The Strange Tea of Rijeka

Perhaps it was the tea, strangely coloured, with an unknown spice that evoked the ‘east’. After one sip, I paused, drew in my breath and retreated from my immediate involvement in the world. I raised my eyes after a moment and saw it in very different way: my retreat and abstraction from the world now meant that I was intensely aware of the moment, sensing all that was going on around me.

A portly middle-aged man sauntered past, with pointy shiny shoes off to do some business, whatever that might be. Two women in impossibly high heels puffed on their cigarettes and walked in the opposite direction. An older woman, with dyed red hair curled in a tight frizz, sat at the next table, smoking a long thin cigarette and sipping on her first of many coffees for the day. Her formula for keeping her slim figure was obviously one would ensure she remained so in her soon to be occupied coffin.

The tea belonged to the old square in the middle of a town called Rijeka, a forgotten place in today’s world, a place we had not imagined we would visit. But this was our time, which stretched out to infinity and yet would not be repeated.

We had not planned to spend a day in Rijeka, but our ship had arrived in the morning and our overnight train left in the evening. The ship was old but serviceable, for it was still to catch up with the emerging tourist appeal of the Dalmatian Coast of the new country of Croatia. It sported streaks of rust and a massive image of a leering Pope John Paul II. After some searching, we had boarded at the walled town of Dubrovnik further south. Many slept in open spaces and on the lounges scattered about the deck, although we had opted for a cabin at little extra cost. The food had been cooked long before and kept in a warmer for meal times – at least it meant one did not have to wait longer than 60 seconds for the meal to appear on the table. Two days later, at first light, we arrived in the port of Rijeka, with its old fishing boats and a few cargo ships.

The town had not always been forgotten, since for long had it been at a cultural crossroads. First settlements were by Celts and Liburnians, well before the ancient Greeks took notice in the fourth century BCE. Since then, the place has been the site of fierce struggles, given its deep-water port and strategic position. Romans, Italians, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards, Avars, Hungarians, French, Yugoslavs and Croats have claimed the town as their own. Needless to say, it has also changed its name time and again: Tharsatica, Vitopolis or Flumen by the Romans; Terra Fluminis Sancti Viti (after dedication to St. Vitus in the 4th century CE); Sankt Veit am Pflaum by the Germans; Fiume in Italian (which was also adopted by the Hungarians); and initially Rika svetoga Vida in Croatian after Croats began to settle there in the 7th century CE. Eventually, it became simply Rijeka after it was made part of the state of Yugoslavia in the early 20th century.

Once upon a time, it may have rivalled Venice in power and wealth, especially when Frederick III, Archduke of Austria, purchased it in 1466 – the beginning of 450 years as the main port of the Habsburg Empire. But these days, after the devastation of the NATO led breakup of Yugoslavia, it is far less ostentatious. The walk up from the harbour revealed a town that had been in better condition under the communist government of Yugoslavia. Footpaths  and roads and stairs need constant maintenance by active local and national governments. The liking for cement rendering on buildings may work well when the rendering is maintained and painted. Without such attention, money and time, it soon begins to look cracked, tattered and broken.

But for us at this moment, the town had a distinct appeal. No matter how tough times may have been in the last two or three decades, no matter how ‘informal’ the economy, men and women made sure they dressed as well as they could. Not a few years before we arrived, the new state of Croatia had staked its elusive search for prosperity on tourist euros. But then the 2008 economic crisis hit, and prayers were uttered in parliament that the tourists would still come. Not so many did while we were there, so we felt as though we had the town to ourselves.

So we sat on old wicker chairs, sipping evocative tea in the town square. Our cups seemed to fill of their own accord, no matter how often we tried to empty them. Eventually, the lanes of the town beckoned and our legs needed to stretch. So we left the tea to for others to finish if they could and disappeared into a lane. Out of nowhere a Roman Arch appeared. It remained part of the house structures on either side, with it worn hand-cut stones still tightly bound overhead. I stood beneath, imagining the slaves’ hands at work on the stone, the ancient scaffolding needed to place one stone upon another until the last slid into place at the crown. The Greeks did not know the arch as an architectural feature, for the Romans had conjured it up from somewhere. For two millennia it had stood here, its original function now forgotten. How many more millennia would it hold, until the stone finally wore away?

A narrow door appeared with the word ‘Biblioteka’. Our desire to sit quietly and read drew us inside and up the stairs. Two chairs were free. The rest were filled with quiet readers. I perused the books, journals and newspapers on display. But not being able to read the new ‘language’ of Croatian (invented after the 1990s when Serbo-Croatian ceased to ‘exist’), I sat and opened one of my own books. I read little, for the tall windows drew my gaze outside and into the town.

A taste of eternity remains a taste, for we became conscious of the fact that our train would leave soon. We found the railway station but could not find the train. The station bore the dust of its former Austro-Hungarian glory, with a carefully constructed main building to give the impression of power and importance. Stone work and arched windows featured in the three stories. But it was also festooned with graffiti and rust. The tracks could barely be seen for the grass that grew around them. It was a long time since a train had run here. Were we in the right place?

Eventually a conductor appeared and we asked, having determined by now that German was the old lingua franca of these parts. He pointed to a siding in a corner we had missed. There sat a new train run by Deutschebahn. This was our train and this was our sleeper for the journey north, taking us eventually to Copenhagen.

We boarded and immediately knew we had at that moment left Rijeka, with its past and present, not quite sure now if it is part of Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia or Croatia.


On the Dalmatian Coast

‘Don’t you leave there in a hurry; stay and enjoy my beautiful former country’. So my Serbian friend in Australia had written to me when I told her in 2009 that we were in Dubrovnik – the stunning seaside fortress that rears from the rocky coast of the Adriatic in Croatia. It had of course been part of Yugoslavia until the war which marked the breakup of a country almost as old as Australia (Yugoslavia was first formed in 1918) into a host of new nation states.

In contrast to so many ancient fortresses, the walled city of Dubrovnik is not a museum, for people live in houses that have been here from Roman times. (I too stayed within the walls of the fortress – it is the first and perhaps the last time I have staying within a living fortress.) Since timber is still a precious item, the soil being too rocky for any substantial trees, the whole town is built out of the same greyish white stone from the nearby cliffs. The stone of the street becomes, once you pass through a doorway into inner space, the stone of a floor, the only difference being that the paving stones on the street are more smoothly worn. There are stone walls, stone stairs, stone ceilings, even stone guttering around the rooves – each of the thousands of stones bearing the marks of its quarrying and shaping.

The fortress is full of ‘streets’ that barely hold two people abreast, locals adept at dodging the regular plop of a pigeon dropping, endless stone stairs, small trolleys for heavy goods, children playing, a small open space for those who wanted to play football (soccer), a school, mosque, synagogue, Serbian orthodox church, Franciscan monastery, and Catholic churches out which nuns seemed to pour in a constant stream. You can only get into old city over the moat and through one of the two gates – Ploča or Pile.

Standing beneath the walls and looking over the sea, I imagined Greek and then Roman triremes rowing into the small harbour, or perhaps, many centuries later, the crusaders refortifying the town as a bastion against the ‘Turks’ in the vain Crusader push to the ‘Holy Land’. Later again, people from other parts of the small miracle known as Yugoslavia would come to the coast – Muslims, Orthodox, Roman Catholics and a good number of atheists all sharing the same space. And they still have the extraordinary ability to enjoy the day in a way that other places desperately try to emulate but can never quite match. It begins by finding a coffee shop open at 8am, ordering a stiff black ‘Croatian/Serbian/Slovenian/Bosnian’ coffee (really Turkish coffee), lighting a cigarette and easing themselves into a day that will involve many more stiff coffees, cigarettes, strolling, eating some chocolate in the afternoon and then imbibing a few drinks in the evening – without leaving the same coffee shop.

But I was not in Croatia for a holiday. As part of my ongoing pilgrimage through former communist countries, I wanted to see how Croatia was faring. Three people embodied for me different elements of modern Croatia – a cleaner, an apartment owner, and a younger social researcher.


The cleaner was actually a toilet caretaker at the airport. As each flight came in and a clump of men rushed the toilet to relieve over-full bladders and bowels, she would weave in amongst them with her mop, cleaning up spills of whatever, smile fixed beneath a curly crop of hair. She obviously had seen more penises than she cared to remember, but some of the men were not so comfortable with a woman calmly cleaning up and telling them to shove over. So they tried to turn their backs on her, shielding the vital piece of tackle should she be bothered to have a look – which of course she wasn’t.

This calm assertiveness by women in a culture that occasionally threatens to become macho also appeared in Nives Račić, the proprietor of our ‘apartmen’ within the walls of the old city. I suspect that this confidence is one of the many relics of Yugoslav socialism when women had equal rights and opportunities to men, something to which women remain very accustomed.

One evening, Nives knocked on the door and made her way straight in. ‘I have fresh fish’, she said, smiling widely. ‘Let me cook them for you’. She pushed aside the other dish (beans and rice) that was cooking. ‘You can eat that tomorrow’, she said. ‘This is beautiful fresh fish from the new harbour, caught today’. The fish were filleted, dipped in bread crumbs and dropped into the oil. As she watched over the fish, she answered phone calls, talked with us, washed dishes, refilled the soap container, replenished the supplies, took out the garbage, washed some towels, and told us about her children. At the same time, she also cooked for the other two apartments she owned in the building. So we just sat, slightly stunned, as Nives did her thing. In no time we had fish, fresh bread and salad before us. Nives whisked away as abruptly as she had come. ‘Hvala’ (with a hard ‘h’), thankyou, I said as she left. With some deft cultural skill, she had not once seemed rude and yet she had been full of confidence and assertiveness. She had in effect made us an offer we could not refuse, and so we had sat back as the whirlwind blew around us.

The New Croatia

Branko Ančić is slightly younger – in his thirties – and works at the Institute for Social Research in Zagreb. As we sat together over a long drink in Dubrovnik I had the chance to fire off a few questions, for I was keen to find out what the current situation in the Balkans looked like from a Croatian perspective.

What is it like to be in a new nation state? Branko replied that he was quite young, only a teenager, when Croatia became a state (1992). But he did remember that there was much confusion over what it meant to be a state. There was no Croatian social network, no police, education, hospital system, parliament, constitution or currency (it is now the kuna, equivalent to AUD 25 cents). All that had been part of Yugoslavia. But once the new state had these things in place, the earnest search for identity began. So it came as no surprise that university-based research focuses on a whole range of Croatian issues. Historians are scrambling to rewrite history with an eye to an independent Croatia. Even philosophers are engaged in research that concerns the ‘Mediterranean roots’ of philosophy – in which Croatia plays a distinct role.

Is the Croatian language all that different from Serbian? There is about a 95% overlap between them, Branko answered. In fact, there is as much difference between the dialects of regions like Split, Rijeka or Zagreb as there is between Croatian and Serbian. I suggested it was like Norwegian and Danish: in any other situation they would be dialects of the same language, but because of their own histories and the need for new nation states to assert their distinct identities, they become ‘languages’. Yet in Croatia the politics of language is all too obvious. For Croats, the former ‘Serbo-Croatian’, the official language of Yugoslavia, was an artificial political fix. By contrast, Serbs regard Serbian and Croatian as the same language!

What about the war? Branko replied that they didn’t experience it that much in Zagreb. There was some gunfire and they had to go into their air-raid shelters every now and then, but that was it. But in towns like Dubrovnik it was worse. There were Bosnian refugees inside the walls of the old fortress and Serbian troops up on the hills firing into town. It was obvious from travelling through the countryside that the war had touched Croatia lightly. In contrast to other parts of the old Yugoslavia where I have seen bombed out villages slowly rebuilding, railway lines cut, bridges destoryed, and cities with piles of rubble still visible, Croatia’s infrastructure remained largely intact.

So what about the current relations between Serbia and Croatia? They are better now, Branko said. Actually, the government is much more hostile to the Slovenes, since they are blocking Croatia’s application for EU membership. The Slovenes want a few kilometres of Croatian coast and the Croatian government won’t give them a centimetre.

Branko was still talking about the war. Since in the old Yugoslavia people used to mix quite freely, he said, we all have friends in Belgrade or in Sarajevo or elsewhere. During the war it was quite sad. There was a story about three children who had become the closest of friends – a Serbian Orthodox, Croatian Catholic, and Bosnian Muslim. When the war began they were about eight years old and their parents suddenly refused to let them see each other again. They have not spoken since. After he told me this story, I realised that they would be about the same age as Branko.

Economics and Religion

As always, I am interested in the two questions of economics and religion. Serbia had suffered under the attacks by NATO, having to pick up not only after a prolonged war but also after the shift between two very different economic systems (socialism to capitalism). What about Croatia? Did it too show signs of economic stress? The buses were certainly newer than those further east and the cars were the characteristically small and efficient types found throughout Western Europe. Croatia, however, has one great advantage: a stunning coastline. Travelling by ship up the coast and through the islands, from Dubrovnik in the south to Rijeka in the north, I soon realised that Croatia had drawn the long straw in terms of the division of territory – it is stunning with mountains rising from the sea, villages and towns clinging to the small space between water and steep slope, and the iridescent blue of the Adriatic.

And one still doesn’t have to sell a body part or two to spend a holiday there. And so tourism has become Croatia’s primary industry. Of course, the Dalmatian coast has always appealed to travellers of all types – cyclists, trekkers, canoeists, cruise ships and what have you. But it was not regarded as a favoured destination for Western Europeans. In the last decade it has become a primary holiday spot, with hordes of lusty and young (and not-so-young) Western Europeans descending on the coast, especially over July and August, to work on their skin cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, and add to their collection of STDs. But tourism is a fickle resource, subject to the whims and economic fortunes of travellers. So Croatia did very well over the crazy 90s. People came, eager to spend their surpluses on Dalmatian holidays. But when capitalism began once again to implode in late 2008, Croatians – at least those dependent on tourist dollars – started to dread the summer of 2009. In the Croatian parliament, the president even called on all Croatians to pray – literally – for a good tourist season in the coming summer.

Finally, the question of religion has become an urgent one in this ‘former communist’ area of Eastern Europe. In Croatia, I was told, the Roman Catholic Church has been a major player in the definition and identity of the new state. The church has insinuated itself into politics, the constitution, public education, and the networks of business. Seizing the opportunity with the formation of the new state, the Roman Catholic Church insisted that to be Croatian was to be Roman Catholic. And so catechism turned up in the school curriculum, up to 85% of children began to go through confirmation, and some 92% of the population identified themselves as ‘Catholic’ (although only 52% trust God enough to give them life after death!).

Not unexpected, one might say, since such an identity was a way of distinguishing the new state from the Orthodox Christians in Serbia and the Muslims in Bosnia. But it has led to a whole new batch of problems which arise whenever a religion identifies itself with a state. When the kingdom of heaven becomes identical with the kingdom of earth, then religion becomes indistinguishable from nationalism. We have seen this all too often throughout the history of Christianity, as with, to give but two examples, the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 CE and the declaration that Christianity was to be the religion of the Empire, and more recently with the USA. In Croatia, such identification between religion and state means that parents with little or no religious commitment will put their children through confirmation so that the children will not suffer discrimination at school or when they are looking for work. It also means that children become confused when they hear in the school-based catechism that God made the world in six days and then are taught the theory of evolution in the science lesson that.

So in a state that is less than 20 years old, Croatians are engaged in intense debate about the role of religion in everyday life. Liberal theologians, philosophers, and some educators want to restrict the role of the church, while the church itself defends its new gains. The place of minority religions has also become an issue. Within the old fortress of Dubrovnik there are two Roman Catholic church buildings, but also a Serbian Orthodox one, a mosque and a synagogue. In the north, closer to Hungary, you might also come across a Protestant church. What place do they have in a self-identified Roman Catholic country?


Ever since the Yugoslav war there has been a recovery of the term ‘Balkanisation’ – a centrifugal tendency of areas like the former Yugoslavia to splinter into ever smaller states. Much talk focuses on supposedly ancient animosities, the role of religion, and primitive nationalism of the rural areas. I must admit that I find this is a little puzzling, especially since Yugoslavia was a state that worked no worse and often better than many other states for 80 years. Instead, it seems to me that two forces are at work, one centrifugal when there is too much central control and then the other centripetal when the fragmentation goes too far. Given the fact that there are many Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia, or that many Croats live in Serbia, Bosnia and Slovenia – short that people throughout the Balkans have married, relocated for jobs, and moved for all the reasons human beings do, I can’t help wondering whether that centripetal tendency might come into play again. After all, when it comes to the Eurovision song contest all the Balkan states vote for one another.

(To be published in the next issue of Arena Magazine)