My “aunt” asked me the other night why I was starting my travels in Croatia.
I’d like to say I’m inspired by the country and stuff like that, but the reality is one day it occurred to me. I’d been thinking Chile for quite some time, but then somehow, I came across the Croatian town of Zadar and in my 39ish well-read years on planet Earth, I’d never heard of the city.
Then, several times in the next while, boom — Zadar, Zadar, Zadar, Zadar.
How many times do I gotta get hit on the head, right? Okay, then. I’ll start the travels in Zadar. Or at least Croatia.
But time passed and I began to waffle, looking into Chile again, and thinking wistfully of their asados and wine and cheese and beef and asados and wine and…
So someone asks me, “Hey, Steff, where are you gona start your big trip?”
“Meh,” I reply. “I’m gonna listen to the wind and see what’s up. I was thinking Croatia, but now maybe Chile. I’ll see what the signs say.”
Three hours later, same day, I walk into my funky little local organics shop and the shopkeeper Jenn goes, “Hey, Steff! I see you’re gonna be travelling for years. Where are you gonna start?”
“Well, I was thinking of Croatia–”
“Hey! This fella–” points to her stock guy, “just came back from three months in Croatia! Come over and tell Steff about your trip.”
And So It Is Written
So I decided then and there to just shut up and go to Croatia. Part of what inspires me to go is their food scene is said to be incredible. The cost of living is still pretty good. The wine is supposed to be phenomenal, with 3,200 years tradition behind it.
I’ve heard mixed reports, that some people love the country and others think it has no soul. The latter, I can understand that. Look at how strong the sense of identity is in so many of the countries to their west and north — Italy, Spain, Austria, France, etc — versus those on their south and east, like Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and so forth. That sense of self-awareness and identity sort of evaporates.
Maybe it’s “Eastern Bloc Syndrome.” Life under dictatorships, imagination/expression stifled. Who knows? Or maybe the war and years of civil strife under Tito as Yugoslavia have more to do with it.
Fact is, Tito held the country together with Band-aids and dumb luck. Upon his death in 1980, the tattered fabric of Yugoslavian identity began unravelling fast. It led to Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Slovenia, and the rest of then-Yugoslavia having war-crimes-level bloodshed that ended just over 20 years ago.
Life After War
From the outside looking in, I find myself wondering if the country’s like a victim who refuses to discuss the crime they suffered. Something’s there beneath the surface, and that hazy identity that comes from struggling to find your identity after everything has changed on you.
I once heard a UN representative say it took 45 years to nation-build. That’s why we couldn’t just willy-nilly enter foreign conflicts and shout “Break it up!” It wasn’t something we’d want to commit a presence to for even a year, let alone 45, because: Budgets.
Look at Japan. Decimated in ‘45 and a rising technological power in the ‘80s. It took that long, really.
I suspect Croatia and the others are all growing into their own. Something great is happening but they’re only on the cusp of that. Give it time and we’ll all be amazed. I’m lucky to be going during a time of transition, growth, and optimism, like life rising from ashes.
Another Aspect in Studying Places
I’ve always been fascinated with the wounded-psyche aspect of countries on the mend, and I think I’ll visit a number of them over time — be they in South America, like Columbia and Chile and Cuba, or in Asia, like Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Each of those countries is in a zeitgeist they’ll never see again. Progress is happening.
I got turned onto that hidden-wounded social dynamic when I read The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin by Adam Hochschild. He’s one of the founding editors of Mother Jones magazine and he wrote the book when he became fascinated during travels, wondering what it’d be like to live in a country that sort of denied its own genocide.
You wanna talk about the elephant in the room, talk Russia.
Obviously it’s not quite the same in Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and such. They were comrades as Yugoslavia, so their wounds seem recent, but also likely less deep. Still, it’s there, like a shadow on a cloudy day.
So I’m curious about that undercurrents of that rising identity, their muddled past and positive future — it’s an interesting cocktail for someone like me. And with a background in journalism and history, peppered with my interests in good wine and local, authentic cooking, I think it makes Croatia a perfect place for me to start my travels in.
And I suspect with that nebulous identity at present, that maybe Croatia will impact me more earlier in my travels, and that’s why it’s a place I want to see twice. Again at the end. Kind of an experiment: How does the sense of place change with miles and years between perceptions, for both the place and the traveller?
So why Croatia? It’s an odd duck with great food, wine, history, and beautiful place. It’s the awkward teen on the verge of a promising adulthood. I’d like to see it before it grows into its own.
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