Sometime in the summer of 2010 I was on a bus from Korčula to Dubrovnik. The journey took us through the medieval town of Ston, where the bus usually stops for five minutes to allow driver and passengers to stretch their legs. It was the peak of the tourist season and the bus (or at the least the part of it where I was sitting) was packed with young, mostly English-speaking tourists.
It was obviously a feast-day in Ston. A row of animal carcasses were being slowly roasted over open fires beside the road, just opposite the town’s central parking lot. “Oh my God, they’re eating dogs!” shrieked one alarmed passenger. Menfolk among the foreign contingent started moving down the aisle of the bus in order to inspect more closely what was going on outside, as if their resolve to investigate would somehow calm their female partners.
Anybody acquainted with the Adriatic diet could see clearly that the animals in question were not dogs. So I decided ought to speak out. “They’re roasting lamb, for God’s sake!” It took a while for this piece of information to sink in, as if I was an unreliable witness attempting to cover up something they had seen with their own eyes and did not want to hear contradicted. Or maybe they thought that roasting a whole lamb in the open air was only marginally better in the public decency stakes than roasting a whole dog. The cultural self-confidence of the north makes it possible to believe the worst about the south.
The driver stubbed out his cigarette, jumped back in his seat and put his key in the ignition. The dog incident was soon forgotten as the bus rolled along a coastal road that offered a drama of another kind – the mountains and islands of Southern Dalmatia holding the foreign travellers in rapt attention. However the dog thing did set me thinking about the information gap between northern and southern Europe, and the fact that the northerner could still seek beauty and barbarity in a frequently misunderstood south. The fact that Dalmatia is associated in the northern mind not just with the Mediterranean, but also with “Eastern Europe”, simply enables a higher level of exotification – and makes it all the more credible that local culinary habits may well be strange and shocking.
The role of the Mediterranean a tourist service-centre for the European north does not just bring economic imbalances. It brings narrative imbalances too. The visitor to Dalmatia is weighed down by the guidebooks and social media-posts supplied – in the most part – by outsiders like themselves. And speaking as a travel writer myself, it is very much the job of the wandering scribe to accentuate the peculiar, and dig out the stories that will most amaze.
One of the most encouraging things about a project like Splitera is that involves Mediterranean writers speaking to each other, breaking the north-south circuit and redirecting Mediterranean narratives along different channels.
Of course the Mediterranean tourist industry remains fertile ground for the grotesque imagination, providing a rich seam of potential dystopias in which the holiday experience may not turn out to be the paradise desired. Indeed a thinly-disguised European Southeast serves as the backdrop for dystopian stories I have written myself.
Meanwhile, I keep coming back to the case of the dog-eaters of Ston. Maybe it could serve as the starting point of some future tale. It is, after all, the job of a writer to make things up.