We have left Asia after six and a half months of living and travel. The change to living in Croatia is quite a shock for both our minds and bodies. We’ve been adapting rather quickly to living in a European country, as both of us have traveled in Central and Western Europe before, but I have a feeling we’ll be digesting the differences from Asia for a long time. We are turning on the heat in the mornings and at night and apply more lotion to our suddenly dry and chapped skin. We pick up the bread basket at the restaurants we go to, marveling at the fact that we haven’t had good real cooked bread in months. Up and down the streets of central Zagreb, there are grocery stores galore, with everything from cucumbers to Milka to wine. And when we cross the street, we must look left again first after spending more than two months in countries where we had learned to do the opposite (Thailand, Malaysia, India). And nobody is honking! What a relief!
Essentially, Zagreb has been really wonderful so far. The more that Steve and I see, the more we like this city, which has a charming and wonderful old town that is every bit as beautiful and historic but better preserved and less touristy than Prague. There are people and dogs about in the parks, the pedestrian streets that criss-cross its historic center, sitting at roadside cafés, enjoying breakfast and beers and coffee. There are deciduous trees here, which look exotic to us after months of coconut palms, and the pale, early spring is persuading them throwing out small green buds, coaxing life into austere but elegant streets framed with concrete and stone buildings. On our first night here, it was a brisk 8 degrees Centigrade last night or 47 Fahrenheit. (I know, I know, I haven’t been in Chicago this whole winter! But you’d find it cold too if you’d been in Kochi!)
Much of Zagreb looks irrepressibly post-Soviet still. Steve made some comments on how the whole thing evoked some scenes from Half-Life 2. We keep marveling at the immensely large, square, and beautiful buildings, smoothly paved roads, and lovingly restored churches. We saw both a cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and a Russian Orthodox church with the most amazing art and iconography. On our second day, after an hour of roaming the Old Town, Steve and I felt frozen and took refuge in a creatively named bar — Tolkien’s House. It was decked out inside with mithril gear, daggers and posters on the walls, signs in both Croatian and Elvish, and featured a menu full of drinks like “My Precious” and “Spirit of Rivendell.” We asked the bartender for some grog, a hot spiced drink, and he aimed me a puzzled glance, telling me it was a winter drink, and asking where we’d just come from that we needed a warm drink. We had to pull the India card.
Croatians have also endeared themselves to us thus far. On the way from the airport, we took a bus, and I did not realize until the next morning that I had left my wallet somewhere between the airport and our AirBnB apartment. Fortunately, we were contacted by the son of one of the bus drivers who had found it, and he sent a most endearing and helpful email entitled “Fund your staff” which directed me back to the bus station to get it. We rescued it with a huge sigh of relief, knowing that if this had happened just a few days ago in India, it would have been good night and good luck! Fortunately, people here speak a lot of English, and there’s a high degree of professionalism. I also met a few students today in the public parks while doing my watercolors of the Strossmayer Gallery. The afternoon sunshine had prompted everyone to strip down to short sleeves, and these girls, who had looked a little punk to me with half-shaved heads and platinum dye jobs, came over to me and introduced themselves as art students, complimenting me on my half-drawn butter yellow buildings. It was incredibly sweet, and reinforced my impression that everyone in Croatia speaks English incredibly well. Edo, our AirBnB host, commented that it was because Hollywood films and TV shows are not dubbed but subtitled in Croatia as they are in Hungary and other comparable countries. I think that’s pretty accurate!
The Croatian youth also have a very developed sense of fashion. Edo invited us to a young graphic designers event where we mingled with people wearing things like mauve knitted infinity scarves, brightly patterned leggings, silk A-line skirts, large plastic frame glasses, and bright red lipstick. If not for the language, I would have expected that we were in a gallery in Logan Square. Pretty much every woman I pass on the street between the ages of 16 and 45 is wearing a devastatingly put-together outfit, usually with studded leather boots or heels, some fur accents, tasteful gold or pearl accessories, and lovely handbags. Not only are they very chic, but many of them are things I haven’t seen in the US before. Wherever they’re shopping, it’s not Forever 21. Wearing the few outfits I’ve been recycling since September, I felt about three inches tall, and not only commiserated with Steve over how inadequate I felt by comparison but also how this conversation was unthinkable a mere week ago. In Asia, fashion is just not such a thing — most people are too poor to pursue it earnestly, but here, one out of every three people I meet could have stepped right out of a magazine. I feel the need to try to fit in, as I’ve done before in Thailand and India, but this is a heck of a lot more difficult and expensive, so we’ll see what actually happens. Maybe when we settle down in France, I’ll be able to add a few more things to my wardrobe.
I think that’s enough for now. We bought a SIM card with 3 GB of data to use for our Internet, and we’re trying to conserve it. Pretty much every page I load happens to be 2 MB! Whoever knew Gmail was using this much data?! We’ll update soon with more from Zagreb and the Plitvice Lakes, which is on our list for Monday. On April 1, we depart for two weeks in Dubrovnik, and I’m eager to see more of Croatia.