First, flashback to early last week, when I was writing my friend from home. I was explaining to her that Croatia felt "full of contrast," and was a place of "many extremes." Turns out, this was to be the perfect description for a week spent both absorbing an incongruous culture, and also self-reflecting on the contradictory lenses I assume when traveling for work.
We stayed at, in the exact words of our accompanying Croatian security detail, an "old communist hotel that still runs as if communism is the governing force." The hotel was cold, decrepit and hollow. Our shower had chunks of black mold falling from the walls. The carpet was stained and decades old. The curtains were made from the same cloth as the bed sheets, and both were filthy and stained. There was a make-shift doctor's office next door to our hotel room, with waiting chairs set-up in the hallway. The staff was equally cold--they showed obvious annoyance when asked for anything. Smokers puffed on self-rolled cigarettes in the halls of the hotel. Smoke seeped in under the four-inch gap between our paper-thin door and the horror-movie style hallway, and it crept out the frosted room window that never quite shut completely. Our housekeeper even smoked in our room once while cleaning the bathroom.
However, despite the relic living conditions, Zagreb was nonetheless a place of incredible beauty and historical significance. Although the staff was downright rude at our hotel, people in downtown Zagreb were almost too-friendly. A stunning Christmas market filled the center of Zagreb, and locals and tourists alike strolled past wooden stalls stacked high with handmade, local arts and crafts. The smells of cigarette smoke were replaced with wafts of cinnamon and nutmeg from the mulled wine stalls. I followed a winding cobblestone street up a hill to Lotrščak Tower, a 13th century structure built to protect the city that has fired a cannon from its top every day at noon for the past 100 years. The sunset view from the top of the hill offered a gorgeous painting of the city's red- and orange-roofed cottages, bustling Christmas shoppers, and antique buildings below. Under the shadow of the soaring spires of the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, fruit and vegetable vendors in red-tents bargained with hurried shoppers at Dolac Market. At the top of Strossmayer's Walkway, high schoolers gathered to share smokes and gossip, and a mother bundled up her child before heading down the many steep stairs to the narrow alleyway that led to bustling Ban Jelačić Square.
There was graffiti on everything, even major government buildings and historical monuments; yet, strangely, the graffiti seemed to intentionally intertwine with pastoral vines that also crept up the walls of these landmarks. Human attempts at destruction of property were met with a natural rebuttal, and the convergence of these two extremes created something beautiful.
It was in this setting that I began to muse over the perspective I assume while touring.
Many of my experiences abroad are vastly different than what might occur for a typical tourist. I don't just photograph the major tourist destinations and then go back to my comfortable, Western-style hotel where everyone speaks English and there are Cheerio's available at breakfast. I work with locals at the building, I walk to work through the ghetto areas that typically surround a venue situated on the outskirts of a city, and I put aside my Western ideals to cater to the demands of my local audience. For the most part, this offers me a unique lens with which to observe the world; however, sometimes, it also means I am made painfully aware of the social malices that target whichever audience we are absorbed into.
Americans are surely not immune to social issues. Surely, there are wrongs that need to be righted cross-culturally and not excluding of any nationality or social group. However, it is an unique experience to be the target of an injustice unexperienced to the same degree in one's own cultural group. It is one thing to observe, advocate or commentate on an issue, and an entirely different experience to be targeted as the object of that social malady.
My first glimpse of a perpetuating discourse of misogyny in Croatia was at the venue during load-in for the show. It's fairly typical for the local crew who help out our show in each city to be almost exclusively men, and for them to be absolutely shocked there are women who are employed as crew on our show. It's also unfortunately common to be sexually harassed while working with locals. Part of my responsibility during a load-in is to take orders from my superiors and to then elaborate on those orders in relaying them to the local crew. In Israel, some of the men refused to take orders from me because I was a woman. They would ignore what I would say, which is not only a work hindrance when trying to squeeze 15 hours of work into a six hour time allowance, but also a safety hazard when explaining where to push a 1,200 pound crate. In Colombia, the local crew-men asked me out on a date; and, when I smiled and politely said, "no thank you," they cat-called me the remainder of load-out. In Panama, the local crew enjoyed visiting the women's costume room--just to smirk, stare and make me feel comfortable, while I took down and packed out the room. In the United States, it is common to have local women working alongside local crew-men, and men are much less likely to verbally harass a woman giving orders; however, it is not uncommon to experience cat-calling and muttered sexual innuendos. In Croatia, however, the "typical" types of workplace harassment were more than just inexcusable, inappropriate and degrading--they were downright scary.
Back to the venue. I was putting together the men's and women's make-up rooms, and needed the building staff to remove hockey benches from the rooms in order to make space for our make-up tables. This is a common request in every venue we play globally, and it's a simple fix. But, the local building worker was furious to have to move the benches, as he had been watching TV and was annoyed he had to get up. So, although it was his job to remove the benches and it was not an inordinate request, he decided to take his fury out on me. It wasn't even my direct request to him--it came from my superiors--I was just in the rooms sorting them out and relaying the information. He removed one bench from one of the rooms. I politely asked him to remove the other eight in both men's and women's rooms. He rolled his eyes and cursed at me. He came back 30 minutes later and removed the other benches, but just from one of the rooms. I found him in the hall and asked, again politely, to remove the benches from the other room as well. He then spit on the ground and cursed at me again. I went back to continue organizing the rooms, and he followed me into the room. He shut the door and pretended to play with the lock, all the while staring directly at me, so as to make me feel like "he was the boss." It was clearly a way for me to feel afraid of him. I pushed past him and let security know. Security informed me the local was upset a woman was giving him orders. Security continued that I should be wary of this building worker, and should let my male superiors do all the talking to him. I should be "wary" of him? I shouldn't speak? How about it's 2015 and no woman--no person!--should ever be fear-mongered into a submissive work ethic?!
The second incident was in the hotel lobby that night. I was on a Skype call, and an older man stood about five-feet to my right, just staring at me. I felt uncomfortable and turned away, but he continued to stand there and stare. I turned and looked him directly in the eyes, and he motioned for me to go up the elevator with him. I look of disgust crept across my face, and he angered that I had turned him down. He began to approach me, his eyes filled with fury, but then my boyfriend started to walk over from the bar area, unknowing of the situation unfolding before him. I waved to my boyfriend, and the man, clearly disgruntled, humphed and turned to go up the elevator on his own. It bothered me that in this situation the creepy man had given me two choices: either I go home with him, or I belong to another man. It wasn't enough when I didn't want to go with the creepy man: I had to have another man "rescue me" from the situation.
This violence-based sexist social discourse continued to saturate my experiences in Croatia. The next day, I took a cab downtown to do a little sight-seeing. En route, we hit a spot of traffic and many cars started honking their horns. The taxi driver was quick to say, "I'm sorry for the honking. It's disrespectful they are honking their horns, but it's probably some women drivers." I was confused. There I was, definitely a woman, in the back of his cab. So, on what planet would he think I would both accept an apology for being a woman and then also agree with his blanket statement that women drivers are disrespectful? Furthermore, as we were literally next to the honking cars, one could clearly see that the majority of the honking drivers were men. So, again...confused. The cab driver's next statement, though, brought the "violence-aspect" back into my experience of sexism in Croatia. As we navigated out of the traffic, he turned to me, smirking, and said, "a woman like you would never, ever try to be disrespectful, right?" I paid for the ride and walked the rest of the way.
I believe in feminism. I believe women should not be denied opportunities because they are women. I believe men and women should be equals in the eyes of the law and in the cultural norms we practice. Yet, I do not typically spend my free time like this, mulling over the injustices women face in being considered lesser than those society thinks are fortunate enough to be born with a penis. I see the injustices of each society I visit as an observer; and, as an observer, I am aware there are many injustices that need to be rectified before humanity can do right by its own kind. I believe in racial equality. I believe in LGBTQ rights. I believe in economic equality. But, to be clear, I am typically solely an observer, an ally and an advocate. I am not writing this article to say I am a victim. I am not writing this article to say I know what it is like to be faced with gross injustice on a daily basis. I am not writing this article to put down the men in my life. I am not writing this article to suggest I have been held back from my full potential. And, I am not writing this article to imply for one second that I think it's my calling in life to carry a flag for women everywhere, to proclaim SEXIST and advertise this as the sole cause in my life. I am writing this to share my experience: my experience as a woman in Croatia, my experience as a traveler with a different lens than the average tourist, my experience as an American, my experience as the target of a social malice that is indeed very real and indeed needs its flag-raisers, and my experience converging the contrasts between these perspectives.
Growing up outside of Boston, I did not often experience misogyny. Sexism, of course. I'm sure every woman in America has experienced some degree of sexism. But hatred of women? Intentions of violence towards women in almost every interaction between woman and man? No, I surely did not experience that growing up, nor have I experienced that in any other place internationally that I have traveled to, worked or lived. It is for this reason that I am sharing this story.
It was at load-out at the building when I broke my foot. A local was pushing an 800-pound crate on one side, and I was on the other. We had to turn the crate, and the local whipped it around the corner, forgetting I was on the other side. The crate cannot easily be stopped, and, as it flew around the corner, it caught my ankle underneath. Crunch!
I was thankfully wearing steel-toed boots, or the damage to my foot would have been much greater, but I immediately knew something was very wrong. It was pure adrenaline that got me to the show office, because I was unable to walk again after sitting down. I needed to get to the ER, so we waited for our Croatian security detail to come and take me in a cab to the nearest hospital. This is where the nightmare began.
On the way to the hospital (keep in mind, I had a broken foot and was in a s**t-ton of pain), the security guy kept telling me how I was "ruining his Sunday evening." He had a "lovely evening planned with his wife and daughter, and now [he] was going to miss them and not see them again until after New Year's." Side bar: it is his job to be at the venue when we are there, not cannodling at the mall with his family. And, because he wasn't at the venue when the accident happened, I waited almost an hour for him to come back before we could head to the hospital. Additional side bar: he has stated many times that he chose this job, a travel based job that takes him far from his family. He was fortunate we were playing his home town, but on any other week he would not have had the opportunity to visit his family. Guilt-tripping me because he wanted more free time with his family did not seem accurate; rather, it seemed more like he just didn't want to be bothered to do his job. Now, these are just the traits of an asshole, not a misogynist, but it was from this beginning that the downhill continued.
I was tearing up a bit in the back of the cab because I was in tremendous pain, and the security guy (let's call him 'SG') started telling the cab driver, "oh man, only a woman could get hurt this way," and, "if only she would stop blubbering for two seconds." I took out my phone to text my boyfriend, who was still working back at the load-out, and SG told me to "stop bothering [my boyfriend]. You know he is busy, so quit with your blubbering and leave him alone." I quietly put my phone back into my pocket.
We finally pulled up to the ER doors, and I was pushed inside on a wheelchair. The hospital was an antique. It was dark, only a few flickering lights were on in the long, main hallway that doubled as a waiting room. This was quite different than the stark, hyper-sanitary and snow-white hospitals in the States. As we rolled into the hallway, a nurse came to check me in. SG told me to "shut up" and not say anything about what had happened. I was confused--I hadn't done anything wrong, I had been injured at work and there was nothing illegal about that. I started to question his intentions, but he interrupted me and said, "you can't say anything about being injured at work in Croatia. Just let me handle it." The problem was I had been injured at work, and I needed that documented for my worker's compensation insurance. I tried again to say something, but he told me again to "shut up," and to "just let him handle things." I felt like a five-year old child being scolded by an angry father: I didn't understand what was happening, I wasn't allowed to understand what was happening, and I wasn't allowed to be in control of what would happen next.
After making up some lie of how I was injured, SG parked me in the hallway. His friend, a security guard working the night shift in the ER, came out to greet him and they began speaking in Croatian. They kept pointing at me and snickering, and then they began making comments such as, "bet your boyfriend wouldn't like two guys taking care of you right now," and, "how do you like having two guys?" The sexual innuendos continued for awhile in a blend of Croatian and English, before they got bored and decided it would be great sport to wheel me around the waiting room for their entertainment. SG wheeled me right into a door. Luckily, I turned my leg in time to avoid crashing my broken foot into the door. SG and his friend laughed and returned me to a spot in the hallway. I was clearly no longer in control of what was going to happen to me that night.
Some time passed and I was taken for X-rays. I told SG I could go in alone. I did not need a translator as the doctors and technicians all spoke English and I understood how the X-rays would be taken. SG refused. The X-ray tech asked why SG was accompanying me, since it's not appropriate for another grown man of no relation or attachment to me to be in the X-ray room, as well as being in the tech's way, but SG was quick to say he was my "personal body guard" and I needed "constant attention" because I was "fragile." Again, he wished to exhibit his dominance over me. The tech asked what they always ask when you get X-rays: "are you pregnant?" I began to answer, but was cut off by SG (yes, seriously, it just didn't stop). SG laughed and said, "let's hope she's not pregnant or [her boyfriend] will get a nasty surprise. I know how tour girls are!" I didn't laugh. I told the tech I wasn't pregnant, and I asked him for a lead mat for my pelvic area. Providing a lead mat is standard medical practice anywhere in the world, but apparently not when asked by a woman in front of two men. SG again laughed and said, "why do you need that? Since you're probably pregnant, you could use the radiation before [your boyfriend] finds that nasty surprise!" The tech and SG shared a laugh, but I refused to go on the X-ray table without the mat. Cancer runs in my family, and I was not about to put my health on the line to satisfy their sick joke. I was provided with a mat while SG commented that "I was a needy little bitch."
After the X-rays had developed, I was taken to an exam room. A doctor sat at a computer in the corner of the room. SG came into the exam room with me, despite my repeated reassurances that I could go into the exam room on my own. It was embarrassing. I haven't had another person accompany me in a doctor's exam room since I was probably ten years old. SG told me "it was for my own good." He informed me that doctors in the hospital we were in had a record of sexually taking advantage of their women patients. This implied two things: that there are no women doctors in Croatia, and that I need to feel afraid when I am being examined by a medical professional in Croatia. I'm sorry, SG, but I whole-heartedly disagreed with both of those implications. There might be a culture of misogyny, and SG might make me want to feel afraid and in need of his constant supervision and male protection, but I cannot imagine that in a modern medical facility I would need to worry about being raped during an examination of my foot. I am sure there are also plenty of female doctors in Croatia. However, to my surprise, when SG came into the exam room with me, the doctor acted like it was totally normal and he actually only spoke to SG regarding my medical information.
I informed the doctor that I was the patient, and I would be paying the medical bills. I added that SG had no relation to me and should not be discussing whether or not I was allowed to return to work. The doctor shrugged at this, but SG was quick to say, "I can just get all the info from the doctor, you can wait in the hallway." I refused. This was MY foot and MY job in jeopardy! SG was angered that I wouldn't let him take complete control of my medical information, but he sulked in the corner and let the doctor feign interest in my injury.
The doctor didn't even look at my foot. He referred me to an orthopedic, read my X-rays, told me it was broken and then dismissed me. My mind began racing. Was I going to have to return to the States now? Would I have to leave my tour family and friends? Would I need surgery? What was wrong with me? Could I still skate? How badly broken was it? Where was it broken? Could I get something to ease the pain? He offered no information to me, and I was not about to have him give more information, and effectively more control, to SG. I resigned to the idea that I would simply have to get through the night, travel to the next city, and visit another doctor there. I was wheeled out to get a cast put on, and then the situation became much more troubling.
SG and his security buddy sat next to me, on either side, while the cast was applied. We were in a room that opened to the main hallway, and the door was open so everyone waiting in the hallway could be a part of my horrible experience. I told SG I needed two copies of the doctor's reports--one for worker's compensation and one for my Dad, who would want to look over my report since he is an internist. SG laughed and said "I'm your Daddy now, sweetie. Just shut up about your paperwork and let me handle everything." I took my phone out, desperate to tell someone from the show what was happening at the hospital. SG took my phone away and told me to "leave my boyfriend alone. He's probably busy and doesn't have time for woman nonsense." Meanwhile, I had over ten missed messages from my boyfriend and tour management, all of whom were concerned because they had not heard from me.
SG grabbed my leg and put it on top of his, rolling my pants leg up. He started laughing and said, "looks like you forgot to shave! My face is smoother than your damn leg!" He began stroking my swollen, bruised and slightly stubbly ankle to embarrass me. I feigned a smile, trying still to be polite and just get through the night. A nurse came in and told me I would be getting a shot for pain relief. Without telling me what they were injecting me with, SG held me tightly so I couldn't move and the nurse pulled my pants down below my waist. SG, his buddy, the nurse, and the cast technician were all laughing and talking in Croatian. After they injected me, SG said, "you're not allergic to anything, right?" I let him know that I have a drug intolerance and can only handle small doses of medication. He laughed and said, "well, looks like you're about to have some fun then!" I was absolutely terrified.
I became increasingly anxious, and, when the nurse pulled my pants back up, I became totally overwhelmed and started showing signs of a full-blown panic attack. I was afraid. I felt helpless. I wasn't in control of my own health or my own fate. I felt alone. I wanted someone I trusted and loved there to support me, and to tell SG and his buddy to leave me alone. I wasn't sure if I was going back to the States, or if I was going to the next country on tour. I didn't know how badly my foot was broken. I didn't know if my skating career had come to an abrupt end. And, on top of it all, I could only imagine what SG and his buddy had in store for me next. I began to hyper-ventilate and pour out uncontrollable tears.
SG began stroking my neck and talking a million miles a minute. He told me I was having a panic attack and needed to "shut up and let the doctors do their job." He whispered that I shouldn't tell my boyfriend about the stroking on my neck. I just stared at him through tears, exhausted and afraid. I wanted him to stop touching me. "Dumb woman," he said again, "just calm down!"
Eventually, I calmed myself down. There were no crutches or ibuprofen available at the hospital, so we stopped at a pharmacy on the cab ride back to the venue. SG wouldn't let me go inside the pharmacy, and he would only purchase a kind of pain medicine that he wanted. He bought six boxes, and gave me two, saying I could always come to his room for the others if I wanted them. Again, it was all about control. The whole cab ride back he was talking about how great he was. How he had worked for this person or that tour group, how he had served in a convoy and how rich he was. When he stopped rambling to breathe, I told him I had a Master's degree in Education and that I was a high school teacher before joining tour. He laughed and said, "I really don't care. Just shut up, I'm sure you're just still hyper-ventilating." He told the cab driver, "women, they just don't stop! She's an annoying little bitch!" He continued talking by himself for the duration of the ride.
Back at the venue, my boyfriend took one look at my face and knew something far worse than a broken foot had transpired. I was taken to the hotel to wait, and my boyfriend left load-out and met me at the hotel so we could travel to the next city together. Management had decided to keep me on tour, while they figured out if it made more sense to be sent back to the States or stay on tour for the duration of my healing. While I waited at the hotel, SG made sure to embarrass me one last time by telling everyone in the lobby that I made "an Oscar-winning performance at the hospital." He also went on to relay my medical information to anyone who would listen, and to share that "this is why he hates taking care of women, since they are always trouble." He started to talk about my unshaven leg, but a coworker of mine cut him off and told him he was being utterly inappropriate. Other coworkers nodded their heads, suggesting he wait outside. I wished in that moment that I had the courage and strength to have done the same hours ago.
Yet, it's for this experience--this story of hate, of fear, of injustice--that I am truly thankful I travel as a local and not always as a tourist. I saw Zagreb's cultural gems, and also felt its cultural errs. I appreciated what millions of women in misogynistic societies feel on a daily basis. It is a gift to now know exactly how fortunate I am to never have to feel afraid in the ER back home, to never have to feel isolated from the people I love, to never have to worry for my safety when I put my well-being in the hands of a trusted authority. There are groups of people in every culture that are not afforded these basic human rights, and I am now intimately aware of this. I am no longer simply an observer, and I can advocate more completely now for those offered a harsher reality than my own.
I am thankful this happened to me. I am thankful I will not return to the States to proclaim the wonders of Zagreb's Christmas Market as the defining descriptor of Croatian culture. Nay, I have seen much more of Croatia. I have seen its Christmas Market, but I have also felt its culture of misogyny. I have had every bit of control taken from me, I have felt afraid for my safety because of my gender--oh, and I also saw the sunset from the top of Lotrščak Tower.
Croatia was indeed a place of contrast: from graffiti-adorned stone walls and gorgeous sunset views over red-roofs, to finding the space between being a photo-snapping tourist and a woman at work, subjected to the same misogyny as any other Croatian femme. It is somewhere in between these extremes that balance, and truth, can be discerned; and, it is with continued exploration, appreciation and acceptance of the world that this truth can be both spread and endorsed.
Thomas Paine said: “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow.” It is experiences like those I have shared that have brightened my understanding of the world, and deepened my thanks for both advocates of change and for my own position. Indeed, we should love the woman that can smile in spite of sexism, that can rise above a culture of misogyny--sharing her story in hopes that other women might not feel alone in their experiences, and that the spread of this story might create more advocates among the observers.