Dubrovnik and several other south Dalmatian towns are without a doubt the world champions in this: talking many Slavic and non-Slavic languages to their visitors, tourists and complete strangers, who might very often not understand any of the languages at all, except for, well, Croatian.
It struck me last weekend in Trogir, a little picturesque town near Split. I strolled the streets with my (Croatian) husband and my (bilingual) kids. We were looking for a restaurant to eat lunch, but it turned out to be a mission impossible. Each and every waiter, cook, shopkeeper or anyone who legitimately hung out in front of their entrance, inevitably blocked our way to attack us with a leaflet, the daily menu, and a ten second opulent greeting in very poor 1) Polish, 2) Russian or 3) Slovak. I happen to know all three of these, so I understood what they were saying: “Welcome, welcome – you interested in our offer? We have excellent prices! We love guests from Poland/Russia/Slovakia!”
When the fifth person handed a seafood leaflet to my older daughter, she said: “Mom, why is that auntie speaking Hungarian?”
My patience was over when the eleventh person jumped at us with a tray of jewellery and a Russian “How are you today?”
I turned to him and said – in Croatian: “Sorry, but could you explain to me, why are you speaking Russian to me?”
“You look Russian,” he replied, amused.
“Well, I am not,” I continued, wondering, what else do I look like to him. “I am Czech, if that interests you. I was forced to learn Russian simultaneously with learning Czech since Grade 1, because the Soviet army had occupied my country for about twenty years by then – and we had to call it a “friendly intervention”. The only communist country that refused to take part in this was Yugoslavia back then, so guess what: I don’t want to be talked Russian by a local in Dalmatia. Comprendes, amigo? Sorry, but you look so Spanish to me.”
He muttered a poetic chain of swears, although (or, perhaps, because) he knew I would understand.
The next waiter ambushed my husband with very good English: “Hello guys, where are you from? Germany? Britain? France?”
“South Africa,” my husband replied in English.
“South Africa!” the waiter cried. “You know what? I kind of thought so. I’ve got friends there!”
“I am kidding, bro,” my husband said in Croatian. “We are from Donji Brgat. I doubt you’ve got friends there.”
“Brgat!” The waiter didn’t intend to give up. “Of course I know Brgat!” He glanced at me and added: “It could have occurred to me right away that you were domaći, local. Because the most beautiful women are Dalmatian.”
“That’s for sure,” my husband winked. “But my wife is Czech.”
We ended up buying bread and cheese at local Konzum. The lady at the cashier spoke nice, uninvolved Croatian.
Back home I wondered: what’s the reason of the street-sellers’ guerrilla marketing, realized through poor pronunciation of five different languages to people whose mother-tongue is probably something else?
I couldn’t come to other conclusions than 1) increased sales and 2) feeling important and knowledgeable.
In any event, I prefer Croats in Croatia speaking Croatian to me. And I’d prefer that even if I wouldn’t understand. Have a leaflet in five languages, if you wish. But say hello to me in your language, your dialect. Because it is part of what I came for.
Blanka Pavlovic a.k.a. the Adriatic Bride is a Czech writer. She studied law (Prague) and creative writing (Oxford). As a lawyer, she specialized in international human rights law, first working for the European Court of Human Rights, then for a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. She wrote five books, among them Total Balkans, The Handbook of the Adriatic Bride or The Return of the Adriatic Bride. She now lives with her family between Dubrovnik and Donji Brgat. More information and English translations of her work are available through www.blankacechova.com