[US to Hungary + Croatia ’15] Dawson Hobbs: “On Broken Relationships and New Hope”
My ACYPL trip surprised me in many ways, but most surprising was how one of the first sights we saw served as a metaphor for an entire country.
After a whirlwind day of briefings at the Croatian and Hungarian embassies and the US Department of State in DC, we headed for Zagreb. A slight weather delay in Amsterdam brought us to Zagreb with only a little bit of time to unpack and get changed for our first cultural activity—a visit to the Museum of Broken Relationships.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this strangely named institution. It turns out the museum is a collection of items that were meaningful to someone in a failed relationship. Each item is accompanied by a brief explanation of what the item meant written by its owner. This unusual display of public soul-bearing impacted each of our delegates differently. Some laughed at the stories, some were saddened by them, some chose not to look too closely and some appreciated the catharsis that such a public exhibit could bring.
But the real question is why in all the capitals in all of Europe did this museum spring up in Zagreb? Over the next few days I came to understand that Croatia is a nation of broken relationships
In the last couple of hundred years Croatia was part of the kingdom of Austria-Hungary and two versions of Yugoslavia; throw in puppet governments during the world wars and a brief time as an unrecognized state and your head starts spinning while trying to keep track. I met one man whose grandmother had lived in the same house from birth until her death at 98 years old—she considered herself to have lived in 7 nations. Each of these associations was a powerful relationship that left a lasting mark on Croatians.
When asked about relations with Austria or Hungary, a Croatian responds “that was a long time ago, we are fine now.” But it is said in the same tone used by someone talking about a former spouse from long ago—a tone laden with mixed emotions. Croatia’s people have always yearned for independence but the legacy of the breakup with Austria and Hungary is strong. Croatians feel this broken relationship in a way that Americans can’t understand.
Of course the emotions of newer relationships burn hotter. Any discussion of Yugoslavia inevitably turns to their war of independence. A war that concluded only 20 years ago in which Croatia was invaded by Serbia. The breakup with Serbia was hard and the emotions of that relationship are still powerful. Croatians are determined to put the war behind them and move forward but it doesn’t take asking many questions about it to elicit the same type of response that you hear from someone recounting the recent exploits of an unfaithful spouse.
So maybe the Museum of Broken Relationships sits most comfortably in Zagreb. It is a public attempt at personal catharsis that mirrors the path of a nation. It’s possible that only Croatians can appreciate such a museum; it’s also possible that they need it.
Now Croatia is independent and has formed new relationships with NATO and the European Union. They talk about these relationships with pride and excitement, the same pride and excitement that a young person has when talking about new love. Hopefully, these new relationships will succeed. After all this time, they deserve it.
Dawson Hobbs is the Vice President, State Affairs for the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America