What it Costs to Die in Croatia

It’s only a matter of time until my neighbors see me naked. Any neighbors, any corner of the planet. Here in Zagreb it’s easily 90 degrees or more every day. When I either can’t be bothered to get dressed in the morning or I come home suffering from almost-heat-stroke and desperately fling my clothing into a sweaty pile in the bedroom, I sometimes forget that the blinds or windows are open. Sorry, Mrs. Korvač .

My favorite building in Zagreb (cathedral) taken from my favorite place to hang out in upper town.   Captured right before a raging summer thunderstorm, so the spledificent, glittering facade doesn’t make its usual sunny impression here,

We moved to Zagreb — capital of Croatia — to take a break from the stress of constantly being on the move. Our landlord is a lovely, grey-haired, late-50’s woman named Manda. She speaks as much English as I do Croatian — about 200 words. We have hilarious conversations with lots of emphatic pronunciation, big fat smiles, and high fives initiated by yours truly. There are Croatian/Italian and Croatian/Spanish dictionaries hanging around, but Manda never wears her glasses. Usually we can get a word from Croatian to Italian or Spanish (languages of which I know at least the basics) to English in under a minute.

Purportedly Zagreb — population 1 million – empties out in the summer. For me it means I get the trails in the three-hundred-acre woods to myself, but the cafes are still lively and we’ve still managed to make friends. Thanks to Couchsurfing, we’ve met awesome locals and hosted fun travelers. On a memorable excursion to our friend Ema’s hometown, we climbed to an ancient castle in a roaring, dark wind storm. We’ve summited the mountain above the town twice, clocked several hours at the nightly free-movie showings in the open-air theater, learned Croatian card games, and spent hours swapping stories.

A CS evening at our place. See? That random bed in the kitchen came in handy after all.

“Everyone I meet,” I realized the other day, “used to live in Yugoslavia. Whoa.” As I read more about the history of the Balkans, and as I realize all my friends here spent their childhoods affected by war, I am blown away. No one saw it coming. A few key but opposing leaders began shouting divisive propaganda from the pulpits (sounds like the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election, no?), and the country was primed with just the level of fear necessary to move weapons easily into the right hands and create the right mentality for war.

Pavel adding the finishing touches to the pizza – sour cream! “Yes – I’m going to cook it.”

It’s interesting, after growing up in a country where supporting communism is practically akin to being a mass murder, to talk to people who have lived, thrived, and even enjoyed life under communism. I realized the other night the children’s cartoon played nostalgically at the open-air theater before each film has a distinct theme. In each episode, everyone in town wakes up missing something critical to his/her life. They consult professor Baltazar, who puzzles through the mystery to find out who has the missing pieces. Inevitably, this interloping troublemaker was merely trying to solve a problem of her/his/its own. Baltazar solves the interloper’s problem and everyone gets their missing pieces back. Life is happy again! It took four episodes and my friend Pavel returning my “I like Baltazar!” comment with “This is a real Yugoslavia cartoon from my childhood!” before the lightbulb came on.

The view into the valley behind our house – we love it up here!

Croatia is a bit surreal for me — a fusion of 1st and 3rd world. We live in a tidy neighborhood where, for instance, people go through the effort of removing weeds from the pavement crevices bordering their property. However, derelict buildings are scattered across the country — starting as near as two houses down. Some are so terrible I think I might get a disease just looking at them. Many have laundry hanging out in the yard or are functioning businesses. In the same vein, I often see presentably dressed individuals – looking like a person who might interview you, sell you something at the hardware store, or handle your medical records at the doctor’s office — digging through trash cans to get the 8 cents off the bottle deposit. And while Croats aren’t really a smiling people, at the daily farmer’s markets vendors grin and act like SE Asian touts — calling to each passerby in hopes of a sale. Because I feel like I’m living in a standard, modern city, these discrepancies always catch me off guard.

There are plenty of interesting or memorable things, however, that slip easily into my world view — like:

  • My favorite running trails in Maksimir Park – so many acres… all for ME!

    Rollerblades! – a pastime so popular here, I have 90’s flashbacks almost daily.

  • Kidneys are serious business — literally, figuratively. Most motorcycle riders run around looking like professional movers with a wide, velcro belt secured around their torso. They tell me, deadpan, that your kidneys are attached by only a small string and can be bounced off by the shock of even city streets without the protection of the belt. Croatians also love to joke about kidney theft. Our apartment came with a hospital bed in the kitchen. Weird, but not suspect until every single Croatian walking through the door laughed and nervously asked if we were in business.

  • Man bags — seems like every guy has one — either an over-the-shoulder or a fanny-pack. Excellent people watching. Excellent.

  • Cigarette love — I don’t know how I managed to land friends who don’t smoke, because I come home reeking even from outdoor cafes. Not my favorite thing about Croatia.

  • My favorite building in Zagreb – the national theater. My friend says his friend’s faculty is here.

    Water shortages. No, I’m kidding. But at night after the grocery stores close, it becomes wildly difficult to buy convenience items — water, beer, packaged snacks… Mini-marts haven’t caught on here. The nearest thing is a kiosk/newstand, but often they don’t sell drinks and generally keep the same hours as grocery stores. In a way, it’s nice to be in a modernized country where fresh food from small businesses is the norm.

  • No educational wiggle room — University life here revolves around “my faculty.” It seems university departments function like Masters/Graduate programs, even at the undergrad level. One does not enter a university after high school here — one enters a “faculty,” which is often located in a random building in town instead of on a campus. Switching majors does not exist. Decide you don’t like what you’re studying? Good luck — you have to start from scratch somewhere else!

  • Really typical grave style here. They plots come already set up. Most are very well cared for by the family.

    Death Obligations – We live near the biggest cemetery in this part of Europe. Some of the graves are so elaborate, it’s almost an art museum. I do find it creepy when the deceased’s picture is etched into the gravestone, ghost like. Daily people buy flowers and flock to the area in droves. My friend told me she wants to be cremated to spare her relatives the obligation of paying rent on her grave and the pressure of being unable to move lest the grave go uncared for.   For some families, paying rent on deceased family members graves can be like having a second mortgage!

  • Rocking the last city bus home after a night out with our four couch-surfers. For the record, none of us attempted to use our mobile devices on board.

    Cell phone smack down — The buses here run on new-age LPG but use a photo of a mid-90’s flip phone with a red X over the top to communicate the rule banning mobile phone use on board. I saw a driver lay the smack with a boarding passenger once — shocking!

  • Energy-saving escalators — I laughed at myself when I realized my assumption that poor eastern-European Croatia was suffering from ESCALATOR BREAK DOWN was flat out wrong. Quite the opposite. Why waste energy to run an escalator no one is riding? Step-on/step-off activation and deactivation magically provide a modern service without squandering resources. #sheepishamerican
  • Roving vendors — every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon, my concentration is interrupted by unintelligible shouts and the slow rumble of a diesel engine. One I was able to pick out YAH-boooo-kaaaaaah!!!! (apple!). A man on foot runs ahead of the fruit truck announcing the wares of the day, and supposedly people flag them down for a convenience purchase. We tried to buy tomatoes once.

What concentration were the vendors interrupting? Well, contrary to what I suspect many of my friends and family think, I’m not lounging the day away being fed grapes and fanned by mostly-naked and ridiculously muscular men. Nor am I laying in bed all day reading or watching T.V. and consuming copious amounts of booze. My most easily explained endeavors as of late are learning Joomla, Adsense, and foundational Croatian. More about that here.  The former are to assist in the achievement of future goals and dreams. So excuse the ads. I’m practicing. Thanks. The latter is to take advantage of the time I am so grateful to have in this part of the world. DoviÄ‘enja (goodbye)! ♣

The fabulous cemetery facade, Croatian street signs, forest frolicking, etc. in this Facebook album.

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