“The Balkans produces more
history furniture than it can locally consume use.”
The first apartment was socialist, dwarfing the living room was a massive couch, coated in half a century of cigarette smoke. The second apartment was inter-war, housing museum-like pieces so dated they were impressive, but wholly impractical. The third apartment was early transitional, Ikea-like with lots of yellows and blues, a well worn sofa with little clots of fabric ratting on the arms and the cushions holding on to the contours of someone else’s ass.
Welcome to apartment hunting in Croatia. Not only is it a challenge to find an apartment in the right place, you have to find one in the right decade with half decent furniture.
Apartment hunting with furnished apartments is an entirely new experience for a guy from Oklahoma. There our apartments are completely empty. Maybe an errant hanger dangles in the closet, but generally speaking American apartments are like blank canvases ready for you to fill with your own vision of hearth and home.
On our search in Zagreb some of the flats looked forlorn, like the back room of an antique shop or my grandfather’s garage. Others still felt so lived in that looking at them felt like trespassing. We crossed one place of our list just by the ghosts that emerged from the closets. Personal effects: children’s toys, a pair of heels, a rumpled shirt. Each item left in a disarray that suggested an unhappy story, some form of flight or eviction. I knew we couldn’t live among such visceral forms of someone else’s unfortunate memories.
Eventually we lucked out and found a place in a good neighborhood with mostly new furniture. But still, we are limited in how homey we can make this place. Only in Croatia can I feel homeless while at home.
While the landlords in Zagreb often use their rental property to store their old furniture, in the US my parents used MY rented apartment to store THEIR old furniture. The result was that each flat, house, hovel and shanty that I ever rented actually felt more like home than home. While my parents modernized their living room I filled mine up with the same furniture I had been raised. Years after moving out I continued to live with the well-known fabric and brown tones of the couch, lamp and table set that permeated my earliest childhood memories. My apartment was so familiar it was like I lived with inanimate siblings.
Transitioning to my situation in Croatia has had me asking: Why do apartments in the US come unfurnished while those in Croatia are often too furnished? While American’s seem to have more space and more um... stuff than Croatians, rented apartments are always empty. Again reality has smacked us with a counterintuitive dope slap. *SMACK* Wha?
I think one answer to this puzzle, might be another cultural difference: the GARAGE SALE. My only experience with garage sales in Croatia is my Punica’s reaction to seeing one on Everybody Loves Raymond. I was sitting in the kitchen eating a snack when she started yelling for me to come into the living room. She pointed in disbelief at the TV, exclaiming: They are selling their furniture in front of their house. Just like that! Yes, that is a garage sale. Is something lost in translation? (Probably)
Why is it that Americans have no problem piling their old, unwanted wares on their lawn and selling them? The garage sale is a suburban institution. People spend their entire Saturday’s cruising through neighborhoods looking for garage sales. Corners become crowded with signs announcing this sale here or that sale there. We even have urban legends about an art collector finding a Picasso for cheap in the back of some old garage, or the comic collector spying an Amazing Fantasy No. 15. among a pile of otherwise worthless comics. True or not, the garage sale is a bargain hunter’s paradise. They are also a great way to either furnish or unfurnish your apartment.
Now you might be saying: Cody? C-bone, how you can complain about used furniture in your apartment and the GO AND BUY a BUNCH of USED FURNITURE AT A GARAGE SALE!?! I MEAN COME ON!
Good point, but purchasing used furniture and inheriting it temporarily from anonymous owners involves an important distinction. When you hunt down that lava lamp at the garage sale you are empowered. YOU found that used lava lamp and the minute you purchase it YOU will remember it as the boss-awesome laval lamp that YOU found and got for a great price. This is very different from renting an apartment and seeing a sad sagging armchair that some old stranger might have had sex on or even died in. Your garage-sale-purchased lava lamp is a symbol of individual initiative and choice. It is rock-n-roll. The other is imposed on you. It is muzak on a really long elevator ride.
So why do Croatians seem to cling to their used wardrobes and credenzas? The only time I see used furniture is on that big trash day or at Hrelic. Is there a public shame with selling used goods? Or buying them? Is this why njuskalo flourishes? You can buy and sell used goods in the privacy of your own home. One friend suggested that the lack of garage sales could come from the power of social connections. If you have something you don’t want, then you should GIVE it to a friend, rather than try selling it to a stranger (I’m imagining that the day the secret gift cupboard is empty you then give the gift cupboard to a friend).
Or is all this a result from the fact that, though there is a surplus of furniture in Croatia, there is a dearth of garages?