Outwit: Border crossing inn where dinner is fraught with danger
CUSTOMERS at Kalin, a rustic, 180-year-old tavern, can eat roast pork dinners here in Slovenia, step a few yards across the room to Croatia to use the bathroom, saunter back to Slovenia to pay the bill and end their meal on Croatian soil over a game of billiards and a shot of local pear brandy.
They can do so because of the vagaries of history and an accident of geography. To prevent any confusion, Sasha Kalin, the tavern's 36-year-old owner, has painted a fluorescent yellow line across the floor to delineate the very spot, next to a pool table, where the border between Slovenia and Croatia bisects the property.
Tipsy customers who step outside and accidentally walk through a row of plants in concrete pots demarcating the border are stopped by unsmiling and armed Croatian border guards.
"This is the Balkans, so every little piece of land counts," said Kalin, whose father is a Slovene and whose mother is a Croat, and who woke up one day in May 2004 to find that the Slovenian half of his restaurant was in the European Union and the Croatian half was not.
Where Slovenia ends and Croatia begins might appear to be an arcane regional concern.
But it has suddenly taken on geopolitical significance, with a border dispute dating to the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s now threatening to stall the eastward push of the European Union.
The conflict involves a sea border the length of several football fields and a handful of tiny villages in the northern Istrian peninsula.
While hard to untangle for the uninitiated, it is deadly serious for proud Slovenes and Croats in a region long plagued by bloody conflicts over land.
At issue are rival claims to an area in the Bay of Piran that includes about eight square miles of the Adriatic Sea. Croatia wants the border drawn down the middle of the bay, but Slovenia objects, saying a simple division of the bay would impede its ships from direct passage to the high seas.
Paradoxically, although the region was embroiled in wars in the 1990s, Slovenia and Croatia, both parts of the former Yugoslavia, have never actually fought a war with each other.
While they have distinct languages, the two were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and share a Roman Catholic religious identity.
Yet a rivalry persists. Slovenes, who pride themselves on their Central European work ethic, say they look down at Croats as lawless, lazy and excessively nationalistic. Croats, in turn, make fun of Slovenes as haughty and humourless.
They also mock Slovenia for its tiny size.
Slovenia was the first former Yugoslav nation to join the European Union, in 2004, and it was the first formerly Communist country to adopt the euro.
Croatia is eager to join the European Union, but Slovenia moved in December to stall Croatia's bid.
Unless the stalemate is broken in the next few weeks, Croatia is unlikely to complete membership talks by the end of the year, throwing into doubt the future of the union's further expansion in the western Balkans.
In Obrezje, Slovenia, and across the room in Bregana, Croatia, the battle over land has fanned strong emotions. When Yugoslavia was dissolved in 1991, a border was erected along a meandering stream, formalising the division between the towns.
Today, some Croats still dine at Kalin, but Kalin lamented that freshly resurgent nationalism was keeping many people away – along with the nuisance of having to show their passports every time they crossed the border.
On a rainy afternoon, two bored border guards from Slovenia sat outside the restaurant. They could smell the roast pork inside but dared not enter.
"We never go to eat there," said one, declining to give his name.
"If we did, we might accidentally step on to Croatian territory and cause an international incident."
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