If you are heading to Dubrovnik this summer, get ready to meet the locals: Dalmatians are generally friendly, helpful and talkative. And proud. And intolerant, regarding certain topics. In any event, do talk to them. Learn. Absorb. Make friends. But remember, that in Dubrovnik, you are in the Balkans at the same time, which means that the number of sensitive conversation topics is slightly more concentrated than elsewhere in Europe. These are the major critical themes and hints how to grasp them, that might save you some awkwardness, feelings of being (or being considered) insensitive, and potentially unpleasant conversations:
1 - The war, known otherwise as domovinski rat. The two sides involved were Serbs and Croats, and Dubrovnik was one of the most affected areas in Croatia. It was not a local conflict, but a full-scale war that included civilian casualties, enormous material damage and, most importantly, lasting emotional scars on two generations. Most people became refugees or captives in their own hometown; there is no single family that would not have some tragic experience related to the war. People will mostly appreciate, if you ask them about their memories of the war, because every single person has a story to tell. After you have heard the story, though, refrain from any judgmental comments. It is not a rule, but the current relations towards Serbs tend to be negative. You may hear comments that would seem like an unfair generalization to you and, of course, you can express that, but be prepared to get a reaction.
2 – The church, that is the Roman-catholic church. This is a major institution in South Dalmatia. Priests are among the highest-ranking occupations, in terms of prestige and, often, in terms of social and sometimes even political influence. No matter that the proportion of hypocritical or pragmatic church-goers might be just about the same as in any other country, ironical or degrading comments about Catholicism might earn you strong counter-comments.
3 - Gay rights and the LGBT community. Unfortunately, South Dalmatia is one of the most gay-intolerant areas I have ever known. If you want to talk gay marriages, gay adoptions or gay rights in general, it is important to keep in mind that you are not in Amsterdam: most local people have only considered these topics from the perspective of the catholic church or their family tradition of (heterosexual) marriages – it has even been (recently) declared in the Croatian Constitution, that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. Particularly if you are a western liberal democrat, this might be infuriating, and tempting for you to spread education and enlightenment. Try it, if you can’t help it. But keep in mind, that, unlike in most of western Europe, open disapproval of homosexuality is not considered shameful or even unpopular here.
4 - Gender equality. If you understood Croatian, you might hear a record number of gender-insensitive jokes and comments in Dubrovnik. Why? Because that it how the society is. And because local women don’t make a big deal out of it (yes, often to their detriment, and often unaware of the real, lasting consequences of being tolerant to injustice). Dressing up in order to be noticed by a potential husband is definitely not considered pathetic, primitive or degrading. Sometimes it is, in fact, a relief that the uptight political correctness doesn’t rule over everyday life and the human nature. In any event, if a man is a feminist here, it is considered original and fine, while a woman-feminist is just hysterical about rights that have never really existed. Sad.
5 - Communism. Who hasn’t been there does not have an idea. From the distance, the Cold war seems more like the setting of a Bond movie, not a reality that has been strangling people’s lives for decades. Although the Yugoslav model of communism has often been considered more moderate in its form than in, say, Czechoslovakia or Romania, its harmful effects on society were identical. And yes, there were thousands of real victims, political opponents, who were either killed, imprisoned or deported, many of them from the Dubrovnik area. Any comments suggesting that communism surely had its positive sides, are considered naïve, uneducated or arrogant. (Believe me, there has never been anything good about any kind of communism ever.)
6 - The EU, the UN and other supra-national structures. People are generally doubtful about any redistribution of power upwards. There are at least two relevant reasons for this mind-set: first, it is the experience with being part of the larger entity of former Yugoslavia, which resulted in a war, and second, it is the experience with the post-war reconstruction lead by the UN and its agencies (many locals had a poor experience, too). Also, as the sea and fishing form a major aspect of living here, there is a general fear that some vicious EU regulation will limit local fishing rights (and there have been hints of this). In case you are a strong EU advocate, your enthusiasm might get an ice-cold shower here.
If you know the concept of withlocals.com, it must cross your mind – why don’t they expand to Croatia? It would be a charitable deed in the area of intercultural understanding. Having the opportunity to contact a local and get a private tour of town (or a trip or homemade dinner or an authentic fishing night) totally changes tourism as we know it. The exchange of ideas is a huge enrichment for both – the guest and the host, too, and the greatest tool of melting down prejudice of any kind. Let’s wait for it.
Blanka Pavlovic a.k.a. the Adriatic Bride is a Czech writer. She studied law (Prague) and creative writing (Oxford). As a lawyer, she specialized in international human rights law, first working for the European Court of Human Rights, then for a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. She wrote five books, among them Total Balkans, The Handbook of the Adriatic Bride or The Return of the Adriatic Bride. She now lives with her family between Dubrovnik and Donji Brgat. More information and English translations of her work are available through www.blankacechova.com