The first time I saw it I was a little repulsed. I have to be honest. The Old City was packed, packed like tinned sardines. It felt like the New Years Eve millennium night. I tried to press my way to the front of the pack in a vain hope that I would see what everyone else was seeing. An elbow in the stomach, an umbrella in the back and quite a few apologetic words and I had made it to the front line. As it turned out being on the front line wasn’t the place to be…but how would I know that. Banners of all shapes and sizes waved in the sunshine. Colourful costumes filled the Stradun. It was an explosion of noise, colour and people. And then came the gold.
I could see it glinting in the sunlight. I can still remember thinking to this day “I wonder what they are carrying.” I still couldn’t quite make out what it was but I could see people from the crowd rushing to kiss it. Babies were lifted above the heads just to kiss the gold, pensioners pushed forward and embraced it, everyone in the front line took their turn. And then the turn came my way. Blimey that looks like someone’s head...and that looks like a bit of an arm...I’m not bloody kissing that. Everyone has slobbered their mouths around a golden arm and head and now it was my turn. Yes, this was my very first experience of the Day of St. Blaise.
I can remember it like it was only yesterday. The glittery body part held by a waiting priest in front of me in anticipation that I should kiss it. All I could remember at that time was a story that my wife had told me a few days before hand. “You know,” she started, “one of the most dangerous things to eat in a bar are the peanuts.” “How do you figure that out,” came my question. “Well, think of how many people touch those bowls of peanuts in one evening. Now if you bear in mind that only a half of men actually wash their hands when they go to the toilet then just think of all the bacteria transferred onto those peanuts,” she concluded. Yes, she was right, I mean I wash my hands, but probably I am one of the few. After she told me that little story I have never eaten peanuts in a bar again, unless I am blind drunk.
Now, as the dead golden arm of St. Blaise was presented in front of me to kiss all I could think about were peanuts in a bar. I quickly flicked my gaze down the rest of the front line and saw their solemn faces. The priest was getting slightly impatient. So I bent my face down. I made a huge, probably too huge, kissing noise and got as close to the shining arm without actually touching it. I remember the priest saying something, I am hoping it was a small prayer for me, but I have a feeling it was probably something along the lines of “disrespectful idiot.”
As I didn’t understand Croatian at the time I hope it was the first option, but I have my doubts. What a precious tradition the Day of St. Blaise is. It is a day that should be an official public holiday in Dubrovnik and not just left hanging in the balance and open to the interpretation of employers. These traditions need to be cherished. It is also an opportunity that should be exploited more. Exploited in a commercial way as a real tourist offer, but in a classy way. It falls at a perfect time. In the so called off-season when we are crying out for tourists, any kind of tourists.
Yet I think that every festival I’ve been to since my first one has been almost exclusively full of local people. I can’t help feeling that this is a missed opportunity. Away from the tacky “made in China souvenirs” and herds of cruise ship passengers searching for an ice-cream this festival is as traditional and authentic as the walls that surrounded it. This is exactly what tourists are looking for. A real, true local tradition that has survived almost untouched for centuries.
And yet every year it goes on almost hidden away from the prying eyes of tourists. The Dubrovnik Summer Festival, the Klapa vocal choirs, the Linđo folklore ensemble and, of course, St. Blaise, these are the events that need to be cherished. The Old City looks as it should do, full of locals, laughing, happy in a festive mood, celebrating and respecting a tradition that deserves its position as one of the most important days in the city.
Its Dubrovnik’s big day, let’s not hide it away in the shade, let’s put it out in the sun so that all the gold can glitter as it should. Although my advice would be to potential tourists, come and enjoy the festivities but don’t get to close, don’t stand in the front line.