Rude Mediterranean awakening

 
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By Christian Nielsen

“Croatia, the Mediterranean as it once was,” the ad says. I didn’t realise that meant rude.

25 August 2009

Reader warning! The following may contain flagrant stereotyping, unsubstantiated opinions and some spite.

I was warned before venturing to this beautiful part of the world, where the Adriatic melts into the Ionian and Mediterranean Seas, that the locals can be on the brusque side. It came from a couple of people who have been known to bring out the shittier side in others, so I put it down to that.

But they weren’t that far off. Rude officialdom at Split’s customs is to be expected, but when it carries over to a good chunk of your other ‘tourist’ exchanges, you have to start wondering whether you’re dealing with some sort of national hump.

Questions are often met with a blank-faced reply. Overt, even idiotic, efforts to smile broadly during exchanges with the locals – you know, the way you do in foreign countries to avoid misunderstandings – are greeted with bemusement.  And humour seems at best to win pity.

You could easily notch all this up to language or miscommunication, but the rudest locals so far seem to be those with the best English.

An example, you demand. I rented a scooter last week from an operator in Bol, an attractive port town on the Island of Brac. I put on my friendly voice, asked questions about the scooter and prices etc., and even ventured some private information that I have a similar scooter at home, to which one would expect a polite “Oh, really? Or that’s nice. Or what kind?” … Nothing. The guy took my deposit and said pick it up tomorrow.

Okay.

Next day, I picked up the Sym 200CC scooter from his partner (wife?). A bit friendlier, she told me the price was 400 kuna and I handed over two 200 bills. I expected change of 50 for the deposit already paid. None came, so I presumed she would keep my deposit for the helmet or as a surety on a full tank when the scooter was returned. I asked for some touring tips and how to get to some local ruins. Sharpish answer: “You can’t take the scooter off road!” Of course, the map didn’t really indicate the ruins were off road. A few more tips of varying utility and that was it.

The husband then showed up and the wife took the next customer. He gave me a demo of how to operate the scooter while I took photos of the damaged parts before riding off, just in case. He pointed out there was an extra helmet under the seat. I said that I’ve only signed one out – proffering again extra info on why the other wouldn’t be needed. His brow furrowed just enough to tell me I was unnecessary.

More was to come. On returning the scooter, I filled it up at the petrol station but apparently it wasn’t enough. He said bluntly “I filled it this morning, you fill it now!” I tried to explain I had just done so, but it was clear this was a pointless exercise. The guy at the station looked at me like I was daft when I returned to put another 10 kunar in the tank. Thinking words were needed here as well, I said the scooter guy said it wasn’t full. Response? Not even a shrug.

Back again to return the vehicle and I asked if I’d get my deposit back now everything was in order – it was back on time, under the 200km limit and with no additional damage.

“Deposit? You already got it!” He called his wife and she claimed it had been given to me already. I argued that the €7 euro equivalent was not a lot of money for me, but it was a matter of principle. She asked why I hadn’t said something in the morning. Of course, I said I thought of it but assumed it was part of the procedure. Why wouldn’t it be?

Anyway, this went on for a while. The husband took the phone away from me mid-sentence and just handed back my driving licence and deposit, which I took to be confirmation that the deal was over – the goods had been returned in a fit state. Of course, I may discover spite wills out in weeks to come if  a bogus bill for damages arrives on my doorstep…

I’m not new to travelling, so this rant is not the paranoid delusions of someone unaccustomed to new cultures. I’ve visited every continent bar Antarctica and most countries bordering the Mediterranean, and nowhere have I come across this sort of discourtesy or perhaps it’s diffidence.

(No, wait, I have come across something of the sort in Israel but the curt replies there are not devoid passion.)

I choose a word like discourtesy instead of, say, hostility because the way we are treated is not aggressive, and there is no apparent singling out of nationalities, even if they could guess where my wife and I come from (different countries). We both have the impression that the Croats are just not ready for the world, or at least the sun-hat-wearing western world that answers the call to visit “the Mediterranean as it once was!”

If this is the way the Mediterranean used to be, I’m curious to know when that was. Perhaps it was when the Illyrians were trading horses in the 4th century BC or around the time of the Peloponnesian War a century or so later. I’m only guessing here. I’m also only guessing rudeness would be more common during the challenging times of antiquity.

Tough love

Maybe I hit on something there with the challenging times thing. They (the experts) tell us we’re going through some pretty tough economic times at the moment. But the region we are visiting seems pretty bustling to me; the boats are full, the scooters all rented days ahead, the hotels booked out.

(Of course, I could do some solid journalistic research to establish that the region of Dalmatia is not really suffering a massive downturn in visitors in 2009, but I can’t be arsed. And this is venting, not reporting.)

So, the ‘tough times’ excuse for the apparent sourness doesn’t seem to wash in this case. On reflection, it could be closer to the Israel ‘tough love’ case. Croats and Israelis might well share a bone to pick with the world, both bearing the scars of recent wars. And in Croatia’s case you’ve also got the communist legacy to deal with, which could manifest in distrust of strangers, certainly a hint of stoicism.

Maybe if you stay long enough, the smiles might come easier or I might learn to read the body language better. Maybe if I knew more about the country’s history and culture, or learnt more than the basic good mornings and thank yous in Croatian, the door might begin to open. But that’s probably too many maybes.

Sometimes it takes rebirth to forget the past and in a round about way I can already read some positive signs here. The Croats smile freely at my baby boy. He is engaging and very cute so it’s hard not to grin. But these are stoical people, so it is not nothing to see them scratching his double chin or patting his silky baby hair. And then look up at me or my wife for a microsecond before moving on.

And, just for the record, the island of Brac is worth visiting despite some coolish hospitality and the odd rude bugger – yes, you scooter man (be thankful I don‘t name and shame you). And the people who rented us an apartment were generous, helpful and warm.

It shows that rudeness isn’t in the water or totally embedded in the collective mindset. Like history, I’m sure it can be overcome. I’ll be back one day to test the theory.

© Copyright – Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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