In August 2002, I set off with friends from Sarajevo to the Dalmatian coast for a long weekend to look for a holiday home on the Croatian island of Hvar, a place I had never heard of until 24 hours previously, and about which I knew nothing. Having sold my house in the UK, I was looking for a place to keep my books as I continued my humanitarian aid worker career in Baghdad. Little did I know that 20 years later, I would not only never make it to Iraq, but I would have spent almost 40% of my life living in Croatia.
Croatia has been very good to me over the last two decades, and it has definitely changed me (mostly for the better). In order to mark the 20 years and to show my gratitude for what Croatia has given me, the first in a 20-part series over the coming days and weeks – 20 Ways Croatia Changed Me in 20 Years.
1. Business and Dalmatia
The Western mindset meets Dalmatia. It is such a one-sided contest.
I have lost count of the number of Brits and other Westerners – myself included – who have fallen in love with Dalmatia and decided to do business there with their own business ideas and concepts, only to give up thoroughly frustrated (and usually considerably poorer) than when they started.
Having spent much of my 20s in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union before and after it fell, I have witnessed the region’s transformation from a socialist heartland to one which has embraced capitalism. Watching the arrival of brands such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola has been an almost universal reality, and one could almost predict the list of businesses which would open their doors in the newly independent countries. Billboards promoting these new consumer goods were all the rage, and it was difficult to escape the capitalist invasion.
Dalmatia was never like that, and indeed there was not a single billboard (and hardly a road sign) when I moved to Hvar 20 years ago. Brands that I could find with ease in other countries were simply not available, and I still love the fact Starbucks does not have a presence in Croatia in 2022.
The lack of availability was often a surprise and an opportunity for foreigners coming to Dalmatia. Dalmatia needed these brands, they reasoned, and commercial success was just around the corner if they could bring the franchises. I remember seeing Subway in Zagreb in 2002, for example, then meeting the franchisee that opened in Split in about 2004. Full of enthusiasm and with all the support of the Subway franchise system, the Split store was closed within a year, never to reopen. Indeed a look at the Subway website now shows that there are only two Subways in the whole country, both in Zagreb (and both closed), compared to 9 in Batumi and Tbilisi in Georgia, for example.
If I had a beer for every conversation I had over the years which included a sentence such as What Dalmatia needs/What this place needs… I would be a much richer man.
So much effort and so much frustration bringing the Western mindset and Western business concepts to the relaxing paradise of Dalmatia. Why didn’t they work? It took me a long time to work out why.
Because Dalmatia doesn’t want or need them.
Gradually, over the years, I found my Western enthusiasm became diluted by the Dalmatian way of life, and my business plans became less expansionist and more tailored to the Dalmatian reality. I would smile when listening to foreign investors complaining about how slow things were, and how it was impossible to get things done. As I listened, I realised that Dalmatia had changed me, rather than me changing Dalmatia with my ideas. And that thought was formed into a sentence of valuable business advice I give to anyone coming to Dalmatia looking to do business.
It is a sentence, I explain, that took me 15 years to formulate, but one which explains the essence of life in Dalmatia. If you can understand, embrace and live by the sentence from the first day of arrival, Dalmatia will be the Paradise for you that it really is in reality. If, like me, you think you can impose your own way on Dalmatia, you will either give up in frustration after some time, as many do, or you will come around to the same realisation as me – I just hope it does not take you 15 years. And then you will start to enjoy the true magic of Dalmatia. For it really is one of the most incredible places on the planet.
And the sentence of advice?
Do not try and change Dalmatia, but expect Dalmatia to change you.
Because change you, it will. And only for the better.
You can follow the 20 Ways Croatia Changed Me in 20 Years on the dedicated TCN section.