A Tale of Two Croatias: Before and After the Uhljeb Discovery

By 7 April 2016

Idyllic Croatia and Reality Croatia live side by side, but once you experience the reality, it is hard to go back. 

This has been the most fascinating and the most depressing year of my time in Croatia, a country which has been my permanent home since 2003. 

Fascinating because of the doors that have opened and opportunities arisen since we launched Total Croatia News, which has been successful beyond my wildest dreams, not only for the great and diverse number of writers we have (44), but also for the increased national profile, which has led us into some VERY interesting conversations, experiences and partnerships. 

Depressing because after years of living on my beautiful island, sheltered in my happy little tourism promotion world, with not the slightest interest in Croatian politics, I am spending most of my time in a new Croatian reality, one which is forcing me to take more showers. 

I miss my old, idyllic Croatia, and while I can still visit it, it is not the same, for once you experience the Croatian reality, life is never the same again. I will not go into details on how certain powers have responded to the liberal and independent nature of this website since its launch, but it has been a genuine shock (and one of the reasons I was not so surprised at the physical attack on writer Ante Tomic last week). 

Back in the old days of idyllic Croatia, life was good. My focus was on happy stories, tourism discoveries, great food and wine. While you can't please everyone all the time in Croatia (a statement such as 'Dubrovnik is beautiful' will yield someone complaining that you have no right to express an opinion as a foreigner - indeed my favourite complaint from a local about Total Hvar was that it had too many positive stories), it doesn't get any better than writing positive tourism stories which are picked up in the national and international media. 

Back then in my idyllic Croatia, the bureaucracy used to drive me nuts, but now it just makes me sad. Back then, I used to think that most officials were just incompetent, but now I realise it is a combination of indifference and incompetence, and the only way to get things done quickly is either through connections, or by shaming. Let me give you an example of how you can effect change VERY quickly if the official is incentivised. 

A couple of years ago, our Internet at home went down in the middle of winter. My wife called and was told it would be a week until they could come and have a look. As I was looking after our young daughters and was on a writing deadline, I had no choice but to take them into a smoky cafe to finish my work. I posted on Facebook, asking if anyone had any creative suggestions. What happened next was rather spectacular.

A friend sent me the email of the head of PR for the company, telling me that they are VERY responsive when there is a possibility of negative publicity. I politely explained that I was a British writer for Google News and that several expats had complained about the company's service (which was true), and while I was too busy to write an article about their poor customer service, being without Internet for a week would motivate me to write. Was there anything she could do? A reply in two minutes, and (I kid you not), Internet was restored in 30 minutes. 

A week later, a friend's tourist agency Internet died in the early season, and he was told that he would have to wait 9 days. In desperation, he asked if there was anything I could do. One polite email later and the Internet was restored within three hours. My friend was amazed and told the engineer so.

"I am under strict instructions," replied the engineer, "that when that English asshole complains, I have to fix it asap."

Sad. The Croatian reality. Without the connections or the shaming potential, you just don't matter. 

I imported a car from Germany and went to register the car, a momunental task for a local, Mount Everest for a foreigner. As I bounced from office to office, I finally came to one sultry official approaching retirement who looked at me with disdain, and I knew he was going to make the procedure tortuous for me.

"Excuse me, but in addition to stamping my papers, may I take your picture and ask you a few questions? I am writing an article on the changes at the customs office since EU entry, and I would like to include you in my story." Never has a document been stamped quicker in the history of Croatia. I was onto the next step. 

In my idyllic Croatia, the price I paid for the sun and the laganini lifestyle was poor bureaucracy, but that was fine. I didn't deal with it much, and life was good. Although I speak Croatian reasonably well, I had never heard the word 'uhljeb' until one day... 

I wrote a story about the bus timetables in Jelsa, which were displayed on the board of the local tourist board during the time of the previous director. Within an hour it was the top story of the day on Croatia's most popular portal, Index.hr, who took the story without my knowledge (no problem with that), and added a little twist, with the uhljeb in the title. I would like to stress again that the use of the world uhljeb had nothing to do with me - how could it, as I didn't even know what it meant?

Uhljeb is a hard word to translate, literally in bread (or should that be inbred...), and it refers to a person who has a job for life through connections - either political or family - and whose levels of competence and interest in doing the job well are questionable at best. And then I began to realise a Croatian truth which - coupled with the new departure into news and politics - means I am taking more showers than before. 

Now I realised why I was getting no financial support from local authorities and tourist boards. That money was reserved for favours for the extended uhljeb network, which was much more important to continue the status quo and those precious uhljeb jobs of incompetence. Now I understood better why so many of Croatia's brightest were either emigrating or existing in their parallel Croatias, with minimal contact with the state and zero with the politics. 

I saw uhljebs everywhere, and with no connections of my own, the only way to effect change or to get anything done - much as I dislike the strategy - is to shame. The results are excellent, and I have even developed positive relationships with a better joint product with some organisations I have previously criticised, after they took on board the criticism and changed for the better. 

Entering the world of Croatian politics has put my idyllic Croatia out of reach forever (did I mention those showers?), and the inbox these days is as colourful as it has ever been. Information on scandals, uhljeb stories - some really horrible stuff. To write about it?

The good news is that if you have not wandered into the world of uhljeb, idyllic Croatia exists quite beautifully in parallel. I came back to Jelsa from Munich for Easter, yearning for my idyllic Croatia, and I watched with jealousy as my Norwegian friends who come to their holiday home several times a year talked of idyllic Croatia, and how Jelsa was the best place in the world. I knew exactly what they meant, but it was something I no longer can share, for Reality Croatia is everywhere, for those who have crossed the U line. 

But let's end this on a positive. As my idyllic Croatia is gone, the trade off has been for a much more interesting Croatia, learning about the good, the bad and the ugly. The more we write and maintain our independence, the more the little guy with interesting stories contacts us, the more like-minded people of influence get in touch. 

Much is written about the population decline in Croatia, and the main reason is not that people are having less sex, it is that the system has killed off any hope or opportunity unless you are one of the boys. Emigration or life in a detached and parallel Croatia are the only options. It is for me the single-most important change that is required in this country. To give the young hope and a reason to stay.

We are going to try and do our little bit to effect some change...  

Yesterday morning at the UHPA conference on sustainable tourism in Zagreb, I gave my first speech in 14 years. I was a little nervous, but the audience was friendly, and during the speech, I launched the homepage of our latest initiative, Total Croatia Cycling

I am not a cyclist, but after our recent coverage of Croatia 365, I became aware of so many fantastic small cycling projects all over the country. How hard would it be to build a national cycling website in English, showcasing the quality cycling destination that Croatia is, promoting all through Google News via Total Croatia News. Some money, some cycling partners - how hard could it be?

We are about to find out. Although my idyllic Croatia has been lost forever, I am feeling energised once more by the amazing people who are getting involved in this project. I may even take up cycling... The partners in Total Croatia Cycling are most those who live in parallel Croatia, but not exclusively, and we have already had enough commitments from local, regional and (I hope) national tourist boards, hotels, agencies, race organisers. We start in earnest next week. Not an uhljeb in sight. By July, we will have the completed website, with all the cycling information about Croatia in one place, with lots of cycling news sent internationally via Total Croatia News, and a cycling blog.

Why stop at cycling? We have three more projects in the planning, all with outstanding partners, and all which will showcase Croatia's huge potential. Total Croatia Technology will bring Croatia's amazing technology potential into one place. From celebrating the heroes like Mate Rimac, the robot project of Nenad Bakic, the explosion of start-ups, the education initiatives in schools, the outreach programmes from embassies. We have outstanding partners for this project, so let's build an uhljeb-free shop window of Croatia's amazing potential in technology.

Total Croatia Wine and Total Croatia Islands will be next, both with great partners. Maybe I am being an idealist, but with the right support and the right people working on the project, perhaps we can slowly return a little hope to the youth of Croatia, while having a lot of fun on the way. 

Join us. If you are living in a parallel Croatia with energy, money or ideas, let's see how we can work together. Contact us on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. You can listen to yesterday's speech below, which tells how the Total project started and where it is going.