Because I am pretentious, who’s about to embark on the rewarding but arduous journey of doing my Graduation Project (#GPwoes)
or should I have embarked on already? I shall expand the title of this post to be more like sociological articles encountered before (with, of course, failure). One can dream of being successful one day, but for now here goes:
Split, Apart: The Dialectics of Class, Gender and Global Inequalities
a.k.a. 48 hours in Split, Croatia: HTF did I end up here?!
To safeguard the anonymity of the people involved in this story, I will use pseudonyms and general physical descriptors.
Some background info about this little strange and surreal story:
I arrived in Split from Zagreb after a rocky overnight bus ride that lasted five hours, and it was my penultimate stop before I headed back to Zagreb (again in an overnight bus) to catch a train back to Budapest, and then my flight back to the UK for the last few days before I moved back to Singapore. Tight schedule indeed. I’d been travelling nonstop for a month-ish again spanning May to June, so at that point I was physically and mentally drained save for random bursts of social energy (cheap gelato helps). Besides meeting up/bunking with couchsurfers, most of the time I was travelling and exploring alone but I was very open to chatting with strangers when I felt like it. It earned me social capital, opportunities to develop empathy, respect and a lot of funny situations.
I didn’t expect this to happen at all, but it did. And I didn’t know how to react at that time. But now, almost three months later, reflecting on my exchange journey and splashing about into my final year in NTU as well as reading up on soci academic literature (rusty. readings backlog. help.), I think back to those times, unsure (still) of how to analyse it or make of it so I leave it open-ended – a story with questions but no need for answers because there just doesn’t need to be any. So much for everyday experiences, but here goes:
I believe in the Universe. It is a glorious entity, and like religion to some and cake to others, the belief in this magnificent being brings me comfort and help me believe that things fall into place, where they need to be. So imagine me, groggy from the overnight bus ride (and bumping into soci course mates, fancy that small world), wandering through the quiet, empty but beautiful streets of Split at 6AM in (that reminded me so much of Venice) in search of my hostel, mindlessly awed by its waterscapes, blowing up my phone memory even more by taking photos of the scenery…
And then I met Lance.
Now Lance is a white Caucasian male, above 60, eloquent and a really nice person. He sees me taking photos of the scenery, and asks if I would like him to help me take a photo. I decline – I only take photos of sceneries, not so much of myself. I ask him where he’s from, as does he, and we begin conversing. Somehow we walked along the seafront, got lost, and by accident I helped him find the car rental shop he was looking for (but being that early, it was closed). By the privilege of being a “small” Asian female student or maybe I was a nice person to him, he said he would help me find my hostel – and so we set off, wandering deeper into the town, through unmarked corridors and streets, talking about everything and anything until we finally found it.
During the hunt for my hostel I found out he believed in the Universe as well, and for some strange reason the Universe “told” him to ask me if I wanted my photo taken (earlier meeting). You can imagine my surprise when I heard that – not many people I know openly state they believe in the Universe so I was thrilled. What a connection established. What a small, beautiful world. I thought our meeting had ended when we found my hostel but I was wrong – Lance told me to meet him that night for dinner at 7PM at this restaurant, and he would bring a couple of lady friends he knew I would love to meet and get to know being the sociology major I was. We exchanged numbers and parted ways.
At this point, I was half elated. The Universe had answered my one little problem: I was running out of Croatian kunas and I thought… well, if I can get a free dinner, why not? Travelling taught me to be thick-skinned. But, hey it also brought me a new friend. So the day went by, and night fell… and 7PM dawned. I waited at where we were scheduled to meet, and Lance arrived with two Croatian ladies, Yvonne and Irene. Yvonne, tall and slim, with short hair and a piercing gaze. Irene, shorter, chubbier, long hair and insanely bubbly.
So we sat to dinner: Lance, Yvonne, Irene and I. Lemme digress here that holy shit, this fine dining shit is off the hook and I will probably never get to eat awesome ass shit like this again ever in my life unless I earn substantial peanuts.
So we talked during dinner, exchanged details about our lives. I asked what Yvonne and Irene did for a living, and that’s when I knew things were about to go a very different way. Irene leaned forward to me and was saying, “Oh! We work as–” but was instantly cut off by Yvonne, who snapped something in Croatian. Irene remained silent while Yvonne answered for her: “We work at night.”
I don’t know how I got the idea they were security guards, so I asked them more questions. Isn’t working at night tiring, will they be late for work etc. Subject changed, I found out more about their interests and hobbies. Irene made her own perfumes and scents, which I found super cool. Earlier that day, apparently Lance, Yvonne and Irene went for a drive outside Split and the ladies showed Lance the countryside and traditional Croatian villages. I looked at the pictures, I watched the videos, I felt the twinges of admiration and envy…
When Lance started talking about how amazing a driver Yvonne is, and how much energy and spirit Irene had. “She’s an old soul,” he grinned, patting her. And theennnnn he started talking about how he got her lingerie and how great she looked in it and how it’ll complement her figure and fiery energy. Then he said it: “You should have watched her dance last night!”
It finally dawned on me. I looked at Yvonne and asked, “Are you two dancers?”
Well! 5 months abroad and I really didn’t expect this! But this is not a bad job, nor a good job. This is a job. Dignity should not be attached to work that is meaningful in its own ways.
“Cool!” was my reply. I started complimenting their strengths cause hey, pole-dancing isn’t easy. It works the arms and core. Somehow me showing genuine interest in their work made Yvonne smile and open up to me more, she told me what time they worked till (9PM to 6AM), how the place worked, how it looked like, where it was…
“You should come visit us later!” Irene chimed in, bubbly as usual. Literal :D So, we chatted some more, and then they left for work, leaving Lance and I alone to enjoy dessert we ordered after they left. And this is where I really didn’t know how to feel.
“So you found out that they’re strippers,” he said.
“I don’t judge them for it.”
Neither did he. But in summary, Lance recounted to me how he met these two ladies. The Universe (wtf) told him to go to the strip club the night before where he met Irene, and after getting to know her, talking to her, watching her “work the pole”, he knew he wanted to get her out of there. Though I cannot remember in verbatim, he couldn’t believe someone as gorgeous as her with a beautiful personality would be working as a stripper, “taking her clothes off and letting men touch her”. Irene was aware of his intentions, but refused to leave without bringing Yvonne along.
So he told me, “I’m on a mission to rescue these two girls and get them out of there.”
His plan was to get them out of that strip club, and he would employ them and give them white-collared jobs he knows they’ll fit perfectly well in. “They both have degrees! And they’re working the pole!”
Croatia – I found out from my couchsurfing host in Zagreb, from the walking tour guide, from a lot of people – is a corrupt country. There’s not a lot of employment opportunities to go around, so I guess that’s why they had little choice but to work in a strip club (but again, this is not a bad job). This aggravated Lance, hence his insistence and repetition to me that he wanted to “rescue” them from that job.
Somehow the night ended with me feeling the food coma and sleep depravation, so I said I would head back to the hostel to rest… but not before Lance saying he’ll head back to his hotel after he visits the girls. I changed my mind and tagged along and that’s how I ended up in a Croatian strip club after 24 hours in Split. Small place, two poles, ladies in lingerie, loud music, darkness. Yvonne and Irene were excited to see me. They gave me a hug each and introduced me to another one of their friends/colleagues. Funny enough, I watched them pole-dance and they asked if I wanted to try before I left out of exhaustion.
No, thank you.
What happened after? The last 24 hours – I spent the day with Lance. He rented the same car Yvonne drove and by right, we were supposed to spend the day with the two of them going outside of Split, but the two ladies couldn’t be contacted by phone or otherwise the whole day. He laughed it off, “You know the ladies are the smart ones. They’re the ones making men throw money at them.” But he kept trying to call Irene. She didn’t pick up.
All the way into the night, when I went to the bus station to catch my bus back to Zagreb, I thanked Lance for his hospitality and watched him disappear into that same strip club again, unsure if he would find Yvonne and Irene in there. I didn’t keep in contact with him. I’m not sure why I didn’t.
I suppose now when I think back, there are a lot of factors at play. A Western caucasian man takes it upon himself to “rescue” two Eastern European women working what he perceived as less than desirable jobs as stripper (I infer this from the impression he gave me when he kept saying “they’re taking their clothes off!” but I could be wrong). Of course, they are very nice and capable ladies, just in situations where they had to take these jobs despite having substantial academic qualifications. I question the use of the word “rescue”, I questioned him too but I forgot what he had said with regard to the word choice.
I can think of a lot of people who would avoid strip clubs, and others who would visit it, but when I think about the ladies who work there, but see it as work and sex-related labour they have to perform but is not linked to their dignity or who they are as people – I see great courage and strength in them. Discourse and people may say it’s immoral and disgusting, strippers are stupid and have no better prospects but I don’t agree. Yvonne and Irene were wonderful people in my eyes, regardless of the job they do or the skin they show.
Is it a case of two ladies taking whatever they can get from a man and bolting? I can’t say for sure. If they did, did I not do the same? Though, Lance did offer to pay for all my meals and I am a poor student but that aside. I don’t want to say women have the upper hand and are cunning enough to dupe men using their bodies and sex appeal or whatever other manipulative methods people think they possess (that is a very misogynistic view). Yes, maybe some people do use their gender characteristics to achieve certain things, but not to the extent of taking and running. That encourages distrust and promotes hate. I do not stand for that, but again, I don’t know exactly what to think of this whole experience. I thought about it for a long while, but I thought I’d share it anyway.
Wherever they are, I wish them well and hope that they are happy.