The Dalmatian Coast is unique, at least as a crossroads of Europe, The Balkans, and the Mediterranean Sea. It has long been abuzz with marine activity, and recently acting as fly paper for some European tourist groups, namely Germans, Slovenians and Austrians. Each summer it grows in popularity, even for the wary Anglophone, but it would be a mistake to expect translated restaurant menus to bump English to the top of their preferred languages. I like these kinds of places.
Croatia (Hrvatska) is also an interesting locale that embodies the predictable conflicts of an emerging tourism hotspot. It is an ancient place with castles and walls built in the Middle Ages, and a seemingly austere, yet proud, citizenry. The cuisine, especially on the coast, is a worthy projection of their habit of enjoying the good things in life; it is some of the best of the Mediterranean diet–octopus, grilled whole fish, shellfish, tuna, spicy olive oil, tomatoes and garlic, and great wine–often influenced by the Italians. And then there seems to be a reluctance to discuss, on a whim, the land mine signs occasionally seen around the islands, or the bullet holes in buildings only casually mentioned on walking tours. Especially in the small towns and villages along the Dalmatian coast, there is a pervasive guarding of traditional ways of life, but at the same time an often reckless and seemingly over-eager response to the invasion of western capitalism. Here the newly born amateur capitalist finds himself learning the ways of opportunism, negotiating the humility of traditional life and the (assumed) bulging pockets of the encroaching yachting community. Small dinghies may buzz out to your boat, if you should be so lucky to have a boat anchored in a tranquil bay, and announce a “mooring fee”, the wrinkled old man having declared himself the de facto owner of the surrounding water and the seafloor beneath it. You may find yourself paying 70 euros for a freshly caught fish. There may be a marina docking fee of 25 euros on one night and free the next. And in your protest you may find merely a grimacing, apathetic face, and not a submissive customer servant.
Cruising around in a yacht, or better yet in a group of ten brand new sailing yachts filled with English and German tourists (who haven’t bothered to learn ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’ in the local language) may not be the best vehicle on which to embark on anthropological research of any region, much less one with astounding depth of history and culture represented by people who may be surprisingly aloof, especially if you’ve just gotten off the ferry from Italy. But it’s a start. There are few scenarios that embody a more exaggerated contrast of social ideologies, between rich and poor, old world and new, east and west, than a 40-foot Beneteau sailboat gliding into a 300-year-old fishing harbor. Things are bound to happen. And for me, things did happen.
As I so often find in travel, the most revealing and rewarding moments are found around a small table, with some local drink at hand, a spread of traditional food, and with the relaxed ranting and free conversation of a local whose defenses have been at least slightly eroded by the effects of genuine friendliness and interest, and maybe a little alcohol.
A sidenote: A tourist may occasionally feel like a genuine traveller, a participant in the world, when he can simply think of questions to ask the local. In Croatia, your inquiries better be at least partially informed, more than vague references that stem from filtered reports about a war, scandal, or economic disaster. Croatia has endured all these, some very recently, and it would be wise to read up on exactly who was doing what here in the 90’s, and to curtail the use of buzzwords like genocide, Yugoslavia, war criminal, ethnic cleansing and The Communists. If you go, keep your ethnocentrism in check, and let your cultural inquisitiveness run rampant.