Saturday, July 29, 2006

If It's Tuesday It Must Be Zagreb!

More about the journey to Croatia: Zagreb is probably the most enigmatic place I’ve ever been. We crossed the border just outside of the port town of Trieste (pronounced Tree-ay-stay), Italy, a charming, blue-collar ocean resort/port that grips cliffs sloping toward the sea. Trieste was the first town we encountered that did not feel Italian—there was a new influence here, something more Slavic, more Greek perhaps.

When we crossed from Trieste into Slovenia the atmosphere changed physically and metaphorically. The skies opened into torrential rain, thunder and lightening such as we hadn’t seen since our first day in Rome. Our GPS went blank (apparently they did not load this leg of our trip into the computer, a rather inconvenient mistake). The countryside turned clean, green, rugged, and untouched by the passing of time. We passed village after timeless village … it could have been a place from the Renaissance, or a place from today, the architecture was simple, rustic. The border guards were unfriendly, suspicious—they simply stamped our passports, barked out a question or two and waved us along. I thought about the reverberations of the civil war, not too much more than a decade ago … felt the scars, the legacy of ethnic unrest. Everywhere we passed there were villages, almost pristine, but echoing hollowly in the distance. I swear you could still feel the death that we later heard from the few people we engaged in conversation in Zagreb. Finally, after spanning the length of Slovenia, we crossed into Croatia (another tense interchange as Aaron accidentally blew past the second border guard) which is not as physically beautiful as Slovenia, but seems a tad less somber.

One of the strangest things about Zagreb is its utter pride in maintaining inner-city cleanliness (cleaning teams everywhere), this juxtaposed with arms-reach high graffiti on even the loveliest of buildings. There is graffiti nearly everywhere. I asked a young Zagreban in our hotel about this and she shrugged and told me it is really cultural … pop cultural she asserted when I pressed her. Zagreb (accent on the Za) has a comprehensive tram system, and is lined with boulevards of buildings/townhouses of nearly uniform height (just varying slightly in color or architecture). The layout (and echoes of a recent war) reminded me of my young memories of Berlin.

I confess that I felt uneasy in Zagreb. It took a concerted effort to move myself out into the streets. Aaron seemed fine, in fact he says Zagreb might have been his favorite city so far, but I saw something in the faces of the citizens that indicated trauma to me—perhaps I’m being overly dramatic. We spoke to a few people, waiters and such, and they all spoke of the war as more of an inconvenience than an historical legacy—in other words, they seemed eerily “over it.” Most people said the killing never really permeated Zagreb, then they would qualify this assertion saying "yes, there was murder, but not like elsewhere, like in the smaller villages." Our general impression is that people would rather not talk about it, so we were very careful about how we engaged the topic--couching it in other observations, for instance.

In the old-town section of Zagreb there are narrow, winding streets that creep up the hill above the main square. Some buildings are clearly ancient with peeling, faded stucco and old-style roofing or windows. According to the literature we read, the old-town area dates back to the 15th century. We walked up the old town and to the Cathedral which had remnants of its most ancient 12th century foundations. We wandered through the market and bought fruit and cheese, then shopped along the main boulevard. This area of Zagreb is extremely charming. We bought bread at a tiny bakery where women of all sorts lined up behind us … this is clearly what happens in the afternoon in Zagreb, the women buy their daily fresh bread.

Our hotel, the Regent Esplanade insists on an antiquated interpretation of hospitality. There was an effected snobbery everywhere (we got a great rate on Travelocity), and an old-fashioned “sir, madam” interaction. Apparently a good number of governmental officials from the world over stay at the Esplanade—it felt that stuffy. It bothered me when our waiter referred to the civil war as an economic disaster. He affirmed that the conflict was ethnic, stewing resentments set free upon the occasion of “democratic reform.” But his big irritation seemed to be that the war cost so much, that opportunities to make money were lost in the conflict. I was interested in how a fervor for capitalism (the young people were quite fashionable and adopted a certain gothic/fashionable angst).

We are now in Vienna, a city which I love. I hope to write about my afternoon at the art galleries of the Belvedere Palace—where I was so overcome with emotion at seeing the original canvas of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, that I teared up! This museum housed works I’ve read about and admired since I first nurtured a clumsy art sensibility. I felt many emotions today, have much to express, but I’m going way long here. More to come ...


At 2:38 PM, Blogger Emily said...

Ahh, The Kiss! One of my favorites... It's been wonderful to read your travel adventures, Pamela, and thanks so much for the beautiful and thoughtful postcard from Rome. I can't wait to see you and hear more next month!


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