Arriving in Istria it quickly becomes clear that Istrians have a very distinct identity. Being a border region, and especially where I am in Buje, less than 10km from the Slovenian border, and about 40km from Trieste, there are different nationalities and influences, with especially large Italian communities. Brtonigla is called the most Italian village in Istria, with an Italian community that is in the majority.
This mix can be seen (and heard) in the language, as all signs are written in both Croatian and Italian, and most people can understand and speak both languages, and often do at the same time.
The food also has a large Mediterranean and Italian influence, with olives and grapes the main crops, which is a result of the landscape and soil (and the reason for the nickname ‘Little Tuscany’); pasta and gnocchi are common, including some local specialities such as fuži and pljukanci, often served with local truffles; and cured meats and cheeses. There is good fish as well, though it seems strange to me that in what I would consider a coastal area the fish doesn’t seem to make it more than a couple of kilometres inland, with restaurants in Buje and Brtonigla much more likely to serve meats, including the local boškarin, than fish. As well as the Italian/ Mediterranean food it is easy to find many Balkan and south-eastern European dishes, such as ćevapčići, ajvar and šopska salad.
This mix of people and cultures means that asking people the simple question of “where are you from?” can produce a complicated answer, which most often simplifies to “I am Istrian”.
This identity is a product of the history of the region as there was a long tradition of tolerance between the Slavic and Italian people, who mixed with each other and had shared culture and traditions, and dialects, that developed alongside each other, whilst becoming more distant from their ethnic relatives who lived further away (I noticed this in differences between the youth camp participants from Slavonia and Istria).
However, it has had a turbulent recent history; towards the end of the Habsburg empire Croatian and Slovene nationalism was growing, challenging the Italian dominance. After WWI Istria was given to Italy and the fascist government undertook a programme of forced Italianisation of the Croatian and Slovene population, suppressing their culture, language and participation in public life. Much of the Croatian population moved to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. After the collapse of fascism and WWII Istria was annexed to Croatia and new Yugoslavia, when there was a mass exodus of the Italian population. Since independence the region has been more settled, with Croatian Istria becoming a bi-lingual area.
Now there is a strong feeling towards keeping their tradition and culture alive, this is because they are patriotic people, but it is affected by having had their culture forcibly suppressed in the previous century. I have already been a witness to many examples of these traditions, and am sure I will get to see many more over the coming months.