It's the day after Christmas in Slovenia, and it's unusually mild for this time of year. The temperature is a balmy nine degrees accompanied by a springtime-like drizzle of rain; perfect weather for driving into the middle of former Yugoslavia for an interview and a few cold beers.
Obrežje is a small settlement in eastern Slovenia. By eight in the evening, the village is quiet and glowy and glistening from the rain. On the eastern edge of Obrežje is a sleepy little border crossing into Bregana, Croatia. And right smack dab on that borderline is Kalin Tavern and Inn—a quaint 180-year-old establishment that is awkwardly straddling the two former-Yugoslavian republics.
As I arrive, I notice a string of cement flowerpots blocking the road right outside the tavern. Apparently, these were put in place shortly after the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 to prohibit the passage of cars over the border. Unable to resist, I walk over to the flowerpot-barricade and stretch one leg over onto Croatian soil. As if on cue, a yellow light turns on inside a small guardhouse about a hundred feet away on the Croatian side, and a border guard starts to make his way down to the barricade in the rain. I feel like I am in a John Le Carré novel and scurry into the tavern in hopes of avoiding an “international incident.”
I present myself to Mira, the middle-aged Slovenian bartendress who promptly calls the owner, Saša Kalin, to notify him of my arrival. Walking deeper into the bar, I notice a bright green line is painted across the floor indicating the continuation of the borderline that travels right through the tavern. I ask Mira for a beer and find the tavern only stocks the Slovenian brews Union and Laško. No Croatian beers. I wonder if this has anything to do with the long-standing Slovenian-Croatian rivalry. For almost fifteen years now, the two republics have squabbled over money, European Union status and, you guessed it, borders.
The disputes have been major stumbling blocks for Croatia's accession into both NATO and the European Union. According to the Statistical Office of the Republic of Slovenia, the shared border that runs from southwest to northeast is 670 kilometers long, but if you ask The Croatia Bureau of Statistics, it's only 668 kilometers. A measly two kilometers may not sound like much of a discrepancy, but in the bloody game of calling dibs, it's more than enough to argue over.
The countries have argued over the Sveta Gera mountain, whose summit is claimed by both. They've argued about demarcation principles, especially regarding land along the Dragonja River. But, perhaps most importantly for Saša and his bar, they've argued over where to draw the line in the sand at the Bay of Piran, which opens up into the Adriatic Sea. For the sake of ease, Croatia wants to draw the line down the middle of the bay. This decision, however, would conveniently restrict Slovenia's direct access to international waters. Thus, the borderline at the bay remains vague. Follow that borderline inland for a couple hundred kilometers and what do you hit? Kalin Inn and Tavern.
I sit in an old, wooden booth on the Slovenian side of the bar with my half liter bottle of cold Slovenian Union while waiting for Saša. When I heard about this bar-on-the-border, I had expected to find a campy European sports bar filled with over-compensating tourist kitsch, soulless merchandise, cheesy photo-ops, and English expats tending bar. The kind of place where lines of long-haul coach buses idle in the parking lot while the drivers cat-nap or chain-smoke. The kind of place where tourism goes to die.
Instead, I am relieved to find myself in an honest-to-goodness rural watering hole. A no-bullshit establishment for eating and drinking that would make Bukowski proud. Half-full Coca-Cola fridges. Bare light bulbs. A skeleton crew. Stacks of empties in crates in plain sight (on the Croatian side). A DIY-looking jukebox that plays obscure J.Lo and Eastern-Euro pop songs in turn. A busted-but-playable, coin-operated pool table that no longer accepts any coins. What about the art, you ask? Three faded posters of cartoon dogs wearing funny hats and vests huddled around a pool table smoking slims and drinking beer. Classic. This is my kind of tavern.
Saša arrives and takes me on a brief tour of the place. He's a really nice guy and, thanks to a few years spent in culinary school in Florida, speaks great English. The fact that his father is a Slovene and his mother is a Croat seems all too fitting. Hanging on the walls of the main hallway are vintage, black-and-white photos of the tavern, old pictures of Saša's father's hunting conquests and, my favorite, a photo of Mia, Saša's mother's fluffy white lapdog, lifting her leg and peeing on the Slovenian-Croatian border stone located right in front of the tavern's front door.
He shows me a cozy dining room where tables are pre-set for dinner and rusted pistols adorn the walls along with Christmas garland and tinsel. There is a giant taxidermic wild boar head hanging proudly over a live-wood fireplace. There are no diners. There is also an adjacent room used for special events like police functions and small weddings. The border runs right down the middle of this room, too, though there is no green line on the floor. Across the parking lot is a nine-bedroom inn that is only open for business during peak season.
After the tour, Saša and I head back to the main bar area and sit in a booth on the Croatian side where I ask him a few questions. I order another large bottle of Union and ask Saša how the whole “border thing” effects business management. "The business is registered in Slovenia," he says, "so we pay Slovenian taxes and everything. But we have two phone numbers. One for Slovenia and one for Croatia."
Croatia officially became part of the European Union back in June. I ask Saša if that changed anything here at Kalin. "Nah. Not really," he says, "now we have to wait for Serbia and Bosnia to get into the European Union and then the Schengen border will move to them. Then the road out front will be opened. Because right now it's kind of a dead end with the barricade." I mention that once Croatia joins the Schengen Area, the green line on the floor will mean nothing. Saša only nods.
I ask him if there are always guards out front. "On Croatia's side there is always a guard," Saša says, "and on the Slovenian side the guards come and go. They come in a car and stay maybe a half hour or so."
After our conversation, I head back into the cozy little dining room and take a seat beside the fireplace with another large bottle of Union. I order a plate of hunter-style wild boar with dumplings and cranberries and take a look around. A taxidermic bear stands almost six feet tall on his hind legs with his mouth gaping in a never-ending silent roar. He wears a floppy Santa's hat. Caribou antlers protrude from the wood paneling on the walls with hollow gift-wrapped presents dangling from the dried bone. Mira enters the room with my plate of wild boar. It's good. Very good. And I think to myself: Where am I? What is this place? I've crossed many international borders during my travels but never with a cold pint of beer in my hand and the flavor of wild boar lingering on my tongue.
After dinner, I say goodbye and hvala to Mira. I tip-toe to the car while keeping my distance from the ominous flowerpot-barricade… just in case.