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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  • Domagoj Čelan

    You know what? I couldn’t agree more with all the bad things you’ve noticed while being here in Croatia, just as I’m not surprised with completely opposite comments.

    What you guys, coming to Croatia, should be aware of is that Croatia only recently was still a communist-governed country – private ownership and private business was practically non-existent. So all this service-behavior and customer-is-always-right approach is quite a new thing here and people need time to even figure out what’s happening, let alone learn how to behave. Some are catching up quickly, some are slow. But it really makes no sense in comparing it with other countries with different history, and long service-based private business tradition.

    Also, most of you are visiting small towns along the seaside, which would actually be a part of less developed area of Croatia. If you’d come to Zagreb – the capitol – I’m sure you’d notice the significant difference in quality of service in most places you’d visit. That is, if you wouldn’t deliberately go to some dodgy looking shops or bars, taverns – then, well, I guess you’d get what you came for :-).

    Last Summer when I visited island Lastovo, a small island in the far south, I went to a shop and was greatly surprised to see how much different service I’m used to on regular basis in Zagreb. In modern western countries and cities nowadays you’d expect customer-oriented service culture as a basic standard in any shop, petrol station etc…- that’s what I’d expect, too. But, in less developed countries (emphasized exponentially if a country had a communist history), which Croatia by definition is – and especially in a less developed areas and towns of those countries – what you actually find is naturally self-oriented mind-frame of people that are supposed to serve you. They really don’t think about you, they only care how they feel at the very moment. They still somehow don’t seem to be aware that their smile and ready-to-serve attitude are their main tools for the job, something that puts money in their pocket and food on their table. Unless they’re trained differently, of course. More and more people are slowly learning the importance of this, and it’s changing slowly – as government is putting effort in that for a while now, as well. But give it time – it’s not overnight process, I’m sure you can understand that :-).

    On the other hand, most people that rent out their rooms or apartments have learned that truth a long ago and are as a general rule more warm and welcoming to their guests, as you yourself noticed. Probably even more so then what you’re used to in your own countries.

    But even in Zagreb still, when I encounter rude or ‘having-bad-day’ clerk, out of habit I make jokes and try to make them laugh – as if by that trying to remind them that their job is to make positive experience for their customers.

    However, one thing I would never recommend in Croatia – being too sensitive. That’s never and probably never will be a good idea in Croatia – as here, just as I would assume is true for any Slavic country – being sensitive is more often then not regarded as weakness and ridiculed. The best advice is – know what you want, don’t linger too much about it and don’t be afraid to ask for anything. No need for too much niceties, we just don’t roll that way :-). You can take this as an convenient opportunity for your personal NLP-training :-).

    So, come in Croatia for Sun, Sea and Nature, maybe to explore cultural heritage, too – to make friends, as well – why not? But be prepared for majority of people still learning how to behave professionally in modern capitalist world, on every level.

    If you know what you can expect, you can’t be disappointed.

    Maybe, then, you’l be able to direct most of your attention to more positive sides of the country and the people both. Actually, I’m sure of it :-).

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  • Crille Nielsen

    Jimmy,
    Sorry for not spotting this comment earlier. I can see you’ve given some thought and put some context to what was for me a ‘tourist’ trip several years ago. I’m surprised things haven’t changed more, as the tourism sector, in particular, matures. But what you paint is a wider, seemingly systemic lack of courtesy. As others have commented, you can get rude people anywhere and the service in Belgium, where I live, is sketchy to say the least. But at what point does a pattern become a rule? I’d hope never in Croatia’s case. No country or culture wants to be saddled with a reputation like that. Let’s hope people become more aware of this disconnect between politeness and professional conduct (especially as it pertains to tourists who may leave disappointed and not return). I for one would go back, perhaps to test your theory north versus south or just because I like traveling and a challenge. Just keep smiling I say.

    Again, thanks for the contribution to Chronikler. Christian

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  • Chris

    Jimmy,
    Sorry for not spotting this comment earlier. I can see you’ve given some thought and put some context to what was for me a ‘tourist’ trip several years ago. I’m surprised things haven’t changed more, as the tourism sector, in particular, matures. But what you paint is a wider, seemingly systemic lack of courtesy. As others have commented, you can get rude people anywhere and the service in Belgium, where I live, is sketchy to say the least. But at what point does a pattern become a rule? I’d hope never in Croatia’s case. No country or culture wants to be saddled with a reputation like that. Let’s hope people become more aware of this disconnect between politeness and professional conduct (especially as it pertains to tourists who may leave disappointed and not return). I for one would go back, perhaps to test your theory north versus south or just because I like traveling and a challenge. Just keep smiling I say.

    Again, thanks for the contribution to Chronikler.
    Christian

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  • Jimmy

    I am British – Croatian and I have to agree with the way you have written this article. It is generally not a nice way to have to generalise a nation as a whole however when comparing a nation to other places I have visited in Europe and Central Amercica,carribean etc.. the percentage of rudeness and lack of curtesy towards people and general behaviour of a high percentage of people in Croatia can easily make people feel like the entire country is like this.

    I personally find that people in the Northern region like Zagreb to be a lot different and a lot friendlier. Along the coast they are rude in many ways.

    1. The driving culture is awful. Nobody stops at roundabouts to look if anyone is coming, nobody stops to let you through if your stuck in traffic, nobody waves or flashes lights to say thank you if you help them out. They do however toot their horn if your slowing them down. There is no curtesy towards “other people”. Extremely primitive.

    2. Not all but most, when I say most I mean over 50% of restaurants waiters do not provide the same level of service as you would expect in the UK or other places in Europe. I have never received a welcome “how are you today?”, rarely do I receive a smile. Instead I seem to receive glaring eyes when entering a restaurant with an annoyed look of “oh I have to work today”

    3. The Gym.. In general there is gym etiquette, In croatia this does not exist, from people not using towels, to people standing in front of the mirror or right next to me while Im lifting and trying to carry out a workout. Weights are never placed back where they belong, and if someone requires the same weight or machine they will usually tell you to share it with them, without a can I or may i, or thank you.

    4. The newsagent stands, you don’t spend much time on them, however in general at all when receiving my change, they just slam it down on the table and walk away. I feel like a prison inmate receiving food being slapped on my tray. In fact I think even this is done in a nicer way now days in prison….

    5. Just other simple things, like food deliveries, there is no thank you when leaving a tip (in Zagreb there is though every time)…

    6. At the clubs and night bars, local girls tend to think very highly of themselves and gods gift to this world, they will often push you away with their shoulders from the bar if while you order your drink and they feel you are in their space, when croatians pass through a crowded night club they will barge and push straight through you. Without a scuse me or sorry.. I had three Croatian girls visit me once in the UK and when a group of lads said sorry because they were in their way when they tried to pass through in the beer garden the girls were shocked.

    Don’t get my completely wrong, I have Croatian friends and when you know people here they are actually friendlier and more willing to help and potentially more inviting than British people, and I can have a lot of fun in conversation. It seems to be the general public and service industry that needs to modernise its behaviour.

    Its sad but this really is the way it is, and that high percentage of incidents of rudeness that occur will make most tourists feel like the entire country is like that and they will generalise, simply because its not such a high percentage anywhere else.

    On a positive my local butcher is great here.

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  • no

    Americans are just more outgoing than Croatians and many European countries. Americans also tend to share more personal information. And Croatians are superficial, so if you appearance wasn’t above average, than reconsider your experience with superficial eyes.

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  • Aje

    I was recently in Croatia myself and was similarly let down by the advertising. It wasn’t so much the rudeness (living in the Czech Republic you get used to blank stares and blunt comments) but the disheartening sense that the local (Mediterranean?) culture had been bulldozed by decades of communism and then steamrolled by mass tourism. It was hard to spot a local in Istria (outside of those working in the tourism industry) among the Germans and Italians, and I hate to think that overpriced pizza and frozen calamari and chips are representative of typical Croatian cuisine. Had a similar experience in Dubrovnik years ago.

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  • KhaledDiab

    I’ve just returned from neighbouring Slovenia and got a completely different impression. Ljubljana is a friendly, courteous, helpful and smiling place. I guess neighbours can be quite different.

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  • The Chronikler

    I guess anglophones are a bit too sensitive… too much pampering! (-:

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  • Zvi Leve

    I was there in 1987 and had similar experiences. Also heard similar complaints from many people (particularly those from the UK), although honestly none of this bothered me. I guess that coming from Israel it just seemed normal to me.

    I had a fantastic time and have many amazing memories – especially those from the week I spent in Beograd without any money while I waited for my visa to Bulgaria….

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