This Month: We speak to Andrea Pisac of the Zagreb Honestly Blog.
Edited by Brian Gallagher
Andrea graduated in English and Croatian literatures at the Faculty of Philosophy (Zagreb), and won the Chevening Scholarship to pursue an MA in Central and South-Eastern Studies at UCL (School of Slavonic East European Studies) in London. She then went on to receive the prestigious AHRC scholarship for her doctoral studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London. An anthropologist and writer, she lived in London for a while until she returned to Zagreb where she established her popular Zagreb Honestly website. We asked her about this, and her other projects.
Why did you establish your blog after returning to Zagreb from London?
My return to Zagreb was gradual. If I had to make a decision over night, it probably wouldn’t have been so easy to pack my bags and leave London. Instead, I was working as a research fellow at Goldsmiths College on a project that required me to do an extensive fieldwork in Slovenia. As anthropologists usually do long-term studies, I lived 15 months on the border between Italy and Slovenia. I travelled back to Zagreb every weekend I could and I slowly became reconnected with the way of life I left behind: a more relaxed and less ambition-driven life. My academic career left me with very little time to do creative writing, and back in Zagreb, I suddenly felt inspired to make a leap out of the academia and start something new, innovative and completely mine.
At the time, I had no idea what that new thing was going to be. I only knew it had to combine my biggest passions: creative writing, ethnographic (field) research and a desire to reach out to a wider audience (which is never the case with academic writing). Zagreb was slowly awakening to its tourist potential. I saw many foreigners beginning to appreciate it for its easy-going and unassuming character that still offered many exciting things to experience. Whenever I had British friends visiting me in Zagreb, they would go crazy about the city.
At the same time, Zagreb lacked good travel resources, something foreigners could take as an inspiration and a guide to explore the best sides of the city. And it really lacked a well-researched travelogue, especially from a personal perspective. So that was my opportunity. When I write on Zagreb Honestly blog, I use my unique anthropological perspective to detail things that locals may take for granted. Many of them finish reading my posts with an exclamation: ‘how do you manage to see things from this angle, we never thought of it this way!’ I pour all my creative juices into my blog posts and I manage to reach more people than I did with my academic writing or with my published novels.
Your post regarding why you returned to Zagreb, essentially due to the quality of life – and the reaction from some people to your decision – struck a chord with many people. Were you expecting that response to your piece?
Honestly, no. My blog is about Zagreb and Croatia: the mentality, the way of life, a kind of ethnography of the Croatian way. It’s not about me. I wrote the post ‘Have I lost my way migrating back to Croatia’ after I received the ‘Versatile Blogger Award’ for Zagreb Honestly. The Award invites all winners to explicitly write a personal post and introduce themselves to the world. And although I do include personal tid bits in most of my posts, this was the only one about me and my life trajectory. I was really stunned with the amount of reactions it received. First it went viral on Facebook and Twitter, then interviews in the media followed and all the while my inbox was flooded with emails from all around the world.
I wasn’t completely aware of the audience reading my blog, and this is quite usual when you are only starting out: you don’t know who is reading you or who you are writing for. I was contacted by many 2nd and 3rd generation Croats from the English-speaking parts of the world, but also from foreigners who are thinking of ditching their 9 to 5 jobs and relocating to somewhere where life is less stressful.
I made time to respond to each and every email, even when it took whole days out of my schedule. People would write: ‘I’m a lawyer in the US who is dreaming about escaping the rat race and settling under the Croatian sun, what do you suggest I do…’ I am not a consultant, of course, but it made me happy to know my own experience was a valuable point of reference to so many out there having a similar dream.
It seems clear from that post that you find Croatian society perhaps more friends and family orientated that in London. Were there elements of the quality of life in London that you considered better than in Croatia? Is there anything you miss in particular about London?
Of course! Life is never black and white. But I was really struck with how many people in Croatia thought me insane for moving back. The overpowering sentiment in the country is that if you have a slightest chance of making it overseas, you should pack and leave Croatia as soon as possible. I grew tired of explaining my decision time after time, which is why I put it in writing.
There is so much complexity behind that single decision: should I stay or should I go. And the complexity is different for every person. I adored my time in London. It’s where I found my love for anthropology, where I was blessed with being mentored by amazing people, where I truly learned to be cosmopolitan while at the same time seeing and loving my country from an outsider’s perspective.
When I lived in London I missed Croatia terribly. Now when I’m back, I miss London. It’s a funny turn of things but in a way I was ready for it to happen. Once you live outside your country and become the citizen of the world, you feel you’re at home everywhere and nowhere. I even invented the word for this state of mind: being an in-betweener. It means you’re always between languages and cultures. You love both, you’re present in both in your spirit, but, unfortunately, in the material world, you can only inhabit one. Which is why I always miss that other half of myself.
London is incredibly open-minded, intellectually stimulating and rewarding for people who have a strong sense of self. As I wrote on my blog, Croatia is a more community-based culture. Here it’s important who you know and who your family is. At worst, this worldview supports the negative aspects of nepotism. But at its best, the collective mentality offers a sense of warmth, support and a great safety net.
I am strange because I highly value both collectiveness and individualism. When I couldn’t develop my individual potentials in Croatia to the fullest, I turned to London. In the UK, I found exactly what I longed for – I truly opened my wings. Whatever creative idea I had, I could find an outlet to make it happen. People I worked with treated me with the perfect balance of support and constructive criticism (which is a very British thing and I love it). I admire the British stiff upper lip attitude to life. While in Croatia everyone complains all the time and does nothing, the Brits are goal-orientated. I miss London conversations. Whoever I met, we would end up talking about exciting things we could do. Londoners are really inquisitive and open. They want to know about you, your country, you points of view – I never felt left out of the conversation.
And I really miss international cuisine of London!
A lot of British people familiar with Croatia would probably agree with what you said. Are you familiar with UK ex-pats in Croatia? Do they think the quality of life is better there?
I am not part of any official association of UK ex-pats in Croatia but I do know many Brits living in Zagreb and elsewhere in the country. I think they hold a similar opinion about Croatia/UK dynamics to mine. They love the quality of life in Croatia, easygoing attitudes, more time for family and friends and a less ambition-driven pace. At the same time, they face the same challenges that I outlined. There is a lot complaining in everyday conversations, the country’s administration is less standardized and often difficult to navigate, legislation is still not flexible enough to accommodate creative and out of the box projects. Again, it’s not a black and white situation, but I guess the Croatian quality of life wins the case for those who are determined to make their life here.
Aside from your blogging you are an anthropologist and fiction writer. Can you tell us a bit about both?
I have been writing and publishing fiction from my early 20s. I authored two collections of short stories: Absence (2001) and Until Death Do us Part or I Kill You First (2007). My novel Hacked Kiti (2013) was short-listed for T-portal award for Croatia’s best novel in 2014. Extracts from many of my works have been translated and published in English, such as the short story Return in the UK magazine ‘Slovo’, in the issue that inaugurated the new SSEES (School of Slavonic and East European Studies) building. I am intrigued by the processes that happen when you write bilingually. I feel that both Croatian and English are my native languages and that opens up a great creative space for a writer.
I have a PhD in anthropology after which I worked as a research fellow for three years at Goldsmiths College. The formal training in an academic discipline is never the end of the story. Even now when I am not officially employed as an academic, I continue to apply everything I learned as an anthropologist. And anthropology is a wonderful social science that especially goes well with creative writing. Its main strength is the kind of field research it uses to collect the data. Anthropologists look for qualitative and descriptive information, rather than count numbers and produce statistical surveys. We go into the field and live the life of a local community for at least a year; we try to understand the world from their point of view. This teaches you mental flexibility and how to accept that there is always more than one way to see things.
Everyday and banal is never just that for us – we look for the unusual in the everyday, and this is hugely important for fiction writers as well. In this day an age, there are hardly any new topics to cover, but there will always be fresh perspective, new ways to connect things that have been left separate.
Do you ever return to London?
I am now vice-president of the Croatian Writers’ Association (in Croatian Hrvatsko društvo pisaca, HDP). This year I am the program director of Croatia’s stand at London Book Fair and also editor-in-chief of the publication that provides a selection of Croatian writers in English. After more than a year, I am coming back to London to do what I specialize in, which is promotion of translated literature in the UK. I used to do that for five years as the director of Writers in Translation program at English PEN. This is the beginning of my new relationship with London and the UK. I spent some time solely in Zagreb but now I am reconnecting with the UK with the aim to be that bridge between the two countries – my two homelands.
What are your future plans in Zagreb?
I learned that having plans is restricting. I have no plans, only visions. My blog Zagreb Honestly will continue to develop as a unique travelogue on cultural tourism in Zagreb and Croatia. I am partnering up with more people on that project and this is very exciting. I feel that literature is a huge part of cultural tourism so what I do at the Writers’ Association feeds into my promotional endeavors, even if the methodology may be different. As vice-president, I will do more official programs, such as festivals, workshops and residencies, but the visions are complementary. Finally, which is among the reasons why I am in Zagreb, I am working on my new novel.
Andrea’s website can be found here