by Mickey Batts
I write this in Split, where I do not live. I’ve been here since the start of January and due to border closures I will stay well past the date I meant to leave. The Croatians will forgive this, given that the outside world has caught a bug. As of Thursday morning all nonessential businesses were closed. The only places open are grocery stores, bakery counters, pharmacies, and doctor’s offices. I won’t be seeing a cafe or a bar for a month at least.
One place that has remained open, and daily, is the fish market. I have never gone inside. The smell is, to my expat nose, strong, but everything for sale is fresh caught and put on ice. Also, aside from tuna I can’t cook fish worth a damn. Shrimp, though—shrimp I can manage. Garlic, olive oil, a dash of Old Bay, a jot of mustard, a baguette—one can do no wrong. Soon I may brave the stink: it is a pleasant place. The Croatians are only happy to be there. They greet each other, they laugh, they tell jokes, even through a paper mask and a pandemic.
Wintering in a milder climate like this is nice but was never my ambition. Glasgow and Scotland are what I call home—though the Home Office in the UK would disagree—and home is where I would rather be. Twice now, visa limbo has forced me out of Scotland. A stay in Croatia, among other places, was how I made the best of that pisspoor turn. Resources and flexibility like mine are rare. I could never gripe or gloat about that, nor the comforts here, the Croatian welcome.
A friend of mine has been forced to leave Scotland, too. But hers is another rabbit hole, and that one led back to the United States, where both of us were born. Her husband is editor-in chief at Dockyard Press, and marriage to a UK citizen is, in premise, a clear-cut chase. By the rules a spousal application can only be made abroad—whence you come—and it takes time. The US is a bad place for such a wait—far, far worse than where I find myself—and it would have been even before the illness struck.
Croatia was only a lucky choice. Here SARS-CoV-2 is not rampant. Present cases number 113, and 47 of those are in Zagreb, inland and far north. The number cured (5) beats the number dead, at the time of this writing a big beautiful zero. The European outbreak started in Italy, right across the Adriatic. There 33,190 people have caught the virus, 3,450 have died, and 4,440 have recovered. The Italian site lists the dead before the cured, unlike the site for Croatia. This might say something about the prospects, but not about the quality of the Italian response.
It gets luckier. The first cases sprang up in Lombardy and Veneto, and these were promptly closed. I avoid air travel, so bus, train, and ferry were what brought me to Croatia. Guess which way I came? While I bummed without cares in Turin, Milan, Venice, and Murano—sampling the cuisine, climbing the Duomo, drinking too much—the bug rose up in China. Soon people were dead. Less than a month after I had gone, the bug had made the long flight and the same rounds.
The sweep in Italy helped stem the spread elsewhere, particularly here in Croatia. I simply outran it—never knowing it was on the heel—and only just. The response here has been no less mindful, no less kind.
Scotland has that kindness, that capacity for reason, which is a good part of why I love it so. The United States does not. Neither does the class that holds power in the UK, a cadre of braggarts that drowns out the national conversation and sees all the turf as English.
American and English rule have a lot in common. Wane of empire; the rump-state mindset; fear, geopolitically speaking, of a shrinking dick—better commentators have gone there already. No less similar is the response to COVID-19; that is, criminally negligent on either part, though worse across the Atlantic. My friend’s dispatches evenly divide the picture between hoarders and truthers. Neither point of view is any less sick. Here in Croatia there has never been a crush for groceries, an empty shelf. There have been no fistfights at the pump or in the aisle at the megastore. Nor is there any downplay of the problem, much less a pundit’s denial that it exists at all, save as a fiction to make a spray-on president look dumb.
In the US, make-believe prevails. Fact cannot beat opinion, and the political culture is sectarian. It was why I left in 2016 and why, despite visa troubles, I am glad that I did. We have begun to hear stunning stories—stunning foremost in their inability to surprise. ProPublica and other sites will spell it all out, but I can touch on three.
Richard Burr represents the people of North Carolina, Kelly Loeffler those of Georgia; Burr is also chair of the Senate intelligence committee. From all appearances, these two senators used inside knowledge not to protect constituents but to dump stock and warn rich friends of the pandemic. A week earlier, news had come that a bloc led by Mitch McConnell tried to veto emergency aid—this because passage of the bill might, maybe, a little bit, thwart some small part of an anti-abortion agenda. McConnell, what a hero, also delayed passing the coronavirus aid bill by keeping the senate in recess. And for what?
Violence is underway. Such heads as these belong on pikes. This is where my friend is stuck, and where—to no credit of my own—I am not. I get to park an arse and drink Croatian beer, and she gets to search six grocery stores for an eight-ounce can of beans. One of these is a land of plenty.
Eat up, Americans. You voted them in, these blatant cunts. They have no agenda but to rob you. And you have kept them just where they are. You allow the evil, and now, since we’re talking about the spread of a disease, you do so even at risk of your own health and lives—and the health and lives of those nearest to you. A pandemic is beyond “individual choice,” which you tout so much and do not understand at all. National choice—world choice—is where the stakes are now. In due time, and that means soon, Scotland will go its own way, and my friend will come home, rid forever of your deny-or-hoard wasteland.
Some talking heads like to blame what has come on Chinese cookery. They cast it vividly, wet markets full of horseshoe bats on drippy hooks. What strange people those Chinese are. Since we’re talking about food, consider Hannibal Lecter. His cocky screws thought “some damn thing from a zoo” would follow the bribe paid out in the third act—lamb chops, extra rare. Say a bat went to slaughter all you like. Your own mouth is where you put the meat.
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