Conflict and Culture in Rovinj

Every summer, Tomislav [Toma] Longinović, professor of Slavic, Comparative Literature, and Visual Culture, travels with 16 UW-Madison students to the idyllic coastal community of Rovinj, Croatia for a unique one-month learning experience. We sit down with Professor Longinović to discuss the goals of the study abroad program and the lessons we can learn at the intersection of cultures.

Sunset on the Rovinj shoreline.

“I still feel like I’m Yugoslavian, despite the fact that the country no longer exists,” says UW-Madison professor Toma Longinović. “I always go between Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia to visit my friends, and we still behave like it’s the same country. We try to defeat the political divisions.”

The study abroad program led by Longinovic, called “UW Conflict and Culture,” brings students to the western-most corner of the Balkans in what is now Croatia. The Istrian Peninsula, where the city of Rovinj is located, has long been a place where competing cultures collide. In the 20th century alone, the region was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy, and Yugoslavia. This multicultural legacy is still evident today in the demographics of Rovinj. Many residents speak Italian and send their children to Italian-language schools, and several others are bilingual in Croatian and Italian.

The processes of cultural exchange in Istria have created what Longinović describes as a unique “hybrid culture” worth studying. He explains, “It has this rich history of different empires ruling over it… So how do these three European cultures exist in one location? That is the topic of my course—to study that interaction.”

Resident Director Toma Longinovic and students
Resident Director Longinović and students (Photo courtesy of Toma Longinović)

For the four-week duration of the program, students are housed in apartments and attend class at the Center for Historical Research in central Rovinj. Lessons take an interdisciplinary approach, and include readings in history, political science, and literature. However, students engage with most of the course material outside the classroom. “We have field trips where we actually visit the locations that we read about,” says Longinović. One such excursion is to the neighboring city of Pula, which contains one of the largest surviving Roman amphitheaters dating from the first century. The goal, as Longinović describes it, is to “try to comprehend the complexity of what I call a micro-culture and its specificities, because it’s surrounded by this macrocultural giant… the German, Slavic, and Romance.”

Another vital aspect of the program is the study of what Longinović calls disputed “places of memory.” Each change of power in Istria was accompanied by a change in historical perspectives and the official story of the region and the people who inhabited it. The memories of individuals and the accounts of local cultures, however, sometimes resist these changes. The struggle for historical memory was particularly fierce under the rule of Fascist Italy and, subsequently, Communist Yugoslavia. “We read about places of memory… and go visit those locations to look at the memory sites and the struggle for memory between these two ideas,” says Longinović.

“Forcing myself to go out of my comfort zone and immersing myself in another culture that I knew very little about taught me how to openly communicate with others and be less timid.”

The marks of past struggles largely go unnoticed in today’s Rovinj. The city is now better known for its bustling seaside markets, to which thrifty shoppers from Italy are known to flock in search of cheaper goods, and for its booming tourist industry, which now rivals that of the well known Dalmatian coast fortress-city of Dubrovnik. The size of the city—less than 15,000 residents—is ideal for students studying abroad who want to enjoy their time outside of class without the hassles of big city life. UW-Madison senior Haley Feller, a sociology major and summer 2017 program participant, warmly remembers spending time at a nearby market. “I loved to watch the interactions between the locals who lived there,” she said, adding, “I also liked to see how it differed from our local markets here in Wisconsin… The local vendors were also always so willing to talk with me and let me try their products, making me feel very welcome and excited to be there.”

Small boats moored in a bay by Rovinj with the city in the background
(Photo courtesy of Toma Longinović)

Longinović agrees that Rovinj is a perfect place for UW-Madison students to get a taste of Europe. “It’s ideal for students who sometimes have never traveled abroad to come to Europe and meet a small town that is also very cosmopolitan,” he said. “It’s so small, but there are also so many cultures in one location.” Feller notes that intercultural experiences from the study abroad program have changed her communication style. “Forcing myself to go out of my comfort zone and immersing myself in another culture that I knew very little about taught me how to openly communicate with others and be less timid,” she said.

Professor Longinović, who holds a position at Rovinj’s Center for Historical Research where classes take place, also has his own personal history with the city. “I used to go there as a kid, since I was two years old,” he explains. A mass exodus of Italian residents after the 1956 resolution of the post-World War II Trieste crisis, which granted control of most of Istria to Yugoslavia, left much of Rovinj abandoned. “Rovinj became somewhat of a ghost town, and then in the socialist times they actually decided to turn [it] into an artists’ colony.” Longinović’s father, along with several friends, purchased and renovated a centuries-old run-down building that they then traveled to from Belgrade every summer. “So I was very connected with this place,” concludes Longinović.

The UW Conflict and Culture study abroad program has grown considerably since it began in 2005. According to Longinović, recruiting young people to study in the Balkans was once more difficult. “It was very challenging in the beginning to convince people to go there—the former Yugoslavia—because of the negative portrayal of the country due to the wars of the 1990s,” he said. “It was difficult to convince people, parents and so on, that it is safe actually. In this part of Croatia there was no war.”

Sloping street view of Rovinj, Croatia
(Photo courtesy of International Academic Programs, UW-Madison)

As time has passed, however, the positive experiences of past participants have spread by word of mouth. “Now, we have more students [applying for the program] than we can take,” says Longinović. In addition, the experience for student and instructor alike has continued to evolve. “Every year I feel like I’m growing, and my students are growing and learning in this place,” he says. “By this experience, they come out with a different understanding of what Europe is and what the former Yugoslavia was. And they meet other people there, which is a great experience for them.”

Undergraduate and graduate students interested in applying to the summer 2018 UW Conflict and Culture program should contact International Academic Programs. The deadline for application is February 2, 2018.

For more information on “UW Conflict and Culture,” visit: