While her husband and neighbors worked on replacing a chicken coop in the backyard, Silvija Gostic spread pictures of her kids and grandkids across the table on her covered porch in Osijek, Croatia.
She had just finished serving us a traditional, home-cooked lunch of spring soup with dumplings, chicken, cabbage salad, beets, vegetables and cherry cobbler. Now she was relaying, through an interpreter, the story of how she, her husband and their two sons had to abandon their home in the early 1990s to escape the brutal war between Serbia and Croatia being waged along the nearby Danube River.
With her sons just 10 months and 5 years old at the time, she said, the family was forced at first to live hidden in a basement. They spent the next seven years just 30 miles away, unable to return until the occupation ended.
The region is now a serene mix of neighborhoods, farms and towns still struggling to rebuild their economies.
Today, she said, families like hers strive to be self-sufficient. They raise their own chickens, grow their own fruits and vegetables and fish the Danube. Neighbors help one another with projects like the chicken coop, for trade.
With unemployment high, families like hers are also learning to make extra money through partnerships with companies like Uniworld, which has added small group, in-home meals to its optional excursions.
While sobering, the experience was one of the highlights of the trip. After hearing about how the locals work hard but nevertheless enjoy life along the river and the forests, it prompted us all to rethink our over-complicated lives back home.
Correction: The host of the in-home meal is Silvija Gostic; in a previous version of this article, Gostic was identified as Isabella Petrijevcanin, the interpreter.