Lopud is a small island off the Dalmatian coast with some 200 permanent inhabitants, two beaches, modest tourism, and a few daily ferries to Dubrovnik. On this island, while reading George Packer’s The Unwinding, I discovered the truth: I am history.
I am spending a week on this island with my wife, determined to slow down, avoid sightseeing, and get our heads off the treadmill. (The latter intention was greatly supported by some IT folks, who replaced my sturdy old Blackberry just in time with a device containing – as it turned out – a defunct battery that unloads within an hour. Leaving the power socket in the hotel room now means getting truly offline.)
I have been to this island before, thirty years ago, in an earlier life, and before the Balkan wars. Last week, on the day before our departure I skimmed through a stack of old travel brochures and discovered that I booked the same hotel again. On the Web it looked brand new. In fact it was opened in the early eighties.
By the seafront of Lopud village, in the Obala Restaurant, we chatted with the old waiter. He lived on the island all his life, and when I mentioned that I stayed at the Lafodia hotel for the second time in thirty years, he told us with tears in his eyes that he used to work there at about that time. But now all had changed for worse and the place was owned by some Italian investor.
The Lafodia looks brand new. It sits – multistoreyed, shining white – in the bay of Lopud like a pair of huge passenger ships, driven by force into the mountain in this quiet backwater bay. Our hotel room adheres to the latest standards, is big and comfortable; nothing reminds me of my former stay, and we have a splendid view over the bay. From here we look out from the Lafodia, not at it.
The clerk at the reception had seen my old flyer before. An old British couple had shown him a copy. Of the three “Hoteli Lopud” featured in this flyer, only the Lafodia survived – duly renovated and under new ownership. Being just 31 years old, the receptionist had no memories of those days, but he knew that it was the golden time of Dalmatian tourism, gone forever.
On the sea front we were greeted by a weathered billboard with information about the island in so many languages, written in 2010. Quite unusual for such a board, it includes this passage about the latest history of Lopud and the enterprise that ran the local hotels in the eighties: “Due to aggression against the Republic of Croatia from 1991-1995 business was operated in war conditions, the enterprise going bankrupt as a consequence. The so-called privatization, the sell-off of the hotels and real estates, as well as devastation, unemployment and job insecurity led to population decrease, and young Lopud people had to look for life opportunities elsewhere. Despite the natural resources and potentiality of comfortable life, since 1992 Lopud has been passing the saddest period in its long history. Despite everything, let’s hope for better times.”
Barbara is a slim and energetic lady from Germany, maybe in her sixties. She has lived on the island for 38 years, summer and winter. She runs a restaurant a few hundred meters off the coast together with her local husband, drawing tourists with “Hausmannskost” and “Filterkaffee”. The restaurant looks like a time capsule straight out of the seventies. She stayed when things got bad and witnessed the exodus of the youth. Too few kids attend the local village school and as a result the school might be closed. “When you close the school you wipe out the soul of the village.” On her daily walk to the seafront to feed stray cats she passes the decaying relics of the Grand Hotel where she once dwelled as a guest.
This idyllic island displays a fair share of unwinding, just like Packer’s America. In many facets he describes the fate of ordinary and not so ordinary Americans in the last decades, starting in 1978 (In this year I happened to do a lot of hitchhiking through the US.) To Packer this is a story of loss and decline. I was thrilled by his stories and highly recommend the book. However …
I came to Croatia (then part of Yugoslavia) a few times before the war. Now – after a gap of thirty years I feel like a time traveler, missing the time between two flashlights, and the sense of unwinding – the whining on the billboard – feels odd.
The tourist audio guide available for rent talks about Kaštio, the old castle on top of the mountain, built after Ottoman raiders attacked the Elaphite islands and took most inhabitants away into slavery. In Worldwar II Lopud was occupied by German troops. And still the time since 1992 is perceived as the saddest period the island’s long history?
For one day we abandoned our plan not to do sightseeing and went on a day trip to Dubrovnik. We visited a great photo exhibition where the photographer documented atrocities committed by the Croatian militia against the (Muslim) population of Mostar, just a few kilometers away. Which puts the “aggression against the Republic of Croatia” a bit into perspective.
And what about “the so-called privatization, the sell-off”? Around us are souvenir shops, restaurants, boat rentals, all operated by people from Croatia. The investor from Italy has started work on the restoration of the decayed Grand Hotel. The cheerful young lady working as a waiter in the restaurant Dubrovnik comes from Zagreb and works for six months during the tourist season. The other six months she spends on relaxing and “just having fun”.
When I was here 30 years ago, there was only one party, Marshal Tito was in power, and hotels like other corporations were state-owned. Many things were unavailable, or not allowed. “For a socialist country, things could be worse”, we thought. We booked only brand new hotels, built by the government with good standards. When one returned to the same facility a few years later, it was run down and uncomfortable, because nobody cared about them, maintained them. There was no sense of ownership.
As a time traveler, coming straight out of history, I see change. Some unwinding, some missed chances, some terrible losses. But that’s only one side of the story. I also see buzzing life, people finding new ways and a beautiful island greeting visitors like me, who just want to unwind.