From ally to enemy: Slovenia (2)

The dispute between Croatia and Slovenia over the Bay of Piran is not been solved yet. On the contrary, the relationship between the former Yugoslav republics worsens by the day. About a month ago Slovenia blocked Croatia's advancement towards EU-membership and Slovenia hasn't budged yet. Slovenian prime minister Borut Pahor said yesterday that his country will not yield to pressure from Zagreb or Brussels.
Croatian president Mesić responded in a way that is not untypical for him. He said that if there had not been Croatian partisans the Slovenes would be looking at the sea from a twenty kilometer distance, referring to the fact that Croatian partisans liberated Istria and the Slovenian coast. Out of 60.000 soldiers of the Fourth Yugoslav Army, almost 40.000 were Croats.
Slovenian politicians were, of course, not amused with Mesić's remark. "Scandalous", is the general political opinion. One historian said that it is regrettable that Mesić destroyed the Slovenian and Croatian brotherhood that existed during the war.
That brotherhood is long gone. Almost half of the Slovenes would now vote against Croatian EU-membership in a referendum. Slovenia threatens to organize a referendum if the border issue is not resolved to its satisfaction.
The satirical show Laku noć, Hrvatska (Good night, Croatia) mocked Mesić and the partisans in one of its sketches. We see how Mesić finds a strategy to kill Italians after Tito's complaint that the partisans didn't shoot a single Italian yet. If I heard it well, Mesić says that Italians are as naive as Albanians, using the derogatory term "Shiptar" but then changes the word into "šiperica" - a flapper. But I am not quite sure about that, so help from a native speaker is appreciated.

Croatian literature in Leipzig

Croatia was the guest country of last year's Leipziger Buchmesse, the biggest German book fair after the Frankfurter Buchmesse. A great opportunity to present Croatian literature to the (German speaking) world, one would say. The weekly Stern remarked that Croatia is a literary terra incognita for Germans: "No wonder," explained Stern, "as Croatian is a very young national language."
Croatia, however, blew it. Right before the fair a split occurred in the Croatian Writers Society. Members and a breakaway group of writers accused each other of "sabotage", "questionable morale" and the like. In addition, a journalist of Jutarnji list reported how Croatia's performance at the fair was pregnant with amateurism.
Fortunately, Croatia will get a second change as the Leipziger Buchmesse 2009 features the Balkans (and China). Oliver Zille, the fair's director, expressed his satisfaction with forty translated Croatian titles so far. He wants to exploit this "Swung" to the benefit other ex-Yugoslav republics, like Bosnia and Macedonia, that make their debut in Leipzig this year.
A Croatian author who has successfully entered the German market is Edo Popović. The paper Die Zeit interviewed Popović (in German) about his new novel Kalda. Popović was one of the main actors in the row within the Croatian Writers Society, but obviously not to his detriment.
Member of this year's representation in Leipzig will be Robert Perišić. With 1904 sold copies of his Naš čovjek na terenu in 2008 Perišić is by far the number one best selling Croatian author. Naš čovjek na terenu (meaning something like "Our man on the scene") offers us, according to the reviews, a cross-section of modern Croatian society. Something like Croatian Crescent, so to say. I'll let you know when this weblog has welcomed its 1905th visitor.

A street for strangers

The Bishop's palace that encircles the cathedral of Zagreb is an interesting sight. Build in the 15th century, it not only provided the clergy with accommodation, but was also designed to keep the Turks out. Therefore, the palace resembles a fortress.
We can only guess how the interior looks like, as the premises are firmly closed to visitors. A shame, if you ask me, but not uncommon in Zagreb. Other cities would gladly share their beauty with tourists (and charge them for it, of course) but Zagreb prefers to keep them out. Tourists are considered the Turks of the 21st century. Not surprising that Zagreb was chosen as one of Europe's most boring destinations.
A little street runs along the base of the low hill on which the cathedral stands, called Vlaška ulica. The adjective "vlaška" comes from the noun "Vlah", the name used for descendants of Roman colonists in the Balkans. As Romanians are the only Balkan people that speak a Roman language, the word Vlach became associated with Romanians, and especially with Romanians living outside of Romania.
In Croatian, however, the them Vlah was used for foreigners in general, and Italians in particular. Foreigners in Zagreb lived mostly at the foot of the Bishop's palace, just outside of the walls. That is how Vlaška ulica got it's name. It is a street for strangers.
Vlaška is one of Zagreb's oldest streets. The small houses look humble but cute next to the thick towers of the palace and the spires of the cathedral. Precisely this part of the street is in a terrible condition. The houses have been deserted, the doors and windows barricaded, the walls are crumbling. The foreigners are long gone. Zagreb's history is falling apart.

James Joyce in Siberia

Ireland, Croatia and literature figured in the previous post. Inevitably, James Joyce sprang to mind. When I walked around in Pula, I saw a wall plaque close to a Roman arch. It commemorates the fact that from October 1904 to early 1905 Joyce taught English to Austro-Hungarian naval officers in Pula. Joyce had wanted to go to Trieste or Zürich, but the Berlitz language school he worked for stationed him in Pula.
He seems to have disliked Pula and was burning with desire to go to Italy, or Trieste to be more precise. Joyce writes in a letter to his aunt Josephina Murray: "I am trying to move on to Italy as soon as possible as I hate this Catholic country with its hundred races and thousand languages (..). Pola is a back-of-God-speed place - a naval Siberia (..) Istria is a long boring place wedged into the Adriatic peopled by ignorant Slavs who wear little red caps and colossal breeches." (Quoted in a book with the amazing title Sentimente, Gefühle, Empfindungen: Zur Geschichte und Literatur des affektiven von 1770 bis heute.)
If Joyce had not gone to Italy, Italy would have come to him as Italy colonized Istria after World War I. Apart from that, I don't quite understand what drew him to Trieste. First of all, it was not until after the First World War that Trieste belonged to Italy. Trieste, just as Pula, belonged for centuries to the Austro-Hungarian empire. Second, if I were a writer, longing to work in Italy, I'm sure a could find a more inspiring town than Trieste. Not that I hate the place, but it's not quite like Florence or Venice. And if it was melancholy Joyce was looking for, why didn't he simply move to Zagreb?
Whatever made Joyce dislike Istria, the Croatian peninsula is hugely popular with tourists. Not without reason. The best compliment is maybe a complaint of an Italian friend of mine: "I don't like Istria. It reminds me too much of Italy."

Literary life and death in Croatia

With 4,5 million inhabitants Croatia is a small market. And it is getting smaller. Over the last few years, Croatia has witnessed an annual natural increase of about -10.000 (minus ten thousand). That's a quarter of Dubrovnik's population. If nothings changes, the Slovenes will outnumber the Croats in the future.
The Croatian population is now about the size of Ireland's. That is probably they only thing the two countries have in common. Ireland is booming, dynamic, thriving. Croatia, on the other hand, is slowly dying. Recent research shows Croats are among the most pessimistic peoples in the world. One out of four well educated young people leaves the country. The Croatian economy takes a bottom spot in European competitiveness and liberty. People take loans to go skiing and use credit cards for daily shopping. Croatia's internal and external debt is staggeringly high. How long can this go on? All ingredients for a major crisis seems present, yet not much has happened. It's a miracle. It's got to go wrong one day.
I got into this pessimistic mood when I saw the (domestic) bestsellers top-20 in Jutarnji list. The bestselling book of 2008, Naš čovjek na terenu, written by Robert Perišić, sold 1904 copies. Only ten books broke the magic number of 1000 copies. Not more than 484 buyers were needed to make Drago Britvić the 20th best selling domestic author of Croatia.
Is it safe to say that the Croatian literary scene is dead? Even a world famous Croatian author as Slavenka Drakulić sold no more than 1601 copies of her Frida ili o boli (translated as Frida's bed) which won her the second place on the ranking. I wonder if the situation in other ex-Yugoslav republics is better or worse.
Foreign non-fiction is much more popular. The best sold book (20203 copies) is Rhonda Byrne's The Secret. As The Secret is new to me, I quote from Wikipedia: "The Secret is a book that presents what is claimed to be a centuries-old technique of the Law of Attraction, which in essence is the power of an individual's positive thinking to change and influence outcomes in their lives. The book claims that by using the "Laws of Attraction", an individual can become wealthier, healthier, and happier. The "Laws of Attraction" are the "secret" that the title of the book suggests to the reader. The book claims that the secrets outlined in the book have been known by famous and influential people for centuries, but that they have conspired to keep these secrets hidden from the general public for their own benefit."
Unbelievable that such crap sells better than the combined top-20 of literary authors in this country. I suddenly understand why Slavenka Drakulić and Dubravka Ugrešić live abroad.

Exit gas, enter bananas

Many Balkan countries are in trouble after Russia cut the gas supply to Ukraine. I saw reports from Sarajevo, Serbia, Bulgaria - places colder than Croatia and without gas. The premier of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nedžad Branković, has sent a letter to Gazprom, saying that the current situation in Sarajevo reminds of the war period 1992-1995. He strongly urged Gazprom to resume the supply of gas.
Tonight the temperature in Zagreb could go as low as -11 degrees. I was surprised (and happy) to learn that the situation in Croatia is much less alarming than in Serbia or Bosnia. Croatia has gas reserves that can keep us warm for three weeks, i.e. the 600.000 households that depend on gas.
Currently, Croatia imports forty percent of its gas, I learned from the website of Plinacro, the company that deals with gas affairs. By 2030 that figure will have rises to 87 percent. I guess that means Croatia's gas reserves are almost depleted.
If the Russians don't give in soon, we will be "u banani". Being "in bananas" is a Croatian expression for being in trouble. I hadn't heard that expression in years, but since the financial crisis started to be felt in Croatia I hear it everywhere. Am I right that it is now used so much more than before? And can somebody tell me where this expression comes from?

From the Balkans to Bavaria, and back

"I realized again that I would never understand the German people. The misery of these travellers was purely amazing. It was perplexing that they should have been surprised by the lateness of the train. The journey from Berlin to Zagreb is something like thirty hours, and no sensible person would expect a minor train to be on time on such a route in winter, particularly as a great part of it runs through the mountains."
Thus wrote Rebecca West in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a few years before the Second World War, when she traveled from Germany to Yugoslavia by train. I had to think of her as I traveled myself from Zagreb to Munich and back. A single trip takes nine hours. I doubt that's faster than in her time. The mountains are still there, some border controls disappeared, others reappeared, communism has reduced public transportation to a deplorable state, and from Villach to Zagreb even a dackshund could keep up with the speed of the train. It seems not to matter how you come to Croatia. By bus, train or car; Slovenes always manage to slow you down. Very annoying, especially when your head is being blown apart by a fever, as mine was.
The train was on time though, and unlike West's German fellow travelers, I don't get upset about some delay. If you can't deal with delays, don't go east.
When I bought the handwritten ticket (649 kuna for a round trip) from a woman with an almost visible but very common dislike of customers, I was "advised" to reserve a seat. Thank God I didn't. All reserved seats were in the old passenger cars with defective heatings. We could see our own breath. The brand new car (manufactured in Croatia, I should add), however, didn't have a single reserved seat and were comfortably warm. When I went to Sofia last year, I spent 17 hours in a passenger car without heating, so I have had my share of cold. The only source a warmth back then was the ouzo we got from a nice Macedonian lady who shared the compartment with us.
In Munich I bought many things that are unavailable or overpriced in Croatia: foodstuff, quality newspapers, good beers. I ate what you can't eat here: Vietnamese, Indian, Arabic. I visited things that don't exist here: palaces, lavishly decorated churches, beer halls, outstanding museums.
If you are wondering whether there is actually a good reason to go back to Croatia, I must say there are. Croats don't dub movies. And the girls are so much prettier here.

Balkan in Beeld verder als Croatian Crescent

Waarde lezers,
De schaarse regelmatige bezoekers van dit weblog zullen hebben gemerkt dat ik de laatste maanden weinig heb gepost. Opvallend genoeg blijft het aantal bezoekers constant. Dat wil zeggen: een handjevol per dag. Enerzijds is het verheugend om te merken dat sommige berichten nog gelezen worden, anderzijds is het teleurstellend dat het nauwelijks uitmaakt of ik veel of weinig schrijf.
Daarom heb ik besloten de Engelstalige markt aan te boren, wat nog niet zo eenvoudig is. De concurrentie is moordend.
Niet dus. Blogs met nieuws over nieuwe veerdiensten, de zoveelste overwinning van de Kroatische gastronomie, de fantastische wijnen die hier gemaakt worden maar om onverklaarbare redenen buiten Kroatië volslagen onbekend zijn, zulke weblogs zijn er genoeg. Daar hoor je mij dus niet over.
Op Croatian Crescent probeer ik van tijd tot tijd goed en slecht nieuws uit Kroatië te brengen. Ik vraag begrip voor mijn onvolmaakte Engels. Ik behoor niet tot de categorie mensen die meent dat ze het in Engels toch net iets puntiger en geestiger formuleren dan in het Nederlands, integendeel. Het is een noodgreep (bij wijze van spreken dan), meer niet.