With Fall 2017 a few weeks away, I decided to spend the weekend cleaning closets as I prepared to move into a new home and took advantage of some ‘end-of-summer-cleaning’ time. Hard to do when recovering from ankle surgery and taking care of a diabetic dog in the sweltering, record-breaking heat that summer 2017 will be remembered for in much of Croatia.
In the sticky heat of my stone house, with the air-conditioning cranked as high as it could be, I was still having a difficult time deciding which room and what items to tackle first. Among the first things to find new resting shelves in my new home are the endless amounts of paper copy books I have amassed over the years. Being a digital person, this is something that puzzles even my friends – the sheer number of books that I can never seem to part with. There’s that going away present book from 20 years ago from my time in Washington, DC, followed by the cookbook the mother of an ex-boyfriend once gave me, and my all-time favourite, that book on the ancient Spartan wars which has been collecting dust for two years ever since it was bequeathed to me by ‘I-cannot-even-remember-his-name-from-the-Smithsonian-conference’, which I tell myself every weekend I shall get to reading.
Only the weekends come and go and it continues this beautiful hard-copy coffee table style book just collects more dust. Custom built book shelves have not solved this problem and between my apartment and house in Toronto, Canada and the new home in Croatia, I figure I must have amassed close to 10,000 books since graduating from University over twenty years ago (add to this formula my time as a journalist at another newspaper where endless amounts of books were just given to you and you have a recipe for book disaster).
If this sounds familiar to you, welcome to my world. As I packed the endless amounts of boxes and tried to rid myself of anxiety, I sat on the floor and went through all the books which have been a part of my life since Croatian independence, and that tally alone is somewhere in the high one thousand.
It was then, that somewhere in a far-off corner of my room lay the two books which usually derive a lot of eye-rolling among my family and friends.
The first is English writer Rebecca West’s classic travel foray into the land once known as The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes at the turn of the 20th century, entitled ‘Black Lamb, Grey Falcon. The second is a paperback copy of Slavenka Drakulić’s, ‘How we Survived Communism and Even Laughed.” The former is a novel written in first person style that was considered, at the time of publication in 1921, to be ‘the’ quintessential travel guide to the countries that encompassed the former-Yugoslavia for the English nobility and the genteel western European traveller of the pre-war era. The latter is a controversial novel written by an acclaimed Croatian writer reminiscing on the demise of communism in Croatia and other Eastern Bloc countries and comparing it to the first few years of democracy.
My family despised my thick, bulky Rebecca West novel because it was given to me by my best friend during the outbreak of the Croatian War of Independence and I had pressed clover flowers into certain pages and inserted love letters from a man nobody in my family seemed to like. I then clutched and carried the book all over Croatia while translating for the UN the summer of the war and acting out my inner English Patient nursing muse moll while annoying everyone from my father, mother, and my favourite cousin, Nina, who was usually my partner-in-crime and so annoyed by my Juliet-like ways that she once suggested we burn pages of the book or use them to roll joints. I of course would have none of that and the book outlived the war, thereby cementing a certain spot in my heart for nostalgic reasons, even though I am certain I never made it further than page 75 (and it’s an almost 400-page book!).
It's somewhat fitting that I let my eye rove towards the dusty old copy of Drakulić’s book for as long as I had. I recall well the gentleman who gave me the book, an ex lover in the late-1990's he wrapped it in comic strip paper and wanted me to open it in front of him, which I made a point of doing (I seem to have a penchant for ex-lovers providing me with books meant to enrich me, and then dumping them post-enrichment). Somewhat confused as to why he would bequeath me a book I had read in the early 90’s, his response was, “because I don’t know of anyone else with a bigger love-hate-angst relationship to the new Croatia, than Slavenka and you. Go ahead and take it. I’m sure you will draw your own conclusions.” Given that there is nothing better to do when moving houses in the severe heat of the Dalmatian summer, you bet your bottom dollar I sat down in the middle of the floor, packing boxes and dust surrounding me galore, popped open a can of coke, and decided to indulge myself in some last-minute moving day procrastination.
And there is no better way to do that than to skim through Drakulic’s essay and hope for some inspiration while I struggled with how best to sum up my end of summer 2017 column for The Dubrovnik Times.
While skimming through some of Slavenka’s recollections on our lives under the communist regime of Josip Broz Tito, I floated back to memories of childhood and the long, idyllic summers spent on the southern Dalmatian coast. I had particularly fond memories of the summer of 1984 when, at the precocious age of 11, I was left in the care of my Mother’s youngest sister Nada, a mere nine years my elder, who would spend an inordinate amount of time with me plotting daily beach excursions and typical teenage Yugoslav shenanigans. I particularly remember her asking permission from my Grandfather to attend a certain Motorcycle festival in Pula and being repeatedly denied. She was on the cusp of teenage-hood and not reacting very well to curfews, limits, rules and boundaries.
Whenever my Grandfather would vex her, she would grab my hand and head off into the inner confines of Split to buy ‘Romani’ a type of Yugoslav romance-fiction paperback that was available at almost every kiosk, as well as Školska Knjiga. It was quite arguably the best part of my day, going to the kiosk and her buying a roman and a donut, with leftover money for me to purchase Sarah Kay stickers and add them to my album or the latest Asterix comic book. As a little kid I thought she must have had over 5 million romani, when she was done with one she would trade them with our neighbours, Marina and Božena, so that by the end of the week all these local girls would gather under the shade of the apricot tree in front of my grandfathers’ porch gossiping about the latest defunct love story and living vicariously through the novels’ American heroines.
My aunt would read these romani with such ferocity that when she was done, they would be discarded only to be picked up me. Having lost her mother, my grandmother only two years earlier, my aunt was rebelling and testing the waters of my grandfather’s patience. He was in his fifties at this point and when exasperated he would leave us to our own confines, and I vividly recall that all that long summer of 1984, we lived at the beach.
Every other day my aunt would take me to a new beach, and on most occasions, we never ventured further than Brela, Baška Voda and Bačvice in Split. We’d roam all day and night and only return home in the late evening and then repeat the entire process the next day, much to the chagrin of my grandfather who would have preferred we stayed at home and baked pies or helped with the housework. I couldn’t imagine a better person to have come of age with than my aunt, who was typical of the ‘zlatna generacija’ (golden age) of Yugoslav 80s teenage-hood. She would have me transcribe The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson, and her personal favourite, Pink Floyd, and show me off to her university friends as her niece ‘with the stellar English.’ If we wanted vinyl, we certainly knew the unofficial trade-and-barter system of how to get it.
Dreamy childhood days in Baška Voda
It was 1984 and I was growing up in what many would later deem ‘the last golden years of Yugoslavia before the nasty divorce.’ Even though we were ethnically Croat and Montenegrin, these weren’t epithets that were espoused at home or even promoted, much less discussed. My grandfather was a card-carrying member of the communist party and had personally fought for President Tito in some of the famous campaigns which he never tired of telling us about on the Montenegrin, Bosnian and Istrian fronts. Many members of my family were in mixed marriages and none of this was never something that was frowned upon or thought of strangely. Nominally, we were all Yugoslavs. If I were to be honest and recall any type of ethnic affiliation at all, we thought of ourselves first and foremost as ‘Dalmatian,’ meaning we identified strongly with the region and province we lived in, at the expense of the republic, which even then was still referred to as the Socialist Federal Republic of Croatia.
Being Dalmatian means many things to many people and I suppose you will get a different answer depending on whom you ask, but Dalmatians have certain idiosyncrasies about them that stand out even among Croatians.
Coupled with our strange dialect which northern Croats have a hard time understanding, we are peppered with a strong sense of regional pride, cultural traditions cemented during centuries of Venetian rule and a laissez-faire attitude toward life embodied in the art of the fjaka (‘an afternoon nap’ Dalmatian style). Dalmatians very much embrace a southerner’s approach to the day, which is to say, everything is discussed over a coffee (which usually takes hours), beach time is not to be disrupted, and the only thing worthy of the devotion of the Gods is the Hajduk Split FK. I was 11-years old and completely in the dark about larger world events that would destroy the country I called home a mere seven years later.
Still, I was Dalmatian in heart and spirit, and the regional distinction of being Dalmatian is that you always- and the emphasis here is heavy on the ‘ALWAYS’ discuss the end of the tourist season in escalated tones with members of your own family. Ours was no exception. While I would sit at the dinner table and gobble on grilled fish and swish chard, or some of my Aunt Marija’s amazing baked burek pies, my grandfather would ask all of us what our impressions of the tourist season were like. This was usually followed by the typical Dalmatian clattering of ten people trying to outdo each other in terms of wit, tone and argument and when that fails, the only sure- fire way to win any debate is to just speak as loudly as you possibly can and thereby frustrate everyone else to the point of a default or pyrrhic victory.
My aunt Nada, who was about to enter her second year at the University of Zagreb proclaimed that the entire illusion of millions of tourists on the Adriatic coast was just that –smoke cover for borrowed American money that we would have to pay back and which would bode badly for Yugoslavs in the future. My aunt Marija and my grandfather, who worked for one of the largest state employers, dismissed my younger aunt with the wave of a sarcastic finger and told her that she was naïve and ill-informed. My grandfather was a member of the post-WWII nomenklatura and had witnessed the country transform itself from humble, rural beginnings to a tourist wunderkind. Nothing would change his opinion and while I listened to them argue about the revenue numbers and the strategic roadmap for the country, all seemed to agree that increased tourism was at the very least a sector that would open up the country in positive ways.
While the older generation represented by my Grandfather was worried about what this would mean for party politics, the younger generation represented by my 19-year old aunt were more concerned with day trips to Italy, languishing on beaches, and binge reading the latest ‘Roman’ undoubtedly written by some L.A. romance writer. It was a definite sign of how much things had changed in less than two generations.
My memories of the summer of 1984 as an 11-year old were exciting ones of practicing accented British English with a girl named Hannah from Cornwall who I had befriended on the train trip to Zagreb with my aunt. Her mother and she had sat next to me and had peppered my aunt and I with questions while revealing their fondness for Yugoslavia, and their impressions of the islands and beaches of middle Dalmatia. Hannah and I fidgeted the entire train trip trying to figure out how to play with her Rubik cube and I recall she went into detail about a movie called ‘Ghostbusters’ that she had recently seen and that I absolutely had to watch.
I also recall a boy named Sven whom I had a massive crush on during a particular Baška Voda beach excursion. His mother bought me an ice cream, and while the grown ups were pressing my aunt with a map of Plitvička Jezera and requisitioning advice, Sven gave me full on kiss and told me he would marry me. And just like that, voila, I had fallen in love. Of course, it all came crashing down when six hours of kiddie beach time later, his mother told him to pack up his towel and beach bag and they headed back to their shiny new, Makarska Riviera resort complex and from there on the flight back to Sweden the next morning. I don’t think I got over him for a full three days, such was the broken heart of a Dalmatian pre-teen. My aunt and I made our way back into town on the last bus of the day while she and the other locals debated how many tourists the long heat wave (no air conditioners back then!) of August 1984 had brought us.
We didn’t have many of the modern-day luxuries we had today and bereft of an iPad or any digital device to speak of, I lived a typical child’s life in the early 1980s. From dusk to dawn you would be lucky if you could drag me back into the house. At the crack of morning light, I was up, out, and ready to roam for the day. Being from Split, I loved to explore the green market and would run from the apartment of my uncle Filip (near the old bazaar) to the other end of the Riva to the house of my uncle Tonči. An endless assortment of aunts and uncles would feed me, dress me, entertain me, scold me, and look after me while mum and dad were working.
I amused myself with my own imagination, would write endlessly in a diary, engage in people watching for hours and would play actual live games with a cacophony of cousins – male and female alike, in a country that was so unimaginably safe the doors really were left unlocked and lost tourists were invited over for dinner and a shot of rakija. Such were the times.
What we lacked in terms of shiny new gadgets from a western perspective, we more than made up for in terms of ingenuity, humour, generosity and a sense of communal spirit. I was too small to notice things like inefficiencies, lack of infrastructure or chronic shortages. In fact, I don’t remember them at all. Traditions like sitting on the Riva, Split’s main promenade where life was watched, lived and learned, continued back then just as they do today. As long as my grandfather or any one of my aunts or uncles had given me enough of a ‘marenda’ (the Dalmatian version of a child’s per diem), you can bet your bottom dinar I was at Bobis spending it on croissants and at Dalmacijavino popping open a bottle of Pipi. Life was grand, summer seemed to never end, and we elbowed our way for prime towel real-estate on every available beach with the same modus opperendi as we do today. The tourist season may have changed, but it sometimes seems that Dalmatians never will.
Many comparisons of some of independent Croatia’s recent summer tourist seasons have drawn comparisons to that golden summer of 1984, arguably Yugoslavia’s best performing. But while current strategists ponder the high-level questions hanging over all of us – how to scale, how to enhance infrastructure, and how to deal with cruise ship bottlenecks - what they sometimes fail to remember is that we have faced all these challenges in the past. Sure we didn’t have Daenerys and her Dragons to elevate us on a global stage and turn centuries old cities like Dubrovnik, Split and Šibenik into King’s Landing, Essos and Braavos overnight, but we did have just as many summer festivals, Hollywood glitterati, European royalty and annoying Diaspora relatives who came in large numbers and complained about everything from the sugar (the old Turkish coffee cubes), no American brand name Ketchup, and my ultimate favourite – the lack of A/C coupled with an inability to believe in ‘propuh’ (a draft to thee!). What we lacked in technology and infrastructure, we made up for with creativity and a locally-infused ingenuity. In the end, although we witnessed an almost five-fold increase in tourists when comparing Summer 2017 to Summer 2012, we shouldn’t forget to look to the lessons of the past when we lacked much in the ways of modernity and still survived with record numbers to boot.
I put down Drakulic’s book, let out a long breath and said to myself, ‘It’s over Katarina. We survived Summer 2017 and even laughed.”
By: Mirella-Marie Katarina Radman