The Dalmatian Lifestyle: How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Ways

As I wrote a few days ago, we are about two weeks away from Easter and with it the approaching spring of 2018. Everyone in Dalmatia knows that the season of Lent culminates in what is supposed to be the start of the tourist season for the coming year. So, Easter is a time of renewal and a season where we look forward to new things and as most Croats have been doing since about the time of the Homeland War and before it, better times ahead for us and our children. That’s been the age-old adage. Every year we’d hear our mothers and grandmothers lament tourist seasons past and future with a hope that the new one would bring some respite and some much-needed relief in the state coffers.

On the surface of things, if I was to compare the city of Split as my starting point, I’d say things were off to a good start this year. Despite the bickering’s and complaining of friends and relatives, I can’t say anyone is any worse for the wear this year when compared to the last few. Most of my relatives are employed or retired and although many are still working in the ‘seasonal category,’ in my humble Canadian opinion, a job is better than no job at all. They seem to be of the same opinion and have taken what they can get.

The city itself tells a different story too. If you’ve been fortunate enough to have spent any time in Split recently, either as a tourist or a local, you will have noticed some definite improvements. Year over year, the area of the Riva is being graced with new attractions whether in the form of restaurants, cafes or interesting things to see and do. Sure, you could say this was always the case and restaurants come and go, and I’d say you were right. What I am referring to though is something different. It may sound like a cliché or a vibe, but it feels like Split (I can only reference the city I know) is experiencing a ‘happiness state of mind moment’ (thanks, Pharrell!). Is it superficial and am I wrong? I don’t believe so, therefore, let me try and explain my thoughts and here’s hoping others feel the same.

It starts early morning when I leave home for the Bazaar. An inescapable feeling of happiness and gratitude permeate my body and the knowledge of being home and basking in the morning light of the strong Dalmatian sun rids me of all thoughts of gloom and doom. At the market, I usually purchase the few staples I know I will need for the day – Swiss Chard, potatoes, a little bit of onion and garlic and whatever fruit happens to be in season. I typically purchase from the same vendor and spend a few moments with Kata discussing the competition, the prices and overall inquiring after her health and family. Protocol and simple stuff.

Next, I am off to the Riva to plop myself down at my favorite café, Ramone, and settle down with my thoughts while people watching for a good half hour over a cappuccino. I could sit longer but lunch will eventually have to be made and bereft of hands my partner will eventually start texting me demanding what time I will be making an appearance at home. As I sit there and sip on coffee after coffee (ok so I profess one is never enough and I love to linger and have another), I wonder if Dalmatians realize how good they have it? Surely, they must, right? Wrong. You’d be surprised by how much people take the art of sipping coffee in a glorious city basking in sunlight for granted. But take them out of Dalmatia for even three months into the colder climates of northern Europe and they will be begging to return. It’s one of those things I have never really understood except that they probably believe the grass really is greener somewhere else until you realize it is not. In any case, it’s good to remind them of this every now and then so that they know with certainty this kind of lifestyle exists in very few places in the world. One of the first questions visitors to Split often ask when seeing the locals sitting for hours on the Riva or just about any local café is ‘how do they get so much time off?’ The answer is they do not, they just manage to economize their time better than most of us in western countries do (but I don’t get into that).

After coffee, my next and final order of business is a walk through Marulicev Trg and some of the smaller side streets and ‘prolazi’ on my way to the fish market over by Marmontova. You might be surprised to know this but this 10-minute walk usually tells me a lot about the state of the local economy and how the tourism trade is doing. How is this possible? Well suffice it to say that in passing the shops and restaurants I pass numerous tour groups and pending on the size, I can quickly sum up and create a mind map generalization on what kind of tourism season it is going to be. Lately, the tour groups I pass are getting bigger and bigger and we are not even into the full-on throw of summer. It is not just the size of them that worries me, it’s the fact that whereas once you’d encounter the large throngs either in front of the Peristil or by the Cathedral, in addition to the Riva, now one sees them just about everywhere and sometimes in the most unlikely of places. A few weeks ago, for example, I encountered three separate large groups of Japanese tourists up by the Jewish cemetery, which is to say off the beaten path. How they got there is anyone’s guess but there they were.

Two years ago I would have said that these groups were primarily driven by the hype of the Game of Thrones filming but now I am not so certain. It seems they are being booked earlier and earlier in the season and my sincere hope is that this is a sign of sustainable winter tourism, the likes of which we have always dreamed of and deserved.

Finally, I stop at the fish market and haggle over red mullet, my favorite fish and the easiest to prepare for a light lunch. I eavesdrop in on the conversation with the hawkers. Everyone appears to be doing a bustling trade and in between listening to people talk about their children, the daily catch, lamenting some decision or another made by the Mayor and the City Council, I notice the complaints year over year are less than before. Maybe this is a sign that others too have noticed things are picking up and we live in a great city. Or maybe they are just tired of complaining. Just before I leave, I pick up a few smelts and red mullet and thank the vendor who is wrapping them in a newspaper. He smiles, and I smile back. We exchange a few pleasantries about the weather and I make a point of asking about his business. “Never been better,” he responds. I point out all the tourists walking up and down Marmontova and he shrugs his shoulders while stuffing my purchase into a plastic bag. “It’s going to be a great season,” he remarks. “Do you really believe that?” I ask while thanking him and paying in return. “Of course, it can only get better right?” he exclaims in a cheerful Dalmatian tone. I smile silently and thank him while saying goodbye. Walking down Marmontova I am filled with a sense of contempt and peace. I should go home and prepare lunch but somehow the sound of seagulls near the Church of Sveti Frane and the strong afternoon sun lure me back to the Riva. Just at that moment my cell phone rings and a friend texts me asking me to meet her at one of the cafes. I am temporarily sucked back into the life of the Riva without a care in the world, heralding my luck at living in such a fantastic place and knowing that the tourism season, just like my uncooked lunch, will be just fine.