August 16, 2002, an auspicious date for this correspondent in Croatia. It was 15 years ago that the decision was taken to buy a house in Croatia on a flying visit from Sarajevo. Some reflections on the mostly full-time Croatian living experience since then.
I NA HRVATSKOM – Osvrt jednog stranca na 15 godine zivota u Hrvatskoj
I remember the reactions of my friends back home vividly.
“You war zone junkie. Why can’t you go and live in a normal place? If you want to be by the sea, there are so many great options in Europe.”
And as I sat with my Lasko beer on Jelsa’s pretty main square in September 2002, celebrating becoming the town’s newest property owner, I had to laugh.
War zone? This was a hidden slice of paradise, and I had been very fortunate to find it. Of course, I could not blame my friends for their concern. I had just been working in Somalia, and had gone to visit Gaza and the West Bank when I had ten days off. And there had been a war recently in the country I had decided to move to. But Croatia a war zone in 2002, and this island to myself? I laughed internally before beckoning to the waiter for another cold one.
My friends saw the pictures I posted on my first ever blog, Tangerine Wizard, and curiosity got the better of them. They booked their holidays at my new home in their droves, and it was full for the whole summer. They left with rave reviews, spreading the word back home that, far from being a war zone, Croatia in 2002 was an undiscovered paradise. So much so that several were no longer accusing me of war junkie-ism, but rather tips on how to buy property, because it was so beautiful and so cheap.
And yet, some 15 years later, the vast majority of which I have spent living full-time in that delightful Dalmatian island town, talk of the war seems – if anything – to be getting more frequent. And not just the Homeland War of 1991-5, but the ones before it, most notably the Second World War, but also – depending on the amount of rakija consumed – wars pre-dating that. It is one of the great sad realities about modern Croatia that while the rest of the world is broadly looking to the future, Croatia is becoming more obsessed with its past, and the country is struggling to move forward as a result.
This is not an article about criticising all things Croatian, although that would be an easy one to write, more the musings of a fat Englishman who came to buy a holiday house and ended up running a national news portal in English about the country, a change which has necessitated a lot more engagement in life here than was perhaps initially planned. Croatia is a wonderful, wonderful country, although I can fully understand why so many young people are leaving – it really doesn’t have to be that way, but for it to change, the entire mentality of a nation would have to change as well.
The past. Once you get a little more integrated into Croatian society, it is everywhere to see – debates in Parliament about renaming squares named after Tito, when the economy is on its knees; the endless (and I mean ENDLESS) Internet comments pouring vitriol on the other side – if anyone has ever had their Croatian political opinion changed by Internet comment debate, let me know and we will organise a prize – now just imagine what Croatia could achieve if all that energy was ploughed into something positive like making the country better; and the saddest aspect of all – the need to propagate and prolong the hatred of the past, even if it causes nightmares for the next Croatian generation, a topic we touched on in a previous editorial, Is It Really Necessary to Poison the Minds of the Next Generation?
It is indeed, because by doing so, one deflects from the problems of the day. The Policy of Deflection is something I have got to know well over the years in Croatia, even more so since we started with Total Croatia News. Constructive criticism is not a concept which exists in Croatia, and it is certainly not welcome. A Brit criticising Croatia? Rather than acknowledging, or at least debating the criticism, it is so much easier to ignore it completely and attack the Brits and their record on certain things instead. And there is plenty to criticise Britain for, and I would echo many of those criticisms, but the Policy of Deflection ensures that Croatian problems never get scrutinised, and the country, therefore, fails to move on.
So if things are so bad, why do I stay?
The answer to that is that things aren’t so bad, and I am learning as I approach my 50th year that not only am I unlikely to score the winning goal for England in the World Cup Final, but also that there is no such thing as the perfect country. Croatia is far from perfect, but if you approach life here the right way, then the good things far outweigh the bad.
Croatia has been good to me, of that there is no doubt. Before I moved, I had travelled a lot (more than 90 countries and worked in 10), but Croatia gave me stability, a lovely wife, two wonderful daughters and the best location in the world for raising a family. I, the Manchester city boy who learned to swim at 29, watched with pride and a little envy, as my two kids took to the water in their first year, and both swam like dolphins by the age of three. Their time in the field with Nono has given them an affinity with nature far deeper than mine after a lifetime where the closest connection to the soil was in the supermarket back home. Now that we have moved to Varazdin County, their little vegetable patch is lovingly tended, and it was a particular joy recently to have our first soup made just from the fruits of the garden.
I have come to appreciate Croatia for its safety, more and more as the headlines from back home and from the US hit our television screens. One of the news headlines which made me laugh the most here was several years ago when a regional portal reported on the theft of several litres of olive oil. If only all the major crimes of the world were limited to such things. While incidents of theft and drugs are on the rise, they remain a fraction of more ‘civilised’ countries.
A major attraction of life in Croatia is the sense of family, and the inter-generational bonds of help and responsibility. Croats live at home longer in their adult lives more than most places in Europe, and young parents depend on their parents for childcare and help in general. It has been a real pleasure to watch these bonds in action, with three (and occasionally four) generations intertwining. Living in a small community such as Jelsa comes with its own community of course, where the older kids look out for the younger, and where the wider community downtown will always keep an eye on what is happening with local children.
Croatia, and Dalmatia in particular, has given me a much more relaxed approach to life. Having a business meeting in a cafe is now the norm, not the exception, and it feels odd to conduct a meeting in an office. Odder still to dress anything more than smart casual, including a meeting with Croatia’s Foreign Minister in her office, and I managed to keep a promise to myself never to wear a suit or tie outside weddings for over 14 years, until a business commitment a few months ago necessitated the change.
I used to be punctual, and I hated it when people were late, but I gradually learned – in Dalmatia at least – that time is relative. 10am at the cafe? Plan your arrival for 10:30 and you will not be late. It is a habit I have adopted over time, and one which is not quite so welcome in my increasing number of meetings in Zagreb. Someone asked me recently if I could go back and live in the UK. I honestly don’t think I could survive. A little like malaria, once Dalmatia is in the blood, it is impossible to get over it, and the faster pace of life in England would be too much for me, I am sure.
I have learned that while a foreigner’s opinion in Croatia is not welcome, the Croatian habit is to fiercely criticise many things Croatian while at the same time defending those things should a foreigner make the same criticism. A little like the obsession with the past, if all that negative energy was channelled into something positive, what a change that could make. But the negativity is – in part – linked to one of the biggest issues that Croatia has to address to move forward – the lack of hope and opportunity in its youth.
It may surprise some to hear, but I am actually quite hopeful for the future of Croatia, and for its youth, especially if it can move on from the past and channel that ingrained negativity into something more positive. The gloom and emigration of youth is fully understandable, as the corrupt ‘uhljeb’ system that rules the country means that, in many cases, incompetent officials with no clue (or interest) in how to do the job take the prime employment, when the qualified and non-corrupt unconnected graduates find opportunity limited, with the choice of emigration (particularly now with EU membership) a much more appealing route.
Coupled with this is the great employment paradox in Croatia. Despite having an unemployment rate of something like 11%, there is an annual employment shortage (and getting worse every year) on the coast for the tourist industry. This is not the actual crisis in the Croatian labour market. The bigger crisis is that key industries such as construction can no longer find the qualified workers, with so many departing for Germany, while many state institutions which are packed full of connected parasites who do nothing, but take home their nice salary and benefits each month. One company, which shall remain nameless – at least for now – employs about 11,000 people, for jobs which could be done by no more than 2,000. If those 9,000 were retrained to do something useful, then not only would the financial strain on this company and many state institutions like it, be eased, but the economy would grow, and the double labour crisis be averted. Will it happen in The Beautiful Croatia? Not quickly.
What gives me hope, though, is technology. And when if comes to technology, Croatia is extremely strong, and it should be proud of the many talented IT entrepreneurs who are more than punching their weight on the global stage, and who have the power to force change in the Croatian system. Think about Uber v Taxis, and then expand that thought. Change will come to Croatia, and those entrepreneurs will bring renewed hope and jobs to the disaffected youth who want to stay in Croatia but see little opportunity.
Fifteen years, almost a third of my life, and exactly half of my adult life. I will not pretend you have been the easiest host, Croatia, or that you don’t cause immense frustration on a daily basis, but the fundamentals are there. You are an amazing country, and a little positivity and looking to the future will go a long way. I look forward to checking back in in 15 years to comment on the changes. I am optimistic.