My original plan of posting regularly turned out much more challenging than expected. I can only say that this city has kept me busy, distracted, exhausted and entertained for almost five weeks now. That’s why instead of regular blog entries, I’ll now publish my stories as a series of short “memoirs” connected by common themes rather than a chronological order. Enjoy!
Still, the best place to start in is the beginning… Here is a list of some of my first impressions and thoughts from the first couple of weeks in Zagreb. The first week mostly consisted of touristic activities, like exploring the city with endless curiosity and boldness.
The beauty of November
Back in Finland I would never be using the words “beautiful” and “November” together but Zagreb proved this is possible. Fair enough, the whole city was wrapped up in heavy fog upon my arrival, but in my first days I also witnessed some very warm and sunny days that took even the locals by surprise. About two weeks in, the cold suddenly kicked in again - the kind of chill that nests inside your bones and refuses to leave, even inside the house. Especially inside the house. Cardigans, thick socks and slippers are a must. I guess I wasn’t taking the Croatian autumn seriously enough, since the first sudden drop in the temperature gave me a cold that lasted days.
Zagreb is a city of markets, most famously the Christmas Market and Farmer’s Market. The Christmas Market opens on the first advent which also launches a city-wide countdown to Christmas full of street food, music, lights and ice-skating. This whole time leading to Christmas in Zagreb is simply referred to as “Advent”. As someone with an evergreen Christmas spirit, this was one of the things I was most looking forward to after arrival! The Farmer’s Market brings together locally produced goods and is a good place for buying veggies and fruit in bulk. The Flower Market is a beautiful display of colours and my heart warmed to see how many of the customers were men, presumably taking flowers home for their wives or mothers. I even ended up at an indoors fish market and afterwards thought I’d never get rid of that stench in my clothes.
Clean city centre (mostly)
I was pleased to see how well Croatians take care of the cleanliness of the city centre, at least when it comes to the more touristic areas. People generally have a lot of respect for trash bins and trash is regularly removed from the streets. Grass areas are also mostly well kept. The only times people seem to have a hard time locating the nearest trash bin is when they’re disposing of their chewing gums or cigarette stumps. The latter seems especially ironic given that there are more than enough cigarette bins on the streets, since Croatians are very passionate smokers. Everyone smokes on the streets, at the tram stops, even inside or outside the café. Many of the smokers are young people. This was and still continues to be one of my biggest culture shocks here. By now I’ve come to accept the fact that my clothes reek after a night at a bar but sometimes it really gets on my nerves how people can’t seem to live without their nicotine in this country.
It took me a mere couple of days to figure out how to get around in the city! I am still very proud of myself because of that. The city transportation is well organised and so far I’ve travelled by bus, train and countless trams. And what’s best, it’s cheap, just like almost everything here. Zagreb also has Uber, but that one I haven’t tried yet. I live on the outskirts of the city so I try to use public daytime traffic whenever possible to avoid extra costs. On average, it takes me about 1h 15min to reach the city centre (or Ban Jelačić Square, as we understand it here). I can also be proud of the fact that so far, I haven’t gotten lost here. OK, maybe once when I got confused after walking home from the train station for the first time…
Food and drinks!
The food in Croatia deserves a separate post but here is a little sneak peak: it’s amazing! We already tried several dishes during our first days and even after five weeks there are a lot of things left to try… And of course, I cannot mention food without mentioning the beer which I was already introduced to on my first day in Zagreb. In addition to good food and beer, another very Croatian thing is sitting down for coffee with friends or family and taking your time with it. This is another aspect of the culture I’m getting rather experienced in. Even in a city as busy as Zagreb, it is clear that people find ways to enjoy their lives where they can.
Meeting a real Croatian granny
This one is also closely linked to food - after all, we’re talking about grandmothers. In my second week I had the pleasure of visiting my host’s grandmother who lives in a cozy house in the same neighbourhood. She prepared lunch and coffee and we had interesting conversations with the help of my host’s translation services. My host had been delivering small gifts from her ever since I arrived, like a piece of bread or apple strudel, so I was happy to finally present my own gifts from Finland (some saaristolaisleipä and Fazer’s Christmas chocolates). She also keeps a cute garden, with lettuce, tomato, potato, strawberries, even figs and lavender (the latter seems to be a favourite of Croatians, as you can easily find dried lavender in the street markets). Of course I wasn’t allowed to leave empty-handed, so I came back to the apartment with some potatoes and fresh parsley.
Finally, my first two weeks in Zagreb would not have been nearly as enjoyable if it wasn’t for all the wonderful new people I met. Not only people from AIESEC, but also “ordinary” Croats, whether they be friends of a friend or random people on the streets offering their help to a clueless foreigner. They all helped me integrate incredibly fast and made me feel welcome - which is something that Croatians seem to be naturally good at. Young or old, they sure know how to treat guests well and how to have a great time!