The conversation with my Uber driver took a familiar turn once he detected my American accent. I was on my way to the inauguration of Zoran Milanović, the fifth president of Croatia. It was my first presidential inauguration.
Of course, he wanted to know what I thought about living in Croatia and my answer was typically positive. But, it’s too bad so many people are leaving. He had traveled the world in his former profession, and assured me that new people, immigrants, would take their place and the country would be even better because of it. Croatia could benefit from some diversity, he suggested.
Uber Driver: Someday Croatia Will Be Like Poland
We agreed that, perhaps, one day Croatia would be more like Poland. In the years following their entry into the EU, hundreds of thousands of Poles left their homeland for more financially rewarding jobs in Western Europe. In the meantime, the Polish economy has strengthened, and people are coming back.
I had applied in advance to attend the event at Pantovčak, the home of the Croatian president. The driver dropped me off at the bottom of a gated sloped lot manned by imposing Croatian servicemen in camouflage uniforms and red berets. One kindly directed me to stand under the eave so as not to get wet, as there was a light drizzle, while they verified my name on the attendance list. Within minutes, I had boarded a blue van with three other journalists which drove us down a winding road into a wooded gulley.
Security check line at the entrance of Pantovčak, the Croatian presidential home.
There were about 30 military band members and press waiting at the entrance to pass through security, which went rather quickly, much like the pre-check line at a US airport. Then we proceeded up a few flights of outdoor stairs to another heavily windowed thick modern building. Several TV journalists were set up in the first room, which featured a dramatic curved staircase. The second room, where the inauguration would take place, had a few dozen chairs. Clearly, we could not all fit into that room. I followed the line of journalists into a third room, with several large round tables and long table where reporters had staked out space for laptops.
Go to Pantovčak, Watch Live Inauguration on TV Monitors
There were two TV monitors. Those were for us, I concluded disappointedly, and wondered why I was even there. I’d have had better views watching TV from home. There were a few familiar faces: a reporter for a left-leaning portal wore a dashing suit with a silk patterned neck scarf which puffed out of his unbuttoned shirt, resembling a Southern Italian tycoon. And I didn’t realize that one correspondent from a popular news channel was so incredibly tall.
Paul Bradbury, Total Croatia News Editor-in-Chief and my boss, arrived separately, and texted that he had made the 11:00 deadline to get in. Whew. Shortly thereafter, the security officer alerted us that the door to our room would be closed until the end of the event. There were a couple of trays of Turkish coffee in cups with a pitcher of milk and packets of sugar. Those went fast. There were no bathrooms.
Paul getting shots of the inauguration room. That’s as close as we could get.
Once Paul arrived, we headed outside to take pictures of the virtually empty terrace in the drizzle. There was a raised platform for selected TV networks, which provided a direct view of the inauguration room, through the floor to ceiling windows. That overlooked an L-shaped red carpet covered by clear plastic. To the left of the platform was a canopy for the small band to play. For whom, I wondered as I scanned the empty wet cement.
Respect for Space and Photo Views Among Journalists
Audis began pulling up alongside the vast cement terrace, and word passed around that soon-to-be former President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović was in one of them. I was pleasantly surprised at how respectful fellow journalists were of everyone’s space. I lost count of the number of times my counterparts turned around to confirm that they were not blocking my view…me with my Android. And it seemed that once I had staked out a place to take pictures, that place was mine. A photographer alerted me to move aside temporarily for a TV reporter. Once she was finished, I returned to my spot upon his encouragement. No elbowing. No clamoring. How civil.
Kolinda Grabar Kitarović entering Pantovčak for the last time as president.
Kolinda, who lost her bid for a second term, arrived looking solemn and resolved. She paused to pay respect to the troops and followed the soaked red L-carpet in spiked heels into the small enclosed ceremony space. Five years ago, by contrast, her inauguration was a major affair held in St. Mark’s Square open to the public and attended by foreign dignitaries.
The security guard herded us back inside to the press room, where we watched the rest of the brief ceremony on two monitors. I had briefed Paul about Josipa Lisac, and had been surprised to find out that she would be performing at Milanović’s swearing in – especially since he had revealed in a Nova TV debate that he was a fan of New Wave music from the early 80s.
Croatian Gay Icon Delivers Curious Rendition of National Anthem
Lisac’s presence and vocals are difficult to characterize. She turned 70 on Valentine’s Day. Since catapulting into her 40s, she has become as well-known for pushing the limits of fashion and her gravity-defying geometric fire-orange hair sculptures, as she is for her “unique” voice. She’s considered an icon in the Croatian gay male community, with one young reporter excitedly revealing in a recent interview that he aimed to impersonate his favorite diva.
Josipa Lisac in concert | Facebook
However, paying homage to Lisac would be a formidable, if not impossible, task. Most gay icons, like Cher or Liza Minnelli, leave drag queens a little material work with. Lisac, by contrast, seems committed to preemptively outdoing her prospective imitators. There simply aren’t many mannerisms or wild outfits left to accent or exaggerate.
Watching reactions to Lisac’s rendition of the national anthem on the TV monitor.
While loyal followers might identify with her emotive vocal gymnastics, some critics are inclined to compare her singing to a cross between Cher…and a hound, among other beings. She opened the intimate affair by performing the Croatian national anthem, and while I should have been paying respect to the land of my ancestors, I found myself marveling at Lisac’s unusual delivery and rubbery facial contortions on the TV monitor. And did anyone else see the new president close his eyes during this…rendition? Paul, in typical English fashion, is somewhat restrained in his visible reactions. But even his eyes widened through that molasses-paced otherworldly performance.
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Perhaps dazed by his chosen guest’s abstract interpretation of the national hymn, the new president seemed momentarily confused about his next move. Was there something in the brown wooden box? Wait, no. After being prompted, he headed over to another table to sign a very official-looking document. His brief speech touched on familiar campaign themes: anti-corruption, quality education for all, cooperation with neighbor states, the wars are over and minority rights.
A signature makes it official. | Sanja Musić Milanović and Zoran Milanović
“Our republic needs every person and every person in Croatia must be given a chance to find their way and their place, to live in dignity from decent work. This is a home to us all, to us who live here and to the generations to come, as well as to those who are yet to return,” Milanović concluded.
As we left the press room for the entry, the band played “Tvoja zemlja” (Your Country), a song which, more than any other (in my opinion), epitomizes the Croatia of yesterday and today. Admittedly, it’s the one Croatian standard that always leaves me a little misty-eyed.
“Here you will always find a home,
A heart that beats for you,
Arms that guide you,
A mother that understands you,
You will know everything you need to know.
You will know the pain of crying
When your country suffers;
But above it all
You’ll surely realize
how much this land means to you.
This is your country, here you build a home,
Here is an old foundation, here beneath your ruins.
Foreigners and storms have ripped her apart,
But she’s still here as long as we’re here.
You’ll be blessed just like us.
A king who knows no crown,
But within his soul
Like everyone among us
You’ll be as glorious as we are.”
‘No photos past the first stair!’
The security guard corralled us through a narrow, roped corridor to the left of the curved grand staircase. Then she announced that no photos were allowed after the former and new president ascended the first stair of the long winding staircase. Everyone protested, but the cameras stopped the second the former president and her victor reached the second step. Limited photo ops ensued as other prominent figures exited the small gathering.
A small cluster of us remained reined in by a blue velvet rope. After some confusion, the security guard released us and we headed back through the entrance, where we awaited more photo ops of politicians getting into cars.
“Are you satisfied (with your performance)?” One reporter called out to Josipa Lisac as she unassumingly entered her ride. She declined to comment.
Paul looked at his phone. It was 12:53. The entire affair had lasted less than an hour. He grabbed some prime footage of Milanović and Kolinda hugging and exiting together. Then, we slowly made our way through the expansive hilly wooded grounds to the gated entrance.
Paul at the entrance of Pantovčak, the home of the Croatian president.
According to reports, the cost of Milanović’s inauguration was one-sixth of that of his predecessor’s. For those enchanted by pomp and circumstance, it was likely a disappointment. But, like most inaugurations, it will soon be forgotten and surpassed by what the president, within the limited scope of his office, can do for the country.