Rijeka
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Olja Savičević, Tea Tulić and Bekim Sejranović on Rijeka 2020 European Capital of Culture

Why has the rainy port city of Rijeka been selected for the European Capital of Culture 2020? Jelena Prtoric speaks with three Croatian writers to find out

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The cities of Croatia vary tremendously in their food, architecture and weather. The inland capital Zagreb is the centre of business and culture; Dubrovnik seduces holidaymakers with its handsome antiquities and bustling Split is the urban core of Dalmatia. Rijeka isn't as easily definable.

The third largest city in Croatia, Rijeka isn’t as handsome as its seaside neighbours or as metropolitan as Zagreb, but this hub of alternative culture is finally getting the recognition it deserves, thanks to its successful bid for the European Capital of Culture 2020.

A busy port handling ten million tonnes of cargo and half a million passengers a year, Rijeka is a heady mix of Italianate influence, post-industrial architecture and alternative politics. In Croatia, its seen as the ‘red capital’, a rare bastion of the left for the past ten years. In a country ruled by a right-wing coalition, where conservative groups are growing stronger, Rijeka stands out as a city of rebellion.

In former Yugoslavia, Rijeka was a cradle for punk-rock music. The Sex Pistols released their first single ‘Anarchy in the UK’ in November 1976. Paraf, a punk band from Rijeka held their first concert in Rijeka just a few months later. The band sprayed graffiti to mark the occasion, which was declared cultural heritage by the city’s administration in 2016. Punk is still very much alive in Rijeka’s pubs and bars, and at the many festivals that take place in the city.

Situated in the Bay of Kvarner between Slovenia and Italy, Rijeka stands at a crossroad of different cultures and influences. In 1919, an Italian soldier and poet Gabriele d'Annunzio entered the city with a 3000-strong army, declaring Rijeka a free republic and himself a commander. He governed Rijeka as an autonomous republic for a year.

Between the two World Wars, Rijeka was divided between Italy and Croatia, with a border running through the middle of the city. To this day, Rijeka hosts an important Italian minority and is often called by its Italian name Fiume. The city’s tumultuous past is reflected in its architecture; a patchwork of Austro-Hungarian palaces, Italian townhouses and socialist skyscrapers.

Now, this rough diamond is being polished for the Rijeka 2020 European Capital of Culture. Rijeka’s slogan ‘Port of Diversity’ emphasises the city’s multicultural past as well as its openness to the modern world. Ahead of preparations for 2020, the cultural scene in Rijeka is abuzz. The Museum of Modern Art reopened last autumn at a new location, its derelict docks are becoming leisure venues and range of artist and writer residencies have been set up in Rijeka and the Kvarner region.

We spoke with three writers participating in literary residencies sponsored by 2020 to learn about their vision of Rijeka and its place in Croatia today.

Olja Savičević Ivančević: ‘Rijeka is...a port, in every sense of the word, literally and metaphorically’
© Olja Savičević Ivančević

Olja Savičević Ivančević: ‘Rijeka is...a port, in every sense of the word, literally and metaphorically’

Olja Savičević Ivančević (43) is a writer, poet and journalist from Split. Her writing has been translated into over twenty languages. Her debut novel, ‘Adios, Cowboy’ attracted domestic and international praise. Savičević will spend her residency on the island of Cres, in the small village of Filozici, where she will work on her third novel.

‘Adios, Cowboy’ and ‘Singer in the Night’ are set in your hometown Split. Your work often dwells on the provinciality of Split. How would you compare Split to Rijeka, a city that has always been labelled as alternative in the cultural landscape of Croatia?

Split is a city that has an extraordinary identity, but it is also extremely bipolar - the best and the worst things in the city are taken to the extremes. Rijeka is also a city of a very expressive identity, but it doesn't have the same contradictions Split has – at least seen from the outside. It is a city that has a positive connotation to it, it is more liberal and more open-minded that our other bigger cities, therefore it's alternative.

Rijeka has a dominant European vibe, or at least an aspiration to be a modern city. I think that's the reason why the city attracts more and more people from the world of culture and arts.

But Rijeka is a much smaller city than Split or Zagreb…

Rijeka doesn't lack anything to be a big city besides more inhabitants. A larger number of people makes city a metropolis and creates a critical mass. However, even in our biggest cities in Croatia, there is a feeling of provinciality. In Split, six months per year, there is a large influx of people to the city, but when they leave, what is left resembles less and less to a city, and more and more a neighbourhood of touristic apartments.

Split is south and the sea, with its bright and dark side, Rijeka is rainy, and represents a different type of Mediterranean, it is a port. Split is pop and rap music, Rijeka is punk. As their name suggest even, Split is contradictory, divided, Rijeka (river in Croatian) is constant. Split is neurotic, Rijeka is melancholic.

The name of Rijeka’s 2020 program is ‘Port of Diversity.’ Can the city live up to this slogan?

The fact that it aspires to this slogan, means for me that Rijeka deserves it. In a country where the diversity is not welcomed - almost as if it were a swear word, to be proud of the diversity is a proof of courage and originality.

Tea Tulić: ‘Rijeka is.... the city I live and create in, a deep breathing exercise’
© Tea Tulić

Tea Tulić: ‘Rijeka is.... the city I live and create in, a deep breathing exercise’

Tea Tulić is a writer born in Rijeka in 1978, author of two novels and numerous short stories. In 2011, Tulić won Prozak, a Croatian literary award for the best young author. The English translation of her first novel, Kosa posvuda (Hair Everywhere) was published by Istros Books in 2017. Tulić's residency took place between March and April on the island of Mali Lošinj.

Rijeka is the city where you were born, grew up and currently live in. What does your topography of Rijeka look like?

I grew up in the very centre of Rijeka. As a child, I was conquering the city, discovering it with my friends. We would hang out near industrial buildings, rails and tree logs in the port area, and go to the beaches nearby, the one that was a bit ugly and completely deserted – this is the aesthetic of ugliness that we are used to in Rijeka.

What do you like about Rijeka?

Rijeka is small enough so that the people on the street are not complete strangers, but it is also big enough so that you’re always discovering something new. Rijeka has this problem and opportunity at the same time - it sees itself as much bigger than it really is. On the one hand, out of this feeling, opportunities and ideas arise, but on the other hand, it creates certain illusions...

What are these opportunities and illusions?

I am too much of an insider to respond objectively. But I think that Rijeka is alternative, because of its mentality and its spirit of rebellion, of antifascism. Especially lately, when the right-wing currents labelled Rijeka as ‘the city that shouldn't belong to Croatia.’ The citizens of Rijeka feel special in this context, because of their complex history, because of their ideological beliefs. There is this attitude – ‘why should we care about the others, we'll do our own thing.’

Does this ‘doing our own thing’ connect to the ethics of Rijeka’s punk scene?

I don't link the concept of punk to the musical genre, but to an idea. The socio-political climate in the country is bad, and there is no money for supporting the arts but this is exactly where the punk spirit comes into play. People will, despite the situation, keep going, and say ‘even though there is no money, let's do something’. This can, of course, leave a bitter taste in your mouth, but still, there is resistance. Even when something falls apart, something new grows out of it. Despite lack of means, people continue to work, showing the middle finger to all of it – this is the punk spirit that I am talking about, and that I still feel.

A decade ago, Berlin's mayor famously called his city ‘poor but sexy’. Does this apply to Rijeka? Is this the Berlin of Croatia?

I am not sure if that's relatable to Rijeka. When it comes to culture, we have several new scenes emerging here. There is a new crop of writers who have become more visible, who act outside of the local context. There are young people working in the film industry, visual artists, performers. But it makes me sad that for the past ten years, young people came to Rijeka to study yet after graduation they had to get back home, or go elsewhere, because they couldn’t find a job. In Rijeka, one doesn't always have a choice when it comes to job opportunities – the city has become reduced to the hospitality industry since the breakup of Yugoslavia. But Rijeka has a creative energy, not a service energy.

I think that in many cases, those who have bigger appetites and ambitions must leave elsewhere. I hope that the future is going to prove me wrong.

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Bekim Sejranović: ‘Rijeka is...the city of my youth’
© Bekim Sejranović

Bekim Sejranović: ‘Rijeka is...the city of my youth’

Bekim Sejranović was born in 1972 in Brčko, Bosnia and Herzegovina. At 13, he moved to Rijeka where he later enrolled in literature studies. In 1992, during the Croatian War of Independence, Serjanović moved to Norway. He has published four novels and a collection of short stories. He writes in Bosnian, Croatian and Norwegian, and lives between the Balkans and Norway. He is currently finishing a new novel in Norwegian.

You spent your adolescence in Rijeka, what are your memories of the city?

I was in Rijeka in the '80s – this was the time of the Yugoslavian new wave, of changes, of crazy haircuts. Myself, I had a mohawk hairstyle for a while. We would gather outside the Hotel Kontinental, then we'd go to rock clubs where we'd dance and jump at the concerts. On weekends, we used to go outside of Rijeka, to clubs at nearby towns Volosko or Medveja. Almost everyone I knew played in a band, there were dozens of bands. Of course, this has left a trace on my writing, especially my first novel.

Were you ever in a punk band?

Yes, I played in several bands, but the most important one was that first one – at least if one judges by the trace it left on my memory, on my writing. The band's name was Paranoya, we played dark-punk, had two bass guitars, guitar, drums and a vocal. We played a dozen of gigs at all important festivals. And that was it. We couldn't continue playing, and we didn't need to. Afterwards, new bands came, but Paranoya was the first one. I described that in my first novel.

You once said that if you hadn't gone to Norway, you might have ended up as a journalist of the daily newspaper Novi list. Do you ever think of what life would be like as Bekim in that parallel universe?

It is hard to play the ‘what if..’ game. I worked as a freelance journalist at a local daily Novi list for a couple of years before going to Norway, so it is possible I would have continued in that direction. I would have probably written some books, maybe I would have continued playing in bands.

Norway has changed me quite a lot – after all, I did spend half of my life there! It has created a new me, a person that functions in a different language. When you function in a different language, you do become a new person. Besides that, hadn't I gone to Norway, I would not have read Hamsun and many other authors in the original language, I would never have translated more than a dozen books from Norwegian. I would never have written two novels in Norwegian.

If you were to write a book about Rijeka, what would it be called?

I am already writing a book about Rijeka, its name is...well, I can't really tell you yet.

The slogan of 2020 is ‘Port of Diversity’ As a graduate of a maritime school, what does this mean to you?

Since I am an undestined sailor, the word port reminds me of the sea, ships, sailing, navigation. The words diversity reminds me of the fact we are all different, but at the same time equally valuable. Rijeka was, throughout its history a port, a shelter for people from different origins, points of view, and – the most important thing – the city has used that diversity in the most positive way. The proof is that it’s become the European Capital of Culture.

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