The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Eight Days in Zagreb

Carol and I went to Croatia the week before last. I was a guest of Sferakon, who covered our first four nights in the hotel; my flight was paid for by the British Council, for whom I gave a talk as part of a science festival at Zagreb's Technical Museum.

Vlatko Juric-Kokic met us at the airport, and his friend Goran drove us to the Hotel Dubrovnik. It was a sunny and hot afternoon and after unpacking we went to the nearest pavement cafe, just outside the hotel, and had a couple of beers. The hotel's in a pedestrianised area and it was a good place for people-watching. We then took a walk down Ilica, the longest street in Zagreb, busy with trams. That evening Vlatko took us out for dinner, and then up past the main square to a long street lined with pavement cafes and bars, at one of which we had another couple of beers. The currency is the kuna, of which there are about ten to a British pound. Prices for drinks and eating out are approximately half what you'd pay in Britain.

The centre of Zagreb looks very West European: Austro_Hungarian buildings, red tiled roofs on the houses, and the odd sixties or seventies office block. A few hundred metres in any direction from the centre and it starts to look more like your typical commie downtown, except with brighter neon and better stocked shops. Many of the shops are Western chains, others date back to the Kingdom or the Empire, and some are survivors from the socialist era. Vlatko said it was easy to tell which was which, and I guess a yellow neon sign with black lettering announcing (free translation) Electro-mechanical Devices or Things You Might Wear or Stuff To Eat is something of a clue (by contrast with, say, Miss Selfridge, United Colours of Benneton, or Somebodyic and Sons, Purveyors of Fine Wines and Provisions Since 1789). South of the river is Novi Zagreb, all post WW2 and mostly huge - and not at all identical - apartment blocks many of which seem to have a ground floor of small shops and cafes.

The general feel of the place is pretty laid back. People dress smartly and behave politely and are friendly. You couldn't ask for nicer. Croatia is both Catholic and nationalist, but relaxed about it, in the style of the Irish Republic today rather than in the thirties, or even modern Poland. What Croats primarily disliked about the SRY wasn't the socialism, it was the Serbian dominance.

Vlatko adds:
Which is not surprising, considering that the original kingdom was created in 1918 as The Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. And then the Serbian king (whom they chose as the head of the state) grabbed all the power into his hands in 1921, installing the people whom he knew into positions of power - ie, Serbs from Serbia. That meant people of other nationalities got a very short shrift for quite a while, up to WWII.

Tito tried to spread the power more evenly, but the state institutions were all in Belgrade.
The successes and failures of Yugoslav socialism were all its own. Dismantling it is a complicated process, including at the level of ownership, where the early wholesale theft and graft has given way to a careful legal unpicking of 'social property rights'. One fan told us that sixty to seventy per cent of people are worse off than they were under socialism, and that what the country really needed was someone like Margaret Thatcher. The average wage is between 300 and 400 UK pounds a month. People don't look that badly off, I said, especially young people in in central Zagreb. Hah! They make a drink last two hours and they live with their parents, he insisted.

Looking at old Yugoslav science fiction is intriguing. A stall at the con had stacks. Futura and other magazines, and the old SF paperbacks, had lurid and lively covers like American and British pulps. A very broad range of contemporary Western SF was available in translation - the only major writer poorly served was Heinlein, and that seems to have been down to a personal distaste on the part of the Grand Old Man of Yugoslav SF, Zoran Zivkovic, rather than official disapproval. SF clubs, like other interest groups, used to apply to the local Cultural Centre for facilities, and get sponsorship from enterprises and municipalities. Charmingly, translators transliterated Western names into Serbo-Croat spelling: Pirs Entoni, Dzejms Balard, Dzems Blis, Artur Klark, Dzon Kembel, Filip Hoze Farmer, Robert Hajnlajn, Mijkl Dzon Herison, Dejvid Lengford, Fric Lejber, Djon Verli, Dzil Vern, Djek Vens, Vernor Vinz are among many listed in Zivovik's massive, loving, dated encyclopaedia (enciklopedija) which I picked up second-hand at the con for 18 pounds (and worth every kuna for the illustrations alone).

Vlatko notes that some of these spellings are incorrect, and adds re transliteration:
It is the usual linguistic practice in Serbian. Croatian leaves names in their original form. It's been like that from ... oooh ... at least since after WWI, I think. I do have some old Croatian books from 1890s (The Ghost of Canterville, frex) and they do have the original forms. OTOH, I also have a Hamlet from 1900 and something in Cyrillic and it, of course, has names transliterated.

So I guess it's a remnant of the times when Serbia used only Cyrillic. (They returned to that in 1990s.)

But the practice was present through the Yugoslav era, either the first or Tito's one. One of the differences between Serbian and Croatian.

If the Encyclopaedia was published in Zagreb, and in Croatian, it would have the original names.
The con was held in the ground floor of the Electro-Engineering Faculty of Zagreb University. Hundreds of people attended over the weekend. As usual with this type of con, the average age was younger than you'd expect in Britain, and there was a likewise higher proportion of Trekkies (U.S.S. Croatia), modellers and gamers. Live Action Roleplay (LARP) enthusiasts work-shopped at tables. Making chainmail looks as repetitive and sociable as knitting. The program consisted mostly of talks rather than panels, and film and TV showings. I had four items: being interviewed by Vlatko; a talk about wild AI in global networks, which was followed by an enlightening discussion from the audience about economics and game theory; the launch of the Croatian edition of my YA novella Cydonia; and a talk about interstellar travel and life-extension. Otherwise Carol and I hung out, often in the doorway where the smokers gathered. Among other people, we met Milena Benini, who had translated Cydonia in a month. That's less time than I took to write it.

My lecture at the Technical Museum was on the Monday morning. Vlatko met us at the hotel and we walked there. The Technical Museum looks dilapidated from the outside - it's wooden, and an old Zagreb Fair stand - but inside it's airy and modern, with good exhibits: aircraft engines, a space probe, a robot football game. About a dozen people turned up for the talk. Most of them sat at the back. I gave an adaptation of my Sunday Herald article, then took questions. One guy asked intently about traces of life on Mars. Why were they so strange? I asked him to explain. The Face, he said - why is it so ugly? There were some better questions.

On Tuesday we took a tram to the same area, and explored the Botanic Gardens, which among other things have a pond with turtles. Then Vlatko and his girlfriend showed us around an exhibition of Art Nouveau in Croatia. That was fascinating and included a good deal of early-twentieth-century background material: photographs, advertisements, tableaux of well-displayed dresses, and furniture designed in the New Style. That evening we met up with lots of people from the con committee for a big dinner in a beer hall. The food was meaty in generous portions and the beer was great. Vlatko presented us with a double bottle of local brandy, a gift from the con.

Wednesday we took two tram lines north and west to the mountain that overlooks the city, and then the cable-car to the summit. The cable car holds two people. It zooms up a steep grassy slope to the first pylon, and then the ground drops away beneath you and you are soaring over a small valley, the first of several. Most of the time you're at treetop height. The trees are quite tall. At the top there is a very high television mast, several cafes, and the apparatus of a ski-slope. The air is noticeably thinner and colder. The view is spectacular, though at the time it was hazy.

The following day Goran drove Vlatko and us all the way to the Slovenian border to visit a very impressive castle, simultaneously a fine building and a formidable fortification (never actually attacked). The interior is wonderfully aristocratic, with hidden doors for the servants, massive furniture that smells like honey, libraries full of bound volumes of Sporting Life ... The countryside to the north of Zagreb, once you get off the alluvial plain, is all rolling forested hills and small clusters of houses. Fields are generally tiny, and you sometimes see a man ploughing one with a tractor, or a woman weeding one with a mattock. I remarked that there were a lot of new houses. Just because you can see the bricks, Vlatko explained, doesn't mean they're new. They just haven't got round to plastering them. And looking closer, a lot of the apparently new houses had curtains in the windows and lights inside and gardens up to the raw brick. Goran took us to a summer-house that his grandparents had built in the sixties, an entire vintage wooden farmhouse dismantled from the plains and transported and rebuilt in the mountains. You could see the numbers on the beams.

In between all this, we wandered around the centre of Zagreb, taking in the usual sights that you can read all about in the Lonely Planet Guide. The fruit and flower markets, the Stone Gate, Saint Mark's, the Cathedral of the Assumption, the shortest funicular ride in Europe, and the best ice-cream shop (apart from Nardini's in Largs, Ayrshire).

We left with a very warm appreciation of Croatia, and of its fandom. Croatia used to be a popular holiday destination, and is becoming so again. We certainly intend to come back.