To choose our destination for this year’s trip, Allison, Kacey, and I each wrote down 5 countries we wanted to visit, put them in 3 separate containers (one in Highlands, one in Long Branch, and one in Manila) and eliminated a country each week.
So it seems even more poetic that Croatia was chosen so randomly, exactly 10 years since I lived there.
Croatia is significant to me because it is the first country I’ve ever visited. I remember applying to the Global Student Teaching program at TCNJ and squirming at an interview table while a panel of professors grilled me to see if I was capable of being overseas.
I distinctly remember an irate old gentleman in a turquoise cable-knit sweater who would have done the church proud during the Spanish Inquisition.
“What’s the farthest you’ve been from New Jersey?” he’d barked at me.
“Kentucky,” I said, which I’d only visited that fall. It was also the first time I’d ever been in an airplane. I was 21.
“You think you’re cut out for this? You’ll be far away, you know. Farther than Kentucky. What are you gonna do when the power goes out? Or there’s no water? Huh? You can’t go crying to mommy and daddy then.”
I gave him my most powerful, independent woman face – and then I went outside and cried to my friend Dave on a bench.
“But he was so mean!”
Someone else on the panel must have thought I was cut out for it, or else the angry man thought it would be funny to send me out into the world and watch me fail at life, because I was accepted into the program and sent to Croatia.
Croatia was my third choice after Ireland and Italy. I chose it because I thought it was an island. There isn’t much to be said about the geography program in New Jersey’s public schools.
In early January, I landed in Zagreb with a nonplussed New Yorker and a nasty ear infection that rendered me part deaf. Our luggage, it turned out, had been left behind in Amsterdam, so we were given a toothbrush kit and sent away.
I couldn’t hear what our driver was telling us about Zagreb, but I saw enough grey to understand it would be a bleak two months. At our apartment, we drew straws and I got the smaller bedroom. I couldn’t wait to message home and get some comfort from friends or family, so we plugged our power strip into the wall and it exploded.
It got better, but I arrived home vowing never to leave again.
When Kacey suggested stopping in Zagreb, I thought it would be romantic to venture around my old stomping grounds, and in the summer to boot. Maybe Zagreb wasn’t such a dreary city under the sun.
Things were looking up as we drove to the airport to trade our Slovenian car for a Croatian one. Our GPS routed us to the old airport, which was the one I’d flown into a decade ago. It was heartwarming to see that Croatia had invested in a new, cleaner airport. I went inside and visited the Sixt counter and the bathroom, and both were very pleasant.
Our new Sixt car was a downgrade from Slovenia’s cushy station wagon.
“It’s an egg,” Kacey remarked as it wobbled up to us. It would take some Tetris skills to fit our suitcases in the back and still leave room for Allison.
“Now anyone can see our luggage. What if it gets stolen?” I worried.
“You can buy theft protection,” said the Sixt employees. “But Croatia is safe. Montenegro, not so much.” They chuckled knowingly to one another and we left feeling concerned.
Unlike the Slovenian car, which had a built-in GPS, our Croatian car came with a plug-in one that acted as if it hadn’t been used since Croatia was a part of Yugoslavia.
Still, the sunset over the airport was glorious and as we drove toward Zagreb, I felt lighter.
That is, until we got into Zagreb center, which was a tangle of tram lines and confusing streets.
Our AirBnb had advertised free parking, but the host also told Kacey that we would have to pay, though we could park anywhere. We lucked out and found a spot directly in front of our apartment with free parking until 7am.
“So, we’ll have to wake up at 7am to move the car or pay for parking,” she said. Tired – it was after 10pm – we agreed, dropped our things in an apartment that looked like a murder house on the outside but very quaint and painted in beachy blues on the inside, and headed out for dinner.
The restaurant was empty, but highly rated on TripAdvisor, and we were led to the back where we found one loud family of eight and sat directly next to them. Our waiter, a brusque, large man, took our order.
“Do you have a local beer?” I asked.
“Yes. Light or black?”
“You are American? Americans like light. Here, we like black.”
“Well give me the black one then.”
It was delicious. The longer we sat there, the better we felt. We even discovered a sense of humor in our waiter.
In the morning, Kacey and I awoke at 7am, stepped outside, and – rain. Not a heavy rain, but rainy enough, and enough to make you shiver.
It’s important to note that I had not packed any jeans because I envisioned us reclining on warm beaches and, like ten years ago, imagined Zagreb showing off her summer sun.
We found a parking meter, but the instructions made no sense. We could pay for parking there, but only in coins, and only a 9 kuna, 3-hour maximum. We could also pay for parking at a kiosk somewhere, in which case we wouldn’t have to display a ticket on the dashboard. (How they would know we had paid for parking was a mystery.)
Neither of us had change, so we decided to wander back to the apartment and think about moving the car.
“I need a coffee first,” Kacey said. I agreed, and we trudged onward in the rain. A few minutes later, a thought occurred to me: “Oh, and we can get change from the coffee!” (Pre-coffee brains are sluggish things.)
Coffee was purchased at 7:15am at a small cafe bar where three tables were crowded with unhappy-looking Croatian men chain smoking and drinking bitter coffee. This was a far cry from Slovenia, where all the locals looked like extras on a movie set and were cheery to boot.
Parking paid, we gathered Allison and headed to the main square via tram. I remembered how Liz and I had always taken the trams around the city and not paid, and it seemed that little had changed. The tram was packed, and we didn’t see where to pay, so we got a free ride to the center.
I feel bad about this, but we contributed to the economy in other ways.
Once in the square, the rain picked up, so we ducked down a back alley to Otto and Frank, a restaurant I’d found in my Lonely Planet that had positive reviews.
Our waitress, a young woman who did not understand English, refused to bring us water but she consented to taking our order. We all chose sunny side up eggs.
“Can you make sure mine are cooked?” Kacey asked.
“Cooked?” the girl repeated.
“Yes, cooked…like, hard. Not runny.”
The girl stared, then nodded and disappeared. We sat at our table watching people slip around the wet cobblestone streets in the rain. About 20 minutes later, the waitress returned with three plates of poached eggs on toast.
“No, not poached,” Kacey tried again.
At this point, a friendly waiter with better command of English came out and we figured out the problem. The waitress had understood “poached” instead of “cooked.”
“It is okay, we will take this back and cook them longer,” the man said, and they disappeared.
A few minutes later, he reemerged, plate-less, and clasped his hands together.
“Now, we have a problem,” he said gravely. “The kitchen is shut down. We have a repairman. We can’t cook eggs.”
“Can you just put them on the stove?”
“No. Nothing works in the kitchen now. We have a repairman.”
“It’s okay,” Kacey said. “I’ll have mine without eggs.”
The man nodded and disappeared.
“100% all three come back with no eggs,” Allison said.
She was right. Breakfast was three plates of bread with tomatoes. As we dug in, a repairman with a ratchet ran out of the restaurant and down the road.
The waiter comped us the food.
“You didn’t get what you ordered,” he said apologetically. “My colleague, it is her first day today, and she is only here a week. She does not speak English.”
We tipped him and ran to the Museum of Broken Relationships, which none of us had ever heard of until I found it in my Lonely Planet the night before. It sounded weird and quirky, and it was now pouring, so we made a dash for it.
Of course, we got lost in the street, and while Kacey pulled up the museum on her GPS, I foolishly stood beneath an awning that was slowly filling with icy rain water until it overflowed directly onto my head.
Once we found the museum, we darted inside and proceeded to drip water all over the welcome mat. The woman at the desk was cheerful and full of jokes, which was as warm a welcome as we could hope for. Kacey pulled a 50-kuna note from her pocket and it immediately tore in half, completely soaked.
“Oh man,” she said, “can you still accept this?”
“I feel like this is the one place that would accept money that’s broken,” I said.
The woman taped the bill back together and let us in. The museum is an interesting concept, where people send in significant objects from “broken” relationships and include a blurb about what the object represents and what the relationship was like. The mistranslations on some of the pieces were hilarious, and the objects ranged from bizarre to questionable, from champagne corks and legless stuffed caterpillars to someone’s old wedding video. (We wondered if his wife was aware he’d sent it in and any stranger passing through Zagreb could watch it.)
It was a great way to pass the time, and by 11:45 we were long overdue to top up our parking meter and collect our things from the AirBnB. There was no parking ticket on the car, much to our relief, so we loaded the car and headed for Plitvice.
Plitvice sounds like a great place. I wouldn’t know. We arrived in a relentless downpour, changed into hiking clothes in the car, and ran toward the entrance alongside an army of plastic-poncho’ed tourists with no spacial awareness. This is typical of tourists, but even worse when the tourists are also carrying large umbrellas.
Already soaked through, I decided I’d return to the car and do some writing while Allison and Kacey explored. Their photos look lovely, even in the rain, but I have no regrets about hiding in the dry car and people-watching.
As I sat there, looking forward to arriving in sunny Zadar in a few hours, I felt bad for Zagreb. Of all the cities we visited on the trip, Zagreb was our least favorite. I hope that tourism – and maybe a World Cup win, since they’ve just made it into the finals – can help funnel money into the capital city and brighten it up.
Its dreary exterior is really unfortunate, because it’s clearly got some quirky character underneath it all, if you’re willing to dig.
Maybe I’ll come back again in another decade, and do a better job of digging.