March 10, 2018 – Some changes at Total Croatia News.
We have come a long way with the Total Project since I uploaded a very average blog entitled ‘What’s in a Name: How to Promote Hvar?’ way back in October 2011. A new website, Total Hvar, was born. Its aim was to promote tourism on the island of Hvar, bringing the island together as one online, and to tell the stories that went beyond the beach and accommodation offers that existed elsewhere online. If we could show that Hvar was open 12 months a year, had so much personality and things to do outside of the beach and party season, then perhaps we could extend the season and improve life for all. When a Mexican walked into The Office one day and said he and his fiancee had decided to move to Jelsa from Mexico City because they had read every sentence I had written about Jelsa, down to the description of the local postman and decided that Jelsa was the place for them, I realised the power of online words to hit a niche audience.
As Total Hvar grew into TCN, I found myself in very unfamiliar territory, running a news portal in country where I had only been living in an idyllic tourism bubble on Hvar. A Tale of Two Croatias: Life Before and After the Uhljeb Discovery was a defining moment with my relationship with Croatia.
And not for the better.
But the more I got to grips with my role as a news editor of a rapidly expanding – and exceptionally talented – team, the more I realised that the real Croatia was both unbelievably fucked up to a degree that you could not even begin to explain to a tourist on a Dalmatian beach. and that locals were so resigned to their reality that they were either emigrating in their droves or simply accepting that things would never change. The outside world had absolutely no idea what the daily reality was in The Beautiful Croatia, and the wonderful diaspora, stuck in their 1941 bubble in the pubs of Melbourne, had even less idea of their homeland, despite typically being Veliki Hrvati with about ten words of the mother tongue.
I have had a lot of emails and messages since I started Total Hvar – mostly abusive – but some have stayed with me in the back of my head and kept on coming back to me over the years. One was from California, in response to some article about the realities of life in The Beautiful Croatia. My correspondent politely thanked me for such an informative article. He was second-generation Croat, and all he knew about Croatia was from his community in California, and what they were saying about the homeland was VERY different from what I was writing. He thanked me, telling me he was an avid reader, and TCN was changing his perception of Croatia.
It was a heartening email, and a depressing one. The gap between today’s residents and some of the diaspora in terms of mentality is so huge, it is hard to believe they are of the same blood sometimes. Second and third generation diaspora, whose connection to the homeland is 2 weeks on the beach in the summer, and whose perception of everything is channelled through memories of 1941, mean that new generations of diaspora Croats have no clue of the reality of their homeland and the modern Croatia. There are so few channels of communication open to the second and third-generation diaspora, with their Veliki Hrvati linguistic deficiencies. And so, despite the relentless hate mail from our diaspora friends in Australia, they couldn’t stop reading TCN because we were the most prolific source of news from the homeland in English.
A seed was planted. If we could start to tell our increasing international audience about the realities of life in Croatia, maybe we could make a small difference in those long-entrenched perceptions.
It was a thought, and it stayed at the back of my mind.
One of my heroes in Croatia, who I am yet to meet, is a Dutchman called Rene, who does sterling work helping the old, isolated and forgotten people in rural Croatia. I wrote an article about his NGO, Proplan, and their Dutch funders. The response was huge, funds were sent, foodstuffs collected, volunteers volunteering. A small difference had been made.
A seed was planted.
But the main focus of the Total Project has always been tourism. And tourism is where the money is – I have to pay those outstanding writers somehow. Despite reading wonderful conspiracy theories of how I was funded by Soros, Putin, MI6, Greater Serbia and a whole host of other likely lads (how I wish!), the reality has been – until very, very recently – that funding has been a constant struggle. I had assumed that our project would be welcomed by official tourism bodies in Croatia. How wrong I was! For I was not a cousin, and not of the right party.
Several things have happened recently to make me go back to those two seeds planted, above – the comment from California and the work of Rene and his NGO colleagues to help the old and isolated people of Croatia.
The events in Belgrade a couple of weeks ago, about which we will be writing a lot more when the very helpful young Dario from the national tourist board press department gets back to me, highlighted all the hypocrisy and politics that disgusts me about official bodies in this country. Dealing with them is a necessary evil if you want to survive, but the scraps they bestow to projects such as ours compared to the millions they waste is scandalous, but best to say nothing or those scraps will be withheld. After Belgrade, I decided no more, a decision reinforced by some recent tender announcements, which I will return in a future article. I decided that I would divorce myself from all Croatian state money as soon as contracts allow.
That has financial implications, of course, and the decision was made easier by another Croatian truism, which I have finally been able to put into practice for myself after all these years – the definition of Paradise is a person who lives in Croatia but makes his money outside of Croatia.
And how true it is! I love Croatia, and I would not swap Absurdistan for anywhere else, but without money, it is a tough life, as I have known all too well. Having worked on the Total Project exclusively in Croatia for six years, we started Total Slovenia News three months ago. On the opening day, I posted our first article on Facebook, 25 Reasons You Should NEVER Visit Slovenia. Within 2 hours, the Slovenian National Tourist Board had tweeted the article. sharing it to their 600,000 fans on Facebook the next day. And then the Slovenian National Tourist Board called me on the phone to thank, congratulate and invite me to Ljubljana. By contrast, the only Facebook sharing by the Croatian National Tourist Board in more than six years for TCN was them deleting an article several people posted on their timeline. Ironically enough, it was an article called 25 Reasons You Should NEVER Visit Croatia, an article which got a million hits in 24 hours, but not one via the national tourist board.
Why was Slovenia so different to Croatia?
An invitation to Montenegro to discuss opening a portal there had me on a three-day stay at Lustica Bay, a 7 million m2 hotel, marina, golf and residential project which would never happen in a million years in Croatia. Montenegro was like Switzerland compared to Croatia, and the offers of support to do Total Montenegro News kept flooding in, in a way one could only fantasise about in Croatia. By the time I was on that train back from Belgrade, disgusted by all aspects of the Croatian non-presence (at least officially), I had fully funded agreements with five countries for projects when I was ready.
Was the dream of living in Absurdistan and making my living outside becoming a reality?
And it is great.
Those two seeds came back to me on the train to Belgrade. With financing of projects from outside (the dream) and a disdain of official tourist bodies, just what was TCN about, and what was its mission?
Starting a blog in a bar in Jelsa with a pint, and running news portals in three countries employing 15 people is not something I expected to happen, nor is it something that I have any experience in dealing with. And if I am honest, I miss those heady days of ‘buy three, get one free’ at The Office in Jelsa.
But on the train back from Belgrade, I really began to question the purpose of TCN. What was the point of writing brilliant articles such as 25 Things to Know about (a destination that has no interest in working with you)? I had an incredibly brilliant team (and don’t tell them, but I love the current TCN crew – great camaraderie, work ethic and talent) – what should I do with TCN?
And then I remembered my two seeds, the young, curious diaspora in California and the isolated, forgotten elderly in rural Croatia. What if we made a key focus of TCN not tourism, but portraying the daily reality of what is REALLY happening in this country? We may not boost the tourism numbers, but we could – just possibly – make a small difference. Perhaps with the 1941 mentality, perhaps by highlighting the plight of some of the more vulnerable sections of society?
There was another angle to consider. When I came back from my stay at Lustica Bay, I was so stunned at the difference between things happening in Montenegro and the inertia of Croatia that I wrote an article called Lessons from Montenegro: Why Lustica Bay will Never Happen in Croatia. The reaction was huge on so many levels, but the most interesting reaction was from investors, fund managers, not only agreeing with the article, but requesting meetings. It has been the same for some time now – contact and meetings with ambassadors, EU officials, foreign entrepreneurs, and so when the New York Times contacted me last year and I brought them to Hvar to meet Mayor Riki Novak, I slowly began to realise that from that initial cold beer and guide to how to pronounce Hvar all those years ago in Jelsa, what we as a team have built is a platform to portray the message of the realities today. Perhaps, by doing so, we can change a few opinions, alleviate the misery of a few disadvantaged people, help international journalists and EU institutions to bring a little more accountability to The Beautiful Croatia.
Or perhaps not. But I want to try.
TCN will carry on as before, but with less focus on tourism and with a new section called Dobri Duh Hrvatske – Voices from the Asylum. We will be producing a stream of real stories from The Beautiful Croatia, written anonymously, from a range of people who will be articulating the realities of life here. Some will be aimed at perhaps giving a young Californian diaspora mind something to think about, others will highlight the harsh realities of vulnerable sections of society, while others will focus on how Croatian institutions could improve their accountability and efficiency.
Do you have a story to tell which might fit the parameters of the series? We are accepting submissions in both English and Croatian, with anonymity (if required) guaranteed. There are so many untold stories in Croatia – even more fascinating than tourism – to tell. And by telling them, we may just make a tiny difference.
Or plant a seed.
If you would like more information or would like to contribute to Dobri Duh Hrvatske – Voices from the Asylum, contact us on [email protected]