Options: Nov 3, 2022, marks 30 years of diplomatic ties between our two countries. Tell us a little about your posting to Malaysia so far.
Dr Ivan Starčević: I arrived on Dec 1, 2019, only a few months before the Covid restrictions and lockdowns started. Many big things had happened up to that point, with mutual visits at the level of prime ministers, concerts of big Croatian troupes in Malaysia, the export of Proton cars to Croatia … you name it. There even was a direct flight between Kuala Lumpur and Zagreb at one period. Now, as a kind of diplomatic archaeologist, I’m trying to slowly recover piece after piece of this glorious past and build upon it.
We understand the embassy has prepared an exciting line-up of events to mark the occasion.
A number of events are being planned but the list is not finalised yet. The highlight will undoubtedly be a klapa concert at The Ritz-Carlton, KL on Nov 3. The word klapa means ‘a group of friends’, and it is a kind of special Croatian male acappella multipart singing. It is included in Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage of mankind. Bošket, a six-member klapa troupe, is flying in to be presented to the public for the first time. We are also working with DBKL to ensure that Malaysians will have a few more occasions to enjoy their unique way of singing.
Croatia offers many wonderful discoveries, from Diocletian’s Palace to Plitvice National Park. What would you recommend that first-time visitors to your country see, do and experience?
Croatia is indeed a beautiful country. I’m happy to see that Malaysians are coming more and more to experience it for themselves. In the last few months, I’ve been back to Croatia twice and met groups of Malaysian tourists while at Zagreb’s main square of Trg bana Jelačića. Both times, I saw familiar-looking faces, approached them and asked, ‘Where are you from?’ And they answered, ‘From Malaysia’.
Croatia for beginners? I wouldn’t want to do injustice to any of the scenic places of my homeland. So my advice is — just go there and try it for yourself. Allow for some time, don’t be in a rush and try to meet people as much as you can. Almost everybody speaks English. Enjoy local food at the green market, and visit beautiful coastal cities with narrow streets or medieval castles in northern Croatia. Visit in winter and you’ll enjoy snow like in Christmas fairy tales. In spring, flowers bloom everywhere; summer is about turquoise seas and autumn is about harvest fruits and beautiful colours. All are unique, worth seeing and personally experiencing.
Tell us a little about your hometown and its unique regional specialities and attractions.
I was born in a small city called Zlatar, just 50km northwards from Zagreb, in Hrvatsko zagorje, an area with gentle hills, many forests, vineyards and creeks. Zagorje is an authentic Croatian province. There are some food specialities, which I’m going to elaborate on a bit later. Another specificity of my native area is castles, where Croatian nobility used to live in medieval times. This is a parallel world of mystery and enchantment. Smaller castles are called kurija, which are just bigger mansions in which the petty nobility used to live. By the way, have you ever heard of the great love affair between Geza Mattachich, a Croatian officer, and Princess Louise, daughter of the Belgian king Leopold II? Stories have it that the loving couple used to spend a part of their time in one of those kurijas not far from the place of my birth. I have also lived in one of those for a number of my childhood years. Very romantic, isn’t it?
How did your journey in diplomacy, which has spanned three decades, and counting, begin?
I’ve always liked foreign policy. When I was young, there was a famous newspaper Vjesnik (this would be something like The Herald in English). I adored their foreign policy articles and columns and would first read big analyses of foreign policy. When I was working on the staff of the Croatian parliament, and at the time of Yugoslavia’s break-up, I entered into the office of the first Croatian foreign minister Zdravko Mršić and asked him how I could become a diplomat. Those were the early days of independence. So he said yes and started the process. Allow me to most humbly thank him.
Croatian football is also famous, with several World Cup appearances and Bojan Hodak being manager of Kuala Lumpur City FC. Tell us about your own interest in the beautiful game.
Bojan is a good friend, and I sometimes go to Kuala Lumpur City FC matches. Of course, many know that Croatia came in second in the world after the last World Cup in 2018. But a new test is coming very soon — the World Cup this November and December in Doha, Qatar. The Croatian team has qualified, and we play the first match against Morocco on Nov 23. We are considering organising real-time big-screen viewing of the matches of the Croatian team in KL, maybe jointly with countries we will play against. My forecast about Croatia’s success in Doha? One of the medals, for sure!
Malaysians, as you know, love food. What should one try while in Croatia?
When it comes to food, there are at least two Croatian cuisines you have to try. One of them is the cuisine of our coast, declared as one of the best in the world. And the healthiest! Istrian truffles and wines are also a paradise indeed. Given the closeness of Italian cuisine and that of the Croatian coast, an interested Malaysian may already have a pretty good idea what the food of this part of my country is like. Just to add, until a few years ago, there was a Croatian restaurant operating in the heart of KL named Dubrovnik, after the famous Croatian city that is generally considered a pearl of our tourism.
Another type of our cuisine is continental, the part of the country I’m from. This is typical Central European food: meat, sausages, potato, beans and wine. As already mentioned, I come from an area called Hrvatsko zagorje, and its signature food is called strukli, one of the most famous national dishes in general. This is an example of how attractive simplicity can be. There are two types of strukli — boiled and baked. They comprise only a few ingredients, the most important being fresh cottage cheese. I can personally make another popular dish from my native area — thick bean soup, which is simple and perfect.
And what have been your own favourite discoveries about our country?
The rainforests! It’s so empowering, overwhelming and utterly wild! Sometimes I go jungle-trekking, which is difficult but so rewarding! One really feels awe being in the jungle and thinking about how many centuries and millennia it has been there, basically unchanged. I’m simply fascinated by the jungle and all its plants and animals. It is so humbling. Malaysian cuisine is another and nasi lemak really is something special. And all the tropical fruit. I also enjoyed discovering Melaka, Penang, Langkawi and Borneo. KL is also such a peculiar city, offering an inexhaustible source of new experiences daily! You know, I did my doctoral thesis with a background in postmodernism. And KL encapsulates that style perfectly.
Describe your idea of a perfect weekend in KL.
I have some work to do almost every weekend so I have to be moderate. Saturday usually includes a few hours of following the news portals to stay updated. After that, I exercise in the gym or go for a run or both, and maybe swim. Then, it’s a short walk to Kinokuniya to check out new books, feed the stray cats and dogs in the area and possibly nap in the afternoon. In the evening, dinner with friends in one of the many restaurants. I like all the food available here: Malaysian, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and more. There are plenty of choices. A perfect Sunday for me means staying at home and enjoying simple things, like reading a good book, cooking a homemade meal and listening to good music. I like rock n’ roll, and my favourites are the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. But, most profoundly, to have a perfect Sunday, you need to feel at home. And this is how I now feel in Malaysia.
This article first appeared on Oct 31, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.