Greetings from sunny England. How did I get here? From a flight out of Slovenia. But hold on, wasn’t I in Bosnia just a few days ago? Well your confusion has something to do with that fact that I am a sloppy bastard in updating this blog. I have actually spent a week in Croatia (21st until 27th June), with a rushed train ride to Slovenia for my last minute flight on the 28th. So, now that you have your bearings, I will talk about Croatia!
From Mostar, I caught a bus to Dubrovnik, which is a city in the far south of Croatia. When I got there, I was pretty annoyed. Not because anyone had done me wrong, but rather it was exactly the type of destination I am trying to avoid on my trip: a tourist mecca. Dubrovnik, for you uneducated fools (which included me a week ago) was a powerful city state that has an impressive history, whereby it controlled all trade in the Balkan region (all important cross road from East to West), as well as successfully maintaining independence despite having the Ottomans on the East and the Venetians in the West constantly breathe down their neck.
But back to complaining. The poet Lord Byron called it “the Pearl of the Adriatic” in the early 19th century, whilst the playwright George Bernard Shaw said that ” … Those who seek paradise on Earth should come to Dubrovnik … “. Well, not on my first day. As far as I was concerned, it was just a city of tourists. Where the hell were the Croatians?! The prices are a rude shock, even by the standards of Australia, and all it was to me initially was just a big old stone city that was being abused for tourism – I even saw two Australians playing a didgeridoo next to the gates. Can someone please explain the link between an aristrocatic city state that adopted technology to become a leading naval and trading power, and the nomadic Australian indigenous people on the other side of the world, who would use technologies like petrol and glue, to get high?
But as I said, that was my first day. On my second day I walked the walls of the city (two damn hours in 30 degrees of sun), and did the audio tour (a rip off, but I was willing to give the city another chance to impress me). And impressed I was! That is, in the way they ran their republic. Dubrovnik is best described as a living museum. And those annoying tourists that inflated the prices, actually helped recreate the city as it was in its hey-day: a busling, freedom-loving, vibrant city that respected its citizens and understood how the world worked, which in turn enabled it to survive for so long.
But having said that, it is the history of Dubrovnik that hooked me. As a tourist destination, it is the type of place you bring your girlfriend too when you are 50, while your wife stays at home. Actually, with the money you would need, you probably would be able to afford to convince them both to join you, as you do the typical tourist package holiday. (Manged to offend Aborigines and women..something is missing…on yeah, American bashing). And those loud freakin’ yanks, who seem to think US Dollars can be used on anything from souvenir shopping to grocery shopping at the local store (“what? You can’t give me exact change in US dollars??”). So whilst I’m doing some history reading now, I was glad to get the hell out of there.
I met Kelly in Belgrade. Kelly,
a varsity girl from white-trash America a crazy hippy from Ohio, who three days after she had arrived in Dubrovnik, discovered the city was actually not on an island but on the mainland, and learnt the words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ two weeks after she had travelled through a region that speaks the same language – had been doing the same route as myself. Actually to give her credit, she is hilarious and a lot of fun. Even though she has a laugh the beats my own in terms of loudness, she is the type of person that gets along with anyone. And so that is how I met Steve and Alice from California, at the hostel.
With little convincing, I ditched my plans for Hvar island and joined them to the island of Corcula, with a group that also included George the Swede, and two Canadians called Kyle and Zoe. When the ship docked at Corcula, and we were walking off the vessel, I saw an Australian flag on the backpack of the girl standing in front of me. Without even thinking, I said “Are you an Aussie?”, and before we knew it, another three people joining our group – two Aussie girls from Sydney (Epping) and a Canadian that those girls had found on the Greek island of Ios six weeks earlier. Add the two Swedish girls Kelly and I had become friends with from Belgrade, and who joined us the next night, and as you can imagine, we had some good times!
Apart from drinking games, and celebrating the Swedish mid-summer , we got wicked sun tans. The island wasn’t all that impressive – the kids explored the ENTIRE town comprehensively in half an hour, and the beaches were disappointing (although one day, we ferried out to one of the islets and had a great time – despite the incredible roughness of the rock). Three nights later, Kelly, myself, the two Aussies (Rach and Katie) and Matt the Canadian from Ios, caught a Ferry to Split. I fell asleep on the ship for an hour or two, and when I awoke, there were two South African girls and their mother at our feet. Within half an hour, when we hit the first port of Hvar, they had asked us if we wanted to join them, and 15 minutes later, I was organising my stuff to get off the boat! And so I spent another night on an island, on the much more pictureresque Hvar, with Kath, Janice and wait for it, their mother – Sheila!
After learning South African, I managed to somehow get to Slovenia that next day, meeting up with Kelly and Co, just in time for my flight the next day. Talk about tight timing though. I managed to spend a few hours taking pictures in Ljubjiana. And from what I have seen, and read in one of their local english newspapers, I hope to be back there again.
Croatia (and Slovenia) are very much Western European countries (although the Slovenes seem adamant on aligning themselves as Central Europeans – regionalism seems to be the new trend in Europe). They definitely are not Eastern Europe though. The difference from Croatia with Serbia and Bosnia could not be more stark. Everything from the climate, the prices, to the attitudes of the people. Whilst the average wages in Croatia and Slovenia are dirt low just like the rest of the Balkan region, there is this feeling (from me, that is) that the countries are developed and well on the road to rich country status. Slovenia in a recent survey, ranks higher than Greece and Portugal in per capita income, and has a higher satisfaction rate amongst the local population.
Croatians and Sovenians despise the Yugoslavic tag – a reminder of the 50-100 years that in modern times has replaced their previous historical identities. Both countries are what started the original Balkans wars, as the Yugosav state disintegrated, but because of Croatia’s tourist industry and Slovenia’s relative autonomy under the Yugoslav Federation, it meant that they managed to get their acts together as countries fairly quickly – unlike the rest of the region like screwed-over-Macedonia.
Would you believe, in Dubrovnik, I stumbled on a museum that had an exhibit on Australian-Croatian ties. After the boring crap about some Croat living in Wagga Wagga, it was interesting to see how Australia helped the Croats achieve their dream of nationhood. Serbian and Croatian were previously considered dialects of the same language, but in the 1970s sand 1980s, students in Australia pressured the government to recognise Croatian to be taught as a separate language in the higher school certificate. There was also a token Croatian embassy during the late ’70s, which symbolically helped the cause, even though it was shut down (but the damage had been done).
A thing I have noticed in every country I visited in the last month, is the question of identity. What is it? These are new countries, and like Australia has in the last century, are struggling to find an identity. Or rather, differentiate themselves from their neighbours. The Croatian language is a classic example – it is literally the same language as Serbian. But they are adding new words, and even changing existing words, just to make it unique. It makes little sense to want to create differences in a language, but it makes plenty of sense when it is one of the few things to differentiate yourself from your extremely loathed neighbour/s. Religion, language, and historical achievements are what these countries cling to differentiate themselves.
The French and and Dutch voted no to the new European constitution, and quite rightly so, because it is a complicated, esoteric document, that was put together by elitists. Nevertheless, it is fairly evident that despite this setback, the European continent will one day, evolve into a superpower comparable to the empires of the past. The present difficulties with support for the Union, are because it is happening too fast – this European empire has been in the works for over 30 years now. With such a diverse region, it needs to evolve slowly – it can’t just happen overnight. However before everyone gets hot and heavy about the wording of a constitution, they need to remember the original reason why the European Union was formed, and that was to prevent another world war. The border disputes, and tensions in the Balkans – as well as the economic difficulties – could be made a non-issue by adding these countries to the Union. Anyone listening?