Ha ha! Starting the next post just days after the last one. Truly, I am a god amongst bloggers!
Mainly, I want to get Croatia wrapped up and done, which will get me to the end of May and very nearly caught up. In theory, this should be difficult: I spent 2 months in the next place, and I should have had a ton of stuff to write about. And yet… well, let’s get on with it.
Tuesday, March 22nd
I woke up early in Split, had a nice breakfast, finished my packing, and set off down the pier towards the ferry area, which had the closest bus terminal, to catch my 9:00 bus to Zagreb. I’d been feeling kind of rough the last couple of days — I think Spring may have been starting to arrive, and bugging my allergies, making me feel headachey and unpleasant and out of alignment, much as I had just before leaving Florence (and for a few days after, too, though a remote session Roger helped handle that). But I got it settled down for the day of the trip itself, and managed my travel without much difficulty. As I write about getting down to the terminal (consisting of a ticket shop and a row of buses parking outside it on the street), it occurs to me that, as I put together my previous post, I didn’t run across any photos of the slightly seedy looking ferry zone, a row of inexpensive looking shops, coffee houses and bakery counters, casino, at least one strip club, and the bus terminal, opposite where the ferries docks. I thought I’d taken one or two pics, but oh well.
[ It has been occurring to me, since the last post, “Hey, you didn’t mention X”, or “You’d meant to include a picture of Y”. I don’t know that we need to get into Y… what happens in Split stays in Split, after all (not counting my previous 6000 words about the city). Did I sufficiently emphasize the pleasure of listening to the rain on the vaulted roof of the studio? Did I mention that I was sleeping really well there, like 8-9 hours a night, really ever since I arrived in Europe? No? Well, regardless, you should probably assume that other things happened, and that they exist in the realm between too trivial to mention and too classified to share, and that the curve probably skews to the left. In particular, if you’ve ever looked at my photos and exclaim, “How does he get such amazing pictures?!” — and, in my head, you often do — just know that for every picture I include there are 5-10 that get discarded and sent to the trash. Not scenic enough, not funny enough, too many other scenic photos just like it, just tired of writing,… gone. If it doesn’t make it to the blog, I don’t keep it. (Except for Y. Y is just for me.) ]
So, I got down to my bus in plenty of time, picked up a pastry to eat while I waited and a sandwich for later. Then the bus arrived, and I figured out that the bus had arrived (two very different things), boarded, found my assigned seat on the aisle, and shoved my giant backpack into the seat next to me. Then, not long before we were supposed to depart, a Croatian guy in my age-ballpark came to take my backpack’s seat, and I had to get off the bus and get them to stow the pack under the bus for me. The bus ended up quite packed with the Zagreb-bound — probably because it was one of the few express trips from Split to Zagreb, not stopping at a dozen towns along the way. (Which might have been more scenic, I guess. But also maybe more tortuous.) We took off mostly on time, with a driver and, I guess, the driver’s assistant. We stopped for 30 minutes at a transit stop along the way, where people could get food (and I could eat my sandwich), and arrived in Zagreb at almost exactly 2pm.
Zagreb is the capital of Croatia, situated on the edge of the country’s northern mountains (that I’m going to call the foothills of the Alps, because it sounds cooler that way). It’s been around in various forms for around 1800 years, but only formally existed as a single town starting in the 19th century. Croatia was merged into Yugoslavia, in what seems to have been a very messy and confused process, in the early 1900s, became communist under Tito at the end of WWII, agitated increasingly for independence even before Tito died in 1980, and then fought their way clear as Yugoslavia broke apart into 6 different countries in the early 90s. There are constant reminders that the Croats were unwilling partners in communism, and glad to be free of it.
We all remember what a mess of ethnic warfare the Yugoslavian disintegration was. Interestingly, a lot of folks moved out of areas dominated by the other ethnic groups, and moved into the deserted houses of the other groups who had fled the other way, becoming much more ethnically pure countries in the process. It’s hard to think well of “ethnic purity”, but it sounds like the result is that Yugoslavia is much more cleanly partitioned than a lot of other messy places, and has been more peaceful since as a result. (Is my distant and cursory impression, at least. We certainly haven’t heard much from any of them since it all settled down.)
Like a lot of these old cities, Zagreb is divided into an Old City in the center north and a new city sprawling beyond it to the south and sides. The Old City, occupying most of the center of the map above, is mostly 18th-19th century buildings, with a few Soviet-era grotesques, and a few more modern glass and steel buildings. The new city, sprawling beyond it, I gather looks rather more modern, though I spent no real time in it. (There is a big sports village and stadium and park and some other things, but I spent no time down there.) There are very few tall buildings, thanks to a height-limit in the municipal code.
You’ll see, at the bottom of the map, a congestion of railway lines, which is where I’d expected to arrive, before I learned that the bus was faster and easier. It appears that I’m now adding buses to my travel repertoire, something I’d never have seriously considered for most of my life but that seems to be working out pretty well and has been no where near as horrible as Tales of Greyhound Travel make it sound. I say that confidently, from my sample size of 2 experiences. (It seems likely that bus travel across the vast, empty distances of the U.S. might be rather different from shorter, European hops, but let me cherish my illusions.) The bus arrived at a part-terminal/part-mall on the right hand edge of those rail lines, just below that major intersection in the lower right. Once there, I found a restroom, sent a quick e-mail to my host and started walking north along that road, for about 40 minutes: up Avenija Marina Drzica, bending right up Subiceva ul, left on Srebernjak, and splitting off onto Dugi dol where my Airbnb was. (Like a lot of Slavic languages, Croatian sounds a little like you’re talking through a mouthful of gummi bears.)
The place I stayed at was this one, booked while I was still in Chiang Mai. It’s a rather large 2 bedroom suite, forming the entire middle floor in a 3-floor house, in a quiet neighborhood with a back patio at ground level against a green hill, which sloped up to a row of houses up at the top.
The owner, a woman called Nevia of about my age, blondish and generally attractive but a bit worn looking (as most Croatians seem to look by their 40s), lived in the lower level, which also had a ground-level patio opening out onto a private garden on the street side of the house, and her husband lived on the top level. It would never have occurred to me to ask why they didn’t live in the same space, but when she mentioned the arrangement she followed that with “Some marriage, huh?” She then moved on to another topic — not in any apparent rush, but more quickly than I could have formulated a neutral reply to a line like that. And, in fact, she was in a bit of a hurry: her daughter, son-in-law, and grandson were visiting, and they were going to be leaving to do things around town. So, after she gave me a quick run-through of the place, she took off — promising that we’d get together for coffee soon (which we never did) — and I told her I’d be fine and encouraged her to hang out with her family while they were here, and we could deal with anything that needed dealing with later.
This place ran me around $940/month, more than I’d normally be keen on spending, and you may be asking why I got a 2-bedroom place at all. Well, I was having a really hard time finding a Zagreb location, when I was in Chiang Mai. One location, a little out of the way but a good rate, responded that they’d rented the place out to a physics doctoral student (I replied that I was happy to make the sacrifice for Science, but grumbled to myself about people not updating their listings for availability and making people waste their time). Another didn’t respond to my inquiry about their internet until about a month later. A third looked very promising, and not terribly pricey, but was kind of away from the center of things. I expanded my price range, ran into this place and it seemed nice but expensive, and then I thought, wait, my Chiang Mai friend Damien said he was going to Europe in the spring; maybe he’d be interested in seeing Croatia and we could split the rent and have the pleasure of each others’ company. So I sent him an e-mail, and he said, basically, “Yeah, sounds great, as long as you don’t mind the risk of my schedule changing that far out and me canceling.” I said, works for me.
Then about 2 weeks out, after I started sending him update/scheduling info, he canceled. There were Reasons, but I strongly suspect that the biggest one was that given a choice between early-spring Zagreb and Bali, Damien was not finding it a challenging choice. He likes him the warm weather, to the extent that I had privately been giving him no better than even odds of going through with Zagreb in early Spring. So, I ended up rattling around in a pretty large space for 2 months, and spending 3 months of my preferred target rent on a 2 month stay.
This may have been just as well, though, because I turned out to be largely trapped in my own home by the introduction of my mortal enemy:
I arrived at the end of March, and stayed until the end of May. The first few days, I was getting over what had hit me at the end of my Split stay, and so I made it out for groceries and that was about it. I ended up totally retreating into the Fallout game that I’d started in November, because I could play it without having to do or think or focus much, and that’s about what I felt up to.
Then, I had maybe a week where I started to get out more — though not quite as much as I might have because I was kind of hooked into the game again, and I had 2 months in Zagreb, so there was no hurry, right? So, I made it to the city center, wandered around the area a bit (more on all that later), bought a really nice French press and a coffee grinder, found an organic grocery store (Zagreb has a *lot* of organics, it was very nice), and was generally easing into things.
Then, it happened. You remember that parking picture from above? See the bare trees in it, still leafless from Winter? This is a similar street, just 2 weeks later:
Spring blasted its way out of whatever crevice it had been lurking, and the city transformed. From a chilly place of old stone buildings into a slightly less chilly place drenched in procreating plant life.
I kept the double-paned windows shut tight, and every time I went outside, my allergies flared up. I discovered that I had maybe an hour that I could go outside, to walk down to the grocery stores, stock up on supplies, and then walk straight back — and then spend the next day in recovery. I’ve had worse allergy attacks in my life, during Santa Annas in Los Angeles. But they would only last a few days, and I had Roger then. Now… I called him a couple of times, and he worked on it remotely, and then advised me to pray. (Well, technically, he told me to work with my MAP team, but the distinction between “Do your best to resolve your holistic issues with your group of disembodied entities” and “Pray to god, ’cause I’m out of tools” is a slim one.) Every so often I’d consider the outdoors…
And that lasted for a solid 5 weeks. Every so often, it would rain, flushing all of this out of the air, and I would leap out and dance in the streets (in my usual subtle way, often mistaken for a brisk walk), inhaling great lungfuls of air and rejoicing in my ability to stay out for hours on end. Which made up for the once or twice, at the start, that I underestimated just how heavy the pollen was, and came back 2 hours later with my skin itching, wanting to scream, scrubbing and soaking in the shower hoping to get it all off. But, for the most part, I just stayed inside. I played Fallout like its nuclear apocalypse had already happened. I watched Jessica Jones on Netflix, and Daredevil season 2, and a bunch of network TV from my TiVo. I read a lot of Twitter. And even caught up on a few books (one of which I’ll mention below). But it was a long, slow, trapped sort of time, and rather a challenge to get enough movement to keep my toes from swelling up like little sausages. I managed.
I did start sleeping more poorly again, and thought that my brief window of sleeping like a normal person might be over. But, as I started to be able to get out more again, I started sleeping better again, and got back to full nights’ sleeps once more. Stress. Who knew?
And, with all of that, it was still better than my spring in that hellish little beach bungalow in southern Thailand. So, yay that.
This might be a good time to mention one of those books I read, and I shall choose Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire.
I’d read a recommendation about this — I don’t really recall where. Maybe it was nominated for something, I don’t know. But I mentioned it to my friend Jenni and we decided to co-read it and talk about it over Skype afterwards, which was an excellent and very enjoyable choice on our part.
The book, also, was excellent and very enjoyable. It is, however, so full of unexpected quirks and surprises (pleasant and dark) that I’m reluctant to describe it in very much detail for fear of spoiling any of them. So, here’s the book description on the Tor website, which I advise you read before continuing.
Done? Great. Well, what I *can* say is that you quickly learn the book’s basic premise: that occasionally a child will go through a portal into a magical realm (as the stories tell us), but everyone’s realm is different, matching the peculiarities of their own personalities. And, in some of those cases, the child ends up coming back to our own world, intentionally or not, but now they no longer fit. They’ve been in the land of their heart’s true nature, and they can’t bear to be back in our own, ill-fitting world. But very few of them ever find their portals again. And for the rest, the lucky few make it to a sort of half-way house / boarding school, designed to support them until they learn to fit in to our own world again. It’s a brilliant and original premise — and I might have hated it when I was younger. The idea of being cast out of your fantasy world might have been too terrible for me. I have hated Time Bandits ever since it was released, thanks to those stupid dwarves wrecking the young hero’s perfect new life as Sean Connery’s adopted princely son. It was horrible, and I hate it to this day. Hate.
This book, however, was delightful. I’m now old and cynical and have learned that you’re much better off learning not to want things, and I can appreciate with more detachment the agonies of those who still do. And the book was cleverly written, the characters have engaging personalities, and the book did not go in any of the directions that I thought it would, pretty much all the way through. (There was a brief risque bit near the start that I was *not* expecting, and it made me laugh from surprise.) If I had any complaint about it, it was that it was too short — maybe a 2-2½ hour read. I think that the author means to write more of them, though, so that will be something to look forward to. And she’s written other books, which I will now have to read. So, yaaay!
So, the lethal nature of the nature around me paid off.
In fairness, it really should be noted that if you are *not* cursed with allergies — and I’m normally pretty good at keeping mine under control, but this was insanely excessive — Zagreb in the spring is really quite beautiful. The lush foliage and flower-strewn streets were gorgeous — like a flock of beautifully plumed birds, before you realize you’re an extra in a Hitchcock movie. No, I’ll be serious for a moment: this little window of the Blooming Season lasted for about 5 weeks, as every set of plants took their seasonal turns to have public sex on a truly vast scale, and it neatly divides those with allergies from those without. I said this in my review for the Airbnb place: if you have allergies, schedule your trip for a different time of year. But if you don’t have allergies, this is the very best time to go. It was amazing. There was the giant Maksimir Park about a 25 minute walk east of where I was staying, and I went there several times — during the rainy parts of the Blooming Season, and a couple of times after it was over. It was very pretty.
The park has a gazebo, dedicated to the Goddess Echo. It’s pretty cool, and the recording turned out really well!
I took one of these walks on a rainy day that turned out to be May Day. That’s normally a pretty big holiday, in countries that are/were communist and/or have strong workers’ rights movements. And there was a bit of a festival going on here, although I think the turnout cannot have been what the organizers were hoping, given the rain. But they did have some decent music, if not at all what I was expecting for Croatia.
I confess, this made me miss my Dad rather a bit; he’d have loved this. He was an accomplished dancer, in his own sphere, a long standing member of Alabama bop clubs and Cajun dancing, played the banjo and Cajun music, and I think he’d have happily joined in here. I remember it struck me then how much he’d have liked this whole lifestyle I’m engaged in. He looked back on his travels in the Navy with great fondness, and the time I visited him during his couple of years in Florida, and took him to Disneyworld (’cause there was no way I was going that far without seeing that park), the international part of Epcot Center was the only part of the whole Disney thing that he really sparked to. (He was an emotional lead weight the rest of the time. Gods, that was a painful trip. But that’s another story.) Substitute banjo for video games, and this is really the retirement *he* should have had. Oh well; better luck next life, mate.
If the park had one failing, it was that there weren’t enough benches, and none under cover. It would have been lovely to come out here with a thermos of coffee and a snack and read and listen to the rain. Nakajima Park in Sapporo did that part much better. But this really was beautiful.
Things Other Than Nature
It turns out, Zagreb is a city, and cities have buildings and stuff. So, maybe I should show some of them?
I was living about a 25 minute walk north east of the city center, so a brisk walk soon took me from residential buildings into commerce and architecture. The downtown area was almost one large outdoor mall, with a giant farmers market open most days of the week, a large array of shopping and dining streets, museums, and the like.
Ban Jelačić Square is essentially the center of the huge downtown outdoor mall that the Old City has become. There are 3 or 4 electric trams lines running efficiently through the center (and more on the periphery), there’s tons of shopping, a few small indoor malls, a giant farmer’s market up the hill to the left of this scene, museums, restaurants, etc. And there were different things going on here most weekends. When I took the picture above, there were touristy shopping stalls there.
On another day, in late May, I found the square filled with this:
It started a couple of blocks away, and OMG those whistles were far more intense than they sound on the video. Thank gods for my noise canceling headphones. Seems it was end of term and graduation day for the local schools — I don’t know if it was just college, or high school also. Very cheering, either way. 🙂
This was also pretty close to one of the two places that I had really wanted to go in Zagreb: The Tolkien Pub. How do you not go to a place called The Tolkien Pub?
Where I actually ended up eating the most was at the Bulldog Pub, in a strip of outdoor seating areas in the downtown demi-mall:
The Bulldog Pub became sort of my Zagreb Cheers. I’d eat there a couple of times a week, usually having an Irish Coffee and their “Beef Burger” — which was pretty good, though the fries that came with it varied significantly from day to day. I became fairly friendly with a few of the waiters, and one of them would often comp me a second Irish Coffee at the end of the meal, which was super nice. He was a career waiter in his late 30s — he’d served in the military, traveled a bit after, and lived in other countries, but he liked his current job of 12 years (if I remember that number correctly), was good at it, and felt no real urgency to do anything else. Which, if it works for him, is fantastic. And it worked out pretty well for me.
I did eat at a couple of other places: a sushi place, one of the first few days I was in the city, which was weirdly nostalgic. And another Croatian restaurant with outdoor seating, on a very rainy day, about a block from the Bulldog, that served (among other things) a nice little pork chop dish. And, at the Bulldog, I did once have the risotto (the national dish of Croatia) — and then spent most (all?) of the following night awake and feeling lousy. I think it was MSG poisoning; it’s been so long since I’ve had any MSG in my food that I didn’t recognize it, but afterwards I put the taste and the after-effects together, and I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. I stayed away from the risotto thereafter.
As usual, I ate mostly at home, shopping mostly at an organic food store that had some pretty great stuff (pricier than the regular supermarket, but whatever). And I learned to cold brew coffee! (It’s not rocket science: use a coarse grind, let it sit in water for 18-24 hours, strain out the grinds (or just do the whole thing in a French Press to start with), and drink it cold or heat it in a pan. I’m not convinced that it’s a lot better than a hot brew, but it is a little bit smoother, and the ‘experts’ say it’s better. I really should do a proper taste test, but in lieu of that I’ve been cold brewing half on faith.) And I enjoyed the occasional gelato at the local gelato shops.
Anyway, continuing on….
I wandered around Mirogoj Cemetery for a couple of hours and didn’t see all of it — it’s large enough, and famous enough, that there’s an online database for finding out who is buried where. What I did notice was that: (a) even the older graves were being visited fairly regularly, judging by the offerings; (b) the Croats like having pictures of the person embedded into the tombstone, in progressively better renderings as technology has advanced; and (c) Mirogoj Cemetery is multi-religious, and while there are clearly some sections with more of one religion than another, I saw Christian and Muslim and Jewish graves right next to each other, without any apparent need for distinction other than their symbology. Which was, in an odd way, nice, and probably very supportive of tolerance among the living. (Elsewhere, I saw a church that served both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communities, so maybe that was an effect of that laid back attitude I was seeing.) I’ll also say that, after looking at tombstones for a while, it gets progressively harder to look at the graves of those who died young, thinking of the feelings of those who buried them.
By this point, I’m well into May, and the pollen was starting to settle down, and I finally made it to the second place that was on my list of things to do in Zagreb:
I fell in love with the name of this place when I saw it on Google Maps the fall before, and there was no way I’d leave Zagreb without visiting. What this turned out to be was a series of rooms of various sizes, on one floor, lined with small exhibits generally consisting of an object that represented a relationship that had, at some point, stopped, and accompanying text in Croatian and English telling the story behind it. The rooms tended to have themes: most of the relationships were romantic ones, in various age and gender combinations, but there were also sections about parents and children, told from both directions. And while some of the stories were sad, or tragic, or angry, or resentful, many were funny, and not uncommonly a celebration of a thing that had existed for a time and been wonderful, and then had come to an end in a fairly natural time.
If you go to the website above, you’ll see some samples in the Exhibits section. I did take a couple of pictures of things that I particularly liked.
You could donate things, with stories, and the museum gets things sent to them from around the world, to rotate through the museum or include in traveling exhibitions. They also had a book you could write in, telling a story of your own. I was tempted, but decided against it.
If you’re in LA, they have opened a new branch there in June. Based on the Zagreb location, I can highly recommend it.
One day, I’ll come back to Zagreb — in a different season — and see more of its museums. There were a bunch of them near the downtown area.
I ran into a Museum of Croatian History nearby, and decided to go in. They seemed to have been specializing in WWII, with a fairly fascinating large screen in the lobby showing an animation loop of the main events and movements of armed forces and territorial control during the overall war.
The upstairs had most of the exhibit, including a room full of official war time documents, a large diorama of prison ditch-digging, official portraits, art and music and clothing of the time, etc.
And this, which set me back a bit:
And Now For Something Completely Different
Not really interested in ending on that particular note, so here, have a completely different remembrance of my time in Croatia. It’s only slightly exaggerated.
That brings me to the end of my trip. On May 23nd, my hostess Nevia had kindly arranged a taxi for me to the airport (I’d considered walking to the buses/trams, but it seemed like a serious schlep to start my day with, so I thought I’d cheat for a change). My taxi driver, a guy in his mid-20s showed up promptly, and spent most of the ride complaining about poor job opportunities in Croatia and pumping me for advice on how to get move to another country (and maybe work in computers). I did my best, but I’m not optimistic about his chances. The plane ended up a bit delayed, but all went smoothly otherwise and I was off for Edinburgh!