My first blog post
, over two years ago, was about my desire to return to Eastern Europe, particularly the Balkans. While it took me longer than expected, I have finally achieved that goal. I haven't made it to Albania yet, mostly because I would be unlikely to get any research done there for a variety of reasons, but I'm close (at least close from an American perspective). I've spent all of the new year so far in Zagreb, Croatia, formerly part of Yugoslavia.
I planned to stay here for three weeks, because I thought it would take me a while to navigate the city, communicate with people, establish research contacts, learn about Croatia, etc. What I found after two days here is that Croatia, or at least Zagreb, is a surprisingly easy place to visit. It's a compact city with great public transportation; a large number of the people of all ages speak at least some English; and it is unbelievably cosmopolitan. I expected it to be a tourist-friendly city, given that it is the country's capital, but it's much more ... European, Western, globalized than I anticipated. In fact, I am not only having a hard time describing the city, but the country as a whole.
When I've travel to other countries, I can usually get a sense of the society and culture fairly quickly. Each country -- whether Britian, Poland, Hungary, etc. -- has a certain flavor. After two weeks in Zagreb, I am struggling to define what that is for Croatia. I can't find examples of cultural things (clothes, food, architecture, customs, etc.) that seem distinctly Croatian. Yes, there is a European vibe here, but I can't identify the Croatian element. This might be easier to find if I weren't only in Zagreb and if I had deeper contacts with Croatians, but I've never had such a hard time identifying a culture as I am having now.
I wonder how much of this is due to globalization and how much is due to Croatia's efforts to be Western. The Balkans have historically had a reputation of being culturally and economically backwards from a Western perspective. Given Croatia's proximity to the West (just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy) and pending accession to the European Union, perhaps what I'm noticing is an attempt to shed it's war-torn past and fit in with Western Europe. And yet, it all seems so effortless. In Poland, for example, the attempts at Westernization in the 1990s were very blatant and self-conscious. Here, the feeling is not that people are trying
to be European, but that they simply are
. I wish I had been here a decade ago so I could tell how much of this feeling is new. I am now very curious to return to Poland to see if the same global vibe is there.