Tuesday, 5 June 2012


Festival organisers Katarina Brajdić & Roman Sim
It's difficult to know where to begin about my trip to the Festival of the European Short Story (FESS) in Croatia. There is so much to tell about the sweet hosts, the wonderful writers and readings, the beauty of both Zagreb and Pazin, in Istria, where we spent two nights. Let it suffice to say, before I begin, that this is a fun, casual and social festival. The hosts are young, friendly, full of enthusiasm and they looked after us extremely well. We enjoyed long lunches, strolls through medieval towns, an Elvis impersonator and late night after late night, filled with short stories, chat and socialising. Apart forom the odd thunder shower, the weather was hot and sunny, Zagreb smelled of strawberries, and the city rivals Paris with its plethora of excellent museums and galleries.

Nama dept store
Tram on square by hotel
We were welcomed, on Sunday, at a BBQ at a disused school on the outskirts of the city of Zagreb - there our hosts plied us with beer and wine, and lots of homemade food. I was on the tofu-courgette-pepper skewers. There was even an enormous strawberry 'n' cream cake.  There was a football match (hosts vs guests) and I'm happy to say the guests won, due to the efforts of just-off-the-plane Dutch guest, Bas Pauw, who scored three goals. Go Bas!

That evening we adjourned to Booksa, a coffee and books café/literary club, for the first official event - a discussion on the Dutch short story with the Dutch delegation - Holland were the featured country at this year's festival - and readings from them. Sanneke van Hassel, Manon Uphoff and Dimitri Verhulst (from Belgium) read. Unfortunately there was just space for the Croatian translation to be projected but we were given English versions of the stories later.

Volunteer Katja Knežević at Booksa
Boy, the Dutch don't hold back in their fiction. The stories were about infanticide (two of them) and underage sex. These were great stories: clear and unflinching. During the discussion, it emerged that there is no such thing as a typical Dutch short story but Manon said, 'There is clarity in Dutch short stories.' This was evident after reading the work. She also said that Dutch people are control freaks and therefore she likes to write about those who have lost control.

Volunteer Ella, leading our tour

Monday morning we were brought on a walking tour by locals Ella and Josip, who volunteer at the festival. They walked us through the city and up into the old town, stopping along the way for ice-cream from Vinćek - I had a tiramisu one, delish! The old town is cobbled and peaceful with narrow streets and beautiful buildings. They brought us to the Museum of Broken Relationships which was fascinating, moving and funny. Afterwards, a gang of us trotted to Vegehop, a good value veggie restaurant, where we enjoyed great moussaka, salads, veggie burgers and strawberries.

On Monday evening we were back in Booksa to celebrate International Short Story Day with a varied panel talking about the writer and travel (a matter dear to most writers hearts.) James Hopkin from Manchester, Dilys Rose from Edinburgh and Dejan Tiago Stanković, were ably chaired by Jim Hinks (Comma Press) and Mima Simić. Jim spoke about lots of stories being about an encounter between two strangers and, when you think about it, many are.

Time was short as another event was to start at 7pm, so most of the time was given over to Dejan reading his story about an old Jewish man returning to Lisbon to search for the house his ancestors left. (Dejan lives in Portugal).

The events came thick and fast and the big reading that night took place on the other side of town in Studentski Centar. It included the well known Dutch author Cees Nooteboom and the German writer Clemens Meyer who read an extract from a wonderful story on burgeoning gay love.

The Zagreb Mummy
I had most of Tuesday free so took the opportunity to explore by myself. The beauty for me of being away is time alone, something I rarely get as I have three kids. So it was a real treat to whizz around Zagreb on the tram and walk in the sunshine and do as I pleased. I visited the Archaeological Museum to see the Zagreb Mummy - a tiny little woman with curled hair - fascinating and creepy.

I also visited the Cathedral on Kaptol (Croatia is a very Catholic country) and it was very beautiful. You see lots of nuns in rather old-fashioned habits around Zagreb. I saw one paring candles in the cathedral - very industrious. I went up through the old town from there and made my way to the Museum of Naive Art, which was adorable. I love naive art and Croatia has a strong history of it.

Enjoying a drink in the sun in the old town
Writer Michelle Green on a Zagreb tram
At 6pm UK writer Michelle Green read a story, after a discussion on the Tramlines project, which she is taking part in. The idea is she gets inspiration from the streets of Zagreb to write a short story set on and around the city's tram system.  FESS organiser Roman Simić will later visit Manchester to complete the tram exchange, writing a story set on the Metrolink. Both stories will feature in this year's Manchester Literature Festival.

The story Michelle read on the night was set in Darfur. Next year Comma Press will bring out a collection of her stories, all set in Darfur where she worked some years ago. It was a wonderful, affecting story about the impact of HIV on two different people, set between Darfur and Canada. I can't wait to read her piece set on the tram in Zagreb.

Mima Simić interviewing me before my reading
I had my first reading that night, at Studentski Centar. I read with Jacinto Lucas Pires (Portugal), Dimitri Verhulst, Stanislav Habjan (Zagreb), Xabier Montoia (Basque Country), David Albahari (Serbia/Canada) and Neven Ušumović (Zagreb). All read wonderfully. I loved the variety of work, though most stories were pretty dark or uncomfortable - pure short story traits. I was interviewed by Roman and Mima (lots of fun and games over the pronunciation of my name) and I read 'Cri de Coeur' from the new book - a story about Assia Wevill, Ted Hughes's lover at the time of Sylvia's death. It went well.


OK, I have reached the end of my rope with writing this for the moment, so I am going to take a break and, hopefully, continue with it tomorrow. Meantime, you can check out writer James Hopkin's blog from the festival here on the Literature Across Frontiers site. Parts 1, 2 & 3 of his blog at least - more to follow once the Queen of England sends them all back to work tomorrow :)


Kar said...

Ah Nu it sounds wonderful. Interesting people, great food and a gorgeous new city to explore. Love the photographs too! You look fab and relaxed. Oh to have been there with you :)


Ah cheers, Kar ;) It was fab. But it's exhausting writing it up! I really do hope to wrtie up more tomorrow if I can manage it. I'm behind on everything and witht he launch on Thursday and London on Saturday things are a bit hectic!

shaunag said...

What a wonderful report, Nuala, sounds amazing and looks like it was both enjoyable as well as work :)


Mostly play, Shauna, in fairness :)

Emily said...

Next year, Nuala, I am donating my services as your tour manager (*for free*)... Croatia is top of my list to spend a lot of time in :)


Ems - I'm beginning to feel the need for a tour manager. London on Sat. Arkansas in a couple of weeks. The fun never ends!