Sometimes, even to this day, in Zadar Croatia where my husband grew up, small but poisonous enmities between Croats and Serbs permeate everywhere, even when you're not expecting them. As a Serb, you must always be at least slightly on your guard.
Except with our friend Branko.
Branko, a son of one of Zadar's most ancient Croatian families, was the only Croatian friend who kept up with my husband after he fled to Serbia as a refugee during the civil war. "He telephoned me when no one else would, he called me in Sombor!" my husband exclaimed.
Later, when Branko found work supervising a factory in Italy, he spent his Euros on driving all the way home nearly every weekend to visit his widowed mother in Zadar ... and to keep calling his friends no matter where in the world they had ended up.
Finally, when my husband met me in America and we decided to get married, Branko was our sole friend from the Balkans who agreed to fly over from the ceremony (even though we offered to pay for several other people's tickets.) Branko not only danced at our wedding, in a gorgeous new Italian suit bought specially for the occasion, he was the best man.
Early this morning in Zadar, Branko died. He was not yet 50.
This evening with candles lit and wine flowing, we paid tribute to him. We each told stories of the Branko we loved. The man who was shy with women, but adored heavy metal music. The man who knew the toughest people in Zadar, but fed dozens of stray cats in the alley outside his flat in Italy. The man who knew to the millimeter how far a few drops of petrol would allow him to drive around town in his red Fiat. The man who could, with a bit of red wine, make the most delicious mussels anyone's ever tasted. And, the man who was infamous in 1981 for making a joint so large it required 16 rolling papers... plus, he flew his Zadar buddies up to Belgrade for one amazing weekend at his own expense so they could partake of it with him.
That's the kind of guy Branko was. A good son, an even better friend. The guy who would help create the good times and then stand steadfastly at your back during the bad ones.
We will miss him.