Core at the Fringes. Visions from Croatia, a New European Border.

Choralyne Dumesnil

July 2014. In Paris a woman from Croatia invited me to go to Zagreb. A friend, professor of history in France was surprised : « Croatia ? Wow… that’s a pretty intense place you know. A place at the border of big empires, the Ottoman, the Austrian, the Venetian, do not be afraid about how tall and strong the people will be, their ancestors knew how to fight ». That brought me between attraction and worries. I made it a point not to dig too much into any touristic information or any media coverage or any other field of research before I left. Try to be a thermometer, go, feel, see. Look at the face of the people, they mirror their lives. What do you see ?

I have been hosted by a very cheerful woman. We discussed and she told me about her current insights of the city in which she was born and still lives today, Zagreb. She provided the tone to my trip, describing how the country is being challenged by a shift in the economy. In the last ten years, the population of the city changed as a lot of people came from rural areas. They brought back a kind of conservatism. She observed seeing people very much obsessed with religion, which she did not feel any pressure at all about growing up in Zagreb in a middle class family. Now things are again changing after the country got into the European Union in 2013. One instance that she mentioned, and which stays in my mind, is this occurrence when two women working as cashier at a supermarket discussed together :

You are having a holiday soon? You have not had in a long time.

Oh no, not yet unfortunately. But my family left two days ago.

Really all of them ?

Yes, my husband and my two children. They went by the sea coast. I actually told them to take my towel. My son sent me a pic of my towel laying on the beach on the morning.


You know, the boss said we have to be at work on Sunday.

What? This Sunday, really?

Yes, that’s new, after the shop has been bought by a new company.

That was not before. Well I might get on a bus and go to the sea side, I’ll tell the boss I’m sick.

Do not think about it, they will fire you.

And it’s so hard to get a job anywhere anyway.

It’s about the rhythm, it’s about the faith in one’s ability to build one life that things are now shifting and people like these women do not have the grip.


I lived in a residential area in the north of the city. During the first days walking around, I sat among people understanding nothing of what they said but listening and just letting things go around me. A lot of women were working: seriousness and worries written on the forehead. The bank was full of them at any positions. In the market one can feel like in Vietnam or Lao where you meet mostly women selling vegetables coming everyday from any part of the country. Some of them were what the foreign eye will call traditional, you know : wearing a black scarf on the head and the face totally wrinkled, without teeth but still : this laugh was serious ! At the bar next door… the men smoking, reading the papers and drinking kava, well the world is a replicated village I thought thinking of an Asian market place. A few days later during a jog through Maksimir‘s park, I saw grandfathers and their grandchildren and fathers and their child, and of course mothers and grandmothers. Men behind trolleys around the world are still pretty rare though. Well, they are coming it seems. Some of the men looked beyond 80 and, as the Finnish girl I met on a boat from Italy to Croatia would put it : « Seem to be coming from the gym! »

My stay was cut by a road trip to Italy since a friend needed to drive there and the road was tool long to do it on her own. She told me about permaculture where you learn all these amazing things we never learnt at school about how to live in the wild, do things we have all forgotten to do in nature. What stroke me though is when she mentioned that you also meet people who actually try to demonstrate you that Tibetan bowls chanting do affect your cells and state of mind. « Well this cannot be scientifically proved ! Can’t it ? » The voice inside says « Well it’s a matter of experience, to know is to experience, what is science but the quest for knowledge, therefore experience ? » Chhhuuuut. We all smoothly move the walls that are in front of our eyes. Breathe.

Here we were: Italy. I did not want to stay. Yet, it caught me long enough to see the Chinese owners of Venice, the Cuban woman working at the fish market or even the Ukranian one holding a shop on il ponte rialto, after an Italian man offered to bring me around the waters, cook me pasta at his mother, and maybe marry me tonight if I was nice enough. We laughed. He kissed me generously on the cheek and I went back to Croatia.


As now most people who travel alone know, this “aloneness” never stays unless you are committed to it (only look at the sky, it works). Hence when you go hiking on a mountain, there, in the northern part of the city and do not exactly know which way to go once you step out of the tram, no need to be surprised by the fact that your guide for the day is actually standing next to you. So you go together.

Your bottle of water has been already emptied by the tram journey ? No worries, here is the source coming from the mountain. I told you that the world is perfect, what are you afraid of honey?

We speak or we listen depending on what kind of person we are. Some like to speak when they meet. Some like to listen to the winds in the trees when they walk around. We find the balance or she sets herself up. There are trees that have been uprooted by February’s tempest. Wow (yes another one) it’s scary how huge their roots are. They have literally fallen on each others’.

On the way there are sheds to rest I guess. But some forest man seems to have settled down say the plastic bags around the house and the back of the man cutting wood next by.

You climb. Things are simple and it’s not before you reach the top of the mountain that you actually have mentioned each other’s first name. And so what ? Names… pfff. Breathe and climb for the moment please. Yeah! A restaurant, here we are ? Hum, no says the improvised guide, right here. And you see an arrow: “50 minutes to go.” Damn it. But you walk. And you reach? A chapel! The virgin and baby Christ carved in the woods, just beautiful. Walk again. And? Here we are. On the terrace viewing on the valley. Is not it fabulous ? Yes it is. Mmmh. Being.

And we will go down, walk toward the castle until, tired, worried because of these grey clouds and remembering that the weather forecast predicted heavy rain and storm at 5pm which is about to arrive… We are glad that a couple stopped their car and brought us back, in the center of town. We look at each other, what’s his/er name again ? Our improvised drivers asked us too many questions. Actually we met three hours ago.


He is the one who gives peace. The first thing he tells me is that he is dealing with computers. In my mind he goes to the « geek » compartment. But, afterwards he goes on to say that he is about to learn French – What a coincidence ! – because he is having some work in north Africa for the company he works for here in Croatia. OK. Now he has broken the geek box. Yeah he also practiced kickboxing.

He brings things down to reality. Yes there was a war here more than 20 years ago and he is 26. One day, after his grandmother put him for the afternoon rest, she went to the garden to extend the bed sheets to dry. A grenade was sent on her. Some of his early childhood friends died. Some of his family friends died. Later he said, You know, we were Croats, but some of our friends were Serbian, were Bosniac, were Muslim. And in my city, some of these actually joined together for their lives though the political mess all over was just the contrary of this desire for unity»

That was the past. But then, « Look, when I was in university I was among the first five best students during all my studies. At that time I had to work to pay for my studies. When 4th year came, I was supposed to be on a full scholarship. I had to sit for an exam. I passed. I was first. But I did not appear on the list. I appealed 26 hours after the results. By the time they had made a regulation that the appeal was 24 hours. I started to work for small compagnies. Then, I went back to my hometown, I worked for my father. Then I worked in a night club and now I work for a big company. Well sometime here if you do not know the right person, you do not get what you are supposed to have access to. I guess I had to learn this. Do not forget that we just entered the European union. We are a post Yugoslavian country. Things are now evolving. But I would not say I would not like to go abroad for a few years. I need to see something else. I will see. »

Going abroad? Something the traveling bird knows about.

What about the night club what did you do ? I was a manager.  This man who looks like a kid! Yes not kidding. I worked from 9pm up to 4/5am. You meet clients who can spend 20 000 euros in a night, because they are feeling like they are kings. The drinks are 50 euros and they pay for the girls. »

Aouf. The girls ?

« Yes the girls who come for lap dancing. And for chatting. Some of them are really good at it. They can talk about anything. And the men who buy are feeling important. »

The girls ? No, they cannot be touched and they are fired if they have any sexual relation with any clients. »

(Lawyer’s mind…Well, that would make the club eligible to enter the proxenete category if they did and who wants that?)

« Well I got sick of this environment. I wanted to build my life. Regarding these girls, they are from the city itself and they think they need money. You know there are so many ways to make a living but some of them just said it was easy money. For me it was hard to understand. I always asked them, why don’t you do something else ? They were from 18 up to 40 years old. And they would answer, you know I need the money. These lived with their parents ! They made me angry. »

From me to you, what is there in our societies that program girls mind to do this ? The push is not from outside. It is internalized she comes on her own because she says she needs it. Freedom? Bullshit yes.

« But sometime, the clients did not come for the girls. They came to sit and just be with themselves. These would sometime end up talking to me. I had more and more of them. When I was a child, my parents ran bars and coffee shop, I guess I learnt by seeing. You’re kind of psychologist to these people who come and divulge their life on you, just like that, after a few drink that they pay huge amount of money for. Though I was offered to have my own club I decided to quit, this was not my world. Now? Now we will see. »


You know when sometime you walk in front of a big building and you see these black cars in front of it and feel some intense activity inside but do not really know what is going on ? That’s when you start to open the newspaper and see that actually yes yesterday a new law was accepted… which one ? The one allowing same sex « life partnership » ! Enabling equal inheritance rights, social benefits and tax reductions to homosexual couples like heterosexual married couples! Soon, I found out that on December 2013, under the pressure of In the name of family – yes, more patriarchal you die – an Opus Dei organization according to Srdjan – who you will meet in a few lines, a referendum has been organized. 65 % of the voters were in favor of a constitutional ban on same sex marriages. I was about to miss this part but actually the Constitution was changed and actually designed to limit marriage to heterosexual partners. Well it did not prevent the new law to be adopted, it was not about ‘marriage’ but ‘partnership’.


Patriarchy. My hostess, seeing me pointing out the women I saw all over, judged that it was necessary to make sure I was not tricked by the situation. She sent me a paper on the ideal of women in socialist countries. Equal rights meant for the women « go to work » as if they did no work before. But then, equal rights meant, « transferring to the state household works and child care that were still viewed as corvées no one could really like to do ». It’s funny how much we forget that the first thing we need in life is breathe, eat, sleep. Well… This State transfer did not happen. And women went to work and did the house work and took care of the children.

« So do not think that because you see women all over, it has actually deeply changed in the mindset of the people. By the way, a few years ago, my mother who is now 78 years old was… proposed to marry one of her neighbour recently widowed. She was a good cook he told her. Are you crazy she said. After her husband had died, she had moved along with her Life. Remarry. A joke yes. »


I walked back in front of the parliament. Actually that was not the only law passed on that day. The other one was about labor. I met with a journalist, writer, artist with whom I expected to speak more about this same sex « life partnership » new law as soon as we met, the topic of the labor law sprung a lot of discussions on what he saw in Croatia today.

He is Serbian from his mother and Montenegrian from his father, growing up at Osijek, Croatia.

« Yes, a city at the crossroad of Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia. The war ? Yes, I grew up during the war. The war for my Serbian mother living in Croatia ? Well. She got fired. Never able to work ever again. Now living on the miserable pension of my father who passed away five years ago. Not enough to live. Just not enough. And since you are into looking at women and women organisations, let’s be honest and say that these days in Croatia, such an organization does not work to change this aspect of women’s life. Postmodern theories are too time consuming it seems.

Some things are moving. In terms of legal evolutions, recently the regulation regarding education has been changed,it makes things worse. Well to make it short if you do not have money do not think you are going to study. To study you need to be in a city and to be in a city you need to have family there and then you cannot study and live in a city if both your parents are not working there. That is said. »

Do people have access to the internet ? I am thinking that it is a locus to teach yourself. « Well yes they have but online in croatian, I am afraid people are more on facebook and cheap papers promoting the great adventure of market opening and how wonderful it will be to have all these staff to buy and how free you will be to buy them … »

Hence how different it will be from socialism where you had to cross the country to find foreign brands and different types of consuming goods as I as told by a girl friend here.

« Yes I guess having access to a diversity of product is one thing. But what is being done today is quite another one and you do not find much critic of these actually. When you read the papers in Croatia you are entangled with one scandal after another on the right page and one add after another on the left page. »

Well the question is why ? Why are there no critical voices about this ? False question : are their no intellectuals ?

« Of course, there are. Intellectuals are busy talking about litterature, fiction and bla bla bla. They are afraid. And they have a good reason for it. Freedom in the media depends upon who is supporting the media. And like all over the world the wonderful economic model that has been found is financing articles through advertising, therefore consumerism feeds and determines the news. »

Which is what then inhabits your mind unless you know how to master it.

But not many do know that ! Am I answered right away !

« Well but the next question is who actually pays for the advertising… and the next question is how does this person, let it be a moral person or an individual – which is the case here – get the money for this ? You need to be big. You need to be based on a mass consumption model, you need to be everywhere. And there has never been any mistery : own the land. Find out, who owns the markets ? Who owns the shop where people go and buy their food ? One man. That’s feudalism. You can talk about opening the market, you can talk about freedom all over, actually democracy here is a very big problem.

People do not believe in the legal system at all. Well understand them, every day one after another their former political representants are being judged and are going to jail and a strong media process is showing this. They go to jail yes but they come out too early. People cannot name it justice. These very same people who were to go to jail yesterday, are going to go back to Parliament.

And these are not Gandhis or Mandelas.

These are real criminals. Once this, is what is in your mind, what do you want to do ? Leave the country ? Well if you can. Most people cannot. They feel trap, the category of the future is no longer a category. »

Well you know what ancient knowledge teaches, the future is in the present. Hence if you cannot imagine tomorrow can you at least thank for today ? May be the answer with what is described here, is no. Dissociation becomes a condition of survival. You hardly breathe when you cannot eat. And once you finally get a job argh, you keep on being afraid you are going to lose it.

« Yes, getting and keeping the jobs. Eating. I have always felt as a double minority huge challenges to be who I am. Once because I am Serbian Montenegrian, second because I am homosexual. And it is hard. It is hard because in life you want to have someone to lean on and that is what the community does. »

Mmmh, do not you think that the community is also a terrible pressure to keep you away from yourself, hence self reliance might rather be promoted ?

« Well, yes that’s true you can have an Hollywoodian perspective and that’s great when you get an award for it but in real life its harder to become who you want to be when you do not have all the privileges communities have that make daily life possible. To make it short it is easier to eat. »

Well, self reliance is not Hollywoodian at all and when you look at the community that the Church has created and maintains that’s what you see sheeping, bending down.

« Well yes, once you have seen how brutal capitalism is progressing and will increase because of the entrance of Croatia in the European Union, the recent labor law monitored by European regulation confirms it, you have to look at the role of the church in all of this. And the Church in Croatia is something. Recently a civic organization sued the Croatian government for having a contract with the Vatican in which the government obliges himself to verse some amount of money to the Holy state without any retribution. »

People do go to church. The mass at the cathedral is jam packed and I have seen people coming in and out of different churches in town, some even looking at the mass being directly shown on screens in front of the church because it was too full ! The question is what does the church tell you ?

That you have been created as the image of god ?

That you are a sinner since you’re born and need to spend your life asking for forgiveness ?

What does the priest say and then what do you remember how does it get written in your face ? « Concern ! » or « despair ! », says the line on the forehead of the people leaving from the churches I have been around.

(Srdjan) « In order to shape civil society in the past you had very strong unions for instance. But this is the past and this past is controversial if not to be ever mentionned. Whenever you speak about these aspects you are putting yourself in danger, in this situation where there is absolutely no future where people are disconnected from the present the past is something no one wants to hear about. »

Yesterday, today, tomorrow, looking for surviving or building one’s life. But how ? With which conception of one’s, with which tools ? With which imagination ? Why is it that the bruise in the newspapers take more space than the blues in the sky ?


Past present future, walk in the street what do you see today ?

Friday early evening, front door of a « club » as they are called.

« You want to walk in? Why not ? »

We do – usually We go down the stairs and there, we both see a tv. Seriously I am not kidding I thought : « what is this surgery show on the tv in front of me ? » Argh. I come closer actually there is on the screen a woman laying down on a table the camera is between her legs showing her sex opened like an injury of course all shaved – where else could this camera be would you tell me – and a guy on the back of the image is licking the « in between of her breast ». I turn my head here is the waitress – who as my grandmother could put it, forgot to put her skirt before she walked out of her house today as we say – and around was a man sitting in the back.



We’d rather walk out.

A man is in front of the club. There is a discussion. I listen pretending to look for a cigarette in my purse which I won’t find since I don’t smoke.

« These TVs? They came last month. Not enough customers any more. So, we do like the Germans clubs where we went recently. »

But this was not all of it. The man who was sitting in the back of the room and actually calling on the waitress while we left, walks out. He starts talking to the man who is standing in front of the club. This one does not speak English. Hence he talks to another one who does.

« I asked the girl if she could come later but she says she is not allowed by her contract. So this is it right ?

Well you know, you have to come here, you have to talk to her, have drinks, you know.

Well, yes but then, can she come? Can she come? Can she come? Can she come? Can she come?

I do not know, if she likes you, if she likes you, if she likes you, if she likes you

This « if she likes you » is beyond/below everything. You do not know whether you wanna laugh or cry when you hear it. And the one who is saying it knows it – of course. Like all over the world you can invite a man, a woman, share time together and may be if you like each other, you’ll « meet again ». Well this is not about meeting again.

This man – actually from indian origin probably brought up in England considering his accent – walked in this place like you go to the shop (and considering the tv we can precise the type of shop, this was a butchery) in order to buy bodies of a few women for the night. Well so many men do this in the world. So… ?

Talk to her ?

Well but can she come then?

Not saying, is she allowed by you to do so ?

The girl in the story is still downstairs. She is not in our discussion.

Me ? Well of course I do not speak english either and I smile like a beautiful pot of flowers. You know/learn these things.

You wanna know how it ended ? Well he crossed the street and walked into another club. But it was early and you know so much can happen after drink and anoanoanoanoananoanoanoanoanoanoanoanoanoanoanoanoanother.


Few days before that evening, came up this discussion like all over the world among women, on prostitution and pornography.

You know if she wants it what can you do ?

And now I had it played on live for me in front of the club :

If she likes you, maybe you’ll be with her…

Why do we still occult that we are born and raised in patriarchy?


On pornography all over the world you can hear :

Porn, well you know you cannot really ban it because there is soft porn, so it’s hard. Hum.


Yes this was hard porn, this was butchery. And this was required to attract more customers. (What kind of people are our societies making?) And this was available in a central place of the city – like all cities in the world today yes that’s called globalization how wonderful!

Why do not we call it what it is?


The world is a mirror becoming what we put inside. What we think create the world. What are we thinking ?


In Croatia, feudalism backed by up-coming liberalism (I know this looks contradictory but in the face of the people domination is written – wrinkled front head, scared gaze ) is raising its sheeps – or shrimps when at the sea coast– a population more and more put to sleep by on going scandalous news report – and patriarchy is nodding the head at its cheerleaders – beautiful young women working in bars, wearing top and bras that brings the breast up to the throat, skirts so tight that the opening on the back shows their ass if by mistake they slip on the floor because of their shoes they do not know how to walk with ( well considering both their high and design, who could, between all these tables and people moving around ?) And their face. She has a proper « make up » – of course – but her smile is like stuck on her face – oh of course she loves what she is doing and then comes the wrinkle on the right then left side. She moves around a bit and then takes refuge in front of a wall « smiling ». Around her ?

(Srdjan) « There are either English songs or the Croatian pop music : anti-women rhetoric where basically you have a girl who is gonna sing about her guy who went away and how much she wants him back and how she prays that he loves her again, and the nationalistic rhetoric is never far where you have a male singer who will sing about the croatian identity reminding how is gran gran gran gran  (…) grandfather was here on this very soil centuries ago. ».

While tourists from all over the world are enjoying cruises to Dubrovnik, quickly walking through Zagreb and may be another of the sea coast city, the theme park is being prepared in the whole economy with the support of the law. Talk to anyone here about legality and justice.

I love that today a lot of people still look strong and grounded, today, there are still women selling their fresh vegetables from the country in Zagreb smiling and joking around, but – even if that could be improved so that all of them would not have to spend all day under the frail shadow ( walking in late afternoon you see they are very exhausted) – the lines in the front head of everyone I meet in the tram, in the streets, beyond age, sex, color, name it, the current political agenda a mix of national scandal and European regulations, it could not be long before all this disappear under the glossy curtail of liberalism, growth and so called development. I mean more and more wrinkles and despair written on our bodies. Look in the mirror.

May we have the courage to take our responsibility.

Like on the t-shirt of a 10 year old : Dream it, Love it, Make it !


Choralyne Dumesnil © All rights reserved


Choralyne Dumesnil, Zagreb