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Crazy in Croatia

Let The Insanity Begin
Croatia had always been a place I couldn’t find on a map but after a friend in Zagreb repeatedly invited me and my hometown of New York City was wearing me down, I thought, “Why not?”  I’m still not 100% sure how I found myself heading to the land people familiarize themselves with by saying, “Oh, wasn’t there a war there a few years ago?” but I did.

I flew to Paris for a connection to Zagreb as Air France runs Paris-Zagreb flights daily.  By sheer luck – and with truly no help from the Charles De Gaulle airport staff – I found myself in the most remote terminal deep in the bowels of the Charles De Gaulle airport.  This was where they put the passengers to Zagreb.  I expected to see a bunch of babushka’s but instead found three fellow Americans who sat in the same collective wonder of how the heck we wound up heading to Zagreb.

Before heading to Zagreb a former professor of mine gave me two pieces of advice: one, at some point every trip seems like a bad idea so be prepared for that.  And two, don’t mess with crazy Croatians – they are “sick, twisted bastards.”  Both pieces of advice came in quite handy the instant my plane landed in Zagreb. 

Zagreb International Airport is smaller than the smallest major U.S. airport I have ever been to (Idaho Falls, Idaho) in the middle of nowhere.  When I met up with my friend Jan who I hadn’t seen in ages he and his friend played a not-so-funny joke on my weary jet lagged mind…they swapped names.  In the car they confessed their true identities and explained they were now kidnapping me (apparently another bad joke).  I hit two birds with one stone.  The trip seemed like a bad idea and in the span of five minutes, the Croatians proved to be both crazy and “sick, twisted bastards.”

To my complete and utter surprise, I was not kidnapped and we arrived at Jan’s apartment, the car parked partially on the sidewalk in true Italian influence.  Jan’s parents appeared sane and extremely kind by all accounts, immediately lavishing me with food.  After a delicious five course meal of soup, salad, potatoes, vegetables and dessert I was instructed to take a nap in my bedroom which they generously converted their living room into for me.

Walking Zagreb
The sounds of New York accompanied me to Croatia as there was loud drilling and shouting in Jan’s surrounding apartments which cut my nap short (and would thereafter disrupt every attempt of sleep after seven in the morning).  Despite the torrential rain and Jan finishing up some work I ensured his worried parents I was a worldwide traveler and would be fine navigating Zagreb in a dark, bleak downpour…pure American bravado. 

My umbrella and I headed onto the rainy streets of Zagreb and it looked a lot like Prague, even a banner atop one of the realtor offices proclaimed “Zagreb…the new Prague.”  Perhaps that sign is a little premature – Prague maintains its history and preserves its buildings while Zagreb seems dead set on erecting Hong-Kong style buildings in the middle of their amazing gothic city.

Zagreb is hardly a war-torn metropolis -cafes line every part of every street, concert posters decorate the walls, new fashions are in the shops.  Unfortunately one technological advance has yet to reach Zagreb: a power washer.  And these old buildings are in desperate need as graffiti has overpowered any sense of their past grandness. 

As the rain continued to throttle me I journeyed up Radiceva, a street off the main square that technically was leading me to Uptown but at the time I was too wet to realize I was hiking up to the old part of town on cobble stones in three inch heels.  I escaped into an antique store/gallery named Arkadija that carried lots of medieval items and everything from Croatian tiles to swords but myself and the storeowners were the only people in there (anytime but summer is off-season for tourists). 

I picked out a few items to purchase when all the store lights went out.  Again, the thought that maybe this trip was a bad idea and that Croatians were “sick, twisted bastards” came thundering in my head.  The lights came back as I was standing face to face with a female mannequin dressed up in armor.  Then the lights went off and on and off again.  I had been in Zagreb for 4 hours and was already losing my mind and following in suit of the “Crazy Croatians.” 

Jan and I eventually met and we took one of the cities charming trolleys back to his home where again his mother prepared another outstanding meal, resplendent with potatoes and bread – in New York carbohydrates are practically outlawed due to the fat…but in Croatia, I feasted on every morsel of them.

We then retired to watch American television (CSI, Invasion) in English with Croatian subtitles which seemed to make Jan and his family long for America.  It’s a very common trait in Zagreb that Jan, his family and his friends possess; they hate Zagreb almost as much as they love it.  It’s similar to how one would talk about his or her family – make fun of it, loathe, hate it and yet nobody else better talk trash about that family.

The Gladiators and Geniuses of Zagreb
The next day Jan had to work but after being woken up by the neighbor’s drilling I went out for my first real day in a much sunnier Zagreb.  Zagreb is one of the remaining places in Europe where the American dollar is stronger than the local currency.  I purchased art, sneakers, pens, notebooks, food and spent a mere twenty dollars. 

At first glance the people of Croatia are similar to most Eastern Europeans – cold, busy and troubled.  The men of Zagreb are both disarmingly handsome and disarmingly rude.  They walk around in trendy European fashions (often in some type of Adidas soccer jacket) with dark hair and dark eyes – reminiscent of their Italian cousins – and always have a mobile phone attached to their ear while engaged in a deep, animated conversation.

They seem to have quite a purpose in their stride which seems both mysterious and sexy until they don’t even flinch while they bounce you into the street.  This audacious rudeness is not reserved for Americans alone; it appears to be for all women.  Except the gladiators.  And I don’t mean the Rottweiller or Golden Retriever dogs that dominate the city.  I am talking about the ninety year old Croatian women who lurk on the sidewalk and wallop men with their canes or step on American feet when they try to go around.  Apparently this is what years of navigating sidewalks in Zagreb does to women.

Zagreb is loaded with cafes.  On every city block, every four stores or so there is a café.  Some look like the kind you would expect at a Holiday Inn in Iowa and others look as though they were gloriously transplanted from their beautiful second cousin, Italy.  In theory cafes are a brilliant idea; one can drink a cup of coffee, linger over a sweet and take in the gorgeous atmosphere and people.  However for every cup of coffee there are ten cigarettes lurking ready to take the fun out of things.  At least the outdoor cafes mix in some fresh air with the smoke.

The museums are all a short walking distance from the main square of Zagreb, Jelicaca Square.  Ante Topic Mimara converted an enormous, beautiful school into a world-class museum baring his name, The Mimara.  For a few dollars one can view multiple paintings by the likes of Renoir, Manet, Degas and DeGoya in relative silence.  When I sat down on a couch in the middle of the museum and succumbed to jet-lag – falling asleep for a good ten minutes – not a soul had noticed as sadly there were no visitors in a museum of geniuses.

Next was the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, one eighth the size of the Mimara, featuring original Croatian paintings – bold colors, Picasso-esque figures and a sense of an identity emerging.  Just around the corner is The Stone Gate – an outer cavern of a church where for fifty cents one receives a candle from a nun and lights it amid other candles.  It is complete tourist trap and yet impossible to say no to…who wouldn’t pay fifty cents to make their dreams come true?

A short walk from that is The Lotrscak Tower – a former bell tower that allows you to climb to the top and take in a stunning view of Zagreb.  It is not for people who are afraid of heights and also not great to visit on a windy day.  I climbed the creaky stairs to the top, flung open the wooden door and thought I was going to be blown right off the tower.

Bordering Croatia
The next day we visited Maribor, Slovenia’s second largest city next to Ljublijana, about an hour and fifteen minutes by car from Zagreb.  It was joked to me by the Croats, in their ever present self-deprecating way, that upon entering Slovenia it would feel like dawn from night.  And I must say – it did.  The houses immediately went from dilapidated and gray to bright and cared for.  The Croat’s reminded me that while Prague and Slovenia were busy westernizing itself, they were busy fighting a war.

After a day taking in the picturesque city and dining at the spectacular Villa Rustica which sits at the base of the Pohorje Mountains we returned to the Croatia/Slovenia border control.  I understood the Croat’s envy and disdain for the motorists who passed the border by waving their “European Union” passports out the windows without stopping.  We were regulated to a non-moving line filled with Croatians and Bulgarians and did what any pecking order would call for; hurl insults at the Bulgarians for holding up the line.

On my last day in Croatia I purchased more of Croatia’s main souvenir, ginger bread-esque hearts, ornately decorated with a mirror in the center (the reason for it different every time I asked) and waved goodbye to the innocuous statue of Nikola Tesla.  Tesla is Croatia’s most famous son who made numerous contributions to the modern world of electricity – from inventing the radio to inventing the spark plug – and sits just off the main square.  Like the Duomo in Florence – wherever you go, he is there.

Finally I bought one last chocolate bar…rather, three last chocolate bars.  Croatia has some of the finest chocolate I’ve ever eaten.  Like most Eastern European countries they do chocolate right – sticking strawberries, bananas, cherries in a glorious crème in the middle – and Croatia’s Kras chocolate was breath-taking. 

Goodbye Nikola, Hello Prada
On my last night in Zagreb my hosts and I went to see The Devil Wears Prada.  Movies cost three dollars and seats were assigned via a smart little ticket machine.  The movie was about making it big in New York and it was the right movie to send me off from my Croatian reverie back to the bustle of New York. 

It reminded me of the opportunity New York offers that very few places in the world do: a chance to make your dreams come true.  And when you walk the streets of Zagreb, or many other places in the world for that matter, you don’t see or feel that optimism that is so effusive in New York. 

When we returned from the movies I heard Jan’s mother on the phone laughing that “our American girl” had her out at the movies.  It made me smile to hear that; I am an American girl through and through – a loud, proud New Yorker no less.  But for one week I was a crazy Croatian…and I loved every single minute of it. 

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