War-Torn Paradise: Inside the Croatian Village Life

*This piece is a combination of my own observations and historical accounts from Plat locals.

The chirping of nested birds replaced my morning phone alarm. I walk out the unlocked front door through an archway of overgrown vines, grabbing a few figs and grapes along the way to take the dog for a walk. I pass several tourists and say “Dobar Dan” to the locals rushing to their seasonal jobs.

The spotless beaches and pristine nature makes Plat a quiet paradise. Yet the untouched, demolished buildings are a reminder that this place, and its people, suffered a tumultuous past.

I’ve been living in Plat for the past few months with my boyfriend Domeniko, and his family (parents, two older brothers, one dog, and two cats). I’ve gained an entirely new perspective of Croatian culture by living here, especially compared to when I studied abroad in Croatia previously. Through careful consideration, here are my collected observations:dsc05148

Plat: a village within a village

Plat is a quaint town in the Dubrovnik County with roughly 500 people. To put it simply, it’s a village within a village. Unlike Dubrovnik’s city center, you won’t find many commercial restaurants and souvenir shops. Plat has three locally owned restaurants, a beach bar, and a hotel. The rest of Plat consists of homes, some over 200 years, and rental apartments. Plat’s pebbled beaches attract tourists from all over the world. In the backdrop, there are several abandoned buildings left after the Yugoslavian War.

Most people have either lived in Plat their whole life, or left and returned. Like the rest of Croatia, many young adults live with their parents at home, while studying and/or working, until they are able to save up enough money for their own house or get married. Homes are often decorated with antiques and Catholic symbols, a reminder that 98 percent of the population is Catholic.

The simple mentality

The people of Plat don’t need much to keep them content. In contrast to the American mentality of building a career and making as much money as possible, locals here just want to enjoy. They’re happy to have enough income to support a roof over their head, while always making time to get coffee with friends or relax by the sea.

Like most other Croatians, locals in Plat mainly work in tourism. This means that their lives are dictated by the seasons. The summer is for working, while the winter is for relaxing. Many people work in restaurants or for various tourism and excursion companies (Domeniko included). Working 12-hour days in the summer is not uncommon. Many even make a full year’s income off of just 4 short summer months.dsc00616

During the off-season, people relax, travel, study or work on agricultural land. You’ll find people in Plat reclaiming the beaches after the hotel closes in October. Others spend their days sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes within the Zupa area. Many take this time to travel elsewhere in Europe or Croatia.

A new concept I’ve seen in Plat (and Croatia) is multiple forms of income. Most people work seasonal jobs while also managing rental apartments. Domeniko and his family converted the top part of their house into a large rental apartment complex. They also built two addition rental apartments on the front part of their property. Some people in Plat live solely off of rental apartments.

Despite the fact that Plat is a small village, people have a rather worldly perspective. Working in tourism, everyone speaks at least two languages, and knows little tidbits of information about various cultures from all over the world. They are entrepreneurs in their own sense. They work tirelessly, all in the name of simply enjoying.img_2843

Coastal culture and cuisine

One of the things I admire most about Plat is seeing how much people live off the land, and the sea. People don’t call it sustainability, foraging, or conservation. Rather, it’s just the way that many people live.

First, fishing and boating is a huge part of the Plat life. You’ll find locals buzzing by on their scooters to hop on their small fishing boat. Domeniko’s family has a little boat for fishing, and a bigger antique boat. The perfect day for many people in Plat, or maybe just Domeniko, is taking the boat out, swimming in the sea, and having a barbeque with friends.

Fishing is considered a respected art in Plat, and it comes in a few different forms. First, there’s traditional line and pole fishing, fishing using an underwater gun (never saw this before until I came here), and the most popular, fishing using wire nets. It’s common for people to know how to clean a fish here, a task I didn’t even learn growing up in Minnesota. You’ll notice that people eat the entire fish here, and pick away the bones like pros.Processed with VSCO with c1 presetdsc06090

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you’ll also find several people with a garden growing fresh vegetables and fruit. You actually don’t always need to plant seeds, because almond, lemon, clementine, and olive trees grow abundantly. It’s common here to make homemade olive oil or clementine juice. I know at least for Domeniko’s family, it’s common to buy several locally sourced items, with unbeatable prices straight from farmers. For instance, we know a really good cheese guy, if you need a hook-up.

Similar to the rest of Croatia, the emphasis in Plat is on lunch instead of dinner. His mom usually prepared some variation of a goulash or vegetable soup with either fish or meat. Family dinners in the household are usually for special occasions, since everyone has different work and life schedules.

I’ve decided that “Hoces li jesti?” (Are you hungry?) is more or less a simplified way of asking “Are you okay? Are you ill? Are you happy?” Thus, sometimes not eating is a tragedy in the household. I’ve realized that telling Domeniko’s mother, “Da, ja sam gladna” (yes, I am hungry) is the best way to say that it’s all good.

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Victims of a dark past 

The older generations in Plat seem to have a Pre-War and Post-War life. The rest were too young to remember. Nearly 25 years ago, tragedy struck Plat after Croatia decided to secede from former Yugoslavia. On October 1st,1991 the Yugoslavian army (backed by Serbia and Montenegro) bombed the Dubrovnik area. Plat was one of the first areas they hit. The 4 -star hotel was destroyed. Homes were demolished. Most people went into hiding before escaping as refugees. Some refused to leave their homes. Many of those people died.

Domeniko’s father was in the first line of duty protecting Dubrovnik, while his wife, two sons, and one baby on the way (Domeniko) fled to Pula, Croatia. Domeniko was born on January 20th, 1991 in a refugee camp.

When people returned to Plat after the war calmed down (with the help of the U.S forced), nothing was the same. How could it be? The land and the hotel that so many people relied upon were destroyed. 25 years later, the pain is still present.

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While Dubrovnik’s Old Town was rebuilt after the war, many areas of Plat remain neglected. The hotel was left abandoned. Several homes were left deserted. In many cases, locals have waited years to be compensated for their land seized in former Yugoslavia. Majority of the people have not received any benefits for serving in the war.

Depending on whom you ask, some will tell you that life was more secure in former Yugoslavia, when everyone was guaranteed a job and a home. Others have a strong sense of Croatian pride, while Croatia joining the EU still has mixed reviews.

I often get the sense that people don’t want to talk about this dark past. Living through it has been enough. But the look I see in some peoples’ eyes after a long day, lighting up a cigarette while taking a deep breath, I can only imagine what they’ve been through.

dsc06073Out with the old, in with the new

The remains of the old Hotel Plat, where Domeniko played “war” as a kid, are finally falling to a crumb. Plans are underway for a modern Plat, which will completely transform its appearance.

A new 5 star hotel complex is taking over, bringing in four separate hotels and four villas. To come will also be the Croatian supermarket Konzum. Construction is underway, which was originally suppose to be finished in 2018, but now it seems to be set for 2020. That’s sometimes how things work in Croatia.fullsizerender-1fullsizerender-2

It’s undeniable that these additions will transform Plat. Domeniko’s family said they accept these changes, as long as they can get rid of the old abandoned hotel. “ I don’t want to look at it anymore,” his mother said while preparing lunch.

Perhaps the additions will help propel Plat into a new era, where war-torn remnants will be revitalized. Perhaps this is a turning point.

Most importantly, I hope the character and culture of Plat is never compromised. Plat is a paradise not for its perfection, but for its purity among adversity.

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