A Bob Djurdjevic Column, May 1990OPATIJA, Croatia - The first thing I noticed about the hotel "Ambassador" in Opatija was the five prominently displayed stars at its entrance. In most of the rest of the world, this is supposed to connote excellence in all respects, not to mention high prices. The second thing I learned about the "Ambassador" was that its reservation system didn't work. Had I not had a written confirmation of my reservation with me, I might have had to go all the way back to Italy, or worse... The third thing I found out about the hotel "Ambassador" was the most irritating of all. And it did not take me long to experience it. Its elevators didn't work! Or not very well, anyway...
Right after I had showered following my travel ordeal from Phoenix, I was supposed to attend a gala reception by our joint American-Yugoslav hosts of this business conference. As I stepped into the corridor in front of the elevators, at the 10th and the top floor, I noticed several other couples waiting for the elevator. Since they were all speaking English, it was easy to compare notes about how long they'd been waiting. "This must be the rush hour," noted one of the ladies.
It was more than that. After waiting for an elevator for at least five minutes (actually, it was probably closer to 10, but "who's counting, anyway?"), we finally managed to get into one. It started going down, but as it filled up after a couple floors, the elevator seemed to bog down.
"Let's jump!" suggested one of the inhabitants. "Let's what?" I asked. "Jump," he replied, totally unfazed. "I've been here a couple of days now. If you jump, the elevator seems to get the message, and starts moving again." I thought he was kidding. He was not. He jumped a few times, to prove the point, and low and behold the thing did get moving!
I couldn't believe it. Americans jumping in the elevator of a five-star hotel to get it going! And seemingly loving every minute of it... Think about what they would have done if a "Day's Inn" elevator malfunctioned in Fargo, North Dakota, for example, let alone in a resort town!
Later on, I discovered a refinement to the elevator-jumping system. While riding down in the company of a former U.S. ambassador and his assistant, we ended up stuck on the fifth floor. The ambassador did his damndest by jumping up and down, but the thing just wouldn't budge. Stubborn like a mule. That's when somebody suggested that one of us ought to get off. A British-speaking person volunteered. The ambassador jumped again. We took off... Slowly, down the elevator chute, that is... In the days to come, I ended up walking the ten flights of stairs down to the lobby rather than wait for the elevator.
This being my first night in Yugoslavia, I dreaded the thought of the rest of the trip. If this is how a five-star hotel functions, what can one expect from other, lower rated establishments?
My anxiety increased during the reception. Hotel "Ambassador" is situated at a site with a "million dollar" view. The reception was held outdoors. So, the scene was primed for a very enjoyable evening. It was not. And even though it was a fairly chilly night, I could not understand why all the "warm" dishes had to be served cold, why all the bread and snacks had to be necessarily stale, and why both had run out even before one got to the second cocktail!
The next night, as I returned to my hotel room, turned out the light and bedded down, I heard an unusual fluttering noise. I jumped out of my bed startled. It seemed as if there was a bird flying around. I turned on the light. At first, I could not see anything. Then, I noticed a large bat which had landed just in front of the door. A bat! In a five-star hotel?! But, of course, what do you expect if the hotel does not have window screens...
I tried everything. I shouted, I hissed, I waved my robe frantically... But, the bat did not care. He just lay there in front of the door... motionless. Finally, I realized that I had no choice. It was either my good night's sleep, or the bat! So, I took one of my shoes and hurled it at the animal. I got him with a single strike. I threw the carcass out the window, which I bolted tightly.
Fortunately, the "Ambassador" was a unique experience. This allegedly five-star hotel was only that by the five stars which hung over its entrance. Which is why a tourist must be leery about appearances... Although the hotel staff were friendly, and the scenery pretty, those were about the only positive things which might have made it into a five-star hotel. Later on, during my stay at the Belgrade Intercontinental, for example, I experienced the service worthy of the two or three extra stars which the "Ambassador" was displaying, but not delivering.
By the way, the postal service out of Opatija also lacked a few stars. We received today (July 23!?) my post card clearly marked AIR MAIL (and with sufficient postage) which I handed in for a hotel clerk to mail on May 29! That means "air mail" took nearly two months to reach us! Was that an exception? Hardly. The post cards I sent at the same time to my office and to relatives in Toronto, Canada, also arrived this week... via the slow boat to China, I suppose...
P.S. On my drive back to Opatija from a day's trip to Plitvice, a beautiful lake district in the Serb part of Croatia, I had noticed a number of unusual flags being displayed along the roads. They were the traditional Croatian red-white-blue striped, but the white had a checker-board-type crest in the middle (instead of the traditional "red star" which the Croatian communists used).
Back at the hotel, after managing to make my 18:00 commitment in the nick of time, I asked the hotel front desk staff to recommend a good seafood restaurant for me. They did. I decided to walk to it.
Once I got there, I realized that something unusual must have been going on. There were masses of people waving the new Croatian flags, singing and cheering. Once inside the restaurant I asked the waiter to explain what all the fuss was about. "As of today," he said, "we are free of Communists. Today's festivities are a celebration of the new Croatian (right-wing) government's taking over from the Communists."
Being a Serb by birth, and having heard about the "ustashi" atrocities against the Serbs, I must admit that I was starting to feel apprehensive in the midst of such a Croatian-nationalist rally. But, as it turned out, I had no reason to worry, although some anti-Serbian incidents were reported later on in the Yugoslav media. My Croatian waiter was so happy that I was making an effort to speak Serbian (which, of course, he called Croatian), that I ended up getting my after-dinner drink "on the house."
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