On the second week of our trip, we went to Croatia. L’affianced had a conference there (oh the lengths he goes to for his profession!), which was the entire reason we went to Europe in the first place. We chose to arrive in this newly independent country a few days before the conference, the better to explore it more thoroughly.

In short, it was not what I expected. I don’t know quite what I had expected, but whatever it was, I didn’t find it. I definitely didn’t find whatever the thousands of other tourists did, either, because they seemed completely content to view Croatia as a very large resort town. Which it was, in a lot of ways, but it also was much more than that.

Having traveled to a few post-Soviet (and still Communist, in the case of Cuba) countries, I am starting to get a feel for how a country looks when it’s recovering from that particular regime. Croatia especially has spent most of its history under the rule of one empire or another, and was of course most recently a part of the former Yugoslavia. I’m not sure that many Americans are aware of the latter fact, nor that Croatia was intimately involved in the war of the early 1990s. I’m not sure that I was aware of it, even, before going there and memorizing our Rough Guide.

So now that we’re back and people ask me, “How was Croatia?,” I know they’re expecting me to say, “Oh it was beautiful, relaxing, picturesque,” etc. You name it. I think they picture a slightly more exotic version of Hawaii. And I do give them that answer, of course, but depending on how well I know the person and how much time we have, I elaborate slightly on my opinion.

Yes, it was beautiful, picturesque, and charming, all of those things. I mean, look at it:

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But it was also full of contradictions, just like many of the other former Soviet countries I’ve been to. Tourism was quite clearly their largest industry along the coast, but we never could figure out exactly how that was feasible. Aside from a few towns we passed through, no large industry or agriculture (apart from grapes) was visible. And yet every restaurant we ate in offered salads with ingredients fresher than you find in Santa Cruz. Where did those bright red tomatoes come from? We never did figure it out.

Similarly, many people spoke English fluently, as a result of the large tourist industry along the coast. However, with that English often came an extremely sullen attitude towards the tourists they served, as if someone was still forcing them to do so. I often felt like apologizing for my very existence, much less for daring to eat at their establishment.

Despite their English skills, we quickly discovered that very often, the words we used in English did not mean the same thing to us as it did to them. Our first clue was this sign, discovered early on the second day of our time there:

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“Underwear manufacturing and camping”??? Surely, those words don’t mean what you think they mean. And from there on out, the main theme of our trip was born.

The best of many examples was our last dinner in Dubrovnik. I had asked about the special salad, decided against it, then changed my mind and informed our waiter that I’d like to change from the turkey salad to the shrimp salad. A few minutes later (service times were also abysmally slow), they brought my fiance his soup, and plunked down in front of me a chopped fruit salad. We looked at each other in wonder, as I had ordered no such thing. However, I ate it, slightly foreboding of what the main course would bring.

We soon discovered that the answer was… nothing. I had no entree. The waiter brought my fiance his grilled fish, deboned it with a flourish, pronounced that we should have a “Bon appetit,” and marched away. Um, hello? I know I’m a skinny American girl, but surely you can’t think that all I’d like to eat for dinner is a fruit salad? But apparently that is exactly what he thought.

We could not stop laughing, because at this point we were already well aware that the words we spoke did not always have the desired effect. All was not lost, as I ate some of the fish and helped myself to the salad bar, but it was a truly classic Croatia moment.

While we joked about this a great deal, to me these misunderstandings summarized Croatia more than anything. On the surface, it is a country fluent in English and the 21st century, with billboards for ten different mobile phone services and a booming tourist trade.

But once you get beneath the surface even a little bit, all is not what it seems. The skeletons of abandoned factories still loom along the coastal road, evidence of an economic downturn that the country has only started to pull out of very recently. Dubrovnik (which I will write about in detail soon) still bears the scars of the shells it endured only fifteen years ago, evidence of an ethnic hatred incomprehensible to the people who walk those walls today. And sometimes, you ask for the shrimp salad and get a fruit one instead.

A country of incongruities, where all is not what it seems. And a whole lot more than a glorified resort town, to this one student of history, anyway.

 

 

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