Monday, May 21, 2007

Visit to the villages

Since our arrival in Croatia, we have had the opportunity to sample life in both the big city and in the small villages. The city of Zagreb is modern and bustling, with tastes of a typical European city. There are flower markets and vendors throughout the multiple city squares, outdoor cafes which are always heavily populated, and fruit and vegetable markets with every imaginable variety of produce available. Unlike most American cities, you will not find health clubs or gyms, and you will rarely see people jogging on the streets. This is likely because, walking is the primary mode of transportation in the city. We were told by some of the locals that the mountain behind the city is one recreational site and that people often bicycle, hike, or jog there.
On Day 3, we visited several villages in Zumberak, a mountainous area about an hour's drive from Zagreb. This area in particular, is a site of intensive study by The University of Zagreb and The University of Georgia. Many of the towns here are experiencing negative population growth and some actually have zero population. Most of the remaining citizens are elderly and continue life in the traditional way, by farming and raising cattle. The young people have to leave the villages to attend school and generally, do not return to take up the trades of their relatives. As Croatia strives to gain membership in the European Union and to become a recognized tourist destination, there is also a strong push to preserve culture and tradition. As such, the UGA and UZ cooperative are hoping to promote sustainable economic development in rural regions through tourism that focuses on the history and culture of the Croatian countryside. There are other issues centered around giving the current citizens of this region access to needed services, such as health care, and this of course, will need to be addressed before bringing large numbers of visitors to the area.
Crystal cutting is one trade that is a major source of income, both from tourists and locals, in Croatia. We visited a small factory that better resembled a house, just outside of a small town. We were able to observe 2 men practicing their trade and carving crystal into glasses and bowls on a machine that looked similar to a key-cutter. They worked by the light from the windows and wore no respiratory or ear protection, despite the heavy concentration of dust in the room and shrill noise given off by the carving machines. We did see the workers take a break for about 20 minutes, but one wonders how often this happens during the course of a work day.
We briefly toured Mrzlo Polje, a beautiful, mountainous area where the University of Georgia is planning to establish a study and research center for students and faculty. Interestingly, this area is on the border with Slovenia, which has already gained admission to the EU. There are issues with illegal border crossings here since there are no strongly organized border patrols. There is also an issue involving sex trafficking across the Balkans and EU states, again, as a result of inadequate border enforcement.
After our day of touring, we were fed at a vineyard in the wine country of Zumberak. There we experienced Croatian hospitality first-hand. It was clear to us, that food is one of the most important ways to convey welcome in the Croatian culture. We were greeted at the door with drinks, cheese, and a freshly baked loaf of bread. The food was cooked in front of us and our meal consisted of several courses, including soup, salad, meat and potatoes, and dessert. The atmosphere resembled a large, family gathering, more than a restaurant setting and it was of the utmost importance to our hosts that everyone was well-fed.
The day after we returned to Zagreb, we visited the medical school at The University of Zagreb and learned about the training process for physicians in Croatia. Students enter medical school immediately after high school, following completion of an entrance exam. Medical school coursework is generally completed after 6 years, including an internship (similar to a residency in the U.S.). Most medical students however, go on to specialize, which requires another 6 years of coursework. Public health education is a part of the medical school coursework. Most physicians in the country practice in a public setting, such as a hospital or medical clinic and only a small portion go into private practice. The universities in Europe, including The University of Zagreb are currently undergoing the Bologna Process, which will provide a curriculum and time standard for Bachelor's, Master's, and Doctoral degrees. This will allow schools in Europe to be more competitive with higher learning institutions in England and America and will allow students'' credentials to be recognized in any European nation.
We also visited the Stampar Institute, which is the major institution of public health in Croatia besides the Ministry of Public Health. There we briefly learned about the structure of the public health system in Croatia, which is basically a socialized system. Health insurance is mandated for all citizens, and generally provided by employers. For those who are not employed, there is a social program similar to Medicare that provides care. It was apparent to us that the health care system of this country is still very much in transition, as Croatia is still working to refine its policies and infrastructure. Public health though, is an important part of the structure. Stampar himself, for whom the Institute is named, believed that an investment in the health of the population is an investment in the economic future of the country.

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