The joys of expressing an opinion as a foreigner, or why Croatia will never change. Is a foreigner allowed to have an opinion in Croatia?
I was chatting to a fairly senior Croatian diplomat recently about Croatia, the Croatian mentality, the ineptitude of this government (I may as well say it publicly, as their men in dark suits and expensive surveillance equipment were listening to every word at the Liberland conference I attended in a village north of Osijek this weekend – Evelyn Waugh, where are you when we need you to satirise A Weekend in Alice in LiberWonderLand), and the diplomat said something that really made me smile:
“We are a half-retarded nation surrounded by beautiful nature.”
It was a comment I shared with perhaps 20 Croatian friends, and none of them disagreed, with several laughing wryly at what they saw as the sad truth of the statement, but my smile had nothing to do with the statement itself, more with the reaction that would have been evoked if I had stated the words as my own.
The opinion of a foreigner…
As an aspiring blogger, I was extremely sensitive about any comments from the general public when I started the Total Project 4.5 years ago. Every comment was analysed, and even the mildest criticism would have me contemplating, making me extra careful for the future. I was on reasonably safe ground, however, as I was writing positive promotional stuff for Croatia’s premier island, articles which were getting international attention, and which even inspired a couple from Mexico City to move to Jelsa (and they are still here in Croatia, more than three years later). But even when you are positive as a foreigner, the criticism is not far behind. My all-time favourite:
“It is not right or fair that a foreigner has the best website about Hvar.” Excuse me for breathing.
It did not take me long to realise that the occasional criticism when you were being positive could turn to an avalanche if you dared to say anything negative. It is one of my fascinations with Croats in general, much as I love them. When the system or an issue really sucks, it will appear in the newspapers, outrage will be expressed online and in cafes, and nothing will change. But if that issue is aired in the English language, thereby widening the publicity and with a greater chance of effecting that change, well – the shame! Foreigners might hear there are problems. Never mind that there might be change, or a greater awareness of the issue – by expressing an opinion as a foreigner, all the problems of the issue are heaped upon the person without Croatian blood.
It used to bother me, but now I found it both amusing and constructive as, for every 100 comments of hatred from trolls with erectile dysfunction, there is one email – actually more each time – of support from people who are tired of pretending all one has to do to love life is wrap oneself in the flag and relive the good old days. Those one, two or increasingly more emails have given me renewed hope for this country, as I am finding that there are enough committed people to make a change.
To get to that small minority however, you have to go through the wall of hate, and listen to the majority who deny you the right to an opinion. While privately many will agree with you about the ineffectiveness of certain officials, or about the lack of information, should you dare to write about something like bus timetables in Jelsa, the vilification begins, and friends who agreed with everything you said a week before in private, now unfriend you on Facebook, look the other way on the street, and join the online campaign to discredit the foreigner who dared to say something negative about a local. A closing of ranks, and if things are so bad here, why don’t you just fuck off back to England?
The fact is I DO like it here, for all its faults, and I would not have invested so much time promoting Croatia internationally if I did not. I also think I have a right to an opinion, and I do find it amusing the way any criticism of anything Croatian is automatically redirected against the opinion maker, rather than admit that he might have a point. While people can spend the entire day complaining about what is wrong with Croatia, should a foreigner dare to express the same opinion, he is ostracised. It is one of the reasons why Croatia will never change, for its people are unwilling (or incapable, I am really not sure which) of taking on board constructive criticism.
The reaction to my last editorial on the discovery of the uhljeb left me genuinely surprised. The first surprise was how widely the article was read. I have travelled all over Croatia these last couple of weeks and met lots of new people, and nearly all of them had read the article. Unless they were an uhljeb, I didn’t meet anyone who disagreed with a single word, but of course behind the curtain of online anonymity, what right did this British idiot have to criticise us – he should look at his own country (that deflecting the problem somewhere else again).
It is not just me. While almost everyone I know complains about the economic situation and Croatia’s poor performance, when an establishment like the EU points out a couple of things, they should be checking Bulgaria and Romania instead (our old friend, deflection again). A constuctive criticism of Croatia is always seen as an attack on Croatia, and as such encounters resistance and zero change.
I had perhaps my most uplifting meeting of the year last week in Split. It helped perhaps that there was beer and my four companions were engaging and attractive young ladies, but what really inspired me was that here were four women from Hvar, Korcula and Solta who were motivated by the desire to bring positive change for their communities, and they have started a great initiative to bring together the positive energy of the islands into one place online in Croatian. I was more than happy to agree (and felt privileged to be invited) to join their project, and Total Croatia Islands will start later this year. Thank you for an amazing evening, ladies, if you are reading.
“But Paul, can I ask you about those articles you wrote about the new Hvar brochure. There are a lot of people in Hvar Town who are really pissed off with you.”
Ah, the brochure. Island of Hvar – Genuine Hedonism.
“I really don’t understand, none of us do. Hedonism is about good food, good wine, indulgence. Why did you complain so much?”
It was a question that was asked in the Facebook comments when the foreigner expressed an opinion, before telling him to fuck off back to the UK. The thing is, I explained to the lovely lady opposite, I know exactly what you are trying to say, and what hedonism means in Croatian (I lived next door to Andro Tomic), but in English it means something a little different, and to prove my point, I entered the word ‘hedonism’ into Google Images, which is where I found the lead photo above. Don’t try this at work unless you are not easily offended by lots of naked flesh in strange position – a wonderful promotion of Hvar.
“Oh my God, now I completely understand,” said my new, energetic friend.
But how many others will, and will the brochure be distributed and cause more damage than the cost (and two years) of production? Of course it will, for the opinion of a foreigner is to be discarded, for what does he know, he is not from here. Of course I am not from here, and this is another thing which amuses me. Two of the most vocal groups in my experience are the Croat who has never travelled but has the most informed world view, and the son of the diaspora who has grown up abroad on stories of Croatia from older generations, spiced up with a month holiday in the summer each year. What could a foreigner, who has visited more than 90 countries and lived in 10 (including 13 years full time in Croatia) know about Croatia, the world or anything else?
Reading through this, I wonder if I come across as bitter. I really am not, and I can honestly say that I have never felt more energised or motivated in my 13 years here. One has to wade through the trolls with erectile dysfunction to find the quality people here, but I am finding it easier to meet those people, and once we make of a success of Total Croatia Cycling, Total Croatia Wine, Total Croatia Technology and Total Croatia Islands, I am sure the ratio of trolls to quality people will become more even, and I look forward to that VERY much.
In the meantime, I will continue to express my opinion – that is, of course, if a foreigner is allowed to.