November the 25th, 2019 – The summer tourist season is long gone. We sold as much of the sea and sun as we possibly could, stripey parasols are safely packed away in garages, and summer seems like it was in a previous life.
A cold wind from Medvednica mountain is pushing the last leaves of autumn along Zagreb’s pavements and people are walking just a tiny bit faster, covering their faces with their coats, attempting to hide their frozen cheeks from the harsh wind. Winter in Zagreb is just around the corner, and so is Zagreb’s Christmas fair. Next to the good old summer, the biggest Croatian tourist event is just about to start and bring the tourists back!
We have few days left of this brief peaceful time between summer and Advent in Zagreb in which the tourists give us a break and some peace so we can deal with our own problems, drop the fake touristic smile and – just be our grumpy old Croatian selves again!
So, I took the oportunity of this quieter time to write a few words – on how it feels to be a tourist in Croatia, but first let, me write a few words on Regal.
What is ”regal” you ask?
When I was a child, every ”decent” socialist household had a living room with a regal. It was usually placed on the living room wall. It was a huge darkwood cabinet which stretched from floor to ceiling filled with crystal glasses and bone china plates, with a glass front. The glass front had two purposes: a) to keep the dust away from the expensive porcelain plates and crystal glasses b) to make our house guests be aware that we’re a nice family who actually has expensive porcelain plates and crystal glasses.
In my house, the regal was treated as a sacred place. The crystal glasses and Grandma’s porcelain plates, delicately placed in the regal were only supposed to be brought out into daylight for one occasion: Kad dođu Gosti / When guests arrive.
”Mama, zašto nikad ne pijemo iz ovih čaša? / Mum, why don’t we ever drink from these glasses? – I’d ask my mum holding one glass while she was carefully cleaning the glassfront of the regal.
”Ne diraj to! To je za goste! / Don’t touch that! That’s for the guests!” mum would say in a dramatic tone of voice and took the crystal glass out of my hand.
Since we did not entertain much and guests were a rare appearance in our household (mum was not very keen on having them over) I pictured these guests like some sort of royality who would appear in front of our house in a carriage with horses. The day the guests would actually arrive, mum would turn into a cleaning dragon, turning the house upside down, giving out orders, dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, polishing and finally when everything was spotless, she would tell my father:
”Dodaj mi one kristalne čaše iz regala! / Get me those crystal glasses from the regal!”
”Koje čaše? / Which glasses?” replied dad, who was cluless about that.
”Pa one za goste, nego koje! / Well, those for the guests! Which ones do you think I mean!” mum would shout back.
”And please move your socks from the sofa, I asked you a million times! And go and put on that shirt I ironed for you!” the dragon, also known as mum, would yell.
Tourism is much like the regal from my childhood. You hide away your socks from the sofa, put on your Sunday shirt, open the regal for the crystal glasses – and the party can start.
And how does the tourist season start in Croatia?
April – the beginning
There is one thing you must know about Croats. We’re born, raised and live our lives believing that Croatia is the most beautiful country in the world. No offence, we know your countries are pretty as well, but facts are facts. God gave us the sea, the sun, the sound of crickets chirping, and beautiful clean beaches – What more can a tourist possibly want for their dream holiday?
The next logical Croatian thought is – we don’t even have to do much about it, we don’t have to bring out the crystal glasses to impress our guests! We’re simply God-sent to be presented to tourists! Every tourist season in Croatia starts in the same way. You are sitting on your sofa watching the evening news with the usual political charades – parliament discussions on whose grandfather said what in World War II, when suddenly red letters appear on your screen.
BREAKING NEWS – followed by dramatic music in the backround and an excited, slightly nervous host saying: ”We’re reporting live from…”
What? What is going on? An earthquake? The prime minister has resigned? An allien invasion? And then they appear on your screen. An older couple from Northern Europe hugging and grinning on Stradun, The main street in Dubrovnik, just blissful with joy and happiness, then they start to tell their story about how they’ve been visiting Croatia for the last 35 years and it’s simply beautiful and the people are beautiful and everything is beautiful. They explain how they never ever want to go anywhere else but Croatia. Ever.
This year I started to suspect that the same couple are shown every year. They’re starting to look kind of familiar to me. Your eyes fill with tears, and you are bursting with national pride.You are proud to be a Croat! So, it is true! We do have the best sea! And we do have the best sun! You just want to embrace and hug all those happy joyful tourists in your home and show them the famous Croatian hospitality! You want to bring out the
best crystal glasses and show them what Croatia is really about!
Untill they actually arrive. In June.
June – the arrival – keep the noise down, we’re trying to live here!
As it usually happens with those long expected guests for whom you cleaned your entire house, once they’re actually there, sipping wine from your best glasses, after an hour or so – you might find them – just a bit annoying.
The same thing happens with the tourists. If you’re nervously standing in a packed tram praying to God the driver catches the green light so you can get to work on time, and a bunch of people with confused faces staring at the facades of buildings jump in front of your tram, you’ll be slightly annoyed with this whole tourism thing!
”Go home, will you! There’s nothing to see here!” You yell through the tram window.
Just this summer, there was an old lady from Dubrovnik complaining on TV about how they simply cannot stand the dreadful noise from the tourists during the season. They are walking around, talking, laughing in the middle of the night, drinking wine, having fun! Ugh, the nerve of those people!
Errrr… well yes, tourists walk around, talk, laugh, breathe, clank the cutlery while dinning and – all in all – they make noise. You can’t exactly turn our touristic slogan into Welcome to Croatia – Please keep the noise down! We are trying to live here!
At this point, I need to say a few words about baba (an affectionate term for grandmother, or older woman).
Tourism with baba
Since Croatia is a Godgiven touristic country, it is only natural that in Croatia, everybody is into tourism. So, you have a wide range of possibilities when visiting Croatia – from superluxurious all-inclusive hotels (if you a have deep pockets) to some less expensive solutions – camping – hostels – apartments… and… baba – standing in a port with a sign saying sobe/rooms in her hands.
The minute you arrive to Hvar port and step off the catamaran, you will spot a dozen babas dressed all in black – holding signs saying ”SOBE” in their hands and yelling at each other.
First you might think that there is some local protest going on, what with all these women holding signs, pushing each other and yelling.
Because ”SOBE” doesn’t mean anything to you. You see, baba doesn’t know any English and she doesn’t care to know it either. If you knew a bit of Croatian, you would realise that ”sobe” is the Croatian word for rooms before they start pulling on your sleeves and shouting: ”Oni su moji! Prva sam ih vidjela! / These are mine, I saw them first!” and pushing other babas (their competition) away from you.
Before you know what has happened, baba will, (through sign language of some sort) explain to you that she has a beautiful room for 200 kuna, just around the corner. The next thing you know – you’re dragging yourself uphill at an angle of 40 degrees up some dusty, narrow, steep island road following baba and looking back at the sea, the beaches and the town centre miles away, fading over the horizon.
It’s noon. It’s hot. You need water. You are half crawling uphill, with the sun burning your back.
”Where is this place?” you yell to baba, who is happily hopping along in front of you, satisfied she caught her prey for this week.
”How… much … longer…?” you gasp to baba with your last breath.
”Tu je, tu je, samo ravno! Ni pola minute! / Oh, its just around the corner! Just half a minute away,” baba reassures you, like she cares that she doesn’t speak English and you don’t speak a word of Croatian.
”Evo, tu smo! / Right, we’re here!” baba says while unlocking the doors of the dusty old bedroom filled with 19th century furniture, papers and old books.
”Moj sin tu drži neke papire, valjda vam neće smetati / My son keeps some paper here, I hope you won’t mind. To će biti 200 kuna / That will be 200 kuna,” she says as she holds out her hand.
You’re so happy that the endless dusty road is over, that the sun is not burning your skin any more and grateful for that glass of water she gave you, so you give your money to baba and lie down on the bed, raising a huge
dust cloud. But, the story is just beginning… You and baba – partners in crime…
You might have noticed that baba didn’t ask for your documents, or even your name. You see, baba doesn’t want to know your name, baba doesn’t want the state to know that you’re staying at her place, because baba does not want to pay taxes.
So, if while staying in baba’s dusty living room, a pile of those old papers drops on your head , it’s your own fault. Baba will never admit to the local tourist board that you’re actually here. She will in fact deny it.
A while ago, I was staying with few of my friends in a little island village with some baba, on the upper floor of her house. She took the money, showed us our room upstairs and went downstairs to mind her own
business. On the first day of our stay there, I wanted to ask where the bus station is. So I went down and knocked on her kitchen window:
”Hello? – This is my first day here, can you please give some information about…”
”Oh, no, Madam, we don’t have rooms for guests!” she replied nervously but firmly, ”I just have some relatives upstairs!”
”Yes, I know, I’m staying in your living room,” I replied confused.
”No, we don’t rent out, I just have a couple of relatives upstairs. My nephews…”
And then it hit me.
For some reason, probably because of my serious face and the reading glasses I was wearing when I knocked on her window, baba thought that I was from the tourist inspection and that some village folks had ratted her out for having illegal guests. After 10 minutes of convincing her that I am indeed living in her living room, I just gave up and became her partner in crime.
Croatia – full of… personal life!
As one of our touristic slogans says – Croatia is full of life. But I’m starting to think some of our tourist workers got that slogan wrong. Let me tell you about the story my good friend experienced this summer. She was visitng the island of Vis with her family. A holiday on a Croatian island is not cheap for a Croatian family. Among other expenses, she decided to pay 500 kuna for a trip with a modern motorboat to the beautiful Blue cave with a
professional tourist guide for an hour and a half.
At least that’s what the advertisment said.
When she got to the little port, she spoted a young barefoot unshaved man with a ponytail. He was dressed in a messy white undershirt and army short pants and had an old JNA motorboat.
”Is this the trip to the Blue cave?” she asked as she approached him.
”Yes, yes, it is,” the unshaved guy mumbled with a cigarette hanging from his mouth.
”Idemo, kasnimo! / Let’s move it! We’re running late!” he yelled to the crowd when starting the rusty engine.
”Excuse me, how long is the trip?” my friend asked.
”An hour and a half, but we can make it in 45 minutes,” the guy yelled over the sound of the old engine and Thompson song blaring from the old CD player.
”And will we be hearing something about the place?”
The guy sighed and threw the cigarette butt to the sea.
”Gospođo, what is there to say? Enjoy the sun and the sea!”
Apparently the professional tourist guide didn’t have too much to say about the Blue cave itself, but one hour and one pack of cigarettes later people did hear a lot about how life on the island is difficult, how toursits are rude and ungrateful and how none of this is worth the money he gets and how next summer he will just f… this whole thing off and go and work with his cousin in Germany.
Tourism is very important in Croatia, you see, until it interferes with your personal life.
So, don’t be surprised if you’re ever riding in a tourist taxi boat on the island of Hvar and the driver suddenly turns away from his route because at 14:15 he has to collect his neigbour who is going to work. Or if the receptionist gives you the full report on how he isn’t feeling too good because his cat had surgery on Tuesday, and his old aunt just slipped and broke her leg so he has to go to the hospital after work.
The customer is always right… Or is he?
The first tourism rule is: The customer is always right. Hm. Until you visit a small family hotel on the Croatian coast, where my aunt and uncle go every year.
The place is run by a guy named Marinko, also known as Buco, his wife Biserka and their son Šime. Now, Buco is busy all day behind the bar or in the kitchen. Šime is busy chasing foreign girls on the riva and Biserka is in charge of everything else. One early and warm August morning, my aunt and uncle were enjoying a nice breakfast on the hotel terrace while Biserka was circling around tables like a seagull, serving guests with a white cloth on her shoulder, smiling gently and chatting with the crowd.
Suddenly, a black Alfa Romeo rushes into a parking infront of the terrace in an attempt to park.
”Hey, you can’t park here!” Biserka yells across the terrace – waving her white cloth to the Italian who stepped out of the car. The italian guy shrugs his shoulders in a ”I don’t understand you” manner.
”You CAN’T PARK HERE! It’s private parking! Hotel guests only!” Biserka is now screaming across the tables – waving with the cloth. The Italian guy exits the car waving his hands, still in the ”I don’t understand!” mode.
”Nema parkiranja! No parking!” Buco got involved – yelling from behind the bar. ”Nicht parkplatz! Nema parchieggo!”
You could see that Biserka was getting very upset.
”Jeste gluhi? / Are you deaf? Nema parkiranja!”
She made a move towards Italian, but then she spoted all the eyes of her guests on her and remembered the ”customer is always right” rule. She threw the cloth at his direction and yelled ”Ma idi u…. p….m, park wherever you want! / Oh, go f… yourself! park wherever you want!”
Like I pointed out earlier, we have a wide range of touristic possibilities in Croatia.
If you want to stay in a luxury hotel – fine. If you want to camp under the stars – we have it. If you want to stay illegally in baba’s living room – also good. But, when you think about it, all the tourists of the world can be divided in two large groups:
a) tourists who want to be animated:
If you want to be entertained by jumping around the swimming pool while a guy in a clown suit is doing zumba – we have that in Croatia, no problem. But, also, we have a very nice programme for group b) tourists who want to be left alone in the peace and quiet.
If you want to enjoy some peace and quiet with a beer in one hand and good book in another, well, then you’re my kind of tourist.You can join me for a holiday any time. You can usually find me sitting on a deck chair in the shade, drinking beer and staring at the sea.
I’m a very nice tourist actually.
I don’t make any noise. I don’t need to be animated. I’m staying with baba, so I’m no problem to the tax office. I walk on my tip-toes. I never read my book out loud. I don’t clank with the clutlery too loudly. So, if you happen to see me on a lonely beach somewhere with my book and a beer, under a huge summer hat, just keep one thing im mind… Please, please don’t entertain me!
Just keep the beer cold and the conversation to a minimum, and keep those animated zumba clowns away, please, I have some staring at the sea and blue sky to attend to.