Now that we have moved a little bit away from the Balkans–well, being in Trieste is still on the Adriatic and at the edge of Slavicness!–I wanted to jot down some observations gleaned from our time in Croatia:
**The war of the 1990s still leaves its mark, at least around Dubrovnik, where Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro are so close and where some real fighting took place. Young people, perhaps, are not as affected by these horrid scars, but the ethnic brooding and resentments continue to define interactions and determine who communicates with whom and how. We had great experiences with every group, all of whom were proud of their culture’s history, but again, as in Greece, these age-old hostilities between ethnic tribes still cast a pall.
While thinking about these 20-year old conflicts, I made the mistake of trying to read Janine di Giovanni’s Madness Visible: A Memoir of War. Far too grim for me, and we never had anything remotely like the bellicose confrontations she faced in the 1990s. But I did find this assessment of Croatia to have some truth in it: ”There was still, decades after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a lingering sense of the exploitative Habsburgs. I had always found Zagreb passionless, and the nationalism in Croatia–the songs, symbols, beer-drinking slogans, grotesque nostalgia for their fascist Ustashe past–was far harder to endure than the Serbian version. At least the Serbs were honest about it. The Croats tried to pass themselves off as democratic….In part, they got to hide behind the cloak of Catholicism, as though the fact that they were Christians excused them from the savagery they had committed….Their biggest grievance was belonging to a Balkan group they didn’t want to be part of…If war was next door, it meant Croatia risked being thrown back into the Balkans, a place from which it had tried so hard to distance itself…”
We did sense immediately that the best option was never to bring up anything in conversation about religion, ethnicity, or even language, for fear of offending or saying the wrong thing to the wrong party. And would someone please tell me what it means that so many young and middle-aged men in Croatia have shaved heads? Is this just fashion or does it mean something dire? In America, it’s often a sign of skinhead or racist affiliations, and I couldn’t help but see this mode in that light.
**Young Croatian fathers seem to be far less patriarchal than in previous generations, and just like all young fathers today, are often seen taking care of their kids, carrying them in slings and back packs, and strolling with toddlers along the beach. Some of this heartening transformation is also the result of economic realities: the mothers have jobs, while the fathers often do not, and while extended families are still quite prevalent, now even the grandmothers are working.
**The roads in Croatia are, for the most part, excellent. The highways are better than most freeways, but BE SURE not to miss your exit, as the turn offs are very, very far apart. Even in the smallest villages, we found very few potholes, everything paved, and despite sometimes hair-raising curves and the narrowest of passages, the surfaces are very well engineered. We did, however, find the only coastal road, the Magistrale, to be under continuous ”improvement”, leading to long traffic delays and maddening stops. Sometimes roads that we would consider alleyways allow cars going both ways!
**English was at least understood and often spoken everywhere, if only in rudimentary fashion. But have a go at learning a few phrases or words in Croat–people are so pleased when you try to say anything in their language!
**Mlini, the Dubrovnik Riviera village where we were staying (and in off season), had only a few bars open, no restaurants. And even those places named ”CAFE BAR” had no food, not even small sandwiches, only drinks and coffee. Restaurants in these tiny places will open for the season, and food is–as expected–mostly fish or some form of pork, either as sausages or cutlets. Just as in Greece, fish is relatively expensive, but octopus, squid, and mussels are plentiful and served in a fantastic seafood soup.
**Croatia now has all the mod cons, as in dishwashers, washing machines, and shopping malls. The big supermarkets are for the most part German, e.g., Konzum and Lidl, occasionally Spar. Because of this, you can get most German products. One can find here all alternative milks, that is, goat and sheep milk and yogurts, soy, almond and rice, although they are sometimes a bit hard to find. Breads are rather disappointingly soft, with little distinction between white and brown breads. There is one bread covered in sesame seeds and sunflower seeds that was pretty thick and crusty. We also found excellent spinach, pears, carrots (!), and arugula.
Croatian internet connections are horrible! One national company controls the network, so there is little competition to make it work. We finally gave up after so many down times, even though the house we were staying in supposedly had a good hookup, and went out and bought a T-Mobile SIM card for our portable WiFi device so we could have reliable connections. That worked well, even if we ate up 4GB pretty quickly. When this trip is finished, I will try to recount the myriad ways in which we had to buy SIM cards in each country and figure out how to upload them, etc. But our advice to anyone going to Croatia is to have your portable WiFi device ready, and do not rely on house internet connections.
**Dubrovnik is deservedly considered one of the beauty spots of the entire Adriatic. The view of the Old Town from the Magistrale looking down on to it is absolutely stunning, breathtaking, and all those adjectives. It is, alas, because of this beauty at the center of Mass Tourism, a fate that no beautiful little town should have to deal with. If one can possibly get away from the crowded tour busses that engorge selfie stick-carrying hordes onto the Stradun every day, one can still sometimes find a bit of peace in the back streets, to savor the old buildings and views to the sea. We were in the very nice Ethnographic Museum a few blocks away from the main walks, and NO ONE was there! And surprisingly, Dubrovnik has very few cultural institutions to visit. What passes as an archaelogical collection is very scant, and the art museum was having a rather lackluster Picasso show (yawn). Personally, I would give Dubrovnik a quick visit, then head for the more interesting, less touristized Zadar or Split.
Finally, the sea: the Dalmatian coast, where we were most of the time, is defined by water. The Adriatic Sea is responsible for Croatia’s claims as a scenically blessed land. The waters along the coastline are clear and beautiful, simply gorgeous in changing colors depending on the atmosphere. We were so luck y to have been able to experience the sea in many different weathers–alas, none of them warm or calm enough to swim in.
All that being said, we, as Californians who have lived a long time in Australia, are completely underwhelmed by the BEACHES–see above. Most of the beaches are very
pebbly, in some cases requiring shoes to get to the water. In many locales, such as the quite popular beach in the picture, the beach consists largely of concrete ramps! Granted, the park areas and grassy stretches that cover the shoreline in many places, providing shade and playgrounds, are impressive. But what passes as beaches here are, to our minds, just excuses to get into the water.
I’m sure I’ll come up with some more opinions very soon, but for now, I wanted to get these thoughts down, now that we have entered the fascinating multicultural soup that is Trieste!