Where the Streets Have No Names

Croatia can be a confusing place. Especially, when you are driving in a car with your mother-in-law looking for something on a street that may or may not exist anymore. She’s telling me what the street used to be called. And I’m asking her what the street is now called. And she doesn’t know, she just knows what it used to be called. Of course, because in reality that’s actually what everyone still calls it. Not that it matters much, because the street may or may not have a sign on it, and even if does have a sign it’s going to be a small little postage stamp of a sign on the corner of a building that you drive pass quickly. Try reading the name Smičiklasova through the glare of the windshield, beneath the glow of the street lamps, among all the city’s busy shadows. Welcome to Croatia: where the streets have no goddamn names.

This is just one emblematic example of life in Croatia. To survive living here you need to possess local knowledge. This is what anthropologists refer to as knowledge based on experience and embedded in a community’s practices, institutions, rituals and relationships. Local knowledge is something that to the inhabitants of a given area or community seems intrinsic and intuitive. It is something everyone just knows. Everyone, except for the outsider.

Now this is very different (at least I think it is) from life in the US. Sure, hipsters and the other cool kids pride themselves on possessing “local knowledge,” but this is trendy information about which bar is the most retro or where you can get the best falafel on a Friday night in Brooklyn. The difference is between knowing about Booksa and knowing where the hell the Zagreb municipality office is because you urgently need some vital document (PS: lady that told me, it’s not really across from Nama). In my hometown it is very easy to find your way around. For one, all of our streets have big green signs on the corner of each intersection. At major intersections the name of the intersecting street is on a sign between the two traffic lights. So, you know, you can like, read the sign while actually watching the road (genius!). The one place this occurs in Zagreb is on Zeleni Val (Green Wave) where knowing the street names doesn’t really seem to matter. Tulsa’s north-south streets are named after American cities, alphabetically. The East-West cities are numbered sequentially, starting with #1. You know what never happens in Tulsa? You never drive on the same street and then suddenly it becomes another street! In Croatia this happens every three blocks. We also don’t have any streets named after squares.

In geometry class we learned that a line is never ending and only line segments have ends. Streets in Zagreb appear as if someone went crazy with the segments. When you drive by a square in Zagreb, that street ends, and becomes a street named after the square. Then when you are through the square, the original street you were on may or may not return. You might find yourself on a completely different street. Sort of. Same street, Different name. Same line. Different segment. But of course none of that actually matters because most of the streets were named something else 20 years ago and half the population still refers to them by those old names. This is the chocolate conundrum icing on our chaos cake. Sweet.

The local knowledge refers to some streets via their old name. If you look at a map, then it’s something totally different (same goes with words like airport. No one calls it Zračna Luka, I mean the signs do, but everyone else calls it the Aerodrom). Then again there is a deficit of signage and this doesn’t really help anyone learn the knew names. I have walked one particular street in Split a billion times. I know the buildings on this street like the back of my hand. I can close my eyes and walk it in my mind, and yet I have no idea what it’s “new” name is. I’ve never seen a sign on the street announcing its name. I looked once on a map and forgot.

The good news is that people in Croatia generally use landmarks rather than street names as points of reference. Then again a lot of these things aren’t even the things people call them. Par exemple, in Zagreb someone may refer to the Rakete (rockets, that aren’t actually rockets) or the Džamija (mosque, that’s not actually a mosque), or limenke (aluminum cans that are actually buildings). Confused?

Of course part of the fun (hmm... fun? Sure, let’s go ahead and call it “fun”) about living in Croatia is learning the local knowledge. Learning to know what everyone knows is the fist step to thinking like a local and gaining acceptance from the community. The process of cracking the colloquial code has enriched my relationship with this city, country, and people. You need more than a map to love a place. And learning what the local knows also makes driving with Punica a whole lot easier.