I’m not sure what I expected Croatia to be like. I knew about the Dalmatian coast, renowned for its natural beauty and Mediterranean character. It’s the most visited part of the country, having been a tourist hotspot for decades for precisely those reasons. I knew about the Istria region, where residents of the seaside towns are as likely to speak Italian as Croatian, but only through the lens of Rick Steves’ TV show. I had seen the ancient and lovely walled city of Dubrovnik, but only in its role doubling for King’s Landing on Game of Thrones. Compared to the coast, cities like Dubrovnik or Split, or even the national parks with their awesome waterfalls, the capital city of Zagreb is unexplored country. So I really didn’t know what to expect from Zagreb, and I had intentionally avoided learning much about the city before my trip. But if I’m being honest, I did have preconceptions about what I’d find in Zagreb: I expected it to be a bombed-out socialist shit hole. The first shock to my presumptions arrived before even setting foot in Croatia; it was the surprise of seeing Zagreb from the air.
My first surprise was how big Zagreb was. Although a relatively small urban center, the metropolitan sprawl of Zagreb was vaster than I had anticipated. This was Europe, but a part of Europe I had never visited before, and throughout my stay in Croatia I experienced a mixture of the strange and the familiar, and overall there abided a feeling of otherworldliness, an invigorating sense of being in uncharted territory. When we landed at Zagreb airport, the only other planes on the tarmac were an Aeroflot flight (Russian airlines) and an Abu Dhabi carrier.
I’ve detailed before the series of Croatian connections that have crossed my life throughout the last decade. Well, the synchronicity police seemed determined to mark the occasion of my trip, and the coincidences continued right up to my departure. The week prior to my trip, the European migrant crisis became headline news around the world. At first I was just seeing consistent coverage on BBC World News, as the Hungarian government began hurriedly constructing border fences to shut out the stream of refugees. Soon the story was getting daily coverage on CNN, with live reports from Zagreb and throughout Croatia. Based on the stories typically covered on American TV news, a viewer could be forgiven for thinking that the world ended at the United States’ borders. So to see Croatia mentioned daily on mainstream cable news, right on the eve of my journey, was quite a surprise.
Through following the migrant crisis news coverage, I had learned about the Schengen Zone, wherein travellers can move through western European countries without passing through passport control. It is the Schengen Agreement that has robbed me of much-desired stamps in my passport during recent European sojourns. Luckily, the Schengen rules wont be fully implemented in Croatia until next year, so I enjoyed the pleasure of waiting at passport control to receive the coveted stamp.
As previously mentioned, I’ve married into a family with deep Croatian roots, and now have an extended network of in-law relatives living in Zagreb. Because I was the first representative of the American side of the family to visit the ancestral homeland, my mother-in-law asked if I would take some gifts with me to give to the Croatian relatives. I had to pack the gifts in their own box and check it as luggage. Upon arriving in Zagreb, I awaited my parcel at the baggage claim, only to eventually be directed to file a claim for lost luggage (a “baggage irregularity” in airline parlance).
While my package wasn’t awaiting me at the airport, my aunt Z was. The excitement about my visit was evident on Z’s face; smiling broadly, she embraced me the moment I was clear of customs control. Z helped me file the baggage irregularity report, giving her own local address and phone number as the contact information. Once that was finished, we were out of the terminal and into her sedan, speeding toward central Zagreb.
Traveling from the airport the city center, you pass through “Novi Zagreb,” or New Zagreb. This is the area outside the historic center, the realm of the socialist housing blocks built between the 50s and 80s, and home to other modern developments. Then you cross the Sava river and enter central Zagreb.
This was a European city center, and I was surprised. Again, I don’t know exactly what I expected to find, but I was caught off guard to find Zagreb a properly European capital city. Historic Zagreb often reminded me of Italy, and I learned that locals refer to their city as “Little Vienna”. And, as a jaded Pittsburgher, I was immediately envious of the public transportation in Zagreb: not just buses, but also trams! And the streetcars are all painted in Zagreb-blue.
As Z steered us through the city she was constantly pointing out landmarks and giving some background information. She pointed out the controversial Academy of Music building, a modern structure completed in 2014, and a point of contention among locals who tend to either embrace it as a contemporary addition to Marshal Tito Square, or loathe it as an out-of-place architectural aberration. We also passed the National Theater, where Z and her husband spend much of their time (both work in the theater), and where we would later end up that evening.
We arrived at Z’s flat, in a modern building near the city center, and situated on a hill with an expansive outlook on Zagreb. It was a spacious and beautiful apartment; I was particularly in awe of her study, which she lamented not being able to spend much time in on account of being busy in the theater. We repaired to the balcony to take in the view and toast my arrival with some fine varieties of rakia.
Soon more members of the family arrived. I met Z’s father, sister, and nephew. Z’s husband, a theatrical actor and director, had prepared lunch. It was humbling to receive such generosity from people I was meeting for the first time, and to be in the presence of such happy and loving people. They were the very image of the archetypal European zest-for-living and appreciation for life’s simple pleasure…it was enough to make you sick!
The first course was anchovies, one variety called regular and one called “super-salty,” though both tasted thoroughly salinated.
Next was marinated salmon with capers.
The main course was a seafood stew, a type of brudet with eel, grouper and rockling.
Dessert was vanilla ice cream with wild berries that had been picked that morning.
Before taking me to my lodging, Z informed me that there was to be a movie premiere in the National Theater that evening, and we would be attending. She explained that it was rare for the national theater to host a film premiere (she knew of only one previous occasion), but this film was receiving special treatment. The film is Zvizdan, translated into English as The High Sun, and is a Croatian production (with some Serbian and Slovenian backing) that received the Jury Prize at Cannes earlier this year, and has been submitted as Croatia’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Z had asked the event organizers if the screening could include English subtitles, for my sake, but it was not possible.
As it sounded like a special occasion, I decided to dress up and wear my blazer. It was a good thing that I did. When I walked from my apartment to the theatre that night, I found that the front entrance had been given the red carpet treatment, literally. TV news crews interviewed the film’s stars as they arrived, and the Zagreb majorettes flanked the front steps. It was somewhat overwhelming for me, especially since I hadn’t slept for nearly 36 hours at this point, but Z knows everyone of note in the Croatian film and theater world, and was constantly introducing me to Croat stars of the stage and screen.
The inside of the theater was ornate and beautiful; you can get a sense of the building’s baroque style from the exterior. From our box seats we had an excellent view of not only the movie screen that had been erected on the stage, but also of the lavishly painted ceilings, and of course the who’s-who of Croatian art and politics who had turned out for the premiere. Z surveyed the crowd and pointed out people of interest: there’s the film’s producer, there’s the son of the most famous Croatian actor, and a whole host of ministers from the national government.
“Ah,” Z said, “even the prime minister has come out tonight. It’s only because there’s an upcoming election, of course. He wants to be seen everywhere.”
“Milanovic is here?” I asked.
“You know Milanovic?” She said. “Oh, you know everything!”
Of course, I had just learned the name of Croatia’s prime minister just days before, through the news coverage of the migrant crisis. Only two days earlier I was learning Milanovic’s name through his announcement that refugees would be welcome in Croatia, and then there I was sitting in sight of the prime minister at the home field premiere of the nation’s biggest film in years.
It was a struggle to remain awake during the screening; I was sleep deprived and trying to follow a film in a foreign language. I nodded off several times, but managed to make it the entire screening without snoring. I was able to grasp the broad strokes of the plot; Zvizdan is an artistic exploration of Serbo-Croat relations as modeled through three stories of forbidden romance. It was a good film, I look forward to seeing it with subtitles.
After the film screening, and the perfunctory adulation for the assembled cast and crew, the party started. It was absolutely packed, elbow-to-elbow, both inside the theater and especially out on the veranda where revelers attempted to smoke cigarettes without scorching the surrounding smokers with their burning butts. As we wove our ways among the crowd, Z introduced me to even more artists, industry icons, and politicians. I didn’t get to meet Milanovic, but it was no matter; it had been more than enough excitement for one day.