top of page

A Crisis In Croatia by Elliot Wilner


The bus rolls on through the quiet of the night,

Its tires humming an endless hymn, a sound

Of white noise that coaxes us to sleep, at least to drowse,

As we recline in our seats, serene, sated and soused

After a festive evening in a Dalmatian village house.

We are thirty- five American visitors, on a tour of Croatia,

Now on our way back to Dubrovnik, an hour’s drive away;

Languid and torpid, we still savor the goulash and dumplings,

And the grilled sardines, and the brandy they call rakija,

All flavored with Slavic song and strains of the balalaika.

No one speaks, silence reigns, only the tires hum their hymn,

And nary a word is heard from our young guide Tomislav,

Usually so loquacious, ever eager to comment and philosophize.

But Tomi, too, now appears sunk in a torpor, content to let us

Indulge ourselves in dreamy memories of the evening’s revels.

Half an hour has elapsed, another half hour the bus will travel

Before we reach the quilt-covered beds in our welcoming hotel…

When suddenly!  The microphone comes alive, crackling,

And Tomi’s voice interrupts our reveries!

What urgent message does he have to deliver, we wonder,

At this late hour?  More talk of Balkan conspiracies?

No, being young and irrepressible, he just wants an audience,

And he imagines that he will enhance our Croatian education,

So he challenges us, oblivious to the bus’s drowsy ambience:

What do you suppose, comes the question,

Are the three leading causes of death

Nowadays in the Croatian population?

We look at one another in dismay…

Really, what is there to say?

We cannot overcome our inertia.

What do we know of death in Croatia?

Eventually, a couple of people do respond, tentatively:

Cancer? says one, heart disease? says another.

Wrong, says Tomi, that’s not the answer.  I’ll give you the answer.

The three leading causes of death in Croatia are, he said:

One, road accidents; two, husbands who beat their wives;

And three, wives who poison their husbands.

Although we heard what he said, we weren’t sure what he meant.

Was he telling us, truly, the facts of life in this country?

If so, all of us thought, this is surely one very sick society.

Or did he mean what he said as a joke?

If so, this was a joke in very poor taste.

We look at one another glumly, too embarrassed to speak,

And throughout the bus silence reigns again,

Except for the tires humming their hymn.

What can we say?  What did he mean?

Could it possibly be true, is that what people here do?


Then, penetrating the gloom, out of nowhere it seems,

Comes the voice of a woman, earnest and artless,

Asking this question, without the least bit of guile:

”What kind of poison?”

There is no response, for a very brief while,

Only the faint hum of the tired hymn within the bus…  

Then abruptly!  A roar of many voices, a raucous chorus

Of howls and shrieks, vented by each and every one of us,

Drowns out the hum and rapidly becomes tumultuous,

Until it seems the bus itself might soon convulse.

No doubt, that’s the funniest thing we have ever, ever heard!!

Who would ask a question that absurd?!

Now we have reached Dubrovnik but the roar has yet to subside,

And when the driver switches on the overhead light,

All eyes turn to Betty, in the aisle seat second row right,

Sitting quietly, impassive, with husband Jack, frowning, at her side.

Yes, it is Betty who has uttered that memorable question, and now

Her gaze is fixed on Tomi, standing in the aisle, as if she were still

Awaiting his reply.  Betty appears a little abashed – only a little --

 But she does not join in the laughter…

And Jack, we notice, is not laughing either.

Tomi, dumbfounded, does not have an answer;

But he advances toward the subdued couple, bending down

To grip Jack’s hand in both his hands, in sympathy,

And then he kisses Betty on the cheek, reassuringly.

Now Betty ventures a smile, and Jack erases his frown,

As together they arise from their seats and exit the bus,

Looking ahead to a night, all of us wish,

Of pure –unadulterated -- conjugal bliss.



bottom of page