Reflection on Methodology, or “How I Learned to Drive Like a Crazy Person but Only When Necessary and with Reasonable Stopping Distance ahead of the Car behind Me”
Collecting data from monuments sounds easy. Find a monument, take a photo, write about it. In the context of post-independence Croatia, however, none of these things are too simple. If you came here hoping to read more thoroughly what exactly I do with my data, how I manage it and what software I use, sorry to disappoint – the short answer is: “Drive, take a photo, curse pedestrians, trams and mopeds, sleep, repeat, sprain foot on my first of three days of actual holiday on Vis, Numbers because Excel is horrible with images, Google Maps and NVivo, pay me, please!”. This is where I can exercise my irreverent writing voice, so if you want something more formal, you’re going to need to calm down.
Croatia from the tourist magazines is a land of natural beauty, lovely seasides, smoked meats and fine wines. (If you want to read more about this perception, ask my friend Dr Nichole Fernandez, whose doctoral thesis focuses on nation branding in the Croatian tourism industry). While I’ve certainly indulged in this world, the Croatia I’ve come to know, however, is much more of a mixed bag of branitelji, empty villages, intentionally overlooked infrastructure and coffee that fortunately costs less than 8kn. This is not to say I see Croatia through this horribly antiquated, Balkanising/Orientalising point of view (for more on that, see Lily Lynch’s “How to Write About the Balkans“), but that I am aware of both Croatias – the shiny, Game of Thrones-y one and the grittier version swept under the rug by the Powers That Be.
To get a sense of this Croatia, the one I see still coming to terms with its Balkan-but-not-Balkan identity and its Yugoslav past, I have driven nearly 6,000 kilometers across the country in baking summer heat and in half-meter-deep snow, focusing primarily on areas formerly held by the breakaway Republika Srpska Krajina during the Croatian War of Independence/Homeland War from 1991 to 1995. Each of my four trips to Croatia has featured a mix of urban, suburban, rural, and, well, “super-rural”* areas, from Slavonia through Dalmatia, with no set agenda for what I planned to see beyond the route I wanted to take and any major monuments – especially Yugoslav spomenici or sites of strategic or symbolic value during the war. Along the way, I’ve documented nearly four-hundred monuments, memorial placards or street art paintings that remember some element of Croatia’s long and convoluted past.
*My Tom-Tom thinks unpaved dirt paths with bushes growing in the middle qualify as “roads”. If you need to take a shortcut to Ovčara from Negoslavci, don’t. The farmer whose tractor you have to squeeze by awkwardly on the way back into town will thank you. Just drive straight on through Vukovar instead.
My supervisors encouraged me to be “open to surprise” on fieldwork, and this has been translated into action in unsurprisingly surprising ways. More often than not, I have found monuments by happenstance on the side of state and county roads (državne i županijske ceste)** that have been either abandoned, neglected and vandalised or recently cleaned, polished and decorated with flowers and candles. If I see something ahead, I find the closest place to pull in or turn around to photograph the monument, but I’ve slowly noticed my more “professional” driving skills slip the more excited I am about what I find.*** As well, I notice in many situations that I am the only person paying attention to these monuments (much like when you want to buy a particular car or jacket and start to notice it everywhere you go while other things blend into the background).
**I tend to avoid motorways where possible, because who in their right mind would build a monument on the A3 in the first place? Also, toll roads are very pricey in Croatia. I’d rather save the money for buđola.
***Note that my research is much simpler in urban areas where I can wander around on foot.
In one sense, I am an archival historian documenting a moment of memory in time, but in another, I am a sociological voyeur, peeking into a culture of remembrance to which I do not necessarily belong. No matter what hat I wear, there is a certain pull to monuments that other mundane elements of the streetscape lack. In my dissertation, I will explore in more detail the ways in which physical manifestations of memory impact or are formed by commemorative processes and will use these monuments as indicators of the content and priorities of Croatian memory politics since 1995. Already, it has become clear that there is an intentional push to erase or ignore Croatia’s Yugoslav past (and though Croatia may have been in Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia was also in Croatia) and to prioritise, if not idolise, the “defenders” or branitelji from the Homeland War while denying agency to the war’s victims, whether Serb or Croat.
More of my writing will slowly emerge on this website or, God willing, in a Very Expensive Academic Journal Near You, so keep an eye out for updates as this project progresses… or, y’know, follow me on Twitter.