Memories of Croatia….

Aahhh, memories of Croatia…where to begin? They rush over me at random and I treasure each one. First I should probably back up a bit and tell you of what led me to travel there in the first place.

Why Croatia?

When most people hear of my interest in Croatia, they ask, “Do you have Croatian relatives?”, “Have you been there before?”, or any other number of questions which would seem obvious logical reasons for such a pursuit. But the real reason that I went is that I have been following my intuition and something tells me that I should be doing this.

I tell people that my interest began when I first heard Goran Višnjić speak it on the TV show “ER” and I thought it sounded so beautiful. After reading the March 2001 article in In Style magazine it was obvious that this country was quite dear to the actor and the following words caught my attention: “It’s a different kind of life here. People are not too busy to sit outside at night and talk to their neighbors….Growing up here was healthy. The quality of life is good and you learn to respect others. The people are warm and generous.” Right there I was hooked. I wanted to learn more.

So my hobby with Croatia began. I’d find myself collecting books on the language, checking out things from the library, listening to Croatian radio stations online. Somehow, with each step, I was more and more interested and trusted this feeling enough to continue (even though it made no logical sense).

Eventually I mustered the courage to go to a couple Croatian chat rooms. And, although as is the case with any chatroom, there were your normal mix of characters I found most of the Croats to be helpful and kind to this luda amerikanka who fumbled through her language skills. Most of them spoke fluent English and so I learned a little more in the chat rooms.

Not long after I tried this (which, by the way, I would recommend to anyone learning the language because they tend to ask you questions like the simple phrases you learn in the beginning), one kind Croat told me, “Hey, babe, I’m in your time zone!” This person was a linguist who was in the US teaching 2nd and 3rd year Croatian and Serbian at a Big Ten college on a Fulbright Scholarship. Since he was not teaching from a textbook, he was making up his own lessons and was kind enough to email them to me. We corrected copies and questions would be exchanged via email and we’d often chat online. Slowly I was learning much more than language, but also culture and beliefs from Eastern Europe.

Finally in the spring I ventured to this university campus to experience the “conversation tables” they held at a local bar. One table would be filled with people speaking French, another Croatian, another Spanish, etc. Here I met Croats who were at the university teaching or doing research in the areas of Physics, Political Science, Computer Technology and Linguistics. I found them to be incredibly hospitable, friendly and patient with me as I followed them everywhere with a tape recorder trying to capture a bit of the spoken language for later study.

It turned out that my friend, the linguist, (who now works for the National Geographic Magazine translating it into Croatian) had a vacant apartment in Zagreb that I could use if I decided to visit. And when the airfare for such a trip became too good to pass up, I decided I should go and try to find out what it was that was drawing me to this country.

On to Zagreb

My Croatian friends couldn’t believe that up to now I never even had a passport. What better way to break one in than to have the very first stamp in it be from Croatia! In preparation for the 7 hour time difference I had been waking earlier and earlier each day, so this day began at 2:30 a.m. packing my suitcase in the dark. After about a four hour drive to the airport from my home, I left Chicago O’Hare the Sunday after Christmas just before 5:00 in the evening. The flight was good, and the excitement was building. I managed to sleep a couple hours while we crossed the Atlantic.

I landed in Munich where it was already morning. I was amazed how much easier it was to force myself to be awake when it was daylight than all those nights of waking alone in the middle of the night at home. Although there was a little confusion with a change in the departure gate for the flight to Zagreb, after an hour or so I found myself airborne for Zagreb at last.

I had hoped to see a little of that beautiful coast on the flight, especially since this was the only of my four flights where I would have a window seat. But it was quite cloudy and it wasn’t until nearly the end of our descent into Zagreb that I could see the red roofs, the beautiful city and the Medvednica hugging the outskirts of the town. Luckily my luggage arrived and everything was set. My friend met me at the gate and my adventure began.

Only a week?!

Every Croat I talked to could not believe that I was only in the country for only 8 days. They all thought that it was much too little time to visit, and now I understand why. I tried to explain to them that a week to an American is a long time to be away from work, etc., but I suppose in a country where they take a whole month or more to go to the seaside to relax, a week sounds incredibly short.

My first impression was that everyone drove incredibly fast in the city. And parking, wow!, they parked up on the curbs in any nook or cranny to be found, sometimes parked both directions on one side of the street. The streets were narrow, but filled with cars zipping around. I had been warned that pedestrians don’t automatically get the right of way as in the States, even if they are supposed to, and to be careful crossing any streets. I finally understood.

I exchanged some money, which was not hard to do as there were plenty of places to do so, and bought a ticket for the tram, then we were off. We went to market Dolac in the center of the city with all the red umbrellas. Merchants were offering every imaginable fruit and vegetable, souvenir, or bit of clothing. Even walking through the streets I noticed that everyone there were little shops, nothing really very big, but all with a little selection of things for sale.

A view from above

We rode the funicular to Gornji Grad and there looked out over the rooftops of the lower city. I am not one for big, expensive material things, so I found my first treasure to take home there. Nearby there was a pile of rubble and in it a small piece of this red tile used to make these roofs. It found its way into my pocket and when I look at it now, I remember these roofs as if I am still there.

We walked through many little streets and wandered in and out of cathedrals, shops and cafes. We finally stopped for a while in a shopping mall where we got some hot chocolate drinks and warmed up a bit before venturing out again. By this time we had met another couple who was visiting from the US (she was from Zagreb and her husband was from Mexico). I was already noticing how everyone there seems to keep in touch with SMS on their cellular phones (much more so than in the US). In fact the use of cell phones is quite a part of their society. They can even pay for their parking from their cell phone.

Family Life

I spent most of my time in Zagreb and was fortunate to experience normal, everyday family life in another culture. I did not go to Croatia with the goal of visiting all the touristy places. I really wanted to see what life was really like there for its people. I enjoyed playing with my friend’s two little nephews and visiting with parents who face the same kinds of challenges that we do in the States. I was spoiled rotten with all the good food put in front of me and was absolutely shocked that when I returned home I hadn’t gained a pound. It seemed everywhere we went to visit people they were offering cakes, cookies, or a full meal to us. Apartments were small and cozy but had everything that was needed. Many times we were offered Coke to drink and I became aware that this was considered a treat. Often after dinner they would have a little coke, and I wondered what they would think of us Americans who have monster sized drinks of Coke with our super-sized fast food meals.

I enjoyed practicing a little of my Croatian with the children, asking them about the ornaments on the tree or who the characters were in their favorite movie. I still remember laughing when I heard the little four-year-old singing along to the Disney Song from the Lion King “Hakuna Matata.” First you must understand that “tata” is what he calls his daddy. But it was so cute because he would sing along inserting the names of his brother, his mother and other people he knew, singing “Hakuna Mamama”, “Hakuna MaVigo”, “Hakuna MaMarko,” etc.

Visiting “famous” places”

It was fun to visit places that I had only known about from the internet. I met with Tomislav who some of you know as “Tom” from the website, and we went to Gavella Bar. OK, maybe that’s not the most famous of all Zagreb places, but it was an important stop for me. Tom was a great tourguide and although he said he was nervous to practice his English verbally, he did a great job. Not only did we stroll through the streets of Zagreb, visit the main cathedral and talk about a bit of the city’s history, but I got to meet his family and see hear a little about the university there.

On one of my last nights in Zagreb I went to the shore of Lake Jarun. Under a starry sky lit with a full moon I contemplated all that I had seen and heard during my week. While my friend talked on his cell phone I sat down on the pebbles and watched as several swans swam right up to me. He captured the moment on film as I sat in silent conversation with these natural messengers. All I could think of was the analogy of the ugly duckling. That each of us often does not see the true beauty we possess because we feel rejected by some around us. And it isn’t until we bow our heads in humility that we become aware that we are beautiful, capable of being more than we had imagined.

Sretna Nova Godina - Rijeka style

What could be more wonderful that celebrating the New Year in Croatia? I’m not sure. We traveled by bus through the mountains to the coastal city of Rijeka, where my friend’s girlfriend welcomed us. Again it was so cloudy and foggy that we could hardly see any of the countryside, but as soon as we emerged from the last tunnel in the mountain, the passengers gasped in awe at the view. “Sunce (sun)….more (sea)….ahhh”. I was becoming teary-eyed at the site, when my friend, the linguist and forever a teacher, snapped me out of it saying,”….OK let’s hear some of that using the accusative case.”

We stopped at another café and met more friends for a cup of tea and then went back to the apartment to be stuffed with more Croatian cooking. After a few hours we dressed for the evening and headed for the streets where Oliver Dragojević and Gibonni were to perform in concert. Everywhere could be heard the loud bangs of large firecrackers and you had to be on the lookout for just where one of these might land.

In a few hours the streets were so crowded with singing Croats that we were being squished from all directions. It was an experience I’ll never forget. One of the girls with us got an SMS at midnight from her boyfriend who was in Split (remember I said that SMS was so common). Unfortunately the lines were so busy that she couldn’t respond back to him. We found a party after the street celebration cleared out; it was like most college parties I remembered from my youth. It was kind of fun being the token American; everyone wanted to practice their English or have me talk on their cell phones to friends, simply because I was an American. When we returned back to the apartment it was almost 4 a.m., but not even 9 p.m. back home. I called home to wish my family a Happy New Year and tell them a little of the celebration I had just been a part of.

So many memories

I have only scratched the surface here with my recollection of the time I spent in Croatia. It was an amazing trip and I know that it won’t be my last. I am hoping to go back again within a year and volunteer teaching English for several weeks. It was the most amazing feeling being there. Although it sounds strange, I felt like I was at home there, and I definitely feel homesick since I’ve come back to the States. I miss the view from the tram of the city rushing by, the taste of fresh roasted chestnuts from a street vender, the musical sound of the Croatian language being spoken all around me, the scent of all those wonderful home-cooked meals that my friends prepared for me, the feel of the two-cheeked kisses that were exchanged upon greeting or meeting friends, and most of all the love of the people who opened their hearts and homes to welcome me to their country.

Do viđenja i hvala lijepa

I’ve always enjoyed understanding the real meaning (or literal translation) of foreign phrases. Some textbooks will tell you that “goodbye” is do viđenja. Actually it means until seeing, or until we see each other again. Likewise, you many learn that thank you very much is hvala lijepa. But you might like to know that hvala means “praise” and lijepa “beautiful.” So it really is like saying beautiful praise to you, much more poetic and rich if you ask me. I kind of like the “until we see each other” vs. the American “goodbye”; it is far less final and implies a return visit. In my case I cannot wait to return for another visit to Croatia. Again, I’m not exactly sure when it will be, but I am certain it will happen. And telling those I left, “beautiful praise” to you is so fitting…..a beautiful country I left behind, but a part of my heart is still there.

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