Sunday, 28 September 2008

Fashion Tips for Zadar

Two important tips if you wish to keep a low sartorial profile in Zadar.
1) Do not do floral. Neither the Laura Ashley / Liberty stuff nor the mad Scandinavian sort a la H&M / Marimekko is acceptable.
2) Do not tuck your top into your high waist, no matter what the fashionista gods of Milan, New York and London have proclaimed e.g

Vogue UK May 2008: Jessica Stam by Patrick Demarchelier, "The Sheltering Sky"

Saturday morning is when the great and the good of the city do their shopping, have coffee with chums and family, do a passeggiata or promenade of the Callelarga (the main drag of the old town) and generally watch and be watched.

The good people of Zadar all look very chic with a pared-down uniform of large sunglasses, low slung skinny jeans and lots of dark hues. But nonetheless, I, in my cultural ignorance of most things after 1815, decide to sport a full floral skirt of Scandinavian origin with a high waist and my jumper tucked in before popping out for a coffee and a spot of window-shopping.

Woah. Now, in London I am used to being on the conservative side of fashion, particularly in East London where the arty types can do wonderful things with winkle pickers, trilbies and old net curtains. I do not crave nor warrant attention for my personal style but I will grant that I take a general interest in developments. Hooray, I cry, for the return of the high waist! No longer shall my kidneys be cold during the winter. Huzzah, I shout, for cinched in waists like Marilyn Monroe! Not all of us are blessed with the lissom hips of a school boy so when fashion sides with those of us more akin to a pear than twig in our figure, Youpee! I bellow, before rushing out to embrace the trend whilst it lasts. Hence the floral, high-waisted full skirt inspired (albeit tenuously) by the New Look of Christian Dior c. 1952.

But back to the “Woah”. People really do look. Not stare, that would be too strong a word for the particular variety of scrutiny that one is subjected to. The throngs of Callelarga parted slightly as I rambled along, people’s head turning ever so slightly over their coffees to get a glance through their sunglasses, a quick up-and-down survey and assessment of the skirt in question and by default, me. All a bit disconcerting and makes my alternative career option as paparazzi-harassed Hollywood megastar slightly less appealing.

Upon bumping into a couple of Croatian acquaintances my suspicions about the skirt were confirmed. Apparently it wouldn’t be so bad if my top wasn’t tucked in. Who would have thought that such a simple change could deflect all the attention and whispers of the good denizens´ internal fashion policemen?

Clearly the phrase “Le geek, c’est chic” has not arrived here yet so until it does, my floral skirt and I shall go and lurk in the archives.

Maybe the teenage boys with long hair are on to something. They have safety in numbers thus do not warrant looks from people, aside from a rather grumpy wannabe scholar in a floral skirt. Is this perchance a case of “Pot, this is Kettle. You’re black” ?



I was told that this phrase is of major cultural significance to Croatians. It literally means, “it has not” but in essence conveys of a sense of “Nah. Off the menu / out of stock / in your dreams”. As with most things, until they are pointed out to one, one remains relatively oblivious to their existence. Like “street twigs”, an urban phenomenon that an Australian gentleman in Melbourne drew my attention to. These are essentially sturdy bits of plastic or metal that look like two flexible chopsticks attached at one end into a V shape and that sometimes gather in gutters. What are these things? Why, components of the sturdy brushes on the underside of those rather loud mechanical street cleaners of course.

Until I had this rather surreal conversation with the aforementioned gentleman, I had never noticed the “street twigs”. Now they seem to pop up all over the place.

And so it was the same with “nema”. Cue conversation in a cafe:

(Just imagine the following is happening in faultless Croatian. Please, try really hard to imagine that).

MM: Good evening kind denizen of Zadar. I feel the need for a refreshing class of local lager, for ‘twas a dusty day in the archives. Could you, forsooth, provide me with such a quantity of pure, liquid ambrosia sourced from the architecturally terribly interesting Central Croatian town of Karlovac?

Good Denizen or konobar (waitor): Nema.

MM: Ah. Well, perchance you have some other, equally delightful ale from this great nation of yours that will prove a suitable substitute?

GD or K: Nema.

Body language of good denizen suggests impending movement to somewhere else within the bar and a distinct lack of natural salesmanship.

MM foolishly persists.

MM: Ermm... have you got any beer? At all?

GD or K: (Sighs in a pained way, rolls eyes heavenwards and mutters...) Heineken or Budweiser.

MM: Horrified at choice of fermented cat’s urine but nonetheless doggedly persists in the face of hospitality’s nemesis... Errrmmm... Budweiser?

Cue conversation in bakery the next day at about 11am and the time when it’s chocolate or death for our plucky wanabee scholar:

MM: Oooh, any chance of a toxic chocolate confection this morning, molim vas?

Bakerette: Nema.

MM: Arrrgggh!

Alright, I shall grant you that it’s probably no bad thing that I have been denied beer and chocolate in such a manner, but still, there is a certain elegance missing from this phrase, a lack of diplomacy that might make the experience somewhat more tolerable.

Neither of these really compare to when you actually need something, say an extra blanket in a hotel in Orebić when the weather is unseasonably cold, and are denied. The housekeeper to whom the (surely reasonable?) request was made was quite emphatic about how ridiculous, presumptuous and outrageous it was. Clearly, both I and the other foreigner at the conference who needed additional insulation were scoundrels of the highest order, the sort of thoughtless individuals who would sleep with the windows open and still demand another blanket. Oh the audacity, what have the youth of today come to?! So abrupt and contemptuous was her refusal to provide the aformentioned dekke and so surprising was this to the Anglo-Saxon sensibilities of me and my fellow foreigner, both used to the more molly-coddling face of the hospitality industry rather than the Yugoslav branch represented by this formidable matron, that we politely retreated sans blanket. Needless to say, a cold night ensued.

Teenage boys and long hair


The Archives

Gosh. With this monosyllabic utterance comes an impenetrable subtext of emotions and a chasm of primordial sensations not encountered for millennia (last time was probably when a far-flung ancestor was staring into the maw of a sabre-toothed wombat or some such). Panic, fear, horror, doubt, agitated twitching, frothing at the mouth, the beginnings of a migraine and so much more combined into one, simple utterance.


And I present to you the reason for this utterance of despair

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is the delights of palaeography, the 14th C Dalmatian variety that is soon to become a firm favourite of mine. For those of you mere mortals who cannot read this sort of thing straight off yet find your curiosity piqued into a frenzy, a transcription can be found in Giuseppe Praga, Documenti per la storia dell'arte a Zara dal medioevo al settecento, ed. by Maria Walcher, Studi e recerche d'arte veneta in Istria e Dalmazia (Trieste: Edizioni "Italo Svevo", 2005), p. 16, Document 2. I just hope your medieval Latin can cope.

But even those of you who can read this document at the same speed as a gifted twelve-year-old with the most recent edition of Harry Potter in their sticky fingers, can surely still remember their first few days of horror in the Archives. For those who cannot, just try and channel that primordial ancestor and their last few minutes upon this earth before they became wombat lunch. Apparently this sensation will subside with practice, hence the safety net of Praga’s transcription with which to compare, contrast and try to work out how on earth a squiggle that looks worryingly similar to something in a garibaldi biscuit could in fact be construed as the word “condicionibus”.

But back to linguistic challenges. 36 hours after arriving in Zadar I found myself en route to a Croatian History of Art conference in Orebić, a town at the end of a peninsula opposite the town of Korčula. Now, in the olde dayes, Venice controlled Korčula and the Republic of Ragusa, modern day Dubrovnik, was in charge of Orebić. So a bit like Yanks and Soviets in Berlin during the Cold War (except with decidedly better weather and views) these two mercantile superpowers of the Adriatic used to peer at each other across the water. I shall soon attach pictures of the Franciscan monastery from where Dubrovnik used to do their peering and the towers of Korčula where Venetians would peer back with equal intensity. Stalemate was thus happily maintained for centuries.
And now to reel myself back in from this tangent back to the Croatian History of Art Conference in Orebić. Wow. Three days of intense discussion about the role of the patron in Croatian art. Difficult to cope with in my own mother tongue but all the more mind-boggling in Croatian. I just want to thank God and his heavenly pantheon of saints, apostles, cherubim, seraphim and big band that there were pictures. Lots of pictures. This is one of the delights of art history, visual stimuli in the best academic sense. To be honest if anyone attempted a paper without images there would be a riot of epic proportions and if that had happened in Orebić, I would have been the first to throw a Molotov cocktail. Fortunately, this never eventuated so I quietly sat through paper upon paper of what I am sure was terribly interesting stuff, absorbing relevant vocab and images like a ‘flu-infested sponge (yes, dear reader, it was still lurking). At one point heated debate ensued between two scholars about the architect behind the main city gate of Trogir

whereupon I found myself trapped in the row between, similar to a ball boy with stage fright caught between Nadal and Federer amidst ace after ace at the Wimbledon final. In situations like these, the best thing is to make oneself as small as possible and exude a sense of intense diplomatic politeness. It is also a useful strategy in deflecting attention about one’s academic reason for being. “Why Dalmatia?” the Croatian art historians ask me. “Why not something in your own country? I hear Coventry was very nice before it got bombed to smithereens in WWII.” In response, I attach a photograph and a link. The photo is of the Franciscan church on Hvar and the link has a particularly lovely photo of Coventry city centre. Why Dalmatia, indeed...

Arrival in Zadar

So, I’ve been here for almost two weeks now and what a hectic time it has been! Certainly a baptism of fire on the language front, starting with an at first delighted then baffled taxi driver from the airport to the flat. Delighted that as a foreigner I was stumbling through my directions in Croatian, baffled as it swiftly became clear I have no obvious connection with this nation in any way, shape or form. You see there are about 8 million Croatian-speakers scattered about the world, half in the nation itself and the rest to be found in various far-flung corners of the globe. Not quite large enough an economic presence to warrant the subjugation of school children everywhere to the delights of imperfective and perfective verbs.

However, of these 8 million Croatian speakers, about 99.99999% have some sort of link to the place be it family, significant others or simply the good fortune to be born here. I fall into the 0.000001% of people who are trying to learn this language without the incentives of patriotism, familial love or outright lust for one of Croatia’s citizens. In short, I pose somewhat of a quandary to the locals. And most other people for that matter. And, if the truth be told, myself as well occasionally.

Nonetheless, international wannabe scholar of mystery that I am, I sallied onwards, got to the flat safely and emerged the following morning in a haze of ‘flu and bunged-up ears. Image you lived in a bottle that was at the bottom of a deep puddle and were trying to listen to the world from that perspective. Now imagine the world only spoke a Slavic language of which your grasp was tenuous at best, enthusiastic and ill-placed at most. Not the most fortuitous of situations but one that I am sure provided much comedy for the locals. The disease had also done something to my balance so I was staggering around town like a Geordie in Faliraki after a large one at “Stavros’ Den of Iniquity”. In my case though, it was straight to the suffering without the pleasurable preamble of lashings of grog. Oh joy.