All is Not Calm on the EU Front

Autumn has come to Zagreb. The August heat was washed out yesterday in an unusually long downpour. Today the long sleeves are out.

The Main Square is busy, taken over by a local produce fair. The white tents hold typical Croatian goodies; the jams, I am told, are the hot ticket items; the lavender is overpriced.

There’s music playing over the loudspeaker, and in a spot not taken over by the fair, a couple, surrounded by a group in blue, dance with banners – NE HVALA, No Thank You, it says. Above it the EU sign is crossed off in a bold red.

Anti-EU protests. This is the second one I’ve stumbled into this week.

I love their Tees. They are in the EU blue, with the EU stars, but instead of EU, they say NE. No.

Its a small crowd, but larger than the last one. No one is paying much attention though. The press is present, snapping photos for tomorrow’s deadline. I pull out my phone too when I spot a familiar face. He is holding a sign almost as big as him. London Bridge is Falling Down, EU is Falling Down. It doesn’t necessarily make sense, but it gets the point across.

I go say my hellos and ask a few questions.

It’s a small protest, I say. He says, I can’t believe people are so apathetic. They refuse to participate but tomorrow they will be the first to complain.

Why not join the EU? We’ve already been in one bad union (A sign in the background equates EU to YU – Yugoslavia). We had a very small voice there, here it will be even smaller. He puts down statistics, votes the bigger countries get Vs Croatia. His point is clear – 8/10 times Croatia will have to toe the line.

Why all the music? We can’t be angry or violent. It’s takes very little to get dismissed as Fascists, so we have music, and banners, and tees for sale.

I wish him luck. He picks up his banner and heads back to the group. The referendum is close, there’s no time to waste, he says.

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Looking for Mercury and Venus

Stepping off Ilica and on to Margaretska, Saturday’s špica is in full swing. After a long winter, the cafes are crowded again, full of spring colours and chatter. Any other day, I’d look for an empty chair, but today I’m on a planet hunt; I’m walking around, slightly lost, hoping to stumble into Mercury.

Zagreb is a small city, but somehow it manages to squeeze in the entire Solar System (including Pluto) within its streets. The planets are unassuming – simple stainless steel orbs fastened on city walls. They stand in plain sight, but without any additional pomp, tend to get crowded out, even when they stand alone.

When I finally spot it, between the Josip Račič studio and a little boutique, I realize I’ve passed it every day for months now.  It’s a little knot on a plaque with a simple engraving – MERCURY. I feel both silly and excited.

Finding Venus is even trickier. It stands somewhere on the Main Square, the only place in Zagreb that’s almost always crowded, hidden between vendors, stalls, fixtures, sculptures, teens, cafes, stores, cycles, and an upbeat Saturday.

It’s fastened on a granite pillar along the walkway that leads to Dolac, the open market. The fact that it resembles a functional bolt, makes it even easier to miss the engraving, and with it the significance of this installation. When I pull out my camera, a number of people give me the look – why is she taking photos of a pillar, and a bolt? Foreigners! Yesterday I’d have thought the same – why is she taking photos of a pillar, and a bolt? Weird!

The planets are part of the Nine Views Installation created by local artist Davor Preis. It was inspired by one of the city’s well known sculptures – The Grounded Sun (Prizemljeno Sunce). The giant bronze sphere, now scrawled in graffiti, is a 1971 creation by artist Ivan Kožarić. I’ve always seen it bearing the weight of exuberant teenagers, posing for the camera, or as an odd drop back to this busy pedestrian street in the centre of Zagreb, and I’ve often wondered where the rest of the system was. As it turns out, not too far away.

Preis designed nine scaled-down planets (Pluto was still one of the cool kids, back then) to accompany the Sun. When designing the installation, he stayed true to the actual proportions of the miniature planets in relation to the Grounded Sun. He also placed them at distances to mirror actual distances. So while Mercury, the size of a button, is a mere 75 meters from the Grounded Sun, Jupiter is the size of a respectable beach ball, and is located further away from the centre, along a leafy street with elegant villas; the further you explore the solar system, the further you explore Zagreb.

A Visit to the Cemetery on an Icy, Icy Day

You know how when you are living in a city, there is that one place you’re always meaning to visit, but never do, because, well you live in the city, and you can visit said place at any time. It’s always at the top of your list: when you blog, when reading other blogs, when you pitch an article, when you go through your photos and remember the effort you took to visit a similar space in another city. You’re always telling yourself you’ll go soon. You must.

After almost four years in Zagreb I finally crossed out my ‘that one place’ from the list. For over a year I live about ten minutes from Zagreb’s Mirogoj Cemetery, but didn’t manage a visit. On bright summer days, the kind that are perfect, I’d think of the cemetery park, I’d read it’s considered as one of the most beautiful in Europe, and make plans of definitely visiting soon. Once or twice, I almost set out, but then I didn’t.

So it’s fitting, in a Murphy’s Law kind of way, that when I finally reach the cemetery gates, a fifteen minute cab ride from my current address, I am gloveless on an unusually icy day. “Are you going for a funeral?” the cabbie asks as we settle the fare. It feels wrong to say, “No, I’m just visiting.” Outside a funeral procession is filtering out; the winding street gets clogged in minutes with bumper to bumper traffic.

There’s something about Mirogoj. It could have been cold and gloomy with its imposing walls rising right up to the grey clouds. But the pale green domes add pops of colour to the dull day, and the dark crawling vines along the walls and neatly around the gate lend the massive structure a touch of softness. Inside, there’s room for intricate cupolas, archways, pavilions, frescos, tree-lined avenues, and art amidst memories and prayer.

The cemetery complex dates back to 1876 and has grown into a massive property – 70 hectors. Despite the winter, it still holds the green. There aren’t many visitors around at the moment, just some family members and a few cemetery workers. I only recognize a few names, mostly from street signs across the city, but the flowers (some fresh, some faux), coloured candles, sculptures, and memorials all tell stories that speak as much of lives lived as of loved ones lost. There’s history, love, loss and celebration here.

There are approximately 60 thousand graves, which includes family graves, and about 350 000 people resting at Mirogoj. Not only does it hold enough people to fill a township, the population is just as diverse. This is one of the few, if not the only, cemeteries open to multiple denominations of faith – not just encompassing Christianity but including Judaism and Islam.

Every now and then I catch a glimpse of well adjusted multi-cultural relationships – a Muslim gravestone, with Arabic script, supports a wooden cross laid by the Catholic wife; both the cross and the stone bear the same message. There are a number of nationalities here too. Many are world war veterans; others are from much before. There are Croats, Italians, Hungarians, French. There’s Croatian, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Arabic. There are celebrities, martyrs, commoners, gangsters.

My visit is close on the heels of All Saints Day, so the sheen is expected, but the lack of lost gravestones and forgotten families is surprising. As it turns out the cemetery has a firm (and I guess effective) maintenance policy. Families that don’t tend to the graves are issued warnings, and if they still don’t comply, the coffins are shifted to other cemeteries in the city, opening up space in Zagreb’s most prestigious resting place.

A plot here is a big deal, not to mention expensive. There is a waiting list. Some influential families have booked plots -these areas are usually marked by plain marble or granite stones. The lack of engravings gives it an eerie effect. There’s also an entire row owned by the city and saved for individuals who serve the city and do it proud. Right now it’s a green patch and can be mistaken for a park. A look over the hedges though displays an endless horizon of gravestones.

The cemetery park is an open plan history textbook, each avenue takes you through an era of local history – as part of different empires, battalions fighting in the world wars, as part of Yugoslavia, through several civil unrests – and all avenues eventually lead to the Wall of Pain and the creation of an Independent state. The large granite structure, a memorial to honour citizens who died during the war of independence, stands away from the other clusters and memorials at one edge of the park. A strong flame burns even in the face of a stubborn wind against the shiny black monument with delicate gold engravings; the bright burnt orange dances wildly.

Zagreb – State of Affairs

My brother is on a  two week visit to Croatia and this is one of the few free days we have in Zagreb. It wasn’t difficult figuring out which parts of the city I wanted to show off to him – the centre and the old town. While the centre is bustling, the old town is where the hoardings and trams get left behind and quiet history takes over, at least the feeling of it does.

“This is my favourite part of the city.” I reiterate as we make our way up to the old town gate – Kamenita Vrata or Stone Gate. The gate, now an archway, seamlessly connects the modern city to the old. One world here, another there.

Within the archway lives one of the city’s oldest legends – a shrine dedicated to Mary. This symbol of faith goes back to 1731 when the town was ravaged by fires. While structures and property were eaten up by angry flames, a picture of the Virgin Mary survived within the stony arch; the frame was destroyed but the picture was undamaged.


The curving walls are covered with prayer tiles – shiny black slates with golden wording. An old lady dressed in black kneels down at one of the four pews, deep in prayer. She is almost hidden by the dark, save for the light of the candles; lit hours ago and now standing at half their original size, the candle tops wobble with melting wax and their orange-yellow flames grow and dim in turns.

“Can I take photos here?” he asks softly. I nod. He makes sure to check the flash first.

*

On the other side of the Stone Gate lies the old town – pastel in pink, yellow, orange and cream – and at its centre is an ornate opening.

“This is the St. Mark’s Square and that in the middle is the St. Mark’s Church. These buildings to the side are all Government, and that there is the parliament.”

A set of twin guards stand by the doors. I have seen them standing with guns across their bodies a few times, but mostly I’ve seen them chatting, with each other, and even with passing tourists. It’s unusually informal and very refreshing in this age of heightened security.

We don’t stop. The plan is to first visit the museum of Zagreb, past the St. Mark’s square, and then on our way back stop by the Church.

An hour or so later the quiet square is noisy. Unlike the usual batches of tourists, today it is men in uniform milling about the square and the church. Some are arraanging chairs, one of them carries a brass instrument and sets it right in front of a make-shift podium. There are others too, spread out across cafes along the square, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.

“What’s going on?”

I’m not sure. It’s not a national holiday but the cavalry is here, and by the looks of it the event is set to take place right beside the church.

“Let’s go to the tower instead. We’ll get a nice view today.”

We make sure not to get in the way, taking the pavement all the way around instead of cutting across the square. There are more soldiers on the other side. They seem more at ease.

The Lotrščak Tower dates back to the 13th century. It was built to keep a protective watch over the city. Now for 10 Kuna, visitors can scale its four floors for a bird’s eye view of Zagreb. The ticket counter is on the third floor, right next to the Grič cannon (which continues to be fired everyday at noon). I pull out a 20 Kuna bill for our tickets and take the opportunity to ask the lady behind the counter about the day’s program on the Square.

“What’s happening on the square?” The conversation is in English. My Croatian vocabulary can’t support this exchange.

She looks up from the desk and in the direction of the square. There is no window on this floor. “On the square?” She raises her eyebrows and tilts her head to the left; it meets her shrugging left shoulder – a gesture I’ve come to associate as typically Croat. “Some government shit. I don’t really care!”

Taking the tickets, we head to the open roof for a more wholesome view of Zagreb.


St. Mark’s Photo by Nilay Puntambekar

This Morning at the Christmas Market

The main square is crowded. And yet there are no crowds in my way. The many people, wrapped in winter coats, caps and gloves, cluster around the Christmas sales, leaving me with enough space and no regrets.

It’s a cold day. I can feel the winter thud down in my chest despite the hint of warm cinnamon in the air. The guy selling Christmas curios asks me to take a look at the handcrafted Croatian artwork lining his stall. “Best in Croatia,” he assures me. The cherubic angle with blue wings and squint eyes suggests otherwise. I smile, shake my head.

I’d really like a glass of hot wine but it’s a bit early to start drinking; even holiday drinking. I tighten my scarf and prowl the stalls instead.

The stalls are built like log cabins. They come stacked with food and Christmas kitsch, all that’s missing is a fireplace. The more I stare at them the more they remind me of the house in the woods that lures Hansel and Gretel: the bright colours, the gooey cakes and the heaps of candy. I wait for the witches crackle: car horns come blaring through.

When my nose feels like it’s going to fall off, I look at my watch. It’s still early. Left with no choice I step into my favourite bookstore that stands quietly at the edge of the square. It’s warm and smells of crisp paper.

Paper trumps cinnamon.

I forget all about the hot wine.

In Stone and Glass

Drilling sounds and yellow cranes are becoming an all too familiar sight across Zagreb.  Pausing along the promenade encircling the old town, standing over the city, I trace the multiple changes taking place.

The inner city is terracotta rooftops and baroque domes. But further out it’s only glass and concrete. Even from here I can see the cranes strain, laboriously lifting raw materials to form unappealing blocks. They are no match to the old, depressing communist buildings, no they are almost stunning in comparison, but in an empty, soulless way. On the far left, close to the horizon, the steel frame of one of the commercial buildings catches the sun and throws out blinding sparks. I squint and turn back to the domes of the past.

But even at the heart of the city, the drilling machines have managed to sneak in. On Illica, the main street, the ground trembles, the soft white and cream trim on the old buildings are coated with dirt and the gargoyles spend sleepless nights as a new shopping mall rises. The project has taken a while; there have been protests, but work has resumed. They say the integrity of the old centre will be maintained, but no one is sure. Like me, many fear that in this mad dash to modernize the city is replacing its ghosts and legends with shiny, lifeless glass panes.

A Tale of Two Airports

Zagreb: It’s a forty minute drive to the airport. Since it’s early, and our taxi driver is high on caffeine, we get there in thirty minutes flat.

London (Luton)
: It takes forever to get to the airport. After the first hour, the journey is a blur. Between the road work and road diversions, traffic jams and road rage breaks, my blood pressure rises and falls faster than you could say Go!

*
Zagreb: I rub left over sleep out of my eyes. And then again. I can’t believe the crowds that have turned out today. There are more people queued up at the check-in counter than there are at the airport cafe; a novelty in these parts. The airline agents looked hassled and overworked.

London (Luton): Outside, it’s so cold it hurts to breathe. Inside, there’s raging chaos. Flight are either delayed or cancelled (later we’ll see a row of docile planes standing still, nose buried in the ground, like grazing sheep). Ours though is on schedule. We scurry into line before they change their minds.

*
Zagreb: A child screams somewhere in the line. A bag is dropped. A lady excuses herself, the others save her place in the line. Most of the flights are on time so there’s no panic. We check-in our luggage and head out for a coffee.

London (Luton): People are screaming instructions in a hundred directions. The lady in the next line is being asked to pay £65 for exceeding luggage limits. She howls and pleads. The airline official repeats the sum and looks away. By the time we’ve checked-in, it’s time to race across the airport, to security check and the gate a mile away; we’ve got our running shoes.

*
Zagreb: I smile like a crazed fool at the hint of a non-Croat (native) English accent. They are hard to come by in this nook and I relish every home grown syllable.

London (Luton)
: I smile like a crazed fool at the hint of the English accent. These days they are pretty hard to come by in this nook and I relish every home grown syllable.

*
Zagreb: Our dark blue passports (with a golden emblem) create a major stir. This happens every single time we cross Zagreb immigration. First there is the insane flipping of the pages. Then there is the staring before a second phase of page flipping. This is followed by a long, animated discussion, which prompts much punching of the keyboards, reaching for files and more flipping, and then eventually down comes the stamp. We shift our expressions from frustrated to indifferent, depending on the day.

London (Luton): Our dark blue passports (with a golden emblem) and the immigration’s officer are old, old friends. Sometimes on very good terms, at others a little estranged. But either way, there is a lot of history there. He knows his way around every watermark and every stamp. Even before we finish answering his questions (disguised as conversation) he stamps our entry into the country.

*