Living on a Dalmatian island for more than a decade changes a person. And one certainly learns to manage expectations.
One quickly learns (especially in winter!) that many of the creature comforts available back home are in short supply, but this is often a good thing. Take vegetables for example. Back home, the 24-hour availablilty of every fruit and vegetable under the sun was something I took for granted, and I was genuinely shocked at the availability of fresh produce when I went to the Hvar market for the first time in 2003, sometime in November, but not as shocked as the British lady in front of me in the queue, who had also recently moved to the island:
"But where are the tomatoes?"
"It is not the season for tomatoes."
"What do you mean? When do tomatoes grow?"
An important lesson was learned that tomatoes and their ilk do not grow in globalised supermarkets. Another important lesson was that the vegetables sold locally in season were FAR tastier than anything I could buy in Tesco's back home, and I gradually learned not only to adjust to the seasonal availability of the island fruits of Mother Nature, but also to anticipate and celebrate them. Asparagus in Spring, mandarins in Autumn (and yes, the kids do turn orange with mandarin jam, juice, and 101 other mandarin uses) - a different but healthy way of life which also varied the diet by season, and with the effect that when I returned to the UK five years later, I suffered both a culture shock at the insane availability in the supermarkets, and an even greater revulsion at the lack of taste of what was on offer. Give me my seasonal Dalmatian vegetables anytime!
Life continued, and I was introduced to the full range of the excellence that is Dalmatian cuisine, increasing my olive oil content by a thousand times, and while I struggled with tripe and had an aversion to blitva (Swiss chard), overall my diet was wholesome, healthy and balanced.
But there were pangs. I missed spicy food, Asian food, something a little different to give that little variety. A Chinese restaurant opened about this time in Split. Yes, in a tourist city of 200,000 people, there was no Chinese restaurant. In fact foreign restaurants, even in the capital Zagreb, were in severely short supply. It was something that puzzled me all the more when I started doing business in Albania, long regarded as the poorer cousin of former Yugoslavia. Tirana was a major surprise, both for its lively and friendly vibe, as well as a host of international cuisines that were available. When I compared it to Sarajevo, for example, which had seen the largest influx of foreigners in the region after the war, the contrast in international offerings could not have been starker. There was hardly anything international on offer in the Bosnian capital, despite a willing market, while Tirana seemed to have an international offering on every corner.
Someone explained to me the difference. People from both countries had been refugees during the 1990s, spread across the globe to add to the existing diasporas, but whereas Croatians tended to stay within their own communities and stay closer to their culture, Albanians were more likely to embrace their temporary home and return with a part of it, which led to an increased international offer in the mother country.
When I told my Croatian friends about the Chinese restaurant in Split, I was shocked by their response, a response I have heard in various formats many times over the years:
"Why would anyone eat in a Chinese restaurant in Croatia? People coming here should be eating Croatian food. If you want Chinese food, go to China."
I tried to apply the logic to my own experience, and wondered if there would be anything left of the British tourist industry if we insisted on a policy of British food only...
The more I travelled around Croatia, the more I learned of the rich and wonderful variation in its regional cuisine, to a degree that was far more diverse than in any of the ten other countries I have lived and worked. Comparing the menus in Slavonia to those in Istria and Dalmatia was to encounter a different world, and while I often heard people here talking about the food from other regions, I discovered something rather strange - at least to me. Finding an Istrian restaurant in Dalmatia was all but impossible, or a Dalmatian in Slavonia, or a Slavonian restaurant in Istria. If locals wondered why one would eat Chinese in Dalmatia, was it also the same about regional Croatian food?
Tourism boomed, and with it, the arrival of yet more tourists to this hip new country on the Adriatic. Split in particular benefited from the boom, transforming itself from the 'Gateway to the Dalmatian Islands' into one of the hottest destinations in its own right. With the opening of a number of foreign-owned businesses and international concepts and cuisines in the city, I wrote an article a few yaers ago, Is Split Finally Becoming an International City? which was picked up by the national media and started quite a debate, with the over-riding opinion being that Croatia should be offering Croatian food and experiences,and Croatian food and experiences only.
When we reported on another McDonalds branch opening in Split, the reaction was extremely negative - why open another one, as nobody eats in the exisiting ones, was a consistent claim (which if true would presumably not have encouraged the opening of another loss-making branch), the same when the first Japanese restaurant opened in the city.
Such was the rise in Split's fortunes that some quarters are claiming it has the potential to be the new Barcelona - something I agree with, as it certainly has all the ingredients. But in order to achieve that status, does Croatia have to compromise a little on the Croatian-ness of its offer?
One of the things that constantly amazes me returning to Hvar when I travel abroad is the lack of commercialisation of its towns. There are no neon signs, few billboards or tacky advertising in the main tourists spots, which so cheapen the look of similar destinations. It is one of the strengths of Croatia's tourism offer, and long may it continue.
The reality of modern travel, however, is that travellers love to have comfort zones, and while the majority will want to indulge in the local culture and cuisine, many also want to have the option of mixing their local experience with something more familiar back home. It is one of the reasons that Irish pubs, McDonalds and Starbucks are so prevalent, and while nobody wants to see those on every corner, the gradual expansion of the international offer in tourism is not only inevitable, but also to be welcomed - not to compete with Croatian culture and cuisine, but to compliment it.
With tourism such a crucial part of the Croatian economy, I was interested in the reactions to the announcement that Opatija was hosting a halal congress. As expected, the reaction was extremely negative. While I can understand part of the negativity based on cultural and ewligious differences, an underlying theme once more was that tourists should only have Croatian experiences when coming to Croatia. For a country like Croatia which is so dependent on tourism, does it make sense to dismiss the halal tourism market (which comprises 13% of global tourism, and which spends $500 a day more than the average tourist)? Perhaps.
There is another aspect the availability of more international choice - educuation of the local population. I had my first sushi long before I visited Tokyo, my first Guinness before I fell in love with Dublin, my first pizza before i saw the Colosseum in Rome, and my first claret before I knew where its vineyards were located exactly. And I have eaten a LOT of Thai food in my life, but will almost certainly go to my grave without seeing Thailand.
Unlike my home country, where the local food is eminently forgettable, Croatia has an outstanding gourmet scene, but one which would be improved considerably in my opinion, if there was more availabilty from other regions and more international choice. Rather than knowing what is best without travelling and experiencing the outside world (a Croatian speciality in some quarters...), learn from what successful destinations offer that can add to and improve the tourism offer.
For better or worse, we live in an increasingly globalised world and are now firmly in the European Union, and increased international influence is inevitable. It need not necessarily be a bad thing for Croatia.