News came out this summer that Anthony Bourdain was in town to film a Pittsburgh-based episode of his Parts Unknown program. I like Bourdain and his tv shows, and I am weirdly passionate about Pittsburgh, so I was eagerly awaiting the episode, especially after we learned of his visit to our favorite local bar (I say that like it’s some overlooked hole-in-the-wall; I’m talking about the Squirrel Hill Cafe, aka “The Cage,” which is an East End institution and deservedly so). Ahead of the episode’s premiere last night I saw several articles online calling Bourdain’s trip to Pittsburgh “inevitable.” Pittsburgh was an inevitable stop, they argue, because the city’s booming food scene and consistent ranking as a most-livable city has put it in the national spotlight. Pittsburgh has gotten a fair bit of national attention the last few years, but let’s not kid ourselves. Bourdain and crew came to Pittsburgh because he’s on the 10th season of his show and they’ve already gone to the exciting cities, so the only thing that made a Pittsburgh-centric Parts Unknown inevitable was the show’s continuation.
When word broke last June that Bourdain’s crew was filming around town user rockandrollcityplan posted this forecasted episode rundown on the Pittsburgh subreddit:
“Once downtrodden steel town (que shot of the Carrie Furnace) now changing in the face of gentrification that is creating a burgeoning food scene based on tradition (visit to Pierogies-Plus and then Apteka). Talk about a tradition of pushing out the city’s African American population with a visit to the Hill District (shot of the arena site and then new construction in East Liberty as a juxtaposition). Walk around Squirrel Hill and remark how one of the country’s largest Jewish enclaves is filled with a new Asian population (Everyday Noodles) but some vestiges of old Pittsburgh remain in its dive bars (Squirrel Cage). Something, something, filler in the Strip District… interview with Fetterman.”
Aside from Everyday Noodles and the Strip District, which did not appear in the episode, this prediction ended up being pretty spot-on. Now, the basic narrative beats of the episode can be inferred from Bourdain’s approach across the last 9 seasons of his show. I would characterize the overriding theme of Parts Unknown as old-vs-new: how places have changed, what has emerged, what has disappeared, and what it all means to the people who live there. And within this overriding theme I think there are 2 sub-categories that an episode of PU can fall into: (1), charting the (ostensible) erosion of local culture and tradition in the wake of globalization ; and (2), defying audience expectations about a place by showing that their stereotypical views are outdated and do not reflect modern conditions. There are other threads that run through many of the shows, like “the price of success” (new local businesses are doing well but they’re sowing the seeds of gentrification!) and “accepting the transience of existence” (tradition diminishes but a new generation emerges).
So now that I’ve seen the episode, what do I make of it? Overall I was very impressed with the episode, and by the people and places the producers’ decided to include. I have to qualify my take on the program by saying that I am not a native Pittsburgher, have only lived here for four years and will likely move away in the not-too-distant future. But I have loved this city from my first day here, embracing its wonders and its flaws, and a great deal of my scholarly research centers on the city’s past, present, and future. Based on my experience here I thought they did a decent job of representing Pittsburgh, showcasing scenes of everyday life along with glimpses of the extreme ends of the economic divide, and was ultimately a more nuanced portrayal than I anticipated (not that I expected much in the first place). My criticisms of the presentation have to do with what was included rather than what was left out (Pittsburghers will surely argue endlessly about the episode’s grievous omissions), so let me run through some of the things I did and did not like about the show.
- The opening teaser featured hand-made pierogie production, which might seem hackneyed to Pittsburghers but it’s also unavoidable.
- The first sequence took place in Bloomfield, the neighborhood nearest and dearest to my own heart. I spotted some familiar neighborhood characters in the background and the sausage and peppers are all-too-familiar. Coming home across the Bloomfield Bridge I see the bocce players there regularly, even late into the evening. As I said I like the neighborhood, but a table of meats and sauce being overturned and spilling onto the ground seems like an apt representation of Bloomfield.
- Wasn’t sure they would feature the Hill District, very glad that they did. An integral part of this city’s history and character that far too many Pittsburghers pass by unawares on a daily basis.
- Bourdain’s ride-along with Sala Udin captured one of the most characteristic aspects of the Hill District: the neighborhood’s vocality, the call-and-response culture of friend and neighbors acknowledging one another on the street (even when passing in cars, as was seen in the episode).
- The Hill District sequence also featured my favorite image of the entire episode: a woman ordering lunch at Grandma B’s wearing a Penguins jersey and a hijab .
- The neon lights of Kelly’s at night seemed particularly telegenic.
Gripes and omissions:
- No Liberty Tunnel shot. This is the biggest omission for me, way more than any bar or restaurant that went unmentioned. Arriving in Pittsburgh through the Liberty Tunnel is one of the great unique experiences that this city offers. From my first time careening through the tunnel in a U-Haul truck, to every time I return home after a trip, it is always a spectacular sensation to have the world open up upon exiting the tunnel as the city and river valley bursts into being all around you.
- A small pet peeve, but Fetterman’s addressing Bourdain as “chef” is anachronistic considering Bourdain’s current full-time gig. If anything his honorific should be “TV Producer Tony,” or is it like the Presidency where you carry the title even after you leave office?
- Other folks seem very upset at the wrestling sequence’s inclusion; it didn’t bother me, as a non-native Pittsburgher and non-wrestling fan I recognize the wrestling angle as an idiosyncratic quirk of the local culture.
- The demolition derby, on the other hand, seemed out of place and served as a particularly weak ending to the episode. After traveling well beyond the Pittsburgh city limits, the show closes with scenes of automotive carnage underneath some banal closing narration from Bourdain. I’m paraphrasing from memory but this captures the gist:
“What will become of Pittsburgh? How do we welcome the promise of change while preserving what we love about our past? There are probably no easy answers, so for now, let’s just wreck some cars.”
I mean, I get that this show is essentially ‘food & place porn’ that airs on the wince-inducing middle-of-the-road CNN, but even with these measured expectations in mind, that’s a strikingly sophomoric and flippant sentiment to go out on. You’re already equivocating, so why use even more unnecessary weasel words? I mean, “probably” no easy answers? Why not just say that there are no easy answers? Would that risk offending the viewers who believe that there are easy answers, whatever their personal brand of myopic small-mindedness might be?
I’ve watched all of Bourdain’s tv series and enjoy each of them to varying degrees (Cook’s Tour is a grainier grungier early cut and The Layover is the underappreciated peak-travel-tv Bourdain), and his Zero Point Zero crew do excellent work but their reliance on certain templates becomes evident once you’ve seen enough of their productions. One of their favorite go-tos (more evident lately in their non-Bourdain projects) is the technique of editing around a big laugh. Need to transition to the next scene? Insert a clip of everyone having a nice big laugh then cut. And the derby finale sequence represents this sort of “big laugh” thinking on a larger scale: throw up some noise and spectacle to distract the viewers so we can make the big out. And Bourdain’s perfunctory closing narration plays a part in this as well, since who’s going to notice the utter vacuity of your parting words with all that slam-bang car crashing and little-kid-American-flag-waving going on?
I get it: Pittsburgh is so uninteresting the film crew had to drive 30 miles outside the city to film an *ahem* rural, all-American crowd enjoying a demolition derby. Television is a visual medium, after all, so perhaps they couldn’t find sufficient visual spectacle within the city limits. It is important, too, to recognize that Pittsburgh can’t represent all of the greater region, and the rural population is an important part of the contemporary political condition as indicated in the episode’s discussion of the state turning Republican in the last presidential election. But without any semblance of full-circle denouement or contextualization within all that had preceded it, this closing sequence was muddled and disappointing.
After the episode aired I went back to the Pittsburgh subreddit to gauge reactions. Initial responses were overwhelmingly negative, which is perhaps to be expected. Every place means many different things to the people who live there, and it is impossible for a 40 minute TV program to fully capture and represent the essence of a city from even a single individual’s perspective. The user-base of reddit probably skews young, and a number of the negative comments seemed to be responding to perceived attacks upon their generation and lifestyle choices. Among the perceived slights were dispersions cast on millenials, bicyclists, craft beer aficionados, and suburban residents who travel into the city for sports and other entertainment. What these commenters are overlooking, and others in the forum have pointed out, is that the show is called Parts Unknown and aims to represent the sort of lived experiences that are usually absent from mainstream media discourses. I mean, people actually expected a Rick Sebak-style milquetoast promotional showcase of the city? The bottom line is that if these self-identifying millenials want to be constantly catered to and reassured in their lifestyle choices they have no shortage of outlets.
Another theme in the negative reactions, and one I find much more troubling, is indignation that the Hill District was even featured in the episode at all. Apparently this historic neighborhood “doesn’t represent our city.” One commenter particularly criticized the depiction of the deleterious effects that the Civic Arena’s construction had on the Lower Hill. This person characterizes the Hill District’s development as sacrificing “a dying neighborhood in exchange for economy”. Ignoring the obvious vapidity and implicit racism of this statement, I have to ask what “dying neighborhood” this person is invoking? The vibrant Hill District of the 40s and 50s that was destroyed by this malign urban renewal scheme? The neighborhood which was among the most culturally verdant African American communities in the country? The neighborhood that produced August Wilson, Teenie Harris, and Gus Greenlee’s Crawford Grill? Or is it the Hill District of today that is “dying”? The one that remains cut off from the rest of the city (spatially, racially, economically, etc.) 60 years after the Civic Arena project? The one that is so far removed from the eyes and minds of most Pittsburghers we are angered when it appears on our television screens?
Make no mistake: the history of the Hill District, both good and ill, is integral to Pittsburgh’s identity and to its place in the history of this country. Pittsburgh mills may have contributed to the building of skycrapers and the defeat of tyrants, but the razing of the Hill District is just as significant to the history of our national consciousness. It is a history of residential segregation, uneven development, the destruction of black homes and neighborhoods, racial ghettoization, concentrated poverty, and discriminatory policing. More than 100 years ago the journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote about political corruption in Pittsburgh in his book The Shame of Our Cities. Pittsburgh’s industrial production and pollution may have earned the city’s nickname of “hell with the lid off,” Steffens said, but the city’s political landscape was “hell with the lid on.” The sprawling parking lot on the former Civic Arena site that once connected the Hill District to downtown Pittsburgh, and the bungled attempts at redeveloping that land, are continuing sources of shame for this city.
As Anthony Bourdain has pointed out, there are no easy answers. But who needs answers when we can go watch the demolition derby? Let’s go wreck some cars.
I’ve recently returned from London where I attended a workshop on Urban Change and Moving Images hosted by the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image. It was intellectually gratifying to engage with scholars of film, media, and cities over several days, as well as personally refreshing to indulge my lifelong passion for cinema. In addition to the screening sessions in the BIMI cinema, we also enjoyed multiple sojourns across the city to tour historic cinema sites and contemporary production locations. There was also a “mediated city” walking tour, particularly relevant to my research interests, that highlighted various media and communication infrastructure embedded in the urban environment. I relished the opportunity to discuss film and visual culture with scholars and colleagues, and also to share perspectives on urban change and space/place between London and Pittsburgh.
One of the Pitt film students presented on skating spaces in Philadelphia and London, so after the workshop the doctoral students made a pilgrimage to the Southbank skateboard mecca. The Southbank skate park is notable for its decades-long history as part of London’s urban fabric, as a locus for urban art forms, and also as an example of successful opposition to redevelopment. In 2013 the Long Live Southbank coalition successfully prevented a redesign that would’ve removed the extant skating space. It’s a rare example of anti-redevelopment victory (similar campaigns against the redevelopment of Love plaza in Philly were not successful), and raises significant questions about the various factors affecting such movements in cities around the world. The iconic 5 Pointz mural space in Queens possessed at least as much claim to cultural and historic significance as Southbank, yet these claims were challenged in court and ultimately the space was demolished.
It was a great trip and a much needed rejuvenating jolt of creative energy as I begin working on my dissertation project in earnest. The only downside is that I’ve had to reevaluate and overhaul my current research projects in light of the insightful feedback and innovative scholarship offered during the workshop. In addition to critical theories of film and visual culture my major takeaways from the event included ways of historicizing and theorizing media infrastructure in urban space, perspectives on the role of film in mediating experiences of space and place, and new (to me, at least) models of participatory research praxis. It can be tough coming back to Pittsburgh after spending some time in a such a rich and endlessly fascinating city as London, yet trips like these are a reminder of the global flows and phenomenons of development that can be seen manifesting in cities around the world, and a realization of the fecund opportunities for research and exploration waiting to be actualized. And, of course, it’s always good to come home.
While in Seoul, South Korea this summer I had the opportunity to visit Songdo City, one of the most comprehensive smart city developments in existence. Located about an hour-long train ride from Seoul, Songdo is located in the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ) near Incheon Airport. As part of a Korean Free Economic Zone, Songdo is overseen and administered by IFEZ, and this gives Songdo a strange sense that it is not so much a municipality as an international corporate-financial project. Songdo is also a master-planned built-from-scratch development, founded on land that was dredged from the Yellow Sea.
Songdo administrators refer to the development as U-city rather than “smart city,” where the U stands for “ubiquitous computing”. Networked infrastructure and sensor technology is integrated throughout Songdo city. Our tour group visited the Cisco company offices where we saw demonstrations of this networked monitoring and surveillance. This demonstration included a dramatization of a child being reported missing in the city, and showed how the child’s image and name could be displayed on screens throughout Songdo and RFID tracking could be used to pinpoint their location. In daily practice this monitoring appears to mostly concern traffic flow on the city’s streets and other infrastructural maintenance.
Having come from the densely packed and winding streets of Seoul I was struck by the scope and scale of the Songdo development. It is a truly monumental space, in multiple senses of the word. The buildings aspire skyward in an ersatz Manhattan verticality that has also characterized new urban structures in places like Dubai and throughout China. Unlike Manhattan, however, the buildings of Songdo are not claustrophobically constrained between the geographical restrictions of the East and Hudson rivers. Rather these skyscrapers are spaced out around stretches of artificially constructed green spaces that explicitly invoke New York with names like “Central Park,” and also evoke the monumental distancing of the national mall and similar spaces in Washington D.C.
There is an eerie incongruity between the scope and scale of this development and the comparatively paltry population visible on the ground. It seems as if Songdo was built all at once with the capacity to house hundreds of thousands, and now the buildings are sitting vacant waiting for residents to arrive. We talked with some Cisco employees who live in Songdo and they described some of the impediments to attracting new residents (such as lengthy commuting time between Songdo and Seoul), while also claiming that all available real estate was already filled, and the new construction was barely keeping up with demand. I can only assume that a significant portion of the available housing is owned but not occupied, as a form of investment by international parties for example. The affective result of this situation at street-level is uncanny, as broad avenues and expansive plazas appear to hold a fraction of the capacity they were evidently designed for.
We were also given a look into the “mission control center” of Songdo. This is the nerve center, the base of operations for U-city. As you can see in the photo, the control room is dominated by screens displaying hundreds of real-time scenes transmitted by surveillance cameras. In a continuation of the eerie incongruity between the scale of the environment and the number of occupants, we were surprised that such a complex control center was manned by only two people. Dozens of chairs and computer stations were vacant, and our guide explained that the other engineers of that shift were working “in the field,” attending to the city’s infrastructure. It was also striking to see so much concern for monitoring traffic flow when most of screens displayed images of empty streets during our visit.
This incongruity, the disparity between the aims of the built environment and how the space is actually used, was a definitive aspect of my perception of Songdo. There are many cases of such disparities throughout the history of urbanization. Many times there has been a disjuncture between the administrative rationality and the “eye” of top-down planning techniques on the one hand, and the quotidian needs and desires of lived experience on the other. The conflict between abstract representations/conceptualizations of space and the vagaries of embodied use of space finds a new expression in “built from scratch” settlements like Songdo and other examples of smart city initiatives around the world. The Cisco employees we met with described each of their company’s technologies and services as “solutions” without exception. As our group traversed mostly empty streets and sidewalks, many of the innovations on display in Songdo began to seem like solutions in search of a problem. Shouldn’t urban design and policy respond to the needs of citizens rather than impose pre-packaged prescriptive techniques for their own sake? As urban development itself becomes increasingly ubiquitous on the planet, it is worthwhile to interrogate how and why certain developments are considered “smart”, and whether such approaches account for the inherently adaptive intelligence required for the navigation of everyday life.
This past June I was in Seoul, South Korea for the Communication and the City conference. The event was held at Yonsei University and co-sponsored by the Yonsei Communication Research Institute and the Urban Communication Foundation. It was a truly international conference, with participants hailing from around the world. Speakers included academic researchers, architects, urban planners, and Seoul city officials.
Over two days presenters spoke about topics including risk factors facing urban populations, the role of storytelling and community media in neighborhood life, and the rise of the Asian megacity. I was particularly interested to learn more about the history of Seoul, and recent developments in its ongoing urbanization. This was my first visit to the South Korean capital, and I was overwhelmed by the scale and complexity of the sprawling metropolis.
The recent history of Seoul’s development includes distinct periods of rapid modernization. One of these periods involved the demolition of traditional Korean homesteads and the displacement of residents from entire districts (this happened under the administration of a leader nicknamed “Mayor Bulldozer” by the locals). A second period is characterized by sustainability concerns, and is marked by the 1997 IMF economic crisis. In the wake of the economic crisis’ ramifications, Seoul continued to modernize and developed some of the most advanced transportation infrastructure in the world. The drive toward modernization and investment in dedicated “economic zones” has resulted in networked urban districts like Songdo City, sometimes called the first full fledged smart city (or “u-city,” with “u” designating ubiquitous computing infrastructure). In future posts I will share my thoughts and photos from my visit to Songdo, and some more thoughts on Seoul.
My first visit to Croatia was a curious mixture of the strange and the familiar. A country I had never been to, and a part of the world that still seemed foreign to me, yet also a place that I had often thought about for many years. The feelings of familiarity stemmed from my surprise at how traditionally European much of the culture was, and also the fact that Croatia was the cite of my rendezvous with family and friends. But precisely because the context for these encounters was entirely new territory, the sense of familiarity was at times disorienting. The experience was akin to déjà vu: whether you chalk it up to a trick of the mind, echoes of a half-remembered dream, or genuine precognition, the passing sensation of surreality is there all the same.
The time spent reconnecting with my friend David exemplified this tension. Anyone who’s ever caught up with an old friend after a long absence should be familiar with feeling simultaneously that no time has passed at all, and an acute awareness of how swiftly flow the days. David seemed essentially unchanged from our college days, but of course his life has changed significantly, mostly through the addition of important people.
I relished both aspects of my reunion with David: meeting the person I remembered and spending time with my friend in much the same way we passed time together in college; and getting to meet his wife and daughter in their home, taking in the view of Zagreb and the surrounding mountains from their flat’s balcony, and meeting the roosters who live out back.
On my last morning in Zagreb, I met Z outside the national theater. I had previously mentioned to her that I wanted to ride one of the city’s blue streetcars, and so she escorted me to a Tisak kiosk in the main square to buy a tram ticket. We rode the tram down Ulica street toward the plaza nearest the family’s apartments. It was Saturday, and the city squares were filled with carts and stands bearing wares for the weekend open markets.
When we arrived at the apartment, there was a full brunch spread laid out on the table. Soon family members began to assemble: first Z’s sister, then her niece and nephew, and finally her parents. I then learned that this generous brunch was not arranged solely in honor of sending me off; it was also the grandfather’s birthday.
So we gathered to eat, commemorate the end of my visit, and celebrate a patriarch’s birthday. Fortunately my misplaced package had since been recovered and delivered to Z’s apartment, so I was able to distribute the gifts sent by my mother-in-law. This was a great relief, as I didn’t know how I would’ve faced my mother-in-law had the gifts gone undelivered. We ate, we sang, we had cake and exchanged presents. I said my goodbyes to the family and Z drove me to the airport.
I spent less than a week in Croatia, and only part of it with this adopted family. From the moment I passed Croatian customs control, Z and her family made me feel as warmly welcomed as possible. My sojourn in Croatia was one of the great trips of my life, thanks in no small part to their kindness and generosity. I’ve known Z less than a year, and spent perhaps a combined 72 hours in her presence; nonetheless, when we bade farewell at the Zagreb airport it was a touching and tearful goodbye.
On my second full day in Zagreb I met up with my college friend David. We met around noon so we headed into the city center for lunch before leaving for his house. I’ve mentioned in a previous post how my initial encounter with Croatian cuisine came in the form of cheese burek shared with David and other friends during our time together in Los Angeles. So when we met in Zagreb and David asked what I wanted for lunch, naturally I asked for burek. My answer dumbfounded him; why would I want burek, of all things? Surely a slice of pizza was a more sensible selection. Eventually we settled on a bakery just off the main square where David could get his pizza, and I could get my burek.
I ducked into a nearby grocery store and picked up my first Croatian beer: Ozujsko, perhaps the most ubiquitous brand of Croatian beers.
The burek wasn’t the cheese filled pastry that I had known enjoyed in my college days, but a delightfully flaky and greasy envelope of meat and cheese. I waited several years for this burek, and it was worth it.
That evening I rendezvoused with Z and her sister at the national theater. We explored central Zagreb, eventually making our way across the Bloody Bridge to Tkalčićeva Street. Tkalčićeva Street is a long, winding street that is lined with restaurants, bars and cafes. The weather had been perfect since my arrival, and it was another beautiful evening, so the outdoor patios along Tkalčićeva Street were packed with locals and tourists alike enjoying the mild climes.
Once we chose an establishment for dinner I indulged in some classic Zagreb fare: breaded chicken cutlet stuffed with ham and cheese, along with cevapi with grilled mushrooms.
This was the end of the perfect weather during my visit. As it turned out, everyone out on Tkalčićeva Street that night had been enjoying the last night of summer. The following day, autumn was in full swing. This meant persistent rain for the rest of my stay in Croatia.
After a day of conferencing, and a socialist sightseeing excursion conducted under increasingly inclement weather, I found myself alone in my rented apartment. I had a bunch of kuna burning a whole in my pocket, so I went down the block to the nicest restaurant in the neighborhood and treated myself to a posh dinner. I decided to broaden my experience of Zagreb cuisine, so I tried a different stuffed meat dish: Zagrebački odrezak, veal steak stuffed with meat and cheese. I also switched beer brands, washing down my pomme frittes with Karlovačko.
After the final day of the conference, a cohort of attendees went for after dinner drinks and dancing at Club Spunk (there might be a mishap of translation here…but then again, maybe not).
David met me here when he got off work around midnight. He had not only been a DJ in Croatia (one of the biggest for about a year, he told me), but also managed a successful party promotion business. So David is intimately familiar with the local nightlife, and he wanted to share his experience of Zagreb after dark. I reminded him that I had a flight to catch in the morning, and needed to get at least some sleep beforehand. He assured me that he understood, and that we would only be out for “a couple of drinks.”
We first went to his friends’ apartment on the outskirts of the city. There was a small group there celebrating their friend’s 24th birthday; they had been partying most of the day, and the birthday boy’s intoxicated state was well advanced when we arrived. As with virtually every Croat I met in Zagreb, they all spoke excellent English, and were very interested to meet David’s American friend from college.They welcomed me into their home and we sat in a circle in the living room, passing around beer and homemade rakija. They wanted to know if Southern California was like Beverly Hills 90210, they wanted to know my opinion of Donald Trump, they wanted to know what I thought of their country. For at least two hours we talked enthusiastically about these topics and others. Finally we made our fond farewells and departed, having picked up two new compatriots accompanying us to the nightclub.
As David explained, we were not going to a standard nightclub. This was an “underground” event, taking place in a commercial center after hours. Apparently it was a special event with a renowned German DJ presiding. When we arrived, the area was shrouded in darkness; we passed what appeared to be shops, cafes, and restaurants, but they were all closed and unlit. In the center of this shopping complex was a tennis court; I would have to see the site in daylight to really make sense of it. We moved toward the throbbing sound of deep bass, following the music up a flight of stairs where a burly bouncer stood sentinel, collecting our kuna cover before allowing us in. The music was deep and loud, the room sparsely lit with dull red bulbs and a solitary disco ball. Sadly my only photos of the event are murky and fail to capture the ambiance of the event, but I’ve included a few indistinct snapshots to at least convey the spirit of the scene.
After spending some time taking in the scene, and downing a few more beers, David asked if I was ready to go. I said I was and checked my watch: it was nearly 5 AM.
When we got back into central Zagreb David drove past my apartment, explaining that there was a place nearby with excellent sandwiches. Alas, they were not open this early in the morning and would not be serving for several hours. We ventured a little further and found a cafeteria that was open all night.
Perhaps it was the early hour, perhaps it was the fatigue of the long day, but Coke and room temperature pizza have never tasted so good.
David pulled up in front of my apartment and I said thanks and farewell to my friend. I had long imagined our eventual reunion in Zagreb, and it had finally come to pass. Feeling simultaneously drained and invigorated by the evening’s events, I climbed the stairs to the apartment and slipped inside, easing onto the bed as dawn brightened the sky.
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.