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.
Croatia and I have been circling each other for some time, a dance of circumstance and coincidence that finally culminated in a long-awaited rendezvous. The connection began when I was an undergraduate student in southern California. Two of my best friends during college were a pair of brothers from Croatia. With a Croat father, and an Oklahoman mother, the brothers grew up in Zagreb but also spent time stateside, and attended college in Los Angeles.
Our paths crossed via mutual interest in media. In my freshman year I signed-up to DJ a late night music and talk show on the campus radio station. Predictably titled “Night Owl,” we broadcasted from midnight to 2 AM once a week. It was there I met David, the older of the two brothers. David was majoring in television production, which meant most of his time on campus was spent in the opposite end of the communication building from myself and the other print journalism majors, but he also DJ-ed a music program that aired directly before my Night Owl shift.
I honestly don’t remember what, if anything, I knew about Croatia prior to meeting David. Over time I developed a fascination with the country, driven by my natural curiosity about a part of the world I had never seen, and sustained by the effervescent charisma of David and his brother Daniel. My fascination with the Croats and their homeland flourished through descriptions of life during the Croatian war of independence, the mischievous sharing of violently nationalist football chants, and especially over frequent meals of cheese burek at the Aroma café in west Los Angeles. In a media studies course I took in my senior year, students chose a country to focus on, elaborating on various aspects of their media ownership throughout the semester. I of course selected Croatia, mainly focusing on the state-controlled press during the Tudjman era.
Years later I had moved to Florida, got a job in a bookstore, and began dating a co-worker (my superior, even). About a year into our relationship, I traveled with her to meet her family over the Thanksgiving holiday. As I got to know her family, I eventually realized that this was a family of Croatian immigrants. Her grandfather was present that weekend, and he told me about how he emigrated from Croatia following the close of the Second World War. Her mother had grown up speaking Croatian in their home. We dined on Croatian sarma as part of the Thanksgiving feast, and the following month I rejoined the family to make Croatian breskvice cookies to send as Christmas presents. Alas, no burek!
Even more years after that, I married into this family of Croatian immigrants. My mother-in-law’s cousin, from the side of the family that had remained in Croatia, traveled from Zagreb to attend our wedding. Following the ceremony, on the eve of her return to Europe, we got to speak at length about her life and work in Croatia, the current political climate there, and my own history with and knowledge of the country (she seemed slightly embarrassed at the football chants my friends had taught me). I told her how intent I was on finally visiting Croatia, and teased out some possible research areas that I might explore to provide an opportunity for traveling there.
Merely half a year after this meeting, I was immersed in a research program studying urban development and city life through the perspective of media studies. Always on the lookout for conferences and journals geared toward this area of analysis, my interest was immediately piqued by a call for a special conference on urban media studies. And where was this conference on media and the city to be held: where else, but Zagreb, Croatia?