Croatia is the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited. Our three days there were a blur of palm trees and waterfalls, punctuated by street sandwiches (which all had corn on them, for some reason) and blue Fanta. I really did enjoy the scenery, the restaurants, and the fresh mussels we were able to buy by the kilo straight from the sea, but my most memorable experience had nothing to do with the standard tourist attractions.
George and I were traveling with his girlfriend and two of her friends. On our first full day in Croatia, the girls were gone from early morning to sundown on a boat tour of Hvar’s famous caves, and George and I were left alone with no plans. We were strolling through a park when I spotted a skater and went over to talk to him. I knew nothing of the Croatian skate scene and although I had been seeing incredible spots since we arrived none of them appeared to have been touched. The skater’s name was Bruno and he was happy to answer my questions about how many people skated in Split (maybe ten), where they got their boards from (they know a guy who orders blank decks in bulk online and resells them to the local skaters), and how the scene has changed over the past ten years (unfortunately, it has diminished considerably).
Soon enough, three of Bruno’s friends rolled into the park, giving me and George curious glances. After we had all introduced ourselves they invited us to come see the bowl they were building. We gladly accepted. They skated through slim residential corridors and we followed on foot, occasionally borrowing someone’s board for a minute. I noticed that all of their wheels were tiny, worn down by time. After about 15 minutes everyone stopped skating because the street had become a steep uphill. The street ended and we were walking through a dirt parking lot, and then past an empty warehouse, and then through some dry brush. Suddenly we emerged onto a mountaintop and all at once I could see for miles, down to the bay and beyond it to another mountain rising in the distance. And right there in front of us was the bowl, or at least the wood frame and the 700 tons of dirt they had filled it with.
“We will start with the concrete this summer and maybe we will be done by next winter,” said Leo, Bruno’s friend who seemed to be in charge of the project. Leo sported a small mustache and black Converse, and on his left arm I could see several small stick and poke tattoos.
“Did you do those yourself?” I asked. He nodded and smiled, showing me the two crossing hammers on the inside of his wrist.
“It’s the best way,” he said. “Cheaper and more fun.”
Leo makes pizzas for a living. He said there were no jobs in Split (his friends grumbled in agreement) and that tourism was just about the only industry. The skaters explained to us that people were better off when Croatia was Yugoslavia and that people only voted for independence in 1991 because the country was, at that point, essentially under Serbian rule. They said that in Yugoslavia companies took care of their employees, that their parents and grandparents had had easier lives then and that now the economy was terrible.
“Tourists love Croatia, it’s a great place to come for a week, but living here sucks,” said Bruno. The others nodded. I had noticed how weak the currency was (about seven Croatian kuna to the euro) but I hadn’t given it much thought.
“So what do people do? You guys said that a few years ago there were 50 skaters and now there are only ten. What happened?”
Daniel, the only student in the group, sighed. “They go to clubs, take cheap drugs, do the rave trance.” He rolled his eyes. “I don’t know. I don’t understand it.” Suddenly something occurred to me.
“Wait, are you saying that only ten people have been working on this bowl? Ten people moved all this dirt up here?”
Bruno laughed. “Ten would be nice, but really it’s just the four of us. The city trucks leave the dirt in a pile at the bottom of the hill and we push it up here in a wheelbarrow.” I was amazed. Skate publications love to romanticize skaters’ DIY attitude but there’s less motivation to build your own spot when you can drive ten minutes to a state-of-the-art skatepark. These guys don’t have that option. Seeing their commitment to building a local scene, like so many of my experiences over the past semester, made me grateful once again for the international skateboarding community. They invited me and George to return next summer, when the bowl will be finished, and I just may take them up on it. I’m already excited.