The owner of Total Croatia News portal Paul Bradbury would not be relevant at all to this story if they had not called me from Croatian Counterintelligence Service and said that I should act that I am interested in interviewing him in order to find out is he a spy or not. I saw him at Ban Jelacic Square and if I hadn’t been warned in time, I would have thought that he was just one in a series of ordinary passers-by, an unsuspecting tourist, who was sightseeing in our city.
We sat down at the Magnolia patisserie. Paul didn’t even have time to say ”Let them eat cake”, I’ve already started cross-examining him.
Everyone is trying to escape from Croatia in search for a better future, and you come from wealthy England to Uhljebistan to launch a news portal. Are you crazy? Why, how and when did you come here? Where did the idea for launching the portal come from and why the name TCN? Por Kee?
Well, not everyone who comes from England is wealthy, and with the madness of Brexit, living in England is even more insane than choosing Uhljebistan these days.
My journey was not a simple two-hour flight, rather the final stop in a 9-month journey from my local pub in Oxfordshire to South Africa after I drunkenly announced I was going to hitch-hike from one to the other to get over a failed relationship. I was more than halfway there when I picked up a job in Somaliland. While in Hargeisa, news came through that I had sold my house in the UK and I was free to buy a house anywhere I wanted. I was getting a gin and tonic from the fridge while my African housemates were watching CNN, and there it was – the advert which changed my life.
Croatia, the Mediterranean as It Once Was.
So it was really thanks to the Croatian National Tourist Board that I am here – their targeting of pink Brits in northern Somalia was niche but highly effective. I had a Canadian friend in Sarajevo who was there during the siege and came to the coast each month. She made a list of ten places to buy, but I was too busy looking at the lovely Sarajevan girls to listen, and when she asked which place was most interesting I was embarrassed that I had not been listening. So I closed my eyes and pointed at the paper. My finger landed on number 6 and so I ended up buying a house on an island I still can’t pronounce – Hvar.
It was the best thing I ever did. My next job in Baghdad fell through and then I met the gorgeous assistant librarian in Jelsa with blue eyes like the sea. She still tolerates me all these years later, as do our two fabulous daughters.
Why TCN? It all started with the idea to have a blog about Hvar. Total Hvar was popular, then came Total Split, then Inland Dalmatia, Zagreb, Dubrovnik, wine, cycling, sailing. I then saw an opportunity to do a news portal, and so Total Croatia News was born. I had no idea what I was doing, or any real understanding of Croatian politics (I had no idea which party President Josipovic was when I interviewed him, for example). And I had never heard the word uhljeb. Thanks to the encouraging words of Croatia’s army of keyboard warriors, you can learn a lot in a short space of time.
Paul’s blood sugar levels dropped. He realized that he had no business with an ordinary journalist but with a professional investigator who was ready to do anything to protect national interests.
You became famous here as the owner and journalist of Total Croatia News, but few people know it’s just your cover story. You’ve traveled half the world. You were in Russia before the collapse of the USSR, you were in Somalia, in East Berlin just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, beaten up by the Romanian securitate, had a gun to your head in Rwanda (twice), were in Belgrade the day Milosevic was arrested … What were you doing there? Admit to me right at the beginning that you are a spy, Soros’ mercenary, and it will be much easier for us all.
He tried to delete photos from his cell phone immediately, but I was faster.
To be honest, I have been accused of being a spy so often I have forgotten who I am supposed to be working for. I do confess it does not look good. Not many Westerners end up in Abkhazia or Nagorno-Karabakh, I guess, and arriving in Belgrade the day of Milosevic’s arrest aroused some curiosity. And while I can’t take all the credit for the fall of the Soviet Union, it is hard to deny that I was living in suburban Moscow for a month just weeks before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Or in East Berlin before the wall came down. Making television appearances explaining the use of peanut butter in closed towns in the Ural Mountains which don’t exist on any maps is hard to explain too. As for Soros, I don’t see the Soros factor in my bank account, but who knows. The truth will possibly come out in my next book, Around the World in 80 Disasters.
And the rumours about my real mission in Jelsa continue. One theory is that I was put there to monitor the olive harvest in the surrounding villages over a ten-year period, and now that project has finished, I have been relocated to Varazdin to count pumpkins.
But I have always taken strange roles to get to where I want to be. Like being the first male chambermaid in a Munich hotel, then becoming a bellboy and being tasked with asking Keith Richards to turn the music down at 2am…
You are not a religious man (even though you were reborn on arrival in Croatia at the age of 33, the same year as as the Ressurection of Jesus) and you criticize our tourism and government. Are you suicidal? I don’t have problems with this, but some Croatians are Chatolibans and they maybe think that you burn in hell. Did you have some bad experience with our people? Did ”the patriots” say, ” If you don’t like it here, go away. No one forced you to come. Who are you to criticize Croatia?”
On the contrary, I used to be very religious and almost became a priest when I was 18. That is what 9 years in a Jesuit boarding school can do to a man. And yes, I do criticise Croatian tourism and the government – show me a person in Croatian who doesn’t… But I always do it in a constructive way. And yes, the levels of abuse are quite special. So special in fact that I can no longer get out of bed until I get a certain level of abuse. We have long ago established that foreigners are not allowed to have an opinion here.
There is a big difference between criticising Croatia and Croatian things and criticising the Kings of Accidental Tourism and the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of government ministries and institutions. I love Croatia and really couldn’t live anywhere else. It has that gorgeous mix of beauty, lifestyle and total absurdity which I find addictive. I often say that Croatia is like malaria – once it gets into your blood, you are screwed for life. Haha, but it is a fabulous place to live, and the prospect of fucking off back to Manchester, as so many of my admirers advocate, is unthinkable.
What do you think about Brexit and the EU? Is the EU good for Croatia or are we are just one of the East European countries they colonized without soldiers?
After such a serious question, he had to subtly consult with the Queen.
PAUL: “Falcon calling the eagle, do you copy? Falcon calling the eagle, do you copy?”
THE QUEEN: “The eagle hears the falcon. I reapeat. the eagle hears the falcon…”
Queen Lizzie cut him of in his prime, as she busy drinking tea, leaving him with an expression akin to Prince Charles when he realised what kinky ears he had.
To be honest, I haven’t lived in the UK for 20 years, have an Irish mother through whom I can get an Irish EU passport (also a Croatian one now I have permanent residency, but I am worried about conscription if you guys start fighting again), so I don’t really care too much about the whole Brexit thing. Politics in Croatia is absurd enough to keep me entertained.
What do you like and what do you hate in Croatia? (Food, people, music, politics, economy…). What should we do to make this country better?
What do I love? So many things. The beauty, the relaxed lifestyle, the sensational stories of people here, the sense of community between generations, the safety, the Balkan humour (yes Balkan, for Croatia is the Balkans, even more in mentality than location), the food (but it really IS ok to have different cuisines as well), and the total absurdity of the daily grind. I even quite enjoy the bureaucracy these days, as I have found a way to deal with it which amuses me.
Not much annoys me here really. Perhaps the only thing is the Croatian national sport of complaining without any desire to do anything to change things. Croatia would win the World Cup for Keyboard Warriors and take Olympic Gold in the Complaining in the Cafe category, but get them to do anything about the complaints? I recently suggested we organise a National Keyboard Warrior Offline day when all our keyboard heroes descend on Zagreb to protest for change. Or if that is not possible, then as true patriots they commit to picking up a piece of trash for every inane or hateful comment posted online. We could have the cleanest coastline in the world within days.
You are now a new model for Varteks handmade suits. I don’t want to be impolite, but you don’t look like David Beckham. Why did they pick you?
You are a very observant man. And as such, it will come as no surprise to learn that my appearance fees are a little less than young Beckham. But at least I can speak English. It was rather a surprise to find myself as the first international male model in the 100-year history of Varteks. It is part of the Imperfect Guy in a Perfect Suit campaign, which is probably why they chose me and maybe also the fact that I always followed the fashion trends:)
The campaign started well with photogenic superhero Mate Rimac and has now descended to the likes of me. But if they can make me look semi-decent, imagine what they can do for the average man of the street.
I was really proud to wear the Varteks suit and promote such Croatian excellence (and full respect to Nenad Bakic and his team for what they are achieving turning this great company around), particularly as my appearance as a Varteks model was in Malaysia. I was there to pick up the award for Best Online Feature in the International Category at the first ever Medical Travel Media Awards in Kuala Lumpur. A real honour, and my wife and I really enjoyed both the outstanding Malaysian hospitality and the chance to learn more about their incredible success in the medical tourism industry. So many lessons to be learned, starting with their hashtag #WeWinTogether. Do you think that one could take off in Croatia? Haha.
Malaysia was also amazing for another reason. When I moved to Croatia, I was 33 years old, and I had visited 95 countries and lived in 10. And now 17 years later, I was visiting my first new country since 2002, number 96. Maybe I will get to 100 before I die. There are just four to go in Europe – Iceland, Cyprus, Moldova and San Marino.
Is this interview for Flash.hr the peak of your journalist/spy career? If it is not, feel free to lie that it is.
If I told you, I would have to kill you. But then you may already be dead. Someone’s calling me. Just let me check.
Paul: ”Yes, an operator can make one mistake, but to do it a 100 times?? It’s impossible!!! Listen mate, you may have got the wrong number, but you got the one you were looking for!!”
Most important question in Croatia to finish – Where were you in 1991?
Ah, Di si bio ’91? In some truly vukojebina parts of the Soviet Union, where else? At least for part of 91, as the good old USSR ceased to exist a month after I left. I heard the news in a classroom of a Bulgarian town on the Turkish border which had never hosted a Westerner before I turned up. I was there teaching English with the religious sect, the Moonies from the Unification Church, but if I told you the full story, you might think I was a spy.
The interview ended, and all the time I had a strange feeling that Paul’s people were following me. I carried my head in my bag. ”If my country remember to give me a public citation – good, if not, that’s OK too. It was my civil duty.