a mini market. But just the small one. I want just to make the cocktails and stay with the people. Just a small one and then all day stay in Jamaica.


Yes, look at the sea and that's it. I love him because he likes Jamaican music. I know. Maybe, but now we need to grow up the kids and then maybe, who knows? Well, we're going to be following your adventures. Maybe I'm not just staying here for a... No, but we're going to follow your adventures. And I would say that if anybody comes to the north of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Republic of Serbia, and if you're crossing...


the border in particular at Gradiska and you're driving down, please, you know, make your first night, your overnight stay as you drive deeper possibly into the Balkans, stay in Laktasi, it's, it's, it's, what's the name of your place again? It's calling Stella, Risto Bar Stella. See, say that again? Risto Bar Stella. She says it much better than I could ever do.


is to go to Stella Riste Bar. It's small.


It's ex-bizu in a way and it's totally intimate and I think the service that you get there is first class. I'm not being paid to say this, Tamara and I, it's like our second home. You know, we superglue ourselves onto the chairs if we get away with it. Julia, thank you very much indeed. Thank you. We won't superglue ourselves to the chairs because that'll cause you a real nightmare. Beppe, thank you very much indeed. You're welcome.


I'm going to have to pay huge amounts of money for my interpreter. Thank you very much. Thank you. And please say thank you to mum and dad.

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An Englishman in the Balkans
Find out more about Bosnia and Herzegovina
Encouraging people to find out more about Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"Welcome to "An Englishman in the Balkans" podcast, hosted by David Pejčinović-Bailey.
In this podcast, you'll get a unique look at life in Bosnia and Herzegovina through the eyes of an immigrant. Each episode, David shares his experiences living in this often misunderstood country, and introduces you to some of the interesting people he's met along the way.
From exploring the rich culture and history, to discussing the challenges and joys of immigrating to a new country, this podcast offers a thoughtful and engaging look at life in the Balkans.
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David Pejčinović-Bailey

I am a podcaster, living in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and sharing my experiences of living in this often misunderstood country.