he sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. • Samuel Beckett, Irish novelist, short story writer, and playwright
Birds don’t sing in Croatia. I know you’ll tell me they do, they must. And I’d have to agree with you, birds sing. I saw birds in the forest where I lived, mostly sparrows and a bird no one can tell me the name of, small, smooth, with a greenish-yellow jacket, black hat, and white eye band, like a good bandit. Still, I lived three months in Croatia and neither that bird nor any other did I hear sing.
Their silence suits the Croatia I came to know.
In the capital city Zagreb, on the rail station platform, I was approached by an old and broken man — his description, not mine. Salt and pepper hair, with a lined face and crooked mouth, he limped, and his neck craned forward. His English was better than my Croatian — that is to say, it existed. He peered with dull, squinting eyes at my printed rail ticket and announced that he had never heard of the village Reka, my destination. This unfamiliarity, too, is Croatia.
It is a young country, some parts more or less unknown. It was formed in 1989 from the detritus of the collapsed Soviet Empire and shards of the Balkans.
Then the wars began. Those around for President Bill Clinton will remember the Bosnian genocide and America’s role trying to stop it. In 1990, Serbia felt slighted with its division of property and attacked Croatia, starting the five-year Serbo-Croatian war. (Croatia “won.”) My acquaintance at the train station, like so many here, was a victim of that conflict. He was in his thirties, working as an actor in the theater, when war broke out. He was drafted. Serbs beat him nearly to death. Croatians say that Serbs did “worse things than Germany during World War II.” Then they shake their heads. “What else is new?”
As the train creaked its way along, through fall crops of corn, orange with age, and black forests of nut trees, my temporary companion explained that Croatia had more than enough farmland to feed its people, yet the country exported food. Therefore, it had to import food and the grocery basket was expensive. “Someone’s getting rich,” he mumbled, “as usual.”
The town nearest Reka is Koprivnica. The 20,000 people living there are pleased when you keep the designations straight. Informing a friend that you’re heading into town gets you corrected immediately. “You mean the village?” as if the titles held power or a lack of it, a territorial dispute fought with the armaments of words.
I’d visited the Croatian coast a few years ago, Split and Dubrovnik, where they filmed “Game of Thrones.” Those tourist towns sit before glistening beaches, the carved Adriatic coast dotted with islands, reminding visitors more of Amalfi in Italy than the Balkans. But on this trip, I went to the heart of Croatia, and there it beats to a different rhythm.
My tiny house was two rooms heated by an overwhelmingly insufficient wood stove. The incessant freezing rains anticipated winter’s arrival. Evenings, I stood near a bubble of heat the size of a beach ball and stomped my feet. I was no worse than my neighbors. Few have central heating, and houses in the forested hills and mountains are small. Each morning the smoky air races through brown grassy channels carved between stands of trees, wood fires everywhere, mist forming shadows that trick the eye into thinking specters have invaded.
The one “café and bistro” in Reka is called Best, and sells more drinks than coffee every hour of the day. In Croatia, smoking is legal indoors, and at black round tables the size of manhole covers one or two people sat, more men than women, drinking beer and smoking. The air inside matched the acrid scent outside, burning, sticking to the back of the throat. Talk was always low, private, as if the surveillance state which ruled this land for decades still operated in machines behind walls, ready to traduce someone, anyone, who didn’t like what went on and had the audacity to mention it.
Still, they will tell you. They told me.
Slovenians and Croatians get along okay. Both are wary of Bosnia. The three of them don’t trust the Serbians. And everyone shares one feeling. “Everyone hates Armenians.” The reasons do not come so forthrightly.
“The thing is,” one woman told me, “none of us (meaning the Balkans) are mature enough for democracy.”
“You mean,” I asked, “you’d prefer someone like Tito?”
She shrugged. “At least we knew where we stood.”
Reka is twenty kilometers (12 miles) from Hungary, which has lined its border with barbed wire to keep out Muslim immigrants who began flooding Europe during the Syrian War. Still in single file they trudge at night by flashlight through dense woods along that border, on their way to Germany, which they perceive to be more welcoming. Locals make sour faces when they talk about immigrants, the same faces they use when mentioning Roma, the “gypsies” (a term Croatians and others use but Romas reject) which have formed a camp near their beloved church north of the village’s one football (soccer) field.
As if Romas and migrants and shaky neighbors and wars and the collapse of what they knew to be their country hasn’t been enough, Croatians officially joined the European Union on January 1. Prices in stores are now given in both Euros and Kunas, the official Croatian currency, and prices are rising fast.
The government mailed instructions. Banks will automatically convert funds in accounts, but people must exchange cash themselves, a situation that angers many. After all, if someone has 50,000 euros worth of Kuna in their mattress, it’s about to become as useful as toilet paper. But if he shows up to exchange it officials are going to ask uncomfortable questions. The underground Croatian economy has always been healthy.
Older people also know that younger Croatians will use EU membership to work in better paying countries. The country’s best resources, its youth, will abandon it.
It is a bleak mood that matches the weather and their expressions, what another person called the “Balkan blackness” that seems to permeate so much of this culture. If depression were a currency, I’m convinced that Croatians would be rich.
Outside the village café, as I walked home, two crows circled above a turned crop field. One cawed, a lone and plaintive cry for a new country unable to find itself, a call which suited the Croatian mountain temperament, a world away from what is likely to become a burgeoning tourist destination when Croatia’s new life begins in the New Year.
Said one café dweller, “Yeah, everyone will get rich except me.”