From life in the hustle and bustle of a major European metropolis to the wilds of Dalmatia, when Blanka Pavlović, née Čechová turns the pages of her life she never knows where the plot will take her. Born and raised in Prague she wrote her first book at the tender age of sixteen whilst she was studying in Canada, it was a best seller in the Czech Republic, and she was hooked on writing. She graduated from the Law Faculty in Prague and then studied creative writing in Oxford University. After becoming disillusioned whilst working as a legal assistant at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and subsequently as legal officer at a civilian mission in Kosovo she turned her back on law and pushed on with her pen. In total she has written six books, three inspired by Dalmatia. And Croatia didn’t only inspire her to write, it has also added a new chapter in her life, a family. She has swapped her address in Prague for the slower pace of life in Brgat a small village near Dubrovnik. We caught up with Blanka to discover how she went from an “old maid” to the belle of the ball and how Dalmatia continues to motivate her pen to flow.
Let’s start at chapter one of your life in Croatia. How did you first become introduced with your new home?
I started coming to Croatia, well more precisely to the Pelješac Peninsular, with my family when I was eighteen years old. Then I kept on coming every year. I basically came to write. I found that the peace and tranquillity of this gorgeous part of Croatia was very conducive to writing. I would always rent the same apartment every year in a tiny village with only around ten houses, a charming part of the world.
Pelješac was not only your writing base but it also seems it was your inspiration?
That’s true. I have written two books as part of a trilogy that is fictionally based in a small village on Pelješac. They are romantic comedies, or romantic adventures, and many of the people that I met along my travels gave me ideas for characters. In fact the fictional name for the village in the book is Dingač, which as you know is a popular red wine from the Pelješac region. I am very inspired by the Balkans; I worked in Kosovo for a year and a half in an international court. In fact the book I wrote before the Pelješac books was called Total Balkans, it is a bitter comedy set in a civilian mission, a vague parallel to the American TV series MASH but based in Kosovo. So three from the six books I have written have been based around this region.
And you met your husband as well on Pelješac, another new chapter of your life as the book unfolds?
Yes, as I said I had been coming to this little village on Pelješac since I was eighteen. And then one day the family who owned the apartment said to me “You have been coming all these years with just your note book for company, so please come with a man next year or we will not rent you the apartment.” It was a little tongue in cheek, but the next time I came without a man, they added “We really have to find a man here for you, you haven’t succeeded on your own; you are thirty and almost an old maid now.” They did the match-making, I fact it was more complicated than that, I think they had hoped that I would fall in love with a wine maker or fisherman from Pelješac so that I would stay in the village. But in a strange twist of fate I met Tonci, my future husband, as he is the Godfather of their son. Quite by chance he came to visit to celebrate a birthday; he is an accordionist and played at the party. He met, fell in love, got married and we now have two wonderful children. So their wish came true, the only problem was that Tonci comes from Brgat and not their village, so let’s say half their wish came true.
Blanka and Tonci on their big day in Dubrovnik
You could write a book about that whole experience, there is a romantic comedy in the making.
Ha-ha, so here is the theme of one of the books set in Croatia – “The Handbook of the Adriatic Bride”, you tell me if you can see any similarities. A skinny Czech girl comes from Prague to attend a wedding on Pelješac as the maid-of-honour for her friend. For the first time in her life she sees this “festa” the typical Croatian wedding, and she just wants to escape, she sees the singing the food, the wine and it is just all too much for her. Then she falls in love with the best-man and he takes her to his tiny village on Pelješac. Her first impressions are that it is a lovely place, so she decides to stay a little longer. The family have a traditional rural tavern and are all involved in the business. Right at the beginning of the summer season the mother breaks her hip and can’t work. The family start to panic. How can they run the business without the mother? So the best-man asks this skinny Czech girl if she can stay longer and help. And depite all odds, she stays – no matter that she can’t cook even a pot of spaghetti, no matter that she doesn’t know a thing about fish and wine, or, more importantly, the unwritten rules in a traditional Dalmatian home. But then he realises that there is a problem. They are a strong Catholic and conservative family and they can’t just move this Czech girl in without good reason...people will talk. So he tells her they have to get engaged, to keep face in the village. But he says don’t worry this is only an imaginary engagement, it isn’t for real it’s just for the neighbours. Even though she is concerned at first she falls in love with the arrangement, she loves her independence and knows that she can leave whenever she wants. But then she realises that leaving and escaping is the easiest thing to do so she stays and finally really falls in love with the best-man.
How do you find the time to write, are you a disciplined writer?
It’s interesting my first Pelješac based book took me three months to write and that was before I had children. But the second one took only three weeks and then I had two children. I might seem strange because you would think that I would have less time with children to look after, but I had a three-week window when my husband was taking care of them so I really put my foot down and wrote like crazy, writing to a deadline.
I understand that in one of your books you have translations of the lyrics from the popular Croatian singer Oliver Dragojević?
I am a huge fan of Oliver. In fact I once drove from Prague to the Royal Albert Hall in London to attend one of his concerts. I came across his music on a trip to Croatia and I really adore him. One time many years ago I was heartbroken and listening to the songs and the lyrics of Oliver made it even worse, you know how he “talks” to the broken-hearted. So I bought a ticket to see him in London but then that was the time when the volcano exploded in Iceland and all air traffic was stopped. So I jumped in my car and set out on the long drive, I was so determined to see him. I came to London, booked a cheap bed and breakfast in the centre, and then I thought to myself I have to meet him. After all I was the mad lady who had driven half way across Europe on her own to get here. I contacted his PR person not really thinking he would answer, but to my surprise he did and when he heard my story he invited me to come to rehearsals in the Royal Albert Hall. So I got to meet him and we had a chat even though I didn’t speak very good Croatian then. But that isn’t the end of the story. Because I had to drive I didn’t have much money left to get back to Prague, I had even parked my car in Calais to save money. When Oliver heard this he immediately invited me to come back with him and his orchestra on his official coach after the concert. So there I was sitting with the whole band who were singing all the way from London to Calais, it was an unforgettable experience. And now I love Oliver even more. Several years later, he helped me track down the authors of his songs I needed to translate for my book. I gave him a copy of the book at a restaurant in Vela Luka, he read out a page that describes the Peljesac winemakers and their loud ways of using the local dialect. Everyone including the waiters laughed. So maybe I should translate the books into Croatian.
You mentioned that when you met Oliver you didn’t speak Croatian very well, but now you are fluent, was it a difficult process picking up this complicated language?
I picked up some of the language when I worked in Kosovo, but not to any great degree. I think I only really started learning when I met my husband and started spending more time here. In the beginning we only spoke English, but his family only speaks Croatian so I had to at least try to communicate. It’s a little tricky because Czech and Croatian have some similarities, but on the other hand some words have the complete different meaning. For example “užasan” means beautiful or wonderful in Czech but in Croatian it means terrible or horrible. Imagine this situation, I came for the first ever “meet the mother-in-law” meal and when she asked me how was lunch I said, “That was really užasan.” An embarrassing moment.
Your books have opened the eyes of people in the Czech Republic to another dimension of Croatia, especially the Dalmatian lifestyle. What do you think it is that fascinates your readers about Croatia?
Tourists get to see a superficial side of the country but very few people know the details, to dig under the surface. I think it’s the people that fascinate my readers. People in Dalmatia, compared with the Czechs, are really always in a good mood and are positive. I guess they are heavily influenced by the sun and the sea. In the Czech Republic people tend to be ironic, sarcastic and negative so the dramatic difference of life here is what intrigues them. I have to be honest and say that I don’t really miss Prague. I was just there and I saw that I have totally got used to life here in Dalmatia. I was in the Prague underground and I thought “Oh my God where did all these people come from?” The whole way of life here is “Manjana,” why do something today when you can put it off until tomorrow. At first the slow pace of life was irritating, you just want to speed things up, but then I got used to it and learned to love it, to love life. When I saw people taking two hours for lunch and then have a nap afterwards,it would have infuriated me a couple of years ago – I stack to the city stereotype “grab your lunch and get back to work”., But now I understand they are living, living a full life. People here take the time to visit each other, without planning in advance or running a social diary. This never happens in Prague, people just don’t seem to have the time, the time to live.
You mentioned that the two Pelješac inspired books were part of a trilogy, when can we expect the final part, the final chapter the book?
I just need to find the time to write. The third book will be the wedding. I have just recovered from our own wedding last year, with two children and three hundred guests, so I am full of ideas. Experiencing a Dalmatian wedding was such a fantastic, fantastic time, the two dozens of Czech guests just couldn’t believe it – just like the skinny girl, the protagonist of my books: they loved the constant singing, the atmosphere, the hospitality and the way people really know how to set up and enjoy a huge event like this. I remember I was so nervous, trying to organize everything and I even asked Tonci if we should get a wedding planner. He looked at me with a puzzled look and said “Darling don’t worry the whole village is on our side, they will all help.” And then I saw these people just bringing things, organizing things, preparing drinks and invites. They basically did everything for us. This is the spirit, the spirit of community that I love about this place.
Blanka has made a new home in Brgat, Dubrovnik