This morning, after our second day in a row of bućnica for breakfast at Slastičarnica Trakoščan, which you should TOTALLY eat at if you are ever in Zagreb, (Look for Hotel Dubrovnik, and it’s on the street facing that next to Profil Mozaik) we wandered to the Croatian National Theatre.

At first, it seemed like a normal day...

At first, it seemed like a normal day…

Croatian National Theatre

Front of the theatre in Zagreb, Croatia.

As we approached, we noticed a handful of reporters and some people setting up microphones and wondered what was going on. We decided to take a lap around the building, since we couldn’t go inside. By the time we got back to the front, a small crowd had amassed, with a group of people holding and waving signs.

Protesters from LADO gathering in front of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb.

Protesters from LADO gathering in front of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb.

Many protesters wore shirts with LADO written across the front and one of the main banners seemed to promote LADO, too.

I spoke with Vinka, a Croatian and professional violinist, who told us what was going on.

“Basically the protest is about the government cutting the salaries of the cultural workers. When we work nights and weekends, as well as cutting our regular salary–it would add up to about thirty percent of our paycheck.”

So who–or what–is LADO?

“LADO is the professional group that performs traditional Croatian singing and dancing. They perform a hundred concerts a year. That is almost one every three days! It is important to preserve the arts and culture because of the EU. Croatia is joining the EU soon, but because of that we are having to conform to many EU standards, like the euro. Our arts and language are all we have left. That is why it is important to support the artists and LADO.”

How can people outside Croatia help with this cause?

Vinka told us she wasn’t really sure. “I think the government officials need to start by looking at themselves. The money they make in one year takes me three or four years to make! So the first step is for them to cut their salaries before cutting others.”

To kick off the rally, the choir performed Va, Pensiero, from Nabucco by Verdi.

We listened to a handful of speakers, who included members of the arts community (a ballerina, for instance), as well as other supporters of the arts. Even though I couldn’t understand them, I could tell that they were all very articulate and impassioned. One man spoke about bringing culture to the streets, and stressed promoting the cause on social media like Facebook and Twitter; I caught the words “national identity” more than once.

This man encouraged onlookers to preserve the national identity and bring culture to the streets.

This man encouraged onlookers to preserve the national identity and bring culture to the streets.

There are many big issues at hand here. First and foremost being the importance of the arts.

Over the years I feel like I have justified art to a lot of people. I’ve tried to explain not only why it’s important for universities to offer humanities majors, but why I chose to major in two of the “least practical:” classics & creative writing (My minor? Art history).

Growing up as a student of music and theatre, I’ve seen how transformative participation in the arts can be. And as a traveler, it becomes more and more apparent to me just how essential the arts are to preserving and celebrating cultures.

What would Russia be without its literature, or Italy without its opera, or Argentina without its tango? How would we know anything about half the ancient civilizations that existed without their art?

Which raises another point: what will the future know about us if we don’t leave anything behind?

There are no answers to these questions, necessarily. Rather, when austerity measures target arts & culture–whether they are at a national level or within a school district–it should prompt a meaningful discussion and maybe some self-reflection.

Have you ever stumbled upon a rally or protest while traveling? What did you think?